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Ailbhe Reddy: “I choose to put myself out there”

Every so often, an album comes along that’s dripping with beautiful personal stories and perspectives, and captures hearts. Ailbhe Reddy was a regular on the Dublin music scene, but not a star member, when she released her debut album ‘Personal History’ last year.

A slow-builder of a record, it evokes emotional takes on her own life to tell stories, and captures something of what it is to be young and slightly vulnerable and facing into the world. Nominated for the Choice Music Prize last week, Reddy missed out on the win, but will have gathered plenty more love for her delicate performance for the event, highlighting some of the album’s finest moments. There’s no question she’ll be emerging from the current crisis, ultimately, performing shows to much larger audiences than when it all started.

“It was my first album obviously, so I suppose I don’t have a frame of reference,” Reddy says looking back at her debut record. “Releasing during a pandemic was tricky. I had the album finished in September 2019, so the world I released it into was very different to the one I envisioned.” 

“We spent the first few months of lockdown having deals taken off the table and tours cancelled, so by the time I released Personal History I was just excited to get it out into the world. It was just before another major lockdown so I was lucky enough to be able to go for dinner and celebrate a bit!”

“I really loved all the messages of support I received from people and hearing about how people connected to the music in different ways. I’ve always said that you can put out the most personal song in the world, but once other people hear it they project their experiences onto it and it becomes a bit less yours everytime you play it.” 

“I have definitely tweaked a few lyrics to hold things back,” she says of the more personal side of her music. “Not for myself, I don’t really mind because I choose to put myself out there.  But I would definitely take out anything that identifies someone else too clearly, as other people don’t choose to be part of someone else’s songs, so that always seems a bit unfair!”

Ålesund: “our common ground as a band is the cinematic, epic, soundscape vibe.”

As a Bristol-based four-piece with a Scandinavian-style name, Ålesund evoke the soundscapes that seem to inspire them, with the kind of ethereal, spaced-out, scenic type of alt-pop that’s been made famous by the likes of Sigur Ros.

The relative newcomers were making waves when covid hit, touring across Europe and establishing themselves as one to watch in a style of music dominated by soulful melodies and clever delicacy. New singles ‘Lightning’ and forthcoming EP ‘A Thread In The Dark’ are the product, to a degree, of being forced to slow down.

“Lightning is based on that feeling you have before making a big life changing decision, or someone you are close with making that decision and in turn impacting your own life,” vocalist Alba Torriset explains. “It’s about having the courage to take a plunge and trusting in your choices. The video is inspired by a hero of mine, Eadweard Muybridge and his Studies In Motion. His work is essentially the birth of the moving image and I find it beautiful. Using that as inspiration, the rest of the video quickly formed around it. It was a real joy to make.”

“I would like to say the EP is hopeful and uplifting. Even the songs that are slower in tempo are rich in instrumentation and have a warmth about them.”

“I’m lucky in the fact that the band are all amazing producers and engineers so I’ve never had to think about that myself, until Corona hit and I had no way to record or demo up my ideas,” Torriset continues. “The band was amazing though and facetimed me through learning how to use Logic and it’s actually been one of my proudest achievements in lock down!” 

“Only having myself at the start of the demoing process meant I layered up my ideas with lots of backing vocals and percussive clapping, wooden spoon banging and anything else I had to hand. It weirdly turned out to be a brilliant experiment that we rolled with. So I’d say it very much informed the making of this EP.”

Sam Wickens: “My music is always a face to face meeting with some sort of demon I’ve had rummaging around in my head”

Sam Wickens by Nathan Magee

Sam Wickens new EP ‘Watson’ was never meant to be. The Bangor man’s new record was originally something deeply personal, never intended to see the light of day. Now, it’s out in the world, and the way Wickens has poured his heart out is the strength of it. Having won comparisons to the likes of Jeff Buckley and Death Cab For Cutie, Wicken’s heart works best when it’s on his sleeve.

“The EP started as part of a passion project,” Wickens explains. “I began writing and recording a few songs to get some therapeutic release from them. I was in a terrible place and needed to try and work out thoughts and problems I was having at the time.”

“At the start of 2020 I was in such a better place and returned to these songs and had an overwhelming feeling that I had to share these stories and experiences, we finished recording the songs and they just created a body of music that was so tightly knitted together.”

Single ‘Murky Waters’ is a particularly poignant one for Wickens, in that it sees him bare his soul with total transparency. “My music is always a face to face meeting with some sort of demon I’ve had rummaging around in my head. I find that the entire process is incredibly helpful towards coming to terms with what the song was about, especially through the video process as it becomes a lot more in depth to the visual scenes and that can stem a lot of thoughts towards the original mindset of when I was writing the song and it was quite raw.”

““Murky Waters is the realisation that I was raised and put through terrible circumstances. Constantly feeling alone through every obstacle that was placed in front of me. Traumatic events seemed to follow me no matter where I ran, I started to believe that I was some sort of gatekeeper, that my purpose was to absorb the terrible things so others didn’t need too.”

“I love the visual side of things, I have released a music video for ‘Strange.24’ and one for ‘Murky Waters’ and that has been an incredible experience to be a part of. I love tattoos and have many but I only get writing tattooed on me, my girlfriend is a Tattoo Artist so I see a lot of the work that goes into drawing and designing which is incredible to witness! I find Mixed Martial Arts is a creative output as well, You get to be creative in the way of what Fighting style to use, when to mix it up, how to be unpredictable and follow a rhythm then change it.”

Brídín: “I’ve learned very quickly not to take the little things for granted”

SLIGO NATIVE Brídín is the product of generations of music. Born into a trad-loving family, the harpist engaged with more modern sides of music once she got to studying at UCC. Now finds herself in the relatively unusual role of a modern harpist, producing a sound that would be unrecognisable to many trad fans, utilising modern studio and stage techniques to play with her sound.

“When I was studying music at UCC, I learned a lot about all different genres of music,” she says. “That’s where my mind was musically opened. I went on to do a masters in performance at UCC after and that’s when I started writing my contemporary pieces, with my loop pedal and effect pedals. I’m not trying to be ‘contemporary harp’, I just write what I like to hear, and it turns out to be contemporary. I’m so glad people are liking it so far.”

“I’m a fourth generation Irish traditional musician, so the mainstream of music I was surrounded by was Irish traditional music, choral and pop,” she explains.

“I was surrounded by music growing up luckily, because of my amazingly musical mother, Aileen. Mam would take us around playing music in different places and we’d teach ourselves tunes at home. I still love and play lots of traditional Irish music.”

On the ‘Ocean Of Stars’ EP, Brídín does dip lightly into trad elements, but quickly reveals far more substantive modern leanings. A track entitled ‘The Salmon’s Tale’ is closest to her childhood roots.

“I think my music has its own life, with little flavours of different genres.”

Beans On Toast: “We should be allowed to change our opinion, otherwise, what’s the point?”

It is, arguably, the era of the singer-songwriter. Not in the sense of the Ireland of 15 or 20 years ago, where every other act was a lad with a guitar, of course. More in the sense that those who do produce playful folk with wit and panache have never had a more natural audience: they can perform near enough as normal, while few other musicians are hampered at home by more complex technology.

Beans On Toast, a London-based singer songwriter who delivers sharp-edged folk-pop from the heart, is one such man. The solo act is a popular leftfield festival mainstay, and has spent the last few months performing in his back room most weekends, with only his girlfriend – a regular in his tracks – in attendance. 

‘Beans’ as he’s lovingly referred to by his fans, is political without being a know-it-all, smartly observational, and incredibly consistent: an album a year for a decade, on his birthday in early December (or two, this year, one themed around corona, and one more regular).

“It felt like an ending was in sight when I wrote the album,” he laughs as he talks of his corona record. “I’m not just going to keep doing that. I do write about life, though I really hope it won’t just be the one thing to write about for the rest of my days.”

“I miss touring and festivals, but I feel more for 19 year old kids who’d be going to their first festival. I’ve been to hundreds, so I can’t really complain. I don’t physically miss gigs, I’ve started getting aches and pain. I’ve never had any kind of routine before, so that’s been nice. The change in the mental dynamic of my life has been really big, actually.”

“The biggest worry might be how quickly you can adapt. It only took a year to get into things feeling normal, not being close to people. Later, they’ll be a phase before everyone goes mad, I think, with socially distanced shows and stuff. But I hope humanity comes out of this with a new lust for life. Connection to nature feels like it matters like never before, and that connection with each other. Surely we’ll learn some lessons.”

Django Django: “It became slightly more political, with a little bit of angst holding things together”

Indie icons Django Django’s latest album ‘Glowing In The Dark’ is loaded with musical undertones, it’s meaning portrayed subtly in the descriptions of its title. Due on February 12, it’s crammed with nuance and clever constructions, typical of the indie act’s broad approach to music and thought-through twists.

Django Django have always rebelled against the musical norm. Their music seems to morph from record to record, with limited discernable themes, and plenty of exploration. They get vocally frustrated with delays between writing and releasing records, and they’re not afraid to express their disappointment with how some of their early work turned out.

In fact, their leftfield approach to music is something that gains and loses fans in a hurry, but keeps them utterly compelling.

“We don’t really take time off, we finish a piece and we’re onto the next one,” Derry frontman Vincent Neff says when I call him in his studio. “We finished the album just before lockdown. It was scheduled to come out before summer, but we pushed it back to ‘when things had calmed down’. So much for that.” 

“We wrote ‘Glowing In The Dark’ in 2019, and Trump was riding high on a litany of destruction, Brexit was a disaster, it had potentially looked like we might be able to remain. Then the hardliner elements got in. It looked quite bleak, I suppose. By the end I just couldn’t listen to it anymore, so I went into my imagination for how things could be, how they could be better.”

“It became slightly more political, with a little bit of angst holding things together, I guess. It’s quite nice to hear tracks like ‘Blackbird’ [by the Beatles], tracks that are quite covert. They have this collision of a mood in the lyrics and a brightness in the music. That kind of grabs us in a lot of music we listen to. That’s always been a kind of underlying sense of the music, and it’s really come to the fore in this one.”

Richey McCourt: “I hope to continue to write and produce music that connects with people”

Graduating from a role as a session and stage guitarist to an acclaimed songwriter, Richey McCourt’s career in music has gone ‘behind the scenes’, but the route the Blanchardstown musician has been able to take, in part from his own home, has opened plenty of impressive doors.

There’s a distinct difference between performing music and writing it for someone else, and McCourt’s journey has been very much about collaboration, working with record labels and high-profile acts to develop songs, style and direction.

“I started as many do, in guitar bands, and not always in a songwriter role,” he tells us. “During this time I was studying sound engineering, which is where my love of production started. After a few failed bands, and a realisation that it wasn’t the career path for me, I worked in Ireland as a session player with artists when they came in for promo – artists like Olly Murs, Shane Filan, Rebecca Ferguson and more. Throughout this time, I really focused on honing my craft as a songwriter. And that really started to come to fruition about five or six years ago.”

There have been plenty of steps on that journey, but some stand out, not least collaborating with some of the UK’s biggest acts.

“Landing a song on a UK Number 1 album, Will Young’s ‘85% Proof’ [Richey was involved in writing the track ‘I Don’t Need A Lover’], helped open a lot of doors. Working with major labels such as SYCO, RCA, Island Records – you’re dealing with really talented A&R teams, and it’s often a collaborative experience,” he says. 

“I always approach working with these teams and artists in the most professional manner possible. I am a songwriter and a producer and my role is to bring their creative vision to life. The majority of artists I’ve worked with are so immensely talented, and each have their own ideas and vision, so there needs to be flexibility and an openness to all of it. I think good communication and trust is key.”

Lauryn Gaffney Aims for Broadway… and K-Pop.

Award winning musical theatre composer Lauryn Gaffney, from right here in Dublin, made her off-Broadway debut last year with ‘Big Shot’, a show voted the Best Musical by Irish Broadway World.

Suffering an obvious dearth of opportunity amid the recent virus outbreaks, this year Gaffney turned her hand to making a short audio-only musical story, a 15-minute piece about two strangers trapped in an elevator and sharing their emotive stories. It’s an impressively colourful and engaging piece of music and storytelling for one that was effectively a time-filler, but Gaffney’s aims, it quickly become clear, are vast. In particular, she’d like to work for Disney, or write for stars of the South Korean K-pop scene. But that’s for the future.

“My dream was to have my first musical Off-Broadway and sometimes I still can’t believe that it happened,” Gaffney says, looking back at ‘Big Shot’. “There were many, many people, a lot of hours and a splash of luck that helped get the show to where it has been.”

“The show was performed initially in DCU in 2015. Then I funded the next production in the O’Reilly Theatre. We then took part in the San Diego Fringe Festival (winning the ‘Spirit of Fringe’ award and also performing in Tijuana, Mexico), and the Camden Fringe Festival, with some Irish performances in between, and then finally Off-Broadway. This was over the span of a few years. My incredible collaborators and I have spent many all-nighters calling the U.S., laughing at rewrites and crying over tech issues, but it was all worth it to be smiling, arm-in-arm at the bows.”

Corona, of course, required a change, and Gaffney adapted quickly. “I think now is the time for Musical Theatre to pivot until live shows come back. I’ve always wanted to write an audio-only musical where you don’t need to see the story to understand it,” she says.

“I want listeners to visualise the characters themselves. This musical links to isolation as there are two women trapped in an elevator with no choice but to hear one another’s story. I wanted it to be funny but have some serious elements too. It’s been described as ‘an emotional rollercoaster in under 15 minutes’ by Broadway World.”