First Published April 2018
HOW COWGIRLS AND HEROES ARE MADE
At last year’s Cowboys & Heroes Festival in Drumcoura City in Leitrim, Aoife McDonagh was crowned the winner of the festival’s Search For A Country Star competition. Ever since then, we’ve been trying to schedule an interview, but for one reason or another – all on my side, I’m afraid – we had to keep putting it off to another day. But we stayed in regular contact, and last week, at last, we managed to nail down a time and a day, and we ‘made it happen’, as the saying goes! There’s another saying about things being well worth the wait, and in Aoife’s case this is accurate to the nth degree! As soon as I first heard her debut single, Go Down Swingin’, I had a feeling that I was going to enjoy chatting with the Sligo woman. Anybody who could come out with a first song that catchy – and, on today’s Irish country music scene,that unique – could only be pretty cool in real-life, too. As soon as we finally said hello, I knew I was right.
Aoife, as well as being a beautiful, beautiful singer, which is clearly why she won last year’s competition, is one of those people who it’s probably impossible not to ‘click’ with straight away. You meet, you start to chat, and the most lovely and genuine warmth, sense of fun, and down-to-earthness radiates from her personality. I could have chatted to Aoife all day long. And, I could listen to her sing all day long, too. And these are just two of the reasons why Aoife should become a household name as far as Irish country music is concerned in the coming years.
But for right now, it’s all about the present, and Aoife has just released her debut single. Go Down Swingin’, is a wonderfully old-style country-swing tune, and to be honest, I’ve loved it from within about the first few seconds of the first time I heard it. This is my kinda country. I knew it wasn’t an original, but it also wasn’t a song I could honestly recall hearing before, either. So, slightly puzzled as to how this one might have slipped by me, I began by asking Aoife how she came to choose this particular track as her debut single…
“Well, I entered into this competition in the Cowboys & Heroes Festival over in Drumcoura city, there in Leitrim. And it was actually a lad I started singing with, called Liam Gilmartin, who’s from here in Sligo – and he played with Ray Lynam back in the day, and he was a member of Jargon with Charlie McGettigan, too – so it was Liam who said it to me about the competition. Now, I’ve been goin’ to that festival for twenty years, since I was a child, when my father used to bring me over there. But there wasn’t a hope in hell that I was gonna go up on stage and go singin’, not a hope in hell! [laughs]. Cos’ I only started singing last year , so I was way, way, way too shy and too nervous. But anyway, Liam said to me, ‘Look, if you don’t try this, you’ll never know [how it might have went], and if you don’t go and do it, you’ll never have the courage to get up in front of a big crowd like that.’ So he said, ‘Just go over without any expectations, just go for yourself.’ So that’s what I did. I just did it for myself.”
Aoife continued, “You had to enter the competition by sending them in a little video, so we recorded one down in Liam’s kitchen! [laughs]. I sang the song, ‘Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You’, and sent it in, never thinking I’d hear anything from them. But I got picked! And what happened was, there was twelve of us picked and we went up to Drumcoura City and we sang on the stage [at last year’s Cowboys & Heroes festival], and I absolutely loved it! I enjoyed every minute of it. It was the Ryan Turner Band who was backing me, and they’re great. They just made me feel really relaxed and everything. So that was fine, really enjoyed it, and thought to myself it was going to be the first and last time that I’d ever get on a big stage like that, do ya know! [laughs]. So I said I’d better give it socks! [laughs]. So I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I couldn’t believe it when I heard my name coming out through the speakers to come back the next day! So panic stations then, sure I had nothing to wear! [laughs]. I had to get someone to mind the children as well, because I hadn’t sorted that either, because I never thought that I’d need to be there the second day. Anyway, went back over the next day, and I think I relished it even more that time, I really was thanking my lucky stars. I was like, wow, how lucky am I to be getting on this stage a second time! This is it now, enjoy it! So you can imagine my absolute shock when they announced the winner and it was my name. I was actually in conversation with somebody – I’m a bit of a talker, ya know [laughs] – and I was chatting away to someone and when my name came out through the speakers, I didn’t even hear it because I was chatting! And the lady I was talking to, she says, ‘That’s your name, that’s your name! You won it!’ And I thought, won what? I thought she was talking about a raffle or something! [laughs] I was like, what’s goin’ on?! But then the next thing I realised was they were all calling me up on the stage. Still to this day I’m pinching myself asking did that actually happen?! It was a dream come true.”
And part of Aoife’s prize was to actually record a single, and a video to go with it…
“To do a single, ya know…I mean, I’m a mum of three, a stay-at-home mum, I never thought I’d ever be able to do anything like this. I thought it would cost too much money, where would I get the time, and this and that. So I wanted to pick something special. I didn’t want to do something that was done before. I didn’t want to pick a song that people were very familiar with. I wanted something completely fresh, and completely new. So how I actually found the song in the end was, my aunty – and unfortunately she only just passed away a month ago, my poor aunty, she was like my best friend – Carmel, it was her and my father who got me into music, especially the American country, and Carmel was forever buying me cds. You know those five-cd compilations, ‘101 Great Country Songs’ or whatever, with all these songs you’ve never heard of in your life, like! So I was listening to all this music trying to figure out what would I release as the single, and I found this song, ‘Go Down Swingin’. It’s from a band called Wild Roses, an all-female American country band, with five members in it. They formed in 1988, which was the year I was born, so I thought that was a good omen anyway [laughs]. They were only together though for three years, but they released three albums one year after the other, then they broke up. And what I also found out when I started researching them, was that Lisa McHugh’s song, ‘I’m A Little Bit Lonely’, that was there song as well. And, it’s actually from the same album as my song, ‘Go Down Swingin.’ And it was actually Wayne Thorose, over at Ballyrose Studios, when I was recording my single, that informed me of that. Because Lisa had recorded ‘I’m A Little Bit Lonely’ there with him. And when I brought him over my song, Wayne was like, ‘Jesus, I’ve heard that song before.’ And he was trying to think where he heard it, and that’s where it was. So that was kind of interesting!”
When it came to making the final decision on exactly which song it was going to be, though, Aoife called in some experts for their advice….
“So there was two or three songs I had it narrowed down to before I chose that one, and I was playing them all here at home listening to them. But here’s what really made me pick that one. My two little girls here – they’re eight and four, Caoimhe and Cora – they absolutely loved that song! And they kept asking me to put it on, ‘Will ya put on THAT song, Mammy, will ya?!’ And they were singing’ it themselves goin’ out the door to school in the morning. So I thought well that shows it’s catchy, and it’s fun! So I said right, that’s the winner!”
But Aoife did have some concerns (unwarranted, in my opinion) about her choice…
“But I was afraid now, being honest, that the song, because it’s not your typical Irish jive, I was afraid that it wouldn’t go down too well. It is good and catchy, and fast and lively and everything. But I was afraid that it wouldn’t go down well because it’s not a typical Irish jive. But sure look, I love it, the kids love it, I said let’s go and do it! It’s something different! And I’m getting great feedback from it so far, so I hope everyone does like it! [laughs].”
At this point, I realised that Aoife had answered about half of the questions I had prepared in her very first answer! When I pointed this out, she just laughed and apologised.
“Sorry! I’ll tell ya, that’s me, I’m a total talker! When I start telling a story, I tell every little detail! [laughs].”
Part of her prize was to record a single, and that’s just been released in the last few week’s too, the brilliantly western-swing styled, ‘Go Down Swingin.’ Personally, I love this song and I hope country radio recognises how good it is. And let me tell you, Aoife is every bit as great to chat to as she is a pleasure to listen to when she sings. When it comes to talent and personality Aoife is already top of the charts.
So how did she finally start to gig following that Cowboys & Heroes victory last year…
“Well first of all, I was working full-time as a beautician here in Ballymoate, my local town, working in a pharmacy downstairs and managed the salon that was upstairs. So I was basically between the two, but I was the only one working in the salon so it was tough going. But after I had my second daughter, I was thinking it was just far too busy at work. And it really doesn’t pay either when you have childcare for the two of them. And I wanted to be at home with them anyway. So I gave up the job and was being a stay-at-home mum here, and I honestly had no ‘plan’, I just wanted to get out of that job at the time. I knew there was something else for me out there, but I didn’t what. So I always sang in the choir in the local church, and I was always involved in pantomimes in the town as well. But I never actually went out gigging in pubs or anything, because I just thought I’d never be able to do that, to be honest! So, what happened was a lady asked me to sing at her aunty’s month’s mine, and I asked her, ‘Do you mean the choir?’ But she said, ‘No, I want you.’ She said I like your voice, I think you’re great. So I thought to myself then, Jesus, maybe I could do this. She was actually the first person who ever asked me to do it like that. So I started to dip my toe into it a little bit, having a look around to see what was out there [someone to sing with].”
Aoife continued, “My sister-in-law told me about this thing she’d seen on Facebook, the Sligo Musicians’ Notice Board. I’d never heard of it, but sure we went onto it anyway! [laughs]. So she said why don’t we put up an ad saying I wanted to do a bit of country music singing, but that I was just starting out and I’d love to meet somebody who’d accompany me on guitar or piano. So that’s what I did, and Liam Gilmartin answered the cal! Now Liam was Ray Lynam’s lead-guitarist for years in the 80s, and do you remember that band, Jargon? With Charlie McGettigan? Well he was in that with Charlie, that was Charlie’s first band. And The Cotton Mill Boys, did you ever hear of them? Well Liam was the guitar player with them as well. So there was a few things that Liam had done that were kinda jaw-dropping. And I was thinking, ya know, I’m not worthy of this fella! [laughs]. So I rang him and I told him I was literally just starting off, I hadn’t done ANYTHING! But he said that didn’t matter. Now Sligo, unfortunately, is very bad for venues when it comes to country music. There’s nowhere really to play it. There’s one or two places in the town, and that’s where we go, but that’s it. It’s very sad.”
As is so often the case in life, timing is everything. And so it proved with Aoife and Liam….
“So as it happened, Liam was dying to get back into doing a bit of country again, so he said come on down to me and we’ll do something. So we started doing a two-piece acoustic set-up, and got a few gigs in our local pub and things like that. That was going very well, so we decided we wanted to do something more, to make it a fuller sound. Liam knew a guy called Michael Coggins, and he plays the steel-guitar and also the mandolin and electric guitar. He came along with us as well, so now there’s the three of us! We use a drum and bass for a backing-track, and the boys play ‘live’, and we’re out now every weekend! I can’t believe that I’m so lucky to have met those two. And we love it!”
As well as recording a single, another part of Aoife’s prize from last year was to record a video to go along with it. And that’s happening this coming Sunday, too, back where it all began, at Cowboys & Heroes….
“That’s right. Well there were a few different times I was going to do it, and a few different places I was going to do it, but then I was talking to Simon over at Cowboys & Heroes and he said well why don’t you do it here? Where it all started off in the first place. And actually do it around the time of the festival. Because the song is called ‘Go Down Swingin’, and it’s about dancing and singing, you have to kind of tie all that into it. I didn’t just want a video of me…out in a field! [laughs]. Or beside a river, ya know! [laughs]. That’s not the way I wanted it. I want something good and lively, something that’s going to be….that’s going to be entertaining to watch, yeah. I feel very passionate about this video, I’ll be very hands-on with it. I think it’s because it’s my debut and people don’t know who I am and have never heard of me. So I’m like, right, this has to be right, it has to be perfect. So I’m going to singing at Cowboys & Heroes this year anyway, on the Sunday in the afternoon, so we’ll get some footage there. And maybe, maybe I might be making another appearance again later in the evening, too. We’ll see how it goes! But fair play to Simon for suggesting that we do it there. I would never even have thought of imposing in any way like that. So hopefully it all works out.”
So one year one, and with Go Down Swingin’ finally landing punches on the country charts, is Aoife looking forward to being back on the Cowboys & Heroes stage?
“I can’t wait! Now, I am nervous, I will say that. last year I was only doing it for myself, it was like an experiment! [laughs]. I never thought what might come out of it. Last year it all happened so quick, and I had no time to think about it. Whereas this year now, there’s plenty of time to think about it, and I’m like, ‘Oh God!!!’ [laughs]. If I’m thrown in the deep-end I’m better off, I much prefer that. If I think about something too much it worries me. But look, I know I’ve done it before, so I’m sure it will be fine. And Stuart Moyles** is on the same day and I’m so happy about that because Stuart is a friend of ours and he’s been so, so good helping me with any questions I’ve had and stuff like that. So I’m looking forward to having Stuart in the same building at the same time! [laughs].”