Boyzone

First Published November 2018

BOYZ BOW OUT IN STYLE

Twenty-five years. Man, that’s a quarter of a century! It’s enough to make you feel old. Well, it is if you can remember that far back like it was yesterday. And for those of a certain generation, who grew up in that era when Boyzone first came to the fore and were at the height of their fame all those moons and issues of Smash Hits ago, it’s also somewhat sad to think that their latest album, the aptly titled Thank You & Goodnight, is where the last chapter will close on Ireland’s first boyband. 

By now, I think, it doesn’t even really matter if you like their music or if you ever actually did, for that matter. Because from their seemingly shambolic and now infamous Late Late debut, to the glory of sell-out tours, the heights of chart-topping singles, the prestige of number 1 albums, all the way to the incredible heartbreak of losing Stephen Gately so suddenly – and while still so young – Boyzone have been, more than anything, a bunch of Irish lads who knew they hit the jackpot and did their best to enjoy every minute of it. And for the most part, without ever losing any sense of who they were and where they came from. That’s not to say, of course, that there wasn’t bumps along the way, but hey, what road worth travelling doesn’t have its share of ups and downs, right?

Thank You & Goodnight sees the Dublin foursome of Ronan Keating, Keith Duffy, Mikey Graham, and Shane Lynch, going out in style, presenting us with an album that’s insanely catchy from start to finish. But not alone that, it carries at its core the unmistakable confidence of men in control of their own destiny in life, at peace in each other’s company, and following their hearts in putting this album together. That’s the way it should always be, true. But it’s not always the easiest place to reach or thing to do, so when it happens, credit should go where it’s due.  Tracks like Because (co-written by Ed Sheeran, hit songwriter Amy Wadge, ace producer John Shanks, and Ronan), and Love (co-written by Gary Barlow and Shanks again) are already as good as anything the charts have seen in the last few years, and easily so at that.  But there’s more to come from this album, in the shape of Talk About Love, Loaded Gun, and Learn To Love Again

The one that’s going to bring a tear to your eye, though – even if you don’t expect it to, trust me, it will –  as it closes out the album, and the Boyzone story, is Dream, which features a vocal from Stephen. In fact, his is the last voice you hear, something I’m sure didn’t happen by chance knowing the place Stephen still holds in his ‘brothers’ hearts. The song has a feel of Take That’s Never Forget to it, in that you can easily imagine it being the song that would be the perfect finale for every show they perform for the rest of their careers. Regardless of whatever I may have thought of Boyzone’s music from time to time, I’ll never forget the genuine, completely heartfelt love they showed for their bandmate when Stephen passed away so suddenly almost a decade ago. 

Some moments bypass and supersede all others, and one such moment was when Ronan, Keith, Mikey, and Shane, decided they wanted to spend one last night with their brother, and stayed the night with him in the chapel where he lay at rest ahead of his funeral the following day. That simple, yet overwhelmingly powerful and emotional gesture, showed how close the five lads from Dublin had become during the years of their adventures around the world. When it all came down to it, what mattered most was one thing, and it was one thing that no-one could doubt was real: togetherness. They were five lads from Dublin at the start, and with Stephen’s voice being the last you hear on the album, they’re still just five lads from Dublin at the end of it all, too. And there’s something that’s very hard not to like about that.

When you throw in their biggest hits from back in the day such as Love Me For A Reason, Picture Of You, A Different Beat, Baby, Can I Hold You?, and even No Matter What (which I always found hard to take to myself, for some reason), and so many more, well this farewell tour definitely has the makings of a pop-party to remember. So, lest there be any doubt about it, the Boyz will certainly be going out in style. 

If they’ve gone out of their way to make sure that Stephen is still seen as an intrinsic part of the Boyzone story, and rightly remembered for his role in making the band one of the pop sensations of their time, it’s interesting to note that nowhere in the album notes is there even a mention of Louis Walsh, a man who, for many, is as much a part of the Boyzone story as Ronan, Keith, Mikey, Shane, and Stephen. It seems hard to imagine that this was something as simple as an oversight. And whatever the reasons for it, that’s up to the band themselves, it’s their decision. But it does slightly leave you with the feeling that there’s still something unfinished, unresolved about it all. In Ronan’s liner notes, he writes, “We made it up as we went along with no one guiding us and look what we created.” In his notes, Mikey writes, “To all our managers…”, but nothing more personal than that. 

But it is what it is. Not everything can be perfect, as much as we’d all wish it could be sometimes. And maybe that’s the best way of summing up Boyzone. It was never perfect. But beyond the music, it was never less than real. Watching them take to the Strictly Come Dancing floor for Children In Need last week, it was impossible to feel anything other than proud of what they’ve achieved and who they’ve become, and how much they’ve meant to so many people, of all ages now, all around the world.

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s something well worth acknowledging and celebrating. So lads, THANK YOU, and goodnight. 

ENDS 

Natalie Maines

First Published July 2013

CHICK, FIGHTER, MOTHER

Thirty-two words. That’s all it took to turn Natalie Maines from a dixie darlin’ to a Saddam supportin’, America hatin’, devil in disguise. At least, that’s what happened in the eyes and ears of country music radio and a large number of country ‘ fans ‘. Fans for whom, it must be added, the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking – even common sense, perhaps – were as much a foreign language as any other found beyond the shores of their good ole U.S. of A.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against America or country music, far from it. In fact, I’ve spent some of the most memorable days and nights of my life under the blue of a ‘Buckeye’sky in Ohio, and country music defines a massive a part of who I am. But even now, a decade on, how Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks were treated back in 2003 still gets me shaking my head in disbelief. There truly are times in this life when no matter how much you love something, you can still find yourself almost diametrically opposed to everything that something seems to stand for or represent at that moment in time. And 2003 was one of those times.

With the release of Mother, Natalie’s first solo record last May, it’s worth remembering how this Dixie Chick spoke her mind, stood her ground, and fought back when lesser souls would have shattered in face of the storm that engulfed her and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison.

It was London, 2003 at the Shepherd’s Bush Theatre. The world stood just ten days away from yet another war as the U.S. and Britain prepared – despite huge anti-war demonstrations – to invade Iraq in search of the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ their intelligence services had confirmed beyond a doubt existed. That was the message being relayed to the world by then President George Bush, his Vice-President Dick Chaney, their Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For the greater good of the free world, war had to be waged, they argued. But a lot of people disagreed with that assessment, Natalie Maines among them.

The Chicks were on the European leg of their Top Of The World Tour. Their album sales were in the tens of millions. They already had eight Grammys to their name and their count of CMA Awards topped that by a further two. Their cover of the Stevie Nicks classic Landslide was riding high at #10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Just three years earlier they had performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl, the sporting and television highlight of the American calendar. But then Natalie Maines spoke from her heart. And thirty-two words changed everything. As she was later to sing, “The top of the world came crashing down.”

“Just so you know”, she began, “we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Now, in the same way as I’m not attempting to run down America as a country or all Americans, or everyone who’s a country music fan, or who was involved in the industry then, I’m not saying that Saddam Hussein was basically a good guy, a bit of a character who was misunderstood and suffered a bad reputation because of that. Absolutely not. He was a tyrant, a dictator. A brutal, arrogant, selfish narcissist. But was the invasion of Iraq and the grief it brought upon so many the way to deal with him? Again, in my opinion at least, absolutely not.

As soon as word reached the States of Natalie’s comments while on stage in London, the fallout began. And the nature of the attacks on her, Martie, and Emily were deeply personal, vicious, founded mostly in the flag-waving bluster of patriotism as defined only by flag-waving and bluster. As mentioned earlier, all argument and rationale was as far removed from the subtleties of irony and the intricacies of reason and logical thinking as Bush et-al always were from those ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Unquestionably, no male band would have been vilified in the same manner.

Maines and the Chicks were accused of supporting communism. One radio caller suggested, in total seriousness, that Maines herself should be strapped to a bomb and dropped on Iraq. Bill O’ Reilly – renaissance man that he is – referred to the band as, “callow, foolish women who deserve to be slapped around.” In the ultra-conservative world of O’ Reilly’s middle class America just ten years ago, it seems that while opposing war was a big no-no, encouraging violence against women was an acceptable form of free speech.

Other protesters labelled Maines, Maguire and Robison as  ‘bimbos’ and ‘dixie twits.’ “Free speech is fine”, remarked one man, “but you don’t do it outside of the country and you don’t do it publicly.” Another reasoned that, “Being ashamed of our President means being ashamed of our country.” One couple even offered this sage advice, “Keep playin’, keep makin’ music, and keep your mouth shut.”

Within a week Landslide had fallen from #10 to #43 on the Billboard Hot 100. And within two weeks it had crashed out of the chart completely. Country radio all but banned the Dixie Chicks in response to the frenzy of country ‘fans.’ Many stations even went as far as to set up bins outside their offices so that ‘fans’ could publicly dump their Dixie Chicks albums. In some cases, the public destruction of their albums was encouraged and even arranged by having tractors drive over them to crush them.

Even President Bush himself commented on the controversy, although this time he was perhaps pointedly missing the point and the bigger picture as opposed to just not getting it, as was so often the case. “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt”, he opined, “when people don’t want to buy their records.” Bush, of course, like the Chicks themselves, is a native of Texas where he served as the Lone Star state’s 46th governor between 1995 and 2000.

On May 1st, 2003, Bush held court aboard the USS Lincoln, a banner behind him proclaiming, ‘Mission Accomplished.’ He stated at the time that this signalled the end of major combat operations in Iraq. In December of 2011, President Obama oversaw the final withdrawal of the last remaining US troops from Iraq. There have been almost 4,500 US casualties in Iraq, nearly 4,000 of them since President Bush’s ‘mission’ was ‘accomplished.’

In 2007, Taking The Long Way, the Dixie Chicks’ first album since the top of their world came crashing down, claimed five Grammys. Among them, the awards for Album Of The Year and, for their defiant, fight-not-flight anthem Not Ready To Make Nice, the awards for Single and for Song Of The Year. Upon its release, Taking The Long Way debuted at #1 on the Billboard Top 200 and the country charts, despite receiving next to no support from country radio. Clearly and thankfully, however, the band retained the support of their more liberal, contemplative fans. Even if, to their eternal shame, a significant number of their fellow country artists distanced themselves from the Chicks in every way possible. But they were not without allies among big names in the music world as both Bruce Springsteen and Madonna were vocal in support of the Chicks’ right to express their opinions freely.

Even country legend Merle Haggard could see through the bluster and past the flag-waving. “I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks”, he stated, “but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.” 

Mother is not a Dixie Chicks album. And it’s definitely not country, so don’t expect either one. But it’s doubtful that any labels like country, pop, rock – or whatever else – were even discussed by Maines and her producer Ben Harper when they began work on this collection of songs. And in truth, what ‘kind of’ an album it is doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that one of the most powerful, expressive and emotive voices of the last fifteen to twenty years, a voice that has been too long gone, has gifted its vocal dynamism to the world once more. As it happens, though, Mother (whose title track comes from Pink Floyd’s The Wall album) IS an excellent debut. Among the standout offerings are Natalie’s graceful embrace of the Jeff Buckley classic Lover, You Should’ve Come Over, and Come Crying To Me, a Maines co-write with Dixie Chick band-mates Martie and Emily.

Last week the US celebrated the fourth of July, its Independence Day. If anyone can claim to have truly lived in the spirit of what that day is supposed to recognise, then it’s Natalie Maines.

And long may she continue living that very same way.

ENDS

Lily Allen

First Published May 2014

WHAT A GEM WE HAVE IN SHEEZUS

Lily Allen

Some people seem born to a destiny of dividing public opinion. The merest whisper of their name can be akin to a drawing of battle-lines, a pinning of colours to masts, or the firing of a warning shot across the bows of those who may – in their poor and to be pitied uninformed bliss – have taken up positions among the ranks of the ‘other side’!

Not quite sure exactly what I mean? Fair enough. Then think Roy Keane. He’s either a hero with the courage of his convictions who stood firm in his beliefs, or he’s a traitor who turned his back on his country. Or think Barack Obama. To many, President Obama is already one of history’s most defining and charismatic leaders, and one of the greatest orators of our time. But to more, he’s the poorest excuse for a president ever to set foot inside the fabled Oval office. Heck, as far as some are concerned he’s not even a ‘real’ American anyway! How could he be, with a name like ‘that’?! And as hard as that is to fathom, amazingly, there are even the odd few out there who think that, because of the colour of his skin, Barack Obama couldn’t possibly have Irish ancestry! But we’ll leave that to one side for another day!

By now, however, you get my point. Well, London born singer/songwriter Lily Allen most definitely falls into the same category as the iconic ex-Manchester United and Ireland gladiator and the current leader of the free world. Mention her name and some eyes will roll heavenward without need of any further prompting, voices will begin to rise unknowingly but uncontrollably, and fissures with all the potential to run to depths which could well be described as being of a musical civil war kind, will appear in some friendships!

To say most people who know Lily Allen either love her or hate her falls some way short of being an accurate reflection of her place in popular music culture. The truth of it is, that while those who love her do so in a way that accepts and respects her for the artist and person she is and has every right to be, those who hate her seem to see ‘hate’ not as the final exasperated expression of their contempt and disgust for her, but rather as the first! Hate is just a starting point that quickly leads to ‘despise’, ‘loathe’, and ‘detest.’ And yet, far from being a plastic pop star who simply shows up and does what she’s told, Lily Allen is an artist of real substance.

So her recent return from a self-imposed period of retirement was greeted by her fans with all the delight and excitement of being reunited with a friend of old. And as old friends will tend to do, her fans – and yes, I AM ONE! – will defend her to the hilt. So, here goes…

Sheezus, the title of Lily’s first studio album in four years, offers one example of why and how she so easily causes friends and family to split ranks. The title, as she has freely admitted, is a tongue firmly in cheek nod towards American hip-hop artist, ‘Mr. Kim Kardashian’, and Taylor Swift-bashing, God wannabe… Kanye West, whose own last album was called Yeezus.

The major difference between Lily and Kanye is that while irony is skillfully and clearly crafted into Allen’s latest release in a highly witty and entertaining way, Kanye’s production is more of a what you might call a ‘Ronseal’ type affair! That is to say, his album was called Yeezus because he actually does appear to see himself, for all intents and purposes, as a saviour figure. In case any of us failed to pick up on the gift to the world that is his presence among us, his album title was just a subtle reminder. His kind of subtle, mind you.

Lily Allen, however, is just having fun with words. And in seeing and highlighting the extreme egotistical tendencies of Mr. West/Kardashian, she reveals a lack of any real ego in herself. Is she confident in herself? Well that’s a different question entirely, and the answer is that she most surely is! Does she speak her mind freely and perhaps sometimes too openly and willingly for her own good? No doubt about it. But is there a massive ego behind any of that? In my opinion, no. But I can understand how it seems that way to some. The title of Allen’s previous album, 2009’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, is another example of how her playful wit could easily be mistaken for arrogance, I suppose. But, if she was a man one doubts the question of wit or arrogance would ever even arise….

Lily Allen doesn’t possess the vocal ability of someone like Adele, let’s say, but there is an almost fragile beauty to her style of singing that sets her apart from many who may be more technically proficient. And while she may not have Adele’s way of synchronising every heartbeat in the room in time with her voice, I doubt if Adele could pull off the rap-like, half-singing/half-spoken approach to expressing herself which Allen has become the leading exponent of on this side of the Atlantic. What Lily and Adele do have in common, though, is their enormous songwriting talent. Adele, quite rightly, has been lauded far and wide for writing the hits which have turned her 19 and 21 albums into such massive global success stories. But Lily receives far less, if indeed, any, credit for her achievements in this regard.

How many of the people who are so quick to dismiss her as ‘all mouth’, for instance, would know that she won an Ivor Novello Award for Songwriter of the Yea’ in 2010, and that her song, The Fear, clinched the prize for Best Song Musically and Lyrically AND for Most Performed Work in the that same year? My guess is not too many. And to put the worth of an Ivor Novello Award into some kind of context for you, previous winners include the likes of Gary Barlow and Elton John. Again, two artists who have come in for more than their fair share of criticism from time to time, but their quality as songsmiths is beyond question.

To further emphasise Lily’s flair and strength as a songwriter, it’s worth pointing out that she also collected a prestigious BMI Songwriting Award for Smile (from her Alright, Still… debut album) in 2008. Mark Ronson, producer of Alright, Still…, also claimed a Grammy Award in the category of Producer of the Year-Non Classical for the single Littlest Things from that same album. A second BMI Award came her way in October 2008 for extensive airplay of The Fear stateside.

September 2009 marked the beginning of a self-imposed retirement of sorts for Allen. Between then and now she married Sam Cooper, a builder and decorator who seems to have acted as a major stabilising factor in her life, simply by accepting and loving her for who she is. Having suffered the trauma of a miscarriage from a previous relationship in 2008, she endured similar heartache with Cooper when a viral infection led to a stillbirth in late 2009. Thankfully, however, the couple have since been blessed with two daughters, with the birth of Marnie Rose in February 2013 bringing a little sister for Ethel Mary, who came into the world in November 2011.

But, back to Sheezus. And what a way to return to the top of the charts. In the time between this album dropping and It’s Not Me, It’s You, we’d only had little teasers of Allen’s unmistakable vocal tones when, under her married name of Lily Rose Cooper, she guested on Pink’s track True Love (from Pink’s 2012 album, The Truth About Love) and, back as Lily Allen again, from her cover of Keane’s Somewhere Only We Know, which climbed all the way to number 1 last Christmas. But neither offering had that stamp of Lily’s own unique take on this world. 

Sheezus makes up for lost time. Lead-off singles Hard Out Here and Air Balloon are instantly hummable and swirl around your head for hours after hearing either. And on Hard Out Here in particular, she’s back to her most confident and confrontational as the lyric, ‘…if I told you ’bout my sex life you’d call me a slut/ When boys be talkin’ ’bout their bitches no one’s making a fuss/ There’s a glass ceiling to break, uh huh, there’s money to make/ And now it’s time to speed it up ‘cos I can’t move at this pace…’, perfectly demonstrates.

Sheezus – produced by Greg Kurstin who also worked the desk and co-wrote on It’s Not Me, It’s You -has a definite electro-pop feel to it, with little hints of TLC and Warren G moving in and out of the shadows throughout. It’s catchy in a way that is neither in-your-face nor drowns out the consistent class of Allen’s lyrics on every track. Aside from the singles already mentioned, there’s the hilariously wicked URL Badman, in which she perfectly describes and rips apart the kind of numbskulls that infest social media these days, always so quick to throw out their opinions on everyone and everything from behind the safety of a screen, as if that ‘distance’ and ‘shield’ absolves their ‘opinions’ from a need to be based (even loosely!) on fact and reason.

On this track she writes, “I work at home in my parent’s basement/ I don’t troll, I make statements…”, and later, “…I don’t like you, I think you’re worthless/ I wrote a long piece about it up on my WordPress…”, and, “…It’s not for me, it must be wrong/ I could ignore it and move on/ But I’m a broadband champion, a URL badman/ And if you’re trying to call it art/ I’ll have to take it all apart…”

Elsewhere, on Insincerely Yours, she paints a picture of the celebrity social scene that, in seeming somewhat extreme, is probably closer to the truth than many would dare to tell it. She writes, “I don’t want to know about your perfect life, you’re a perfect wife and it makes me sick/ I don’t give a f*&k about your Instagram, about your lovely house or your ugly kids/ I’m not your friend and I can’t pretend…”

Perhaps the two most telling tracks of this whole collection, however, are Take My Place, on which she deals with the subject of her miscarriage, and As Long As I Got You, a touchingly sweet yet not over-sugared tribute to her husband, Sam. Take My Place contains the poignant lines, “…if I could then I would scream/ I’d wipe the tears off of my face/ Wake me up if it’s a dream/ This is more than I can take…

In As Long As I Got You she declares,”I had that awful feeling, that I needed help/ My life had lost its meaning/ But you saved me from myself…”

Just how much some people are missed – while felt of course, in their absence – is often only truly acknowledged upon their return. Part of the reason for that is because they leave a hole so big that only they themselves can fill that space. So has it been with Lily Allen. During her ‘retirement’ her music was still played and she was still talked about, and in the papers, so she wasn’t really ‘gone’ gone, if you know what I mean. But she wasn’t really ‘here’ here, either.

Sheezus is the perfect comeback. It marks the return of a young woman who will probably always divide opinions. But make no mistake about this, folks: her opinions, be they expressed in her songs or otherwise, are an elixir of truth that a music world so often built solely on and basked in the finest of fakery, needs to have around.

Lily Allen is back, and long may her voice be heard.

ENDS

John Hogan

First Published January 2019

HOGAN’S HEART IS IN HIS SONGS

John Hogan

John Hogan’s new single, I Don’t Want To Feel Like This, is as powerful a piece of work as you’re likely to hear anywhere in the twelve months that will make their way into the history books as 2019. Written by the man himself, this is a track which hits home hard in the emotion stakes. Does it do so in what might be too hard a way for some? Possibly. But even if that proves to be the case, it doesn’t matter. The reason why it doesn’t matter is ‘I Don’t Want To Feel Like This’, and songs like it, serve a far greater purpose than just making sure everybody likes it. We’ll come back to that point, and this song in particular, in a few moments.

But first, let’s look at those responsible for songs like I Don’t Want To Feel Like This, songwriters like John. There’s an art and a craft to songwriting, two distinct elements,  either one of which alone can lead to the desired effect of melody matched to lyric. In some writers, of course, both elements co-exist. So let’s define the ‘art’ of songwriting like this: it’s when that mysterious visitor, inspiration – in whatever guise she may choose to reveal herself – crosses the path of the writer and as if by magic (though a little work is still required, for a little work is always required), a new song is born to the world. The ‘craft’, on the other hand, is when an idea is there to some degree, maybe in the shape of a phrase, or perhaps maybe a couple of lines, or even in a way as near complete as a storyline. But from those starting points, you have to roll up your sleeves, get your head down, and get to work. The art comes from the heart, and the craft from the head.

Traditionally in country music, most songs have been written by one person, or sometimes by a pair of songsmiths. In Nashville these days, co-writing is the religion, the only way to go. And while the number of writers attributed to a song can sometimes go beyond three or four, it’s still rare enough. Even three or four people writing a song seems like two or three too many to me, but  nonetheless, that’s how it is. And in country music, the heart – for the most part – still leads, with the head coming into play at the heart’s request. And, importantly, they work together at that stage. Not so much in other genres, however, with pop and hip-hop being the most notable examples, with the number of co-writers involved often stretching into double-figures. And when it happens, it seldom raises an eyebrow anymore. It is what it is, and it’s accepted as being such. But there’s the question: what exactly is it?

Well, it’s craft, of course. And credit where it’s due in that regard. But where’s there’s sooooo much craft, can there really be any room left for art? And where there’s little or no art, there’s little or no heart. And this point, folks, takes us right back to John. Because a writer without heart, is everything John is NOT. If there’s one thing you can bet your life, your house, and whatever else holds any kind of value to you on, it’s that John Hogan‘s heart is in his songs.

So back to I Don’t Want To Feel Like This, John‘s new single. This is a song that is simply all heart, in every word of every line. And as with most hearts, when they’re open and revealed in any kind of honest light, there’s pain, and sadness, and frustration, and anger, and loneliness to be found. This is a song of brokenness, of bleeding, and of battle-scars. All of those emotions, and what they result in, belong to the character at the centre of the song. But here’s the crucial point. Those emotions could not be seen first of all, and then shared so movingly, by anyone except a man, and a songwriter, who is all heart, too. Because the pain of another person, and their sadness, and frustration, and anger, and loneliness, that can’t be truly seen or understood by the eyes alone. No, only by the heart. John Hogan is without a doubt a master of the art and the craft of songwriting. And I Don’t Want To Feel Like This, not for the first time in his distinguished career, offers proof of this.

What the new single also does, however, is point to a sense of integrity that is shared by John the man, and John the songwriter. I Don’t Want To Feel Like This isn’t a song that was written to fill the dancefloor. And it wasn’t written to be heard as a sing-a-long, feel-good party piece. Nor is the song’s intention to make you forget about the real world for three minutes or so. This is a song about the real world, and a song that was written because it had to be written. This is a song that demonstrates the all too often understated importance of the songwriter bearing witness to history as it happens. And here’s how it happened in this case, because I Don’t Want To Feel Like This is based on a true story. One day not so long ago, while walking along the streets of an Irish town, John saw a homeless man. As he often does, as a simple matter of courtesy, to try and let someone know that they have been seen and recognised as still being a fellow human being, John paused his own day for a few moments to go over and say hello and spend a few minutes chatting to this man. One of the first things that gentleman said to John, was “I don’t want to feel like this.” 

For too many people, this is real-life for them in Ireland in 2019. Homeless, alone, desperate, in pain, frustrated, angry. And not wanting to feel that way. Too many people in Ireland in 2019, who, as well as having lost almost everything else, are sometimes left without even a voice, too. But John Hogan, the man with his heart, and through the art and craft of his talent has, with I Don’t Want To Feel Like This, given them that dignity back in some sense, by giving them a voice again. We all need songs like this to be written and to be heard.

And that’s why we need songwriters – and men – like John.

ENDS

 

Round-Up & Review

First Published May 2020

NEW FROM SIMON, SABRINA, LISA, NOREEN, AND MORE! 

Column 301

In this week’s column we’re back to doing something we promised a lot more of every chance we get, and that’s a round-up of some of the brilliant things happening on the music and entertainment scene right now. And truth be told, when you have new singles dropping from artists like SIMON CASEY, SABRINA FALLON, LISA McHUGH, and NOREEN RABBETTE all within a short space of time, then you can’t just let that moment pass. As well as the aforementioned fab four, we’ll also be taking a look at the long-awaited debut album from one of Irish country’s most loved figures, JOHN MOLLOY, at how the BREWERY TAP have found a way to adapt their legendary Monday Night Sessions to the age of C19, and in taking a little step away from the music side of things, we’ll be filling you guys in on a relatively new YouTube channel that’s more than worth your while checking out, that’s Emily and the Craic from Offaly woman EMILY PIDGEON.

So let’s get things started by looking at the latest release from SIMON CASEY, a devastatingly beautiful version of American country superstar Brad Paisley’s song Then. There’s so much to talk about here, but the only place to really begin is with the song. Because in music, everything starts with, should come down to, and should back to the song. So everything ties into the song. And one of Simon’s great strength’s as an entertainer lies in always choosing wisely in this regard. But wisely could be as simple as picking a song that you’re already certain everybody knows. In effect, you’re attempting to mitigate that certain level of risk that’s always par for the course with any new release. Simon, though, rarely relies on this easy option. Instead, as with Then right now, Simon goes for songs that might not necessarily be well-known to everyone, but – and it’s not a but that everyone can pull off, by the way – the songs he picks, coupled with his particular gift for performance, are ones everyone can relate to. If it’s a song you knew already, then hearing Simon sing it only tends to make you love it all the more.

As far as Brad Paisley goes, I’ve been a fan since his first album, Who Needs Pictures, which was released back in 1999, the first summer I spent in America. I fell in love with his songwriting from the get-go. Paisley has a unique ability to weave humour, emotion, and in some cases too, political and social commentary into the songs that make up his albums. And hand on my heart, there’s never been a Paisley album that I haven’t loved since Who Needs Pictures, and seldom a song that doesn’t live up to the incredible standards Paisley has set for himself. Then hits home everytime. And more than just being a songwriter of supreme skill, of course, the man from West Virginia is rightly hailed as one of the world’s top guitar players. More than that again, however, his reputation as being one of life’s good guys is set in stone. And it’s that last point, as much if not more than anything else, that makes Simon covering one of his songs the perfect match.

In as much as I’ve a huge fan of Simon’s and everything he does, the same applies to country star SABRINA FALLON. Simply put, the Portumna woman has one of the most authentic ‘country’ voices Ireland has ever produced. Whether or not that’s a widely known or recognised fact at this moment in time will never overshadow the certainty that it is a fact. If you’re new to the Irish country music scene, and you’re trying to define what that sound is and the way some of the greatest country songs ever written should be performed, Sabrina is one of the first voices I’ll be turning you towards all day long. She’s just released a brand new single, her version of the Phil Everly pop hit When Will I Be Loved, which Linda Ronstadt took to the #2 spot in the U.S. charts in 1975. In terms of vocal ability, Sabrina finds a way to effortlessly channel the same depth of emotions that are signature features of legends like Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, and of course, Loretta Lynn. But the flip-side to that is something that anyone who has met Sabrina, or enjoyed one of her shows, will know all about. Essentially, what you’re taking about is fun, energy, and connection. But to make it more accurate as far as Sabrina goes, you need to say it like this; FUN, ENERGY, and CONNECTION. When Will I Be Loved, which Sabrina teased pre-release was going to be “something for the girls”, captures all of this. Whenever we get back to whatever ‘normal’ is going to be from now on, this is going to be one of the show-stoppers in Sabrina’s set.

A few years back LISA McHUGH had the world of Irish country music at her feet. A multiple award-winner in the Female Entertainer of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year categories year-in and year-out, the Glasgow girl was to the forefront in being one of the wave of artists – along with Nathan, Derek Ryan and later Cliona Hagan – responsible for attracting a younger audience to the genre. So it was definitely with some surprise that she seemed to take a total step back from the world over the last year or so, only to re-emerge as – pretty much – a more pop/country orientated artist, with possibly more emphasis on the pop side now – signed to the same management as Ireland’s latest global pop giants, Picture This. And her latest single You’re Gonna Get Back Up fits right into that pop/country format. And to be clear, this is a GOOD thing, because You’re Gonna get Back Up is a GREAT song. And like I said when writing about Simon earlier, everything comes back to the song.

I’ve been a fan of Lisa’s since the early days of her career, and have had the pleasure of interviewing her on a few occasions over the years, as well as presenting her with one of those many awards, as it happens. I know how hard she worked to first get to the heights she reached, and then to stay there for as long as she did. Make no mistake about it, talent alone – which Lisa has by the tonne as well – earns no artist the right to anything in the music business. So by anyone’s measure, and certainly by mine, Lisa has earned the right to make her own decisions about what direction her career takes. For sure, her absence from the country circuit, and those regular opportunities to see her perform ‘live’, is a huge disappointment to fans who would have supported her for so long. But, as with Taylor Swift when she made a similar career move from country to pop, I’ve always maintained that real fans of the artist will travel with the artist. Speaking for myself, that’s what happened with Taylor, and that’s what’s happening with Lisa, too. It’s not an easy move to make, and if anything, it carries even fewer guarantees than the country side of the music business. So I applaud the fact that Lisa has had the courage of her convictions. More over, I’ve seen Lisa perform ‘live’ from her home on Facebook with just her vocal and guitar, and when any artist does that, there’s no-where to hide. Lisa can. And Lisa can do country. And Lisa can do pop/country. And as long as Lisa just keeps making music, that’s really all that matters to me. Because it all comes back to the song. And what You’re Gonna Get Back Up proves once again, is that whenever Lisa gets in front of a mic, she’s still a star.

And speaking of stars, it was only last year that NOREEN RABBETTE’s star first began to shine on a national level when the Clara woman made it all the way to the final of TG4’s ever-popular hit show, Glór Tíre. And the good new for country fans is that her debut single has finally made it to the airwaves. The phrase ‘voice of an angel’ is so often invoked that it probably doesn’t impart the sense of beauty intended by its use. But if I had to name someone whose voice best defines that phrase, I’d honestly have to think long and hard before coming up with anyone other than Noreen. For a voice dripping in honey, it’s probably a little bit of a surprise that her first single out of the gates is the classic country foot-stomper Redneck Woman, originally from Gretchen Wilson. Noreen’s vocal versatility, however, is writ large across this track, as evidenced by the fact that she took it straight to the top of the Irish iTunes country chart upon its release towards the end of last week. As a teaser for an album that’s also in the works, Redneck Woman hints at a collection that’s sure to be heavily influenced by an American country sound. And if this single is what we’re taking as our marker, then the sooner we can get back here talking about Noreen’s debut album, the better.

One man who made us wait long enough for his first long-player is JOHN MOLLOY, but that collection of 13 of the best from one of Irish country’s best is officially out now. Entitled Introducing John Molloy, the album was already highly anticipated and long awaited when the launch party was originally announced for last February. Unfortunately for the Westmeath man who now lives in Offaly, a severe storm warning paid no heed to the needs of country music lovers deciding to head this way on the exact date of the launch, leaving John with no choice but to reschedule for the safety of all. Roll on that new date in April, however, and it was a case of lightning striking twice for John as the Covid19 outbreak put paid to that night, too. If there’s one thing you learn in the music business, though (whether you want to or not!), it’s resilience, and John is definitely a road-warrior in that regard. While two such setbacks in so short a space of time might well have shaken many, John remains adamant that as soon as government guidelines mean it’s possible to make it happen, all roads will finally lead back to The Well in Moate, and the party will be worth the wait! In the meantime, John took to Facebook ‘Live’ on his John Molloy Country page on Sunday afternoon for a ‘virtual album launch’ as a special thank-you to his fans for all of their support. Introducing John Molloy is available now from John’s official website, www.johnmolloycountry.com.

It shouldn’t be forgotten, of course, that as well as musicians themselves, another sector of society suffering from the enforced but necessary absence of ‘live’ music from our lives are venues, pubs included. The Licensed Vintners Association nationally did themselves no favours with their proposal to government for an earlier than planned reopening which would actually ban ‘live’ music. But on a local level here in the midlands, the famed BREWERY TAP in Tullamore has found a way to reignite their legendary Monday Night Sessions, thereby keeping ‘live’ music very much at the core of what ‘The Tap’ has always been about.  As of April 27th, the sessions have been taking place – like so much of life over the past couple of months – via Zoom! Singers, musicians, and interested spectators who in better times, and for years gone by, have taken their place on the high-stools and comfy seating in Paul and Cathy Anne Bell’s High Street premises, have been logging on from home to keep that sense of community the Monday Night Sessions have long fostered alive and well. As I wrote myself in a piece on the Monday Night Sessions for the Tullamore Annual a few years back, “Monday nights at The Tap. Five little words that have come to roll off the tongue with all the ease and comfort of a best friend’s name, for so many musicians and fans alike, over the course of almost thirty years now. Five little words that have taken on a life of their own, becoming a living, breathing, always evolving, and most importantly and steadfastly of all – ever welcoming – part of Tullamore’s culture.” The words “always evolving” seem almost prophetic in a way now, and they’ve definitely been proven true. When all of this is over, the chapter of the Tap’s history that looks back on 2020 can proudly say that even a pandemic that shut down most of the world couldn’t stop the Monday Night Sessions. Now there’s something that we’ll all look forward to raising our glasses to! 

 

And finally for this week, we’re stepping away from music altogether, and into the world of YouTube. Truth be told, with so many social media platforms and places to go for online content and entertainment these days, it’s hard to spare time for them all. Personally speaking, something I’ve all but neglected for the entirety of my life is YouTube. Until, that is, a friend of mine – whom, might I add, I’d always considered to be on the higher-end of the shy-scale – decided to launch her own YouTube channel. Of all things! Well, in just a few months, Emily and the Craic, fronted by Tullamore’s EMILY PIDGEON, has already passed the one-thousand subscriber mark, no small achievement in this day and age, when, as already mentioned, the fight for the public’s attention is such a crowded battleground. For someone I thought was shy (Emily…how wrong was I?!), Emily has taken to presenting her show with consummate ease. In fact, one of the two main reasons Emily and the Craic has racked up the following it has so far surely comes from the fact that Emily is so good at being herself on screen. Not only does this make her instantly relatable, but her willingness to bare her own soul has also enticed her boyfriend Barry into making frequent appearances, every one of them a comedic feast given that Barry, like Emily, excels at being himself. The other main reason I’d highly recommend for anyone to check out Emily’s channel is because of the variety on offer. From the most recent episode which lists her and her sister Alison’s Top 20 Best Eurovision Songs of All Time (and let me warn you, it’s controversial!), to Emily cutting her own fringe, dyeing her other sister Lauren’s hair, the best shows to binge watch during quarantine, to trying American candy with her little nephew Noelie, and much more, it’s real-life, smiles, honesty, and laughter all the way in Emily and the Craic. Subscribe today, folks. 

 
 

~ The singles Then by Simon Casey, When Will I Be Loved by Sabrina Fallon, You’re Gonna Get Back Up by Lisa McHugh, and Redneck Woman by Noreen Rabbette, as well as the album Introducing John Molloy from the man himself, are all OUT NOW and available on all digital platforms. You can subscribe to Emily and the Craic, fronted by Emily Pidgeon, on YouTube. 

ENDS