Acclaimed Irish artist Cathy Davey talks about her new live album, Bare Bones: Live At The Unitarian Church, her work at the My Lovely Horse Rescue with The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and why she’s utterly committed to honesty in her music.
Half 11 on a Wednesday morning at the Westbury Hotel. Cathy Davey and your Hot Press correspondent are watching a YouTube clip from The Muppets Show on Cathy’s phone.
French/American tenor Charles Aznavour sings to a small inchworm in the forest, while, silhouetted in a cabin behind them, The Muppets multiply numbers in a contrapuntal melody. “2 and 2 are 4,” they sing. “4 and 4 are 8”. The pattern is routine, lullaby-esque and strangely haunting, just as Hans Christian Andersen intended it to be.
A train of thought, which began when I asked Cathy whether she keeps her ear to the ground in terms of emerging artists in Ireland or not, has led us here. The hows and whys aren’t important – what is striking is how Cathy’s experiences with her art form run so contrary to expectation.
“The trouble with me is that I’m not really able to listen to music,” she admits. “Maybe I’ll listen to Randy Newman songs every six months, but that would be about it. When I hear music it either throws me into a manic state – full of too-much energy, kind of scary – or it affects me too much and makes me feel really low. Even some shit song that has minor chords can affect me too much and my day gets fucked.
“I don’t know if it’s the same way with loads of people and they don’t want to admit it or…” She pauses. “I mean it seems that everyone I know loves music and I don’t know why. I love making it because I get satisfaction out of expressing something that is usually hard to express. Or even if it’s about something silly, I’m still finding a melody that expresses it on another level. That’s important.”
Even growing up as a child whose father was a musician (the composer Shaun Davey), her experience was the same.
“When I was five, my granny played me ‘Tit Willow’ by Gilbert and Sullivan,” Cathy explains. “It’s about a bird who’s on a tree by the river. This little bird’s heart is broken because of unrequited love or something, and he throws himself into the river and drowns… That fucked me up! I’m sure loads of people out there have stories where either a programme or a song or something was explained to them when they were young – and it made them suddenly realise there’s a real dark world out there and shit happens. Horrible shit. And ever since then, even happy songs have this darkness or suspect element to them.”
Davey has directed me towards the ‘Inchworm’ video to prove her point. It’s a song that Cathy believes was written by someone who has found “the ultimate sadness in the world”. It’s a revelation for her just to listen to it again.
And as unusual as this all might seem, it makes sense that Cathy Davey would feel this way about music. As a musician, she’s always been at the mercy of her art form. When she creates it, she loads every verse, melody or riff with ore. When she encounters it, it can never just be a passive experience.
Phones switched off and back to the present moment then. Cathy is only in Dublin for a short time. Having just released her live album, Bare Bones: Live At The Unitarian Church, last month, she’s doing a brief bit of promotion before playing at the Women On Wednesday gig at Whelan’s.
The live album itself saw Cathy joining two of her closest musical allies, Derren Dempsey (guitar) and Stephen Kiernan (drums), for a show that brought together some of her best loved songs with some new music, in an entirely stripped down set. “This is where I’m at, at the moment,” she explained in the album’s press release. “My new songs are very exposed and raw, unashamedly anti-lush. The nakedness of the Bare Bones setup suits me much better now that I’m older, and feels less vulnerable.”
This set-up works remarkably well throughout the album, and most notably on some of her older tracks. It allows for a breathtakingly climactic ‘Sing For Your Supper’ and gives real, dramatic space for Cathy’s vocals on ‘Reuben’.
“I wanted to only have melody and drums and maybe one more instrument to provide some chords,” says Cathy. “But I wanted it be very basic and simple. I wanted the hard-edge of the percussion.”
For Davey, it has to be that straightforward. This is where she is now; it’s a less stressful and, ultimately, more liberating way of revisiting her back catalogue.
Her efforts have been manifestly well-received – the applause throughout the album itself is a dead giveaway (and it probably didn’t sell too badly when it got its Record Store Day vinyl release). But even in spite of the fact that it’s recorded in front of a live audience, public expectations aren’t at the root of why Cathy makes music.
“I’ve always written songs that aren’t for the public,” she says. “And as I’ve been getting older, I’ve put out less music to the public. But the process is the same – you just write about what is in your head.
“And as it turns out, for the last six or eight years what’s been in my head has been more the natural world of animals (Davey helps run an animal sanctuary with her partner, The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon – PMcG). I was really fighting that for the first four years, thinking that I couldn’t possibly put that out in the public. Which is a problem for myself, because that’s when you start considering what other people think you’re worth.”
Even if the public don’t hear it, it must be a liberating way to write…
“Absolutely,” nods Davey. “I’ve tried to never stray away from the reasons I began writing in the first place. Like, you have these rules, or whatever, when you’re young. And you can believe that you live your life by them, when in actual fact it’s a little impossible to do so. The psychology of us gets in the way. For instance, when I was young – in my teens – I told myself to always do what I loved doing as a kid. Do that as you get older and then you’ll always love it and get better at it.
“The more people who come into your life who you want to please… you start to judge your own abilities through their eyes, or through how good they think it is, or how good they think it will be, or what you’ll get as a reward. That encroaches on your own belief system that you’ve set up. And I think the whole thing is struggling with trying to stay true to it, but probably realising that you can’t do so all the time. Because we’re fucked up. And we can’t not be fucked up, and we can deviate from our peers or the people in our life at any given time.”
This was something that Cathy came up against when she released her debut album, 2004’s Something Ilk.
“When I first signed up to Parlophone, I really looked up to this older male figure who was very charismatic,” she reflects. “I would have let his opinions dominate – I could have thrown away a handful of songs because he didn’t like them. Whereas, if it was another person they could have loved them. And you’re struggling with that knowledge – you know you’re doing it at that time, but you don’t know what to fight against. I love people who know what they want and don’t listen to anyone. I don’t know how they got like that.”
She may have felt that struggle upon first signing a record deal 15 years ago, but in a circuitous kind of way, the older Cathy Davey has returned to the belief system she thought was impossible to hold onto as a child.
“I won’t do anything I won’t want to now,” she says straightforwardly. “I don’t work on things that I think are superficial, that I know would have furthered appeal in my younger days. The whole thing is checking in with yourself again, remember what it was that you loved to do when you were young. Doing it more, blocking out the voices that you’ve accumulated in your head over the years.”
Of course, all of this has been put into perspective by the fact that Cathy now looks after around 45 animals on a daily basis. It must be hard even to get the time to work on her ideas.
“It’s very hard!” she smiles. “It’s obviously meant there have been long gaps. I did The Nameless in 2010, then the last album was 2016. Six years later… I can’t get it together quickly! But yes it has been hard. I’ve had to cancel loads and loads of gigs because of the work that I do. I get so stressed by the animal welfare. It’s also obviously very physically draining too and the burnout you get is quite hard, meaning if there’s a gig coming up I’m a bit more worried that something will go wrong. For example, last night I was up till about one seeing whether this horse that lives close by had to be put down. I had to work with the police and the vets.
“As a result, I’m knackered and didn’t get to rehearse for the gig tonight. And for my last gig, I was sick as a dog because I’d gotten a virus from the snow that I couldn’t shake, because I was out working. Stuff like that gets in the way and stops you being able to focus on the day as a result – to rehearse even. All those things really do affect my music. But at the same time, it’s my choice to do it and I do it because I love it. I have to slap myself in the face and remember that I’m trying to have the best of both worlds.”
Bare Bones: Live At The Unitarian Church is out now.
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