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.”

DOGPOND: “It’s a little musical journey of different styles and influences”

Born out of the ashes of cult Irish band The Hot Sprockets, a band that always felt like they absolutely lived their infectious brand of leftfield country folk-pop, Dogpond (stylised DOGPOND) are a welcome return from some of those musicians in a new form.

Still very early in their life, I took the chance to chat to Franky, former vocalist and harmonica player with the Sprockets, on what to expect from an act that are just one single into their lifespan, and the thoughts behind that debut ‘Kilnamanagh Blues’…

First of all, let’s address the obvious. How does DOGPOND link back to Hot Sprockets, in terms of sound, set up, and development?

Well DOGPOND consists of the three original members of the Hot Sprockets: Franky (myself), Tim, and Joe. After the Sprockets called it a day, us three boys continued on jamming as always on a weekly basis. We didn’t really have a plan or know where we were going to go next, but we knew that we wanted to keep playing and writing music together. So, naturally there are elements of the original sounds that exist in DOGPOND’s music.

Both myself and Tim had been writing songs at home that we both then shared in the jamroom, and because we both have our own unique style of songwriting, you can say there are some resemblances in the sound to that of the songs we wrote while in the Sprockets. In terms of developing the songs, it works the same as we always did it, one of us would write a song, share them in the jamroom and then take it from there. After a few months of jamming together we noticed the songs were really starting to take shape, and become its own thing.

The main difference in the set up is we’re now a four piece. In the Sprockets there were two electric guitars, and with DOGPOND there’s only Tim on electric guitar, so that made a big difference to the dynamics in the band. I’ve picked up acoustic guitar now, and write and play some of the songs on that, or else on the organ or mandolin. Joe does what he’s always done and busts out the tastiest of bass lines. We have our new drummer Ste (Ste-Rex), the guitarist from Punch Face Champion, he provides a new dynamic to the outfit. He’s an all round talented mutt and he definitely brings a new flavour to the songs and sound.

Like Hot Sprockets, you seem to have quite a distinctive artistic aesthetic. Does that feel like part of an identity to you?

That’s just who we are I guess. The clothes we wear or how we play is 100% authentic. We’re really just being ourselves and having the craic together. We don’t give it much thought, we’re just doing our thing.

In regards to DOGPOND’s artwork, I (Franky) do all the illustrations myself, and the rest of them give their thoughts on colour and composition etc. The ideas for single covers and gig posters are our own. We did put a lot of thought into how we want that to look. The lads decided early on that I should do all the artwork, so it would all be consistent and recognisable. So in that sense, we have our own distinctive artistic aesthetic that’s exclusive to us. When you see it, you’ll know it’s us, because it is us!

Ruth Mac: “Something about those empty streets stirred up this heavy sense of disconnect that I’d never felt in Dublin before”

Having left behidn her native Galway for Berlin, Ruth Mac has, like many who have departed these shores, found herself reminscing about what she’s left behind. Describing her sounds as ‘slacker rock’, the lyrically inventive sound behind debut album ‘Living Room’ saw Ruth support Hot Chip and tour her homes, new and old.

I spoke to her around the release of her new track ‘Home From Home’, a whistful look back at her former home Dublin, penned from a distance…

So, you step away from Dublin for Berlin and end up writing an ode to Dublin. How did that come about?

Yeah it is kinda funny when you put it like that, though it’s a song that could only have been written from the perspective of someone that has been away a while. At its core, the song describes my evolving relationship with a place that once felt like a home, rather than being solely about the city itself.

I’ve been watching Dublin change for 15 years now, so I can relate to your alienation. What in particular stood out to you when you were writing ‘Home From Home’?

Yes, it was definitely a feeling of alienation that sparked it. It was one particular trip during a lockdown. Most people I knew living in Dublin had scarpered, I think it was something about those empty streets that stirred up this heavy sense of disconnect that I’d never felt in Dublin before. I had been away for about three years at that point, maybe that’s enough time to start feeling like a stranger, not enough for it not to hurt? I was simultaneously thinking about the changes I’d felt on each trip home – probably similar pain points to the ones you have felt – and also coming to terms with the fact that I can’t expect it to stay the same and hold me the way it used to, you know? As much as I’ve been moving on with my life, so too has the city.

How has Berlin infused its way into your music?

Sonically, I actually don’t think the impact has been huge – yet to enter my techno fusion era – but of course my environment influences how I create and who I create with. Berlin introduced me to all my close collaborators who naturally impact my music. Berlin has also presented me with opportunities to explore new perspectives, topics and concepts in my lyrics, from the more obvious themes like home to observations on cultural quirks. Like why do Germans hold flowers upside down when they are carrying a bouquet around?!!? Show those flowers off! I had to write a song about that.

How does performing and writing in Berlin compare to being back home?

I honestly feel quite lucky that I get to do both, as well as be well positioned to play in other parts of Germany/Europe. It’s always special to come back to Ireland and play for the home crowd – the reception is warm and, yes, there’s always a bit more craic with the Irish crowd. Writing in Berlin has been great though. I share a special little studio space with three friends just outside the city. Having a dedicated space to write, demo, record in has been a game changer, and something that would be hard to come by (/afford) in Dublin

Coming back for something like Ireland Music Week feels like a chance to do the ‘industry’ thing a bit. How helpful are those kind of events in terms of getting the word out there?

Yeah, it’s a great opportunity to get the music out there and to start new conversations, as well as connect with other Irish artists. First Music Contact have built Ireland Music Week to be a really great event/opportunity.. and they have really worked hard to do it, fairplay. I had a lot of fun, though the self-inflicted pressure to meet people, pitch yourself, network, get the word out…. is intense! I slept for a week after that.

Leo Sayer: “The legacy that we’ve put down dictates our life.”

English singer-songwriter Leo Sayer is one of those legendary names whose music has had a huge impact, but perhaps sits just short of a household name. We’re not being obtuse: Sayer himself admits his music’s cultural impact hasn’t put his name in lights in quite the way you might expect, and that musical backdrop – Sayer’s plethora of hits include the likes of ‘You Make Me Feel Like Dancing’ and ‘Thunder In My Heart’ – is substantial.

Now in his mid 70s, he still writes as a matter of course, most recently producing what would normally be seen as a musical faux pas, an album of reimagined Beatles tracks called ‘Northern Songs’. It works for him.

“In a way, a lot of it has been survival”, Sayer laughs. “I’d never have expected to last this long. There’s been peaks and troughs of bad management and going in and out of fashion. But if you really believe in what you’re doing and you’ve written some good songs, you’ll see those songs have a life of their own, and you end up supporting that life. You follow the pattern. Who would have thought legacy acts would last this long? The legacy dictates our life.”

“It can be frustrating,” he continues, looking back. “Artists go out of fashion, record companies drop you, and so on. I make my own records now and release them to the record company only when they’re finished, I don’t want them trying to dictate what I do. Often my songs are more popular than me, people often don’t know that it’s me that wrote stuff. But the songs have made my life.”

Sayer is also very ‘of the minute’ in some ways. “In 2005 I had a number one with a remix of ‘Thunder In My Heart’, he explains. “Armand Van Helden has done another mix of my work recently. The dance industry is great for rediscovering stuff. I signed off on it all, it went round all the DJs and on to radio and so on. Dance has this weird world of reinvention, it’s a generational thing, and that’s how it goes.” 

“These things happen when you have a long career. I’m grateful for it happening but I have to say I don’t really understand the chopping up and remaking process. I’m playing with a dance mix of Orchard Road myself, and it does work, which you’d never think it would.”

As for that Beatles reworking process, that’s been a slow one. “I know Paul McCartney and I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it, but I’m nervous about it,” Sayer says. “Ten years ago I was trying to find a way to work with it. It’s the same principle as my album ‘Selfie’, it’s just me and a computer, something I made totally on my own, using my own sense of musicality.”

“I came to the Beatles as a way of working the experiment. It started as four tracks and everyone told me I had to release them, so with nothing much to do during the pandemic, all this free time and my own studio meant I threw myself into it.”

“The record company ended up saying they’d release it against my wishes if I didn’t agree. A different take on the Beatles is a nice idea, I think. It’s bringing them up to date. The Beatles in their former glory are alive again through Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’, which still feels contemporary. It’s been fun, and for 50 years, it was nice to do something that wasn’t predicated on my songs, something out of the box.”

Conor Miley: “there’s a lot of hope, trying to take the lessons from heartbreak”

Formerly of the band ‘We Raise Bears’, Conor Miley‘s debut solo record ‘Thousand Yard Stare’ is a spectacularly personal record, one devoted to an unexpected road to fatherhood and a love of his son. Riddled with emotion, Miley’s album has deep highs and lows, and draws in a collection of his friends in attempting to summarise his feelings and experiences.

Miley himself confesses this might be something of a one time album, a product of circumstance. However those circumstances felt, the album is beautiful. Below, Conor tells me the stories behind it…

First of all, congratulations on Thousand Yard Stare. I understand it’s close to your heart. Can you tell me the story behind the record?

Thank you. The album came directly out of what was happening in my life at the time. My previous band, We Raise Bears, had ended and I was in a new relationship. This ended and I found out I was to be a father a month later. I won’t go into the specifics of what happened out of respect for my son’s mum but it was a very emotional time. I wrote the lyrics and the basic tunes over about a four or five month period. Lockdown then hit. I set up the house I was living in as a recording studio and went about recording and arranging the tunes in painstaking detail.

I moved in with my cousin and finished the job there. It’s an album directly about a breakup with someone you still loved but knew it couldn’t work. It was written at a time when I knew I was to be a father and recorded after he was born.

There’s a lot of hope in it, trying to take the lessons of heartbreak and all the pain that it brings and be appreciative of the result of it – a beautiful boy who has made everything worthwhile.

It must have been particularly difficult to create the record given parental responsibilities. How long has it taken and what were the main challenges?

From start to finish the record took the best part of 3 years. If lockdown hadn’t happened I’m not sure where I would have gotten the time to get it done. My son was a baby and living with his mum a good distance away. I didn’t see him for a couple of months and just recorded to keep me sane. I recorded when I could.

When I took paternity leave from my job as a teacher I hired a cottage near where he was. When I wasn’t spending time with him I just recorded.

The cost of producing an album was another challenge. I got some equipment and did it nearly entirely by myself mainly for this reason, but also the independence that it brings. I then wrote all the string and trumpet parts. The drums and strings were recorded in Monique Studios with Christian Best who does Mick Flannery’s stuff. I recorded the trumpets myself with Paul Kiernan, one of the guys from Booka Brass Band. I regard the parental responsibilities as my only important priority. Everything else is just stuff. Everything – gigs, recording, promotion – is fitted in around that.

Which tracks stand out to you as containing the core message of your music on this album?

There are many facets in the album. ‘Lost Honeybee’ would be the best representation of heartbreak and trying to make sense of it all after a breakup. ‘Thousand Yard Stare’, ‘Getaway’ and ‘In the Undertow’ would be quite introspective and about figuring out things in a time and space of turmoil. ‘Father’s Day’ would be quite an angry reflection on the role and place of single fathers in Ireland. It’s something I could speak at length about but the realization of the reality of the situation and being in the middle of it came out in that song.

At the end of it all there is a hopeful thread that comes out in songs like ‘Dreamer You’, ‘Slowly’, ‘I Return’, ‘From the Ashes’ and ‘Paean’ – that these things that happen to us are lessons and that there is a wealth of love and support out there if we choose to take it.

There are recordings of your son on the album. Did deciding to include those help conclude the message for you?

I wanted him on there in some physical way considering he influenced so much of it. I had the idea for introducing the final song with a conversation between the pair of us – he was 2 at the time. It didn’t really work so I swapped it with two recordings – one a voice mail his mum sent me when he was a baby and the other a recording I made on the sly while we were making lego boats and putting them in a basin.

I finished that song with a distant recording of us talking and me showing him the main piano figure of the tune. I thought it was a perfect way to end the album – an audio recording of us as I sing “It’s a paean to the story of our love” over it. It represented the album perfectly for me. That line was written for his mum and our son is the product of what we had – he is the paean in some metaphorical way!

Someone: “I started writing a story in my head, fuelled by my surroundings”

Someone, a.k.a Tessa Rose Jackson, is both sat in a musical niche, producing superbly atmospheric and personal music, and also one of the more complete and thoughtful musicians you’re likely to come across. In fact, she sits in a very similar toned down realm to one of my bigger obsessions of 2023, Arny Margret.

From the stunning and downbeat ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’, to her beautiful latest offering ‘Owls’, which comes complete with its own unique form of artwork (a kind of vinyl-based animation activated using an app), Someone is nothing if not inventive.

She’s also sensationally good – I’d highly recommend sticking a track or two on whilst reading the below:

Music, art, video… your creative world seems to span a wide spectrum. Do you see all these things as one big connected whole?

I do indeed! When I was a kid, I used to write these wild, outlandish stories and was sure I was going to be a writer when I grew up. Then I fell in love with music and my love for storytelling just got morphed into the whole. I see myself as a professional dreamer, almost. I like imagining myself in make-believe places, making up sounds and situations that don’t exist or are a colourful embellishment of reality. Anything that tickles the imagination is gold for me.

Can you tell me a bit about the mini movie and how it came to be part of Tribeca?

Another person I know who is a professional dreamer is my dear friend David Spearing. He is a film director, and we bonded early on in our careers over our obsession with quirky, heartwarming stories. We’ve made so many music videos together by now and we see it as an opportunity to create these ‘mini movies’, as we like to call them. Not your average music videos, but proper little stand-alone narratives, usually totally over-the-top when it comes to design and aesthetics and always with a little nod to sci-fi, or magical realism. For ‘I Guess I’m Changing’, I had the idea for a story about an android stuck in a sterile,
controlled cubicle with no knowledge of the outside world, just doing the same routine, boring tasks day after day after day.

And then one day, she discovers a hint that there may be a bigger world out there, far more colourful and exciting than she’s ever imagined, and that sparks her to start rebelling, breaking the system and ultimately freeing herself. For me, it’s a direct translation of what the song is about: allowing yourself to zoom out sometimes and seeing the patterns you’ve worked yourself into – and finding a way to
break out.

Joseph Bisat Marshall is an incredible set designer who we always work with, and he built this magnificent, clever set that could be transformed into different cubicles for the different stages of our android’s day. Hannah Mason is an incredible dancer and performer, and she just deep dove into the role of the android. We spend three days together fully immersed in making the film, it was a proper little magical bubble. And when it was done, I was so proud of it that I took a leap and submitted it to a bunch of festivals – not really expecting to get into any as there is so much competition out there. But then out of the blue I got a phone call that the film had been selected for Tribeca Film Festival in New York!

It was quite surreal, we were overjoyed and so honoured, of course.

Tell me about the experiences that inspired ‘Owls’

My partner Darius is also a musician, a keyboard player and fellow producer, and we sometimes collaborate on the Someone material. We were on a road trip through America, from New Orleans through Memphis and up to Nashville. There was something so crazy and other-worldly about the experience, there was so, so much music but also the culture and the vibe was so different from what we’re used to in Europe and the UK.

Especially while we were on the road, when we passed through proper rural America, it felt quite dark and ominous at times. Just this feeling that there was so much going on beneath the surface, a lot of things left unsaid, a lot of unknowns. Plus – we were watching the last season of Twin Peaks at the same time, so I think that put me in a certain kind of headspace too.

While we were there, I started writing a story in my head, fuelled by my surroundings… the combination of sweet romance and a lurking, mysterious dark side. In fact, when we got home I wrote a full screenplay for an indie, arthouse musical called ‘Owls’. Perhaps one day we’ll make it.