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Dubh Lee: “Sonically, I was inspired by Led Zep’s The Lemon Song”

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.

AJ Wander: “The songs are quietly hopeful and speak frankly about navigating the emotional minefield that is relationships”

For most of us, 2020 has been a strange and ultimately perhaps a bit of a depressing year. With the pandemic hanging over us, there have been limited chances for creativity, fun or even career progression, and the world has felt loaded with tragedy.

For London-based songwriter AJ Wander, though, it might just have been the kick up the rear end he needed. Escaping a world of playing piano bars to make rent – that’s not an option anymore after all – he’s released his debut two singles instead, charming pop tracks full of emotion, entitled ‘Time Out’ and ‘Way We Walk’. Both are loaded with potential.

I caught up with AJ to reflect on a year crammed with change…

Congrats on what’s clearly been a very successful lockdown. How has all the contractual stuff come together for you?

Thank you! Itʼs definitely been a crazy time for me. I feel so lucky to have been able to take something positive from this year. I recorded a bunch of tracks with my friend and producer Brad Mair just before lockdown hit in March. I then sent out the tracks to a bunch of industry and subsequently spent much of lockdown in Zoom meetings.

At the end of summer I took on a great team that Iʼm so excited to be working with!

Can you tell me a little bit about what brought you to this point?

This has always been my dream situation…to be releasing music that means so much to me. Iʼve been singing for as long as I can remember, but the piano playing and writing kicked off for me when I was around 14. I joined a band called ʼTorsʼ whilst studying in Guildford in 2015. I spent an amazing few years with the band before leaving to pursue a solo career.

I must admit I got a little side-tracked after leaving the band and drifted into performing at piano bars and hotels in order to pay my rent. I spent two years playing covers for cash, whilst I was still writing during this time, I spent most days kicking myself for not putting my all into my own music.

Lockdown this year forced a shift in attention for me as gigging was no longer an option. I finally started focussing all of my attention onto my artist project which ultimately led me to the point I’m art now.

Paj: “I had a vivid sense of my place in the world and of starting a new phase even before lockdown”

Stepping out from the shadows into the limelight, Paj (a.k.a Paddy Groenland) – who has previously worked with everyone from Hozier to Ensemble Eriu – is slowly stepping out and starting to release music himself. Recent single ‘Superman’, for example, is a groovy ode to dealing with self-pressure and applying self-respect.

“I’d been messing with it since 2018 – a former Motown Records employee called the chorus ‘golden’ – and I had a basic demo.” Paj says of the track. “During lockdown, I was thinking about re-recording it. Fiachra Kinder was advertising that he wanted to lay down drum parts for people just to keep busy, I took him up on it and then it just spiralled. Joe Furlong and Uly agreed to play on it and my fellow Dutch/ Irishman Rob de Boer (whom I play bass for) and Zeenie Summers (who I play the guitar with) were enthusiastic to sing parts.” 

“I guess it has that nice combination of feel-good, kind of self-aware but with a relatable and useful message. The lyrics are for me really, telling myself not to be too ambitious, to not compare with others and to accept my mortality”

Paj released an EP entitled ‘Pastels’ last year, but life has been dramatic since, and he feels he’s moved on, almost to the point that he wants to forget it. It wasn’t about corona, either.

“A lot has changed,” he explains. “I cringe a bit now as my approach and message has developed. Earlier this year I was in Brazil with my wife and we had a transformative experience doing Ayahuasca and travelling in Brazil; I had a vivid sense of my place in the world and of starting a new phase even before lockdown.” 

The Battery Farm: “we write from the perspective of four lefty snowflakes watching the rise of nationalist populism”

A good indication of the kind of act The Battery Farm are is the title of their new EP, ‘ENDLESS UNSTOPPABLE PAIN’, formatted to include a knowing smiley face at the end of its title.

The Mancunian punks are a bitter, abrasive act, but with a lot of fun wedged between their slamming musical verdict on modern British society, and the rise of the hard right.

As they launch their debut EP, I asked vocalist Ben what it’s all about…

There’s something very openly morbid about your music. See ‘Maggot Line’ and ’97/91′ in particular. Talk me through what side of your personalities brings that out…

I’m prone to finding myself in pits of absolute black despair sometimes. Proper no-hope stuff. When I’m in those moods it causes me to really dwell on Human Beings’ capacity for animalistic brutality and the ways in which that brutality manifests itself. I also end up dwelling a lot on the bleakness of the situation we’ve created for ourselves. I’m a right laugh at parties.

Anyways, all this stuff manifests itself in a desire to create something stark and visceral. It drives me to try and articulate a lot of the fear and anger I feel about the present and future, and what’s been robbed from us as a generation, in the most unflinching way possible. Sometimes that ends up in an utter horror show like 97/91. It’s not intentional nihilism, it’s just an attempt to be honest. It’s all catharsis as well. It makes me feel better to put this stuff into words.

There’s obviously a certain worldview behind your music. What is the perspective you feel you’re writing from, mainly?

This is completely contrary to what I just said but I think we’re writing from a perspective of hope, ultimately. On the surface a lot of our stuff is really bleak but we write about what we write about because we hope that better is possible and want better to happen. More kindness, more equality, no corruption, an end to the parasitic wreckers in business and politics destroying everything for all of us. We want better. We all deserve better. We’re angry that we never get it.

I think we also write from the perspective of four lefty snowflakes watching the rise of nationalist populism. When all the values you hold dear – community, democracy, truth, equality – are being nakedly trampled on by bad, bad bastards it gives you plenty of desire to fight back. I suppose this band is how we do that.

Sophie Doyle-Ryder: “I find writing a form of therapy and always write about real situations”

Sophie Doyle-Ryder, photo by Ray Keogh

Malahide singer-songwriter Sophie Doyle-Ryder is only four singles old, but already drawing comparisons with the likes of Anne-Marie and Ariane Grande, having reached number 9 on the Irish radio play charts with her third single ‘Too Much’.

Her music is vibrant, atmospheric pop, and she’s well-placed to make an impact, having teamed up with Grammy award-winning producer Billy Farrell for latest single ‘Little Black Book’. I caught up with Sophie to see how her lockdown is going…

I guess given you were releasing music at the age of just 17, it’s clear that music is a huge part of your life. How have you developed your sound?

I feel I developed my sound by trial and error really. It’s all about trying new things and finding what suits you well! It may take a long time or a short time it all just depends! I find writing a form of therapy and always write about real situations; either mine or my friends’ experience.

Can you tell me a little about ‘Little Black Book’ and how it came together?

Little Black Book is a women’s empowerment song, it is one of my favourites by far! It’s all about being good on your own and almost using people to your advantage. Knowing that you have boys, but only if you want them! It’s so fun and cheeky, I love it.

How many tracks do you have behind the scenes and ready to go – are there EPs or albums on the horizon, for example?

I will release a few more singles before then. I have a good few tracks ready to go! However, it might be another while until an ep and album comes. I want to make it really special.

Have you reflected on your music and changed anything during lockdown?

I feel like I’ve found my sound more than ever during covid lockdowns! I’ve really enjoyed the creative process of music even more because I just feel so established as an artist.

ORLA: “Writing ‘Close to Me’ was cathartic, it put my feelings into words before I even understood them”

Raised to Irish parents in Belgium, ORLA returned to Dublin a few years ago to attend BIMM, and immerse herself in the Irish music scene.

After years of playing in other bands, she’s turning to her debut single ‘Close To Me’ to launch her own career with a single that wears its heart firmly on its sleeve.

I spoke to her about the launch, and how she’s got to this stage…

I’d imagine it’s a life-changing move, releasing a debut single. What took you to this point?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I moved from Belgium to study songwriting at BIMM Dublin in 2015. I loved living in Dublin, loved the course and constantly being surrounded by other musicians. It was so exciting. At the same time though, I felt a pressure to be at the same level as some of my peers. There were those with experience touring whereas my only experience was school performances. On top of that, I had rarely performed my own songs outside of my bedroom!

In the years I was at college I performed a lot as a backing singer and keyboard player in other bands. At the same time though, I was writing and performing at ‘open mics’. Eventually I left the other bands, and I’ve spent the past two years performing my own music, just me and my guitarist. It took me a while to believe my songs were good enough but performing live and talking to the audience after shows really showed me that people were connected to my music.

In the past year I have been trying out my songs with different producers and looking for the right sound. After working on ‘Close to Me’ with Sam Stevenson it just sort of clicked and I knew that was the one I wanted to release. Even though I still don’t think I’ll ever feel 100% ready, I threw myself into it!

Why ‘Close To Me’ as the debut?

‘Close to Me’ is a very vulnerable song for me. I wrote it in one sitting and I always find those songs are the most honest. I wanted it as my debut as I feel it is a good introduction to my sound. I tend to draw influences from multiple genres, electric, soul, pop and R&B. I think the song gives me the opportunity to go in other directions with the following singles. Also it’s a song I’ve always loved performing live.

I understand the main story behind the song is one of vulnerability and lost love. How did you find putting life to music like that, and does it feel weird making it public?

I feel more comfortable sharing my feelings through my songs rather than any other way. Writing ‘Close to Me’ was cathartic, it put my feelings into words before I even understood them. That’s the beauty of songwriting. I never feel uncomfortable listening to an extremely revealing and honest song from another songwriter if I connect to what they are saying. If anything, it’s reassuring, it makes me feel less alone.

Thom Southern: “It’s been a constant feeling of ‘up in the air’ but it keeps things fresh”

Thom Southern‘s young solo career is built on a lifetime of performing music. Formerly part of the band ‘Southern’ with his sister Lucy (who I interviewed here), to the pair have both gone solo and relocated to Liverpool to reinvent themselves.

Thom’s single ‘Perfect Someone’ has just been launched, and I asked him to talk me through the whole journey up to it, so far, from cancelled recording sressions to personal reinventions…

Congrats on the new single! Can you tell me a little of the story behind it?

Thanks, yeah it’s a song I wrote a couple of years ago actually.  Totally forgot about it and when lockdown first started earlier this year I was in my Belfast home studio going through all my demos on my laptop deciding what to record to keep me busy.  I found an old voice note of ‘Perfect Someone’ playing it on my acoustic.  I really wanted to have a go at recording an upbeat pop tune this year using an 808 drum machine so I thought it had a strong hook to do that.

Lyrically, it’s a bittersweet tune about finding an old photograph in a coat pocket I hadn’t looked inside for years.  I wanted to keep the lyrics super simple to capture that quick feeling you get when you look at an old photo.  You get a flash of that moment and then it’s gone.  Nostalgic feelings can be rubbish sometimes so I wanted to portray that as well.  It’s hard to come to terms with the reality of the present and how things have changed sometimes.

Lucy Gaffney: “Music and art’s pretty much all I think about most days”

Having grown up in Belfast, where she wrote songs with her brother to perform busking, eventually forming the band ‘Southern’, Lucy Gaffney‘s life has been steeped in music since an early age.

These days, Gaffney has settled in Liverpool where she’s pursuing a solo career, though one in which she still works closely with her brother. She’s won plenty of acclaim from RTE for her single ‘Send Me Away’, and elsewhere for her enthralling cover songs, not least from Liam Gallagher for her version of Oasis classic ‘Songbird’.

I caught up with Lucy to talk it all over…

Congrats on your new single. I believe you’ve been getting quite a lot of play on RTE. How does that kind of attention feel to you?

I can’t believe the response the track’s had, it’s such a great feeling to know it’s resonating with people. The support’s been really lovely

Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind the single?

I wrote it mid rehearsal with the band, I guess I was in kind of a romantic headspace. I felt like the vocals and lyrics should wash in and out of the guitars and the track should chug along like a force pushing you forward with a wall of sounds.

The ethos of ‘Send Me Away’ is a dreamlike state of mind, you’re daydreaming about someone you want and kind of know they’re no good for you, but the thrill of being together and reconnecting is intoxicating. I recorded it in Parr Street Studios in Liverpool with James Skelly straight after I made ‘Can’t Escape’ last summer.

Did you find it strange releasing music into the current situation, especially debut music?

Yeah, I was pretty hesitant with it at first when I released ‘Can’t Escape’. But I kind of figured, y’know I’ve never seen most of my favourite bands play live, so in a way, it’s taught me to adapt and push myself to play online, which is something I found really daunting before.

Now I kind of love the idea that if I’m quickly writing a tune I can just quickly video it to show people and they can casually listen from the other side of the world even though we’re both just chilling in our bedrooms. It’s sort of put the control back into the artist’s hands in terms of how they want to represent themselves. I know that when we can properly gig again it’s gonna be so incredible though.

How did you come to music, and what’s your background like as a musician?

I think I’ve been living and breathing music since I was a little kid. Music and arts pretty much all I think about most days. I started playing the piano when I was 7 and was in the choir at school so learnt to harmonise pretty early. After my brother learnt the guitar at 15 we used to sing together and go busking in Belfast for pocket money, we didn’t really know any covers so just wrote tunes.

It went from there really, and when I turned 19 we moved between London and Liverpool in a band called ‘Southern’ together. We still write and produce together but we do two separate projects because our styles are pretty different now.