First Published May 2021
TAKING IT ‘STEP BY STEP’
It only takes about a minute in the company of Dundalk singer/songwriter NIALL McNAMEE for you to want all the success in the world to come his way. And that’s just because of the man himself, before as much as a word or a note of his music is even taken into account. In a wholly genuine way, Niall exudes warmth, something that is on regular display in conversation through his sense of humour, often in the kind of self-deprecating manner that can only come from someone who – behind it all – also possesses a deep and steady sense of calm and confidence.
And when you turn to his music, you’ll find the five tracks on his new EP, STEP BY STEP, making you wish the exact same success for him.
Self-taught as a musician, McNamee – who is also a fine actor – cites figures like Ol’ Blue Eyes himself Frank Sinatra, our own evergreen balladeer extraordinaire Christy Moore, and bands like The Beatles, The Pogues, and The Undertones as being among his sources of inspiration. But on my first listen-through of Step By Step, I could also hear echoes of artists like Declan O’ Rourke, Wallis Bird, Finbar Furey, and Damien Dempsey, too. His songs entwine elements of Irish folk tradition without being shy of venturing into territory more recognisable in rock and pop soundscapes. Or, to sum in up in a sentence: Step By Step is class, and you’ll love every song on it!
I had the pleasure of catching up with Niall via phone at his London home last week, with a garden full of beautiful birdsong providing the perfect soundtrack to our chat. Before we began to focus on his own songs, though, I began by asking Niall how he was feeling about everything with release-day being so close at hand?
“It’s very strange. I mean, I’m delighted, I think! [Laughs]. I’m very excited for people to hear it. You know yourself, this year is goin’ by so fast, and I haven’t released anything yet this year, not since the start of last year. So when we set out the plan to release a couple of singles and stuff back in December, it felt like it was forever. I’ve been waiting so long to do this! And no-one seems to know anymore whether you should release a single, or an album, or an EP, there’s no answer to that [Laughs]. So there’s still a bit of guesswork, but I’m so excited. ‘Step By Step’ specifically, is a song that I wrote, oh… I think I wrote it six or seven years ago, and as with most of my own songs, I’ve kept them and played them at my own gigs for years. Part of me always felt a little bit ashamed that I hadn’t released them, because people would come up to me at a gig and ask, ‘Where can we find ya? Where can we hear ya?’, and I’d just answer…ahh, nowhere! [Laughs]. And it’d be like, alright…well, see ya later then! [Laughs]. So I’ve wasted years of people who could potentially have followed me! [Laughs]. But more than anything [now], I’m just so excited, cos’ the songs have been with me for so long. At least my friends are excited to have them at this point so they can hear them, ya know [Laughs].”
On the subject of the EP’s title-track, Step By Step, two artists who came to mind for me while listening to that number were Declan O’ Rourke and Wallis Bird. O’ Rourke, because of the depth and strength of Niall’s vocal at certain moments in the song, and Bird because of how the energy of the song picks up pace along the journey. As a songwriter, Niall brilliantly balances revealing both a sense of awareness and one of vulnerability, with a line that really highlighted this being, “…the keys won’t work/ I’ve drunk too much.” I asked him to tell me what Step By Step means to him…
“Well, first of all, if I could pick an artist to be linked with, or in any way similar to, it would be Declan O’ Rourke, for sure. I’ve never been more excited about an artist than Declan O’ Rourke. I know he’s been around, but it really feels like his time is now. I’m no-one to say that, but from just following him over the years, it really feels like he’s hit something. So I’m delighted with that, thank you so much. So ‘Step By Step’, I remember playing it when I got back to my flat in London living with a bunch of boys. I’d written it on the train on the way back from Edinburgh. I met this girl on holiday when I was eighteen, and for some reason, something just clicked. We kept in touch, and there was always this underlying thing where we kept bumping into each other. But it was quite innocent, nothing really happened, we just liked each other. And funnily enough ‘5 Hours’ [also from the EP] is about the same girl. I found myself up in Edinburgh when she was in University, cos’ I’d been in Glasgow to watch Ireland against Scotland in the World Cup qualifiers at Celtic Park. We lost that night, and I was gutted. But the thing that I was most gutted about was that I’d met up with her and it was a bit awkward! It wasn’t the way I wanted it to go [Laughs]. I was thinking, this isn’t it! This isn’t how the story ends! [Laughs]. And I remember the next day being on the train, and all the lads being upset that we’d lost to Scotland, and me goin’, ‘WHAT is LOVE?!’ [Laughs]. And everyone was like, ‘Shut up!’ [Laughs].”Niall continued, “So ‘Step By Step’ was about a year or two later, I was up for the Edinburgh Festival and we kinda bumped into each other. It was this crazy night where her friends were there, my friends were there, and we ended up just kind of goin’ off together. We just left. And we had this incredible night. We went up to the top of Calton Hill, which I now know is Calton Hill. I used to be calling it another one in Edinburgh. The song was literally about goin’ up these steps…step by step. And this euphoric feeling of, oh my God…this is happening! It was disgustingly romantic, ya know [Laughs]. It was being drunk on the top of this monument to Edinburgh and seeing the sun come up, feeling incredible. But there was one moment where I was goin’ back to the digs that I was in, and we were together and I couldn’t believe it. But I’d only been there for a day. And ya know how sometimes ya need to know a place well to know how the keys work? [Laughs]. You can put it in and turn it, but it doesn’t mean it’s gonna open! I was there thinking, ‘No! No! Not this! This can’t be the end!’ [Laughs]. Luckily it worked in the end! I thought something in my brain must not have been fully working for those keys to be not turning, but I think it was probably all the drink we had throughout the night! I probably remember it as some amazing Shakesperian mini-play, whereas it was probably me getting absolutely pissed talking about the famine or something! [Laughs]. So that was it. That’s a song I’ve always played towards the end of gigs and it’s always been a favourite.”
Moving on to China In A Box, and what I felt when listening to this one was that the rhyming scheme chosen by Niall empowered the song with the vibe of a really old Irish folk song. Not too surprising perhaps, given that his background in music includes such an appreciation for Irish trad, fold, and ballad music. I could easily imagine someone like Finbar Furey pouring his heart into this one. As indeed, Niall himself has done, and beautifully. I asked him about finding himself in the space that allowed China In A Box to be born…
“God almighty, you’re picking all the right musicians for me! Finbar, yeah! Actually, do ya know what? ‘China In A Box’, I’ve never thought about it like that, but I suppose it does have a little kind of ‘Sweet Sixteen’ vibe to it in some way. This is a really interesting song. It’s the leading track for a movie I’m about to start filming, about a singer/songwriter. I originally wrote it about Imelda. It was a big challenge to write. I’ve got a gig in June, and I was just looking at the set-list and how it’s changed, because now I’m probably spending half of my time on stage on piano and half on guitar. Whereas before, it was all on guitar. I sat down to write this – and as you know from me talking about ‘Step By Step’ and ‘5 Hours’, and other older songs – and there was a bit of, right…what am I supposed to do NOW that I’m in a happy, lovin’ relationship?! [Laughs]. Of course, in a relationship there are ups and downs. Not caused by each other, but you’ve got past experiences. People are fragile, ya know. I kind of started writing it about that give-and-take element. Ya know when ya meet someone new, and they do something that is very simple that your past partner just wouldn’t have done? Like make someone a cup of tea? And you have that feeling that this is amazing…but also that this shouldn’t be a shock! [Laughs]. It’s about being a team, and being protective over one another, and supportive. And knowing that just because you’re in a relationship and it’s happy, you’ve got to still look after each other, and work on it, and do your best to never really get too complacent. You have to always make little efforts here and there. ‘China In A Box’, the title, I don’t know where that came from. But I know it came in a second, it was definitely a line I wrote down and thought, maybe…that could be terrible, but maybe it’s not [Laughs]. I played it to Imelda and she was like, ‘I love it!’ [Laughs]. So yeah, it was actually a challenge, and it will be a challenge in the future to write about a happy, stable relationship.”
Niall acts as well, as he had touched on himself in an earlier comment, and we’ll go deeper into that side of things a little later on. But I mention it now because the next track on his EP, Fishpond, sounds like it could be part of the soundtrack to a Roddy Doyle movie! Or even a movie unto itself. With a song like this one, which has so much happening in every line, how did Niall – as a songwriter – control all of that energy and channel it so well in the song it has become?
“‘Fishpond’, that was another one. I’ve been writing songs, and performing them to a decent fanbase for years. And nobody seems to know how many songs should be on an EP…four? Five? I don’t know. The last thing I expected on my EP was new songs, but ‘Fishpond’ was the first song I wrote during lockdown. Imelda has this wonderful piano, and I was sitting there with the tune for a while, and again, not only feeling what do I write about with this great tune, and what do I write about now I’m in a relationship, but also…it’s lockdown! And even though it was the first few weeks, I didn’t want to write about being in lockdown. I didn’t think it would age well, I didn’t think people would want to hear it. And then I thought well I have had a break-up in a way, and I am mourning, because I ended up out here during lockdown on Saint Patrick’s Day 2020. I had a gig booked, and then everything went dark. The West End lights went off and suddenly it was all cancelled. So I decided to come out here to Imelda’s for the lockdown, because if I was going to be in lockdown for two weeks – which was definitely how long it was gonna be! – I might as well be out in the countryside! [Laughs]. Of course it lasted longer than that! And just by chance, and probably financially in a good way it was a bit of ‘pulling-the-plaster’, our tenancy ran out at the gaff I’d been living in for six years with my best mates.””Genuinely, the best time of my life, ya know,” revealed Niall. “I didn’t go to university, so that was the first time I’d really found a solid group of mates. It was exactly the London life I wanted to live. And suddenly that was over. Everyone was grown up, and all the boys had partners and were thinking about moving onto the next stage. So it was written about those times [living there together]. The house we lived in was on Fishpond Road, so we, in a very lads kinda way, called the house the fishpond! [Laughs]. Because if you’re a bloke in your mid-twenties, you have to have nicknames for everything [Laughs]. I was the Sea-horse, because in my old gaff I was just the horse because of the size of my arse and my head! [Laughs]. So I wrote it about all that. And as well, it sounds almost like a Coldplay song but it needed that energy because it was ultimately about a bunch of young, mid-twenty year olds having the time of their lives in London. God almighty, we have a lot to answer for! Any acting job any of us has ever had has been wasted, and not on holidays, I’ll tell ya that! [Laughs]. I don’t know where it all went, but I don’t have any new clothes or any holiday pictures to show for it [Laughs]. Weirdly, that became what the lads are calling the house national anthem, which is lovely. It meant a lot to them, and they’re all in the music video. That’s up on YouTube now for anyone who wants to see it.”
As Niall had mentioned that both Step By Step and 5 Hours were inspired by the same girl and same relationship, I wondered if he found that he could often return to the same relationship time and again, to mine it for new songs? Maybe by looking back on things in a different way as time moves on, or perhaps by honing in on specific parts of or moments within that relationship?
“I do think there is an element of that. I notice with a lot of EPs and albums that there is a kind of narrative that someone has written those songs as a collective piece, and that isn’t the way it is for this one. I’ve got so many songs that it was hard to pick five. So these are a mixture of songs from years ago. I’m definitely writing more often now, but back then, literally whenever a song would come to me about something I would write about it. ‘5 Hours’ isn’t a new song for me, but it was a new song for release. God, I mean…that girl has given me so many songs! [Laughs]. And I don’t think she even knows it, I never told her. The train journey from Edinburgh back to London, which is ‘5 Hours.’ We were talking about lyrics earlier, and I love some of the lyrics in this one. I remember it so well. And that’s the thing about songwriting that’s good and bad. You write a song and immediately the memory of the whole thing is there. And I remember that so well, just sitting on the train, and thinking this isn’t to be but I need to write about it. Back then when I was writing songs, the lads said I needed to do an album called, ‘Trains, Planes, and Friends’, cos’ every song seemed to have some of those in them! In fact, we did a Zoom quiz during lockdown with all the lads, and one of the questions was, ‘How many songs of Niall’s have a train in them?’, and I think it came to about six or seven [laughs]. I don’t know what it is about trains, but I always feel romantic on them. Maybe it’s an old-fashioned thing, from watching Downton Abbey or something [laughs].”
~ STEP BY STEP, the brand NEW EP from NIALL McNAMEE, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms. You can follow Niall on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Watch this space for Part 2 of our chat with Niall coming soon!