Garrett Laurie: “I’m obsessed with the use of samples artists like Mariah Carey used in the 90s”

Garrett Laurie, picture by Danny Mills

Belfast singer-songwriter Garrett Laurie emerged from lockdown having crafted a new music career, something that’s been an odd experience for them. With their new single. ‘Mississippi Jesus’, they address issues of queer identity and shame, merging religious iconography with personal examinations in a deeply personal piece of music.

“”Mississippi Jesus’ is about being queer & feeling guilty about everything,” they say. “Recorded in Start Together Studios and co-produced with Ryan McGroarty of Beauty Sleep, ‘Mississippi Jesus’ explores queer sexuality and feelings of guilt surrounding it through cinematic instrumentation and 90s style beats.”

I spoke to Garrett around the single’s release…

The mix of themes around religion and gender identity is an interesting one – did you combine them because of the contradictions?

Definitely- I think there is something beautiful about the dichotomy between iconic religious themes and imagery and the more recent movements being made toward looser gender expression. Pairing religious themes with romantic ones feels taboo just because it’s not something you see a lot. It’s a little eerie because it’s so open ended, and I wanted ‘Mississippi Jesus’ to reflect that.

How does the track link into your personal experiences?

I think that coming from a religious family, it has been the backdrop of my life up to this point. In the past two years or so I have tried to challenge some of the shame I think I subconsciously had for a long time as a queer person, navigating their identity in such a small city. By challenging that and the unofficial rules that come with it, I was surprised at how quickly my life began to make more sense- I felt a clearer sense of purpose. ‘Mississippi Jesus’ is about facing shame head on, while acknowledging the strange comforts of settling for being an altered version of yourself for other people.

How do you feel about the general status of queer identity in music at the moment – what are the core issues?

Honestly, I think it is exciting that a queer person can even have a successful music career at all nowadays. I used to think I would have to hide my sexuality while trying to break into the industry, and if I didn’t have some popular queer artists to refer to now, I would probably still think that. I think one real issue is that queer artists often seem to be reduced to a label, and a responsibility to be an articulate voice for an entire community. Being queer is not a job or a career move, so I wish people could identify us by more than that.

The Crayon Set: “we want to keep evolving from one record to the next”

The Crayon Set’s new album ‘Downer Disco’ is the latest album that was recorded pre-covid to see a much delayed release, and will see the group expand on what they call their ‘hook-filled alt-pop’, a description perhaps as colourful and ambiguous – deliberately so – as the band’s name. They are, in short, morphing into something new. 

“There is definitely more of an electronic and 80s synth-pop influence on the album,” co-frontman Robert Baker tells me. “The idea behind the band name was that it would be diverse and that it would keep evolving from one record to the next so that is important to us.”

“I think this album had more of a groove to it and less layers and less harmonies everywhere – I think when we started off we were guilty of over-doing it, a decent song shouldn’t need 50 tracks! Our last album ‘Lost Languages’ was more folky and acoustic so I think this one will be more fun to play live.”

The album also introduces, or rather reintroduces, Kate Dineen, who brings a vocal swirling between the two into the mix, a permanent expansion after Dineen and the band worked together more temporarily earlier in the band’s lifespan.

“The way we work is probably pretty much the same [with Kate].” Baker explains. “I’ll usually bring in songs which we’ll work up in rehearsal and then hopefully improve on again when recording them with a good producer. But I do think we’re a better band as a result since Kate joined.” 

“On the last album I ended up doing most of the singing, after our original female singer moved on, and I think the band definitely works better with the mix of the two voices. Kate has also been playing more synths which is great in helping us get the new songs across live.”

Ross Turner: “The NCH was a conduit that gave me a compass and a map”

Between 2014 and 2016, drummer and multi-instrumentalist Ross Turner was the artist in residence at the National Concert Hall. Turner was already in love with the building, a place he’d visited regularly all his life, and, during his time there, connected with its quieter corners. 

During that time, Turner also engaged with many of the musicians who passed through. Five years after that period ended, he finds himself releasing ‘In The Echo: Field Recordings From Earlsfort Terrace’, in which he reveals some of the subtle, atmospheric pieces of music he worked on at the time. The resulting record features some modern greats of the Irish music scene: Lisa Hannigan, Conor O’Brien (of Villagers), Paul Noonan (of Bell X1), Katie Kim and Lisa O’Neill, with a focus very much on collaboration, and exploring the NCH’s atmosphere.

“I was keen to utilise my time as creatively as possible whilst situated in the National Concert Hall and how I might document that time in a memorable way,” Turner explains. “I set about trying to involve the building, the architecture itself. The idea to record remotely or ‘field record’ was inspired by hearing music travel throughout the building each time I passed through it.” 

“The variety of sounds produced by orchestras, choirs and soloists rehearsing throughout the building travelled naturally due to the marbled hallways and stairwells. It was beautiful. Once I had the idea in my head that I should document that sounds and spaces I set about formulating a plan and who might be interested and interesting to have involved.”

“It was pretty tricky logistically. From approaching the artists to getting people in the same room took time and patience. Finding quieter moments to record around the building was a factor also. The building was a conduit which gave me a compass and a map in a way. I had expressed the intent of the album to the artists but it was a singular experience for them. As the recordings were made one by one, I could hear it take shape and offer much more than I had hoped for.”

The reality of the record, which fell through an initial intended release at the time of its recording, has a real sense of when and how it was recorded, something Turner was very happy to place at the forefront. 

AJ Wander: “music is an emotional crutch through tough times.”

Having grown up with music – the son of a pianist – AJ Wander was perhaps destined to develop from a household in South London surrounded by instrumentation, to a modern day pop artist.

Performing a kind of driving, emotionally-wraught pop that underwent a breakthrough in 2020, when the single ‘Time Out’ became by a distance his biggest hit, gathering in excess of four million Spotify plays. Post covid, AJ returns with new single ‘Take It All’. Around the launch, we talked about his career to date…

First of all, ‘Time Out’ has done really well – congrats. It’s obviously a hugely personal track. Have your feelings towards it evolved since you wrote it?

I feel pretty distant from the headspace I was in when I wrote the song. Having to accept that something beautiful has run its course is a pretty common place for humans to end up in. It’s a great feeling to know so many people have connected with the song because of this mutual experience.

Judging by the themes of the new single, you’re quite happy to put your emotional side out there. Is this how you connect with music?

Not exclusively, but music is an emotional crutch through tough times and it just so happens I relied on that crutch for the whilst writing the singles I’ve released up to now.

How did ‘When You Say I Love You’ come together, and what’s the story behind it?

I wrote ‘When You Say I love You’ with my mate Geth in Wales. WYSILY is about when someone falls for you too fast and you go along with it just because you don’t want to hurt them. Then finally realising that pretending to be in love isn’t a healthy solution…honesty is the best policy.

Is the contrast between an upbeat feel and some quite self-exploratory lyrics something of a calling card for you?

I think the contrast between sombre lyrical content and anthemic production is definitely something I’m unconsciously drawn towards. However, there’s lots of music on it’s way that’s far less self-explorative…

I understand there’s an EP on the way. What should we expect from it

There is indeed! This EP is going to be a bridge from the music I’ve been releasing up until now and what I will be releasing next. I’m stepping outside of my own head little.

Pretty Happy: “We wear the name ‘oddball’ proudly”

Photo: Nicholas O’Donnell

Cork post-punk act Pretty Happy are one of the musical success stories of covid times. Scoring International acclaim for their quirky single ‘Salami’, the theatre-influenced three-piece, who often dabble in spoken word elements in their music, have been grabbing airplay as far as afield as US’ mega-station KEXP, and look set to be one of 2021’s breakout acts.

In fact, the band, who released their EP ‘Sluggers Bridge’ this July, have been slightly bewildered about it all. “It’s me an Arran screaming about pork, of all things,” vocalist Abbey Blake joked to the Irish Examiner earlier this year.

“Ironically,” Blake told us recently, “Salami was the song we nearly didn’t record but then received the most attention for. It’s definitely given us more confidence to get a lot stranger in our song writing.”.

“The EP was recorded in Blackwater Studios in Fermoy back in September 2020. We had recorded the EP just before Arann and Andy moved to London. We hadn’t played live for some time, so the songs were quite new besides Salami. I think we were trying to capture our live energy in the studio so we recorded the songs live together, besides vocal and guitar overdubs. We were also trying to establish the theatrical Art Punk style we had begun to explore with these songs. Salami was the single that kicked off the EP.“

The EP is the product of a variety of approaches to writing, an almost scattergun type thing that sees Pretty Happy come out with inventive, imaginative music.

“I suppose we either start off with a riff or a sentence and we just keep building,” Blake says. “No one comes in with a finished song really. We’ll have a melody or a rhythm and someone will start to speak, sing or shout over it, starting off with a short phrase or word, and then we’ll develop the story from there. Or we’ll start with a word or sentence we think sounds odd or interesting and add music as we go.”

Wallis Bird: “I feel like a newborn in this now, because everything is different”

Photo: Jens Oellermann

A joyous force of nature, Berlin-based Wexford woman Wallis Bird is a musical soul-injection, producing sparkling odes to life and its many charms. Bird has been a loss to the Irish music scene, where in the mid-00s, her Temple Bar shows became regular haunts that shone sunshine on gig-goers’ weeks. With a long awaited return post-covid on the cards, she’s chomping at the bit to see her home crowd in the coming weeks, and keen on some collaborations.

“I’m nervous, I won’t lie,” she says. “I feel like a newborn in this now because everything is different. The usual “deadly buzz” wild audience is an understandably careful thing now. It will pass, as all things do, but it’s a play it by ear situation. Technically I’m prepped for every kind of buzz, so I’m gonna take it one song at a time.” 

“I hope to be involved in everyone’s session, that’s my aim. Collaboration shows like this [HIbernacle, in Galway in late September] are one in a million and it’s something I love best about being a musician – jumping into someone’s world and fleshing it out together.”

Bird’s German show returns have signalled the emotion that might be involved: “Some moments were like tearing our skin off with elation,” she recalls of recent shows. “Then  one song later swiftly clutching our skin back on again, people bawling their eyes out, it’s been real intense. I know that in a few years I’ll think “lord those were once in a lifetime shows”.

Royal Yellow: “There’s nobody to reign me in when I go off the deep end”

Former Enemies man Mark O’Brien, now functioning under solo-moniker ‘Royal Yellow’, is about to skip out on Dublin. “You kind of see it through different eyes once you’ve decided to leave,” he says, “it’s unsustainable.”

O’Brien is heading to Limerick, a move he announced publicly to widespread support online, and one which reflects a broader trend in Dublin music, a need to be more fiscally sensible, as covid times and expensive rents hit. The move strikes, oddly, just as events return.

“It’s a blur coming out of these times, like a surreal dream now we’re experiencing the tail end of it,” O’Brien says. “I played a gig with Jape in Offaly, and that got me back to playing in front of a small number of people without much pressure. The next day we played at ‘Love Is A Stranger’, a mini festival, and that felt amazing.” 

“It’s already become a cliche, but you don’t realise how much you’d missed that feeling of purpose and meaning. That physical element of feeling bass and drums in your body that you don’t get at home. I could only describe it as euphoric, two of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever played. It’s like fasting for two years and then eating something delicious.”

In that particular scenario, the mental space offered by lockdown helped out. “The lockdown gave us space to figure out what it is in terms of a live performance,” O’Brian says. “The EP, ‘Still Until’ gave me the chance to focus on multiple tracks at the same time, and take a more widescreen view of what our writing is.” 

“Then there was space to go away with the band to Wexford for a couple of days. We jammed, tried out different instruments, and made a short film about it all. We worked out the different permutations of the band, and it coalesced into this feeling of ‘this is what it is’. Before that, it was really just me experimenting with different line ups and becoming a solo artist, in inverted commas, for the first time. Now it’s become a more comfortable thing.”

ZOiD: “I thought it would be cool to understand everything going on in the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of jazz so I could use all that in electronic dance music”

ZOiD is a bit of an exception to the norm in current Irish music circles. Combining jazz and techno, two scenes that the city’s not particularly known for these days, he produces beautiful tracks with a wide mix of guest vocalists, which he then somehow twists into a coherent whole. That in itself is quite an achievement.

He’s also prolific. Daniel Jacobson – his real name – traces his routes back to a specific Dublin scene of years ago, one centred around the label D1 Records. I caught up with him to discuss his latest release, ZONGS, due out shortly, and found a man with plenty to say about his colourful craft…

You seem to have been inspired in part by the Dublin inner city and also jazz influences, which from the outside looks like an unlikely combo. How did that come about?

Well… I got into techno and jazz simultaneously when I was 15 or 16. Me and my friends worked on the forecourt at a petrol station in Deansgrange and we’d spend all the money we earned on techno records. They’d be from Germany, the US, the UK, Japan, Netherlands… and occasionally we’d come across a record from Dublin, on a label called D1 Records.

It was exciting to know there were people not far away who were making this music on a par with other labels around the world! It inspired me to start producing music. I bought a synth and the first tape I made found it’s way to Eamonn Doyle who ran D1. He rang me up and I got to go and make tracks at their studio, play livesets at The Funnel, and later on release an album on D1 (ZOiD Vs Jazz Musicians of Ireland Vol 1).

In terms of getting into jazz, I loved the challenge of trying to play it because it was impossible. Also I thought it would be cool to understand everything going on in the rhythms, harmonies and melodies of jazz so I could use all that in electronic dance music. That was my reason for studying jazz full time for 4 years. It didn’t exactly work out…

Obviously the record is heavy on collaboration. How did that work in practise, and how did you keep it coherent as a whole?

In practice it was a whole bunch of emailing files back and forth over a couple of years. It was cool because nearly everyone has a basic mic they can use to record themselves, and i didn’t mind if the recordings weren’t very high fidelity. If they were a bit noisy or low quality, I thought it would add character.

Liam Grant and Les Keye who helped me with the mixes probably have other opinions… but anyway, there was a really big diversity of tracks and I was worried for a time that it wouldn’t be coherent enough… after a few months of working on the mixes with Liam though, it all started gelling and sounding like an album. I remember the first time I listened to it all the way through, while walking along the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire, I was so relieved – IT SOUNDED LIKE AN ALBUM!! It took ages to get it there.

Was it part of the plan to feature only female vocalists?

I picked vocalists I like and they just happened to all be female. There were a couple of tracks with male vocalists but they didn’t get finished in time (Danny G, if you’re reading this… let’s go haha!).