First Published January 2016
MADE OF THE ‘WRITE’ STUFF
If country music is your thing, then the Rosney surname will immediately bring the excellent Ciarán Rosney straight to mind. And if that’s the case, then the chances are high that Ciarán’s debut album (one of the finest debut album’s I’ve ever heard, might I add), Country At Heart, is one of the most played in your collection. Well, get ready to meet another member of the gifted Rosney clan.
Ciarán’s brother, Stephen, together with Daniel Boland, make up Roslyn. And if you get the chance to catch these guys somewhere, I suggest you do, because music as good as they can make it sound is good for the soul. But Stephen has more strings to his bow than just the six strings on his guitar, ya know! He’s writing songs that will eventually, I believe, work their way into the set-list of every Irish artist who wants to make an audience smile, laugh or cry when they perform. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, check out Ciarán Rosney’s latest single, The Old Turf Sod, a gem of nostalgia and sentiment from Stephen’s pen. Or Roslyn’s own latest single, Forgotten Hero.
I caught up with Stephen the other week as Roslyn, supported another great Offaly artist, Olivia Douglas, in opening for the legendary Fureys in Birr Theatre. We began by chatting about Forgotten Hero. The beautiful artwork for the single, plus the title, both hint at a military slant to the story. I asked Stephen to fill me in.
“It’s funny how I came to write that one. I had an uncle in America, James Duffy, and he lived in Brooklyn in New York, and he spent a bit of time in the U.S. Army. He told me a story one night when he was home about how he’d been on a routine parachute mission. The guy in front of him had jumped and my uncle was next to go, but he had noticed the guy in front of him, when he’d pulled his ‘chute, it didn’t open. So against orders, my uncle jumped early and dived down beneath the other guy, let out his own ‘chute, and was somehow able to catch the other guy in it, and bring him to the ground. So that story struck a note with me, the way people can do these heroic acts and yet most people would never hear of them, ya know. A lot of times these guys who fight are simply forgotten about.”
Stephen is one half of the duo that is Roslyn, with the fiddle-playing maestro that is Daniel Boland making up the other half. Stephen gave me a brief run-down of what he and Daniel have been up to.
“Well our first video, ‘Red Haired Mary’, was released in March, and that did pretty well for us. After that we did a song of mine, ‘Movin’ Out’, and that did well for us, too, thank God. Then we did a song I wrote for Christmas called, ‘Come On, Santa.’ And we’re onto ‘Forgotten Hero’ now. Daniel lives not too far from me, he’s from Rosemount, in Moate. We didn’t know each other as such, before we got together, but we knew of each other.”
While you may not have heard of Stephen or Roslyn yet, I’d bet good money with you that you’ve heard one of Stephen’s songs if you’re a country music fan. One of the brightest rising stars of the scene over the last few years, and to my mind, the ‘Gentleman of Irish Country Music’, has been Ciarán Rosney. And, as mentioned in my opening paragraph, Ciarán just happens to be Stephen’s brother. His most recent hit, The Old Turf Sod, came from Stephen’s pen, and the songwriter himself told me about the song.
“Well I do cut turf myself, ya see, and I came home one day when we weren’t able to because it was rained off, and I sat down in the kitchen and said to mammy, ‘Stick on the kettle there, I’m gonna write a song about the bog!’ So mammy, of course, says, ‘Don’t be acting the eejit there, what are ya at?!’ [laughs]. So I was putting it together anyway and I was adding in a few funny things, and mammy was there saying to me, ‘Oh you can’t say that!’, cos’ I was talkin’ about the ass ‘starting and farting’, ya know! [laughs]. But that’s how that one started. My father cut turf, and his father before him cut turf, too, so it’s a kind of a tradition. And to some people, it’s nearly a kind of a religion; it’s such an important part of their lives and their histories. It’s a way of life to them.”
Would songs often come about that easily for Stephen?
“Yeah. Well it’s like this: you see if you said something in particular here as we’re talking, it could trigger something off in my head. I’d start thinking about it and putting something together from as little as that. Mammy does be walking around the kitchen saying she’s half afraid to talk in case it ends up in a song! [laughs].”
I wondered if there was ever any sense of competition between the two Rosney brothers?
“Ah no, not at all [laughs]. I’ve written a good few songs for Ciarán already, and I’ve three or four songs done for his next album for him. No, we also work closely and well together, and that’s the way we were brought up. If we couldn’t help someone, well then we wouldn’t do anything to hinder them, either.”
Roslyn were named as ‘Best Irish Country Group’ by CRC FM in their awards for 2015. I asked Stephen how much that recognition meant to him.
“Yeah, that was great. Because I’m not really too long writing songs, I only really started last year. So for someone to come along and think that much of your work, it’s great, and it means an awful lot to me.”
It’s hard to believe that Stephen is only writing songs for the past year or so and already turning out such gems. So what started him writing in the first place?
“Well it kind of just started by itself nearly, I suppose! I came home one night and sat down and just started writing one. There’s another one I have, actually, that Ciarán has recorded, it’s called ‘Mama’s Prayer.’ It’s funny and it’s sad. I was nearly cryin’ writing it! Helen, my wife, she’s always busy. She comes home from work, she collects the kids, brings them to Irish dancing, then the next thing, and the next thing….she’s always on the go! But I was at home in the dining room playing around with a few songs when she came in one evening, and she said, ‘Oh I’m wrecked, if there’s a Lord up there looking down on me!’ Straight away I wrote the chorus for ‘Mama’s Prayer.’ It goes, ‘And the Lord up above looks down on us every day / Helps us through the bad and good and guides us along his way / Always there when needed, all we had to do was say / Oh Lord, be with us every day.’ And the rest of it is very sad. My mother lost her own mam when she was very young, only nine, I think. So she had to become the ‘mammy’ nearly at that age. So that’s what the song is about, about a child losing her mother very early. And by the end of it, the father is gone as well. So it was a sad song to write, so it was.”
Does Stephen find happy or sad songs the hardest to write?
“Well I’m in fairly regular contact with Max T. Barnes (famous American songwriter and the man behind the gorgeous hit, ‘Love, Me’, by Collin Raye), and Max does say to me that what you really want, is a sad song with a happy ending! So I try and keep that in mind. But sometimes you have a story to tell, and if it’s sad, well then it’s sad. We have another song just recorded, it’s called, ‘Thank God For My Wife’, and it’s a bit of a funny one. When I had it written, Helen was like, ‘Sure I don’t do that!’ [laughs]. It goes, ‘Thank God for my wife / Two left feet, but one hell of a life / I’m truly indebted forevermore / For every mornin’ without warnin’ / She comes out a-hollerin’ and a-stormin’ / Promises to leave me here and lock the door. ‘ That’s the chorus, and it’s really a very funny one so hopefully it does well.”
Roslyn do everything (record, distribute, promote, etc) independently. I wondered if this was hard-going for the two lads?
“Yeah, we do it all. We drive down and collect the cds, we pack them up, post them out. It’s a lot of work, it is, and it’s costly as well, but it’s rewarding too when d.j’s message you and say they love the song. That makes it worth it. We’ve never really thought about getting management or anything. We have a new album coming out and that’s what we’re concentrating on now. And we’re also recording a second album that’s all original material, so we have a lot going on and we’ll see how all of that turns out.”
Without doubt, I think Stephen is a gifted songwriter. And I don’t think it will be too much longer before that’s something widely acknowledged. I wanted to ask Stephen about two of his songs in particular, Picture Of Me, and True Friends Last Forever. Stephen told me about Picture Of Me first of all.
“What triggered that one was one of Helen’s sisters putting a video up on Facebook. Helen has four sisters and they were all in competition to get Jade to say she loved them, ya know, or which one of them was the best, that kind of thing [laughs]. Then I saw a picture of her when she got her communion, and it all just came together to get me thinking. And it goes, ‘When you came into my world / And you opened your eyes / Your soft, gentle hands / And your tender smile / I knew from that moment / It was plain to see / That I was looking at a picture of me.’ Sometimes I like to have the melody first, but it can work any way. I have another one called ‘Mr. Bartender’, cos’ I’ve always loved ‘Working Man’s Blues’, by Merle [Haggard], and I wanted a song something like that. Not a copy of that, but in that vein. So I wrote ‘Mr. Bartender’, and for that one I had the melody before I wrote the words. That’ll be on the originals album.”
And True Friends Last Forever?
“That’s a very sad song. I can sing it now without breaking down, but there was a good while when I couldn’t. It’s about a good friend of mine who was only nineteen when he lost his life in a car accident. He used to work with me on the bog. And his mother was also a very good friend of mine. Less than nine months after he’d been killed, his mother was killed on the same stretch of road, about eight-hundred yards apart. Just a horrible, tragic, freak accident. I was at home one day anyway, and I said I wanted to do something to remember them, and I ended up writing this song.”
Is it difficult to pen songs that are so emotional and so personal to a writer?
“Ah it is, yeah, it takes a lot out of you. But then, daddy would always say to me that Big Tom used to say, ‘It’s nice to have a song with a tear in it.’ A lot of people will come up to you after a gig and tell you how much they really got into listening to the whole song, and as a songwriter that’s great.”
With showtime approaching and an eager and expectant crowd waiting to take their seats in Birr Theatre, I brought our chat to an end by asking Stephen what kind of advice has Max T. been able to offer on the songwriting side of things?
“It’s funny, because we’d have the perception here that country music right now is what Brad Paisley is. But Max tells me that country music in Nashville is changing. Like, I have another song, a really rockin’ Brad type song, as it happens, called ‘Stay A Little While’, and I sent it to Max and he loved it. But he said things in Nashville are changing, going back towards the old country, almost full circle. So they’re looking for upbeat love songs, he tells me. So I’m working on one of those next!”