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Thought Brownie: “I plan to write at least four lines every day, for the rest of my days, dropping words like it’s hot”

Thought Brownie, a.k.a Hari Shenoy, is a naturalised Irishman from India, a man in his early 40s releasing what he himself describes as an unlikely rap album. It’s the consequence of some life changes: tackling autoimmune disease that came up during Covid, and finding the power of artistic persistance as he began writing four lines every day to create a larger whole, the product of which is the record ‘Man Of Subtance’.

Referencing everything from the history of his native India to the war in Ukraine to Studio Ghibli as influences, Thought Brownie’s diverse cultural explorations ooze out in his music, making for one of the more unusual, mesmerising and thought-provoking records I’ve heard covering music in Ireland, a startling display of imagination in the face of self doubt.

In what I believe is the first written interview with Thought Brownie about his album, he filled me on just what it’s all about, and how it came to be, asking the broader question: what do you want to do with the time you have left?

You have a background on my side of the music industry. What shifted you over to producing and releasing your own music?

I was a music journalist covering independent music, mainly rock and metal in India. I did that for five years from 2007 to 2012. It was a brilliant experience that gave me access to new artists and to learn why they did what they did. I enjoy writing in general and writing about music in particular.

In my 30s, I went all in on a corporate job. My life was all about running on the hedonic treadmill. I wanted early retirement, after which I said to myself that I will finally relax, resting on the laurels of jobs well done. That perpetual state of being in sprints caused stress, anxiety and burnout, because everything that gave me fulfilment was outside of me. I was chasing the approval of others to feel good about myself, prioritising elusive milestones over abundant moments and neglecting to stay in the present moment.

The pandemic didn’t help either. In January 2021, I got diagnosed with an autoimmune health condition that shifted my perspective. It made me aware of how nothing is promised. I know I can leave my life right now, and I must make sure I can live my life right now.

I felt like the best way I could come to terms with the physical, mental and emotional challenges I faced was to write my way out. What I wrote turned into verse and that gave me the idea to create something. It felt like the right answer to the question I keep asking myself each day – “Yo Hari, what will you do with the time you have left?”

Can you tell me a little of the story behind ‘Man Of Substance’?

The original name I wanted to assign for the album was “Cheaper than therapy”. Then I figured that having a nom de plume that sounds like “Pot Brownie” should give me licence to call it “Man of Substances”. I finally decided that “Man of Substance” sounded right to me in my head.

I began writing the album when Russia invaded Ukraine. I have been to Kyiv and loved the time I spent there. My Ukrainian friends made me feel welcome the way people from India make their international friends feel welcome. It hurt to see them hurting. War made me wonder why we, as a species, are so blatantly invested in acts of self-sabotage. Carl Sagan’s speech about the “Pale Blue Dot” felt more relevant than ever and I decided to adapt it into rap.

All other tracks began falling into place as I explored topics related to time, mental health, ambition, inner peace and growing up.

Before this, I was writing a musical on the history of India. I am so grateful and so inspired by what Lin Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton, that I decided to create an Indian version. What’s the worst that could have happened?

I was making progress there but I’ve since set that project aside for now. I need to understand my own story before I could do justice to telling the story of nearly 2 billion people.

Gemma Hayes: “I went back into my head to start writing music again”

Gemma Hayes has been flying under the radar for a little while. The delicate guitarist’s soulful approach to music has taken her on a journey, one that explores the deeply personal, but also one, you get the sense, that she’s not quite building her life around.

In fact, some time away from music, and living abroad, was put a halt to by covid and saw her come back to writing. She’s now at the stage where a new album is almost ready to go.

“Covid brought me back to music, I was forced into a situation where my world was very small, so I went back into my head, and started writing music again,” she says. “I had no distractions or excuses. My kids are getting older, too, so I could leave a room and know they wouldn’t… well, die,” she laughs.

“Being able to pick up a guitar and play, having the mental, physical and emotional time to do it again was big. The next album is around the corner, but being an independent artist, there is no deadline as such. The first song will be out in November, though, and I’m playing the songs live already. You can tell how songs resonate once you play them to a room full of people, you hear it differently, which is an extraordinary thing.”

“Sometimes I change a song as soon as I play it live,” she continues. “With one song, we were playing it as a little two-piece, and we started to dig harder, to really pick it up at the end. It was very mellow on the album, but in a live setting it just grew bigger, so we went back and picked it up in the studio. It became something far more exciting because of playing it live.”

The Psychs: “You try screaming about Drinking on a bus at 9:00am on a Monday…”

The Psychs, on the face of it, are your typically gritty rock n’ roll band. With a series of pulsating singles having already taken them to iconic scene-fest Other Voices in Dingle, the four piece have evolved from an earlier, mellower sound into singles like their latest ‘The Bullet Song’, a quick-fire effort lent depth by their use of church organs.

I caught up with vocalist Billy Kid Jones ahead of the band’s show at the Workman’s Cellar on February 3rd.

Congratulations on the impending headline show. What can we expect from you as a live act?

…The unexpected.

Can you tell me a little of the backstory of how you came to this place?

Myself and Ben (guitar) were travelling around doing a bit of a Gimon & Sarfunkel thing and then one day we decided we wanted more and had this fire in us that demanded a bigger and more hard-hitting sound. Ben put out the call, straight off the bat we met Clampo (Bass). We had a drummer but parted ways mutually, went 9 months without a drummer! which I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a band that has drums in their songs but no drummer but it’s difficult. Then rather miraculously we met Aaron (drums) the rest is history.

What’s the inspiration behind your particular style of music?

We all come from different musical backgrounds, Country, Funk, Jazz, Blues but we all meet at the communal water fountain of classic Rock n’ Roll.

You formed in peak covid era. Did that have any impact on your development as a band?

Yeah but sure if that was a bingo number the whole hall would cheer, it definitely was a major obstacle but I mean we’re still here so…if anything it proves we don’t give up easily.

You’ve already had quite a few cool experiences as a band. Have any stood out?

Opening in the 3Olympia, Other voices and of course most recently being on Fanning at Whelans which was so different to what we’ve done. Normally playing live you’re like some Vampire that can just sleep til noon then crawl out of whatever lair you’re in and roll onto the stage, on Fanning we had to play those songs first thing in the morning! You try screaming about Drinking on a bus at 9:00am on a Monday…

What’s been your favourite experience as a band so far?

I know myself and the boys would all agree that opening in the 3Olympia Theatre has been the highlight so far. It was insane, it was a real “who let the dogs out?” moment. We didn’t know quite what to expect but the crowd was so amazing! I remember myself and the lads looked at eachother and we all thought the same thing “we could get use to this”

King Kong Company: “we’re not a typical mainstream radio kinda band”

Photo by Colin Shanahan

King Kong Company are, by their own admission, focused on simply being the ultimate live band. The Waterford natives’ lively stage show features a member with a cardboard box over their head and the kind of riotous energy that draws back ever growing crowds. In fact, their return to Electric Picnic this summer was the stuff of legends.

It’s that secretive band member, known as simply ‘Boxhead’, who King Kong Company put forward to chat to the Gazette ahead of their forthcoming shows, and it’s a wild ride.

“Over the years we have worked hard to carve out a name for ourselves as a live act, best seen in our natural habitat on the festival circuit,” he tells us. “We’re not the typical mainstream radio play kinda band so we put our energy into what we love – a kick ass show, getting down and dirty with the headaballs.”

“The oddest place to play, hands down, was at the Aras. Asking Michael D Higgins if he was getting anythin’ off that will forever be a special memory. Sabina was loving it.”

“The people you see onstage really are only half the team responsible for a production,” he continues. “The whole King Kong Company family includes members in charge of PR, lights, sound, monitors, visuals, drivers, and lasers. Even down to the efforts of bubble boy Kev, our balloon thrower extraordinaire, everyone has their role and we share the common goal of putting on the best show we can.” 

“We may not always agree on artistic visions but any of this can be settled with a friendly headlock. We are united in the fantasy for years now about getting someone onstage in a gimp suit. It hasn’t happened yet. Sad face. But we did get our lampy onstage doing the chicken dance. Pretty close.”

This kind of shenanigans is, it has to be said, typical for King Kong Company, who’s primary aim seems to hover somewhere between making music and having the most outrageous fun possible. One time, for example, they made a beer that was infused with Tonic Wine, together with a local brewery, because why not.

Art Crimes Band: “lost love, wild nights, harsh days, romance and pain.”

Cork act Art Crimes Band are, it’s fair to say, atypical of the Irish music scene. A slow-building set up who’ve been on the live music scene for years, they draw influences from jazz and R&B, creating a complex six-piece fronted by the charmed vocals of Grace McMahon. The result is versatile, difficult to pin down, nodding to anything from Hall & Oates to John Legend alongside their jazzier influences. 2022 marks a comeback.

“It’s been amazing,” McMahon says of the return. “I didn’t realise how much I had missed performing live. The first gig back, I was full of nerves and worried if it would all go ok. I got on stage and the energy from the crowd was electric, and right at that moment all worries disappeared. It’s a feeling I will never forget.”

The band took a notable step forward after the lockdown by involving Abbey Road studios in their latest single, ‘Neon Skyline’, with one member of the band tracing some roots to the iconic London spot.

“After using different mastering engineers over the years we usually were not fully happy with the results,” Niall Dennehy says. “We loved the smooth warm sound from masters coming out of Abbey Road. My Uncle, who passed away about 20 years ago, worked as an engineer in Abbey Road in the 1950s when it was called EMI Studios. He taught me all the fundamentals of studio engineering growing up. So I think it’s fitting things come full circle and our tracks get an airing around the walls of Abbey Road.”

“‘Neon Skyline’ is the first track I wrote during Covid lockdowns, about three months in or so,” Stephen Kirby explains. “It is rough nights and long days, inspired by a trip to Vegas a few years ago. The chorus is about craving contact, positive or negative, just human interaction.” 

“The lyrics are put through the filter (for lack of a less modern term) of the story ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ by Jay Mcinerney. Neon Skyline is lyrically about lost love, wild nights, harsh days, romance and pain. Musically, it’s about blending solid and static patterns with fluidity and movement to create a complimentary sonic landscape for the story.”

CARRON: “we kind of blended all the genres together we like to listen to”

Two sisters making waves on the Irish music scene, Maebh and Mella Carron have recently been joined in their long-standing band, CARRON, by Maebh’s new husband Darragh McGrath. A family band in the true sense of the concept, then, the trio are fiercely creative, flicking between emotional harmonies over beautiful melodies, and a poppier sound they developed and expanded during the isolation of lockdown.

CARRON’s latest single ‘Lights Up’ draws on Nordic pop influences and is produced by now semi-regular collaborator Richey McCourt, who gives it a kind of ethereal sheen. It’s a bit of an aside, but a gorgeous one that reflects their increasingly varied style.

“There wasn’t any opportunity for us to get into the studio, although we were writing a lot of music during lockdown,” the band say of the period of what was, for many musicians, an odd and isolating time. “We decided to ask around and see if any producers wanted to do some remixes of our acoustic music. We were quite nervous about that, about what our fans would think. Richey McCourt was one of the producers who did one of the remixes, and it was really good, really fun.”

The collaboration led to the new single. “We decided to work with Richey again, his style is really that kind of pop thing we’ve been enjoying, and the whole experience gave us confidence that we’d keep our fanbase if we tried new things. We have another pop style single coming out before Christmas, but we’re also going to get back to that more organic sound, which is where our passion is.”

“We’ve kind of blended all the genres together we like to listen to with ‘Lights Out’. We love stuff like Florence and the Machine, Lorde, Lyra, Sigrid, Robyn… those were the inspirations, but we stay true to the harmonies and the drama that comes from our musical theatre background.”

Live, though, that dramatic side is toned down. “We do like to put on a show,” they say. “We like the idea that our songs flow into each other organically, and have these kinds of moments of high drama and others that are more acoustic and chilled out.”

“We’re going to look into talking a bit at shows about what the songs are and who we are as sisters, and why CARRON is the way it is,” they say. “There’s a lot of stories behind the songs. When we’re writing, this kind of writing is almost shy and ambiguous, and could be interpreted a lot of different ways. We’ve got more confident in our lyrics, I think, and things have slowly become less like that.”

“Some of the newer stuff is a bit more out there, we’ve let go and been truthful about what we’re trying to say. The biggest thing with CARRON was always that we would write about what we know, what we feel and what we experience. It allows us to connect with other people.”

“We feel your songs are a diary, essentially. You give out to people, you tell them about your feelings, and so on. It’s nice at times, though, that we know what each line means and we can look at each other and smile and know what we’re talking about, that one moment that’s just between us.”

“It’s a connection you don’t have with anyone else in the world, you look at each other and you know what’s coming next. It’s amazing.”

Katie Kim: “whatever’s next, a shift is needed”

Katie Kim’s new album, ‘Hour Of The Ox’, comes with a headline grabbing proviso in the small print: it’ll be the last under the name in which she’s forged her career. ‘Hour of the Ox’ is an intense and moody record, a limited edition of 500 copies that’ll come into the public realm via an intense vinyl pressing.

It’s taken a long time to come together, and the release is a landmark for an Irish slow-builder who has now reached her sixth studio record, leaving behind a trail of beautiful, pulsating work.

“Hour of the Ox is my forthcoming album; an album of songs and pieces I assembled mostly alone over a period of five years and then brought to my long time friend, bandmate and collaborator John ‘Spud’ Murphy,” Kim explains. “We then worked together closely, reshaping and reimagining a lot of what was initially written.”

“I feel my sound has evolved organically. It evolved while my curiosity evolved. It evolved musically as we introduced percussion and synthesised, layered forms were built. It’s difficult to describe how you evolve musically as it happens naturally and not intentionally.” 

“I do always feel a bit drained creatively after making an album as it involves a lot of work, a lot of listening, a lot of listening to myself! And when it’s over, the last thing I feel like is listening to the sound of my own voice. This record took seven years, due to two years of Covid and lockdowns.”

Kim feels the need, after this, to move on from her own name as the headline under which she releases her records, but finds it hard to define why. “It’s quite a personal and difficult thing to give reason to,” she says. “Also I never say never. I’ve been writing and performing as Katie Kim for nearly 15 years and I’m not abandoning her.” 

“I just feel whatever is next, a shift is needed. I’m not saying goodbye at all. I don’t think I would be able to function generally in life if I didn’t have writing or recording to turn to. I will always be writing in some capacity or another.”

Part of the last few years for Kim has been centred around a short stint in New York, one that was meant to be much longer, but was cut short by the decision to head home when the pandemic hit. 

“It was short lived,” she says. “I had a two year visa and only got to live there for five months, so it was good while it lasted. I had a great studio setup, I was getting to know people, before the pandemic happened and sent me home.” 

“But I do believe things are what they are. No point being regretful or down about it. I had a good time while I was there and have been back since.”

There’s been plenty of chance to re-engage with the Irish scene since her return, too.

“I’m excited to make videos with friends, visuals, art in any form” she says of her return. “Lockdown was quite a beautiful time for me creatively as I have to work a day job to make ends meet, so lockdown gave me freedom to focus solely on the creative.” 

“I lived in the Irish countryside, walked my grandad’s dog in the woods everyday, listened to Donal Dineen’s podcast and fell in love with music again.”

The Magnetic Fields: “I have to have a theme for each record”

The Magnetic Fields frontman – or in some senses, only man, given he is in full control of the outfit’s music – Stephin Merritt is something of an enigma. Having written records that are casually short and records that are extensively long, he has a distinct tone of voice, an unusual style, and a massive, cult fanbase.

In the middle of lockdown, though, Merritt almost gave up the concept of writing music entirely. While he’s back now, including an extensive 2022 tour, he’s still struggling to put metaphorical pen to paper when it comes to what is normally prolific songwriting. 

“I’m not finishing any songs, but I’m able to perform. I have the environment back, and I’m trying to keep to my routine. Nobody knows how it works,” he says. “Traditionally I’d put in the hard work and get rewarded for it. Now I put in the hard work and nothing happens.”

“I have thousands of song fragments. Once I learn how to stitch things together again, there will be songs. I like to have a theme for each record,” he explains. “I like to react against the previous record, so all the songs on ‘50 Song Memoir’, for example, were of a certain range or duration because they had to fit into this 50 song grid where they all had some kind of equality to each other. I think they were all between 3 and 4 minutes long.”

“Reacting to that, in ‘Quickies’, all the songs are really short. I haven’t quite figured out what to do next. But it needs to be as different and new as possible.”

“The whole point of ‘69 Love Songs’”, Merritt says, reflecting on his most iconic album, “was to establish a calling card, and I’m happy that I did that.” Like his most famous record of a quarter of a century ago, much of what The Magnetic Fields do is largely outside of time, place, and obvious influence.

“Everywhere I’ve lived, I listened to a wide selection of music, but I have a hearing disorder in one ear that prevents me from going to rock concerts,” Merritt says.

“That means that the live music I’ve seen tends to be very quiet. I also perform that way. When I was a 14 year old I was what I’d now consider a very good guitarist. I was able to play everything Yes would play, for example, though of course not with as wide a variety of tone and approach.”

“Then I went to Phys Ed and discovered a game that savages play called Dodgeball, a game that I felt was intentionally designed for bullies to break the fingers of guitarists. I broke my left pinky, and it’s never quite worked as well since. I’m also double jointed. So my fingers don’t perform exactly as I’d want them to. That prevented me from being a great guitarist as an adult.”

“My main instrument is the ukelele, which doesn’t really need the pinky, so I’m not as disabled on it as I am on the guitar. I’m comfortable with it.”

Merritt famously has never loved playing live, and that hasn’t changed. “Maybe in an ideal world, I’d be making records that were editions of only 10 or 20 copies, with phenomenally beautiful packaging, in a brocade sleeve with gold leafing on the label. And with candy, artisanal candy to have once and never forget,” he says.

“I guess Stockhausen wanted to have something similar, very expensive and very low volume record sales. He wanted a kind of record that you’d only be able to play once. I would rather have a record you can play an unlimited number of times. Just hardly any of them.”