First Published May 2020
A ‘PHOENIX’ RISING
Anytime a band picks up a Best Album award it’s a cause for celebration and worthy of recognition. All the more so, however, when that award could have been won by a countless number of acts from all over the world, and – even more noteworthy – in a genre where musicianship and songwriting are right at the heart of everything. For midlands outfit JIGJAM that dream became a reality last week with the news that their fourth album, PHOENIX, had been crowned BEST AMERICANA Album at the prestigious Independent Music Awards.
JigJam are multi-instrumentalists JAMIE McKEOGH, DAITHÍ MELIA, and CATHAL GUINAN, all from Tullamore, and Tipp man GAVIN STRAPPE. I had the pleasure of catching up with frontman Jamie over the weekend, and there was really only one place for our chat to begin…the brilliant news about PHOENIX being honoured by the Independent Music Awards…
“Yeah, it’s a global thing, so it is, the Independent Music Awards, so it basically covers every band that’s not currently signed to a record label. And that’s quite a common thing these days, with lots of bands choosing to do things themselves. So there was lots of bands nominated and we were quite shocked that we actually won it! We’re still kind of pinching ourselves, but I mean it’s great, we’re delighted with ourselves.”
So when did Jamie and the lads actually get the news about their victory?
“We just got it there…last Tuesday, I think. And we were only told about a month ago that we’d been nominated. Even that was kind of a surprise at the time. A lot of these things with awards are usually done by January or February, so we really weren’t expecting anything, then we got the news that we were nominated. We pretty much forgot about it then until Tuesday when we were told that we’d won it! [laughs]. So it was all very surprising, but we’re over the moon, obviously. The email came to our manager and he put the news up on the band’s WhatsApp group then, because we’re all on our own at the minute.”
The Awards ceremony were due to take place in New York, which would have seen our four troubadours heading back over state-side to perform and pick up their prize. But those plans, unfortunately, have been put on hold, at least for now…
“Yeah, it was supposed to be on in the middle of June sometime, so there would have been the ceremony and maybe a song. And that would have been all very exciting, but we picked the wrong year to win it! [laughs]. They’re going to do something on social media I think instead, so we’ll see how that goes.”
Phoenix, the album that’s been adding new fans to the JigJam nation from all across the globe, is the fourth long-player from the foursome, following on from Oh Boy, Hello World, and Live In Tullamore. For those who may not have the album in their collections just yet, and who may want to get their hands on it now, I asked Jamie for an idea of what Phoenix is all about…
“The category we won is Best Americana album, so I suppose that’s a good term to describe the genre we fall into. We’re all Irish players, we have a background in Irish traditional music, and we’ve started to play bluegrass music lately, in the last couple of years. So we’ve mixed these ideas together to create what is our sound. It’s very folksy from the get-go when you listen to it first, acoustic…banjo, guitars, double-bass, fiddle…There’s thirteen tracks on the album, and they’re mainly original songs, too. We’ve written a good bit about our hometown, Tullamore, and our personal experiences so far in life, and of our life on the road as a band. We try to cover as many feelings and topics as we can throughout the album, and tell somewhat of a story while we’re at it. That’s really what Phoenix is. We also have a song on there from Dominic Madden, a local singer/songwriter from Tullamore, a song of his called ‘Tullamore, I Miss You’, that’s always very popular with people who go to our gigs.”
For the most part, Jamie acts as the spokesman for the band, and for the most part, seems to be fairly calm and cool most of the time. However…there’s a clip online of one of the band’s recent performances in Dallas which shows Jamie hopping around the stage kinda like he’s possessed! So I asked Jamie if he has a different persona onstage, or if I’d always just called it wrong, and he’s normally a bit on the mad side anyway?!
“[Laughs] Well I don’t know, I don’t know if I’m mad all the time! [laughs]. But yeah, on-stage is always something different, the minute you get up there you just go for it and get engrossed in the music. Like, our gigs are all very hi-energy and upbeat, so it’s hard really to not let yourself go. Now, sometimes I do… I go fairly loo-lah alright! [laughs].”
When everything with Covid 19 started to get serious, JigJam were actually on tour in the United States. Unfortunately, however, as the situation around the world began to develop rapidly, those circumstances caused that tour to be cut short. I asked Jamie to take us back to the moment when they realised the decision they were going to have to make…
“We went to the States around the start of February, and we had done three weeks of the tour. We were in Oklahoma city and we knew what was happening at home, that Covid 19 was starting to creep into life. And obviously we knew about China, and we knew that Italy was getting bad at the time too. But to be honest, by looking at the news in the States while we were there it wasn’t even a thought that it was going to affect us. Everything was very much on the down-low over there, there was nobody making a fuss or anything. The first time it hit home was when our manager called and said there was gigs being cancelled all around the world. But I still thought, o.k, grand, it’s still not going to affect us. We had all these gigs down in the southern states at the time and nobody seemed really worried, so I was thinking well they’re not going to cancel our gigs. That night then, funnily enough, we went to our first ever N.B.A. game in Oklahoma city, and just before the ball was to be thrown in, the game was postponed. And nobody knew what it was all about. Then we heard on the news that one of the players had got Coronavirus. So then we were thinking well maybe it’s starting to creep in down here as well. But the people there, they were completely not worried at all. They thought it was all a bit of a joke, or whatever. Two or three days later, our next gig was in Tulsa, and there was an announcement by Trump that he was going to close the boarders or something like that. So that’s when we started to panic a bit and were thinking we may get out of here and go home! And literally within the twenty-four hours that followed, our whole tour was cancelled, and we were on a plane from Chicago to home.”
Was there ever a serious fear or a moment when it looked like the lads might get stranded in America?
“There was a fear for a couple of hours. But in fairness, we’re very lucky in that our manager was at home pulling the strings, changing flights and everything. Only for him. It was all done so fast. Because we were on stage when it was all going on. He rang when we came off stage after doing a festival set and he said, o.k, I’ve got the flights changed. Literally only when that day came did we panic a bit. Before that, we were thinking sure we’ll ride it out or something [laughs]. But on that particular day, yeah, we were thinking we may get out of here, and luckily enough we did.”
Lots of people on social media these days are talking about how they’re using this time to re-evaluate their lives, reflect on who they are and want to become, and how, when this is all over, they’ll never take certain things for granted ever again. As a musician, and from a career point of view, I wondered if Jamie had been having any thoughts along these lines?
“I think from touring so much over the last few years, that we just got so accustomed to it, ya know. So the one thing that we have been saying to each other lately is that we will appreciate it all the more when we are back out there [on tour] again. When we’d go over to America first, we were like kids, we were dazzled by everything [laughs]. It was brilliant. And it’s not that we aren’t anymore, it’s just that we’ve been on the road over there for four years. It’s just that we’re so used to it. But now, when it’s taken away from you so quickly…! Even the smallest things, even just doing a soundcheck, we’d get such a thrill out of doing that now! So we definitely won’t take things for granted when we do go back. The time off is not ideal, but as a musician, there’s loads of things that you can do. You’re always looking for time to write music, which is very hard to do when you’re on the road. So writing, and perfecting your musicianship, are all things that you can be working on over the next couple of months. So there are positives. You just have to look at it that way.”
Whenever I think of JigJam, my first thought tends to be along the lines of ‘I wonder where they are now?’, simply because they spend so much time on the road, probably more than any other band of their kind that I know. How, I wondered, have they come to develop such a global reach while still relatively early in their careers?
“Well America has definitely been very good to us. I think the style of music that we play helps to build a following over there. Not only with the Irish side of things, but the fact that we have this bluegrass thing goin’ on as well. Bluegrass is massive in the States, it’s their traditional music. And the fact that the country is so big. I mean, a bluegrass festival, some of them can be like Electric Picnic over here. And some of the folk festivals – sometimes we call them the hippie fests, where people go for the whole weekend and just relax and chill out – they’re great. And sometimes those types of festivals can cover so many different types of bands that are nearly borderline mainstream, like Mumford and Sons…there’s a huge, huge market over there that we’re just starting to tap into. Having bluegrass as part of what we do, having the Irish music in our set, and then being from Ireland as well, we’re automatically unique and that helps us when you’re looking to be booked.”
The great John Prine is among those the world has sadly lost to Covid 19, but thankfully the eternal grace of his musical gift will remain with us forever. For Jamie, as with so many other singers, songwriters, and music fans all over the world, the Sam Stone singer was an inspirational figure. I asked Jamie when he first become aware of Prine…
“The first time I listened to John Prine was around six years ago. It was after we recorded the first album. The fella that recorded it for us, a fella called Tony O’ Flaherty from Kerry, he said by the style of our music he thought we must listen to John Prine. Now I had kind of heard of him before, but I didn’t know much about him, but I started listening to him then. He was such a master of songwriting, such a way with words, poetic in every line. We were lucky enough to see him in the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville a couple of years back, at an awards ceremony, the Americana Music Awards. We were there in the audience. He got a Lifetime Achievement award that night, and sang as well. It was very special to be there.”
If you’ve been running out of ways to get your music-fix of late, or are looking for something a little bit different, then Jamie and the lads in JigJam have just the ticket for you. They’ve been running through an A-Z of artists and songs that they love, giving a different performance ‘live’ on their Facebook page every evening. I asked Jamie if the order of things was pretty random, or was it more a case of someone saying, for example, ‘I have this great song by Johnny Cash that I want to do, so the letter C is mine!’
“We said we wouldn’t start this until we had some sort of plan, so I wrote out the alphabet in our WhatsApp group and it was kind of first-come, first-served. Shout what ya have! I didn’t really mind taking whatever letters, to be honest, because when you’re the singer in the band you’re expected to be able to rummage up anything and everything! [laughs]. So we just figured out what lads were comfortable with doing. Now since that, lads have changed their minds a few times. There’s been texts flying around going, ‘Can I swap ya a T for a U?’, or whatever! [laughs]. But we’re getting through it. It’s good craic, it keeps you on your toes!”
~ JigJam’s U.K. tour has been rescheduled for October – all going well – with another Irish tour also planned for around the same time, again, ‘weather-permitting’, as the saying goes! You can follow the band on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay up to date with all their latest news. The band’s award-winning album, Phoenix, is available from their official website, www.jigjam.ie