First Published January 2022
NIALL’S NEXT STEPS ARE ALL HE NEEDS
“This is my ‘Willie McBride’ and I really hope fans will like it. I wrote it when I was eighteen, and finally recorded it in Belfast at Halfbap studios three years ago, so it’s been a long road.”
Dundalk’s NIALL McNAMEE is a singer/songwriter and actor, known for his passionate, thoughtful and full-blooded songs. And the one he was talking about in the quote above – and a perfect example of just why his work is so highly thought of – is his latest release, the very beautiful ALL I NEED.
A self-taught musician, Niall has been immersed in music his whole life. Throughout years as a struggling young actor, he supported himself by performing Irish folk songs, resulting in his knowledge of traditional music growing rich and deep. But all the while, he was writing his own material, drawing not only on his Irish heritage but also pushing into contemporary rock and pop territory, finding inspiration from artists as diverse and celebrated as Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, The Pogues, Christy Moore, and more recently, The Undertones as well.
Niall has starred opposite Pierce Brosnan, fought with Jackie Chan, played comic foil to Bono, and even romantically duetted with Imelda May. He also landed a starring role in the feature film Love Without Walls – due for general release this year – which saw him performing his own songs.
OTRT had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Niall ahead of the release of his superb debut EP, Step By Step, last year. And we recently had the pleasure of catching up with him again, this time to talk about his latest single, the aforementioned, All I Need. The song narrates the story of a man in his last moments before death, with the listener catching glimpses of that man’s life flashing before his eyes. As Niall remarks, “He sits in the pub of his mind and looks around at his friends – all going off to war soon – with the knowledge they’ll not return the same. But ultimately it’s about an impossible promise. To get home safe and make his way back to Edinburgh from London where his sweetheart waits for him.”
Niall told us more about how All I Need came to be…
“I wrote this song when I was eighteen. The song is a love song mixed with what I wanted to be an anti-war song. It was definitely inspired at the time by a song that was definitely my favourite, which is ‘Willie McBride.’ I remember wanting to write something along those lines about the injustice of war. There’s obviously the mention at the end of France, that it’s ‘not so far’, which my mate – who’s called Francis – thought it was his mam shouting, ‘Francis, not so far!’ [Laughs]. He was like, ‘Why is that in there?!’ [laughs]. But anyway, it’s an anti-war song.”
Niall continued, “For the music video, I tried to get loads of different pieces of military or conflict gear, to represent loads of different conflicts. This is about working-men dying against other working-men, under millionaires giving the orders. The chorus are British towns now that think about it, but that was more because I was having a romance at the time with a girl who lived in Edinburgh and I lived in London, so that’s just the train ride between the two [laughs]. One of the things that scared me the most about this song is that it could be interpreted as some sort of poppy or pro-British Army song, which is interesting because it’s meant to be the opposite of that. It’s about men who don’t want to go, and shouldn’t be going. It’s about the love they have in their families, ya know. Any working-men across Britain, Ireland, anyone who fought in the Great War who was conscripted, you wouldn’t need to go into politics to show that they shouldn’t be going and don’t need to go. I think loads of people have touched on that over the years. While there’s injustice in Irish soldiers going to World War One, or any war, there’s injustice in any working-man being made to fight. [So] this isn’t an anti-British Army thing either. I don’t want to disrespect anyone at all.”
As he mentioned, All I Need is a song Niall wrote when he was just eighteen. So it is a track that could have been in contention for a place on his debut EP, Step By Step, which was released early last summer. I wondered if one of the reasons why it didn’t make the cut for that selection was perhaps because Niall always saw this song as belonging to this particular time of the year?
“It’s the first song that I can remember writing. I don’t have any songs in my repertoire that I play that are older than it. It’s been with me for so long. To be honest, it was really hard putting songs together for the EP because I had so many, because that was my first EP. I didn’t know which ones to put [out] first. And when you’re starting out, there’s a feeling that you have to put some of your best ones forward to get ya out there. But equally, you know that you’re sacrificing them a little bit. It wouldn’t be too different, I suppose, if you were in a fighting situation, or a war, you have to put strong people forward first. But also, you lose them first. So with ‘All I Need’, I was too precious about it, to be honest. That’s why it hasn’t been released until now. That’s why I waited. I tried to record the song loads of times. And as you can see, I’ve released two different versions of it as well, because I just couldn’t decide. I’d played it for too long, just me and a guitar. I played it for too long with different bands, with different versions of it. I was always thinking if I release this the music video is gonna cost me millions! [Laughs]. And I haven’t got millions [laughs]. I was thinking I need this to be absolutely perfect. But then I just realised, do ya know what? This is a song that I love and I just need to get it out there. I need to move forward. It was like getting a monkey off my shoulder, because it was so precious to me. It was like my first child and you want to give it a good opportunity in life. I felt, maybe, that I couldn’t give it the push that I wanted to. But then I thought I’m a songwriter! I need to release the songs that I’m writing. And that’s kind of why it all started a bit late for me. Not late, but I had enough songs to release an album probably six or seven years ago and I still haven’t done that. So I’m trying to be less precious, but still be protective and not be too naive, ya know.”
Staying with Niall’s Step By Step EP, these last twenty or so months have surely been a strange time (to say the least!) for anybody releasing new music, let alone for someone sending their debut EP out into such a crazy world. Looking back on it all now, from the perspective of six or seven months on, what was that whole experience like for Niall?
“It was strange…well, I say it was strange, but I didn’t know any different at the time. It was a new experience. It was like starting a new job in a new industry you’ve never worked in before, and during the pandemic. It would be more unusual knowing what it was like in real-life, when Covid wasn’t around. All I can say is that I found it far more difficult to get one single out when things have been a bit more opened up than I did to get that whole EP out during the pandemic. During the pandemic, I had time. I had people who were around and who wanted to do things. It could be that I’ve only just finished releasing ‘All I Need’ so it feels like I’m wrecked now. Maybe the EP was harder. Not to downplay anything about ‘All I Need’, because I love it and I’m delighted with it – and it’s actually doing far better than anything on the EP which is good, I suppose, because you want to see progress – but, I was very aware when I was releasing the EP that the industry always says you can only release your first stuff once. You can only release your first album once. You can only release your first EP once. There’s an industry side to that, but also there’s a spiritual side to that. The hope [laughs], when you’ve never released something before is that you can go, ‘Well, when I release this, this is it! This is gonna be brilliant. It’s gonna solve all my problems.’ It’s like when you start acting, you go brilliant, I’m starting out now, I’ve got my first audition, I don’t see why I wouldn’t get this part. I’ll get that, and then it will all work out!’ [Laughs]. You only get a couple of times like that before you get a couple of no’s, and you start going aaw f*$k, this isn’t actually as easy as I had hoped it would be! [Laughs].””If I’m being honest about it”, confessed the Dundalk man, “without being too glib about it, it was more scary doing this single, ‘All I Need’, because I knew the work that I had put in before. I felt like with the EP I really didn’t give myself a second to rest for months and months and months. And then here I am releasing a single at Christmas and thinking now I’ll have to work ten times harder than that [for the EP]. And it’ll be the same again next time when something else comes out next year. It gets harder, and harder, and harder. And you keep having to get better, and stronger, and try not to go mad! I suppose one thing that helped with the single this Christmas was I recorded it three years ago in Belfast. So I’ve had it there for a long time. It could well have gone on the EP. The difference with ‘All I Need’ and the songs on the EP is that some of them on the EP I had to record and get ready for release. Whereas ‘All I Need’, I could have just put it out at any point in the last three years. But I held onto it.”
On the day we spoke, Niall had been supposed to play a show at the Water Rats venue in King’s Cross. Unfortunately, like so many shows in 2021, this fell by the wayside. I asked Niall if he would mind sharing what it’s like for an artist when this happens, both from a practical and an emotional point of view…
“Yeah, it’s strange. I remember the lockdown at the start, the last day I lived in London – with my pals and stuff – it was the day before St. Patrick’s Day. And we had a big sold-out gig ready to go and we had to call it quits. And that was very hard. It was almost harder cancelling that first gig because we didn’t know about pandemics, about what it was going to be like. It was disappointing because we were like, ah God, St. Patrick’s Day, sure it’s only once a year! What a shame [laughs]. We wrote a big message about it, and felt loads of guilt having to explain to people that we were cancelling it. I find it a lot harder when there’s not an official lockdown. Because there are gigs happening tonight. It is really hard, but I felt lucky that I’ve been on tour for the whole month of December. I’d overworked myself, to be honest. Imelda was saying to me that you’ve got to give yourself time to rest because people will put work in front of you anyway. I booked a tour; Glasgow, Dublin, Dundalk, and Belfast. But I was thinking about it, and I think most people were assuming it’s cancelled, when the restrictions started to come in and as Christmas started coming, I was getting messages from people saying, ‘Aw, I’m sorry about your gig’ before I’d even cancelled it [laughs]. So I decided to have a real think about it, and I spoke to my agent, and he said he thought I should cancel. Then we spoke to the venue and they were like ok, so then I was like well hang on, do THEY want to cancel it? And my agent said they’d do it if I wanted to, but it was up to me. Niall went on, “So I said ok, we’ll do it. But then I just thought to myself actually, how would I feel – really – if I found out someone got Covid at a gig? Or, if I did my gig, and took a test, and realised the next morning that I had Covid? How would I feel knowing it’s probable that someone would either not be able to go home for Christmas because of the gig, or, be going home for Christmas not knowing that they’d been made ill by someone at the gig? And I thought that would kill me. I wouldn’t deal with that well at all. I felt like people wanted to feel safe. It’s really hard. And especially when you’re building up to that last moment. I’m flying back to Ireland tomorrow – hopefully, I’ve got my test this afternoon – but that gig was going to be that final moment after a long time of non-stop work, so yeah, that was hard. But it just felt like the right thing to do. And that’s all you can go by really. I’ve got my vaccination and all that kind of stuff, and my family are kind of the same, we’re strong people, so if it came to it and I had to spend Christmas on my own, it wouldn’t kill me actually. I’d happily sit around on the sofa and do nothing! That’s my instinct anyway, I might be totally wrong [laughs]. But for everyone else, I don’t think I have it in me to risk someone else getting ill from the gig. So that was that.”
“And in terms of how it feels cancelling gigs now”, continued Niall, “it didn’t need much of an explanation, just had to put ‘cancelled.’ It was like, you know what it is [laughs]. Having played a load of gigs in December, and looking at the industry, one thing that’s been really interesting is that a lot of people aren’t asking for refunds. They understand that the money still needs to go into the industry, and actually the twenty quid or fifteen quid or whatever it is they’ve spent, will go to helping whoever is on stage. About fifty-per-cent of people who had bought tickets were actually coming, so I thought, ya know, we can do this another time, in these circumstances.”
~ ALL I NEED, the brand new single from NIALL McNAMEE, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio.