- 14 May 19
The all-conquering success of acts like Hozier, Kodaline, Fontaines D.C. and others shows that Irish music is in rude health. But there is even more that can be done to make Ireland into a global music capital.
We are in a good place. That is the word that’s coming through from almost everyone we spoke to, in preparation for this Irish Music Special Issue of Hot Press. And in most respects it is true. But not all.
There are obvious positives. The extraordinary success of Hozier’s second album Wasteland, Baby! in the US – it stormed to No.1 on the Billboard charts – is a kind of benchmark. Only three Irish artists have previously hit that vertiginous top spot in the biggest music market in the world. Not Van Morrison. Not Rory Gallagher. Not Thin Lizzy. Not The Boomtown Rats. Not The Cranberries, close as they came. Not even Enya, who stalled at No.2 with A Day Without Rain, though the album went on to sell over 16 million copies. The three who did make No.1 are U2, Sinéad O’Connor and, most recently, Niall Horan in his solo guise (and as a member of One Direction).
That vaulting achievement is not, of course, any guarantee of ongoing success: who really knows what the future holds? But it is a remarkable statement nonetheless, about the likely staying power of a genuine artist, who is entirely free of any of the cynical, manipulative manoeuvring or positioning that is commonplace even among acts of real creative heft.
There are people around Hozier who think commercially, because it is their job to make the most of the music he delivers to them. But, as an artist, like Enya, he has achieved an enviable state of grace, wherein he is free to pursue his muse and express himself without the kind of constraints that inhibit so many big name musicians and stars. Very few successful musicians earn the licence to be entirely who they are. Hozier has done that in a remarkably short space of time.
IMPRESSIVE NEW DIVERSITY
Hozier’s American success represented an inspiring start to the year for Irish musicians, and it was followed more recently by another runaway breakthrough. Anyone who had been watching Fontaines D.C. develop and grow will have seen their potential. But even their most enthusiastic advocates must be hugely impressed with what they have achieved to date.
The charts offer the easiest way to nutshell their remarkable progress. Their debut album, Dogrel, leapt straight into the UK album countdown at No.4. But what’s more important still is the fact that it is a fine record, which captures what the band are about in a visceral and enormously persuasive way. They are also great live performers; and they are collectively – to purloin an old sports cliché – working their socks off, winning new fans everywhere they go, and building a level of momentum that currently seems unstoppable.
Better still, Fontaines D.C. are part of a scene. Other similar bands have emerged in Ireland – in many ways against the odds – over the past three or four years. Outfits like Thumper, Just Mustard from Dundalk, Saint Sapphire from Belfast, Inhaler, Vulpynes and The Murder Capital are operating in a similar indie, guitar-driven mode. All six are genuine contenders. The Murder Capital have been signed by Q-Prime – who manage Metallica, Snow Patrol, Foals, Muse and Red Hot Chili Peppers, amongst others. Musically, to date they have been fiercely impressive: their single ‘Green & Blue’ is a powerful, urgent track that calls to mind both Tim Buckley and Joy Division. They have what to takes to become huge.
All of which signals that, in Ireland, after a relatively fallow period, guitar rock is back, and with a vengeance. In the past, that might have been assumed to be at the expense of someone else, or at least of some other musical genre or movement. But there is no evidence that this is the case in 2019.
For a start, a lot of the musical snobbishness that had crept into things here has been sidelined. Irish rap and hip-hop is in rude health, with Maverick Sabre, Rejjie Snow, Kojaque and The Rusangano Family (and offshoots) setting standards, and bands like Chasing Abbey and Versatile – condescended to by some, but fuck that – winning huge audiences locally. The latter are about to headline a Live at the Marquee gig in Cork. Who’d have imagined that this might be possible three years ago – an Irish rap outfit without significant success outside this country doing a show on that scale?
Add in poppier R&B and soul acts like Soulé, Jafaris, Erica Cody – backed by Warner Music – and Brian Deady, among many more, and you start to get a sense of the extraordinary range of Irish music currently striving for recognition – and to one extent or another, achieving it.
That there is a growing multi-cultural dimension to what is happening musically makes sense. Ireland has been transformed since the days when people thought of Philip Lynott as the only black dude in the country. Now, almost 20% of the population in Galway are non-Irish nationals; and 12% of the population of the country as a whole. In Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo, 38% of the townsfolk are non-Irish. In the constituency of Central Dublin, the figure is 50%. There are more Spanish and Brazilian people in Ireland than ever before.
But these figures tell only part of the story. The children that are born here to immigrant families – whether they are from Poland, Nigeria or Brazil – are Irish. Many more immigrants are becoming – or are on the way to becoming – Irish citizens. The outstandingly talented singer-songwriter Loah is a case in point. Her father is from Sierra Leone and her mother is Irish. And she makes extraordinary music that reflects both traditions. She has lived in Kenya, London, Maynooth and Gambia, but she describes herself as Irish. Her sister Fedah works a similar kind of groove, but with a stronger hip-hop influence. Both are emblematic of the impressive new diversity to be found in Irish music.
ON THE COMEBACK TRAIL
If there is an increasing multi-cultural influence on Irish music, that has not been in any at the expense of the Irish folk and traditional scene. On the contrary. The Gloaming have already broken records this year, with their six-night run at the National Concert Hall. Most of the band are based outside Ireland, but they are a powerfully inspirational ensemble, playing a unique and marvellously expressive form of Irish traditional and sean nós music.
They connect both back to the earlier folk tradition pioneered by The Chieftains, The Bothy Band, Planxty, Clannad, Paul Brady, Christy Moore, Bill Whelan, Mary Black, Altan, Dervish, Luka Bloom and, in an electric guise, Moving Hearts and Kila, among others. That many of these icons of Irish music, most notably Christy Moore, but also Bill Whelan, Clannad, Paul Brady, Finbar Furey, Dervish, Kila and Donal Lunny – who was instrumental in at least three of Ireland’s most influential outfits – are still going strong is a testament to the rude health of the folk tradition.
The Gloaming also provide a vital source of inspiration for a new generation that includes bands and artists like Lankum, Young Folk, Ye Vagabonds, Lisa O’Neill, Emma Langford, Steo Wall and more. There is no shortage of challenging music being made. Irish folk is very much alive and bleeds, in all sorts of fascinating ways, into the work of singer-songwriters, rock bands and more. You can hear it in the music of the brilliant David Keenan. Of Saint Sister. Of Talos. Of Daithí. Of Colm Mac An Iomaire. Of Steve Wickham. Of A Lazarus Soul. Of David Rooney. Indeed, all of the familiar genre distinctions struggle to have meaning, in a shifting musical landscape that is increasingly about barriers being broken down. You could describe Glen Hansard as a singer-songwriter, but it has a reductionist feel to it. He is an artist. He writes great songs. He colours and shapes them from a musical palette that morphs and changes depending on the demands of the songs, and where his muse takes him.
The same is true, in different ways, of people like Damien Dempsey, an incomparable singer; of the wonderful Lisa Hannigan; of Villagers’ Conor O’Brien, whose songs are deeply poetic and literate; of Neil Hannon, Cathy Davey, Eleanor McEvoy – still a really vital force – and David Kitt; of Cormac Neeson, lead singer with hard rockers The Answer, who has just released a country album, White Feather; and of Paul Noonan and Dave Geraghty of Bell X1 – fine, thoughtful, powerfully intelligent songwriters both.
You could describe Bell X1 as a rock band. But they are so much more than that. And the same is true of many of the slightly earlier generation that are still doing big gigs – some of them on and off – and making inspiring music: for example, Hothouse Flowers, as well as Liam Ó Maonlaí’s exceptional solo work: everything he does its touched by genius. I am thinking, too, of The Stunning and The Walls. Of Jerry Fish. Of Nick Kelly, a fine film-maker as well as a songwriter. Of Gavin Friday. And of Something Happens, The Four of Us and A House, who are all still capable of delivering moments of extraordinary power. Of (from slightly later) The Coronas, whose talent has never been in doubt. Of Delorentos. Of Niamh Farrell and Hamsandwich. And of The Blizzards, who are currently on the comeback trail.
And then there is Picture This. The boys from Athy have been burning up the charts, and garnering extraordinary levels of exposure on radio here for a considerable period. But it is an astonishing achievement, all the same, for a young Irish band to have developed almost entirely on their own steam to a level where they could play five nights on the trot at 3Arena, attracting an audience in excess of 70,000. Their second album Mdrn Lv is their first released internationally with Universal Music. The campaign to match their Irish success globally is now up and running. Nothing comes easy in modern music, any more than it does in modern love. But they will go about it with a sense of mission and they have very good people around them.
It has been fascinating also to see the rise and rise of Gavin James, another great Irish global success story. Gavin has a truly remarkable voice, which is at the heart of his appeal to fans. But that is not in itself a guarantee of success. You need the songs. You need the organisation. And you need your team to make the connections that add to the momentum at crucial junctures. The BPI recently presented Gavin with a special award for reaching the 1 billion streams milestone. Think of it: one billion! But then he is big in Brazil, as a result of the use of his music in a soap opera there. It is a huge market. He has had a No.1 hit in Portugal. And his success there, reflects the fact that the Irish music industry is no longer as dependent on the UK and US markets as of yore.
Our cover stars, Kodaline, have just finished a major tour of Japan, Indonesia, China and other points east. Their prominence has been earned by big songs, but also by tours of commensurate ambition, put together by Steve Strange of Xray Touring, and live shows that carry a hefty emotional power. In a sense, they are in a lineage that also includes the biggest band ever to come out of Northern Ireland, Snow Patrol – who can still play mega shows wherever they go – and that other huge Irish pop-rock crossover act, The Corrs. In between, Two Door Cinema Club took things in a dancier direction. But that sweet spot where rock and pop meet is one that Irish bands – including Walking On Cars and the greatest Irish rock band of them all, U2 – are capable of mining.
It would be impossible to identify every productive strand of Irish music here: there are so many right now. It was announced recently that Mick Flannery’s memorable debut album Evening Train was being turned into a musical. That potential was always there; now it is being realised. It might just take flight and if it does, who knows how big it might become, and what else that might spawn? So too is John Carney’s Sing Street, which follows his earlier Once in the journey from celluloid to stage. A hugely enjoyable and successful film, it could take Broadway by storm.
Our songwriters continue to make waves. It would be impossible for Brendan Graham to repeat the mind-boggling, ongoing success of ‘You Raise Me Up’, but he is still winning commissions and writing songs that will stand the test of time. In a totally different vein, Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid has been showing the way in a parallel life to his work with the band, writing and collaborating with some of the biggest names in contemporary music, including Ed Sheehan, Kodaline, Robbie Williams and Steve Mac, and scoring very big hits into the bargain.
Originally from Donaghmede, on the North side of Dublin, Ruth Anne Cunningham has also been cutting through globally, co-writing tracks for Britney Spears, One Direction and Niall Horan, and picking up two ASCAP awards along the way. Orla Gartland, originally a YouTube phenomenon, has begun to translate that into something more solid, co-writing a song on the multi-million selling BTS K-pop album, Love Yourself: Tear.
Meanwhile the potential stars of the future are queueing up, some pressing harder than others. Different people might offer diverse lists. In addition to all of those mentioned already, there’s Dermot Kennedy – who is well on the way to global superstardom – Wild Youth, Wyvern Lingo, Somebody’s Child, The Wood Burning Savages, Pillow Queens, Thanks Brother, All Tvvins, Soak (still a kid, after all!), Áine Cahill (another Warners protege), Touts, the brilliant Whenyoung and Junior Brother – both of whose debut albums are given an enthusiastic thumbs-up in the current issue of Hot Press – among dozens more. There is so much talent. There are so many fine records. We are in a good place. Really.
Not everything is working however. I look at the soundtrack to a movie like Young Offenders or a TV series like Derry Girls and think: there should be more Irish music in there. And loads of it. We have said it before in Hot Press: Section 481 support for films should carry a requirement that Irish music be featured in the soundtrack. They do it in the UK. Why not here?
It is also hard to understand why such a vast preponderance of the biggest success stories of the past few years have involved men. That this is a legacy of the patriarchy is obvious, but is that the whole story? How much has to do with education, and the conventional expectations that girls studying for their Leaving Cert seem to internalise more fully than boys? Perhaps that – and the academic demands that go with it – is to their detriment artistically, and in terms of the confidence and independence needed to express themselves creatively.
Either way, there is a real need for festival organisers to tip the balance in the other direction, by making a point of allotting space on festival bills to more female performers. Potent new female voices have emerged in Radie Peat of Lankum, Lisa O’Neill, Wyvern Lingo, Stephanie Rainey, Roe and Susan O’Neill, among many others. But more needs to be done to ensure that young women performers are supported in the right way at the right time, so that they can claim their proper place on the bigger global stages. Music was never meant to promote discrimination, but so far in Ireland – unconsciously or otherwise – it has.
Too many Irish artists still emigrate, or feel they have to: the likes of Maverick Sabre, Gavin James, Soak, John Gibbons, All Tvvins and Whenyoung spring to mind. Don’t get me wrong. Travel broadens the mind. Sometimes, artists need a fresh stimulus. But as far as possible, we should be aiming to create the circumstances where these musicians can return to their home patch to base themselves, live and work.
Finally, there is the problem of not enough Irish music on Irish radio. Hot Press has been campaigning on this issue for well over 30 years. We were directly instrumental in the shift to a quota of Irish music being introduced for all Irish radio stations, during the 1990s, when I was Chair of the IRTC (now the BAI). After that tenure ended, the quota initiative foundered and so there is currently no guiding principle for the radio industry as a whole.
There are great radio DJs who do fly the flag. And the PlayIrishMusic radio initiative will help to give new focus to the whole issue. Curiously, it may not be of such crucial importance now, with the advent of playlists on Spotify as a key influence on what happens in the charts. But that is a minefield too, with some Irish artist managers insisting that the influence of UK Spotify playlists on the Irish charts has denied key local artists the No.1 spot. That also needs to be examined.
Overall, then, the report card for the Irish Music Industry is a hugely positive one. People are trying very hard. Loads of them have the talent. Colleges like Ballyfermot, BIMM and Bray Institute of Further Education are helping to give added impetus to emerging scenes. But there is still nothing like the recognition and awareness at Government level, and at policy-making level, that could – indeed that would – make all the difference.
In the Hot Press Yearbook 2019, we proposed turning Ireland into the Nashville of Europe; maybe even the songwriting capital of the world. That is not an unattainable vision. Let’s take a deep breath – and then do it. Together.
• Part Two of the Hot Press Music Industry Special appears in the next issue of Hot Press. Stay tuned.