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David Keenan: “art can change your life, and create a movement”

David Keenan is your quintessential live performer, so naturally lockdown has been hard on the Louth man, a character who mixes poetry and music in a style somewhat reminiscent of classic troubadours like Bob Dylan, focusing his tracks heavily on building an intense live show.

Like many of us, then, Keenan has spent part of lockdown reminiscing about what used to be. Specifically, he’s been looking back at his live efforts, and tying together years worth of tour films – clips dating back to when he started out promoting his work by sticking posters on city walls – with footage from his Olympia Theatre date earlier this year.

“The inability to express yourself live, and just to have contact with each other, it’s been hard,” Keenan tells me when I ask about how he’s spent his time in recent months. 

“What I’ve made in the film is condensed from three years, from Rob Benson, including open mic lights at the start though to the Olympia Theatre. It’s about the positive impact that music brings to a life, and the musical community in Ireland.”

“It’s also about finding a tribe, self acceptance and realising a dream, which is what the Olympia show was for me. It was finding a band, kicking up some dust around Dublin, and the collective encouragement of my tribe, and facing fear face on.”

“I was on tour in March. All summer was obviously cancelled, but the film bookends the story of this chapter of my life. The passing of Gar Kane, by bandmate, features heavily in the film, and I’m still reeling from that. I think it will help to keep my spirit of live music alive, and the story shows the collective graft from everyone involved. There was no big management company or label or anything, it was just word of mouth. People helped me a lot along the way.”

Nealo: “I think it’s unfair, for a lot of people, the way society is set up”

Nealo’s debut album ‘All The Leaves Are Falling’ is a snapshot of a left-behind side of society, a kind of personalised treatise in music that highlights the difficulties of working-class creatives while exploring his own perspective.

The product of years of work, it’s a step aside from the Dubliner’s usual style as he goes for a more expansive, punchy, expressive record, drawing on his own punk-roots and embedding his protest-message in a record that’s heavily hip-hop leaning.

“It felt different making this, I wanted to make it so that people would look at it and think it’s something different. I wanted to give a feeling for what I was trying to do, and tell my story, who I am and what’s unique to me,” he explains, before going into the way the album relates to his own history.

“It’s a little about that adolescent want for leaving somewhere, and then later coming back. About the hardships, and the people who have left, and who haven’t. There’s tragedy and beauty in that. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it is I’m trying to say, but there’s a message in there.” 

“So it’s about Clonsilla, essentially, which I love now, but when I was kid I felt like there was something big happening somewhere else, and I wasn’t there. I still get that today, sometimes, but I think I have a bit more perspective on it, too. When you’re young, everything seems like the biggest thing in the world.”

The record features a series of interludes that expand on the music, giving witty context. “I was a little worried the Interludes might be a bit long,” Nealo says, “but I put them in and they’ve been really popular. It gives context, a feeling of who I am I guess, and adds to the narrative.”

We Cut Corners: “it’s about the protagonist’s psychological unravelling”

After a break of over a year following the release of latest record IMPOSTERS, We Cut Corners returned to music determined – as they have been in the past – to convert their experiences gathered away from music into art.

New EP ‘Muscle Memory’ is, perhaps, a nod to the way the duo – teachers in their day jobs – continue to function in musical ‘shifts’, returning in productive periods to bounce onto the Choice Music Prize shortlist, or deliver the most vocally beautiful, rapidly-morphing songs that bounce from White Stripes-like rock to delicate, emotional ballads.

‘Muscle memory’, string-man with the Dublin-based band John Duignan explains, is focused very much on the idea of domesticity, psychology, and absence. 

“After the release of IMPOSTORS in 2018, we took about a year away from formal band duties to dwell in the domestic for a bit,” Duignan explains. “As is so often the case, those down-times are the most fertile in terms of writing and it wasn’t long before we were back sharing ideas over email and piecing together the current EP..”

“The title track is a pretty emblematic of the collection,” he continues, “detailing the protagonist’s psychological unravelling in the face of the physical absence of a loved one. Thematically, the songs on the EP are pretty disparate but there was definitely a sense of heightened neurosis that fed into their composition. Too much domestic time perhaps!”

The four-track contains a colourful variety of styles. On the title track, ‘Muscle Memory’, Duignan describes “taking a look at the country’s institutional past and the legacy that is still culturally palpable here. It’s a rally-cry against repression really,” while ‘Mystery Illness’ another stand-out, is “an absolutely full-on, unabashed, bare-faced love song. Having resisted the urge to even use the word love for the first four albums, it seemed reasonable to pen a tune where every line begins with ‘I love you…’.”

August Wells: An Irishman in New York

It’s been half a lifetime since August Wells vocalist Ken Griffin left Ireland behind for a new life in the big apple, yet in many senses his music’s themes still reflect an immigrant tale: songs of hope and loss, false dawns and changing faces.

New record ‘No More Operators’ sees Griffin and musical partner John Rauchenberger, a pianist, build on their emotion-laden earlier records with stark, dark, fragile tones.

“All my songs are derived directly from my life, so maybe the theme [of the record] is simply me and my perspective,” Griffin says. “I am always simply trying to refine my ability as a songwriter. We are always working on a number of songs at the same time, I prefer to have a lot of ideas going, so I don’t get stuck on one idea.” 

“When we have 10 or 12 complete we just record an album. Because we are independent and have our own studio we can do that at any time. For a record, we just pick the songs we feel work cohesively together, and the ones that feel complete.”

“Although all the songs were written before the pandemic,” he continues, “it is strange how applicable a lot of the lyrics are to this moment. I have always used, or at least tried to use humour in my songs, even at the centre of what might be a tragic subject.” 

“We all live with senses of dread, and fear and worry. We all live with dreams and hopes and wonder, but sometimes I feel being overtly positive can actually be very sinister and lead us to naivety and delusion.” 

Josh Gray: “My journeys have been amazing so far, I’m really enjoying being present in the moment”

Josh Gray’s latest single is starkly appropriate, a vibrant lockdown anthem of a cover, borrowed to suit our times.

‘Hold On’ is a 30 year old single that originally knocked Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ off number one in the US charts, and perfectly suited to the mental anguish of the coronavirus and its social impact. Gray, one of a plethora of fast-rising pop acts, is the perfect man to deliver it…

I must admit I wasn’t familiar with ‘Hold On’ as an original (maybe I’ve been living under a rock!). What made you pick it out as a cover right now?

Hey! It’s quite funny, a lot of people have been thinking that I wrote it, it’s actually an original song by Wilson Phillips! The reason I picked it out as a cover was down to the message it tries to push out, that times are hard but it will get better. I think I speak for everyone when I say we’ve all been struggling a little in the current climate. We all have our own worries that are relevant to ourselves, so I want to try my best to send a positive message to as many as I could!

How has your personal journey been over the last few months?

It’s been quite mixed, I’ve been thriving in my writing and production!  I’m excited to share! On the other hand it’s been tough at times when it’s uncertain as to when we can get back out gigging again, but I think it’s been a great opportunity to do those ‘on the long finger’ things.

Is there any way to make our current circumstances into an opportunity as a musician?

Yes, it’s a great time to be creative and grow your skills as a musician! I never thought I’d be so far into production as I am so soon, but I guess thats what 10 hour days making music does to you.

Do you find the strange social circumstances we find ourselves in impact on your music?

I won’t lie, and say it hasn’t. I think it’s been tough on everyone. It’s pushed things out a bit but, it’s hard not to be out performing and engaging with people. Online outlets are great but for me you can’t beat the real physical thing. I’ve been very lucky though with all of the support with Spotify streams and some really touching messages of support from people I really hope to meet one day at a live show or just in general. With the current situation, I’ve learned to try and adapt and I think I’m still trying to day by day!

Soda Blonde: “It’s been a little less daunting and unknown this time around”

Soda Blonde, pic: Ste Murray

Born from the remnants of acclaimed harmonising pop-rockers Little Green Cars, Soda Blonde’s early career was unusual: not so much a slog in front of tiny crowds, but instant recognition of their ability, and no little local hype based on their previous work, resulting in mid-sized gigs from day one.

The four-piece are led by the vocally distinctive Faye O’Rourke, and produce spacey yet vibrant alt pop that nods to their past, but is less abstract and more engaged in social commentary. New single ‘Love Me World’, for example, is a personal ode to looking for acceptance and love through darker moments.

“I don’t think anything should feel easy,” O’Rourke says of the rebranded return. “It’s been a little less daunting and unknown this time around but it was a huge deal to pick up and start again. We have more control over the visual aspects of this project. That was always something that we wanted to harness more in the past, and with this new beginning we’ve been able to have a lot of fun with that.”

“The single is about acknowledging the darker moments of wanting to be loved by everyone,” she continues. “The idea of bending to fit within the zeitgeist in the pursuit of acceptance and love. Being judged certainly lies within that sentiment, but I think it’s more interesting to focus on what and why that happens.”

“I think what ‘fake’ we wish to portray says a lot about who we are and what we desire. I do think people have to be brave today to expose what they really think.”

Like most acts, Soda Blonde have struggled a touch with the lock down, though O’Rourke says there have been good and bad days. Virtual gigs – something the band did in support of the single – are not something they particularly crave. “The audience is 99% of the experience of a live show,” she says.

Dagny: an album a decade in the making.

Norwegian pop act Dagny – a singer who made her way in the world through singles and shining gems of short pop-songs – has finally, a decade in, got around to an album. It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that now that the moment for a longer record has arrived, the popular singles-merchant, who has nearly half a billion streams to her name, has found her way to producing something that firmly breaks her own mold, going gloriously popcorn to long-form and conceptual.

‘Strangers/ Lovers’ is being released in two seperate parts across 2020 – a benefit of the less format-focused nature of albums in a post hard-copy world – and documents the stages of a relationship, from meeting someone new to the intimacy and closeness of being together, and the strange alienation that comes if it falls apart again.

“This album is a two part album, and it’s because of the way I assessed the songs,” Dagny explains. “I had well over 250 of them to look at when I started a couple of years back. I landed on my twelve favourites. I played all of the songs to my guitarist, and he said it sounds like there were two sides to the story. That kind of split things up, and created a conceptual album, giving me the idea for what it would be. I was worried it would be seen as two EPs and not an album, actually, but I’m happy I did it like that.”

With the songs written over a long period of time, they were the ones that happened to fit together, augmented by some extras written late in the day to hold things together. “I knew what the concept I would draw out was at the end,” Dagny says, “which made it easier to tap into the emotions in the studio and draw it out. Before I was so much about singles, and for this I was thinking about the whole, the story, and how all the tracks fit together. That’s been a really exciting part of the album.”

“There were songs I’d love to have on the album but they don’t really fit. It’s about the whole idea of meeting someone that’s a stranger to you, then you fast forward a year and you’re the closest people and they’re the person you always go to. And then when a break up happens you go from lovers to strangers, that transition, that disconnect and not being able to call them anymore… I find that whole scenario kind of brutal and yet inspiring.”

“There are so many emotions I wish I could put in the album,” she continues. “I could have written three albums on the same kind of subject, but I don’t know if people would go for that. It does feel like the music world is more a free game now, people can just do what suits them, and I like that.”

Sophie Doyle-Ryder: “I find writing a form of therapy and always write about real situations”

Sophie Doyle-Ryder, photo by Ray Keogh

Malahide singer-songwriter Sophie Doyle-Ryder is only four singles old, but already drawing comparisons with the likes of Anne-Marie and Ariane Grande, having reached number 9 on the Irish radio play charts with her third single ‘Too Much’.

Her music is vibrant, atmospheric pop, and she’s well-placed to make an impact, having teamed up with Grammy award-winning producer Billy Farrell for latest single ‘Little Black Book’. I caught up with Sophie to see how her lockdown is going…

I guess given you were releasing music at the age of just 17, it’s clear that music is a huge part of your life. How have you developed your sound?

I feel I developed my sound by trial and error really. It’s all about trying new things and finding what suits you well! It may take a long time or a short time it all just depends! I find writing a form of therapy and always write about real situations; either mine or my friends’ experience.

Can you tell me a little about ‘Little Black Book’ and how it came together?

Little Black Book is a women’s empowerment song, it is one of my favourites by far! It’s all about being good on your own and almost using people to your advantage. Knowing that you have boys, but only if you want them! It’s so fun and cheeky, I love it.

How many tracks do you have behind the scenes and ready to go – are there EPs or albums on the horizon, for example?

I will release a few more singles before then. I have a good few tracks ready to go! However, it might be another while until an ep and album comes. I want to make it really special.

Have you reflected on your music and changed anything during lockdown?

I feel like I’ve found my sound more than ever during covid lockdowns! I’ve really enjoyed the creative process of music even more because I just feel so established as an artist.