First Published November 2020
If there’s one thing Tullamore has been blessed with of late, it’s amazing female musical artists. It’s only a few weeks back since we covered BRÍ and the release of her latest single, the breathtaking Burying. If you haven’t heard that one yet, waste no more time, go seek it out right now. Then find the video for the single which brought the Grand Ballroom in Charleville Castle to life in a more elegant and enchanting way than anything has ever done before, as Birr dancer Lisa Hogan lights up the room.
And if you’re looking for a name to watch out for in 2021 and beyond, look no further than KEEVA KANE, a new voice that would – and one day should – easily sit comfortably and deservingly alongside the likes of Dua Lipa, Rita Ora, or Miley Cyrus in the charts. Keeva is just at the beginning of her career, but her voice is already winning her fans. Check out her Keeva Kane Music pages on Facebook and Instagram to become one of those fans yourself, too. And trust me, you will.
And then…there’s NIAMH DOOLEY, aka DUBH LEE. I can’t actually remember for sure when I first heard Niamh perform. But if I had to wager a bet on it, I’d put everything on it probably being during an open-mic night in the Bridge House many, many moons ago now. That I can’t remember exactly the where or the when, however, is actually the perfect way to describe what happens when you experience Niamh take to the stage. When she takes her guitar and cranks or coaxes that axe into action, layering over it that bluesy, smokey, lived-in and laughed-in voice of hers, it’s always just pure musical joy to soak in those moments. You see, when Niamh has a guitar in her hands or a mic in front of her, everything except her voice and the music she conjures into existence becomes irrelevant. Unheard, unseen, and usually forgotten. And that, folks, explains why I can’t pinpoint the when or the where part of my first memory of Niamh performing.
But here’s what I’ll never forget, and it’s the feeling that came when her voice filled the room, and the music she made filled the night. I didn’t actually know who Niamh was at the time, and I remember having to ask a friend of mine who was with me who she actually was. Niamh would have been in the early days of her musical career back then, but even then, there was an undeniably special quality to her voice that both drew you in and shut out the world at the same time. When I later found out that Niamh also wrote her own songs, well, that sealed it. If there’s a fan-club, just show me the dotted line, I’ll sign! Over the years that followed, any chance I got to hear her perform ‘live’ in Tullamore, I’d be there. But more than just that, more than being essentially a fan, I wanted everyone else I knew who was in any way involved in the music world to know about Niamh too. So anyone who knows me has probably heard her name at some stage by now.
To say that Niamh has blossomed into a singer/songwriter of extraordinary talent – even in as much as that’s a pretty cool compliment to throw anybody’s way – doesn’t really do her justice. Performing under her stage-name of Dubh Lee, Niamh continues to evolve in every direction; as a vocalist, as a guitarist, as a songwriter, and most recently, as a producer as well. Underpinning it all, is a sense of humour which thankfully, Niamh has managed to magically and wonderfully weave into her songs. Check out the fab video for her official debut single Virtue, which came out last year, for an idea of what I mean.
Niamh as Dubh Lee occupies a unique space between folk and the blues, with the perfect measure of rock always artfully added to conjure up symphonies of sound you just won’t find anywhere else. Her latest single, CAROUSEL, which dropped last Friday, is a raucous blues-rock tune in which she – as the protagonist in her song – cries out in loneliness and distress. The track deals with using partying as a coping mechanism and features a driving, chromatic main riff, fat bass guitar, and unhinged lead guitarwork. It was recorded in The Meadow recording studio in Wicklow with David Griffin from New Secret Weapon enlisted to record the bass and drums for the track.
Niamh, as Dubh Lee, has performed at events all over Ireland, including Electric Picnic and the Ruby Sessions, along with more intimate shows opening for acts such as Jack Lukeman and Bagatelle. She also supported jazz band Jimmy’s Cousin on their Irish tour in 2019. So from somewhat folk-rooted beginnings, she has transitioned from performing solo with an acoustic guitar, to performing heavier material with a bassist and a drummer, and now playing energetic live sets as a power-trio featuring songs with blues and garage rock influences.
And 2020 was going to be a year when Niamh poured her heart and soul into her music and building her career, but alas – for all of us – 2020 had other plans.
When I caught up with Niamh a little while back, there was still little in the way of clarity about what’s coming down the tracks for anyone involved in the music business. So, with any future gigs existing only in the realm of dreams for now, I began our chat by asking Niamh if she remembered her last actual gig?
“I’m pretty sure my last gig was on the 8th of March, at a place called The Clockwork Door, on a Sunday. This was about a week before the pubs all closed and everything like that. At that stage, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the end [laughs]. I did that gig in The Clockwork Door playing my own tunes, then I went straight to the International [Bar in Temple Bar] for another gig afterwards, which was a cover gig that I used to do every Sunday with my fried Shane May. That night was grand. Then mid-way through the next week, the two bars that I’d usually gig in at the weekend, Peadar Kearney’s and the International, both said oh, no, the gig won’t be happening this weekend. So I was like, alllllriiiight….that’s ok, I didn’t mind soooo much, because I thought it was going to be a two-week lockdown![laughs]. I had a whole trip to Amsterdam planned, I was about to go for five days, and I would have been performing five times, twice in Irish bars and there was another bar called The Waterhole and there were some other smaller open-mic style performances, and one in a smaller town outside of Amsterdam. So flights were booked, all the bars were good-to-go, and then it started to get serious and the bars were emailing saying, no, we’re actually not going ahead with these gigs. So I lost out on about a grand of profit over the few days, and I hounded Aer Lingus but I never got a refund because my flight still left, I just wasn’t on it. But I’m asthmatic, so I would have been in a high-risk category, but that didn’t really matter to Aer Lingus, so what can you do! [laughs]. But anyway, it was then when I realised that I was back home for the week and my residency gigs were cancelled that I was like, right, this thing might actually be going on! But at that stage, it was still meant to be just two weeks. It was probably about a month afterwards that I settled into thinking ok, my weekly gigs just aren’t there anymore, ya know. It took a while! [laughs].”
At some stage late in 2019 or very early in 2020, Niamh had told me that she was putting all of her focus into her music for this year, and concentrating on little else apart from that. But given that 2020 has turned out the way it has, I wondered if that had changed Niamh’s relationship with music in any way, or changed how she writes her songs? After all, as a performer Niamh would be used to performing in front of an audience, and as a songwriter she writes songs to perform for an audience. But right now, when she gets a chance to play – unless it’s online – it’s just for herself. And likewise, if she’s writing songs right now, then for the time-being at least it’s only herself who’s going to hear them…
“I actually think it has. Oddly enough, and interestingly enough, I think it’s had a net-positive effect on how my songwriting has developed. I would be out four or five nights a week gigging before, and that normally involves a few pints as well, so…! [laughs]. And the thing about that is, I write at night-time. That’s when I write most of my songs. So sometimes me gigging at night will disrupt my songwriting. Since the lockdown, obviously I haven’t been going out, so I think I’ve had more time for introspection, and more time to explore ideas that I usually wouldn’t musically. I’ve been kind of migrating more away from folk and more towards rock, and blues-rock, back towards blues-rock maybe! So there’s that. I had intended this year to just gig so much. It was going to be a very active year, but since mid-March that hasn’t been the way it was able to work out. I would have liked to have a whole EP recorded, a five-track EP, recorded by now and released, but seeing as finances and how much we’ve been allowed to travel have been affected by Covid, that hasn’t happened yet. After the EP, I was planning to organise gigs across the country, so I was putting together a list of venues in the different counties I was going to go to. And I would have been playing a couple of festivals. So in the sense of releasing and performing around the country, or even abroad, that’s totally been taken away from myself and every other artist who had plans like that. But, on the other end of things, I’ve been able to focus more, in that with the time I have at home I’ve been able to upskill. I’ve been spending way more time on my instrument, on the guitar. I’ve also just completed a course on Ableton so I can record and mix my own audio at home. At the moment I’m doing an Introduction to Classical Music on Yale, it’s a free online course. There’s these other aspects to music that aren’t so in your face or so obvious to people, the stuff that has to happen in the background. The other thing that I’ve been able to focus on, is that so much about independent music these days is how you manage your social media. That’s how you get yourself across. Especially when we can’t see each other in person. So the other thing I’ve been able to devote more time to is making content for online, for YouTube, and Facebook, and Instagram. So that’s weekly or bi-weekly videos for YouTube, that kind of thing.”
As a musician and a songwriter, so being a part of an industry that has effectively ground to a halt, an industry that is always part of the Ireland we boast about to the world, what was Naimh’s take on how the music business has been treated and considered or has not, as the case may be – in the government response to Covid?
“As a self-employed musician, I qualified for the Pandemic-Unemployment-Payment (P.U.P.), because my employment has been directly affected by the pandemic. So I was on the €350 a week, but then that rate got dropped, and the same thing happened to all the musicians that were on it, depending on how their incomes were judged on their 2018 figures or whatever. The thing with music and the arts is that it looks like these sectors are going to be the longest affected. A lot of other people have returned to their work or been able to reopen their businesses in some way, but pubs aren’t allowing musicians in. They’re sparing themselves that expense. And only the ones that serve food can even operate in the first place. So it looks like the music and arts sector is going to be indefinitely affected. At the moment, I’m a member of the Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland, and they’re in talks with the government about reinstating the payment for musicians and artists, but it doesn’t actually look like that’s going to be a fruitful negotiation, unfortunately. I think art is an after-thought for the government.”
Does Niamh find that frustrating as someone who is directly involved with the arts?
“Absolutely. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense, ya know, seeing as one of the biggest draws for tourism in Ireland is the arts sector. Not even just music. There’s no reason for theatres to remain closed. Theatres are one of those places where it’s easy to social-distance people. You sit down for the duration of the performance, you’re not moving around. It would be very easy to seperate people in those situations. If people can go to supermarkets and can eat in restaurants, why can’t people go to theatres? And that doesn’t directly affect me, but it’s just one of those discrepancies in how the government is approaching this. Why can other industries function when the arts can’t? What is nice, however, is that the Arts Council and I.M.R.O. did allocate funds at the start of the pandemic. You would draft up a proposal about what sort of art you could disseminate online, and I think the Arts Council were offering €1,000 per successful application. But they had something like one million euro in funds total, but only a tiny percentage of people who applied actually received the funds. I applied, and I didn’t get a grant. So yeah, I think it’s being mishandled, and they also could have done better with the funding for artists. It’s disappointing.”
Even though the world is the way it is right now, Niamh has still managed to be involved in some very special musical performances this year. One of those was for another Tullamore musician, Eoin Martin, who should have been getting married during lockdown. Niamh takes up the story…
“So, the wedding was supposed to be in June. A lot of Eoin and my friends are musicians. Eoin and Rita had intended to have us sing Lovely Day by Bill Withers at the wedding. Obviously the wedding couldn’t go ahead, but Eoin had a very small gathering on the day of it – the lockdown was still on so it had to be small – out at his house. I wanted to make something for them to show my appreciation, but also, I’m a broke musician [laughs]. So the best gift in that situation is music! [laughs]. So what I did is two weeks before the day the wedding was meant to be on, I contacted a bunch of people who are friends of Eoin and Rita. There was Shane May, who I also gig with every Sunday, Graham Mitchell, Elisabeth Moen, who’s from Iowa but comes over to Ireland super-regularly and gigs over here, she’s amazing! A duo called KC Vik, another Tullamore man called Barry Quinn – Barry ‘Jimbo’ Quinn to his friends! – a Dublin singer called Aaron Rowe, Gaolbyrd, and Amy Naessens. So got them all together two weeks beforehand, and asked them to submit their vocals to me. Obviously everything had to be done remotely, so everybody recorded their vocals at home. I created all the music, then added their vocals on top, and mixed it all. Then what I did was I uploaded it to YouTube on the day and I just sent the link to Eoin and Rita. And they shared it from there. So it’s a performance of Lovely Day with a lot of their close musician friends as the lead-singers on it. The video is a split-screen video of us all doing our different parts of it. I spent the night before what would have been the day of the wedding up until 10 am, I stayed up all night editing because I’m new to editing videos! [laughs]. And my stupid computer couldn’t handle the programme I was using, it was taking up too much RAM or whatever. I stayed awake all night, but it was so worth it. When they got it, Eoin called me and he screamed down the phone at me [laughs]. They were delighted with it. And obviously it was super-fun for me to get to work with some many close friends, but I think it was quite a special present for the lovely couple as well. Great craic.”
One of Niamh’s most recent YouTube posts is an incredible mash-up of Day Tripper by the Beatles and Seven Nation Army from The White Stripes. I wondered how Niamh came up with the idea to merge any two songs in the first place? Niamh plays everything on this herself, and it’s phenomenal. I asked her if she’s this good because she’s some kind of musical genius, because of witchcraft, or because of a lot of planning and practise, trial and error?
“I’ll have a lot of video ideas, they’ll pop into my head and I’ll ruminate over them for ages before trying to execute them. The thing about ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘Day Tripper’ is that they’re both in the same key, and they both centre around a riff that’s in E, they both fit around the E pentatonic minor scale. I think I just noticed one day when I was playing ‘Day Tripper’ that because they’re in the same key, you could slot the lyrics of one over the music of the other. And you could actually do it the other way as well. For the cover I did, I took the music of ‘Day Tripper’ and just stuck ‘Seven Nation Army’ over it, and just changed the structure of the underlying chord-progressions just to fit the lyrics of ‘Seven Nation Army’ better. But you could also take the ‘Seven Nation Army’ riff, and sing ‘Day Tripper’ over it and get a similar effect. For the video, as I was saying, I’ve been learning how to use my video-editors, and I’ve gotten better at that. I’ve figured out how to not make my computer crash as often! [laughs]. You can hear bass in the video, but I don’t actually own a bass guitar, and I can’t play bass guitar very well. But what I’ve done is I’ve taken an octaver pedal and just applied it to my regular electric guitar, and that makes it sound like a bass guitar! Soooo…it’s kind of like cheating [laughs], but it’s also what Jack White from the White Stripes does in ‘Seven Nation Army’, it’s actually just a normal guitar with an octaver applied to it to lower the pitch. What else do I have on it? Oh yeah, percussion. But sure anyone can shake a tambourine! [laughs]. Oh, and I mentioned that I had been doing an Ableton course, so I added in a midi kick-drum, which I’ve literally only learned to do in the past couple of weeks. That just gives it a stronger groove, ya know. The day before I uploaded it, I sat down and started putting it together. And it’s hard to know sometimes before you start a project, if it’s going to be any good at all! I thought it might sound really cheesy or something. But luckily enough with these two songs, it came out the other end sounding pretty buzzy, quite a fun tune! I was super happy with how it turned out.”
What I’ve always loved about Niamh as a songwriter and as a performer is that she writes such beautifully personal songs, whether they’re songs of heartache or pain, or whatever it might be. But her sense of humour nearly always shows up in there as well. What’s more, Niamh is always able to make those emotions felt in how she performs. So the emotions in her songs are not simply there to be heard in her lyrics, they’re there in her voice too when she sings. What I was wondering, though, is if she ever writes any angry songs? Or more specifically, especially with the times we’re in – with Trump, with the Black Lives Matter movement, with climate change, with a certain brand of nationalism finding a voice here in Ireland – protest songs of any kind?
“Actually, I would like to write more protest songs. I am aware of what’s going on around me, but sometimes, political stuff doesn’t move me. But there is one song like that I’ve written, it’s online, and it’s called ‘Emerald.” What moved me to pick up the pen that particular time was I had just read a news article about how South Dublin County Council had just ruined a lovely area, a kind of natural meadow that had formed somewhere in Tallaght, by dumping a load of river dredge on it, so they had actually killed a bunch of newts, European eels, frogs, plant-life…and I was just outraged! They did it out of gross negligence and then didn’t even inform anybody that it was done, it was discovered by a few ecologists after the fact. That pissed me off a lot, so I wrote ‘Emerald’, emerald obviously being a reference to our little emerald isle. It covered a lot of things that I think are wrong with how the country is run; the homelessness crisis, direct-provision, plans for the up-rooting a load of trees to put in a bus corridor in Dublin, which didn’t actually get executed in the end so that was great. Protest songs are super-important and I admire a lot of people who would have sang them back in the day like Woody Guthrie. And because music is so ubiquitous, protest songs are a great way of getting this information out to people who mightn’t hear about it otherwise. It’s not something that you hear on the radio a lot, protest songs are not usually pop! [laughs]. Which is a shame! I don’t think we hear enough of it. And I don’t think that I personally write enough of it either. But I’ve got that one song, ‘Emerald’, it’s on YouTube!”
Niamh had already stated that from a songwriting and a music point of view, lockdown hadn’t been the worst time for her. But when we were seriously locked down the first time around people related to it in different ways. Some settled into it, finding the change of pace to be a positive thing. Others found it very tough to deal with the isolation and the hugely reduced interactions with others. How did Niamh find that time on a more personal level?
“You know what, I had been so busy, like, I had been out the door every day with gigs, and being a dep – jumping in with other people and playing rhythm guitar for them – I was flat out! Right up until lockdown. So for the first couple of weeks of lockdown, I was like, oh my God…I needed this! I needed this holiday! [laughs]. Which is terrible, because obviously the lockdown was happening for the worst reasons! But honestly. I had a repetitive-strain injury in my right wrist, my strumming wrist, and I think I needed a little physical break from the constant gigging. So the immediate effect was just me getting to sleep a lot more! [laughs]. And effectively drinking a little bit less for the first while [laughs]. I’m obviously quite extroverted, but a lot of artists would be ambiverts. I enjoy, and I need solitude, and it was something that I wasn’t getting a lot of before. Then, all of a sudden, I had loads of it [laughs]. I wasn’t too mad about it for the first couple of weeks. The restlessness has come and gone since then. Sometimes it’s like, oh God, I’d love to be out gigging! I’ve been able to go and do these hybrid gigs lately, that have made life a bit more bearable, where there’s a tiny amount of people in attendance but the gigs are ‘live’-streamed. They’re good fun. They’re like a nice consolation prize! [laughs].”
So, if Covid disappeared tomorrow, and everything could go back to how it used to be, way, way back in February of 2020…what would Niamh’s ideal night-out be? Where would she want to gig again, or what gig would she want to go to?
“What I’ve really missed are the Sundays that I perform in the International with my friend Shane May are ritualistic. They were the kind of one solid thing that I used to base my week around! I would always play the International every Sunday, and those gigs would be soooo much craic! [laughs]. We’d get paid, and we’d get free pints, it was amazing! [laughs]. And you’d meet so many different people, and tourists, and other musicians who would join us. So if I could do a gig, I’d definitely do one of them. It’s a covers gig, but the craic was always ninety. And if I could see a gig? God! I wish I could go see everybody that I was meant to go see and had to cancel. I think if I could go and see a gig, I’d probably go and support some other Irish artist. I’ve seen the importance of supporting locals nowadays, ya know. So I’d probably go to some of the smaller, independent venues in Dublin and see some small indie artists. You get that intimate setting, and you’re supporting people that aren’t backed by record labels or owned by MCD or whatever [laughs]. So whoever would be gigging, I would be there! One Irish group that I would definitely go and see is a band called The Scratch. They’re based in Dublin and they’re classsss!”
Although 2020 was very…2020…Dubh Lee still managed to perform at a number of live-streamed and hybrid events, such as the Hot Press Lockdown Sessions, Transmission Festival, Laters with Griff, and the Five Lamps Arts Festival. Her highly anticipated debut EP is scheduled for release in the spring of 2021. But before then, a mesmerising video to accompany Carousel is coming our way next month!
~ CAROUSEL, the brand new single from DUBH LEE (Niamh Dooley) is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio. You can follow Dubh Lee on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.