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Ash Olsen: “I had what I needed to just isolate myself and work super hard since I was a kid”

Norway isn’t a hotbed of rap. Nor are farms. Mind you, you could have said the same about Ireland, even our cities, not long ago, and now we have the likes of Denise Chaila and JYellowL lighting up the international airwaves. Ash Olsen doesn’t fit stereotypes. The prodigious rural Norwegian talent is so committed to delivering her craft in the form she wanted, she learnt English from scratch just to get started.

“Growing up I had a lot of time on my hands,” Olsen says, looking back at her rural life. “Just being there for most of my time really gave me the whole world to fantasise about. So the biggest difference to me [next to more urban hip-hop acts] I think is that I had no distractions whatsoever and was fortunate enough to have what I needed to just isolate myself and work super hard, since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted to be successful and be the best I can be at what I do. I do think that growing up where I did influenced a lot of my perspective in life, which now translates through my music.”

Not that the space she had made Olsen’s journey to one of the most highly regarded up and coming hip-hop acts in Europe a simple one, particularly with regards to language.

“I really just studied my ass off for a long time, and I used to write down every word I didn’t understand, to then translate it and learn it properly,” she says of her experience learning English as part of her craft. “Still to this day I’m not confident with my writing, but I´ve learned to just go with my gut and what feels natural to me, and also not care that much about what other people think. I’m not really that big of a fan of [writing in] Norwegian so I’m probably not gonna merge the two. I’ve always just been more attracted to the English way of doing it.”

The work that Olsen’s completed so far has emerged in the form of a short, abrasive all-caps EP entitled ‘ASHY’, a ‘not suitable for work’ railing against life, one that’s explicit about her sexuality, delves into social problems and unveils her as an artist with quite a unique style.

“I’ve actually been sitting on a lot of the songs on the project for a while, but it took forever to pick out the songs for this first EP,” She says. “The promotion of it has been tough in the way that I can’t go out and perform that much. I’m super excited for this covid stuff to be over!”

“I’m sitting on a lot of music and I can’t wait to put out my album. I had so much fun making it and there´s different vibes to it that I can’t wait to share with ya´ll.”

Olsen has distinct plans about what her future might hold, ones that fit her style and will likely see her become a mainstay on hip-hop leaning radio as she develops what’s already widely expected to be a shining career, spreading far outside of her homeland.

“My goal for the upbeat songs is definitely for them to just be fun, and make people feel super confident when they listen. But I do have a lot of other sides to my music which I’m very excited to share with you soon!”

“I have my first festival summer in 2022, playing a lot of festivals nationally and internationally, so that’s gonna be fun! It’s all pretty crazy, I just try to not to think about it too much, and just keep doing my thing. If not, imma go insane, cause it’s all pretty scary in a way.”

Fia Moon: “I bare my soul completely”

Fia Moon’s brand of pop is a beautiful blend: deeply personal and emotional in nature, her songwriting grabs elements of the pop of the 60s, focusing heavily on distinctive and breathtaking vocals, but not afraid to tell sometimes heartbreaking stories.

As an Irish artist based in London, Moon’s slow-rolling her early work, releasing singles infrequently and away from the hubbub that the music industry often demands. She’s made a conscious choice not to chase the “right now” that the scene can evoke, and instead to build a catalogue as she works towards an album when the time is right. It’s worked: just a few songs in, spread over years, Moon has a reputation for meticulous and beautiful quality.

“Like all my music, the single is quite personal,” Moon says of latest release ‘By Now’. “I wrote it with DAY_S the very first time we recorded a session, which I thought was unusual, we’d never met before, and we came out with this really personal song. We have a close friendship now from that day, and it means a lot.”

“It’s my first ‘all Irish’ collaboration, including the production, photos and video, so that’s been really nice,” she says. “I try not to think too much about the personal stuff. I think if I did I’d probably be terrified. It’s baring your soul completely, and the nature of my music means that I find it difficult to write in any other way. It doesn’t feel real, or natural. I try to take myself out of the equation once it’s written, and detach from it in order to release it. That doesn’t take away from the emotion. I couldn’t listen to one song, called ‘Falling For You’, without crying.”

Of course, loading that much personal emotion into music can be a huge positive, too. “I hope I can connect with people who’ve gone through the same thing through the music,” Moon says. “I’d like to build that, I hope people can find joy, solace and meaning in it all. Most of ‘By Now’ is one take, from a demo I’d recorded on my phone, except for a couple of lines in the chorus that I changed in the final production. Everything else is the first take, and that was an important part of maintaining the rawness and emotion of the song, which is about finding out my ex had a new girlfriend. I was surprised to find that it stung the way it did.”

“I can’t overthink these things,” she continues. “The more I overthink the music, the less the emotion works. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s best to let it be, to go with your first shot.”

Moon goes on to talk about the dichotomy of music and attempts to succeed in it. “There’s that strange balance of trying to get discovered on social media, but also remembering that the heart of it all is art,” she says. “Most of my songs have come out during the pandemic, and that’s been a bizarre time. It’s been challenging but it’s kept me motivated and given me something to look forward to during these times. There are certain limits, of course, but you can make connections, and when things do come back around, it’ll be that much more sweet.”

As for the future? “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a perfect album, but I want to put something out that communicates what I feel like at that time. I’m writing all the time, working with different people and figuring out who I want to do a record with. I want to have some level of consistency across it, especially with production and mixing and so on. The songs I’ve released are relatively different, so I’m just gathering and assessing as I go, until I feel like it’s time.”

My Twisted Heart: “‘Heart Leak’ is about those unwanted emotions we try to suppress”

Hong Kong born, Cork-based artist Po Ki Ching is an amalgamation of the music of his past; both an exploration, and a soulful outpouring of his constituent parts. Currently studying at UCC, Ching performs as ‘My Twisted Heart’ part of Cork’s Outsider collective, in a style that fuses emo rock and quirky pop styles.

“The music scene in Hong Kong is pretty much pop oriented, where most tunes consist of melancholy/hopeless romantic themes,” he says. “I grew up consuming lots of “sad-love songs” which has had a huge influence on my lyrics and the type of music I make. As for my time in Ireland, I have gone to different gigs and shows and come across music from so many different genres like Electronic, Hip-Hop and Jazz etc. This has broadened my horizon and allows me to experiment with different styles.”

Part of that has been in collaboration, such as in new single ‘Heartbreaker’, where another local artist laid down the beats that Ching works on. “The beat for ‘Heartbreaker’, which is composed by Fantom, is the absolute soul of the track,” he says. “I felt so excited when I came across this amazing beat. The beat is so lively and energetic, which also gives me an anime theme song vibe, it just clicks with me right away. The lyrics for ‘Heartbreaker’ are very simplistic, as I didn’t want to overshadow the beat with too much of my vocals.”

The emotional side expands into My Twisted Heart’s forthcoming EP, entitled ‘Heart Leak’. “The concept of ‘Heart Leak’ is about these unwanted emotions we try to suppress deep down, but eventually it’s simply too much for us to keep bottled up,” he says. “The sadness, the fear, the uncertainties slowly leaking out, making us more and more vulnerable. ‘Heart Leak’ has songs about leaving someone or something behind, fear of uncertainty, and the fear of letting go. Ultimately, the project is about turning pain into beautiful songs.”

Wunderhorse: “I hope to avoid being trapped in a style”

Jacob Slater, frontman of powerful new indie-rock band Wunderhorse, has form. A few years ago, as the vocalist in garage rock band The Dead Pretties, Slater was briefly the talk of the London indie scene, his band releasing just a handful of singles but garnering a massive cult following over the course of a few months. That band burnt out and called it a day before true fame hit.

Slater’s return as Wunderhorse has been helped no little by Dublin legends Fontaines DC, who have been bringing the laid back, Cornwall-based surfer dude and his band around with them on their sell out tours. As Wunderhorse, Slater is still building a series of guitar-heavy but emotionally-led tracks, in between a life which he spends heavily on his other passion, riding waves.

In fact, when we catch up with him, he’s sat in a cafe in Cornwall, as his own home is a surf hang out without a reliable internet connection. “There’s crossover between surf culture and music,” he says. “A lot of people down here play music, either professionally or for fun. I guess both are considered more left field pursuits, so it makes sense.”

As for those early days with Dead Pretties: “I was playing music for very different reasons, Slater explains. “It was all about making it big, going as crazy on stage as possible, big songs. By the time I turned 20 I was quite burnt out, to be honest. As well as the punky kind of stuff I’d always listened to softer stuff, too. More varied classics. When that band finished, I wanted my next band to be more varied, not to make me feel so trapped in a style.”

My Pilot: “the perversity and commercial suicide of releasing a seven-and-a-half minute song with a really weird middle bit quite appealed to me”

Neill Dougan’s My Pilot have, over the years, been both a solo project and a band, a deeply personal vehicle that rarely appear live, but have gained ample kudos for Dougan’s inventive and sometimes leftfield songwriting. It’s been a long, long road between his earlier EPs – the most recent release was launched in 2015 – and a return with the album ‘Team Dangerous’, part of an ambitious project that could expand into a trio of records.

In this deeply personal interview Neill – who I used to work alongside at Alternatiev Ulster, though I’m not sure we ever met – talks about the themes behind his music, the family barriers that have delayed its production, and why he’s donating a portion of his profits to charity…

Let’s go right back to the start – tell me about the roots of My Pilot, and what you set out to do?

There was no big plan, really. I had been playing guitar since my early teens and once I got to a certain level of proficiency I found myself being way more interested in making up my own songs than learning other people’s songs. I’d also always harboured a secret hankering to be in a band but (bizarrely, looking back on it) I was always faintly embarrassed to admit to it.

That’s probably something to do with the environment I grew up in, which was a small town where I always felt creative endeavours were viewed as vaguely suspect in some way. Anyway, I was living in Dublin and at some point I just realised that there was no point being behind the door about it, and there was no point sitting on all these songs and doing nothing with them. Like I had written literally hundreds of songs at that point, though most of them were pretty bad. So I just decided to go for it.

I was also quite lucky timing-wise in a way, because the whole home recording boom was taking off around this time which made recording a lot more accessible to rank amateurs such as myself. My brother Connor was also a big inspiration as he got right in at the start of home recording and was making music that I was blown away by from the word go (he records under the names Defcon, AI
Messiah and Deathbed Convert and is on Touch Sensitive Records).

So I started recording songs, and had no more grand a plan than just to get some songs out on CD (people still bought CDs back then) and see what happened. I didn’t sell many but enough people seemed to like what I was doing to give me sufficient encouragement to try and make it a proper band.

How does today’s My Pilot compare to the solo version of all those years ago?

It’s pretty much the same insofar as the recordings are all me. In some ways I really want to move away from that and record as a band but in other ways it’s just easier to record on my own as I can work to my own schedule and essentially do what I like. But there’s a downside to doing all the recording yourself as well, as it’s a kind of isolated, hermetic experience and although collaborating creatively with other people isn’t something that really comes naturally to me (I’m kind of awkward about it) I have realised over the years that when it’s right it’s really rewarding and fulfilling.

The obvious difference is that once it became a proper band we were able to actually play live, which I’ve always had mixed feelings about (I’m not a natural performer) but again when it comes together properly is a pretty incredible feeling. The typical live set features songs that, oddly enough, aren’t on the album, and which are essentially band co-writes, borne out of riffs and tunes that we came up with from improvising together in the practice room. Because those are songs we wrote collectively, I want to record them collectively.

I’d also like to think that, although I don’t really consider myself a “producer” in any meaningful sense (like, if someone else asked me to produce their music I’d probably have to refuse as the way I work is embarrassingly basic and idiosyncratic), the new recordings are much better produced than the early stuff. They almost sound professional.

I understand the album’s been on the backburner for quite some time. What should we expect from it?

Yeah it’s taken a long time, much longer than I would have liked. I alluded to this in the press release that I put out when the new single came out when I said that some real life stuff happened that kind of prevented me from properly focusing on music for a while. I’ve been humming and hawing about how much I should say about this because there are other people involved who have a right to privacy and to not have me blabbing about their lives.

But I talked to my wife about it and ultimately decided that I could maybe, in my own small way, try to be an advocate for the person and the issues involved. In fact, my wife told me it was my job to talk about it. So, to be specific, my youngest son (I have two boys) is autistic and has some considerable additional needs. For example he’s completely non-verbal (or pre-verbal I believe is the preferred term) and when he’s going through a bad patch my family’s life is essentially put into crisis mode, with all hands to the pump to help him through it. And even the ordinary, day-to-day challenges of raising an autistic child can be significant. And I love him to bits, needless to say, and he’s great in many ways, but any parent of an autistic child will tell you that it’s not without its challenges and moments of heartache.

And I would also say that in terms of my own mental and emotional state I’ve spent a long time over the last few years struggling with trying to come to terms with the situation I found myself in, because everyone who has children has certain hopes and expectations for their kids and when you have a child with additional needs you find yourself having to recalibrate those, in some cases quite significantly.

So that is essentially the reason why it has taken me so long to get new music out. And on that note, I’ve decided that I’m going to donate 10% of any vinyl and cassette sales of the album to a charity called My Canine Companion, which has been of great help to us.

Sorry, that didn’t really answer your question but I wanted to mention it as I have been wrestling for a while now with how much to say about that if I was asked about it. To actually answer the question, I think there are some really poppy, catchy moments on the new album and also some weird glitchy psychedelic moments. There’s properly polished stuff and some scratchy, lo-fi moments. Some of it is quiet and folky and some is pretty noisy. Basically a bit of everything I like.

Garrett Laurie: “Chords sounds like colours to me”

Delving into areas ranging from queer identity to mental health, Garrett Laurie‘s latest EP ‘Can I Play Too, Or Is It Just For Boys’ is the follow up to ‘Barbies with Betty Finn’, released back in 2020. Recorded using Voicenotes, it has an unusually raw 80s vibe that manages to be simultaneously introspective and exploratory.

The EP came out in September, and since then I’ve had the chance to chat with Garrett about the stories and themes that he draws together on the EP, and why he chose them. I find him in articulate mode, as he examine his music and how it relates to society more broadly…

First of all, congrats on the new EP. It has some fairly stark themes in it, reflected in the title, of course. Can you tell me a little about these?

I think the title pretty much summarises the themes and sonic direction of the EP. Most of the tracks are layered and full of harmonies, ad libs and doubled vocal parts over instrumentals my co-producer and I
crafted really carefully. I wanted to create a layered cinematic world to echo the sentiment of the EP title- questions about identity and sexuality and how the two are connected…and also the unwritten rules within gender identity that still exist even today.

Are the tracks on the EP generally an exploration of your life experience, or looking more broadly at the experiences of a community?

They’re about both. When writing, I usually begin with my own experience and think about how it relates to queerness and gender or even just general unfairness in the world. I have to consider other people’s experience in my writing or I feel guilty and self indulgent. I like the idea of someone coming across my music and relating in some way – there’s a sense of purpose and all of my favourite artists write in that
way too.

Do you think the arts scene has become more accepting of differing identities in recent years?

I think it is getting better, especially in the past two or three years maybe. I don’t think it is all the way there yet though. I still pick up on that ‘boys club’ mentality in the music scene unless I’m in a creative space specifically targeted toward people in the LGBTQ+ community. There are so many quiet expectations people have when you’re a queer artist; that it’ll be used as a gimmick, or as the signifying trait of your music. There are so many creatives now who defy this though, so I try to focus on that.

Can you tell me where your musical style is drawn from – what are the key things that play into the way you construct melody?

One of my favourite things in music is when a sad melody or riff is included in an uptempo song, where if you slowed and stripped back the song that sadness might seem much more clear. I gravitate toward that
naturally in my music as those are my favourite moments that I’m always conscious of while writing.

Are you consciously looking to great vast cinematic soundscapes?

Sometimes. I think leaning into that too much is tempting though and I often have to pull back as I come to the final few mixes. I usually have abstract cinematic moments and visuals in mind from the very early stages of a new song. Chords sound like colours to me so whatever tone I’m trying to capture, I usually use that as a guide too.

Rory and the Island: “I can see the sunshine having an effect on next year’s writing already”

Rory ­Gallagher , photo by Tom Honan.

Rory Gallagher (who, for reasons that I’d imagine are obvious, doesn’t perform under that name) has had an unuusal career. Originally from Donegal, for whom he wrote the iconic GAA track ‘Jimmy’s Winning Matches’, he built a solo career as ‘Rory and the Island‘, the island being a reference to where he usually played, his own bar in a Spanish island resort.

Rory did, eventually, step away from the island to set up in Scotland, only for Covid to put a wrench in his plans for an Edinburgh live venue. Instead, he’ll shortly be back in Lanzarote doing things the way he used to. First, though, there’s an Irish tour to enjoy, and a celebration of the fact that while it all appeared to be going wrong, Rory made the most of the last few years instead. I caught up with him ahead of the release of the new EP ‘Centre Comes Together’. He plays Opium, Dublin, on December 10, as well as several other Irish gigs in December and January (tickets here).

First of all, last time I was talking to you, you had just had to abandon a venue project in Scotland. How’s the fall out been?

Well, 2020 seems like a long time ago now, i think we are maybe pushing it to the back of our minds as much as possible too! Haha, so I am well over it at this stage. It led me down such a different path with spending more time on my writing and opening my eyes to the world of online music performance . In January 2023 we will be opening a little music bar in PDC, Lanzarote and i will be broadcasting gigs into it live from my living room here in Scotland … so i will never learn!

Did you ever settle back into life in Ireland, musically speaking, and how does your experience over the last few years link in with your move to Lanzarote?

Yes, I have been selling more tickets and performing more than i ever did before as a solo artist, so I cannot complain, I had to re-adjust my mind as I had become so soft… In Lanzarote everywhere seems to be just a 15 minute drive away so i got such a shock to my system in my early 40s having to drive 4 or 7 hours to gigs again. It’s strange that now I quite enjoy it and I get a lot of things sorted in my head when I am just driving.

How did those lockdown online shows help move you forward?

It got my music across to a lot more people, when they were literally a captive audience! The likes of my spotify went from around 500 listeners a month in 2019 to 15k by 2022. I think it also helped me more in the talking/presentation side of the show as those lockdown gigs are kind of like hosting a radio show or something similar at times, lots of requests and shoutouts.

Obviously the world of Spanish island music has been a huge part of what you do over a long period. Do you anticipate a change in your style of music again once your back?

I can see the sunshine definitely having an effect on next year’s writing already, although it really is hard to predict life, I had a breakdown and wrote some of my darkest material in 2010 when i was in Lanzarote. Sunshine really is a state of mind.

Cam Cole: “if you want to stand out in Camden you can’t just be a good musician”

Having spent most of the year living out of a backback, self-confessed ‘hippie nomad’ Cam Cole is dropping on on Dublin for the second time this year before, I sincerely hope, he takes some time off for Christmas. His time on the road, naturally, informs his travel, and with a new album plus a series of EPs on the horizon, the lively rocker feels on the brink of something big.

I spoke to him ahead of his Grand Social show on December 15 (tickets here).

You seem to have had a bit of a mad year on the road. How has it been for you, and will all that travel seep into your music going forward?

Yes mate it was insane, the busiest year I ever had. I have been living on the road and in Trucks/Vans for almost a decade now so that lifestyle has always been in my music to some degree and that won’t change. It’s just who I am. But of course being in the US, Mexico, Canada etc. for the first time and the stuff you see there leaves an impression.

You’ve described yourself as a ‘hippie nomad’. How possible is that lifestyle on the road – I assume touring and travelling are pretty different experiences for you?

It is possible but you need say goodbye to some comfort. You have and learn how to rely on yourself. My lifestyle has always been travelling around, playing shows etc so all this touring comes quite naturally to me. The only difference is that now that the shows get bigger the whole organisation behind it has also grown. I used to just rock up in places and play, now there is a lot more going on behind the scenes with a lot more people involved. But that has always been my dream.

Camden is world famous for its music scene. How has it impacted on you and the way that you perform?

I guess if you want to stand out in Camden you can’t just be a good musician, you need to work on your show, how it looks, how it captures people’s attention-. So it made think about that side of it and up my game there.