Part of a scene centred around a popular bar in County Galway, Cousin Tablet aim to emulated a big-band style, drawing in a variety of musicians for newly launched debut single ‘Whatever Happened To Betty’.
The track is a real glance at the band’s ethos: an exploration of their past and a story from where they grew up, but also a broader commentary, if slightly unintentinally, of the Mother and Baby Home’s Scandal that touches on the life of frontman Donal Gibbons.
As well as getting their own music out there, Gibbons os keen to fly the flag for rural Ireland, a harder place from which to launch a band. I spoke to him around the launch of that debut…
Can you talk me through a little of the history of the band and how you came to be?
Jamie ,Steve,Wil and myself have been close friends for over 20 years. In that time we have played in a variety of different acts together and separately. We are a part of a much wider,dynamic and diverse music scene based around legendary Co. Galway venue Campbell’s Tavern, which spawned acts such as This Nachez, The Whileaways, The Rolling
Tav Revue, The Tav Jam Band and many more. When I had the first couple of songs written the three lads were my first calls to put some flesh on the bones of the ideas I had. Having played together so much over the years it was an easy fit and the contribution of the lads was critical in turning the ideas I had in to the songs they became.
How has lockdown treated you – any positive sides creatively?
For me creatively the lockdown has been amazing! Prior to its onset I was working full time as an electrician Monday to Friday and playing gigs Friday,Saturday and Sunday nights. Myself and my partner Juliana (who plays strings on Betty) had a beautiful 2 year old girl with another on the way so time to be creative was at a premium. I have to say we absolutely loved the time and space afforded to us during the first few months of lockdown. We had time to be creative and were both at home full time after our second daughter was born in June 2020. In a world without the lockdown I would have been back to work within a couple of weeks of the birth. That time at home is a luxury not afforded during normal times.
It has also shown me what can be achieved when you can afford to spend time being creative and not have to work over 40 hours a week as well to keep a roof over your family’s head. I also found time to help with the startup of a local Community Radio Station and present a weekly show, where I talk to other musicians about the music that influenced them,that has proved hugely popular.
We also set up a home studio during this time and learnt a lot about the recording process and its been great for us to be able do some recording from home while studios were shut during the lockdown. Also, being unable to afford to hire a PR company to help out with promotion,websites etc I took on all this myself and have found that I quite like the whole process of it so I have now also started doing websites and PR for some other acts. It’s a time consuming process but one I quite enjoy.
I wasn’t the only one who had spare time on my hands once the lockdown kicked in. Jamie, Wil and Stephen would also have been crazy busy during normal times so its hard to know if we would have found the time to put these songs together without the time afforded to us by lockdown. All that being said, we are well fed up of it now and itching to get back playing live and seeing other people!
How did launching a debut single into an environment with no gigs work for you?
It was a strange one for sure! For us,playing live is what it’s all about. Recording and releasing singles would normally be just a vehicle to get better gigs on bigger stages and without that it can be a somewhat hollow experience when you can’t share what you have created the way it’s meant to be shared – on stage with a crowd in attendance.
Live streams just don’t do it for me so we have resisted the temptation to have our first gig as Cousin Tablet in that environment. We’re holding out for when we can do it as we have always imagined it, which will be soon hopefully! We have a few ideas for our initial run of live shows but I’m still slightly reluctant to schedule a tour while the danger of having to postpone it is still a reality. Things are looking up though with the rollout of the vaccination programme and hopefully we’ll be able announce something soon.
Recording and releasing music is a very expensive process and without the option of gigs to offset some of the costs it can be difficult to move at the pace you would like to. All that being said it was a hugely rewarding experience getting our debut single out there and it’s something we are very proud of.
Give me the lowdown on the single,what is it all about and how do you hope to be perceived from it?
The song is inspired by Betty, a woman who worked in my family pub and home before I was even born. The room she stayed in while living and working there became known as Betty’s Room and is still called that to this day. I always wondered who this mysterious Betty was and as I got older I started to ask questions.
It’s over 50 years since she lived and worked in my family home so the details I managed to find were all a bit hazy. There was talk she had come from a mother and baby home and endured a tough childhood. There was talk that she fell pregnant while working in the family pub. There was talk that a priest had heard of her predicament and she was sent back to a mother and baby home. No one in my family ever heard from Betty after she left or learned what became of her.
I could probably have found out more about her with a bit of amateur detective work but didn’t feel it was my place to intrude,reasoning that if she had wanted to get in touch she would have. It’s just a story that always fascinated me and I often wondered what became of her and how life panned out for her. She is remembered fondly by those who knew her and I hope things worked out for her.
I’m not really sure how we hope to be perceived from it, it’s not something I’ve thought about to be honest. We just focused on getting the song right and recording to the highest possible standard we could.
Do you have a lot of other music ready to go?
Yeah,we’ve been busy writing and jamming out new songs since Betty was released. We’ll be releasing a second single over the summer which we’re very excited about. The plan then is to concentrate on recording our debut album and start playing gigs once things open up a bit. The album is mostly written and we’re chomping at the bit to get back in the studio soon.
Why did you choose this track to launch yourselves?
The recording session at which we recorded Betty was primarily booked to record another song and we thought if we had time we’d get Betty done as well. When we heard the rough mixes after that session though we kinda knew that we had to release Betty first. Anyone we played the tracks for confirmed what we were thinking so we concentrated on getting it finished to the highest possible standard and putting it out there.
The other song we recorded is a rockier affair with less bells and whistles and will be featured on our debut album. We just felt Betty was a better fit as a first single and that its message would resonate with a lot of people
Juliana Erkkonen’s guest appearance is obviously a huge part of the sound of the track. How did that come about?
Juliana is an amazing player and was present the whole time I was writing the song, offering much appreciated advice and encouragement. While writing the song I could always hear strings on it and left spaces for her to sprinkle her magic. When the strings come in at the breakdown they bring the song to another level and sit beautifully with Anto’s sax on the climatic outro. It was an honour to have her play on the song.
It was a huge honour also to get Anto Thistlethwaite and Dave Clancy to play on the track. We would know Anto through his time with The Sawdoctors, who are also from the locality, and Wil was their bass player for a few years. Having growing up listening to Anto playing with The Waterboys, who are one of my biggest influences, it was slightly surreal to have him playing on a song I wrote and he absolutely nailed it as well! Dave Clancy on piano and hammond is a close friend of ours and an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist who released his own debut album in late 2020. He adds a touch of class to anything he plays on.
The guest appearances by the three aforementioned brought the song to another level and gave it that Big Band sound I have always craved.
There are a lot of stories perhaps a little bit like Betty’s in Ireland’s past. Were you conscious of the broader issues or is it really a curiousity about Betty primarily?
Yeah, I’ve always been fairly conscious of the broader issues and absolutely disgusted by the power the church had in Ireland and the treatment of the unfortunate women and children who endured the horrors inflicted in these homes. I have 3 beautiful children myself and am unmarried so its quite conceivable that had they been born in a different era they and their mother would have had to endure these horrors. That’s something that boils my blood to be honest.
However, this wasnt a case of just deciding to write a song about the Mother and Baby Homes because it was a hot topic that was garnering lots of media attention. The story of Betty always fascinated me and since the release of the song several people have been in touch to say that it could easily have been the story of their mother.
What was done to these women and children is nothing short of criminal and the inaction of succesive governments to address this issue over the years reflects very badly on the Irish political class and the influence the church held, and to a certain extent still does, over them.
The recent comisssion also seems to have been highly unsatisfactory for the survivors. The old excuse of ‘Ah they were different times’ doesnt wash with me. If what happened in them homes happened in a private home these people would be rightly up before the courts.
Have you thought much about how the live show is going to look once you get going when this is all over?
Every day! As I said earlier, playing live is what its all about for us so we’re yearning for the day we can get back on stage and play to a room full of people. I’ve always loved the Big Band sound of The Waterboys, Bruce and the E Street Band, The Last Waltz and Rolling Thunder Revue era Dylan so ideally we would have Anto, Juliana and Dave on board for live shows. Logistically, it might be a bit tricky as everyone is busy with their own projects but thats what we’re aiming for at the moment.
Once we have finished writing and finalising which songs will be on our debut album we will start putting the live show together. Having played together for so long we all have a great understanding and the live show is where the real magic will happen.
What are your hopes for the future?
The plan for the future is to get the album done and put the live show together and get on the road. Coming from a rural area in the west it has always been a bugbear of mine when bands only play the same venues in the big cities and dont venture in to the rural areas.
There are a lot of fans of good music in provincial towns all over the country and my plan would be to bring our show to as many of them as possible. It’s exciting times for us as we get the album ready to unleash on the world and we hope and believe it will have a big impact.
Check out Cousin Tablet here.