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Swimmers Jackson: “The album has a bit of fatalism and a bit of existentialism”

Having been around the Dublin music scene for years, as a member of indie acts Autumn Owls and Bouts, Niall Jackson’s departure to London to work in news production has coincided with moving into a solo role, and the birth of Swimmers Jackson.

Now two records in, Jackson has found a self-assuredness that comes with experience, and so ploughs his own furrow without too much concern for how he fits into the bigger picture. Album two ‘Now Is All’ is influenced by what’s going on around him, but also by what he finds within.

“The album is about that idea of living in the moment, not knowing what will happen tomorrow, now more than ever,” he says. “It’s got a bit of fatalism, a bit of existentialism about where we’re heading as a society. It’s a positive album, though, hopeful. If the lyrics are a little bit dark sometimes, I try to offset that with upbeat melodies and happy choruses, with summery songs.”

“I work in a 24/7 news station, so it can be a bit suffocating at times,” he laughs. “You can’t really look away, and you end up getting caught up in it all.”

“I’m at a good point now where I don’t really worry as much about what people think of me. I know where I fit in the fabric of Ireland’s music scene. It’s a nice kind of ignorant bliss, doing things from afar in London. The London scene is very bitty, and it’s hard to do the required networking. I rely on my Irish knowledge and experience to do more good shows when I come home, really. I’ve no interest in the bad shows anymore.”

“I’d like lots of people to hear my work, of course, and I think they’re good enough to be on the radio, but I’m not sitting at home at night formulating plans to be famous,” he continues. “I think music has gone a bit away from that. Perhaps when you’re a bit younger you’re a bit more hungry, but a lot of people seem to forget they should be writing music for themselves first, and that’s what I’m doing now.”

“Everything on the record is double tracked. A couple of people have said they felt my vocal has got stronger, and that’s because I’m going for it a bit more, I’ve learnt how to use my voice and show a bit more confidence,” Jackson says. “At some stage the voice is going to get worse, so I have to use it while I have it.”

“I have a solid hour now and two albums to choose from for the live show, and I’ve been playing a few of these songs for years,” Jackson says. “I wallowed a bit during the pandemic, but I ended up documenting this weird time, and so everything was written between March 2020 and March 2022. I know what I was doing with that time, at least, even if no one listens.”

Jackson is modest as ever. He has plenty of listeners, and by floating between the London and Dublin music scenes, comes home with something fresh and powerful each time. His determination to write primarily for himself only serves to make his music more powerful. ‘Now Is All’ is, in short, an unusual blend of personal folk and offbeat rock that stands apart for its timelessness.

Ferna: “I can feel like a background character in my own day-to-day life”

Belfast-based artist Ferna (fear-na) – Hannah McPhillimy to her friends – is fresh from winning Northern Irish single of the year for ‘Wasting’, a remarkable achievement for her debut release. The same track will soon take pride of place as track two on ‘Understudy’, an album that aims to build on a slow-growing sense of style and place, fuelled by factors from time in the US, to a need to rebrand.

“It can be a hard thing to measure, but I can safely say that in terms of my emotional state and confidence going forward it was huge,” McPhillimy says of the prize win. “‘Wasting’ was the first official single I put out under Ferna, and I really had nothing to go on in terms of how the new music was going to be received, so to get that kind of external affirmation from the get-go was a massive psychological boost, which is really precious, let me tell you. It also does give you a nice way in with industry people when making an approach or pitching something, so I will most likely be going on about it for the rest of my days!”

“Writing the album was much more meandering,” she continues. “The process ballooned from a month-long project into something that took years! Partly, this was because it was my first time working in a hands-on way with a producer, and it took us a while to work out our process. Partly, it was the first time I had strayed out of the acoustic realm, so we also had to hone in on what sound ‘palette’ I wanted to incorporate.” 

“In the end, we landed on a soundworld where every electronic element had an organic quality to it, and most live sounds were digitally altered in some way, so the listener is never quite sure what sound belongs to what world. We also worked out a system for the production where I would bring a batch of songs in, then we would strip them back to their core components – lyrics, melody, chords – and then work on filling out the arrangement together, playing pretty much every part ourselves. “

The result is subtle and textured, a work with obvious undertones of attention to detail, and deep elements of storytelling, both personal and more broad.

“Most of the songs are autobiographical (‘Open Up’, ‘New City’, ‘River’, ‘Go Quietly’, ‘Lights Out’), as I can often feel like a background character – if that doesn’t sound too sad! – in my own day to day life if I’m not careful! ‘Watchman’ and ‘Morning After’ are a step removed from that. They are still about scenarios in my life, but I wrote them from the perspective of fictional characters. In the first instance, the song is literally from the perspective of a watchman protecting a city, and in the second it’s a man feeling he has no say in the future of his relationship. It helped to have that level of separation, to help me voice some very painful feelings, of say depression, and dissociation.”

“‘Wasting’ is inspired by the protagonist of the novel Milkman. I concede that she is the opposite of a background character, but to her community she is not a player, and she has no influence over the events that are unfolding in her life.” 

“Finally, both ‘Walk On’ and ‘Bleed’ were written about the life of Coretta Scott-King (activist, author and wife of MLK). When I was in America, I was living near Detroit and started learning a bit about the civil rights movement. She is a super interesting person – a musician, way ahead of her time in terms of LGBT rights and Apartheid in Africa, someone who MLK credits with getting him into activism, highly qualified and articulate – but someone we don’t really treat with the same gravitas as her husband. It felt right to include her story here as well.”

Duran Duran: “From day one, we’ve always tried to move forward with our sound”

Duran Duran drummer Roger Taylor would have been a frontman, had it not been for nerves. Instead, he sits behind the drum kit of one of pop’s most enduring bands, treating tour after tour like it’s their very first, as he provides the backing for classics like ‘Rio’, ‘Ordinary World’ and ‘Hungry Like A Wolf’.

“It’s a bit like going on a very long boat journey, you have to change your psyche somehow,” Taylor says of extended tours that see the band thrill their fanbase. “The music business is a really strange business, you’re either at home holding the hoover, or away for months on end, and we have to make that transition. But it’s exciting, it’s been a number of years since we’ve toured the UK and Ireland.”

“We’ll be playing a real mix,” he says of the shows. “We like to deliver the classic hits that people know and love, but also mix in some more contemporary songs. The great thing about the ‘Future Past’ record is that the songs really mix in well with the earlier stuff. It was about recapturing some of that earlier sound and bringing it into the now, which has really helped the transition from studio to the live show.”

Taylor can’t help chuckling when I mention the revival of Kate Bush and Top Gun – the apparent return of the 80s, again. “When we reunited in 2003, the first thing we were told was that there’s an 80s revival,” he laughs, “so it’s been a long one. It keeps bouncing back, probably because it was such an exciting decade for music, fashion, and visually stunning, too. We went a little bit grey, for me, in the 90s. We harp back to that period because it was a no-holds barred period, and we loved to remind people of that.”

“I knew that I wanted to be a musician, and Birmingham taught me everything I needed to know,” Taylor says looking back. “I was quite shy growing up, and I never had that frontman cockiness that you need. I get to hide a little bit at the back. When first sat down at a drum kit, I felt like I had a natural ability. I found I could play a lot of the songs I was listening to in my record collection. It’s the perfect instrument for me.”

“I’m a bit more relaxed and less frantic than perhaps I was early on. Those early Duran Duran songs sound like they were written on speed. We still play them that fast as we like to honour the original recording. ‘Rio’ usually comes right at the end of the set, and we’ve been playing for two hours, and it’s breakneck speed. That’s always a tough one for me.”

For all their experience, the stress never completely leaves. “We all get quite nervous about every tour and every show, as you get to a certain point where you have to honour your previous level of performance. You don’t want to be known for a performance that you did ten years ago, to even six months ago. It’s all about the show tonight, and you have to honour those best performances.”

“From day one, we’ve always tried to move forwards with our sound. The second album is very different from the first record. We’ve never tried to make the same record twice, and we’re still like that today. The next record – and I’m sure we will make another record – will sound very different to ‘Future Past’.”

“I often get asked now how we keep going, how we stay relevant. The answer is we always try to keep making something different. We’re very lucky that all our influences were very different, from Kraftwerk to New York disco to AC/DC. We still draw upon them all.”

Lucy McWilliams: “I’m overlooking the dark times and pushing forward hoping to find that light in them”

Lucy McWilliams’ impact on the Dublin music scene is rapidly growing. With support slots confirmed for major shows such as Two Door Cinema Club’s sold out Iveagh Gardens appearance this summer, and Inhaler’s UK tour, she might still be very much in the ‘early singles’ stage, but the omens are beyond positive, and big names are taking an interest.

Her two biggest singles to date, recent releases ‘Slow Dancing’ and ‘Bumblebees and Blue Skies’ are both deeply personal pieces of pop that shine a light on McWilliam’s positive take on life. The Dubliner, previously known for her well-regarded work with spoken word artist Malaki, is starting to make her own impressions.

“‘Bumblebees and Blue Skies’ is a little insight into my fantasy world,” McWilliams says, “I’m always overlooking the dark times and pushing forward hoping to find that light in them. In the studio the guys joked how I just think love will always be bumblebees and blue skies when in reality that’s not the case – that’s how it came about.”

“‘Slow Dancing’ is also in that fantasy world, but more the world you create with strangers. It’s about yearning to be loved and understood, but too afraid to ever show anyone close to you the real you.” Both tracks, in short, contain huge elements looking at who McWilliams is.

“I find it really hard to write without putting myself in it.,” she continues. “I wish I could make up worlds and characters, but that never comes naturally, every song is a little piece of me. I don’t like or dislike it really, it’s just all I’ve ever known when writing.”

McWilliams career so far has been heavily impacted by stints in both Berlin and London, though she’s left the two cities with vastly different takes on the places with only Berlin really having a lasting impact on her style.

“Berlin was such a mad place and such a new, free environment,” she says. “Starting completely clean and being able to adapt to any personality definitely helped me come out of my shell, and have more confidence in creating which I didn’t have when I was in Dublin.” London, though, McWilliams says sapped her creativity, though she wasn’t quite sure why.

Back in Ireland, the big summer support slots are pending, and will see McWilliams take to stages larger than those she’s frequented to date. That’s not a small thing, especially psychologically. “I get really nervous performing,” she says, “but my band are the best. I guess [I’ll prepare by] rehearsing, and pints. Lots of pints.”

“I’ve enjoyed meeting people and working with new people. There’s so many amazing people I’ve met that I would have never met if I wasn’t doing music. So I’m grateful for my friends and collaborators, they’re the best. I guess all my friends are artists so I just kinda follow and learn from them, but like anything it’s up and down, and self doubt will always creep in.”

There’s an EP in the works, though without a release date just yet, an important step in terms of establishing McWilliams more firmly. For McWilliams, though, for now it’s all about the experience. “Being able to make music with people I love and look up to, it’s really that simple,” she says of her future plans. “If I’m able to do that, something is working!”

LYRA: “after covid, I just said yes to everything”

Cork superstar LYRA – the stage name of Laura McNamara – has made waves in the world of pop in recent years with huge hits like ‘Falling’ and ‘Edge of Seventeen’, tracks that, effectively, explore her own life. The pandemic break proved a chance to perfect this.

“I definitely developed more as an artist. I suppose I felt like I came back stronger, more of a fight and more clear I know what I want to do,” LYRA says of the period. “I wasn’t going to let it go. So I went hell for leather, threw myself into everything, with TV shows, podcasts, time in the studio, bigger live shows. I just said yes to everything.”

That’s starting to shine through. New track ‘You’ has a “dancier feel,” according to LYRA, as it’s “about a night out. It’s about this big break up I went through, one of those times where you’re just thinking will I ever find anyone like that again. And I went through a lot of soulless dates, with no spark. And then I went out on one night out with my girls, and had a bottomless prosecco brunch.”

“I randomly met this guy, and he looked like Drogo. I like to think that I look like Khaleesi (two characters from Game Of Thrones), so it felt like a match made in heaven. It was about that spark coming back. I was sick of writing ‘woe is me’, and so I wrote about something fun, something that will make people want to get up and dance.”

“When I’m on stage, I like to be able to connect with a story I’m telling,” she explains, “so I like them to be true stories, not reading from a script. I think you can tell when people are telling a story. I like to go back into the emotion at that time and take the audience on a journey with me. During some songs, I look angry, others vulnerable, because I’m going back to who I was at that time. For ‘You’, I dance, because that’s where I was at that time. It’s a way for people to get to know me.”

“That, and let’s be honest, it’s a lot easier to write a song about things you know, too. Sometimes people suggest ideas for songs, and if I’ve never experienced those things, I don’t do it. It’s so much easier that way.”

Alongside the music, Lyra’s gathering a reputation for talking about health and wellbeing, in particular on a series of high-profile podcast appearances. Her curation of ‘Rock Against Homelessness’, which takes place in the Olympia Theatre next month, is another example of her outgoing sense of charity.

“Mental health is not great sometimes in this industry,” she says. “You have to take a lot on yourself. I’m lucky to have an amazing team around me, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of a bit of a mind game. I like to take care of myself, and when I get invited to speak about it, I thought, I would like an artist that I aspire to be to talk about this stuff. So I do it. It’s about giving back.”

“I’m a big control freak when it comes to my music. Lyrics and melodies are near enough 100% me. I love doing my own fashion, styling, and being very hands on with my photoshoots, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. I guess that means if I do mess up, I know I gave it everything. Nothing gets handed to you on a silver platter, you have to work for it. I’m going to give it 110%.”

The Young‘Uns: “there’s great tragedy and despair, but also hope”

The Young‘Uns, comically, are no longer young. The folk act from Stockton in County Durham almost stumbled upon their genre of music and its storytelling traditions when they walked into a pub, found an ongoing session, and became regulars. Soon they were participating, too, the youngest of an ageing crowd, hence the name.

Years later, now edging into middle age as multiple winners of BBC 2’s Folk Awards, the trio’s latest album continues their recent theme of modern storytelling. Tales told on their latest record ‘Tiny Notes’ (out next week), see them explore the story of Lyra McKee and her Derry shooting, and Paige Hunter and the notes designed to prevent suicide she has spent years sticking to Sunderland’s Wearmouth Bridge, as well as many more.

“I think folk in England is very much an unknown sort of quantity really,” frontman Sean Cooney explains. “Traditional songs in pubs and folk clubs are an underground thing, or certainly were 20 years ago when we discovered it. It was a revelation. We had no idea that there were songs from the North East of England, or that people sung in a Teesside accent. To hear songs about where we came from was such a life changing thing. It never occurred to us that it could become a career, but it was something we wanted to do, something local and precious.”

“It was a natural progression. For years we tried to preserve the old local songs, and I felt like they taught us so much about love and life and loss, comedy and tragedy. There came a point about six or seven years ago where we consciously started trying not to write songs about the history of the North East of England.”

The result was their modern incarnation, a band that carries heavy folk traditions, but gathers modern stories and retells them, often tragic tales produced with the permission of those they are depicting.

“Now it’s stuff that’s moving me today,” Cooney says. “Within the stories that we tell, there’s great tragedy and despair, but there’s always some hope in there. The title track ‘Tiny Notes’, inspired by Paige Hunter, who saved thirty lives in Sunderland by leaving little hopeful notes on the bridge, it’s full of hope.”

“It’s easy writing songs about the past, because all the people in it are dead, obviously. It’s a strange and beautiful thing to write modern stories. In this album, we’ve got a couple of songs people requested themselves, like a song about Tim Burman, who died in the Lockerbie bombing, was requested by his sister, which gives a lovely personal connection.”

“Others are stories that we’d seen in the news or the media, and when embarking on these kinds of songs, really personal songs, it’s not something we do lightly. ‘Tiny Notes’ took about three years of thinking about it before I decided to have a go at telling this story.” 

“There’s been lots of times where I’ve thought about writing a song and then not, because it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. We take great courage in most of the stories being shared, and used many times, by the people involved. That feels like what folk music always was.”

“We take steps to approach the people concerned, and thankfully they’ve all given their permission to sing it. On one case, with three dads raising suicide awareness, we went and met them one day while they were walking through Cumbria on a mountainside, and performed for them. There’s a longer piece that we’ll release in the next couple of weeks. Those are really special moments.”

Lenii: “The Edge jumped up to fix a guitar strap”

A cork girl going for the big time in LA, Lenii, a starkly infectious pop singer and producer, feels like she’s on the brink of the big time. Her journey started with lockdown, a time she described as “amazing but very strange,” as she sat at home in Cork while early single ‘The Kids Are All Rebels’ went hugely viral on TikTok.

“It was only a bit of a song,” she says of the initial traction. “I had to sit down and write the rest as I felt I had to capitalise. I banged it out, and I’m really glad I did. It made me deal with the idea of having opinions as a public figure. I almost reverse engineered a hit.”

Lenii has lived her life half in Cork and half in LA, and her latest period on the sunny Pacific coast of the US has taken her still further, as she’s gathered connections in the production world and worked with David Guetta, Kenzie – a regular collaborator – and Pixie Lott. Her solo career is just kicking off – in fact, her debut solo show post lockdown was less than two weeks ago – but it’s kicking off with a bang.

“A lot of time passed between ‘The Kids Are All Rebels’ and things actually opening”, she says. “I took a while to get to that place after things had opened up, but my first show was, I think, the best night of my life. It made it real. I met a girl who had been following me since 2020, and got to hug her. My guitarist’s strap broke in the middle of the show, and this guy jumped up to fix it, and it was the Edge, from U2. The next day I met Hozier, and he’d heard all about it. It was the maddest first show I could have hoped for.”

“It’s changed how I think I’ll write my newer music,” she continues. “It was a lot of fun, and I love dancing around on stage having a good time. My set has been more guitar heavy, more of a rock show than I think you’d expect from listening on Spotify, and it’s made me want to lean into that. It’ll change my production, too.”

“Everyone has been so supportive. Before the pandemic I felt very out of touch with the scene at home. When I was at home for the pandemic, I met so many more people in the Irish industry. It was like the veil lifted, and I saw this really cool, tight-knit community. I’m very grateful for it.”

“I started playing violin when I was four,” she continues, “and as a producer I think that’s super helpful. I love playing for people when they come for sessions, and it’s a kind of unique selling point. I play it a bit on my own music, too. It makes it feel alive and real,  and it makes me feel connected to my baby self a bit.”

“I’ve been in LA almost my whole adult life, so I talk about that, about my own experiences. ‘The Kids Are All Rebels’ was entirely about American politics. I was frustrated, honestly. Living here, and not being from here, I think you see it from more of an outsider’s perspective, and some of the things about how the country works were shocking.” 

“I also have American citizenship so I feel like I can say stuff. I’m blunt in my music, with emotions and opinion. I’m not shy, and it’s definitely got me in trouble with a lot of people on the internet. I wouldn’t live here if I didn’t want to. But I’d rather be polarising than mediocre.”

“I think my poor mother wishes I was a bit shyer. It’s not performative, though, I just say how I feel. Some of it’s about having fun, some of it’s about break ups, some of it’s about friendships. And then some is about politics. My newest single is called ‘Good Life’, and that’s just about how crazy and cool the world is. I’m very grateful for how things are at the moment.”

Anamoe Drive: “I can’t really think of a song I’ve released that isn’t in some way influenced by Daniel Johnston”

Best-known as the frontman of riotous rock band Thumper, Oisin Leahy Furlong has recently emerged in a new guise, Anamoe Drive. As, in its essence, the quiet to Thumper’s (extremely) loud, lo-fi debut ‘Breakfast In Bed’ came out in early March, and explores themes of love, from breakup to new sparks.

Written, almost literally, propped up in a bed after the night before, the record is a beautifully delicate and ragged exploration of the singer’s squeezed heart. I too the chance to catch up with to him about the record.

First off, Oisin, congrats on the new project. What has Anamoe Drive enabled you to do that you can’t do in Thumper?

THUMPER began as a solo project of sorts, and morphed into a 6 man democracy over time. It’s been nice to revert back to the process of doing something in a bubble (albeit in collaboration with Rian Trench who helped produce the album).

How will the two acts coexist going forward?

I think when I began to conceive of the project there was a very hard line drawn between them. That distinction probably looked something like THUMPER = Loud / ANAMOE DRIVE = Quiet. Through making the album those perceived differences have fallen away, and have already begun to inform future work.

Can you tell me a little of the story behind ‘Breakfast in Bed’?

I had initially intended to put together a collection of very lo-fi recordings. Songs had started to accumulate and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. I made a rough demo of the song ‘Goodbye & Goodluck’ in my sitting room and a friend asked if he could remix it. He added electronic drums and synths – lots of bells and whistles.

While I didn’t end up using most of what they added to the tune, it did open my eyes to a new context and potential pallet that the songs could sit in. It was around that time I decided that maybe there was an album in this: housing ‘small’ and intimate tunes in a more lush setting, trying to make them feel big and small at the same time.

I understand there are three distinct sections of the record that all deal in different stages of romance. How autobiographical is it all?

It’s entirely autobiographical. A lot of the songs were an exercise in a more literal lyrical style, rather than the more surreal or obtuse mode that I can find myself gravitating towards. It was only once I’d started making the album that I realised it was a breakup record, with most of the songs fitting into the before, during, or after stages of heartbreak.

Do you like the idea of a record that edges into ‘concept’ territory?

When the music industry was in its infancy an album was just a collection of songs. Over time it’s developed into a significant artistic artifact. On that basis I would argue that most albums are concept albums!

The cover is the recreation of an original photo. Is there a story behind the image and its meaning for you? Are the rabbit ears symbolic?

In the original photo I’m sitting upright in bed, half awake, with a cup of coffee and a set of bunny ears on my head. I thought it was hilarious how dazed I looked, and how many times I’d sat in that exact same position. I can’t remember why I was wearing the ears originally, but the rabbit motif stuck. It reminds me of the film GUMMO which in some ways deals with similar themes of disaster and desolation – with humour, absurdity, and melodrama all baked in.

Your love of Daniel Johnston is well known. It feels like this is closer to his sound. Is he a big influence here?

His whole ethos and song-first mentality has always been a huge influence on me. I can’t really think of a song I’ve released that isn’t in some way influenced by Daniel Johnston.

You’ve done a series of live shows as Anamoe Drive now. How are you finding them – are they a more toned down experience than your usual outlet?

I’ve been touring with a five piece supergroup band, and it’s been very fun to watch the songs grow and morph in the hands of musicians much more capable than myself! In some ways it’s just as weird and expansive as THUMPER, but I’m trying to get more confident with the soft landing, as opposed to the huge crescendo.

What are your hopes for the future?

More records and more touring.