First Published June 2021
‘STEP BY STEP’ TO FIGHTING JACKIE CHAN
Last month saw Dundalk’s NIALL McNAMEE release his long-awaited debut EP, STEP BY STEP. The five-track collection showcases the singer/songwriter’s finely honed skill for carving out of his own life, moments in time that – in their essence – could just as easily have been lifted from yours or mine. In any writer, such ability is the mark of a master of his craft. Niall’s natural humility reveals itself at regular intervals through his good humour and his willingness to see, and share, the humour in his own life. That same humility would have him wince at any notion of being known as anything more than a storyteller. Well, he may wince a little bit for a little while anyway, because Step By Step is a debut that pushes him well ahead of the ordinary in every sense.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Niall on the phone from his London home early last month as he looked ahead to the EP’s launch. If you happened to miss that chat, it’s well worth checking out and can be found elsewhere on this site simply by searching Niall’s name. Today, we begin Part 2 of our time in conversation with Niall by taking a look at the final track on the collection.
Step By Step closes with the song When She Goes, another great title, and a song that has echoes of Damien Dempsey about it. It also, and I think this thought was sparked by hearing the strings in there, got me thinking about how wonderful it would also sound if slowed right down, and perhaps performed with just a string quartet. The lyric has the line, ‘It would appear there’s been deep harm in trying’, a clever reversal on the more common usage of that particular phrase. I asked Niall to take me back to the inspiration behind this one, and into the crafting of lines like the one just mentioned…
“Well, that’s about being in a relationship, and sometimes things just feel like they’re not working. It’s that mixture of feelings, that of, oh my God, this isn’t working, but also…the fear of IF it doesn’t work, what happens then, when she goes? Or when I have to leave? That song changed around a lot. I originally wrote that on piano, sometimes it’s easier to write a song on piano than on guitar. Then when we went to do our first gig as a full band – which was in the middle of lockdown – I was practising with the lads and I realised that it would work so much better on guitar. Again, I couldn’t be happier with Damien Dempsey as a reference there! I love playin’ that song ‘live’, it’s got a real energy to it. It was a real challenge – a new challenge for me, actually – of making these songs come to life with more instruments, and knowing what to have and what not to. I had people willing to play on my album, and I was like, cool! Let’s get trumpets! And an orchestra! And everything! [Laughs] I had to learn not to put something in for the sake of it. We’ve done a great little music video for this song as well, which will be out in a few weeks, probably a good few weeks, we’re keeping it as a little bonus. We did a music video for each song on the EP, which was a bit insane, but I had the time during lockdown.”
While Step By Step has offered fans a whole EP’s worth of Niall’s talent to enjoy, that feast was preceded by a glimpse of it on Imelda’s new long-player, 11Past The Hour, courtesy of the song, Don’t Let Me Stand On My Own. Generally, duets fascinate me anyway, wondering who might first realise or suggest that a particular song would suit and work with more than one voice to the fore, and what exactly it might be about a song that would make it work like that. But in this instance, of course, Niall and Imelda co-wrote Don’t Let Me Stand On My Own together. So, was it always going to be a duet from the get-go?
“Well, first of all, I’ve never, ever before written with anyone, never. And probably in a kinda youthful, arrogant way, didn’t see the point. Me and Imelda are very proud, ya know [laughs]. So there wasn’t going to be a song on her album that she wasn’t involved in writing, and vice-versa. I don’t know where I was going, or where I was coming back from, and this was long before the lockdown, but I’d been back in the house for about thirty-minutes, and for some reason I was just messing around on the guitar. I had this tune. And I had it in open-tuning, which is my favourite, and has been since I got really into Paul Brady. I had a few lyrics as well, some of them that are in there now. When I start writing a song, I like to keep playing it over and over again, then eventually some words stick, lyrics like ‘Don’t let me stand on my own’ as the chorus. For some reason I recorded this on my phone and I sent it to Imelda, and I said what do you think of this? She said it was lovely, it was good. Then we were around the house and she said play that to me ‘live.’ I think I was trying to go off the romantic thing, thinking I’d written too many love songs, so there were a few verses in there about anti oil-rigs in Iraq! [Laughs]. Imelda was like, ‘Yeaaah…it’s a lovely sentiment, but…I’m not sure for this song!’ [Laughs].””So she started writing a few lyrics down and singing along one day, and it sort of became that [song]. There was a bit of push-and-pull from the two of us, a fear – if I’m honest, between the two of us – of is it a good idea that we’re doing this together. Because we hadn’t been together that long at the time. And Imelda’s been in the industry long enough to know that’s not always a good thing, working with your friends, or your partner, or your family. But we pushed on with it anyway, and Imelda sent it off to her people and they liked it. Then, every now and again, we’d be at a gig or an after-party, and out would come the guitar and we’d play that song. And it would always get a reaction. I certainly didn’t want to have a song on Imelda’s album just for the sake of it. I was thinking too, hang on here a second, I haven’t released anything myself yet. I didn’t want to be her Jordan to her Peter Andre! [Laughs]. That’s what I was kinda terrified about! But then as time went on, I thought it would be good, and I can’t tell you how amazing it is to have that song together, and to play it, and to have it be one that people ask for.”
As we touched on briefly in Part 1 of our chat, there are more elements to Niall’s talents than just that of being a singer/songwriter. He also knows what it takes to be creative in front of the cameras as an actor. And he’s got an exciting project coming up soon, a movie called Love Without Walls. I asked Niall how much could he share with us about that?
“About this time last year in the UK, it might have been later, maybe July or August, but there was a little gap where you could do gigs in pubs, with social-distancing, table service, but they had music back. For years, if I wasn’t acting, I spent my weekends – Friday, Saturday, Sunday – playing in the Irish pubs around London. My mam decided that it was time for me to do that because the building sites were killin’ me! [Laughs]. It felt sometimes like the more you worked, the less you made. So I was doing this gig back during lockdown, not my own gig, just in the corner of a pub. It had been so long since I’d played any ‘live’ music, I said to some people, listen, I’m back in London, come and have a look. And about sixty or seventy people turned up, which was awesome, and we had this amazing night. Then this lady approached me, and I kinda thought, is she a police officer? Am I doing something wrong here? But she said, ‘My name is Jane’ – Jane Gull, she’s the director of ‘Love Without Walls’ – ‘I’ve written a script about a young, married couple who fall on hard times, and the leading role for the male is a singer/songwriter.’ She said, ‘I was going to talk to your agent, but I saw you had a gig on. If you’re interested, we’d love to chat with you about it. But there’s one thing we really need, that’s a singer/songwriter who has his own songs. Because we’d like him to do the soundtrack.’ I was just like, YES, Please! [Laughs]. I think she thought I’d be a bit more coy about it, a bit more like, ‘well have your people talk to my people’, or whatever! But I was just like, oh my God, that sounds incredible!” “So we met up and had a chat about it, and I read with Shana who is the leading lady, and there was a chemistry. So we went ahead with it. The movie kept getting put back because of lockdown, and I kept getting fat and slim, and shaved and bearded! [Laughs]. So ‘China In A Box’ is the main track. In fact, ‘China In A Box’ wasn’t going to be on the EP, I was saving it. But then they said, look, it’s going to cost us a whole load of money to shut down the whole production, but we can do a day of it and we need to get a few shots of when you first met, and your relationship before it all goes wrong. So why don’t we do that, and film a musical video for ‘China In A Box’ as a little teaser, so that was that. On the same day the EP comes out, I’m going into London to quarantine for a bit, and then we’ll get to filming. I can’t wait to get started. I’m absolutely terrified [laughs], because I’ve never really played myself in anything. I mean, I’m not playing ‘Niall McNamee’, I’ve got a part to play [laughs]. But they are my songs and there are elements of me in there.”
It had been Bono’s 60th birthday the day before we spoke. And Niall, I can absolutely guarantee you, is the only person I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with who has the coolest of stories involving Bono (to an extent), one of the best Bonds ever in the shape of Pierce Brosnan, AND…and with Jackie Chan! And a story of fighting Jackie Chan, at that! Talk about literally having one story cooler than another…
“Well I was playing Neil McCormick in ‘Chasing Bono.’ He, by all accounts, set up a band at the same time and they both thought they were going to be the main hitters in the music world. The story is about how it didn’t really quite happen for Neil, who’s a really good friend of mine now, and a great journalist. But it didn’t go the way he wanted it, while Bono obviously went off and became…Bono! [Laughs]. That was an incredible time, to get that opportunity on stage for all that time. And to have so many lines, to be given that responsibility. Sally Woods, Ronnie Woods’ wife, was producing it, she was amazing. And Ronnie came down loads of times, he’s a good bloke, and they’re a lovely couple. Then press-night came, and they invited their friends…and one of their friends was Imelda, and that’s where we met. Yeah, she came to watch ‘Chasing Bono’ and we swapped numbers. I don’t think we knew what for, but we obviously liked each other. And then the rest is kinda history! ‘Chasing Bono’, and the friends I made on that, that was such an important time. It felt like my ‘moment’, in many ways, and I’d really worked hard for it.”
“And as for ‘The Foreigner'”, continued Niall, “that was mental! [Laughs]. That was the first film role I ever did, which was crazy. I was still working on the building sites and I remember going to the audition, without knowing what it was for. Because you don’t go into an audition knowing that you’re auditioning for a Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan film! But I knew I was sort of in the ‘RA or something like that [laughs]. I had five lines in the audition. I don’t know what they can take from five lines, but it can’t be much. But I was the last person of the day. It was five o’ clock, I came in, and they were like, ‘Oh hi ya, look, don’t want to put ya off, but because we’re running really late, we’re going to be packing up during your audition.’ So I thought fair enough [laughs]. But I did these five lines, and I got the part. Then my agent rang me up – to tell me that – but without saying hello or anything, just started reading the script, and reading this fight scene between me and Jackie Chan! Within the next few days, I’d quit the building site and I was getting collected in this fancy car and taken to my trailer. For the first three weeks, solidly, we were choreographing a fight with Jackie Chan. It was mental! And there was a part of me thinking at the time, do ya know what, if things go tits-up and I don’t make it as an actor, I’ll always have this! It would be an interesting one for the ‘office news’ of what people used to do, ya know! So we spent three weeks learning the fight, and I’d never done any combat training or anything like that, I’m not a fighter really. Especially not on stage or on screen. So I worked so hard to get it right, because I really wanted to do it well. And I got it bang on! I was like, this is it! I’m smashing this, I’m ready.”
“But then,” recalled Niall, “I remember like ten minutes before we started filming, on the first day, someone came up to me and said, ‘Ahh, Jackie’s not actually happy with your fight, some of the moves and stuff. So he wants to change it.’ And I’m going, oh my God, no, no, no! [Laughs]. So I said right, show me. And they showed me the first bit, and I kinda got that. Then they showed me the second bit, and I was like, here, look, I am never gonna get that! And I asked what could I do. So, I went up to Jackie Chan… [laughs]…and I said, ‘Listen…Jackie…’, [laughs], ‘I’m lost here. I don’t know what I’m doing. They’ve changed it.’ I had to. And it was grand, it worked out great. Even though you shouldn’t be, I was constantly just worried that they would sack me! [Laughs]. A lot of us there, we didn’t really know what we were doing there. I don’t really know what the casting process was. Maybe they just found all the right people, but that’s rare. So Jackie said, ‘Oh, right.’ And I had this fake knife. So he said, ‘Well, when they say action, just try and stab me, and I’ll do the rest.’ And there was me worrying, like, ‘Oh no, what if I kill Jackie Chan?!’ [Laughs]. How arrogant, to worry that on my first day of filming I might be too good! [Laughs]. So I went to stab him when they said action, and he grabbed onto the end of the knife, kinda pulled it back and forth, and I was following the knife, then he just flipped me over his shoulder and smashed me through a glass table! I was lying there winded going, oh my God, what was that?! And at the same time, the crew are like, ‘Right, let’s get in the next fake glass table.’ And I’m thinking, fake glass table?! I didn’t know anything about this! [Laughs]. And if you watch it back, it looks like I’m going for him. But I promise ya, it was all him! He took my knife, made me fight him, and then beat the sh*t outta me! [Laughs]. And it was incredible, it was amazing!”
“And then obviously Pierce Brosnan was a lovely man. I actually remember the lads taking the mick out of me because of the wrap-party, which everyone was fairly excited for. I thought I’d show where my loyalties lie, and I said I don’t know if I can make the wrap-party because Ireland were playing England at Twickenham and I had tickets. So, I turn up at this wrap-party, half-cut, with my Ireland scarf around me, and the lads are goin’, ‘Ah Jeeesus, what are ya doin’?’ Then Pierce Brosnan turns up ten minutes later with a scarf around him, after being at the same game. And I remember saying to him, ‘You could have given me a fu*king lift!’ [Laughs]. That whole experience of that movie was definitely one of the cooler moments of my life!”
~ STEP BY STEP, the new EP from NIALL McNAMEE, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms.