Razorlight: “we were just a little squat band, being in the charts was laughable”

Razorlight are back. After a long period as what could – though perhaps we’re being cruel – be described as the Johnny Borrell show, the London-meets-Sweden glory days line up returned in 2021. Early this year, the band launched a first new single since their 2018 record ‘Olympus Sleeping’, an album which in itself came after a stop-start hiatus, and a break from recording that dated back to 2008’s ‘Slipway Fires’.

Their fast-rising band history is something to behold, and features a heap of odd moments: Borrell’s own label mocking his solo record for selling only a few hundred copies in its first week; NME nominating Razorlight as ‘best new band’ and then ‘worst band’ only two years apart; a plucky little garage rock outfit at the heart of it all, producing hit after melodic hit.

New single ‘Call Me Junior’ feels like the Razorlight of old. It’s steeped in nostalgia, not least in the video, which features clips from an old tour of the US, but also in its sound: the new track has that jagged, melodic urgency and pace-changing guitar that always defined the backdrop to Borrell’s distinctive vocal. In fact, it could only be Razorlight.

The band for now are learning to be together again. Drummer Andy Burrows – later a member of We Are Scientists – had a fall out with Borrell and they didn’t speak for many years. Their reunion has been filmed for a documentary, its release date yet to be determined. When we speak to Bjorn Ågren, the founding guitarist, who returned from his own work with Lucy Rose to rejoin Razorlight in 2019, he insists the band are now in the best place they’ve been for some time. This is Razorlight’s essence: a return to their purest form.

There’s a new album on the way, though it will be preceded by a series of singles and, most likely, that documentary. Above all, though, Razorlight are enjoying being a band again, and their expectations are not all that high. Primarily, they’re just hoping to enjoy making music, and in hindsight, the whole experience of those flying early years, when ‘Up All Night’ and its self-titled follow up went, between them, nine times platinum, are all in the past.

“It seems to me that it was a very, very strange decade,” Ågren laughs. “It was indie chart music, which is a complete oxymoron. When indie turned up in the 80s, it was music for weird kids up in their bedrooms with no mates. It was before the internet so you can’t find other weirdos on Instagram or whatever. You used to think you were alone, and then you heard this song, and this guy called Robert Smith understood exactly what you felt.”

“It was never meant for the charts, that was the whole thing. It was meant to say to the popular kids, ‘this is not for you, you can have the radio’. And then that ended up being the kind of music that everyone listens to. The most popular game became guitar hero. It was this weird thing where being in a band was the coolest thing in all of culture. It was a world before Me Too, and before mental health really being a thing, especially for men.”

M(h)aol: “the goal is to make people who have felt alienated or isolated feel like it’s okay”

M(h)aol – a feminist post-punk band pronounced ‘male’ – are a poignant hit of noise that amounts to one of the most interesting emerging bands of 2022. Deeply political, the five-piece, who manage to make things work despite being based in five different locations across the UK and Ireland, have been going since way back in 2014, but only recently started releasing a notable volume of music and gaining a significant public profile.

The brilliantly abrasive band launched debut EP ‘Gender Studies’ last year, and have an album on the way. They’re also touring, including a date at Whelan’s in early August. Vocalist Róisín Nic Ghearailt is a key part of the sound: a fiercely political vocalist who, in a live setting, is backed by some incredible use of the loud/ quiet dynamic that adds to the abrupt messaging. We catch up with Nic Gheatailt just as the band absorbs their growing stature.

“My goal with the live shows is to make people who have felt alienated or isolated feel like it’s okay,” Nic Ghearailt says. “I think what a lot of people miss [in our music] is that I always try to end the songs with something positive. My message might be that, yeah, you shout at me in the street, but that’s okay because I like this version of myself.”

“With ‘Asking For It’, the whole song is about victim blaming and rape culture and stuff like that, then at the end of the song I say ‘I’m not going to let this define my whole life’. I think because people are hearing a bit of shouting, they’re missing that every single song has a strong theme of hope.”

There certainly is a lot of shouting and aggression in M(h)aol’s music, and it’s wonderfully poignant and punchy. Nic Ghearailt’s lyrics are close to poetry, largely based on personal experience, and a visceral statement to the world. At her most abrupt, in tracks like ‘No One Ever Talks To Us’, she has the power to provoke thought and shock in a single turn of phrase. 

The band have even cultivated a sense of mystery, in particular through a track that’s less than a minute long, called ‘Kinder Bueno’, which is available only on the sold-out vinyl EP, and as such is difficult to hear, and has gathered a bit of a cult reputation around its live performances.

T’Pau: “It’s a little bit of fairy dust, a little bit of timing”

T’Pau were a huge deal in the world of 80s pop, with frontwoman Carol Decker and her spectacular vocals always standing out. The distinctive Decker worked with her then partner Ron Rogers, and produced massive singles like ‘China In Your Hand’, and ‘Heart and Soul’.

Still going strong today, Decker is on something of a nostalgia tour, but still writes music, too, despite the focus on live settings. She’s charismatic and easy-going, clearly at ease with her role in music today. In fact, when it comes to the process, she’s nothing short of joyous about it all.

“Maybe I might have been headlining back in the day, being frank,” Decker tells us, laughing about her appearance at Forever Young Festival this weekend. “But overall things are kind of similar, we’re all a little older and wiser. All my peers are still there with me, or most of them, but the chess pieces have moved on the board a little.”

“Some people get hits and some people get a longer career. Maybe it’s about having a faithful following instead of momentary adulation, I don’t know. Creative arts is a crapshoot,” she continues. “If you could make a formula for always having a top five hit, I’m sure we’d all do it, but it’s not possible. It’s a little bit of fairy dust, a little bit of timing, and a little bit of charisma, and it falls into place. You just have to enjoy it when it does.”

Danny G and the Major 7ths: “Recently, I’ve been trying to write songs that say something important”

Neo-soul – a kind of deeply expressive and varied version of traditional soul music – is a growing genre in Ireland and slowly finding both expression and quality, with acts like the poignant and lively Danny G and the Majors 7ths.

Channelling a real variety of music from around the globe, the band already have two full-length records behind them, and have been dubbed “one of the founding fathers of Irish neo-soul”, delivering swing, funk, and an effortless smoothness.

“I’m inspired by anything that grooves, really. Motown, Rn’B from the 2000s, music from Africa, South America,” Danny G tells us. “Lately I’ve been really into Salsa, latin stuff, Venezuelan music from the 70s. But when it comes to neo-soul, D’Angelo is probably my greatest living influence. I’ve been to see him a few times and his shows are funk gospel workouts. It’s like a religious experience.” 

“When I write, I try to sing the melodies to myself first,” he explains, “and if they’re interesting I’ll make some voice notes. I put the chords down afterwards on an acoustic guitar. I find if I do it the other way around, I get bogged down in trying to be too complicated musically. The vocal melody should be the most important thing so that’s the best place to start.”

“Recently, I’ve been trying to write songs that say something important. Not that love songs aren’t important too. But I feel like we’ve reached a point in our civilisation where we need to prioritise the survival of our planet, our species, and music can be an important tool in spreading that message.”

Recently, the band went down a beautiful rabbit hole of classic Irish tracks and funked them up, producing a record of the results.

“That was something close to my heart,” Danny says. “I’d been thinking about making Ceol for the Soul for years. There are so many beautiful Irish songs from all sorts of styles, be it folk, rock, trad. The tracklist sort of chose itself.” 

Will Young: “it’s quite fun to remember how ridiculous it was”

Twenty years after taking X Factor by storm, lecturing Simon Cowell on bullying, and heading off our TV screens as a bona fide superstar, Will Young has found an inner peace that sits well on him.

Embracing nostalgia and ploughing forward all at the same time, he’s seen his fanbase morph, found a calmness around fame, and seen his own taste and his music slowly converge.

“That moment where I had a go at Simon Cowell still stands out as a proud moment, as I stood up not just for myself, but for other people, which was my impetus going into it. I wanted to tell him that he was a bully because I was so appalled watching the rounds on TV, the way people were being treated. I just thought ‘you don’t scare me’. It’s easy to bully from a position of power. I’m still really proud of that.”

“It probably took me six or seven years to process the change, in total,” Young says of his personal circumstances following X Factor. “I’d done two albums, a film, a play, and various tours, and once I started therapy and went on a couple of courses I sort of put work in its place.”

“I didn’t ever really get involved with the fame thing, I was more interested in getting the music right. The days of being followed by paparazzi, I can’t even remember what that was like. It probably was stressful because it was quite scary. I used to ring up the police and say I’m being stalked, because I was. The police would come round and tell the person to go away.”

“My life’s so different now so it feels so alien. It’s quite fun to remember how ridiculous it was. I never really engaged with the magazines and stuff, I wasn’t interested in seeing what I looked like. I remember thinking nobody’s going to tell me something about me that I don’t already know, so why do I need to read it?”

Now that things have moved on, Young is back on the road, and enjoying a glance backwards.

“A huge amount of nostalgia was involved, and I really enjoyed it,” Young says of his recent Greatest Hits album. “It’s really fun to look back on things, I deliberately made it nostalgic as I think people like that.”

“I put the singles on the greatest hits record, really, after 20 years there are more than enough to put on there. A bonus version, which I’m really pleased with, involved digging around in my attic, finding old photos and Polaroids and things that I felt made it worthwhile. The bonus CD has old demos and acoustic versions that I did on a random radio station in Germany or something. Things like that make it really special, and that was really fun to do.”

Megan O’Neill: “walks and nature… that’s where my best ideas come from”

As she releases her second album ‘Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty’, Megan O’Neill is drawing on both the experience of a rural Leinster upbringing, and a different kind of life – periods living and working in Nashville, and London. She’s marked, widely, as a rising star of a gorgeous Irish folk scene.

Her new album, though, is the result of a revision of her sound.

“I wanted to branch into different sounds for a while,” she says, “and pre-covid I’d been probably a little bit scared to do so. I think during covid we all had this time to sit down and think about our lives, and I thought a lot about sonics, and where I want to go. One of the great things about songwriting is once you’ve got the bones of a song you can do a lot with the production, and that changes where it goes and how it’s perceived.”

“For me the bones of the song are still the same, the lyrics and the story are always the most important part. I need to be able to strip the song back and play it on acoustic guitar and piano, and then it goes from there.”

Part of that sound, in this case, comes from coming home.

“I lived in London and Nashville and I kind of convinced myself I was a city girl,” she says, “but the reality is I am definitely not. I like open space, and being able to go for walks and take time in nature, and that’s where my best ideas come,” she explains of her relocation to the heart of rural Ireland to focus on her music.

“Nashville crept into my music for a while, and I suppose it still does in my approach to songwriting, my structure and my lyrics. I grew up obsessed with Americana and folk, country music, and so on. That’s why I wanted to be there in the first place. My style has grown a lot since then.”

“It gave me perspective on where I’m from. I grew up in a really tiny village and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore, and see what the world had to offer, but the more time I spent away, the more I missed being there. Even when I’m away, the minute the plane lands back at Dublin airport I breathe a little easier.”

Adore: “Sometimes, if we’re trying to figure out a song, we’ll play the half finished version and hope we can come up with something on the night”

Galway band Adore, a feisty garage-punk act growing from the ashes of former act GIF, are diving in the deep end this summer with a couple fo single releases that follow from their signing with local label Blowtorch.

Debut single ‘Postcards’, an experimental take inspired by the likes of Breeders and Sleeper, is followed by this month’s new release ‘Stay Free’.

I spoke to Lachlann about the band’s early days…

I understand while releases are fairly new, you’ve been gigging for some time. Can you tell me a bit about how you’ve progressed?

Well we started in the early part of last year and since then we’ve just been gigging as much as we can around the country in different places to new audiences. From that I think you get a good idea of what your sound is, it forces you to play to your strengths and puts you outside your comfort zone. Also you always want something new so it motivates you to write more.

Sometimes if we’re trying to figure out a song we’ll play the half finished version and hope we can come up with something on the night. So in terms of what we’ve learned in the last year I’d say we’ve gained a lot of resilience and we’re a lot more ourselves.

You recently signed to Blowtorch. How has that been?

Richard has been amazing. We couldn’t have asked for a better guy to work with for these two releases. He’s so on the ball, and kind and patient with us. Without him we’d have either nothing recorded or something bad recorded, and I think he maybe knew that and intercepted the possibility. We’re genuinely forever grateful, he’s the man of the match for us.

Can you tell me a bit about what to expect from your album?

Well, the album is but a dream at the minute, but we do have two singles coming out this summer that are being sold on vinyl at the end of the month. From that I’d say you can expect two songs, both in the realm of punk and pop with some garage in there, that the three of us love to pieces. They’re fun to play and they were even more fun to record and see them develop.

Do you find your live experience plays into producing a better record?

I’d say we do, it was the main reason we wanted to record them live. Also recording live is far more fun. Everyone has a better time, even though sometimes it feels like you’ll never get it right and you’ll just be there forever, but trust me it was fun.

If there’s a single song that best represents, you what would it be?

We’ve got a song called Supermum, it’s about not being taught that you can say no. Lara’s lyrics are genius, Naoise’s drums are crazy, I’m having a very hard time keeping up on bass, and it’s over in three minutes. Bish bash bosh back of the net

The Five Best Bands I Saw At Europavox 2023 (Clermont-Ferrand)

I’ve been involved in Europavox for about five year now. It’s a really cool music project that, amongst other things, is specifically designed to take bands that are breaking through in one part of Europe, and promote them in other locations. There are some truly brilliant products of it: Sigrid, Molchat Doma, Just Mustard and Dermot Kennedy have all been involved in the past.

Despite five years of involvement, much of it as the English langauge editor, this weekend was only my second trip to the main event, which takes place annually in Clermont-Ferrand, in the shadow of the volcanoes of the French massif. In fact, because of various staff changes, I was meeting a lot of the team for the first time, despite working with them incredibly regularly. This year involved 38 different acts from 18 different countries around Europe, and a long weekend watching them, including the great (invite only) aside of the recording of the ARTE Sessions, a series of three-track semi-studio recordings for TV that happened alongside the festival (I saw seven acts over the weekend in this environment).

Like in 2018, I’ve decided to put together a short list of what I enjoyed the most, partly because I’ve loved looking back at the old one, but also in the hope it gives them a tiny bit of promo outside of what I’m doing elsewhere. So without further rambling, here are my five favourite acts of the weekend (it might be worth noting that I couldn’t attend on Sunday, and I’ve also deliberately left out the Irish acts as they’d already be well known to most people who will read this, so this is really a favourite acts from Thursday to Saturday that aren’t Irish, which is another way pf saying I decided not to give you a paragraph on Thumper, who I’ve written about extensively before. The broader point, of course, is check out all the below, they’re all great…)

Arny Margret (Iceland)

How much do I like Arny Margret? I’ve a literal list of acts I want to see when they eventually land somewhere in my vaccinity, and alongside a list of 8 or 10 acts that are mostly close to household names, you would, until this show, have found Arny. She’s a young-with-an-old-soul Icelandic singer-songwriter from a tiny town in the Westfjords, performing songs penned over the course of snowed-in winters that pour her heart into poetic turns of phrase.

With a vibe similar to Joni Mitchell at her most poppy and accesible, her sound is incredibly minimalist, made up of a sparsely used acoustic guitar and a note-perfect, soulful vocal. I particularly like the gut-wrenching beauty of album closer ‘Abandoned’, which she rarely plays live but did in Clermont (I won’t lie, I told her I love the track in interview beforehand so I suspect I may have nudged her, but who knows). Singles like ‘They Only Talk About The Weather’ and ‘The World Is Between Us’ both have incredible beauty, found largely in their poetic sentimentality and heartache. Arny Margret is not quite a pop act purely because of the gentle pace of her work, but what she produces is certain to bring her far: it’s simply spellbinding.

SKAAR (Norway)

Despite the name suggesting a metal act, SKAAR are a soaring female-fronted emotional electro pop act who were absolutely superb live, reminscent of latter-day Florence and the Machine with slightly heftier electro elements. She already seems to be on the road to fame, and has a small date at Dublin’s Workman’s Club later this year that I’m definitely keen to check out. I found this euphoric, and it felt like the singer did, too, which is always a bonus. Accessible and charming.