Olivia Burke

First Published July 2021

“MUSIC IS COMMUNICATION”

It’s been a while – too long, in fact – since we last had a new reason to enjoy the glorious voice of OLIVIA BURKE. But thankfully that all changed last Friday with the release of her brand new single, YOU’RE ALIVE. A superb songwriter in her own right, You’re Alive sees Olivia take on the role of artist only, as she brings this Keith McLoughlin and Grace Day penned creation to life. 


We had the pleasure of catching up with Olivia last week on the night before You’re Alive officially entered the world, and we kicked off our chat with her explaining how she became involved in this project…


“Well I’ve known Keith for a good few years, he does a radio show on the station Dublin South FM, and I’ve done a couple of interviews and performances on the show. And we just stayed in contact. So Keith wrote that song with Grace, and I believe they did most of it over Facebook video-calls, because obviously with the pandemic and everything they weren’t able to do it in person. Then they passed it onto me and asked would I be interested in singing it. The  minute I heard the song I said yeah, it’s definitely something I’d like to be involved in. I just thought it was really catchy, there’s just kind of a good vibe around it in general. After that, I got involved in the pre-production side of things, and took part in some of those video-calls with Grace and Keith, along with Rohan from Beardfire Studios who produced the track.” 

From the time Olivia first heard a version of You’re Alive, to the finished product that we were all about to hear a few hours after she and I spoke, how much did her involvement change the song? 


“The melody mostly stayed the same, the lyrics and the chords stayed the same. There were a couple of bits, little sections, that were shortened and things like that, instrumentally, when we went into the studio. Over the video-calls, we all had a lot of input in picking out songs that would be good reference tracks, to the point where we were actually listening to tracks and saying do ya know what, we like the drums out of this track, and then listening to something else and liking the guitar out of that. It was a very focused approach to it in that regard. When I did hear it first, though, it was only an acoustic demo with Grace singing and playing guitar. So we did, we changed it a lot. One thing led to another. When we were discussing it we said we might take it a more pop route instead of going acoustic country with it. Although it still has those nuances to it, it’s definitely more kind of radio-friendly…although country and acoustic would be as well…I don’t know, it’s more universal, I suppose? Just because it is hitting the pop scene.” 

I’ve known about Olivia for a good few years already, and always as being a songwriter herself. So I was wondering, with something like this, where she was coming on-board as a vocalist, was it her first time doing that? And if it was, what was her reaction to being asked? 


“Yeah, absolutely, my first time doing anything like this. I went and studied music for four years in college, in BIMM in Dublin, so I was doing a lot of collaboration, but nothing to this level, but just playing with other people and performing original music from other people. And I really enjoyed that collaborative side of it. So when I heard Keith and Grace’s song, I knew I liked it, and that it was something that I’d like to be a part of. I was absolutely delighted to be a part of it. Of course, it was kind of a different experience, coming at it from the perspective of a songwriter. But I thought the song was great, so in that sense, it wasn’t something that felt too far out of my comfort zone just because I’d been used to playing with other people over the last couple of years.” 

So as an artist who is also a songwriter, what was Olivia’s approach to getting ‘inside’ the words of other writers? 


“I think music is a form of communication, more so than anything else. And you really want to communicate with the listener and get the message across. So I suppose I took the same approach as I would to a cover-song, when I was thinking about how to approach the emotion in it. Because you need to connect with whoever’s listening to it. I spent a lot of time reading the lyrics and trying to come about those emotions in my mind, the ones the song was representing for me, and trying to convey that in the way I sang it. In the studio recording it, I think we took three vocal takes for the main vocal. And every time Rohan was pushing me to put more emotion into it! [Laughs]. He’d be saying, you did great in this line conveying the emotion, now push it for the next line. And it worked in the end. In a way, there is a bit of drama to it, I suppose [laughs]. It’s a bit like acting in a way, isn’t it.” 

Was Olivia able to link the lyrics to something in her own life to make that personal connection, or was it – as she had just said – more a case of acting it out? 


“I think in a way, all lyrics – even when it comes to ones I write myself – you want to make them universal so that it’s something that everyone can relate to. But at the same time, this song deals with the feelings around the end of a relationship, or a friendship, and drawing parallels between that and the feelings of grief if you’ve actually lost a loved one for any reason, death, or if they’ve moved away for some reason. So I suppose they are things that I would relate to, but also that everyone would relate to as well. Although it’s a personal song, it’s not very specific. So I was able to approach it from my perspective as well.” 

As Olivia had mentioned, she’s just finished four years studying Commercial Modern Music and Songwriting at BIMM in Dublin. So I asked her to tell me about her time there and what it’s set her up for next in her career…


“Well, first off, I had an absolutely amazing experience there. I’ve been slow with releases and everything the last couple of years just because I’ve been trying to focus on that, and wanting to make the most of my time there. I’ve made amazing connections with other musicians that I know will be life-long friendships, and life-long musical partnerships, hopefully. Covid has put a bit of a spanner in the works because it’s harder to collaborate with people and work with people. BIMM is so great because they teach you about the business side of it [the music industry] and the law side of it. I feel like, as a musician – when all you want to do is play, and write music – you push that more practical side of it to the back of your mind. In the sense of what you need to do marketing-wise, business-wise, what you need to know about the legalities of it all. So learning about all of that, as well as being able to perform, was absolutely amazing. We all like to think that as musicians we’ll be in a position where one day we’ll have people dealing with all that kind of stuff for us [laughs]. But at the same time, I think it’s good to actually have a base in all of it, and know what you’re talking about, and what’s right and what’s wrong. If you’re offered, let’s say, a contract or something like that, to know that you’re not getting screwed over, basically [laughs]. But it was a great experience, and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough for musicians, or anyone else interested in the music business in general, because you learn so much. It was four or five days a week, four years, so a level-eight course, so a proper bachelor’s degree. Which is unusual in itself for a music course which is so modern. As you know, in Ireland most courses are related to Irish music or classical music. So it was really cool, even though it wasn’t all just sitting around and playing music. Even though that would have been great! [Laughs].” 

So when did the thought of going to BIMM first come into Olivia’s head? Was it always her plan for after secondary school? 


“Absolutely! I think when I was in third-year, or transition-year, I heard about it for the first time, and I knew that was definitely what I wanted to do. There were obviously other things I was interested in school, but I said ya know what, I want to go and pursue my passion, and see what comes of it. I believe when I was filling out the C.A.O. form that was the only thing that I actually had written down [laughs], I was just banking everything on that! [Laughs].” 

So now that Olivia has completed her four years in BIMM, how will everything that she’s learned, as well as all of the relationships and connections she’s made, help to lead her into this next stage of her career? 


“Well, I’ve found a new love in music, in production. I love producing music now. A lot of that was through BIMM and what they’ve taught us in relation to demos, and different software to make demos. A lot of the assignments on the course I did would be submitting portfolios of songs. I released a single in May called ‘Anybody Else’ that I self-produced, and just recorded at home. And I have other stuff that I’m working on and I’m hoping to bring out. So it’s benefited me in that way, especially at the minute because even with the worry of Covid, it means that I can still get music out without having to go and record somewhere else, ya know. And it makes it easier to show people your ideas, if you’re able to throw something together at home and say look, this is what I’m thinking of. Rather than trying to explain yourself and maybe not being able to find the words. Music, as I said, it’s a lot about communication. And that comes down to working with other people as well. And BIMM has been great for giving me that knowledge, to be able to show people what I’d like to do.” 

Olivia is still only twenty-two, but even six years ago, at just sixteen, she released her debut EP, Notes On My Napkin. I remember being at that launch in Hugh Lynch’s in Tullamore, and being blown away by just how special a talent Olivia already was, even at that very, very early stage of her career. But to end up with an EP at just sixteen, means her writing career itself began even earlier…


“Ah, thanks so much! [Laughs]. Yeah, I started writing when I was just a kid. I always loved music. I was writing songs that were basically rip-offs of Britney Spears songs [laughs]. I’d take whatever I heard on the radio and try and make something [else] of it. But when I was about twelve, I think, I learned how to play the guitar. I started writing lyrics then, and I’ve been at it ever since. It’s second nature to me now at this stage, I suppose.” 

Staying with Olivia’s writing, and her time at BIMM, I wanted to know how much that had helped to change, or develop, her approach to songwriting. By ‘changed’, I wondered if her approach now was completely different to when she first went to BIMM four years ago. And by ‘developed’, I wondered if her approach was perhaps the same, only now honed much closer to perfection…


“I think it’s a bit of both, to be honest. Because I would look at songwriting in a different sense [now], because I’m well-aware of all the theory around it, the practicalities of it, and the things that are in place that songwriters have been doing for years. Even taking thematic approaches to songs rather than just writing down lyrics that come to my head straight away. I don’t think my approach has necessarily changed, because I’ve always been someone who would write lyrics, melody, and music at the same time. But I definitely feel like I’ve become a more rounded songwriter. I can write songs now from other peoples’ perspectives as well, or about things I haven’t necessarily gone through myself. I think things like that are always positives for a writer. And as well as that, the practise of having to write songs specifically for briefs and assignments, has pushed me more. But in my mind, it’s always going to be quality over quantity anyway, so if I go through a bit of writer’s block, sure that’s all part of it [laughs].” 

Olivia had briefly mentioned Covid earlier in our chat. I was wondering how it might have affected her life – not being able to perform, not being able to see people, all of that – and in turn, how that might have affected her writing? 


“Environmental factors are always, always going to be a part of it, whether you’re even conscious of it or not. But I think music has shifted to becoming more…emotional in a way, I suppose. People want a little bit more substance to lyrics instead of just easy-listening on the radio. Not to say that stuff from the last couple of years isn’t good or anything [laughs], I love listening to pop music. But I think people want stories right now. With Covid, because it is such a universal thing, honing in to those emotions and those feelings that everyone has known; being stuck at home, or feeling a bit lost, that’s something a writer can use to try and connect with people a little bit more than maybe they could before. Because there is that solidarity about what we’ve all been going through.” 

With You’re Alive due out only hours after we spoke, I asked Olivia what the rest of 2021 looked like holding in store for her…


“Well I’m hoping that as soon as things start to open back up for ‘live’ music that I’ll be out doing open-mics and stuff back in Dublin, and hopefully a few gigs. I’m working on a new single that will hopefully be coming out at the end of August as well, called ‘Graves’, which is an original. So hopefully that will be out around the end of August, early September, I’m not entirely sure yet. But that’s another self-produced one. There’s a lot of ‘hopefully’ involved in looking ahead right now [laughs]. ‘Graves’ is a song I wrote when I was in my first year in college, it’s about people using different vices to survive in life, whether that’s drugs, alcohol, toxic relationships, that kind of thing. It’s a song about self-sabotage. It’s written as a love song. It’s an interesting one, it’s an interesting one [laughs]. I’ll be sticking with the pop route, but it’ll be a little bit heavier than ‘You’re Alive’, but still radio-friendly. More Billie Eilish than any country kinda vibes! It’s a little bit more hip-hop inspired, I suppose.” 

If Olivia wrote Graves in her first year in college, four years ago, does that mean that she probably holds onto a lot of songs for a long time? Until she feels the time is finally right to finish them and send them out into the world?


“Absolutely. There’s songs that I’ve written six and seven years ago that I’d be happy recording and releasing now. But at the same time, the last single that I released back in May, ‘Anybody Else’, I only wrote that one over the pandemic. And it was to do with what we were just talking about, those feelings of loneliness, grief, and everything people were feeling over lockdown. Feeling a bit detached from yourself, ya know. I wrote that and released it very quickly afterwards. So it just depends really. I’m only getting to a stage now where I feel confident enough with my production to actually release things properly. So I have a lot of things built up. Folders upon folders of lyrics and songs that I’d like to get out into the world. Look, it’ll be a long time before they’re all out there [laughs], but hopefully we’ll get there someday!” 

YOU’RE ALIVE, the brand NEW single from OLIVIA BURKE (written by Keith McLoughlin and Grace Day), is OUT NOW, available on all digital platforms and to request from radio. 

ENDS

Stephen Travers

First Published June 2021

A GENT AND A GIANT

July 31st will mark the 46th anniversary of one of the darkest nights – in every meaning of that term – in Irish history. The Miami Showband Massacre. Even as a child, when hearing those words mentioned for the first time, without knowing any of the details, without having any context in which to place them, they chilled me to the bone. A showband? But they’re musicians, right? How could musicians become the victims of a massacre? And how could it happen here? In Ireland? It didn’t make any sense to me. 


It doesn’t make any sense now either, of course. Even less so now that I do know so many details, now that I realise the horrible, heartbreaking context. Nor did it make any sense on that summer’s night, not long after 2am almost five decades ago. What doesn’t make sense is HOW such an atrocity could be allowed to happen. How some people could actually sit down and plan for something like that to happen. How some people were prepared to live out the remainder of their own lives forever accompanied by the knowledge of what they had been part of. None of that makes sense. Nor will it ever. And it shouldn’t, because for it to do so, you’d need to have an understanding of evil that could only leave the darkest of imprints upon your soul.

 
However, we can understand WHAT happened on that night because – by the grace of God, surely – there were survivors. While Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty perished in a torrent of unprovoked violence, Des Lea and Tipperary man STEPHEN TRAVERS managed to escape the same fate. Getting to and revealing the truth about what unfolded on the Buskhill Road that night, as he and four of his famed and adored bandmates simply endeavoured to make the journey home from a show at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, is something that Stephen has dedicated his life to. 


That work, and the events of the night of July 31st 1975 itself, are stories unto themselves, and they more than warrant any time and attention you can give them. A few years back, when Stephen was getting close to embarking on a nationwide promotional tour in relation to some projects in this regard, I had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with him ahead of the announcement of those dates. However, as can happen from time to time, unforeseen circumstances lead to that tour being rearranged, and as a result, our chat was never published. 


But now, in honour of Stephen and the work he has done to make sure the truth about that night is known to all, and indeed, as a tribute to his fellow survivor Des Lea, and to his bandmates who never made it home – Fran O’ Toole, Brian McCoy, and Tony Geraghty – we are finally sharing that chat with our OTRT readers. So it is, ladies and gentlemen, our privilege to present this conversation with Stephen, not just an inspirational musician, but an inspirational human-being, and a gentleman of the highest order. 

When we spoke, I began by asking Stephen about how his own interest in music first began to arise and develop? 


“Well, I was born in 1951, so my formative years musically would have been the sixties. And they really only began in 1963 with the Beatles, with that whole musical and fashion explosion that happened. So that hit me right between the eyes when I was twelve years of age. There were an awful lot of young guys picking up guitars, and of course the showbands were there, so all of the stars aligned and came together and I decided to give it a go.” 

I wondered if there happened to be any one particular moment that hit Stephen right between the eyes and made him think, ‘Right, I know what I want to do with my life from here on…’? 


“There was actually. I was in school, and every year that school would put on an operetta. It was the Christian Brothers school in Carrick-on-Suir. They’d put on a show for all the parents. One of the lads in my class, a lad called Jim, his mother was actually a choreographer, and she came up to put us through our paces. I can’t remember what the name of the operetta was. Anyway, her son, Jim, had been learning drums, so she got him to bring along the snare drum. When he started to play it I was fascinated by the fact that a young kid of my own age could do this. And I thought, you know what, I’d like to do it as well because everybody was dancing to his tune as he was playing. I think it was ‘The March of the Toy Soldiers’, or ‘The March of the Tin Soldiers’, something like that. It involved the lads in the play marching around and doing their thing, and I was fascinated by it.” 

Stephen mentioned the fact that so many people were picking up guitars back in the sixties. It happened to be the bass guitar that he reached for himself. I wondered if there was a particular reason for his choice? 


“Yeah, my schoolmates had formed a little group, they had about two years start on me. I had a guitar at home that I never bothered with, but I went to hear them rehearsing and I was fascinated that they were playing The Shadows and the Beatles, and all that kind of stuff. And they said to me, ya know we need a bass player? I didn’t really know what a bass player was, but I found out pretty quickly! [Laughs]. At that time, a bass guitar would have had four strings, so I thought well this will be easy enough! But that’s not the case! Anyway, I started to play bass, and happily it was MY instrument, ya know. It’s the one that, to this day, I love to learn more and more about all the time, even though now I play a five and a seven-string bass. I just love it. And then, of course, Paul McCartney I consider to be the greatest bass player that ever walked the face of the Earth. He was such a cool character. So it was no problem playing bass in a band! If it was good enough for him, then it was good enough for me.”

Stephen joined the Miami Showband when he was about twenty-four, and they were already massive at that stage. Was becoming a member like landing a dream-job, or as a musician, was it just another job, albeit, a pretty cool one all the same? 


“I had served my time in country bands, and what they called big bands, jazz bands. From day one I was very interested in blues and jazz. Of course, the only game in town if you wanted to earn a living was – back in the late sixties – country, when it began to become very big, as it is today. That’s when I went and joined a country band called The Cowboys. One of the lads that had been in the earlier group, Gay Brazel, later went on to become the band leader with Tweed, he was in The Cowboys. And Billy Byrne, my friend. So I learned my chops, learned my trade in bands like The Cowboys and in school, in young beat groups and that. But when you need to earn a living, or buy a new car, or put a deposit on a house, you join a showband. So I set my sights on the one that was going to pay me the most money! I got a call from The Miami Showband in September 1974, to ask me if I’d like to go up and meet them to talk about joining. As it turned out, I didn’t join them. I waited until the end of May 1975, and I took the job then. I quickly realised that these guys were phenomenal musicians. Tony Geraghty on guitar, it was arguable whether he was more influential than Gary Moore when he was playing in his rock days. He had gone and joined a showband because he was getting married, and the usual thing, he wanted to buy a car and a house. Fran O’ Toole, I think everybody knew, was one of the most sensational vocalists as well as being an incredible keyboard player, a great jazz player. So when I joined, it was a bit of a reality check that I was among guys who were every bit as good – if not better! – than myself. This wasn’t just about joining a band to earn a few quid. It was an honour to play with these guys.”

I didn’t want to get into what happened to Stephen and his bandmates in the Miami in July of 1975 without first showing the courtesy and respect of asking if that was something he would be comfortable talking about. I knew it was something he’d been asked to talk about on countless occasions before, and regardless of how much detail any of those conversations might go into, even going back in time to that fateful night to any degree must bring with it memories that none of us will ever be able to comprehend. Displaying the generosity of spirit for which he has always been known, however, Stephen agreed. 


What happened on that July night almost fifty years ago now, changed the course of Irish music history. I don’t think there’s anyone who doubts that. I asked Stephen how he thought Irish music would have developed had that tragic night not come to pass…


“Just referring to what you said there at the beginning of your question, that night didn’t just change Irish music history. In fact, it had very little effect, a temporary effect, on Irish music history. But it changed Irish history [itself]. And the reason being was that it was an attempt by a neighbouring, so-called friendly government, to influence Irish politics. They felt that security was lax on the southern side of the border, so they set up a plan – a brilliant plan, even though it was evil – to make it look as if all innocent Irish people should be suspects. And had they succeeded in doing that, the whole world would have shrugged its shoulders and said let the British deal with the Irish whatever way they want to now, because every one of them is a potential terrorist. So had we been successfully framed as terrorists when they attempted – unbeknownst to us – to put a bomb in our van, nobody would have known about the road-block, and we subsequently would have blown up fifteen minutes down the road, and been accused of being terrorists. So thankfully, Des Lee – or Des McAlea, as his real name is – and I survived to tell what happened, [because] that had the potential to turn Ireland into another Gaza. Our young people, instead of having a friendly nod from Immigration in Australia or wherever, as they do now, had we been successfully framed as terrorists, then like the Palestines today our young Irish people would be called aside at every airport, or searched vigorously or whatever. So that was a massive, massive thing to happen. So it’s wrong to think that it was just something that happened to a band, or a small story. And this was pointed out to me when we were doing the screenplay of the movie by a world renowned director. He said, ‘This is not just a story of a local band, and a local terrorist attack. This is an international crime.'” 

“Apart from that”, Stephen continued, “from the musical aspect of things, it caused a temporary lock-down, a close-down, as George Jones, the musician and broadcaster in the north said [at the time], ‘You look at a ballroom and expect to see tumbleweed.’ As to the development of Irish music, the showbands had had their day. When I joined the Miami, it was called The Miami, it wasn’t actually called The Miami Showband. They had shortened it, they didn’t want to lose the value of the name. But it was more a pop group than anything else. Along with a number of other bands, the Miami was writing its own material. I think the Miami is probably the link between the old and the new. We’re frozen in history for this. Fran would have gone on to be a singer/songwriter in America, because it was planned to take him out to America. I think he would have perhaps written for lots of other people. Because he wasn’t a kid anymore, he was twenty-eight, and that in the pop business – even then – was getting on a bit. So I think he and Des would have concentrated on their writing. Tony Geraghty and I would have formed a jazz/rock group, I think.” 

Stephen had mentioned the screenplay of the movie about his life, upon which pre-production had begun at the time we were speaking. I asked him how that project was progressing, and, on a project like that, how involved does Stephen himself get to be? Or at what point does he have to hand over artistic control of what happens? 


“Well, I was very careful with that. We’ve been doing this now for five years. And that in itself, apparently, isn’t too long when it comes to the making of a movie, I believe. Great films like ‘Lincoln’, and other Oscar winners recently, have taken up to ten, eleven years to make. But we had the screenplay done almost three years ago now. When we met with some directors from Hollywood to talk about it, we became aware that it was much more than just a local event, so we went back to the drawing-board. About last September, we finished that screenplay, and now they’re all very, very happy with it. They’re now in that phase that’s pre pre-production really, because the finance is together now and a lot of other things. So we expect to be full hammer-and-tongs at it within the next two or three months. And hopefully it will be filmed. The actual filming of any movie only takes about six weeks, that’s the short part. It’s all the work that goes on before and after it. With regard to artistic license, that was something I was very careful of. I have a great responsibility to the truth, and for the portrayal of the lads. This is one of the reasons that we asked the producers to do everything in their power to keep this an independent movie. What they call an independent movie, rather than handing it over to a studio. Because once you do that, then you don’t have any control over it. Whereas in an independent movie, and because I was part of the screenwriting team, I have an official credit, which means I can remain on-set and can keep an eye on things and make sure they don’t lose the run of themselves and make it into something that we’ll find either objectionable or embarrassing.” 

I wondered if Stephen still taught bass guitar, as he did for a while?


“I did, I was a bad teacher! I expected people to know what I knew. Whereas a good teacher doesn’t have to be a great player, but is somebody who’s methodical. Having said that, I had some great students. One in particular stands out, which I just recall now as we mention it. John Walsh, the original bass player with Stockton’s Wing. John would have been a star pupil for me. And also I had some very interesting encounters with Aubrey Oaki from the Hugh Masekela band, called Kalahari, that I met in the UK. He would teach me a lot about Africian music. His guitar player, in fact, is the same guy that you see on the Graceland tour with Paul Simon. I would teach him jigs and reels on the bass, would you believe! This was at a time when he was recording with Peter Gabriel, who left Genesis and did the thing with Kate Bush. So Aubrey would leave the studio and we’d meet up and trade licks and all that. So, apart from teaching, there’s still an awful lot to learn about bass guitar for me. As I say, the great master will be there every time I turn on a Beatles number, when I hear the immaculate playing of Paul McCartney. He’s just a man who knows the right note to put in the right place. I have great heroes as well, people like James Jamerson that did all the Motown music, and Joe Osborn that did all of the early American California stuff by the Carpenters. Just beautiful people, beautiful bass players. I’ll teach, but I learn as well. I learn far more than I teach now.” 

Given the journey that Stephen has travelled in his life and music career, I couldn’t possibly have brought our chat to a close without asking him if there was any advice he’d pass on to someone who might be starting out in the music business today. Were there any words of wisdom that had always stood him in good stead? 


“Yeah, play with guys that are better than you. It’s difficult if you join a band and you’re all starting off at the same time. Because you’re only going to progress at the same speed as the slowest person in the band. This is one of the great tragedies that the showbands aren’t around anymore because it was the best apprenticeship that you could possibly get. I remember, for instance, when I joined the Mick Delahunty Junior Orchestra. His father was Mick Delahunty Senior, and he was a very famous band leader. But when Mick Junior started the band, he had the cream of his father’s band when he retired and all of these guys were much, much older than me. I learned more from these fellas than you could if you went to university. These guys were street-wise. They knew every twist and turn that it took to be a professional musician. They were fabulous players, world class. Young fellas should beg, borrow, or steal an opportunity to get into a band with seasoned musicians, or guys who know more than them. And learn from them. The other thing would be to play a pure style. Something like country or blues or reggae, something like that that teaches you what a bass guitar actually does. As opposed to learning gratuitous sort of riffs from rock or pop numbers. To learn the basics is very important. And I suppose finally, learn how to read music, that will definitely stand to ya in good stead.” 

~ The documentary, Remastered: The Miami Showband Massacre, is available on Netflix. 

ENDS

Eímear Noone

First Published December 2020

A BRIDGE FROM IRELAND TO THE WORLD

Part 2

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. 

ENDS

Linda Coogan Byrne

First Published July 2020

IRISH RADIO HAS FAILED IRISH FEMALE ARTISTS

Linda Coogan Byrne

Hasn’t it been brilliant seeing Irish artists such as Gavin James, Hozier, Picture This, Dermot Kennedy, and Niall Horan becoming the huge acts they have over the last few years? And make no mistake about it, for their talent, the work hours they put in, and the miles they clock up in making it happen, they deserve every accolade, plaudit, and hit that comes their way. No question about it. I’ll tell you what, though, HERE IS a question for you, and it’s one that LINDA COOGAN BYRNE has decided to ask out loud…what about Ireland’s female artists…where are they? Why aren’t they breaking through to the same degree? Why, actually, are they barely even being heard on Irish radio?

If music is just something that you tune in and out to during your day or every now and then, then perhaps you might be forgiven for falling for the rather lazy assumption that if Irish female artists were ‘good enough’, or ‘as good as’ their male peers, then they’d be getting the same amount of airplay. And in turn, there’d be as many – if not more – breaking through in the same spectacular fashion as the gents mentioned in my opening. But, if music is the world in which you live, and is what you live for, and is at the centre of how you live, then this question will have bothered you in the same way it’s bothered Linda for a long time. Too long now. Way too long to not finally look deeper.

When you know Ireland has fantastically talented female artists like Megan O’ Neill, like RuthAnne, like Emma Langford, like Luan Parle, like Una Healy, like Soulé, like Kehli, like Hannah Kathleen and so many more…but you hardly ever even hear them on Irish radio, then you know that something is definitely not right. And when Linda decided to look deeper, by compiling her recently released report on Gender Disparity on Irish radio, an ugly truth was revealed. And there’s no other way to say – nor should there be – than that Irish radio has failed Irish female artists. Over the course of a full year, from June 2019 to June of this year, only RTE Radio 1 achieved a 50-50 gender balance in terms of their Top 20 most played Irish artists over that time. Many stations had as little as 5% Irish female artists in their Top 20. And that is definitely NOT an accurate reflection of the number of amazing female artists we have on this island, nor of the music they’re creating.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Linda to talk about her report last week. As the founder of Good Seed PR, and someone who has experienced every area of the music business – from having played in bands herself, to working for and with major record labels – what, I wondered, was the tipping-point for her to actually chase down these figures, put things into black and white, and say to Irish radio…LOOK! Linda had mentioned in a recent interview elsewhere on this same topic that while compiling the data there were actually moments where she became really angry, and even cried. Were there, I wondered, similar moments along the way to finally making the decision to put this report together?

“Yeah, totally. I mean, first of all, during Covid I had time to actually finish the report, because I had started it last year. That’s why it’s from June of last year to now. I’ve worked in the industry for over fifteen years, professionally as an industry person, but I was in bands since I was seventeen years of age. So I’ve been in the industry for a long time, as both a musician and an artist as well. And just seeing the disparity and inequality that women constantly have to face…You know, the likes of walking into a recording studio, and there’ll be two lads beside ya. I’d walk in with a guitar and even whoever is producing, or is on the desk as an engineer, would be like, ‘Oh right, go on, let us see ya play, go on take it out there.’ And I’m like, would you say that to a dude? Would you say that to a guy? It’s about always having to constantly validate ourselves because we’re women! It’s ridiculous. Or wearing a tee-shirt, a Rolling Stones tee-shirt, or a Ramones tee-shirt, and someone’s goin’ around to ya goin’ can ya name a song? Ya know! [laughs]. And I’m sure any woman that hears me say this will be like, ‘Yeah, totally.’ It’s this gender bias that women have no idea about music and that it’s all about men. And unfortunately, it’s because the industry hasn’t supported us. It’s not because women aren’t making  music. It’s the fact that females creating music aren’t being given the same platform and opportunities as male acts to be broken. And it’s neglect. It’s inequality on a national level in Ireland. It has devastating effects on women who are creating music and on those who aspire to create it. Because the message that they’re sending, and have been sending for more than a decade, is that they [female artists] don’t matter. What they’re creating doesn’t matter, because they won’t be heard. You have the likes of the UK who have broken their own domestic acts, I mean, Jesus, just to name a few there’s Amy Winehouse, Mabel, Rita Ora, Jessie Ware, Paloma Faith, Dua Lipa…the list goes on! But in Ireland, in the last ten years, who can name a breakthrough Irish commercial act that has gone outside of Ireland? I mean, anyone can name Picture This, Gavin James, Dermot Kennedy. They roll off the tongue. And that’s just in the last few months. There’s no women. The Cranberries were 1989, The Corrs were 1990. B*Witched were probably the last pop commercial act from Ireland. That’s shocking to see that that’s the last era of Irish female acts that were adequately represented. Why did that stop? That’s the question we need to ask.” 

It’s a very broad question in so many ways, something I acknowledged to Linda as I put it to her, but in her own opinion and based on her own many years of experience in the music business and dealing with radio…why does she think this gender gap has come to exist across Irish radio? And to exist in so big a way at that…

“That’s a good question, and it’s one that keeps coming up. A lot of people go with the argument that commercial radio plays what’s commercial and what’s on Spotify, and what’s trending. And while that’s all well and good for the likes of Doja Cat who trends on Tik-Tok and then everyone starts playing her. The likes of Gavin James, the likes of Picture This…and I have to keep going back to the lads because this is about male and female in Irish radio, it’s Irish artists only…but they were being played on the radio before they broke. It wasn’t the fact that radio suddenly started playing them when they got this big record deal. They were supported, record labels saw the support they got, and then they took a chance on signing these artists. Women aren’t getting the same chances. So why are radio doing that? I don’t know. I have to question how play-lists are put together. Some say it’s an algorithm based system whereby they chose what’s on-trend, they look to Spotify and see who’s trending. But if you do that, then the likes of RuthAnne [Cunningham], who’s brought out the Women In Harmony single [a cover of Dreams by the Cranberries], but prior to her even doing that collaboration, she has over three billion – THREE BILLION – streams collectively on Spotify for artists that she’s written for. And herself, she has millions of streams on her own merit, on her own music that she’s released as an individual artist. So if it was a case where the argument is, ‘Oh radio are following trends’…, that’s not true. Because there are female artists that are mentioned in the report that have got more streams than some of the artists that have been broken in Irish radio that are male. So it’s really about why the system is in place in Irish radio where they can add a female to a play-list and add a male to a play-list, and yet the females are getting totally thrown aside and not being appointed the heavy rotation play-lists that men are. They [female artists] are being put on overnight play-lists that nobody listens to because it’s in the middle of the night! It really needs to be properly looked at and inspected. Because to be honest, it’s not only a blatant disregard of female creatives, it’s an infringement on basic human rights. If you’re given a broadcasting licence in Ireland, there are standards that come with that, stipulations where there has to be equality all around. It’s legislation. So if they’re neglecting that…! It’s a discriminatory practise if they’re directly impacting how an artist can make money and earn a living, and that’s what they’re doing. It’s 100% radio licences who are being given the privilege, via the government, and they’re taking that privilege and they’re rejecting female artists. And that is a big issue.” 

Something I’m sure Linda has probably thought about often is what would she do right now, if she was in a position of influence within a radio station, to go about redressing this horrific imbalance?

“I’d look for an opt-in solution. RTE Radio 1, our national station, they have gender balance. I rang Martina McGlynn and Aidan Butler, who are senior producers and who are on the play-list committee – because it’s a play-list committee that’s on Radio 1 – and I asked them why did they think they have come up trumps in this, because they have, they’re 50-50. And their answer was because it’s mindful. They go in every week, they sit down, they look at the submissions, and they say right, we have to make sure that there’s a non-gender bias here. Some weeks it might be six women over four men or whatever. But generally, from their annual perspective, they have got it right. She said you can’t always have every week five and five, or 50-50, but they mindfully are always aware to try and enact gender balance. She said it’s as simple as that. Women and men deserve equal opportunities. So what I say to radio, and what I have said to radio, because I’ve issued an email to every single radio station, to every single head-of-music in each station, and I’ve welcomed them to open up the conversation. I’ve said that myself and Áine [singer/songwriter Áine Tyrrell who co-compiled the report with Linda] are here to discuss it, to accept and acknowledge that they have let down the women of Ireland – because they have, this is a fact, it’s not an opinion – and how they can go about changing that and enforcing change. And how do they do that? They get together as a team, the programme directors, the marketing team…because everyone goes, oh it’s marketing because men are easier to market than women, which is absolute tripe! Some of the biggest artists in the world of music are female artists; Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Billie Elish…they’re all some of the biggest artists ever, in history! So this whole thing of people don’t like women being heard on the radio, or female voices, ya know, it just has to stop. Radio needs to sit down and look at the facts. And stop feeling so personally attacked that someone has stated the obvious. And this is what we’re seeing coming back. Even on these ridiculous Twitter attacks where DJs are feeling like they’re being targeted. We’re not targeting DJs. This is not a personal attack. This is not an opinion based report. It’s a factual data report, which outlines the gender disparity that’s in radio. It’s as simple as that. I have DJs that I’ve worked with for years going, ‘Oh Linda, I feel like you’ve fed me to the wolves.’ And I’m going to them, well if you feel that, how do you think female artists have been feeling for over a decade in Ireland?! So again, they have to put their ego aside, because this isn’t about them. It’s about gender equality. It’s about the likes of FM104 giving 100% male acts, 100%! Most stations are 95% [male] to 5% [female]. Like…5%? I mean, I can’t even…! When I was putting this report together, I had to keep checking, because I was thinking, am I seeing this right? Is this actually true?! [laughs]. But these figures can’t be pushed away. It can’t be the case where it’s like, oh it’s just another woman voicing her opinion. It’s not an opinion. It’s a fact. And we’re not going to be hushed away this time. I’ve noticed that other types of reports, and research pieces have been done – especially through colleges, and women studying women, womens’ equality and all that – and it’s fallen on deaf ears. For whatever reason, I don’t know. But this time it’s not falling on deaf ears. The article itself has reached just over sixteen million views worldwide, it’s been shared by every national publication in Ireland. There’s going to be more international publications published over the next few weeks because I’ve literally been doing back-to-back interviews since the 24th of June. We have solidarity in the UK, we have solidarity coming in from the US. There’s other people getting in touch going, oh my God, this is a human rights issue. So radio stations cannot ignore this anymore. They’ve turned their back on a generation of Irish women that have been told their music is not good enough, and that their voice is not important, and is not up to the standard of their male counterparts. And that is not true.” 

We talk a lot about the importance of mental health these days, which, of course, is just as it should be. But in terms of the impact that this treatment has surely had on Irish female artists over the years, and the loss to Irish musical culture (through the loss of the music itself, but also through the denial of opportunities for those artists to grow), what kind of damage does Linda think may have been done?

“Irreparable damage. Irreparable on the psyche, on the levels of confidence a woman can have within herself and in her own voice, in who she is as a person with a view, a perspective, a story to tell. We’re all weaving stories in terms of our own narratives in life, as songwriters, as composers. I’ll go back to Ruth Anne. Ruth Anne has written for John Legend, for Niall Horan, for Brittany Spears, Bebe Rexa, JoJo…the list goes on. She is a brilliant storyteller. She has reached billions of people through her songwriting with men singing her songs, and other women singing her songs at an international level. But when it comes to her own country, telling her stories…And by the way, Irish radio has no problem playing Niall Horan. And RuthAnne has written songs for One Direction as well. I have so much respect for the women of Ireland, honest to God, because I can’t imagine the mental weight that they’ve had to carry for a generation of songwriters, and music creators, and musicians, and session musicians, and women in bands and fronting bands. Because they’re looking at their male peers thrive, being told yes, yes, you’re great, this is brilliant. And they’re being told to look sexy. Lose a bit of weight. Maybe if you get more followers…Men aren’t being told any of that! Lewis Capaldi is one of the biggest male artists in the world! And I love Lewis, but nobody ever told him to look sexy, ya know? Dermot Kennedy was never told to look sexy. There’s a lot of sexism as well involved. And we have to look at it from a broader perspective as well, because most of the heads of music in radio stations are men. OK, this is a fact. So men have to address the issue of gender imbalance and gender inequality. For whatever reason it is, and I don’t know why they’re choosing not to play women, but it has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed now. Because we’re not going away. We’re going to keep speaking. And we’re not shouting. This isn’t women shouting. It’s not opinions. We’re voicing facts at this stage.” 

If it seems to be mostly men who also compile play-lists, does the fact in itself point towards a large part of this problem? Or does it point towards an even deeper problem still in Irish radio?

“I mean…you said it, not me! [laughs]. At the moment, I’m being harassed, there’s Facebook groups after being created, hate groups, ‘ya sexist feminist’, all of this absolute tripe. On the Nialler9 Facebook group, one of the women put up the report, and the horrific comments that started coming in. Horrific. And I’ve said to the ladies, because we’re all in this together, do not go onto that page. You’re all better than that and you do not deserve to be reading the comments that men are putting on the page. And I just want to address another thing. I don’t know why Nialler is allowing that type of commentary to happen on a page that should be a safe space. I think that needs to be moderated in a better capacity than just letting people have free reign to tear women down. I love Dermot Kennedy’s music. Hozier is an incredible activist, let alone a musician. He’s a brilliant man. I travelled to Amsterdam last year to see Dermot Kennedy because I couldn’t get a ticket to go to his show here. And I want to be able to travel to another country because I can’t get a ticket to see an Irish woman playing here as well. All of those men deserve to be where they are. But there should be some balance. RuthAnne deserves to be where Hozier is. Soule deserves it. All of these other amazing female artists, Kehli, Hannah Kathleen, there’s loads of these artists emerging who are creating brilliant pop music. It’s really well produced and the quality standard is there. I just don’t know why the predominantly male play-listers aren’t deciding to play them. I think they need to take a long, hard look at themselves to see what they’re doing to the creative women of Ireland and why they’re doing it. They need to have a good answer for that, because the facts are there. The data is there. And they should respectfully respond.”

I wondered if perhaps play-lists themselves – the fact that they exist, why they exist, what their presence in the industry in turn allows to exist – are a part of the problem? Are they a part of what has damaged the way some people value music, and therefore, its creators?

“That’s a very good question. That goes to a deeper level of opinion, and again, I don’t want to go too far away from this report on this occasion. Because it’s a factual report, it’s a data report. So I’m just mindful that we don’t go off the terrain of factual data versus opinion too much. This report isn’t based on one argument over another, it’s just about the findings and how we can get people to react. I can’t answer the question of play-lists. Only people within broadcasting can. The likes of the B.A.I. [Broadcasting Authority of Ireland], it’s even on their site that they will endeavour to ensure that viewers and listeners in Ireland will have access to a diverse range of services, programming, and perspectives that meets their needs and reflects their diversity. And that it will actively encourage and support Irish broadcasters in realising this objective. So it is within the objective of radio play-lists all across the world to reach an equal level of diversity. And it’s not happening in Ireland. So in terms of looking deeper into the play-lists, I don’t even think it’s play-lists that are the issue. It’s the people behind the play-lists. That’s where the issue lies. Irish artists are being broken, but it’s male Irish artists. Certain stations will have a remit, which is basically the genre relating to a station and the commercial viability of that and how it will pan out. So there’s pop music, there’s rock music, Radio Nova, for example, is predominantly guitar led rock music, it’s a specialist station, that’s what it is when you go there. 98FM is a commercial station, you’ll mostly hear pop music and R’n’B, commercial mainstream. FM104, the same. Spin, the same. RTE Radio 1 is adult contemporary, folk music crossing over mainstream acoustic. You’re not going to hear a mad, up-tempo pop song on Radio 1 because it’s not their remit. So there are remits to different radio stations, and that’s standard within the whole entire industry. I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is the people that the artists that are played across every genre, are predominantly male. So for every Hudson Taylor, there’s an Emma Langford. There are all these counterparts on the female side who are just as good as their male equivalent. So why is it a case that it’s predominantly male?” 

So with regard to the report, what does Linda want to see happen next, as in right now?

“I want to see radio stations respond. I’m issuing a report tomorrow about the response from Irish male artists, and their initial reaction. And they had no idea it was this bad. In an ideal world, I want radio stations to firstly get back to me, because only five have got back to me so far. The rest are ignoring me. So I want them to actually respond. I want them to engage and open a conversation. I want them to not look at this as a direct attack, it isn’t. It’s a question. Women are entitled to ask a question without being seen as being shrill, without being seen as being argumentative, without being seen as,’oh she’s on one!’ Ya know. This thing that I’m getting on Twitter, and there’s some female DJs that are on the defensive as well, going oh why are you attacking me? But I’m not. I just asked a question. You can see that they are intimidated by the companies that they work for, because they’re on eggshells at the moment in the radio industry. And I have to say, one major station got back to me and said that they’re gonna work on it, and that’s 2FM. And it’s amazing that they have because they are one of the trending stations when it comes to breaking Irish music. They have amazing champions of Irish music like Tara Stewart, Tracy Clifford, Eoghan McDerrmott. They got back to me like a flash and said, ‘we’re definitely going to look into this, thank you for highlighting it. We’ll try to do better.’ That’s what I want the other station to do. I want them to follow Radio 1’s influence, that they mindfully go into a play-list meeting. This isn’t a hard thing we’re asking them to do. Let’s split this down the line. We’ll appoint play-lists to women, and we’ll appoint play-lists to men. That’s what I want to see happen. It shouldn’t take six months to happen. They can do this in the next few weeks.” 

Looking at the music business and the impact of Covid 19, I asked Linda how she sees the industry returning from the trauma of the last few months? How far away are we from the old ‘normal’, or, what does she believe a new ‘normal’ for the industry will look like?

“I think the way people perform is gonna change. I think with the likes of ‘net gigs, different online platforms that will show artists playing from their home or from a home studio direct to their fans, I think that’s gonna be huge. I think people need to stop putting up their performances for free. I love the likes of IG TV which is great, it’s raw, and putting a song or two out there, that’s fine, no problem. But for actual gigs, people need to realise that the likes of this pandemic can happen again. There could be a second wave of this one as well. If you keep up with the actual science side of it – not just the news – they are saying that it might get worse. So we mightn’t even be at the worst stage of Covid yet. We have to embrace change. And we have to embrace the digital era of music, and the digital era is having the likes of these huge online platforms that are now catering for artists to perform and to stream ‘live’ gigs. And to pay for it. To be honest, a fiver to see your favourite artist versus eighty-eight euro to see them in the 3Arena, I know it’s not the same buzz or whatever, but if there’s an alternative there to engage with someone you love listening to, why not engage? People need to stop putting up free gigs because it’s reducing the value of their own creative work, their portfolio. They need to think right, this could be a long-term thing, so they have to still be able to monetise what they’re creating because it’s a profession that they’re in, it’s a business that they’re in. I feel that as the music industry expands, it’s going to become more digitised and we’ll see a lot of new, different platforms emerging.” 

 
 

~ You can view Linda’s full report into Gender Disparity on Irish radio by visiting her website, www.lindacooganbyrne.com. You can also follow Linda on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. 

 
 

ENDS

Kathryn Thomas

First Published February 2015

KATHRYN THOMAS TRANSFORMING TULLAMORE

Kathryn Thomas

During the course of her career so far Kathryn Thomas has established herself as one of the most high-profile and well known presenters in the country. She’s someone many of us will remember from her earliest days on ‘Rapid’, with then Dublin football star Jason ‘Jayo’ Sherlock. From there, we clocked up God knows how many miles around the world with her, taking in all kinds of weird, wonderful, mad and exotic locations during her tenure as presenter of travel show, ‘No Frontiers.’ These days, of course, Kathryn graces our screens as host of the hugely successful, and influential, lifestyle show ‘Operation Transformation.’ Kathryn was in Tullamore last Saturday to open Clinical Fitness Tullamore (Thomas McLoughlin) in the Tanyard, and I had the pleasure of spending some time in her company. And on Valentine’s Day, too!

I began by asking Kathryn what she reckoned were the advantages of coming somewhere like Thomas’ superb new facility, Clinical Fitness Tullamore, for someone thinking of either starting a fitness plan or joining a gym for the first time?

“Well I think everybody needs support and everybody needs a bit of a kick-start when they’re looking to try something like that. Because if you haven’t been following a fitness plan I think it’s really difficult to do it on your own. So to be able to come somewhere like this, and have the likes of Thomas, who’s professionally trained, walk you through all the equipment and all the stations, well that’s exactly what you need. And also, I think once you make a decision to join, the first thing is you’ve parted with your money so that in itself is motivation to go! But as well, if you’ve made an appointment on a one-to-one basis, that’s an incentive too because you’re not going to let anyone down. I always say that the most difficult thing for people is actually walking through the door of somewhere like this and getting over that first fear. But I think Thomas is great and for people to have his level of support behind them will be brilliant, I mean, his knowledge of fitness is huge. And he has a huge passion for it as well, and I think for anyone starting up a business like this, passion is everything. You put your heart and soul into it, because it’s a big step to open in times like these. So what you have to be is passionate, and you have to believe in yourself, and that’s exactly what he does. It’s a fantastic facility here and I know he’s going to do really well.” 

In both her role as presenter of ‘Operation Transformation’ and in her own personal life, I was sure that Kathryn had probably seen more gyms than some people in need of gyms have probably had hot dinners! So what would Kathryn say makes Clinical Fitness Tullamore that bit different to what else is out there?

“Well basically it’s all body-weight focused here. If you go into other gyms, most gyms, you’ll see thread-mills, you’ll see spinning bikes, you’ll see all this sort of stuff. But what Thomas is doing is focusing on strength and conditioning using your own body weight. And what I like about that is that everyone, whether you’re 10 stone or 20 stone, can use this facility and it’s going to suit YOU. And you’ll see your strength increase as you go, and you’ll be able to gauge it. If you were able to do 3 rungs of the monkey bars starting off and then collapsing, well over the weeks if you can get to 5 and then 10, well you can see and feel the progress that you’re making.” 

Again, taking into account Kathryn’s position as presenter of ‘Operation Transformation’ and her own passion for fitness, I wondered what she saw as being the biggest threats to Irish health at the moment?

“Well it all comes down to our diet, Anthony. I mean for the World Health Organisation to turn around and say to us that with the way we’re going, in 5 years time we’ll be the fattest country in Europe, I mean that’s just shocking! In the past we’d always talk about America and the obesity crisis there, but we’re in the throes of an obesity crisis here, now. So I think it comes down to education and to teaching our kids early. ‘Operation Transformation’ has been campaigning for 4 years to get calories put on menus and finally it was enacted and announced that it was going to be law by Minister Varadker last week. And that was a lot of the pressure that was put on by the show. Not solely, of course, but what we did definitely contributed in a big way, I think. We got literally hundreds of thousands of people to sign up their support for something like that. And it’s about getting kids moving as well, you know, encouraging compulsory P.E. in schools. And again, through ‘Operation Transformation’, we’ve been showing that kids simply aren’t getting enough exercise. Even 30 minutes a day would make a massive difference to kids. So we need to start early, we need to get real about it, and people need to realise that it is a problem that we do need to tackle.” 

So where does Kathryn think the line is between governmental responsibility and parental or personal responsibility in this regard?

“I think it’s both. And I think if it’s enacted into law, as it was last week, then the government are taking it seriously. So what that means in turn is that parents are more encouraged to look at their kids and take a harder line with their diet and with exercise, you know. Because this is about the health of the next generation, and for the first time what we’re looking at now is seeing diseases like cancer, and heart diseases, in teenagers. All related to obesity, which has never happened before in the history of the modern world! And again, this is something I didn’t know, but it’s only through my involvement in the show, reading the stats, listening to people like Professor Donal O’Shea, well it leaves you going, my god, we have a major problem here!” 

Having already mentioned Minister Varadker, I wondered if he were to step down tomorrow and the call came through for Kathryn to fill the breach, would she have maybe 3 things in mind that she would try and implement straight away, given all that she’s learned and been exposed to from her time on ‘Operation Transformation’?

“Certainly. I’d be making P.E. compulsory for every child of school going age. I personally would introduce a health initiative whereby kids would be weighed yearly. It might sound severe, bu I think it would be a good way to help kids keep their weigh in check, and for adults to help them that way, too. Because I think what we’re seeing now is people who are overweight, and we’re saying, ‘Ah sure they’re grand’, you know? But in fact, they are overweight, or even obese. I mean, we’ve taken 4 years just to get calories on menus. I’m going out with a restaurateur and I know some people in the business don’t agree with that, but what it’s actually doing is facilitating people to make healthy choices, so I would definitely be a supporter of that. And I think it will make a difference. But people have to be realistic as well. If you’re going out for dinner and you’re looking at a meal and it’s 800 calories, you’re still going to enjoy it, you’ll just know you’ll have to work harder in the gym or on the road the next day! Or else, eat a little bit less the next day. It’s just about education.” 

So as regards staying fit and healthy herself, what are Kathryn’s main motivators? What keeps her going?

“Well Anthony, I love my food! My biggest downfall is cheese and red wine! Not the healthiest of choices! And I love going out for dinner, hanging out with my friends. I have pizza on a Sunday, I have take-aways, I do all of that. So because of that, I’m actually prone to putting on weight. So I have to work really hard to maintain what I am. I work out twice a week with a personal trainer, and I have 2 dogs as well, who need to be walked every day, twice a day. So all of that kind of keeps me fit. I’d be quite healthy during the week, in terms of I’d eat a lot of fruit and veg. But at the weekend the pause button is pressed and all of that goes out the window! But I try and get back into on Monday.” 

And would Kathryn be the kind for setting yearly goals for fitness? Or because her job can kind of take her anywhere at any time, is it more consistency that she aims for?

“Yeah, that’s pretty much the way it is and the way I am, in that I try to stay consistent. I don’t really have a routine job that has you somewhere from 9 to 5 and all that. I can kind of be all over the place. So yeah, I would say that it;s consistency that I strive to achieve.”

Kathryn has already been to the fore in 2 hugely successful shows which have revolved around subjects about which she’s passionate; travel with ‘No Frontiers’, and health and fitness with ‘Operation Transformation’. I wondered if Kathryn’s role in either of those shows came about because of her passion for those subjects, or if it was the other way round, that those subjects became passions because of her involvement in the shows?

“Hmm, good question! Well, I was very lucky to get into travel. I used to work on a sports programme years ago , ‘Rapid’, with Jason Sherlock, I think I was only 19 or 20. So what happened there was that Jayo, who was the big sports star at the time, his role on the show was all the serious sporting interviews, and my role became sort of action/adventure girl! I did bungee-jumping, sky-diving, shark-diving…..anything that he was too scared to do, I’d end up getting to do it! And we did a lot of travel at that time, I mean that was even my first time ever in America with the show. So on the back of that show was where ‘No Frontiers’ came knocking, asking would I like to put a back-pack on and go travelling around the world for a year? And I thought to myself, well this sounds like an easy decision to make! So that was it. And obviously my love of travel grew because I worked for 10 years on the show after that. And I’d always try to maintain my fitness on the road too, you know. I always had an interest in fitness. The travel developed because of the show, but with ‘Operation Transformation’, I’d say it was the perfect show for me because I’d already developed a huge interest in health and fitness. And the producers of that show, they knew I was already genuinely interested in that. And of course, that I’d struggled with my own weight before, when I was in school I was overweight and I’d spoken openly about it. So I think they thought that I’d be a good fit for the show.” 

So, with 2 great passions of Kathryn’s life already in the can as far as tv shows go, I wondered if there’s a 3rd great passion that we might expect to see Kathryn grace our screens with sometime in the future?

“Oooh, well! Well I’m innately nosey! And I think through the little bit of radio I’ve been doing over the last few years, I’ve realised I’m actually a better listener that I thought! I always thought I was the ‘mouthpiece’, because that’s my profession, talking for a living. But actually I love the radio and I love listening to peoples’ stories, hearing all sorts of stuff about their lives. So, even though it sounds like a cliche, Anthony, I would love to do a talk-show or a chat-show a little further down the line. I don’t think that I’m ready for that couch just yet, but I’d like to think that it’s a plan for the future.” 

ENDS