Fans of LARISSA TORMEY are in for a double-delight later this month with the news that the singer/songwriter will be releasing not one, but two brand new dvds.
The video collections – THANK GOD I’M A COUNTRY GIRL, and BREATH OF FRESH AIR – will be available from Monday, OCTOBER 18th, released through the Tyrone based MUSIC CITY record label. And for Larissa, teaming up with Terry Corrigan and his team is something that she’s definitely looking forward to…
“Most artists are independent these days, to a large extent, and with only a few exceptions, such as the very biggest names. So one of the biggest challenges for any artist is to find people who you can work with – and work well with – in different areas of your career. That’s the trick to building up the kind of team you need to have around you when you’re not actually signed to a major label. So for me, to be working with Terry again on this double-DVD project is fantastic.”
Larissa continued, “I’m delighted to be able to offer these two video collections to my fans. With the long evenings settling in now, hopefully people will enjoy watching them and enjoying my music. And because I’m working with Terry and Music City, I know that distribution is going to be well taken care of, as it always is with Terry.”
Speaking about their new collaboration, Mr. Corrigan of Music City said, “We’ve been promoting country and Irish stars for over twenty years, and we’re delighted to partner with Larissa in the promotion and distribution of her new video collections, and indeed, on her last three albums as well. Fans should watch out for all of Larissa’s merchandise from their local music suppliers and stockists, and of course, they can order directly from our website at www.musiccitydirect.com, and Larissa’s own website, too.”
If anyone thought that Larissa, who has already enjoyed a busy and successful 2021, even in spite of the well-documented challenges faced by the music industry, might decide to wind down her year with this double-DVD release, well, they’d be wrong. Larissa, whose latest single Crowded Places (from Larissa’s own songbook) is already heading towards five figures in Spotify streams, has hinted that her biggest news of the year might, in fact, be yet to come…
“I’m very grateful to have enjoyed a really good year musically, and that’s what has made dealing with everything else – all of the uncertainty in the music world – easier to cope with. So I want to end this year in a special way. For one thing, to say to everyone, yes…we made it through! But also to remember those who we might have lost along the way, like our neighbour Tom [Lynam], who was the brilliant star of the video for my song, Old Fashioned, but sadly passed away not long after. And as well, I think now is a time when we all need to look ahead too, and remind ourselves that we still have many bright times to come, and many better days and nights to celebrate. So, I’m working on something that I’m excited about, and I’m looking forward to being able to share more about it very soon!”
~ THANK GOD I’M A COUNTRY GIRL, and BREATH OF FRESH AIR, the brand NEW video collections from LARISSA TORMEY, are released via Music City on Monday, October 18th (and available direct from www.musiccitydirect.com and www.larissatormey.com).
Just shy of a year ago now, I had the pleasure of hearing from classical-crossover artist GRACE FOLEY for the first time. A native of Killarney, Grace dropped me a line to let me know about her plans to release a Christmas EP – A Time For Christmas – on November 27th of 2020. Unfortunately we weren’t able to plan anything at the time, and between one thing and another it took us until last week to finally sit down for a chat. But I’ll tell you what, never has a first email from someone so guaranteed that they would be featured in OTRT at some stage.
As you’ll find out as our chat goes on, Grace is an exceptionally talented individual, with her gift for singing matched by her gift with words. I can’t remember too much else about the day I first heard from Grace, but I know for certain that all I did while reading her email was either laugh or smile at her sense of humour and her flair for storytelling.
When someone tells you about recording a song in their wardrobe and deadpans that it “was a new experience”, shares that, “Basically, I have been creatinga lot and narrowly avoiding lockdowns all year!”, and – and perhaps most importantly – reveals that she made sure her little dog kept her company and was part of things when she performed on RTE’s Today show with Dáthí O’ Sé and Maura Derrane via Skype…well come on, how can you not like that kinda person?!
So yes, it took a while to plan, but I finally had the privilege of catching up with Grace the day after she had the photoshoot for her album cover last week. And, as I knew she would, Grace lived up to all expectations.
Our chat got underway by talking about how the big shoot day had gone…
“It went really well! It’s a bit crazy to get to that stage, because the cover of your album – certainly in my case anyway – it’s the last hurdle, or the last thing on the to-do list. So it certainly feels very final now. I haven’t seen the pictures yet, so I can’t tell you too much anyway [laughs]. But when I finally see them, and finally see the name of the album on those photos, it’s going to feel way more real. It was the last big thing to be done, so it kind of feels a bit like we’re all there now!”
I get the impression with Grace that a lot of thought goes into everything she does, and that something as important as her album cover would definitely be no different. Did it feel like a bit of a project in itself?
“Yeah, it’s lots of mini-projects. Everything from writing my own songs, to choosing what musicians you want to have on it, onto the cover and the details on that. I definitely wouldn’t be the kind of person who would just say let’s use an old photograph and put a name on it, ya know [laughs].”
Before we moved on to Grace’s new single, I wondered if her album had a title yet, and if she had any idea on when this collection would be coming our way?
“I’m hoping to share the album in the very last week of November, but I haven’t got an exact date yet. I’m going to be releasing it in physical form first – actual cds – and then a couple of weeks later, kind of mid December, it will be available to download online. Just to be a bit different, it’s going to be gradually appearing [laughs]. I haven’t announced the name yet, so I’m gonna keep that a secret for a little longer. But a clue would be that it’s actually the second in a trilogy, and the first part of that was my EP, ‘Unleashed.’ So it’s kind of going to be another UN… [laughs]. And then there’ll be a third Un at some stage in the future to finish off. So there’ll be ‘Unleashed’, ‘Un’-something else, and ‘Un’-something else [laughs].”
Grace’s new single, Caught Up, which will be available on all platforms from October 1st, is also her own song. In talking about it recently, Grace remarked that it’s about, “…people appearing perfectly fine on the surface, but you never know what’s going on in someone’s mind.” Obviously a song that’s quite personal to her?
“It’s really very much related to mental health. I’ve often had panic attacks and that kind of thing. I also go out and wear make-up, and I know a lot of people do the same thing, you put a smile on your face, but you can’t really read what’s going on in everybody’s life, inside their mind and their heart. We can all wear a bit of a mask, so it’s like don’t judge anyone by their cover, because you never know what’s going on underneath that. It’s a circular song, if that makes any sense? There’s a line, ‘Caught up, all in circles on the inside’, that’s the opening line of the whole thing. It’s about going around and around inside yourself, appearing fine on the outside but churning away on the inside. I started putting some ideas for this song together pre-lockdown, and then I got some funding from the Arts Council, which I used on this song and on ‘Goodbye To Dublin’ which I released as part of my Christmas EP last year. Songs you had written yourself, that’s what the funding was for, and I started with this one. Then, because of the pandemic, I was thinking a lot about artists, musicians, and entertainers in general, we’re all very good at putting out great stuff, online concerts and everything. But I was thinking about these poor artists who were probably smiling away, but probably so upset on the inside. So the music video itself, and you’re the first person to hear this, is actually on an empty stage, in an empty theatre. It reflects the mental health of everyone in the entertainment industry. That’s the road I went with the video. It all ties in. It went from being very much my own story, to being one for every artist out there.”
And that video will be debuting on Grace’s YouTube channel on October 10th, which is actually World Mental Health Day.
Grace mentioned anxiety, and one of the things I love to talk to all artists about is what goes through their minds in the minutes and moments before they go on stage, because for a lot of people, that can be an anxious time. Does anxiety affect Grace’s performance in any way at all?
“In a very different way. I would say in the run-up to a concert it’s very hard to keep all of the anxiety in check. It’s not the performance adrenaline. It’s a daily, continuous adrenaline which is very different. Performance adrenaline comes just before you go on, but then it morphs into a nicer adrenaline [laughs]. The practise one keeps you on a little bit of a high over a couple of weeks! Depending on the type of performance, there can be a couple of wobbly weeks before it where you’re going, oh God…will it all be ok?! But that’s different from general anxiety. But yeah, there’s definitely performance anxiety that begins well before the concert, but then that day, it’s a slight excitement. And then just before I’m about to go on stage – and I’ve spoken to fellow artists about this and they’re the same – I’ll stand side-stage and say, ‘Why do I do this to myself?!’ I brought this on myself! Nobody forced me to do this! I don’t have to do this!’ [Laughs]. My legs are ready to run away [laughs]. But afterwards, I’d always say this is the best feeling in the world, and I’ll never question it again. But then the next time, it happens all over again! [Laughs]. I think artists, like a lot of people, can struggle with their mental health. It’s a rollercoaster anyway because artists can often be quite connected to their emotions, because you have to be to do what we do.”
As well as Grace’s forthcoming single Caught Up being an original, she’s also written Together Apart, and co-written Close The Door with Dave McCune. So it’s fair to say that her artistry extends beyond the beauty of her voice and into her songwriting as well. I asked Grace to tell me about that side of her and that side of her life…
“I still consider it a very new side to me. When I was finishing recording ‘Unleashed’ in the studio with Dave McCune in Dublin, somebody said something about how maybe someday I’d sing my own stuff, and I said I’d love to do that. I like to write, I said, but I’d never written a song. In school I always liked English, and I used to write poetry when I was younger, and I wrote a column for a local publication here in Killarney. Then Dave, who was right next to me in the studio at the time, said, ‘Well, I’ve written music myself, so if you ever want to team up, we’ll have a think about it. That stuck in the back of my mind, and I started writing down some ideas. In 2019, when the homelessness crisis in Ireland was becoming more and more apparent, well, like a lot of things when you’re an artist, you’re thinking is there anything I could do. And I was thinking maybe I could sing something. And a bit like with ‘Together Apart’ when the pandemic started, at both those times I thought well why don’t I get my own feelings down on paper? It was driven by a need to say something. ‘Close The Door’ is a song I’m very, very proud of, I wish it had gotten more airing at the time. It was weird, because when I started writing the lyrics to it I knew I wanted to give the proceeds to the Simon Community, but I hadn’t done my research on it. So I didn’t even realise at the time that ‘close the door’ was their slogan. I went to their website the next day, saw that, and I was like, oh my God, this is meant to be! [Laughs].”
“So I wrote the lyrics”, said Grace, “and Dave McCune wrote the melody, and I had some input on the melody too. We got the musicians into the studio in Dublin and they all gave us their time for free. We got the videographer from Tralee, he gave us his time as well. It’s a song I hope we can use again, because unfortunately it’s not a crisi that has gone anywhere. And ‘Together Apart’ was born from the same feeling, wanting to say something about something big that was happening in the world. That’s how it’s happened for me so far. The Christmas one, ‘Goodbye To Dublin’, I did try and sit down and write a song, but they all kind of flowed. There was another one, but it was terrible [laughs], I spent half an hour looking at it and thinking ahhh this doesn’t work [laughs]. So I think I need to be inspired! I think I’m one of those people. Some people have their writing time, I think I need to have inspiration. And at the moment inspiration is a bit low to the ground, I’m afraid, trying to create an album and raise a child at the same time [laughs]. I’m hoping that there’s some bits and pieces in Anna’s short life so far that I’ve written down about her, that maybe I’ll get to write a song about her someday. That’s the next thing that’s in my mind, but we’ll get this album out first!”
As well as some of her own originals, Grace also has a Bryan Adams classic – maybe THE Bryan Adams classic – on the record. So, what I needed to know is was this a particular weakness on Grace’s part, a guilty pleasure perhaps, or the flicker of a long-standing love affair from long before she met her husband, John? What was the story?
“[Laughs] I’d love to say it was something as romantic as that! [Laughs]. Every year for the last few years, when it comes up to Christmas time, I record a song for my parents for their Christmas present. And they very much love the classical-crossover stuff, especially my mom, the Italian and English mix. I heard Katherine Jenkins singing it and I thought it was a beautiful song but it kind of went out of my head. Then I came across the Bryan Adams version and I thought, I wonder if I could sing that? The Katherine Jenkins version was entirely in Italian, then I listened to his one and his is so passionate in English. I didn’t want to sing it in italian because it had been done, but it’s such a romantic song it really lends itself to the classical-crossover voice. So I said I’d try it in English and Italian, and I recorded it for them for Christmas. The minute they heard it they said I couldn’t keep it to myself, that I’d have to release it at some stage. So very selflessly of them, they gave away their present [laughs]. We developed it slightly more than the version we presented to them. We had decided pre-pandemic that I was going to release three singles last year; ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Everything I Do (I Do It For You)’, and ‘Silent Night.’ Little did I know what was going to happen. But I had started to have everything organised in January and February for the year, and that was one of the songs. Everybody probably thinks it’s about John, but with everything I’ve done over the years my parents have given me everything. So I wanted to say, everything I do, I do it for you, to them. The love of a child for their parents is the inspiration for that one.”
What other songs have become presents like that over the years?
“For my wedding, I actually did ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’, and that’s on the album. That’s kind of blown my mind recently, because towards the end of the time I was looking at my options for the album and I was thinking right, how am I going to manage this. Then I think it was Brendan, down in the studio in Killarney, he said, ‘That song you recorded years ago’ – which I kind of put on my YouTube channel but I didn’t do a whole lot with, I got it mastered at the time and I didn’t even know why I did that! – but he said, ‘That’s a gorgeous song.’ And then, ya know what, after the year that it’s been and with Anna being born and everything, wouldn’t it be nice to have that on there? I had a lot of time away from my family, but I didn’t actually sing that song online during the year but I often thought about it because it reminded me of them. Then suddenly, it shifted, and that song had a new story and I thought I’ll have to think about its new meaning for me. I had a listen to it one day, John and I went out into the car, I wanted to listen to the running-order of the entire album before it went to mastering, so I was chopping and changing it. So we put that on, and I hadn’t listened to it in ages. I completely broke down in tears! It had a different meaning to when I recorded it for mam and dad because now it’s for her, for my daughter. And I’m so glad it’s on the album now. That song has gone on a bit of a journey. I think I wasn’t actually meant to release that properly until now. That song’s been around for a while. So, these Christmas presents, they grow legs! [Laughs].”
When Grace had first got in touch with me, she told me that contralto – how she sings – was “a classical style of singing, but with a dark edge…”
“Well, contralto is the lowest female voice in the classical world. That’s what I am. Sopranos are what you’d hear most often, and tenors you’d hear of a lot in the classical world. They’ve the highest voices. But contralto is the most rare voice type in the world. And over the years, be it in contemporary style or classical, everyone would say that it was very rich, like chocolate, like gold. So there’s lovely colours and lovely descriptions that come with it. And it is, it’s a classical voice, and a classical crossover voice with a dark edge, my voice just has a darker colour. No matter what I sing, be it a happy song or a romantic song, whatever it is, there is a darker sound to it. And that can bring a little bit of a melancholy to the way I sing because there is that…maybe slightly more lonesome sound to my voice. So it was never a decision to sing this way, it’s just the voice I was born with.”
So was it a big surprise for Grace to find out that her voice was one of the rarest kinds in the world? Or how does that happen?
“It was very unusual. And what’s even more unusual is that the first singing teacher that I ever had, Áine Nic Gabhainn , fourteen I think I was, and I didn’t have a clue about classical music or anything. She was listening to me for a bit and, ‘Well!’, she said – and she herself was a contralto, so she always knew how rare it was – and she said, ‘You’re probably one of the youngest I’ve come across to have such a developed lower range, you actually are a contralto.’ And sure I didn’t have a clue what that was! Mezzo is the middle, and contralto is the lowest, and even the mezzo in the college would say, God, you just have a different voice to the mezzo voice, which is Katherine Jenkins, let’s say for example. She wouldn’t sound all that different, but my voice quality would be darker. Even if I’m singing something now, there’s always someone in the room who just knows their stuff, and they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, a contralto!’ I just find it fascinating that somebody will always know what it is [laughs]. It’s kinda cool! It’s been tough too, because when I was younger it was always harder for me to sing the higher stuff, but that’s kind of settled now. It’s a privilege, I think, to have this voice.”
Grace has previously spoken about the tremendous support she’s received from three men in particular; Dave McCune (mentioned earlier in our chat), Brendan O’ Connor, and the great Liam O’ Connor. I asked Grace to explain the importance of kindness like that being shown towards an artist like herself who is on the upward climb in her career…
“I think everyone in this industry, and everyone in any job, you can just do your job, but there’s people out there who go that extra mile when they’re working with you. And especially Dave and Brendan, because I work with them very closely. One of the first people to find out I was pregnant was Dave McCune because I was going up to record with him when I was six weeks pregnant, and no-one knew. Suddenly, I became really unwell, and I didn’t want to cancel because I knew the pandemic was just getting worse and worse. So I said, ok, I’m gonna have to go, but it’s the middle of the pandemic and I look a bit grey so they’re gonna say why did you come in here sick?! [Laughs]. But he treated me so kindly, and he always did, we’ve always had that relationship. But even recently he’s gone that extra mile again, trying to finish off the album. Like, I don’t have a big budget, I’m an independent artist, I’ve had no work for so long. But he’s done so much extra work, especially in the last couple of weeks. I’m aware of how much more he did than he should have done for what he got paid [laughs]. And Brendan’s the same, and it’s not even mate’s rates because we’ve only worked together professionally, but we’ve become friends. During this whole time I’ve been recording some stuff in Dublin, and then Brendan too, I had to tell him quite early on as well that I was pregnant. And I was sayin’ to him, look, don’t let on anything cos’ I was tryin’ to get a bit done before Christmas. I hadn’t publicly announced it at that stage. They’ll both say things, Grace, maybe this isn’t really the way to go with this. But then they’ll both really listen, and it’s a lovely thing to feel so heard, especially when you are an up-and-coming artist. Neither of them care if they’re working with a famous person or an up-and-coming artist, they don’t care. They’ll give you the exact same amount of attention. They’re both very different men, and they’re in different parts of the country, but they’re both an absolute pleasure to work with. And it’s lovely in the industry as well that neither of them are ever like, ‘Oh, but you’ve gone to this other studio to do this…’, you know? They don’t work together on any of the songs, they’ve always worked independently on different tracks, but if I ever mention one to the other it’ll be, ‘Ah yeah, you did that song with Dave…’, or ‘You did that one with Brendan’, so I’m blessed.”
Grace continued, “And then with Liam O’ Connor, he came into my life when I was releasing Unleashed a few years ago. He’s such a phenomenal performer. Obviously living here in Killarney, so I was very ballsy, and I thought is there any chance he might come and play a song at the launch because he’s just so exciting, he’s amazing. We didn’t know each other at all, we probably might just have seen each other at a couple of events, we’d never spoken. But I got his number, gave him a quick text, thought he might say that he didn’t have time, but not only did he ring me back, he took me for a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee one day! We talked for about five or six hours, and he gave me loads of advice. He came along that night, gave a phenomenal performance, stayed around afterwards and had a couple of drinks with us. He came on this album as well, very same thing. He rang back straight away and said yeah, he’d do it, anything to help out. It’s kindness like that during a time when we’ve all been hit. Those men in those studios, they’re busy now, but they were very quiet for a long time. Liam the same. I’ll never forget their kindness.”
Before our time came to an end, I asked Grace about her column for the Classical Crossover magazine, the wonderfully – and aptly – titled Grace Notes…
“I’m quite a storyteller, I think I write columns differently to other people. They’re not just factual factual, I always have a bit of an emotional reaction to things in that. It’s kind of my perception of the world of the arts, different things about it, like online versus ‘live’ performance. That was an interesting one for me to even write. I don’t have a big plan when I’m writing, I just sit down and I start. It kind of helps me figure stuff out when I’m writing it. I write about the role of music in my own life, the role of music in the world, there’s a lot of me in my columns as well. Particularly in that one about online versus in-person performance, it was me thinking out loud. That’s kind of what the column is, it’s me thinking out loud! [Laughs]. I give my opinion on classical crossover music, and look at why people like it. I often ask questions in them, I don’t always get answers back from people, but I still ask the questions. I hope that will make people ask themselves questions about music. When you’re at a concert and you don’t know the artist, or you’ve never been an artist, or maybe you’re a performing artist yourself, if you read one of my columns I’d like to think that you’re not separated from that person on stage. That instead, you’ll be thinking, ‘I wonder are they like that girl that wrote that column? I wonder if they are feeling this way backstage? I wonder are they delighted to be back performing ‘live’ again? I wonder if they miss performing online?’ So yeah, it’s me thinking out loud, and I’m hoping that it will allow people who read it who aren’t performers, to kind of get into the mindset of a performer.”
~ CAUGHT UP, the brand NEW single from GRACE FOLEY will be available on all platforms from Friday, OCTOBER 1st. And keep an eye out for the accompanying video which will premiere on Grace’s YouTube channel on World Mental Health Day, October 10th.
It’s a rare privilege indeed to have the honour of interviewing someone who you know – without even the slightest shadow of a doubt – has already written themselves into the cultural and artistic history of your country. And make no mistake about it, Galway woman EÍMEAR NOONE, one of the world’s most esteemed, respected, and phenomenally talented conductors and composers, has done just that. And in no small way, either.
Eímear is many things, all of them fuelled by a fierce passion, a soul that has the deep, instinctual wisdom of many lifetimes, and a creative spirit that is in constant, poetic motion. In time, when her name graces the pages of histories of Ireland, it won’t be reserved simply to the sections on culture, art, music, or entertainment, although none of those will truly be complete without acknowledging her impact on and legacy in all of those areas.
Eímear Noone is a trailblazer. A pioneer. A leader. A teacher. A superhero who walks among us, as one of us, but as an inspiration to all of us. She is, as I pointed out when Part 1 of our chat was published back at the beginning of November, a real-life Wonder Woman. Her gift to Irish society as a whole, but especially to young girls and women of all ages, will be deep and lasting. It will, I’m sure, provide the spark that ignites passions and the self-belief and faith that weaves a fearlessness to be worn as armour around the heart for dreamers to come who will either whisper to themselves or scream at the top of their lungs: “Eímear Noone did it! So I can, too!”
Perhaps the most brilliant of all the many brilliant things about Eímear Noone, however, is that she carries this destiny as if it were but a feather upon her shoulder.
Never, for a moment, believe that ridiculous myth so often rehashed that just because someone might possess a fantastic talent in some particular area, that it gives them free-license to be rude, or disrespectful, or ignorant, or arrogant in any other areas of their life. It does not. Anyone with some great talent but who is also all or any of those other things, is just an nasty human being with their talent being perhaps their one redeeming feature.
Eímear, however, from the village of Kilconnell in the land of the Tribes, perfectly balances the brilliance of her musical gifts with a generosity of spirit and a humanity so wonderful that it slays forever the myth referred to above. We’re all flawed in our own ways, but those who possess a capacity for genius that carries within it the force of a supernova, can also be human beings whose capacity to bring light, laughter, love, and kindness to others is potentially endless. And this we know in large part because Eímear Noone walks the earth, among us, and as one of us, while inspiring each of us to be more, be better, be authentic.
Today, Part 2 of our chat begins by taking us back to 2011, when Eímear put together a St. Patrick’s Day concert in L.A. called This Is Ireland. Given the monumental amount of work that goes into putting on any ‘live’ event, I’m sure this is something she wouldn’t have done without a genuine love of her country. But Eímear has also spoken about how at the start of her career, she “couldn’t even get a chance to screw up in Ireland.” And remarkably – and somewhat disturbingly – how one lecturer in Trinity College even referred to her once as, ‘Little Miss No-One.’ If Eímear was beginning her career in Ireland today, I wondered if she thought the country had grown up enough to love her back in a far more positive way than back then? And also, did she think she would be afforded those chances – to even screw up – today?
“Well, I’m excited to do some things at home soon. We just released a film called Two By Two: Overboard!, and we recorded the score here in Dublin, and it was just an absolute blast to do it here at home. There were players in the orchestra that I haven’t seen since music college, ya know. It was just way too much fun. It was a massive, massive dose of positivity, and I loved every second of it. And I do have some concerts coming up here that I’m excited about, but I can’t really speak about because they’re a moving target at this point [laughs]. But I see a lot of wonderful green-shoots [in Ireland]. I see a lot of old attitudes being dropped. They’re just not appropriate in 2020. And the other thing is, I’ve been very frank about these things because I feel like the younger ones coming up behind me, by me being vocal about it…it’s not a weirdness or a bitterness or anything like that. I look back on these things with a kind of curiosity at this point, because they almost feel like they’re something out of a movie. I’ve been vocal about how inappropriate those things are. When I told my brother about that lecturer saying, ‘Well if it isn’t Little Miss No-One’, my brother goes, ‘Well No-One’s perfect!’ [laughs]. And I was thinking well why weren’t you there?! [laughs]. So I can joke about it. Everything like that, I’ve always turned it into a joke or a gag, because it’s so ridiculous. I’d be initially stung by it, but then I’d go, well hang on a sec. This is just mental! So I’m vocal about it purley so that the ones coming up behind me, when they find slings and arrows coming their way, they know they can say that’s inappropriate. Or just that it’s irrelevant! I was told that I didn’t have a chance at a career because of my gender. And someone from The Irish Times asked me that recently, what would I say to a young woman who was told that today. And I said, actually, you can’t tell that to a young Irish woman today! Because there are already a few of us out there doing it. So it’s no longer relevant [to say something like that]. And that’s wonderful, where something like that is no longer relevant, or has no basis in fact. It never did have any basis in fact. Those are energy-drains to me, those kinds of things. They drain a creative person’s energy. And that’s not helpful to anybody. That’s not helpful to the audience. You want a young artist putting their energy into creating beautiful things for the audience. By draining their creative energy, that’s just a complete waste of energy on every level.”
Eímear continued, “Now I have to say there are certain things that I love that are happening in Ireland right now. I absolutely love that the National Concert Hall has a female conductor’s program, which I’m very proud to be a part of. They have a wonderful colleague of mine, Alice Farnham, they brought her in to set up the program. I’m thrilled about that. And also, I have to say IMRO does amazing work, and Screen-Skills Ireland in terms of preparing people to work in films and video games. We have some amazing groups of people doing wonderfully positive work here. And I’m getting to know more about that since we came home. We came home for a year so that I could do all my European tours, but also to work on that Irish animated film, Two By Two: Overboard! I became reacquainted with the industry here, especially in the world of animation in Ireland. It’s just stunning what people are coming out with, the level that they’re creating at. I feel like the attitudes in the music world are changing. I feel like we need a bigger platform to get the work of female Irish singer/songwriters out there onto the world stage. I feel like that’s an area that needs a big kick in the pants. Because you’re no longer competing in Ireland, you’re competing with the whole world. When I’m in L.A., I see my colleagues from Finland and Iceland and they have such a massive presence for their population size. But they definitely work together to build together a bridge from home to the world for their artists, in a very consolidated way, and a very targeted way. It’s absolutely amazing, the kind of penetration they have in both arts and entertainment. I feel like we have more of that in the film industry, than we do in the music industry at large. And that’s not the fault of the music industry, it’s that the music industry as a whole has been taking a massive hit since the early 2000s, so it’s a smaller industry in general for us to play in.”
Eímear had mentioned in her answer to my previous question the people who would be coming up behind her, and that reminded me of something she had said about Oscars producers Stephaine Allain and Lynette Howell-Taylor. She said, “They’re amazing producers and when they’re having their moment in the sun, they’re reaching back to pull somebody else up – like me – and then I have my arm out for someone else, and that’s a chain of events that they’ve set in motion.” One of those for whom Eimear has reached out her arm, bringing her and her work to an even wider audience, is the incredible Irish designer, Claire Garvey. I asked Eímear to tell me about the connection she and Claire share…
“Claire and I met through a photographer friend called Frances Marshall, he specialises in photographing classical musicians. She just felt that we’d hit it off. At the time, I was sort of sick of the black jacket, I wanted to do something better. Especially for video game audiences, half the audience were showing up looking like they were going on stage! And here I was, I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough to meet the support that they were giving me. So I wanted to do something extra. And also I wanted to break out as an artist. I wanted to express who I am on the inside as well. So I met Claire, and we just hit it off instantly. She has a way of getting into my mind that is just a little bit scary [laughs]. So we’ve worked together many times over the last few years, so much so that when I got the call about the Oscars – after letting my mother know – the next person I called was Claire Garvey! I was like, ‘Claire, we’re going to the Oscars!’ [laughs]. I really felt a responsibility to her work that when I was there – because basically what Claire creates is a piece of art – and I really, really felt that I was the stick inside the piece of Claire Garvey art walking on the red-carpet [laughs]. And we had this weird moment, Claire and I. I was talking to a producer friend in L.A., and my friend said, you know what, it has to be gold, you have to wear gold. And I’d never done that before. I don’t think I’ve ever worn anything gold in real-life. But my friend said, ‘No, no, no, it has to be. It’s a symbolic moment…’, and all of this, and she convinced me. And this is the thing that Claire always does with me, she pulls me a little bit more out of my shell all the time. Classical musicians, sometimes it’s hard for us to do that because we feel so much in service to the music. So I called Claire, and I said, ‘Claire, you’re gonna think this is a mad idea, but my friend Juliette said it has to be gold.’ And Claire started laughing on the phone, and she said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my husband!’ She said, ‘I’ve started it on a mannequin in the living-room…and it’s gold!’ So she had already picked that up from the universe, which is typical Claire. I brought my aunt Marian with me for the first fitting, and my aunt just put her hand to her mouth and gasped when she saw it. Claire had outdone herself again. It was just the right person, ya know. Designers were offering me things from all over the world, but this was the right person for this moment. It wasn’t because she was Irish, it wasn’t because she was a female designer. It was because she was the right designer for this exact moment for me. When I tried on her work, I felt like I could embody that moment. I felt strength from it. I felt strong when I was wearing it. And the other thing is that we’re both influenced by Grace O’ Malley. So there was a little bit of that in there as well! [laughs]. Claire is amazing. There’s only one Claire Garvey!”
For Warcraft, Eímear created a piece called Malach, dedicated to her son Aaron, whom she sadly lost in 2012, and she described it as being, “the epic adventure he might have had”, a most beautiful and tender way of explaining Malach and why it came to be. I wondered if her work often presented the kind of space or opportunity to put as much of herself into what she creates as Eímear did with Malach?
“Well, I think, like a lot of creative people, I work through things. Through psychologically and emotional hurdles. I work through it in music. Artists from every discipline do this. Sometimes for me, it’s the only way I can work through it. One of the things that came up recently is for the film that we just did, there’s an end title song. And writing in lockdown, and creating in lockdown, was like trying to create with weights on. It was just so hard. The negativity around this awful pandemic, to any sensitive person it was overwhelming. I found that the end-titles song, the lyrics, all of it – everything pertained to the film and the story of the film – but every single line was about the situation that we were in as well. I’ll give you an example. And I can tell you because the film is out in the UK and it’s out in Germany, we’re waiting for the cinemas to open here. We have the beautiful Sibéal Ní Chasaide singing, and Frank McNamara on piano, and we have a music video to go with it. But the chorus goes, ‘When all around us has come undone/ Our dreams on hold, and our songs unsung/ We can’t go back to what we knew/ But I stand for hope when I stand with you.’ That last line is absolutely 100% inspired by us standing on the doorstep and clapping for our frontline workers. And for us, that was extra hilarious because we were out in the middle of the countryside and the only people who could hear us clapping were the crows in the trees! [laughs]. But we did it anyway. And that’s where that line for the song came from. Even the music video for it, for the big choruses, we couldn’t get a choir together. So I said to Moe Honan, the producer – our fearless leader [laughs] – I said, ‘Listen, why don’t we have everyone who worked on the film be the choir?’ So our choir is all our animators and their families, and our director and our producers. All of us that worked on the film, we all recorded ourselves at home with our families, and our dogs, and our babies, singing the chorus of the song. Because it really is a gift from us to everybody. We all went through the wringer to get it done, because getting locked-down delayed the film by months, of course. Strangely enough, the writers captured the spirit of the zeitgeist, and there’s this unbelievable correlation between the theme of the film and what’s going on right now. It’s incredibly hopeful and uplifting. It’s kind of one of those things where this giant metaphor is unmissable in the film, but it came before the pandemic, and before all of this political turmoil and the stuff that’s going on. The political turmoil in the U.S. of course, I mean. Yeah, that’s my way of working through what’s going on. And I couldn’t believe it took me like two days to write every line of the lyric. It was just so hard to create in that time. But then, I had this song, and every time I played it on the piano, I felt like I was expressing what I was going through, what I couldn’t really find the words to describe or adequately convey what I was thinking. But I worked it out in the song. It’s called ‘Stand For Hope.’ And the theme from the chorus is throughout the movie. When we were writing the score, myself and Craig [Stuart Garfinkle], my husband, I wrote this theme we called ‘The Hope Theme.’ And we didn’t know there was going to be a song at the end, it just came out of the Hope Theme. It was a very organic process. And then we called our beautiful friend Sibéal, who we’ve worked with since she was fifteen. And of course I called Claire…that’s just a hint, that’s all I’m gonna say [laughs]. She gets dragged into everything around here. But you’ll see everything when it comes out.”
One of the things I noticed when preparing for my chat with Eímear was that she says so many things that are worth paying attention to, and giving serious thought to. Again speaking in relation to the Oscars, Eímear had said recently, “Little girls everywhere will see this and say, ‘I think I’ll do that.’ And that’s what we want.” So, I put it to Eímear that she’s obviously aware of how big a role-model she is, and that being so, I asked her how does she carry the weight of that responsibility?
“I think if you’re in the public domain, if you’re out there in public doing what you do, you have to be aware of the repercussions of how you carry yourself. It’s not that I want to be a role-model, or that I’m looking to be a role-model, nothing like that. It’s just about [having] an awareness of how you carry yourself in the public domain. When I was growing up…and I love the expression -which isn’t mine – ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’, and that’s especially poignant for me, because when I was growing up I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do in Ireland, in my home country. And what I didn’t know, was that she had existed! And it wasn’t even that she’d been written out of history, but she hadn’t even been acknowledged in Irish music history in the way that I think she should have been. A woman called Alicia Adélaide Needham. I posted something on Facebook when I was putting together a program of women composers, and one of my brothers teachers from Garbally College in Ballinalsoe, Johnny Johnston, said ‘Don’t forget about Alicia Adélaide Needham’, and much to my shock, I had never heard of her! I thought have I just been completely blinkered, what is this?! So I asked some other composers that I know, and none of them had heard of her either. She was the first woman to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall, and she’s from Dublin. She won a massive international composition competition, that was championed by King George. But if I want to study her work, I have to go to Oxford to get a hold of it. So, all the while that I was growing up, there she was! And when I was told that I didn’t have a chance of a career because I was young, Irish, and female, I could have said well if Alicia Adélaide Needham did it as a suffragette in the early 20th century, why on Earth wouldn’t I do it now? But I couldn’t say that, because I didn’t know she existed. And that really hits me in the heart. So being out there, and being visible, is important purely because I don’t want that to ever happen again to a young Irish girl who has this mad imagination, and this mad dream. Because if you can see it, you can be it. But also, if you’re very visible out there, it takes away the power of the naysayers as well.”
~ The animated movie, TWO BY TWO: OVERBOARD!, from Moetion Films, and featuring Eímear’s song Stand For Hope, is out now. The official music video for Stand For Hope, performed by the magnificent SIBÉAL NÍ CHASAIDE, and showcasing yet another awe-inspiring creation from CLAIRE GARVEY, is also available to enjoy now on YouTube.
Those of us who are of a certain vintage in life will be familiar with the name Lynda Carter. The American actress – who was also a singer, songwriter, model, and beauty pageant title holder (Miss World USA 1972, and placed in the Top 15 in the Miss World finals that same year – brought to life the DC Comics superheroine Wonder Woman. That tv show aired first on the ABC network, and later on CBS, from 1975 to 1979. For so many around the world, Lynda, and Wonder Woman, were both inspirational figures because they showed that yes, a woman could be a superhero, too. And a damn good one at that.
Well, Irish composer and conductor EÍMEAR NOONE is a real-life, real-world, Wonder Woman. And just like Lynda Carter did back then, Eímear – through her enormous musical talent and her pure, magnificent, dream-warrior spirit as a human being – has become a hero and an inspiration on a worldwide scale. And for the record, I definitely count myself among that number, even more so since having the pleasure to spend some time in her company.
Last February, the Galway woman wrote her own page into the history of the Academy Awards when she became the first woman to ever…that’s EVER… conduct the orchestra at the Oscars ceremony. And that was just the latest in a long-as-your-arm list of accolades Eímear has to her credit. Her work has been central to the World of Warcraft, which once held the title of highest grossing video game of all-time, at an astronomical $8.5 billion dollars. She has conducted the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic in London, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and even the Los Angeles ballet, to name just a few of the world-class ensembles she’s held in her charge. Eímear has also toured the world as principal conductor for the Zelda Symphony, a full, four movement symphony, and also with the Video Games Live Tour. As well as a real-life Wonder Woman, make no mistake about this, Eímear is, in essence, a rockstar!
Eímear had asked me to give her a call around 1pm on the day we spoke, and as we began our chat, she explained why. That was when she put her baby down for its nap. So yeah, just take a moment to read that again and let it sink in. One of the busiest and most influential women in the world of music, a history-maker, a woman whose life is destined to become a movie in its own right some day, also had the kindness, the humility, and the grace to grant an interview in the hour or so that her baby was taking a nap. Like I said, Wonder Woman, superhero, and rockstar.
We began our chat around Eímear’s performance at the Oscars earlier this year. Ahead of that event, in speaking about the Rickey Minor, the musical director of the Oscars, Eimear remarked that he was, “…an amazing kindred spirit who endeavours to elevate music and musicians at every possible turn”, and spoke of how generous he was “…to hand over this incredibly poignant moment.” What struck me about that more than anything was Eímear’s selfless grace in turning the spotlight on someone else in what was her own moment of glory. I asked her would it be accurate to say that as a conductor who has to care about everyone in her charge, that sense of care actually reflects an important part of who she is as a person as well, something which reveals itself so easily when she so often takes the time to speak so highly of people?
“Well, I think there’s nothing wrong with showing gratitude. And when somebody bestows an opportunity like that upon you, it’s not just about you. You’re given this spotlight for a moment, but it’s about all of the people that helped you get there as well. Nobody gets there on their own. It’s a moment for humility, and it’s a moment for gratitude. Ricky Minor is just one of those soulful people who believes in good people doing good things. I was there because of my colleagues. There’s another colleague of mine, called Chris Walden, he’s the principal arranger for the Oscars. A lot of the musicians in the orchestra I’d worked with many, many times. They gave me strength. They gave me the courage to get up there and to really, really possess the moment. Not to just get through it, but to really, really live it, enjoy it, and own it. I could do that because standing next to me, filming me on his phone at my feet at the podium, was Ricky Minor, one of the greatest music directors of all time. He was doing that so that I could have it for myself, to watch it afterwards! And then I had the harpist, Gayle Levant, who’s played every Oscars for decades, she’s like my big sister in music ever since I moved to L.A. So any time I just glanced down at her I’d get a big smile and lots of good energy and love. So many of the players I knew. And the tough guys, the brass players who take no prisoners, they’re all pussycats that I’ve worked with forever, ya know! So when you realise that you’ve got there because of your own work, but also because of being championed by your colleagues, I think it’s a moment to celebrate that. And I think it’s a moment for other musicians as well to appreciate our community, and to see that we really do have a professional community. We are a big global family. I also was aware that that moment was a moment I was sort of inhabiting on behalf of female members of my composing and conducting community. It was something that I took very, very seriously. That moment belonged to our community, rather than just to me alone.”
While the Oscars brought Eímear to the attention of the world most recently, she came into the world in Kilconnell in county Galway, where her grandfather, Joseph Shea, a celebrated Irish trad musician, and where also lived until the grand old age of 102, Paddy Fahy, often spoken of as the most lauded composer of the trad music scene. Eímear has said before that she wanted to be a conductor from the age of just seven, so the environment she grew up in, I reasoned, must have greatly shaped her love of music?
“Well, I think just having space, and space to think, and this beautiful east Galway scenery, ya know. I also grew up in a very historic village. The ‘new’ Abbey is from the 13th century, on the site of a 6th century settlement. But Paddy, I mean, having somebody who was a composer in the village, it made it a really normal thing to want to be! I suppose deep down in my mind [I was thinking], Paddy was a composer, so that was a thing you could do [laughs]. And he was an absolutely wonderful man, I adored him. But for me, what really drew me in, was the sound of the orchestra. And I mean, my first experience of the orchestra was on telly, ya know. It says a lot for our national broadcaster RTE that they support the orchestra, because that was my – as an Irish child – first experience [of an orchestra], it was seeing an orchestra on television. I decided wow, this is just the most exciting and beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I have to be a part of it somehow, some way.”
Eímear once referred to music as being “my friends on the page in front of me”, so clearly, music is a huge passion in her life. But I was wondering if she could look back on any specific moment in her life when music first became so much more than something that was just an interest, and instead, became as she has described it, “friends on the page in front of me”?
“I can’t ever remember music being a hobby. It was always who I was. I can never remember all of a sudden going, ‘Oh, maybe I could do this as a career.’ I don’t remember thinking that at all. I just always remember thinking this is who I am. No even thinking, just knowing, that was it.”
As wide-ranging a question as it is – possibly one that it’s not even possible to answer – why does Eímear think it was that way? Why was it music and her?
“I have absolutely no idea. Absolutely none. I just loved it so much. It was exciting to me on an emotional level and an intellectual level. And it also was so deep, with so much to know and so much to learn. Every day I’m learning something new. And I don’t just mean new pieces of music, I mean I’m learning something new about music. It’s just so fascinating. It’s like this magical world to me. It just never stops giving back, there’s so much music to discover, and so much about music to discover. It’s a life-long pursuit. But as a kid, I don’t ever remember it being a hobby, it was just…who I am. Like every child, my first instrument was my voice. I remember…[laughs]…I remember my first time on stage…and I don’t think I’ve actually told this to anyone in an interview before. I was four years old, singing at my aunt’s secondary school in Castleblakeney. There was a talent show [laughs], and I think I was shoved out on stage at four. I sang a song called Little Mammy Birdy [laughs]. And my mother still has the dress I wore my first time on stage, yeah. I was only four, but even then I felt like, yeah, this is what I do. This is me! [laughs].”
Well when Eímear is doing what she does, when she’s conducting, she can have up to ninety people in the orchestra in front of her, and as she had when working on the Warcraft updates a few years ago, a choir of fifty or sixty more people on top of that. What kind of mental preparation does Eímear go through prior to something like that to get herself into the frame of mind she needs to be in?
“It’s important to me to be physically strong. And like a lot of musicians, I’m not super-fond of the gym [laughs]. But I try to be physically strong. But I also do some meditation based on the teaching of a guy called George Mumford, who taught the L.A. Lakers meditation. He understood what it was like to be ‘in the zone’, and to be at your best with a lot of pressure on your shoulders, and a lot of stimulus, and a lot of moving parts. I love his work, so I’ll just sit and listen to him give a lecture on guided meditation. The other thing is I prepare, I prepare like crazy. I will spend a lot of time with the music. And sometimes I don’t get to do that! When we recorded for Warcraft, and when we’re recording in general, I won’t see the music ahead of time. So we’re straight into it in the recording studio, a giant stack of scores lands on the music stand, and we just go from there. Dive straight in. But yeah, I do mentally and physically prepare. There’s no way around that one. You feel so much stronger and so much more in control, and so much better able to serve the audience with adequate preparation.”
Is there a big difference in how Eímear would prepare for something that might be happening in the studio as opposed to for a ‘live’ event, like the Oscars?
“Yes, there is. I mean, when we’re in the studio we don’t have rehearsal. But when we’re ‘live’ we don’t get to do another take [laughs]. And yes, the Oscars is ‘live.’ Everything you heard, we were playing ‘live.’ I try to bring something from what I’ve learned from the ‘live’ performance to the recording studio, and something from the recording studio to the ‘live’ performance. And here’s what I mean by that. When the red light is on in the recording studio, I try and get that electricity, that frisson of energy from myself and from the ensemble, as if we had an audience in front of us. Because it’s a different energy when the audience is there. And you see that right now, where in order to keep some performances going during the pandemic, you see a lot of filmed performances by all kinds of artists. And it definitely feels a little different when the audience isn’t present. And what I bring from the recording studio to a ‘live’ situation is that focus on detail, and that level of detail in the performance that I use in the recording studio. Because I know that it has to be absolutely perfect to live in a recorded format. Otherwise, you spend a lot of time in post-production tidying things up. And when you have hours of music, and millions and millions and millions of notes, you want to avoid that kind of thing because you do have to deliver a project on a deadline and so on. So in a studio, I’m very, very detailed orientated because you also need to know what can and can’t be fixed after the fact. So I bring that kind of head-space to the ‘live’ performance. I want that level of perfection, as if everything I do is being recorded. And it just turns out that at the moment, everything I do is being recorded! [laughs]. So that’s good! I’ve been lucky enough to work in some of the most amazing recording studios on the planet, like Skywalker Ranch, Abbey Road, the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox, Sony Warner Brothers, Capitol Records, just being really spoiled.”
And in the same way that she would prepare for a show or a recording session, does Eímear have any rituals for afterwards, to kind of come-down from that high of performance, and to help her unwind after the intensity of being ‘switched-on’?
“Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Oh my goodness. It is so unromantic, I hate to burst peoples’ bubbles. Generally when I come off stage, especially if I’m on tour, I’ll check in with my family. And when I’m on tour, there will most likely not be anyone in the audience that I know personally. So I’ll come backstage, I’ll see the crew, say hi to all the orchestra managers, the stage-managers, that kind of thing, go into my dressing room…and pack! [laughs]. Then I go back to my hotel room, have something to eat, look at the news online, and stare at the ceiling [laughs]. So unromantic! It’s really hard when you’re on tour as well, because your adrenaline is going after the concert, and you’ve got to get up and travel the next day and do it all over again. So you come back from touring and your adrenal glands have just given up and died! When I was a student in Trinity College, a huge part of doing rehearsals and doing a concert was so you could party afterwards! And nobody told me that when you’re a pro you don’t get to party afterwards, only rarely. Very rarely do you actually get to do that. I remember when I started working at the studios in L.A. first, we’d do six-hour sessions, and afterwards your adrenaline is going mad, and you’re like, ‘Let’s go everybody, what pub are we goin’ to?!’ But everybody’s just like, ‘Ok, see you tomorrow!’ And you’re there like, ‘What?!’ [laughs]. I suppose that’s an Irish was as well. And it’s a healthy thing as well, to go and have a couple of drinks after a show and let that adrenaline just peter out, ya know. But if I have to get up the next day and do it all over again, I won’t even have a glass of wine. I need every brain-cell working at its optimum! Yeah, it’s weird. Especially if you’re dealing with jet-lag as well, things like that. You become this sort of energy-camel, it’s like you’re storing energy for the concert, and you won’t give it up for anything else!”Eímear continued, “I’m looking forward to doing something here with the Symphony Orchestra soon, and even after that, I mean, oh my God, I finally thought I’m doing something in Ireland, I can finally go and party afterwards, but nobody’s partying right now, at all. We can’t. At the moment, we’re waiting for restrictions to lift just so we can get the players together! Let alone the audience. You can’t even put an orchestra on the stage in Ireland at the moment because of the restrictions. And you know what? That’s all fine. We all need to keep each other safe. And we need to keep our musicians safe. That’s absolutely necessary. But it’s tough on all the players, not getting to be together, and not getting to play together. I saw some things about telling musicians to re-tool or whatever, and I thought it was hilarious. God, you may as well tell us to breathe through gills! That’s absolutely futile. You’re also talking about, in an archestra, everyone – every single person – has at least one post-graduate degree. The hoops that they jump through to actually get that seat in an orchestra, to be there…it’s just astronomical what they go through to get that job. Every single person there, they’re not there because they’re good at music, they’re there because they live, breathe, eat, and sleep it!”
~ To stay up to date with everything that Eímear is working on, you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Watch this space for Part Two of our chat coming your way in the weeks ahead! ENDS
Every so often an artist suddenly crosses your path out of nowhere. And when they do, you wonder how and why it took you so long to ever hear of them in the first place. What also happens every now and then, is that you meet an artist like that and as well as wondering why it took you so long to hear of them in the first place, you feel a sense of certainty that you – and the world – will be hearing a lot more about them in the years to come.
And that’s exactly what happened with this week’s featured artist in OTRT, the magnificent singer/songwriter VICTORIA JOHNSTON. Already hailed as the next Enya, something we discuss during our chat, Hot Press have already noted that, “The tunes turn out to be as impeccable as her credentials.” The tunes in question are her double-debut releases, TAR LIOM and YOU ARE THE PEACE. And they’re not merely her first releases either. They’ve also become her first number ones. Not bad for two songs released on a Friday the 13th as the country went into ‘lockdown’ during a global pandemic!
The songs were released back in March, topping the overall iTunes Chart in Ireland, with Tar Liom also reaching the summit of the iTunes Ireland World Music Chart, and You Are The Peace doing likewise in the Christian/Gospel Chart. As for the credentials Hot Press referred to, well, there’s the fact that both songs were produced by Grammy nominated producer Denis Woods, who has previously worked with a few people you’ve probably heard of, artists like Clannad, Moya Brennan, U2, and AC/DC. And then, of course, there’s Victoria herself. The Dubliner began her classical training at the prestigious Royal Irish Academy at just nine years of age. She holds a BMus Degree in Composition from DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama, and also an MPhil in Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship from Trinity College, also receiving a scholarship to sing with the Trinity Choir.
So as you can see, there have been many moments in Victoria’s musical life and career so far which have been amazing personal achievements and milestones, from her studies to some of the famed venues where she’s performed, like the National Concert Hall. But what sets her apart from the many who may have shared experiences similar to those, is that now Victoria also has those two number one singles to celebrate and be proud of. And that’s a dream that millions grasp, but only a very lucky few ever get to reach. So, when I had the pleasure of spending some time with Victoria last week, I began our chat by asking her what those moments felt like when she saw her name at the top of the charts…
“Well I always planned to do a digital-release for both singles, and I actually decided that rather than release the two songs separately, that I would release them the same day. Which, I suppose, maybe is just slightly unusual! [laughs]. So it was a double-debut single release. But actually, what happened was that Ireland came into lockdown on the very day that they were released, so I was very grateful that I had just decided to do a digital release. I didn’t have to cancel any ‘live’ launches. But they both actually went to number one on their release day, and they each spent different amounts of time at number one. I think I was also a bit lucky that Niall Horan released his album that day, because he was top of the album charts but I was top of the singles chart [laughs].”
Whatever about the same day as your songs being released also being the day a whole country goes into lockdown during a global pandemic – you can’t really plan for that, in fairness – it was also a Friday 13th! So Victoria is obviously not superstitious, I take it?
“[Laughs] It crossed my mind! [laughs]. But it all worked out! [laughs].”
So because that turned out to be the same day that Ireland went into lockdown, did that turn out to be a very strange day in Victoria’s house? On the one hand, a global pandemic changing life as we know it and bringing the entire country more or less to a halt…but on the other hand…two number ones for Victoria!
“Yeah, in some ways I suppose! I was kind of afraid that with people shutting down all their offices, and schools closing and everything, that maybe the single would get lost amongst all that, in terms of media swell. But no, they went to number one at around 11am, and we couldn’t believe it. We were all at home. My dad is in the very high-risk category, so we had been fairly careful for the few weeks leading up to that. So to be honest, it was just a great boost, and it has been a great boost and focus for our household for the last few months.”
Both songs were produced by Denis Woods, a man whose reach and influence in the music world has extended all the way to some well-deserved Grammy nominations, something which, as we’ve already mentioned, Victoria now stands on the brink of herself, too. She has described how they met as being a ‘random introduction, although I think it’s safe to say that any crossing of paths which eventually leads to two number ones is probably a contender for the ‘meant-to-happen’ category in life. I asked Victoria about that ‘random introduction’, and how her relationship with Denis developed from there.
“He heard me sing an acoustic arrangement of ‘You Are The Peace.’ I’ve been invited to sing some of my songs at church services and gatherings over, I suppose, the last year. And I suppose ‘You Are The Peace’ leant itself, in style, to the Celtic, Irish genre, which he would be very well versed in producing a lot of songs for. It caught his ear, and we got chatting, and he’s just the loveliest, most down to earth man. He hasn’t been as involved in the music industry as much over the last number of years, so maybe it was just he felt this was a project he could generously give me a hand with to help launch my career. He said he’d help me take on the two songs and produce them to help give a new artist a stepping stone into the industry, which is very, very kind in this industry in this day and age! I was very humbled by his generosity through the whole process. We met a few times after that. I had written both songs, but obviously he did the production on them. I always say he kind of brought them from an acoustic setting to a 3Arena one! [laughs]. He’s just the kind of person that you’re in studio with him, you forget what a name he is and the artists he’s worked with. Obviously he was in Windmill Lane studios in the hay-day of U2 and all those fantastic bands that came through the doors there. You’d be recording your vocals, then you’d take a little break, and you’d be very relaxed. But then he’d do a name-drop or two, like, ‘Oh that time I worked with AC/DC’, and then all of a sudden you’re a bit more conscious of who you’re in the room with! [laughs].”
Speaking of things on the scale of the 3Arena, Bob Dylan is probably the artist most often referred to when people are conferring titles like the ‘next’ somebody or other on newcomers or emerging artists. But as far as I can recall, I’ve never heard of anyone being described as the next Enya. That, of course, is as much a testament to the unique artist that Enya herself has always been, and the position she holds in Irish culture. But now, however, that very title of ‘the next Enya’ has been bestowed upon Victoria. An honour, absolutely. A bit of pressure as well, maybe?
“Yeah! It was very kind to be called that! But I think, obviously she’s so established, and it took years to become established as one of the greatest artists in the world, and to have come out of Ireland. I think sometimes people nearly feel she’s even more successful abroad than here. But she’s such a cherished Irish artist as well. Just to be given that credit for the sound of my music, and my voice, was pretty humbling, to be honest! But I think I’ll have to keep a lot of high quality work going to live up to that! [laughs].”
In terms of who Victoria would have looked up to and been inspired by, would Enya be one of those artists?
“To be honest, I grew up listening to Leonard Cohen, Elton John, Barbara Streisand, U2, all the greats, really. And Frank Sinatra, that’s what was played in our house growing up. I have been asked that, in terms of my style and where that kind of came from then, the Celtic world, Irish sound. But it’s just naturally, musically, how I write. I think you can only write and sing what comes out of you [laughs]. And that style as well, it suits my voice type. I wouldn’t have the big belter sound of the likes of Adele or Christina Aguilera, those singers. You have to write what you know, and write what suits you. Certainly when I sit down at the piano that’s what comes out of me. Growing up in Ireland you’re surrounded by those great bands like Clannad, so part of it has probably seeped into the back of your brain somewhere as influences as well.”
Another major part of who Victoria is and what she does is centred around her work with Spirit Radio in Dublin, where she’s a producer and a researcher. One person she met through Spirit and whom Victoria has described as making a big impression upon her, is none other than the legendary Phil Coulter. I asked Victoria what made that particular encounter stand out in her memory…
“It was his generosity of time. When I met him we got talking about music, and it was just around the time that I had won the West Cork Chamber Music Festival’s Young Composer’s Competition, that was 2016. So I think it must have been 2017 when I met him through Spirit Radio. I was working there on an internship at the time. His response to hearing that [about the competition] was, ‘Oh, you’re a real musician, a real composer then.’ Once he heard that, I think he knew who he was talking to in respect of music, and we were able to speak on a musical level in terms of orchestration, composition, conductors that we might both have worked with. He was just very engaged in wanting to hear about me, rather than merely chat about himself. We had to usher him into the studio last minute for his interview because we could have spoken, I think, for hours [laughs]. He was just very interested in a young person trying to establish themselves in a music industry that’s very different now to when he started. But he’s such a legend. And it’s always just lovely to chat to kind, generous people. I feel really lucky in who’s been put in front of me on this journey so far.”
Kind of taking a little step away from music for a moment…but kind of not at the same time…there was one piece of information I found out about Victoria before our chat that really surprised me. And simply because I just never even considered that something like this could have been possible! Victoria, and her family, not only met, but had breakfast with one of the original Von Trapp family. Yes, THAT Von Trapp family…on which The Sound of Music is based! Victoria explains…
“Yeah [laughs], yeah, that’s it! [laughs]. Me and my family were on vacation in the States, in Vermont, and being the avid Sound of Music fans that we are – my parents always joke that I sang the soundtrack to The Sound of Music before I could speak properly – when we were over there my dad had heard that when the Von Trapp family had emigrated to the States during the war, they had established themselves as a musical family in America as well, and based themselves in Vermont. And over time, they turned their family home that they created there, into a hotel. And it’s still a hotel today. So when we heard that, we were like oh we have to stay there! [laughs]. When we were checking in, we were wondering if we could speak to Johannes Von Trapp, who was the youngest member of The Sound of Music family, Maria’s youngest son. The staff anyway, maybe it was the Irish mixed with American terminology [laughs], they thought we were wanting to complain! But we actually just wanted to meet him, to get his autograph. There was a lovely book shop on the grounds where we had bought some memorabilia and we just wanted him to sign it. And again, the generosity of them when they realised that we were just fans! I think maybe in America maybe people don’t ask to meet him. But being Irish, we were like well if you don’t ask, you don’t get! I live by that motto! [laughs]. Anyway, they arranged off the back of that for us to have breakfast with him the next morning in the hotel, with him and his wife. We sat down, had a lovely chat, and we got his autograph on Maria’s biography and some other memorabilia that we have at our house now!”
Going back to Victoria’s own music, when I was listening to You Are The Peace for the first time I remember thinking straight away how much it felt like a really old hymn. Then I discovered that the verses in English actually do come from an old Celtic prayer, which made all of that make sense. But what really makes You Are The Peace such a marvel of creation is that while Victoria has married her gorgeous music with that old Celtic prayer, on top of that, she’s actually written the Irish verses to the song. So for me, in every way, You Are The Peace is much more a work of art than simply a song. But how did Victoria begin such a process of amalgamation and creation?
“I had a verse in Irish that I’d sing in Irish, and then I’d sing it translated into English. But then I came across, as you said, an ancient Celtic oral tradition prayer. The words in the prayer just married really well with the tune that I was singing my own Irish and English verses in. It just came together in a few minutes. I already had the musical arrangement, I had my own musical composition done for the Irish verse. So it just fitted in perfectly with the words. That’s really just how the song came about.”
One thing we’ve all found ourselves with more of, in one way or another, over lockdown is time. I’ve spoken to some songwriters recently who were really grateful for that and embraced it, and to some others who would normally write their way through anything that was going on in the world or in their lives, but for some reason have found the last few months really difficult in that regard. Victoria has said she’s probably in the first category, so I asked her how she’s been putting that time to use…
“Well when I’m not singing and writing I’m a radio producer, and I also run my own music academy. So I suppose I was still quite busy during lockdown working full-time. But lockdown in essence, still gave me that extra time in the evenings and at weekends to spend a bit more time writing. It was obviously such a challenging time in so many aspects, but music, and writing for me is when I feel most ‘in the flow’ of myself. And I really find that when I start writing and playing and creating my own music, I just go into my own world, nearly like Peter Pan’s Neverland! [laughs]. When you’re there in the flow just writing, I would just forget that we were in the middle of a pandemic for those few hours. And that’s a blessing in itself, if you have an outlet that you can fully absorb yourself in. That’s such a blessing. And for me, that’s writing music. So I found myself writing more and more during lockdown. It’s what I love doing anyway, but I suppose I was given that gift of time to do it. I got quite a few songs composed, and I’m planning on recording one of them anyway so far at the end of this week. And hoping to release that in the autumn sometime.”
Victoria was due to be a part of the 1 King music tour earlier this year, but that, like so much for so many, had to be postponed. While for the remainder of this year it’s incredibly hard for anyone to plan or reschedule anything, in as much and as far as she could look ahead, I asked Victoria what was going to be happening next for her…
“Even at the moment it’s a challenge to even get into recording studios. I don’t have my own one at home, so I’d always have to go out into a recording space to get something done. In terms of that, I suppose I’m not one of those artists who has written three new albums that will all be released in 2021! [laughs]. So that, for me, to be honest is a challenge at the moment, when our household is trying to be extra-cautious with high-risk family members. But I’m hoping over the coming months, autumn and winter, to keep writing, hopefully get an EP down as well. In terms of ‘live’ performances, I think it will be ‘live’ streams for the foreseeable future. I know even the festivals for 2021 are in talks about not going ahead, or going ahead at a reduced capacity. So it’s going to be a very strange time for the industry. It’s going to really shake up the industry as well. In the last few years we’ve seen artists’ income move from album sales to focusing on having to perform ‘live’ to bring in an income, so I will be interested to track in the coming year if the pandemic does change that. I know for myself anyway, I’m hoping to do some ‘live’ streams and maybe be involved with some online festivals.”
In times like these, we all need an anchor of some sort that helps us stand firm as the winds of adversity roar around us. So, to wrap up our chat, I wanted to touch on something that fills that need for Victoria, and is clearly a very important part of who she is; her faith. She said something in a recent interview that really caught my attention when I heard it, and that was that, “God wants us to raise our expectations.” I asked her what she meant by that…
“In terms of raising my expectations, in terms of prayer, I really felt that through my faith and my relationship with Jesus, that I was being called to release these songs. And timing wise as well, they were released during lockdown which is a strange time to think of a release happening when it’s your debut. But the feedback I got during lockdown, even from people I’ve never met before, who might have had relatives pass away, and that the only comfort that they had had in days or even a week, was hearing You Are The Peace. That they had heard it on radio, or someone had sent it to them. I feel that song was placed in my heart and brought to fruition in the end, at the right time. And if my songs can give comfort and peace to people, then I’m doing my job and what I’m here to do. In terms of expectations, obviously I’ve been a classically trained musician since I was five years old, just praying and focusing that I’m all-in! And I think the evidence of the people like Denis Woods, for example, people who have been put in front of my path every step of the way, and now the news that I’ve been considered for four Grammy nominations based on these debut singles being released, I think I’m just focusing and praying on having a high expectation, and feeling very loved and blessed. One of my favourite verses from the Bible is Psalm 105:4…’Look to the Lord, and his strength, seek his face always.’ So when you really root yourself in that, and feel fully surrounded by love and protection, it really encourages you.”
Victoria is now back in the studio working on her new single, LAND OF HOPE, again produced by Denis Woods, and co-produced by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (Conor ‘Cosmo’ Lawlor in Sing Street), and Oisín Walsh-Peelo, who, as well as touring with Hudson Taylor, also opened for Hozier on his American tour last year. So Land of Hope is definitely a single to watch out for, and Victoria Johnston is definitely a name to remember.
~ Victoria’s double-debut singles – TAR LIOM and YOU ARE THE PEACE – are both out now, and available on all digital platforms as well as to request from radio.