First Published August 2021
“GIGS MAKE ME HAPPY”
Photo Credit: Keery Irvine
It’s hard to believe it, but here we are. Sixteen months on from the beginning of the Covid era, and ‘live’ music and events are still most notable by their ongoing absence in our lives. And, the harsh truth of it all is this: we’re still a long way from even the slightest sign that things might actually be returning to pre-pandemic norms sometime soon. All that being said, however, thanks to a series of different government supports, there are at least more opportunities for small numbers of people to enjoy the unmistakable, incomparable buzz of a ‘live’ show. While not a perfect scenario – and to be fair, no-one in government is for a moment suggesting it is – this in itself is something to be grateful for.
And just such an event is coming to Tullamore this very weekend – August 5th, 6th, and 7th – when a series of intimate outdoor gigs titled RISING 21 comes to Lee’s Bar and Venue on Church Street. Well-known in Tullamore and beyond as a ‘live’ music venue and a supporter of the arts and local events, Lee’s has a new name over the door now, as John replaces Joe. In some ways at least, the passing of this particular torch will signal the beginning of a new era. What anyone attending Rising 21 can be sure of, though, is the same warm welcome that ever and always greeted visitors in times pre-Covid, remains the same.
Among the artists taking to the stage over the course of the Rising 21 weekend will be Tullamore singer/songwriter NIAMH DOOLEY, aka DUBH LEE. Having graced Lee’s with her vocal majesty and guitar-playing virtuosity at many’s an Open Mic night there over the years, Niamh will be returning to her roots with a band for the second time in eight months when she takes to the stage as part of the event’s early show on Friday, August 6th.
The last time Niamh and I spoke for OTRT was back in November of last year. At that stage, any mention of gigs and performing revolved around reminiscing about her last chance to be on stage, and wondering when the opportunity to return to doing what she loves most would come around again. Now, while we’re still far from out of the woods yet, Niamh has – thank God – been able to get back to playing a little bit more often than had been the case for a long time. And Friday’s performance will give her the chance to shine again in her natural habitat…in front of an audience. I had the pleasure of catching up with Niamh last week, and we got things underway with her telling me all about Rising 21 and her involvement…
“Rising 21, it’s across three days, with two or three events per day. I’ll be playing on Friday, the 6th of August, and I think my slot is around 3pm. Gavin Ghee will be on before me, and there’ll be a comedian involved as well, and Pat Carty from Hot Press will be hosting. Jerry Fish will be headlining that early show on the day, I’m looking forward to that. I’ve opened for Jerry Fish before, in Maynooth, so it will be nice to do it again with a band this time, last time I did it acoustically. Unfortunately my keys player, Josh Murtagh, isn’t around so I’m gonna do it as a three-piece, with myself on guitar, David Griffin on bass, and Rob Kennedy on drums. So that’s fairly rock ‘n’ roll! [Laughs]. It’s a shame that Josh couldn’t make it, but I’ve done it before with the three-piece, so it’ll be a nice challenge. The concept is that it’s local acts mainly, plus the headliners, and it’s Offaly rising. The rising element ties in with the Phoenix imagery that’s associated with the town, which is cool. So yeah, I’m really looking forward to it because it’s been a while since I played a gig to an audience.”
Will it be much of a challenge adjusting things to allow for the absence of Josh, I wondered?
“Well, because I had done a few gigs without the keys last year, it’ll be easy enough to adjust. It’s just that in my ears it will sound less full minus the keys, if you know what I mean? We’ll be rehearsing with the other two lads, so we’ll make sure any gaps of where the keys would normally be are filled. We might have to take a song out of the set-list and replace it with another, that kind of thing. But it’s not too big a job. Because I have a large enough repertoire, that means I’m safe enough.”
Back in December, also in Joe Lee’s/John Lee’s, Niamh performed at the first show that I had been to since the previous March. And, what made that day all all the sweeter for her, was the fact that as well as getting to play in her own hometown, with a very, very cool band (same guys that will be with her again this time around, minus Josh, of course), but her family were there in the audience too. I asked Niamh to take me back to that moment and tell me how it felt, especially after everything that had preceded it in 2020…
“That was fantastic. I think they asked me maybe only a month before, to see if I was available to do it. And we were in and out of lockdown so much last year it was hard to know where exactly I was at the time [laughs]. But I was just so delighted to be able to finish the year with a significant gig! And especially because I’ve never gigged with a band in Joe Lee’s. On the day of the gig, we had to do a very quick change-over with I Draw Slow, so it was hectic enough getting the soundcheck and everything done, but when it came to the performance, everything went amazingly. It felt great. Mam and dad were there, and my brother. And obviously the audience was very limited, I think there were only like fifteen people there. But I got a really good reception, so that’s all that really matters [laughs]. Then I got to stick around and watch I Draw Slow, who were amazing, and who were on directly after me. So yeah, it was a surprise, first of all, to get the call to do it from Cherrycool Promotions, the guys who do Castlepalooza, I wasn’t expecting it. But it was an absolute pleasure from then on.”
Obviously it would have been very busy in the lead-up to the show with getting everything ready, but maybe when it was all over, given the circumstances involved, was it an emotional kind of day at all?
“Aaah… I wouldn’t say I was teary or anything. Gigs generally just make me happy! So it was a very happy situation for me to find myself in. And I suppose happiness is an emotion [laughs]. There’s so much going on on gig-day, with your nerves and with worrying about all your equipment and everything else, that until you’re on stage and actually doing it, there’s not a lot of space for anything else, or to pause and reflect [laughs]. Afterwards, though, I actually had a lovely time, I went up to Joe Lee and Dolores for a good hour while there were other acts playing, because my family are distant relatives of the Lees, I believe, somewhere back along the way. So we went upstairs and they gave us soup and sandwiches, and it was really, really nice. It was very sweet. But yeah, I remember that day as a very happy situation, I wasn’t on the verge of tears at any point [laughs].”
Before Rising 21 comes around, fans of Niamh will have a chance to see her in action at a very special pre-recorded show from Moat Theatre, scheduled for broadcast a few days after we spoke…
“That was recorded the Monday before last…it could even be longer, it’s three Mondays ago, I think, on the 5th of July, whenever that was [laughs]. It was another one of these LPSS (Live Performance Support Scheme) gigs. The government gave out grants, and CS Promotions in Naas were lucky enough to avail of it, and they called me and asked would I like to do the pilot gig for the series they’re going to run. I said absolutely! It’s a two-hundred seater venue and they were planning to have an audience of maybe thirty people, really spread out, so that was really exciting. But as it got closer to the gig, there was all this talk about the Delta variant and they just decided they didn’t want to be the source of an outbreak. So they decided to just record the gig and put it out online later. I was disappointed because it’s so much nicer to play to an audience where you can get that direct feedback. But, at the same time, it was the safer thing to do. So we played it to an empty theatre and they recorded everything, Darren Skippy Productions were the video crew. That should be coming out on the 31st of July. Even though I was playing to an empty theatre, it was still a great experience. And it was nice to play on such a big stage, there was lots of room which is always a relief. I wasn’t tripping over my bandmates and cables and stuff! [Laughs]. The gig went great, my performance was very strong. So I’m curious to see it as well, I haven’t seen it yet.”
In November of 2020, back when Niamh and I had last spoken, she had just released her single, Carousel. In 2020 and 2021, given the strangeness of the times, how does an independent singer/songwriter like Niamh gauge a single’s success? What metrics does she use to measure progress?
“‘Carousel’ as a single did fine. It’s still steadily creeping up in streams. And the video is performing very well on YouTube. The single got a decent amount of media coverage and a good bit of radio-play as well, and radio-play for a long time after it was released, which is good. Overall, I’m happy with it. Obviously, it didn’t shoot me into superstardom or anything [laughs], but that’s not how it works in real-life, ya know. It’s a long-game. When it comes to measuring how you’re doing, for a lot of people it does come down to streams. And a lot of it comes down to social media following as well. But for me, I think you can have amazing artists that maybe aren’t streaming so well. Maybe I tell myself this to make myself feel better [laughs]. But I think a good metric for me is people booking you for gigs. Do people want to see you in real-life? There’s two places you can perform: online, or real-life. You could be doing well in both aspects, or just in one. But I think it’s nice to still be getting calls for bookings even when gigs are so quiet. So my metric for if I’m doing well is if people are calling to say we’d love you to come and play at our show.”
Does Niamh track airplay for her singles?
“I do. What I do is, in the three months around the release, I buy a three-month subscription to WARM (World Airplay Radio Monitor), Brí (another brilliant artist from Tullamore) put me onto that. So I can check how it’s doing for three months. Obviously that has now run out for Carousel, but I was able to see things for that three months. And I got a decent amount of international airplay around that, which was really interesting to see.”
If you haven’t already seen Naimh’s video for Carousel, then make some time to check it out as a matter of urgency. Consider it a little treat to yourself. It’s way more than just rolling the camera, getting some footage, and editing it all together. Far from simply complimenting the song, this thing is a little work of art in its own right. And, it was produced by…Niamh’s brother, Declan!
“Thank you! When it came to the video, I asked Declan if he would be interested in doing something again. The first single I released, ‘Virtue’, I had an idea and had the script which I gave to him and then we worked on it together. But this time around, for ‘Carousel’, I said, look Declan, do what you want, make it weird, I just want some crazy visuals! [Laughs]. And he was like, cool, deadly, let’s do it! I live in Dublin, but I came home I think for a week at a time twice last year to work on the video. A lot of it was me perched in front of a green-screen and all of the trickery happens in post [production]. So the brunt of the work was on Declan. All the editing took ages. When it comes to all the visuals that were there, they were basically his ideas. I think it turned out pretty class. It was thematically accurate, with lots of spinning visuals. And the colour in it is amazing. He has a nice lighting set-up. And we used a drone for a couple of shots. He even made proper mounts and rigs so that I could revolve around, so we could get all these smooth shots. An insane amount of work went into it on his end of things.”
One of Niamh’s more recent songs, When This Is All Over, is also accompanied by a beautiful, enthralling, and cinematic video. When This Is AllOver is a most tender and affectionate song. I asked Niamh to share a little about how both song and video came to be…
“I remember I wrote it in bed at some point [laughs]. I think it was July last year. I had been listening to Bob Dylan and I was learning travis-picking on guitar. So I had this Bob Dylan vibe in my head and I thought I wanted to write a song like that. It was also a few months of having no gigs by then, and it was like when is this gonna bloody end?! [Laughs]. I came up with this really sweet chord progression and I thought a positive message would suit it. It’s all about looking forward to when life goes back to normal – or whatever the new normal is – and getting to see people again, and see your family again. And also, the very last verse deals with how I’m looking forward to performing in front of people and hearing everybody singing along with me again. There’s a lot of yearning there for that future point where that can happen again. When I wrote it last July I thought well I’ll put it on an album sometime and it will eventually get recorded. But it’s taking a while for things to happen, for me to get funding for any EP or album. So this March, because I was at home, I just said I’d do a recording of it and make a video of it, and just put it out as is. That video is a collection of videos and images from archive.org, that has an amazing royalty-free, license-free database of images and videos. I was looking for stuff from the seventies and eighties, trying to correlate it to what the song was about. It took a while to organise and put together, but I did it, and then Declan recorded me in front of the green-screen and superimposed me on top of the whole shebang! I think it turned out like a really hopeful, and really sweet song.”
One of the things that I’ve always liked and admired about Niamh, and it’s something which is always evident in her songs, is the fact that she’s clearly a deep-thinker. Her opinions are always carefully considered and well thought-through. So, I was fairly certain that she wouldn’t have looked at the government’s recent pilot music festival in Kilmainham and just thought, “Yeah, cool, whatever.” So… what did she make of that event?
“Yeah [laughs], I do have an opinion on this [laughs]. So, it was nice to see activity happening again in the sector. However, that event went ahead with an audience of 3, 500…great. It employed lighting and sound engineers, so some people got work out of it. The audience got a chance to see some music, that’s brilliant. But, at the same time, in other countries where similar events – pilot events like that one – have gone ahead, they’ve used PCR testing for everybody going into the event and coming out again, and used that to collect data about the nature of having large events in times of Covid. This didn’t happen here. There was no data collected. It wasn’t used as a way of figuring can we open up the country more, can we have these large events? So I think it’s great for the small number of people who got to go, but we’re still in a place where we can’t have loads of those gigs because we don’t know whether they’re a good idea or not! And obviously, I’m delighted for the artists who were booked, but it is very much the top 1% that got that opportunity. For your regular everyday musician, say if you’re just a cover musician and not an original artist, you’re completely left out in the cold. Live music is not permitted indoors until November as it stands, I think I heard. I get my bread-and-butter from going in and playing in small venues. And if I wasn’t an original recording artist on the side, that would be my only revenue stream. So [even after the pilot festival] we’re still completely in the dark about other types of performances, like indoors. I’m glad it went ahead, but I think they could have done a lot better of a job with it.”
Does Naimh get the feeling that it was a PR event more than anything, and that if it had just been presented as such – as a morale booster of sorts – it would have been better received? Because nothing, after all, is going to happen in the way that event did on any wider scale, it’s just not practical on so many levels.
“Yeah, definitely. I think it was more on the PR end of things. And a lot of people saw through that, and that’s why people aren’t happy.”
On the day we spoke, both Bressie and Jerry Fish had been talking to Pat Kenny on Newstalk about the sense of frustration – and indeed, desperation for some – that still exists right across the events industry. For Niamh, and her peers and her friends in the business, how are they all feeling about the way things stand at the moment?
“I feel like I have the same conversation with my fellow musicians all the time now. ‘It’ll be over soon.’ ‘It’s pretty bad right now, but it’ll be over soon.’ But that conversation’s been going on since last March and April. I think a lot of people are optimistic. I’m a member of the M.E.A.I. (Music and Entertainment Association of Ireland), and you can see there that a lot of people are disgruntled and frustrated, and aren’t getting supported by the government through this. There’s a lot of…I’m not gonna say hopelessness, because everybody’s hopeful that things are gonna go back to normal…but there’s a lot of frustration about the way things stand, and about the lack of information for performers who are at our level. Every now and then I’m kinda like I’m just sick of talking about Covid, ya know [laughs]. There’s nothing new to say in the conversation because there’s so little information being put forth by the powers-that-be.”
So for Niamh, for the rest of 2021, what has she got planned? And, she mentioned an album earlier, and God knows I’ve been bending her ear on that for years wanting to know when we’ll see it…so…might it be 2022?
“[Laughs] Basically, I’m gonna try and record an EP this year. I was gonna try and release it, but it might have to be a case of recording it this year and releasing it next year. That’s gonna be a four-track EP, I’ve decided. I know I keep changing my mind about things, but this time, I’m serious [laughs]. My studio of choice wasn’t available, so I’m kinda studio hunting at the moment. This first EP is gonna be called…’Animals and Friends’! It’s a reference to one of the lyrics on one of the songs that will appear on the EP. It’ll be on the rockier end of things, it’s not gonna be super folky. Once I have that recorded, it will probably be early next year when I do all the promotion stuff. At the moment I have a YouTube video in the works, and it will probably be up before this article goes ‘live.’ It’s a video of myself and Joshua Murtagh, the keys player from my band, we’re covering a song called ‘The Water’ by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling. That’ll be up in the next few days. My YouTube’s been kinda quiet lately because I got bored of it! [Laughs]. I’m trying to keep life interesting and have a bit of variety during Covid [laughs]. Then mid to late 2022 – I already have the album written and planned out – so there’ll be an eight-track album next year at some point. Big plans, big plans! But it’s taking a while to get around to them. I think that’s mainly Covid’s fault [laughs].”
DUBH LEE (Niamh Dooley) will be performing at RISING 21 in JOE LEE’S/JOHN LEE’S, Tullamore, on Friday, August 6th. You can follow Dubh Lee on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. You can also enjoy this interview with Dubh Lee in full on the official OTRT website, www.ontherighttrax.com For more information on Rising 21, check out www.leesbar.ie