CATHY JORDAN has been the front-woman with traditional super group Dervish for nearly 30 years, and has dedicated her life to the nurturing and preservation of traditional music, and in particular, traditional songs. During her lifetime she has collected hundreds of these songs which otherwise might lay undiscovered and unsung, gathering dust in the archives.
Her latest project – THE CRANKIE ISLAND SONGS – sees her collaborate with visual artist PETER CRANN in order to add yet another dimension to these beautiful gems. Any entwining of Cathy and Peter’s talents guarantees a project worth getting excited about. Cathy, after all, is one of Ireland’s most distinguished creative musical forces of any genre or era. And Peter is that ever so rare triple-threat of gentleman, artist, and craftsman in one, with a gift for evocative simplicity.
This latest collaboration between the pair – named after a piece of vintage magic-making machinery, the memorably monikered CRANKIE BOX – bears all thehallmarks of both.
The CRANKIE SONG PROJECT is an adventure that leads you into the realm of Irish history and mythology. It combines words, music and hand-drawn imagery to bring to life old Irish story-songs. This project will safeguard those songs, keeping the folklore behind them alive, while also presenting and preserving them for future generations in a way that is both authentic and newly evocative.
In essence, a crankie box is exactly what it sounds like – a box which requires cranking in order to work, hence ‘crankie’ has become the term now most often used to name this very old art form. Originating in Europe in the late 18 th century, they were referred to as moving-panoramas during the 19th century. There were mid-sized moving-panoramas with scrolls around 18 inches in height. These were sometimes called ‘parlour panoramas’, and would have been used for smaller performances in the home or on the street.
Amazingly, there were also larger moving-panoramas, ones of a size big enough to take up a whole stage, with scrolls 8 feet high or more, and hundreds of feet long. And in some cases, over a thousand feet long. Painted on canvas or muslin in the 19th century, it is believed that not more than 20 or so of these larger scrolls have survived to the present day.
A crankie box is a simple mechanism that consists of two spools, upon which is wound an illustrated scroll, up to five metres in length. This is cranked by hand while the story is told, or a tune played. Or, as is the case with Cathy and Peter’s Crankie Song Project, while a song is sung, allowing a spool of images to play out in time with the music or song. A crankie box also acts as a kind of animation, and is the oldest form of movie-making. With what it may lack in sophistication, it more than makes up for in charm and immediacy. The cranking action is primitive, but what happens as it begins to work is a kind of magic that draws you deep into the unfolding story. The result is an intimate, almost dream-like form of storytelling, brought wonderfully to life in this project by Cathy and Peter.
With these Crankie Island Songs, Cathy and Peter – with the support of the Arts Council of Ireland – have married their artistry, coming together to recount in sight and sound some of Ireland’s oldest story-songs via the portal of a custom-made crankie box. Nine of these videos are already available on YouTube (at Crankie Island Songs ) with more to follow.
Crankie boxes are fashioned from up-cycled materials which are often found in charity shops. One of the boxes featured in this project was created from an old suitcase that once belonged to Cathy’s aunt, Eileen. In the skilled hands of Tony Travers, however, it has been turned into something new and wonderful, a way to bring to life old Irish tales in a way that is beautiful, elegant, and often heartbreaking and haunting.
The latest song which Peter is working on illustrating will feature a scroll that comes in at seven metres in length. Also used in the project is an antique Spanish Cine Nic projector which allows a piece to include the added element of animation, a thrill which is particularly enjoyable on Eileen Óg (The Prideof Petravore). This project began by featuring three songs from Cathy’s native Roscommon; Eastersnowe, the beautiful unrequited love song Úna Bhán, and the above-mentioned Percy French classic Eileen Óg. The project also includes Pat O’ Brien, Fill A Rún Ó, and Deartháinín Ó Mo Chroí.
Further counties have been featured since the project got underway, with a total of nine ‘crankies’ having been created to date. The long-term plan is that eventually songs from each county in Ireland will be available on an interactive map of the country.
Crankie box performances can take place in any number of settings and as part of any number of occasions too. There is a ‘magic-lamp’ feeling to watching a crankie song come to life, with Cathy’s beautiful voice reaching all the way down into the pain and heartache of a millennia of souls, drawing you into the story as she sings, while Peter’s illustrations bring the song to visual life as they unspool before you.
This project also includes beautiful musical collaborations with the likes of John Doyle, Mike McGoldrick, Nuala Kennedy, Claudia Schwab, Irene Buckley, Slow Moving Clouds, and Roger Tallroth.
The next song in the series – which is coming very soon – is one which is sure to raise a smile! And, as usual, all will be revealed on the Crankie Island Songs YouTube channel.
~ Subscribe to CRANKIE ISLAND SONGS on YouTube today, to experience the emotional power and pull of this storytelling genius for yourself.
The thing I love most about Galway’s SABRINA FALLON as a country music artist, is that I know she’s on the scene first and foremost for one simple reason: she loves country music. And if you’ve ever seen her perform – be it in the cosy, intimate surrounds of a pub gig, or in larger settings such as on a festival or concert stage – then you’ll know exactly what I mean. Her love of the music, and the enjoyment she derives from entertaining, from seeing those in front of her with smiles on their faces and their worries – if only for a moment in time, forgotten – simply illuminates any event that she’s a part of. Her personality sparkles even brighter than the dazzling dresses which have become as much a trademark as her gorgeous, soulful, traditional country voice.
Throughout the last year, Sabrina – thank God – has continued to record and release music, offering up her unique talent as a balm for the soul of her fans in Ireland and beyond who have surely missed having the opportunity to feed off her positive energy in person. And as well as keeping her voice heard on the radio, she’s been doing her bit to make sure country music fans still get to hear from some of her fellow artists too, as host of Country Showtime withSabrina on the Spotlight TV channel each week.
I had the pleasure of spending some time in Sabrina’s company last Thursday morning, and we began our chat by talking about her brand new single, MISSISSIPPI. I asked Sabrina to tell me why she decided to record this particular song right now…
“I’ve noticed that I really tend to record something that reflects how I’m feeling, or how I’d like to feel. And obviously this has been such a hard, hard time for everybody. It’s caused an awful lot of people serious anxiety, this pandemic. Somebody came to me a couple of years ago – a lady who’s crazy about country music – and she asked me if I knew the song ‘Mississippi.’ And I was like, yeah, I do, but then when I came home I played it, I was like, oh my God! It really came back to me. It brought back childhood memories of vibing around our sitting-room and out the garden. So it always reminds me of being at a festival, a free-spirit festival, where there’s only love in the air, and there’s no worries and no cares. That’s the vibe I get from that song. So I wanted to record it to bring that vibe to other people, when it’s very necessary at the moment. And I love it! I love this song.”
I found it very interesting what Sabrina had just said about recording songs based on how she was feeling, or perhaps how she wanted to feel. I wondered if that had been a constant throughout her career, or something that had developed over time?
“Sometimes I’m not even aware of it, it could be subconscious, you know that kind of way? But something will stick out [to me], and I’ll go yeah, that’s the one I’m doing, but I won’t know why. And then it will become more evident as time goes on. ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ was a big one around dad when he was ill. I’d gone in to do it before I even knew what I was doing it for, if that makes sense? ‘Old Maid in the Garrett’ wasn’t that I wanted to get married, that’s for sure! [Laughs]. So maybe not every single song, but there’s definitely a story of some kind emotionally to each song, I guess.”
As Sabrina had touched on, it’s been a very strange year – year and a bit now – for musicians and entertainers of all kinds. What I’ve noticed is that without gigs, a lot of performers have pretty much retreated from public view, save, maybe, for the odd Facebook ‘live’ every now and then. But a good few, Sabrina included, have continued to at least record and release new music, remaining visible and maintaining their presence. What was the thought-process that led to Sabrina deciding to go that route over the past twelve months or so?
“I just kind of went with the ebb and flow of what I wanted to do still. There’s no secret…I’m addicted to recording music! I love the studio! I love it, I love it! [Laughs]. If there’s ever an opportunity for me to hear a new song, I want to listen to that song. I’m always looking for songs. I don’t know if there’s anybody who’s not. Anybody else who’s recording probably is too. I’m doing some Zoom singing with day-care centres and stuff like that at the moment. They might mention a song, and I’ll be like, ‘I’m sorry, can you say that again?’, and I’ll write it down, then go home and Google it! So I’m always looking for songs even though there are no gigs going on. That doesn’t change. And going into the studio is something that I absolutely adore doing. It’s one of my favourite places in the world, the studio. So it wasn’t an option for me not to record. Now, is it expensive? Absolutely! Is there the financial reimbursement that you would get from being able to then promote yourself at gigs, no, there’s not. So airplay, radio-play, that’s really important at the moment, and the Spotlight TV channel. They’re your only forms of exposure. So it’s very, very difficult to get a shelf-life out of a song. Particularly now. You might get a short time out of it, but then it’s gone, and you’ve got to go with another one. So yeah, it wasn’t an option for me not to record.”
As an artist, how is Sabrina feeling about heading into a second summer with what looks like no – or at the very least, very, very few – festivals or events taking place on the country music calendar?
“Do you know what? I’m really good at just accepting whatever my reality is. It is what it is. I’m not gonna fight what I have no way to change. It is what it is. We’ve got to go with the flow. Obviously, I would like to be out at some festivals singing, for sure. But it’s not gonna be that way. And I’ve always maintained a safety-first approach since the start of this. If it’s not safe to do, then it’s not safe to do. But I will look forward to when everything returns, how we won’t take it for granted again. And also, you know how that dance from the ‘roaring twenties’…what’s the name of it? Charleston! That came after the last pandemic, when everyone got that exciting vibe back, to live and to dance and everything. So God knows what’s going to come of this, ya know! So hopefully something exciting musically and artistically will develop. I hope so anyway.”
As more and more areas of everyday life begin to open up across the water, does Sabrina feel any more or less confident about what the future holds for the music industry here than she may have done maybe six months ago?
“The truth is, I don’t know. One minute, I think oh, that looks promising. And then a minute later, it’s like oh God no, that’s not gonna happen. So I don’t know. We can all try to predict things, and there’s lots of opinions goin’ around! But I don’t know. Eventually it will come right. It’s just the length of time that it’s going to take that we still haven’t discovered.”
Even though Sabrina hasn’t been able to gig ‘live’ for a long time, certainly not in the way she would have been used to, she has been doing some very special ‘live’ shows via Zoom for some very special friends of hers every week…
“I’m working with the That’s Life project, which is the Brothers of Charity. It’s an artistic community project that they’ve developed over the years, and it’s absolutely fantastic. Specifically, I’m working artistically with people with intellectual disabilities. I was singing for them once a week, because a lot of them – A LOT of them – LOVE country music! And I mean really love it. They, the Brothers of Charity, have created this project for me to explore why these people with disabilities love country music, to find out what it is that they love. To find out how it makes them feel. That’s what I’m working on now for the next couple of months with them. Part of the project is that each participant will bring in an item – not bring in, send in obviously, because this is all being done via Zoom at the moment to keep everyone safe. That could be a picture of their favourite artist, or them with their favourite artist, their favourite experience of them with their artist. Or maybe they have a stub of a ticket from a concert they were at. One gentleman is going to send in his cowboy hat. We’re going to get professional photos taken of all of these, and then have those superimposed onto fabric to make a big country quilt! Another part of it as well, is that they’re going to send letters to their favourite artists, hand-written letters, because there’s no such thing as a hand-written letter anymore. And hopefully, they’ll get one back from their artist as well. And using sublimation printing these will all be put onto the fabric so we can create a big, beautiful piece. The other part of that project as well, is that we’re going to be recording a song! So the participants are going to write their own country song about why they love country music, and we’ll be releasing that. I’ll be singing on it as well, so it’s a very exciting project. I’m really lucky to be working with them.”
What’s the timeline around all of that?
“Well, they’re hoping in autumn to have the exhibition. So at the end of September we’re talking. When I go on Zoom and sing with them, they literally come on every week with a different hat, and they just dance for the whole hour! You’re probably fairly used to Zoom too, I don’t know of anybody who’s not now [laughs]. But I’m looking at a screen of these little bobbing heads dancing around their kitchen and their sitting-rooms, and it’s just…it’s a two-way street, I’ve always said it, it brings me great joy. If I’m bringing them joy just by singing, then by Jesus, they’re bringing me just as much in return, ya know!”
Because Sabrina herself is both such a creative person and a people person, how much has that outlet – that connection – been a help for her in keeping her own spirits up over the past while?
“Oh yeah, very important! I love people. Not all people! [Laughs]. Not all humans [laughs]. But as an artist, we need that creative oxygen to keep us going. Part of that is bouncing off people. My main work as an artist is socially engaged. And there’s none of that right now. But even on Zoom, I’ll start interviews now with them, each participant will tell me their story. So I am socially engaged in that way, and I’m very grateful for that. Because I do feel like there is a drought creatively for artists. And we all need that little bit of water to feed us creatively.”
Pre-Covid, Sabrina was one of the busiest entertainers on the road. And during Covid she’s remained so. Part of what she’s achieved in that time was completing her Masters. And part of that involved the most amazing – and, in many ways, haunting and heartbreaking – presentation on how the country music industry has been affected by Covid…
“Initially, I was doing my Masters on vulnerability. So I did my thesis on vulnerability, because I’ve always been very aware of peoples’ vulnerabilities, and of my own vulnerabilities as well, and of how the word ‘vulnerability’ could sometimes be seen as someone being weak. But really, vulnerability was once looked at as being the most beautiful gift we all have. To be vulnerable is to love, to be open to love. Because of the lockdown then, we couldn’t go into the college or use any of the machines so we weren’t able to create our piece for our final exhibitions. So we had to come up with something at home. And this was just at the start of it, so we didn’t know what we were goin’ to do. So I was just thinking, ok, what’s vulnerable around? And what can I create that’s tactile? And all I could see was people being so upset online. Musicians and singers, overnight – overnight – their careers were taken away from them. I’ve been at it a few years, but for the likes of the beautiful Philomena Begley, and Johnny Carroll, people who have had long careers, I was thinking about how vulnerable they all were.”
Sabrina continued, “So I started talking to these people, and I asked them, ‘How has Covid changed your life?’ And they were sending back some very, very powerful quotes. I also wanted to use this to create a textile project, so I asked them for a piece of clothing, to send me on a piece. And some of them were just outstanding. Mary Coughlan! Oh my God! Her jacket! This is a jacket that was made for her. And oh my God, it’s so beautiful, it gave me goosebumps! I will never forget opening the package in my art studio, and it was almost like I was hit by a train with the energy that was coming out of this beautiful coat that she would wear on stage. I’d seen it before on her. So I wired this, and put the form [of a body] into it, but the human was not there. They were suspended like that. There was an array of clothing from artists who are completely vulnerable now. The music scene is completely vulnerable. I had Nathan’s jacket, I had Mike Denver’s suit. Louise Morrissey was gracious enough to send me beautiful jewellery. I had Philomena. Johnny Carroll was very moving! There was his trumpet, and notes from when he was a teenager, still in his trumpet box. And he’d never left these down before, never let them out of his sight. It’s something that’s not finished [this project]. It’s not finished. But it is something that needs to be physically visited. That’s something I’d like to see happen. It was very powerful. And big thanks to everyone who took part.”
On the music front – and allowing for the fact that it’s almost impossible to look too far into the future except for what’s in her own control – what does the rest of 2021 look like holding in store for Sabrina?
“Ok, what are we in now? March or April? [Laughs]. Well, I guess the project we were talking about is going to take a lot of time and energy, beautiful time and energy! And I also have my own art studio here, where I’m creating pieces daily also, for my online shop. I have pieces of jewellery and various textile pieces distributed to a couple of different stores, so I have lots to keep me busy. And in fairness now, if I had a look at my garden and a look at my house, I have about ten year’s work to do! [Laughs]. I wasn’t one of those people who got their house transformed when the lockdown happened [Laughs]. I just haven’t really stopped. But musically I have an exciting duet coming! It’s with somebody who I would have always listened to and looked up to, and an amazing songwriter. And we’re going to record a duet next! So that will be my next feel-good project. And of course…of course!… I have more music lined up to record as well, because that’s probably never going to stop! But the duet will be the next one now. And I’m very excited about it.”
When all of this Covid related strangeness is over, and normal – of some kind – returns, does Sabrina think that her own personal approach to life or to music will have changed much as a result of everything that’s happened since March 2020?
“I think we’ve all probably learned to slow down a bit. I think that it would be a lie for me to say that I miss being out five or six nights a week. I actually don’t. The truth is that the pandemic hasn’t hit me terribly badly. Maybe creatively, bouncing off other people. But that’s the only thing that I’m not doing, is I’m not getting in my car and going travelling, and going meeting people. And I’ll really look forward to that part. Not the loading up and bringing all the gear in and out now! No way [laughs]. I think everybody will really appreciate it [being able to do it] a lot more. I think it was taken for granted before this. I mean, never once in my wildest dreams did I ever think that – overnight! – everybody’s musical careers, and indeed, many, many more careers across the country, could be wiped out. Who would have ever predicted this?”
And when the music industry does kick back into life again, does Sabrina feel that will have changed much? Or changed at all? Or, might it just fall slowly back into how it was?
“I don’t know. That’s crystal-ball stuff, isn’t it. And I’m not very good at predicting things! [Laughs]. So I don’t know. I definitely don’t try and work it all out. Sometimes, I’ll get into it, and I’ll be getting all philosophical about it, and I have to tell myself now hold on, you actually don’t know, Sabrina! My views change daily. Sometimes I’ll hear somebody say, ‘Oh there’s no way I’m gonna go back to a dance, I’m too nervous.’ And then another day, I’ll hear somebody else say, ‘Oh my God, I cannot wait to get back out dancing! If there was a dance tomorrow, I would go!’ So I just don’t know. I would love if things could go back to the way they were, that would be fantastic. Maybe concerts might become more of a bigger thing at the start. I think it will be a slow and steady return, please God. But sweaty ballrooms? I don’t know! [Laughs]. Shirts flyin’? Ah, I just don’t know! [Laughs]. Some lads would be bringing bags of five or six shirts to be changing into! I’m not sure anyone’s ready for that yet [Laughs].”
~ MISSISSIPPI, the brand NEW single from SABRINA FALLON is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio. Her TV show, COUNTRY SHOWTIME WITH SABRINA, airs every Thursday and Monday on the Spotlight channel. You can follow Sabrina on Facebook and Instagram.
There are some dreams shared by artists all around the world when it comes to certain moments in their career. Take the release of a debut album, for instance. British singer/songwriter TWINNIE waited her whole life for that moment to arrive. And when HOLLYWOOD GYPSY finally did officially come into the world on April 17th 2020…it was smack-bang in the early days of a pandemic. Not ideal, to say the least.
In normal circumstances, there’d be a somewhat straight line between moments like hearing the mastered songs for the first time, holding the physical album in your hands for the first time, seeing the album advertised in print or online for the first time. Every moment, really, is a first of some kind. And each of those moments, of course, generally leads to the biggest moment of them all…performing the album ‘live’, in front of your fans, for the very first time.
But…when all of the above happen, but that final – arguably most important, most exciting, most liberating and climactic moment of all – just can’t…that’s heartbreaking. And tough to deal with, too, because…well, what DO you do then?
Well, that was the set of circumstances Twinnie (full name Twinnie Lee Moore) found herself in a year ago, and has been living with ever since. And while it was heartbreaking, and Twinnie doesn’t shy away from that truth, she’s nothing if not resilient. Yes, it was among the cruelest possible twists of fate for any artist launching their debut album, but the great thing about Twinnie – as anyone who knows her will testify to – is that the fire within her always finds a way to burn brighter than whatever dark moments may shade her life from time to time. Twinnie is a beacon of light in every aspect of her life, from her music to her personality, in large part because her instinctive sense of the real leaves her with no other option than for her music and personality to be ever-entwined. Even if, at times, that has meant taking to the battlefield of principles. But with Twinnie, if something needs to get done, it gets done.
Unable to perform or promote Hollywood Gypsy after its release last year, Twinnie satisfied her innate need to remain creative and positive by first recording a beautiful acoustic version of the album which dropped in October 2020. And now, on April 17th, a year to the day since Hollywood Gypsy first announced Twinnie’s brilliance in long-form, she has reimagined five tracks for the album for a very special EP.
I had the pleasure of spending some time in Twinnie’s company last weekend, and I began our chat by asking her to talk through her choice of songs for Hollywood Gypsy (Reimagined) …
“Well all of them on the album are my favourites [laughs]. But one we picked is Daddy Issues. The studio version is very uptempo, and I think a lot of stuff, when it is uptempo, people kind of miss the lyrics. So I really wanted to highlight those lyrics in a different way and show off a different kind of style and perspective. I really believe – and I think this is something that I struggle with within the music industry, is that everyone’s always trying to put you in a box, and in a day and age where we can’t even label people anymore – but I really believe that there’s just two types of music, it’s either good or it’s bad. So I wanted to highlight that a song – if it’s well written – can be heard in different ways. Imagine the song to be the girl and the production to be a dress, well you can dress it up in whatever [kind of] production, and someone will hear it differently. I wanted to give a new lease of life to these songs. I wasn’t ready to let them die yet, I guess! Releasing them in a pandemic wasn’t the most amazing thing for me [laughs]. but it did alright. But I still haven’t managed to play it ‘live’ yet. The album will have been out eighteen months before I get a chance to play this stuff ‘live.’ So I thought this would be a nice nod to the album, and to the long journey that I’ve had throughout music, just to kind of redirect people back towards the studio album too, and maybe they’ll have a different perspective on the songs. So we picked ‘Daddy Issues’ as one, and it’s very different.”
Twinnie continued, “Feeling Of Falling, it’s quite uptempo anyway, but I wanted to do a few versions where they were straight pop, like Dua Lipa, something that you can dance to. ‘I Love You Now Change’ and ‘Feeling Of Falling’ are very much like that. ‘Better When I’m Drunk’ – which is an instant download when you pre-order – it’s making fun of myself in the original version, like in the video. But I thought, actually really, underneath the surface of that, there’s quite a lot of hurt and pain. I think this one just really suited being a ballad. Again, that was to encourage the listener to hear it in a different way, even though it’s a party song. So we wanted to completely reimagine it. Then we’ve got ‘Hollywood Gypsy’, which is one of my favourites, and I just wanted to dance to that! So I had an idea of well, what if it was a kind of a funk version, with the bass and the drums really being prominent, so kind of a bit more cool in that…I wouldn’t even know how to describe it [Laughs]. I guess I can play you a little bit, just to give you a little bit more of a reference. I’m just gonna try and play you this…I have so many Dropbox links! [Laughs]. Here we go, this is it…”
At this point, Twinnie proceeded to share a few moments of the reimagined version of Hollywood Gypsy, and let me tell you, there is a serious vibe a-coming!
“So it’s got that very 90s, hip-hop, r’n’b kinda vibe, I guess. On some of them, they’re completely new vocals. Obviously ‘Daddy Issues’ is, and I think all of them are apart from ‘Hollywood Gypsy’ where we used the original vocal, and just rearranged the track. It was really fun to go back and delve into these stories. And for me especially to go, ok, so how can I reimagine this? I’m really proud of ‘Daddy Issues’, I just love that song. It’s such a great sonic sound. And then ‘Hollywood Gypsy’ is just so fun to dance to…”
So going by what Twinnie was telling me about the title track, her Reimagined EP wasn’t simply going to be an acoustic affair, as such projects can often be…
“Well we did a whole acoustic version of the album, because I just needed something because, again, it’s just such an anti-climax moment when you release an album in a pandemic. Because I wasn’t able to promote it. So I sat there in my room, in my bedroom, and really I just cried my eyes out. I had been thinking that this was going to be a big massive moment for me, and then it wasn’t. I didn’t really that from my team either. It was like, ‘Oh congratulations’, and then ok, we’re onto the next thing now. And that was no fault of theirs, because we didn’t have anything to push to. But it was a real kind of…I guess I was humbled without needing to be humbled. Like, I need to let go of any expectations that my music will do well or that it will connect. I do music for me. If it connects with people, then great. I just really turned back to some of the great people that I’ve admired so much. Like Billy Joel tried to kill himself after the first album he released. And Queen and Freddie had their struggles. All of these amazing people that I grew up listening to, even Judy Garland. Art imitates life, I think, and vice-versa. So I was like, I can either be downtrodden about this situation, or I can use it as a catalyst to create more, And I think, honestly, it’s been one of my best years. I released a podcast called ‘Breaking Through’ to help inspire other people. I wrote my first screenplay. Worked with Alan Menken, Andy Garcia, Mary Steenburgen. So many things happened out of being bored, and everybody else stopping. I was just like I’m not gonna do that! I’m just gonna use this as a catalyst.”
Twinnie is in Nashville at the moment writing for a new project…
“Yeah, I’m working on some new music with my record label, BBR, which is owned by BMG, so we’re just working on a new EP to take to country radio. Obviously that won’t happen straight away. The label actually didn’t want to put these new reimagined versions out, even though I produced it last year, cos’ they wanted my next look to be all-hands-on-deck for the American stuff. But I felt that it was just such a waste not to have these songs heard, and to celebrate the album, so I just did it anyway [laughs]. I often do that [laughs].”
While in Nashville – from where she was speaking to me via the magic of Zoom – Twinnie will also be getting a much welcomed and long-awaited chance to perform again during her time in Music City, when she plays a writers’-round at the Listening Room on April 20th. But that ’round’ is part of something far bigger, and something which Twinnie clearly feels deeply passionate about…
“So, during this pandemic, I wrote a song called ‘I Know A Woman’, and launching from that next year is a global initiative trying to create more opportunity and community for women. So we’re setting up these residencies called ‘I Know A Woman’ and raffling off merch and stuff to raise money for global women’s charities. And we’ve got our first writing-camp of ‘I Know A Woman’ this weekend, so I’m really busy. So I’m a founder of that, and we’re in meetings with the Grammys, MusicCares, Women In Music, CMA. People should follow our Instagram page. Basically we highlight different talents of different women from all sorts of industries. Launching on International Womens’ Day next year, we’ve got a project called Nominate, Collaborate, or Donate. We’re setting up an ‘I Know A Woman’ music fund for grants, and a wellness fund as well to help with therapy and all that kind of stuff. The collaboration is obviously writers’ camps, where we get established writers to come and write with unknowns or smaller artists who haven’t had their break yet. So it’s that pass-the-mic thing. On the nominate side of things, on International Womens’ Day we’re asking everybody to give up their socials to a woman in their field that can have access to their audience for the day. So you’re empowering another woman, which is in turn empowering other women to have this back of forth that says hey, we are stronger together. Women in the music industry, especially artist to artist, feel like they’re pitted up against each other, especially in country music where ‘the gatekeepers’ don’t play women enough. It’s even worse on Spotify. You look at those curated Spotify playlists, there’s like fifty songs and three of then are women. It’s disgraceful. So I’m creating a board of directors with all the heads of the PROs like BMI, ASCAP, PRS, there’ll be someone from Apple, someone from Spotify. Those are the most influential people in the music industry, so why is it not changing?“
“Tunecore did a massive global study of the last ten years, and we’re still massively under-represented. So I’ve been speaking to the Home Office about going in [to schools] and doing workshops called ‘I Know A Song’ for kids, to get to the root of the problem, so we can educate them on being a songwriter, being an artist, being in the music business, A & R, music publisher, any of those. So you create from the bottom up this ethos that we’re all in it together. The music industry is hard, it really is for everyone. I think it’s especially discriminatory against women. I was on Clubhouse yesterday where this music exec – female – asked this girl her age. Firstly, she didn’t ask any of the men. The girl said she was thirty-three. She has a stunning voice, amazing. But the music exec was like, ‘Lie about your age, honey, say you’re twenty-five, sex sells.’ This exec was like a fifty-five year old woman! This is such an unhealthy narrative to be feeding younger generations. We’ve got a responsibility to protect these children that are finding it more easy on Tik-Tok. Labels are just signing them for insurance purposes, in case they get big. They’re given deals but there’s no kind of mental health care, to say ok, this is what you’re stepping into, this is what you can expect, what you need to be careful of. There’s none of that. I really feel like now is the time for change. Nashville has a great community, and I’m trying to pick up that community and place it in other territories for ‘I Know A Woman’ writers’-rounds, like the UK, Sweden, Australia, Berlin, everywhere, to give women a safe place to come to to be supported. No age-limit, no genre, people can just come and play and listen. I’m really passionate about creating a much safer, encouraging environment within the music industry. We have to hold these people accountable; labels, publishers, managers, agents. These are lives that some people are destroying, and it needs to stop.“
“As an artist, and hopefully in a few years I’m gonna become a mum, I want to feel that if my kid wanted to be in music that they’d be safe and protected. I’ve been in so many situations that have been uncomfortable. I was once told to ‘shut the f*&k up in front of the head of my label, in front of three men. And nobody stuck up for me. If my mum was in there, she would have decked him! I don’t tell her this stuff because it would be so upsetting for her. But I have to deal with that sometimes on a daily basis. And I’m quite an alpha-female, I can handle myself, nobody really speaks to me like that. So I did say something. But I thought, what if you’ve got a sixteen year old girl that is timid and is meek, yet is so talented, but she gets her dreams crushed? I just want to take that experience and make sure no-one has to deal with that. There should be no assholes, but there are, there are ones that we have to deal with every day. But it’s nice to be nice! It really is. And I’m a full believer that the more you give, the more you receive. I’m not doing this for money. I’ve set up a label, but I have no interest in running a label! But I want to create an infrastructure that just runs itself. So up-and-coming A&Rs that actually want to do that, they have a place to come and work. Also, the label is giving songwriters points on the record, which is a massive point of difference to what’s going on at the minute. We’re even in chats with big fashion designers at the minute because we want to reach out to other creative sectors about them creating the merch, with 100% of the proceeds going to global womens’ charities.”
“I’m sorry, I just went on a tirade about something else other than my EP [laughs]. This is happening tomorrow, that’s why it’s on my brain!”
Twinnie has tour dates back home in the UK in September…
“Yeah, and I keep getting asked to go to Ireland, but there are no plans yet. But I should go. But the UK dates going ahead, I mean, I hope so! That would be horrendous to have to cancel it for a THIRD time! I’m sure it will be fine. They’re on about no more restrictions by June 21st. I don’t think they’re going to be able to hold people down any longer.”
Twinnie has mentioned her Breaking Through podcast a little earlier in our chat, something else that she’s clearly very passionate about…
“Yeah, and it all stems from just trying to inspire people in a pandemic, and this is where the ‘I Know A Woman’ idea came from, because we interviewed a lady called Heidi Rose Robbins that has an amazing TedX talk about amazing women that she knew. We interview people from all industries, from the top of their field. We’ve got people like Dave Stewart on it, and Mimi D who does nails for Beyonce. Music is music, and I’m a part of that world, but I understand the creative brain, and all these people – whether they’re poets or astrologers – they all use the same part of the brain. We’ve even interviewed a top scientist because I’m so intrigued by how the body works. I think it’s cool to have a podcast that’s not just the glamour-side of peoples’ jobs. Although peoples’ stories are uniquely different, they all have the same common thread of persistence beats resistance. And truly, doing it during the pandemic really gave me a lot of hope because I was in a pretty dark place when the album came out. I was super-sad about everything. You’re just like, ‘I spent the last ten years getting here…!’ And then…! So yeah, it helped me, it was like therapy for me, and I’m hoping a lot of other people will feel that it’s inspiring. We’ve had great feedback, even though it only launched a couple of weeks ago.”
Speaking of inspirational people, Twinnie was on a podcast with American country singer Mickey Guyton back in February. And Mickey, as one of the most visible black female artists in American country music, has emerged as a formidable voice and spirit of note this past year…
“We did it for the BBC, it was me, Mickey, Abby Anderson, and Jimmie Allen. It’s really interesting speaking to other artists because I find that most of the time, unless we’re like really good friends, we just kind of keep quiet about our struggles. I don’t know if that’s just ingrained in us. So I think opening up that conversation to the public and to fans, letting them know that it’s really f*&king hard guys! Like, the music bit is easy. The f*&king music industry is a sh*tshow to navigate, especially as a woman. I never want to be played just because I’m a woman. I want to be played because my music is undeniable. Unfortunately, in some rooms, it doesn’t matter how undeniable you are. They would just prefer to play men. It’s really sad. And Mickey, I don’t know if she’s even getting played on country radio, but I hope she is. And I think she’s inspiring regardless, just to those black women in country music who are up-and-coming. It doesn’t always have to be a white face, or a male, or a cowboy hat, ya know. That’s why I love country music, because it’s very diverse, it represents different layers of people. Mickey was just really inspiring to listen to, because we both have the same kinds of struggles, but in a different way. It’s funny to me how they sign you, you have to fit in their box, but even though they loved you in the first place for what you were – Twinnie – they try to make you fit into this market, when sometimes they don’t know where to place you. Especially for me, because I think my stuff is more pop than anything in the UK. Trying to put me in a country that doesn’t really celebrate country music was a really bad, poor decision. They didn’t really listen to me.“
“It’s fine to be country/pop here [in Nashville] because there’s a market for it. So I had a very turbulent time of protesting who I was as an artist. I was like, hey, this is my music. You signed me as something you considered country, but you don’t even know what country is. Like, have you listened to the Spotify playlists? Dan and Shay and Justin Bieber are doing something together. It’s palatable pop. It’s storytelling pop. Look at Shania Twain and Taylor Swift. So that was so frustrating for me. Having somebody else who has been through those same struggles and for her to go, ‘Stick to being yourself, that’s why people love you, don’t change!’ And it’s so funny, they [record labels] say once you have a hit you can do anything, but no, that’s not true. I would rather die on the hill, die by the sword that says I’m Twinnie, this is what I do. If you like it, great. If you don’t, fine. It doesn’t matter. But I’m not gonna spend my first album, my first look to the world, being something that I’m not proud of, that I don’t think represents me.”
“Saying do something else and if it’s a hit then we’ll go back to what you want to do, screw that. That doesn’t work anyway. We saw that multiple times with artists who wanted to be a bit left-field but were turned into mainstream. Look at James Bay. My best friend produced that record, it didn’t go down well in the charts but I think it’s a great album. Your fans evolve with you, and I just didn’t want to not be myself for the first one. I struggled with that. I struggled with that with management, I struggled with that with my label, with press, I struggled with that across the board. Again, going back to the music, the music is easy for me. But when you feel like you’re a part of something that doesn’t quite get it, the emotional effect that has, and the mental damage that can do to a person, is really s*&t. So to have another artist say, ‘Hey girl, I’ve been through the same thing…’ – and Abby was the same, and Jimmie was the same. I’m like, oh my gosh! WHY do they sign people and not let them just create?! It’s just boring to me otherwise. Do you want me to just sound the same as everybody else? No. You want people to be creative because once you are creative and out of your comfort-zone, that’s when you get magic. So that’s what I endeavour, all the time, to do. Because I’d rather be different and have people hate my sound, rather than just think yeah, that’s cool…it sounds like this…! So yeah, talking to Mickey was awesome. And I know that was very long-winded! [Laughs]. I’ve had a coffee! [Laughs].”
~ The HOLLYWOOD GYPSY (Reimagined) EP from TWINNIE, is now available to pre-order on BANDCAMP, and will be released on April 17th.
BRIGHT LIGHTS, WELLIES, AND COFFEE WITH ISLA GRANT
By the time you’re reading this for the first time on the morning of Wednesday, April 7th, the line-up for the Grand Final of the 2021 series of GLÓR TÍRE will have been decided. And depending on how things went in last night’s semi-final of the long-running TG4 TV show, the mood around Killoran in Galway could be one of either elation or heartbreak. But, regardless of what’s been or what’s yet to come, two things are certain as far as student-nurse EMMA DONOHUE is concerned.
The first is that – whether last night turned out to be her last performance or whether she’ll be back next week with her mentor MIKE DENVER to try and claim the title – Glór Tíre is just another step along the way in her music career. Her time on Glor Tíre will eventually come to an end one way or another, but her career is still only in its infancy. And make no mistake about it, the name of Emma Donohue is one that will be spoken about on the Irish country music scene for many a year to come. The second thing that’s for certain for Emma…is that there’ll still be work to do on the family farm!
“You could hear a duck, a rooster, a cow, a dog, you could hear anything! And you could hear Mammy roarin’ in ten minutes! [Laughs].”
That was Emma’s response to my question about the array of background sounds coming down the phone-line when we spoke on Saturday afternoon as she prepared lunch for her family. Multi-tasking could well be this girl’s middle-name! Exactly how well Emma keeps her feet on the ground will be revealed in a story later on in our chat, but for now, let’s just say that this rising young country music star is just as comfortable living life in high-heels and under the glow of the spotlight, as she is in her Wellingtons and going wherever those boots need her to go.
Her latest single, a stomping cover of the Isla Grant hit LOVE ME TONIGHT has just been released, and to immediate acclaim from the legendary songwriter herself among others. Emma continues to juggle the life of a student-nurse who’s both working on the front-line during this pandemic as well as studying for her upcoming exams, with that of a recording artist, and with the commitments that come along with playing a central role on a show like Glór Tíre. The fact that she takes it all in her stride not only tells you everything you really need to know about the twenty-one year old, it also proves that she’s right where she’s meant to be in her life.
This year’s series of Glór Tíre followed the 2020 edition in running into an unplanned but not altogether surprising need for a Covid-related pause in proceedings. As our chat began, I wondered how much did that unscheduled break in the show affect Emma and her campaign?
“Well, obviously I was disappointed when it did take a halt, but I’m happy now that it’s back on again. I didn’t stay idle or anything during the last few weeks, though. I wasn’t planning on releasing my next single until after the show, but when the opportunity arose, I just said, ya know what now, while we’re on this break, let it go and let it fly! So I’ve been working on that single and the campaign for that. And I suppose it’s after tying in very well with radio now that Glór Tíre is coming back again. So it all fell into place nicely.”
Going into Tuesday night’s semi-final (again, last night, if you’re reading this on publication day), how was Emma feeling about being back in front of the cameras again?
“I’m feelin’ good about it, yeah. I’m excited to get back. When you get so used to something every week, and I suppose you develop that routine, when it’s taken away from ya it leaves ya on the down-side of things. But when you know you’ll be getting back into it again, it’s a ‘go, go, go!’ situation. I’m lookin’ forward to it. There’s a few butterflies, but that’s only natural, I think. It’s all good.”
At what stage on Tuesday night did Emma think it might hit her that she was actually in the Glór Tíre semi-final, and that her next time in front of the cameras could…potentially, and God-willing…be for this year’s Grand Final?
“I think as soon as I stand on the stage on Tuesday, it’ll hit me! [Laughs]. I don’t think it’s even quite hit me at all yet either. Everywhere I go people are saying congratulations on being in the semi-finals, we can’t wait to see ya, ya know. And I’m just goin’, oh yeah, grand! [Laughs]. But yeah, when I’m standing on the stage with the mic in my hand, then I’m going to realise, right…this is for real! [Laughs].”
So what has the level of support been like for Emma locally in and around her native Killoran in Galway?
“It’s been huge. I didn’t expect it! The level of support from the wider community has been absolutely huge. If I go to Tesco or anywhere in Ballinasloe, everyone is wishing me luck, they’re all coming up to me. It’s great, because there’s a good auld buzz when it’s goin’ on. But it’s definitely unexpected. You feel like you’re a local celebrity, even though you’re only from Killoran! [Laughs].”
From always being a fan of Glór Tíre in years gone by, to actually being part of the show this year, how different has it been from how Emma thought it might be?
“Well, obviously it’s very different this year because you can’t go around gigging and things like that. And unfortunately the duets with our mentors were pulled as well due to social-distancing, and that was a bit disappointing. But I have to hand it to Glór Tíre and to all the staff and to all the crew that’s working on it, they’ve been absolutely mighty. Anything that you need, or that you want, they’re there on hand. They’re so helpful. It’s like a big family, is how I describe it. Anything you need in any way, shape, or form, they don’t bat an eyelid, they just sort it out. And that does add to the whole experience of it, because it makes it a lot more fun, and for you – as the contestant – it puts you a lot more at ease.”
While Glór Tíre is undoubtedly a great platform for any new artist to showcase their talents, it’s so important to also have plans for after the show comes to an end. And in that regard, Emma definitely has a few things up her sleeve…
“Yeah, I’m currently working on my album, so when restrictions lift, hopefully I can get back into the studio. I’m working on that with Enda Dempsey and Paddy Jordan, and all going well, I hope to have it out next year. If not, definitely very early in 2022. There’s a lot of lively songs comin’ on it, a lot of well-known songs as well, that people will like. So I’ll be focusing a lot on that. We’ll plan as much as we can for the future, but it’s still unknown territory whether we’ll be back gigging or anything like that. But if an opportunity arose where there was an outdoor festival, I’d be willin’ to jump on that opportunity or anything else that might be goin’ on. I’d definitely get involved with things. But I suppose the album now would be my main focus. I’ll be gettin’ out more singles and music videos as well, if I can.”
As far as that album goes, how set in Emma’s mind is the final shape that things will take? Or is there – and excuse the pun – still a little play in how that all might go?
“There’s a little bit of play at hand, for sure. We haven’t finalised fully all the songs we want to do yet. I think there’s at least two that are in the mix for whether we’ll keep or whether we’ll leave for another day. It’s very much open at this stage. With this album I want it to be about me. As everyone probably knows, I’m a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none [laughs], but I do have that personality where I’m kind of happy-go-lucky, and go with the flow. But I want this album to portray the message I want to get out, bringing back old songs that haven’t been released in a long time, but put a new lease of life in them. But I want that to match who I am, so I suppose it’s trial and error as well. And I definitely want to put in an original song as well. Lookit, hopefully it will all work out!”
Well Emma’s brand new single is certainly an older song that she has brought back to life again, and how! Love Me Tonight, written by the brilliant Scottish singer/songwriter Isla Grant, was a part of Isla’s Only Yesterday album nearly twenty years ago. And in the week just gone, as Emma’s version went to radio and was released, she even had a bit of a surprise from Isla herself…!
“I did! We serviced the single to radio, to all the presenters, through Debra Dowler, at Debra Communications, and she did a fantastic job. And out of that, I actually got acknowledged by Isla herself, which was a huge, huge surprise! I had to look at it two or three times to see was it actually real [laughs]. But it was! She messaged me and said she was delighted with what I had done with her song, she loved this version of it, and she wished me luck in Glór Tíre as well. And then, through further emails, she said that one day when restrictions lift hopefully we’ll get to meet up for a coffee and a chat. So it’s a huge honour to be acknowledged by the woman who wrote and produced the song, but then to be invited for coffee when all this lifts was a bigger bonus! I was absolutely honoured that she loved what I did with her song. It’s always a risk when you do a cover of a song that was originally put out by the person that wrote it, because you don’t know if they’ll like it or not. To say I was on cloud-nine now would be an understatement!”
Emma had mentioned his name a few minutes previously and when last we spoke, she had emphasised the importance of the role he plays in her career, both as a friend and as her producer. And as it happens, Enda played a big part in Emma’s decision to cut Love Me Tonight…
“Yeah, he did. We had it narrowed down to three songs that we were going to do. And I was kind of humming and hawing about different ones. Ya know now when different personalities come together [laughs]. But Enda said, no now, Emma, this one is gonna be a good one. I remember him saying that he knew the guys who originally produced Isla’s recording with her back around 2000, so I think it had a sentimental meaning to him too. He said he’d been waiting for someone to do it for a long time, and he said to me, give it a go. So I said, do ya know what, let’s give it a shot. I was never ruling it out, I always wanted it to go on the album, and maybe put it out at some stage, I just didn’t know when. But he said it was going to be a good one, and I just needed to have faith in it. And he’s never steered me wrong yet. I’ve known him for a long, long time, through the dancing and everything. But as a producer, and as a best friend at this stage, he’s never steered me wrong in my music career. And the signs are on it, because the song is hopping on all the stations all week! I’m delighted.”
I asked Emma how does that feel, hearing her latest single being played all over the radio? Especially as an artist who is still relatively new to the scene and trying to establish herself in a notoriously tough business…
“It’s an absolute pinch-me moment. It really is. Everytime. It’s a surreal feeling. You’re thinking to yourself, they’re actually talking about me! My song, my music, my work. And it’s great to be acknowledged. And ya know, I have to say, fair play to all the radio presenters and DJs, because without them up-and-coming artists like myself, who are trying to make our names on the scene, it’s very difficult at best. Without them, I wouldn’t be half as far along as where I am today. They keep country music alive. To be part of their play-lists on their shows, near and far, across Ireland and further afield, it’s definitely an honour. And it’s a huge experience, and huge exposure too.”
Emma is still studying and working as a student-nurse right now, as well as living and working on the family farm, and running her Glór Tíre campaign while also building her country music career in a more general sense. That mix of different sides to her life led to a little bit of a funny encounter the very next day after the last ‘live’ show of Glór Tíre, as Emma recounted for me…
“[Laughs] After the last ‘live’ show, we came home and I was still in my lovely white dress, but that was short-lived because when we got home into the yard, Mammy was ready and waiting for work! We actually had two calves born that same night. So I was out of the dress fairly lively, and it was back into the wellies, and out the gap! [Laughs]. But the following day, unfortunately, we had a little calf that was under the weather and we had to go to the vet. And of course, Emma here was wearing wellies, a track-suit, not looking the best like she did the night before! I was sitting in the back of the trailer with the calf, waiting for the vet, and I was covered in…I won’t tell ya what! [Laughs]. Anyway, he came out, and he looked at me, and then he looked at me again, and then he said, ‘Were you not on telly last night?!’ I was, says I, and he goes, ‘Talk about a full 180 turnaround, goin’ from a white dress to being covered in muck in the back of a trailer!’ [Laughs]. But sure it made for an interesting day anyway. They were all laughing at me telling me I was a Jack-of-all-trades! But sure lookit, that’s part of life, it’s part of farming, it’s part of everything.”
As Emma takes a look back on the past year of living with Covid, working through so much of it on the front-line, and building her career as a new artist on the country scene all at the one time, what has she learned about herself that perhaps she might not have known before all of this?
“Well, I definitely had doubts, I suppose, before even goin’ on Glór Tíre, about where I was going or how I was going to make a name for myself. And I kinda didn’t know what angle to take, or how to push myself forward. Glór Tíre has helped me in so many respects. I feel like I’m a politician like, asking them to vote for me [laughs]. But that’s good in a way, because I’m actually getting a lot more confident in myself, and I’m meeting a lot more people. And now I know that the support is there if I want it. It’s just about getting a campaign out there. And that’s something that I would never have done in my life. I’d never have been out asking for votes before, or putting myself out there in so many respects, so much so that my face is plastered all around county Galway and further afield! [Laughs]. Definitely it’s all been a huge confidence boost. I didn’t know myself that I could do it. I suppose…not fully believe, but I just wouldn’t have been the kind to just say, right, let’s do this. But now, this year – and I remember saying this to Enda, and to mum and dad – I said this year was gonna be my year for music. Regardless of Covid, and regardless of anything else, I am gonna give it everything I have! And let’s see if it pays off. And so far, so good. I mean, Isla Grant has contacted me about my version of her song, I’m on Glór Tíre in the semi-final, Mike Denver – a huge name in country music – picked me to be his contestant. So even to be able to say those things, in such a short time-frame, that’s a dream come true and certainly something that I could never have seen happening in 2020.”
To wrap things up, and of course, not yet knowing what the semi-final of Glór Tíre would hold in store, I asked Emma what message she’d like to pass on to her fans and supporters…
“Thanks a million! Just thanks a million for everything they’ve done so far. I know there’s been a little bit of a break and it can be hard to get back into things, but nothing goes unnoticed. I see everyone who’s sharing posts, I see all the ‘likes’ and comments, and shares. So I want all of those people to know that none of that goes unnoticed. Everything that they do for me, be it little or large, or whatever way they want to do it, even to spreading the word to their friends or their relatives, it all really helps. And you’re making my dreams come true. That’s something that I’m very grateful for. I don’t know how I’ll ever thank everyone who’s got me behind me. I’m excited, I suppose, to see what the future holds, and to see how Glór Tíre ends up and what happens after it!”
~ LOVE ME TONIGHT, the brand NEW single from EMMA DONOHUE, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio. You can follow Emma on Facebook and Instagram at Emma Donohue Music.
Earlier this month, Kildare singer/songwriter MEGAN O’ NEILL celebrated – in as much as one can celebrate anything right now – what is always one of the biggest days in the career of any artist…album release day! Her latest collection, and her sophomore long-player, is called GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY. I doubt there has been a more sage piece of advice encapsulated in an album title anywhere this past year! But now that her new album is out in the world, is Megan getting comfortable with the fact that – after two years of putting everything together, and a full year of working on the recording process – her baby has officially flown the nest at last?
“[Laughs] It’s always a weird one when you release an album, especially for this one, because I’d worked on it for soooo long! And then I sat on it for sooo long as well because of Covid. When I was approaching the release date I was almost like, ‘Oh my God, I hope it’s still as good as I thought it was when I was in the studio?!’ [Laughs]. But yeah, I’m so thrilled it’s out, and with how it’s been received. It’s been amazing.”
When Megan released her debut album, Ghost Of You in 2018, the world was still a normal place. Now, of course, normal has taken on all kinds of new definitions, very few of which resemble that old world in any way. How different have those two experiences been?
“To be honest, there’s been pluses and minuses to it. When you’re bringing out an album, you’re usually on tour when the album comes out. Therefore, you’re just completely overwhelmed, because you’re playing gigs but you’re also doing radio stuff during the day, you’re doing press during the day. There’s an awful lot of stuff around the release of an album in a normal world when you’re able to tour. In this scenario it was actually nice because I was able to give a lot more time to long-form interviews, to doing long podcasts, and chatting to so many different people about the album. Because you had the time to sit and do it from home. And you weren’t driving to Manchester to appear on the radio, ya know! There were a lot of elements like that that I really enjoyed. But I suppose the weird thing with Covid for everybody is that you can’t mark things with celebrations. So sometimes it feels like they don’t happen. I was like that after The Late Late Show. I just came home and had a glass of wine and was sitting on the couch, and I was like, ‘Did any of that happen?!’ [Laughs].”
Does Megan think that when things come back to some kind of normal, because people have now had these new experiences of how things can be done, that there’ll be a shift in how the music industry operates? Or will everything snap back into the way it used to be?
“No, there’ll be a huge shift. Even for me, I work regularly – like two or three times a week – I would be in a songwriting session with somebody in Dublin, or Mayo, or Cork, or Belfast, or London, or Nashville, wherever. And that’s all made possible actually, because of the pandemic, and do we all do those over Zoom. In the past, I would have flown to Nashville for two weeks to write with people. I think that’s gonna be gone. I think Zoom songwriting, it’s become the norm. People have gotten really used to it. In a way, it’s really nice because you have all of your gear, like for me, I’m in my home studio and my set-up is how I like it. I’m not having to go abroad or hop in my car and drive for two hours to go work with somebody. I don’t think that change is gonna change [back], I think that’s here to stay. I think live-stream, to a certain extent, are here to stay, but will be coupled with actual real-life gigs as well. I think the way that fans probably now expect to be welcomed into your home [laughs], the way they have been for the last year, that will stay.”
Megan has described these thirteen songs as being her “most personal work so far.” For her, as a writer, I wondered if that was because of the subject matter of the songs themselves, or perhaps more so how, as a songwriter, Megan has learned how better to shape and share her experiences with the passing of time?
“I think it’s a bit of both, probably. Between ‘Ghost Of You’ and ‘Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty’ there was an awful lot of growth for me, as a songwriter, as an artist, and as a person. Growth as a person changes how you are as a writer, and as an artist. And probably what you’re open enough to talk about. Maybe for me, in the past, I was a little afraid to be that open. Or a little nervous about being that open. I think now, I’m like, screw it! [Laughs]. We’re all humans. We’re all having a shared human experience, we’ve all felt a lot of the same things, so why am I afraid to talk about it, ya know? And that will be the case even with the stuff I’m writing now, it’s even more in-line with that. I’ve invested a huge amount of my life into my songwriting, so you do get better at knowing how to portray that, I guess.”
Like so many more, I’ve known of and been a fan of Megan’s for years already at this stage. But the entire nation got to meet her and enjoy her spectacular talent when she performed on The Late Late Show recently. As a platform, the show remains the biggest in the country, and because of its long and illustrious history, it’s a landmark moment for any artist to perform on it. I asked Megan to tell me how that experience was for her…
“Yeah, The Late Late is an institution, so it’s a career milestone for a lot of Irish artists, and it certainly was for me. ‘Time In A Bottle’, the cover that Mark and I did, was on Firefly Lane (the Netflix series) and had attracted a lot of attention. So I got the call to go up to The Late Late. In one way, I was upset that it wasn’t non-pandemic times because I would have loved a ‘live’ audience there, and I would have loved my family to be in that audience. Because this was huge for them as well, having supported me so much in my career. But in another way, because of Covid, so many more people tune into The Late Late. So again, two sides to the same coin, pros and cons. But I was so thrilled to showcase that song. Ryan Tubridy was amazing, and so full of the most lovely things to say, both on-screen and backstage. The actual recording of it was a bit mad, because everyone was in masks and socially-distanced. It feels a bit abnormal. But just like anything, when the lights go down and the performance starts, you get in the zone. It was amazing, and I’m so happy to have done it.”
Before going on to talk a little bit more about some of Megan’s own songs on Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty, I wanted to ask her about the approach she and Mark ‘Cappy’ Caplice took to recording Time In A Bottle. It’s such a gorgeous song even to begin with, and obviously such a well-known song to those of us who would be big fans of the late singer/songwriter Jim Croce. So how did Megan and Cappy take on the challenge of a song like that, respecting the original, but also, I was sure, wanting to be original in what they did with it?
“Hmm, yeah. Mark and I recorded and produced that song for the Netflix series, Firefly Lane. And we chose to do that one because they were looking for a female version of that song. That was the motivation behind going into the studio to do it. We had a lot of conversations about the song, because yeah, that song is so precious to so many people, myself included. I grew up listening to that song, it’s one of my mam’s favourites. With songs like that, that you know are so loved, you’re like, ‘Ok, how am I going to do this?’ You don’t want to get too close to the original because you don’t want people to listen to it and be like, oh she never should have touched that! Yeah, we had a lot of discussions about making it uniquely our own, and we came up with this version which would be very haunting and very ethereal. The day it came to recording it – well, it was all in the one day, the discussions and the recording – we just turned off all the lights in the studio, lit a candle, and just went for a take. And that’s actually the take that you hear. And we didn’t even do it to a ‘click’, the timing of the track is not as we would usually do it, we just wanted it to be free-flowing. It was one of those performances where it was so important to capture the energy, not a note-perfect, metronome-perfect, timing-perfect track. It was more so capturing the emotion of the song. I think that’s what worked so well in it.”
Megan has described the track London City as being the hardest song to write on Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty. But did that then make it the hardest song to record as well? Was it just in that first fire of creation – the actual writing of the song – that she had to battle through the emotions or memories that gave life to it in the first place, and are still wrapped up in it? Or do you have to go through those all over again when you record the song?
“So, I didn’t think I’d have to! [Laughs]. But I did. I thought I’d be fine. I wrote that song with The Dunwells, maybe in the summer of 2018 when I knew I was going to be leaving London in the October time. So I was feeling all those things, grieving a place before you have to leave. And it was really difficult to write, yeah. It was very emotional to write. And then, when it came to actually recording the vocals of it – because we’d built the track around it first, and we were doing the vocals probably six months later – I thought I was fine! I was like, ‘I’m grand!’ [Laughs]. I can get through this! But I just balled, the whole day we were recording that song. Poor Dave Dunwell, he was the one at the keypad, torn between oh no, I really want to capture this emotion, so maybe I’ll just get her to push through? But also, maybe she just needs some fresh air?! [Laughs]. I left London because my dad’s not well. And at the same time, I don’t know if you’re ever really ready to leave London. It was a real push-and-pull for me for a long time.”
Megan spoke recently about how she had invested a huge amount of time into her songwriting in the past few years. Did that investment take the form of more time simply spent writing? Was it time spent studying the art and the craft of songwriting? More time co-writing, perhaps? I asked Megan to expand…
“I think songwriting is a life-long education. It’s always gonna require the investment of your time. And again, as I said, because you’re growing as an individual, your needs with your songwriting – whether it’s to write in different genres, whether it’s to write with different influences, whether it’s to write about different topics – all of that requires more work. And that’s more investment of your time. So for me, throughout the last year, I’ve done a lot of solo songwriting which has been really enjoyable because I would have been more focused on the co-writing element in the past. And solo stuff usually takes on a different angle for me when I write by myself. I’m exploring that and finding it really interesting. then a lot of co-writing is writing for other artists, which is a new-ish thing for me. I’ve always done that, but in the last few years I suppose, that’s been more prevalent, and I’ve been writing other peoples’ stories. That’s been really exciting. I’ve got some songs coming out with other artists in the next year which I’m incredibly excited about! So yeah, it’s more time invested in co-writing, it’s more time writing in certain directions – whether that’s for another artist or for synch, or a brief – and it’s also been more time invested for me in learning production. I’ve been doing a production course since the beginning of this year. So it’s a lot of time staring at Logic and pulling my hair out [Laughs].”
While there are very few artists in a position to see any light at the end of the tunnel as far as ‘live’ shows go just yet, Megan is one of those who can, with dates in the diary for Ireland and the UK in October. As far as those dates go, is the hope that by the time October gets here they’ll be able to take place in conditions as close as possible to how they would have done pre-Covid, or are they being planned with a new set of logistics that now, and possibly for the foreseeable future, will include Covid considerations?
“They’re basically being planned both ways, a Plan A and a Plan B. Ideally, Plan A is everything goes ahead as normal if everybody is vaccinated. Plan B is hey, here’s what we have to do if we social-distance. I’m very optimistic that they can go ahead, even if they have to go ahead under certain restrictions. Ideally, if they can go ahead without social-distancing, it will be a full-band situation. But if they have to go ahead with social-distancing, and you can only fill half the room, it would be really hard for me to bring a full-band, obviously. But to be honest with you, I’m just playing it by ear. I’m not stressing about the outcome. It’s just, look, those are in the diary, and I’m really hopeful that we can do them. But these are my third rescheduling of these dates. So…[laughs]…I’ve kind of gotten used to the push-and-pull of that for now [laughs].”
Many artists are now of the opinion that if something seems possible to try, then let’s do it and see how we can make it work. Because once things begin to happen, and people can better judge what is possible and isn’t, what does work, and doesn’t, that in itself will create a sense of confidence that can be built upon further. Would Megan be of the same opinion?
“Yeah. And I’ve got more shows to be announced abroad, as well as these ones. And if it’s the case that it’s going to be building a new method of doing events, I want to be a part of that. I don’t want to be waiting, just sitting waiting until everything is back full-tilt. That could be…2023! And then I’m like, great, I haven’t played a show in three years! [Laughs]. I’d much rather be in with the movement and seeing what’s possible.”
When Megan and I last spoke in July of 2020, it had, at that stage, been only a few months since Megan had last been on stage. The 9th of March this year, however, marked a full year since her last ‘real-life’ show. Mind you, that was in support of Jamie Cullum at the Bord Gais in Dublin, so as far as last shows to look back on go, that’s not too shabby! Throughout her career, Megan’s ‘live’ shows have been an intrinsic element of who she is as an artist, and how she connects with her fans. And over the past few years, as well as her own full diary, Megan has ticked off some seriously high-profile gigs, opening not just for the aforementioned Mr. Cullum, but also Sir Tom Jones, the Lighthouse Family, and alongside Gavin James at some private Oscars’ parties in L.A.
Now, when some of the shows you’ve been missing out on over the past year are ones like that, I can only imagine the chasm it leaves in an artist’s world. But, what I wanted to know was this. When the moment finally comes around that Megan can walk back out under the spotlight, in front of a venue full of people again (at whatever capacity), for one of her own shows or to open for someone else…what’s that moment going to feel like? Is that the kind of moment that Megan sometimes day-dreams about?
“Oh my gosh! All the time! ALL the time! It’s been such a huge part of my life that, through no fault of mine or of anyone else, it’s just been wiped from underneath me. And I know that’s the case with everybody. 2020, for me, was my biggest year to date. It was two albums. One with a label – a compilation album – and then my own album was coming out. A hundred-plus shows all over the world. I was geared up for an incredible year. And there’s certainly an element for artists now, that feels almost like you’re starting from scratch again. On the one hand, the thoughts of a ‘live’ gig are so exciting, like, I’m jumping out of my skin and I’m like, ‘OH MY GOD!’ [Laughs]. But, on the other hand, I’m anxious about it. By the time these gigs come around [in October], it will have been eighteen months. Playing ‘live’ again will definitely be a little bit scary. And playing with a full-band again. I’ve gotten so used to just playing by myself! Playing with a full-band will be weird. But, the excitement part of it will be much stronger than the anxious part of it!”
As Megan had previously referred to the two years around the process of making Getting Comfortable With Uncertainty as being a period that left her feeling “pretty battered”, I wanted to end our chat with something a little more personal. So, as we sat there on the morning of Friday, March 26th, 2021…how was she feeling? In both a personal and a professional sense?
“I’m great! Yeah, I’m in a really good place. And I’m so grateful for that! There’s been a lot of…yeah, s*it [laughs]…and a lot of stuff that’s been really hard to get through. But I firmly believe, I really strongly believe, that you don’t grow from a place of comfort. You just don’t. You grow – well, I certainly have grown – when you go through really tough stuff. And for me, I’m still dealing with my dad’s illness at home, which is really hard. And that’s a big part of my life right now. But I’m really grateful to be here to actually, ya know…be here! And that’s a benefit of the pandemic in a weird way, it’s allowed me more time with my family, where I’m not out touring and I’m not away. But yeah, both personally and professionally at the moment, I feel really happy where I am. I feel really excited about what’s coming in the next year or two. I work really hard at putting myself consistently in a good space. And I’m grateful for everything.”
~ GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH UNCERTAINTY, the brand NEW album from MEGAN O’ NEILL, is OUT NOW and available on all platforms.