I interviewed Dubh Lee, below, via email. It’s something I’ve done a bit more recently, as absent the choice to talk face-to-face amid the covid crisis, I’ve found people are putting more time and consideration into written answers, but rarely do you receive answers as full and complete as the below, which give a real taste of the lively blues singer’s story so far (so I thank her for that!).
Her style is one that mixes blues, folk, and teenage rock influences into a distinct sound, one that grew vocally out of time busking on the streets in Germany and has slowly but surely established her on the Irish music scene.
Like everyone else, Dubh Lee has had a weird 2020, but topped it off with a beautiful single called ‘Carousel’ part of an EP recorded in Wicklow earloier this year. Here’s what she had to say…
Congrats on the new single. How was it releasing the track into this kind of situation?
Thank you! Honestly I’ve been chomping at the bit to put out some music this year so I enjoyed releasing the track immensely. I intended to have a whole EP out by the end of 2020 but the recording process got delayed due to COVID complications.
Carousel was recorded for the EP back in March before the first lockdown and I was excited to share it with the world so I decided to put it out as a single on November 20th in order to end this strange and trying year on a more positive note. Usually I’d plan a couple of gigs around a release but obviously that couldn’t physically happen this time. Other than the lack of a single launch gig the process was the same as usual – lots of time spent in front of the computer sending emails, posting updates on social media and the likes.
Can you tell me a little of your musical background?
I went through a rocker phase as a teenager and loved bands like Led Zeppelin, RHCP and The White Stripes. At 13 I picked up the guitar and dreamt of being a Jimmy Paige or Angus Young-style lead guitarist, and I had little interest in singing at the time.
My parents have wonderful taste in music and introduced me to many artists on the gentler side that would go on to influence my fingerpicking and eventually my songwriting as well, artists like Leonard Cohen and John Prine. I started performing and writing songs from the age of 16 and would perform my songs with groups in my hometown, taking the role of guitarist and backup singer as I wasn’t a fan of my own singing voice.
It wasn’t until I moved to Germany in university that I took up the role of frontwoman of a band and took on lead singer responsibilities. I met some German musicians who loved Irish music and classic rock and we formed a five-piece rockabilly group, doing rowdy acoustic covers of Thin Lizz songs, traditional Irish ballads and the odd Jethro Tull song.
We busked in various towns in Hessen unamplified, so I had to learn to really project my voice and become a stronger singer. On returning to Ireland I had a repertoire of my own blues and folk songs and the courage to actually sing them myself.
Do your folk roots still play into your sound much?
Absolutely. I love writing quieter acoustic tunes and I write a lot of songs in strophic form (i.e. Matty Groves by Fairport Convention or The Times They Are A Changin by Bob Dylan). I open my shows with a couple folkier tunes, just myself and the acoustic guitar, before picking up the electric and getting the drummer and bassist to join in. Upcoming releases of mine will include a healthy dose of folk in among roots-rock and blues!
What’s the story behind Carousel and its release?
Sonically I was inspired by Led Zep’s The Lemon Song. It’s a song that I love singing, you really get to howl on it, and the groove is fantastic (incidentally, The Lemon Song is loosely based on Howlin Wolf’s Killing Floor which has a different but highly infectious groove). I wanted to write a song that sounded like that and made me feel powerful when I sang it.
At the time it was written, last December, I was in a post-breakup haze of drinking and being miserable, and the lyrics are an obvious reflection of that. I was lonely and I felt like I was careening from session to session to distract myself from my heartache – luckily I have since recovered. The song was recorded at The Meadow recording studio in Wicklow and features Griff from New Secret Weapon on bass and drums and the sound engineer from The Meadow, Rian Trench, playing the wilder lead guitar parts.
Partying as escapism and avoidance is obviously a little dead at the moment. Have you found an alternative?
Since my nights have been freed up these past 9 months I can honestly say I’ve watched more movies this year than I had in the previous ten years combined. Before 2020 I never had the patience to watch movies, my nights were usually spent out performing in bars, and a 2 hour feature film always seemed like a huge time commitment.
So yes, my alternative to carousing at the moment is movies and TV, I’ve caught up on a lot of classic movies I had never seen before and I don’t have FOMO because nobody else is partying either!
I understand there’s an EP on the way. What can you tell me about that, and how does it compare to the single?
Recording of the EP is set to begin in January, it’ll be my debut EP and I can reveal that the title of the EP will be Animals and Friends. It will begin with a mournful folk tune named Holly Would, and progress through roots rock to a fast-paced garage rock crescendo. So it kind of symbolically tracks my recent journey through genres. Carousel will feature as a bonus track on
the physical edition of the EP.
How much music do you have written behind the scenes?
I have a couple hours worth of tunes and after Animals and Friends has been released, marketed and gigged I’m going to get straight back into the studio to get another EP recorded before the end of 2021, all going to plan!
How do you feel about the level of support for artists at the moment in Ireland? What can individual punters do, in your view?
I think it can be difficult for independent artists like myself to get a look-in when it comes to radio play in this country. Very little new Irish music gets added to daily rotation on the big stations and it’s usually allocated to one Sunday evening show dedicated to Irish music per radio station.
A survey from June this year revealed that female artists make up only 7% of top Irish artists who receive airplay, which is a massive and unjust gender disparity. So I’d say radio support for Irish artists, especially female Irish artists, isn’t up to scratch. Otherwise there’s been the recent furore regarding the distribution of grants by First Music Contact, with only 13% of applicants receiving funding for their recording projects.
I applied for a grant to cover the recording costs of my upcoming EP and was unsuccessful. While I have no doubt that successful applicants are totally deserving of funding, I think the controversy highlights how the Arts Council have vastly underestimated the level of demand there would be for funding.
New information that has come to light suggests that there may be some rather cronyistic links between some of the judges on the panel and certain successful grantees. And when a grant is awarded to a band who didn’t actually submit an application, as was the case here, one can’t help but question the integrity of the process. FMC have since rectified this error but it does make me wonder what else might be going wrong behind the scenes. For now I’m delighted for the successful applicants but I do hope future funding will be distributed in a more transparent, less divisive way.
As individuals, if you’d like to support artists you can purchase their works on Bandcamp or buy their merchandise. In the streaming era these are great ways to financially support artists.
How difficult is building a career as an artist, putting aside all the current issues?
It can be tough, and there’s a certain amount of financial instability. Plenty of artists work side jobs to supplement their music income – for four years after university I worked in finance and gigged on the side. It can take years to build up the contacts and reputation to go full-time. Splitting yourself between a day job and your passion is exhausting and can drain your creative energy.
There’s a great list of tips for gigging written by jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, one of which is relevant here: ‘Don’t sound anyone for a gig, just be on the scene’. Meaning in order to get gigs, you’ve got to go to them, be an active participant in the music community in your locale whether you’re performing or not.
Pre-lockdown I would be out performing or spectating at least 5 out of 7 nights per week, between cover gigs and original sets, bands from overseas or my peers’ events, always meeting new people and being heard by new people. Some festivals I’ve been booked for have been because a promoter heard me singing songs drunk as a lout at a lock-in at 5am. If you’re passionate and consistent, opportunities will come to you. There’s no quick way to success, despite what television talent shows would lead you to believe.
What are your hopes for the future?
Short-term, I hope things go back to some form of normality soon so I can return to performing live. I miss my weekly residencies playing to rowdy crowds in the city centre and the steady income that flows from that.
Next year I hope to release an EP or two as mentioned above, and my loftiest hopes are that those records will catapult me to stardom and international touring. More realistically I’d like to do an Irish tour next year with dates all across the 32 counties to market my debut EP, COVID-permitting!