- 21 Feb 18
The word is out. With the release of their self-titled debut album, Bray trio WYVERN LINGO are set to take the world by storm. Sitting down with Hot Press for their first cover story, school friends Karen, Caoimhe and Saoirse talk tattoos, touring, songwriting – and the importance of feminism.
Different bands bond together in different ways. Some sleep together. Some take holidays together. Others take drugs together. Following their show at a UK music festival last summer, Karen Cowley, Caoimhe Barry and Saoirse Duane – the Irish trio of vocalists and musicians collectively known as Wyvern Lingo – decided that the best way to mark their ongoing artistic journey was for them all to get matching tattoos.
“Yeah, we all got the same one,” laughs Caoimhe. “We were at The Great Escape in Brighton last May and we’d been joking about getting them done. Actually, I feel kinda bad, because one of our crew members wanted to get it done with us, but he wasn’t there at the time.”
“He would have,” says Saoirse. “But we’re going back there again, so he can do it then.”
“Anyway, there was a Spotify artist area at The Great Escape,” Caoimhe continues, “and they were giving out, like, back rubs and haircuts and stuff. But they were also doing free tattoos and we were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it!’”
“It was straight after our gig and we were like drowned rats from playing outside,” adds Karen. “But we decided that was the time.”
That was then, this is now. And in a much more far-reaching way Wyvern Lingo’s time may indeed have come.
ENTERING THE DRAGON’S DEN
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a Wyvern is “a winged two-legged dragon with a barbed tail.” So there should be no prizes for guessing what kind of tattoo the girls decided to get. Rather than going for a predictable dragon, however, they opted instead to have a uniquely Irish expression permanently inked onto their skin.
Karen and Saoirse chose to have their tattoos placed quite discretely, but Caoimhe – whose brightly dyed hair suggests that she might just be the most outgoing member of Wyvern Lingo – went all out. She holds up her hands for Hot Press to inspect: she has the words ‘SURE LOOK’ on her fingers.
“Often, I think it’s the story that goes behind the tattoo that almost makes it worth it. The fact that we have this story behind it – that’s a nice moment to remember if nothing else.”
Even so, putting it on your fingers is a bit out there…
“This is kinda like a joke that got outta control!” she laughs. “When the time came to do it, it was actually Saoirse’s cousin Billie who was the one who was like, ‘Get it on your knuckle – go on, go on!’ She wasn’t there, but I just had her voice in my head… and so anywhere else just seemed like a cop out so I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m doing it!’ It was only my second tattoo.”
None of them has any regrets. As Karen explains, “A ‘Sure Look’ one is the best kinda tattoo to get, because if you were regretting it, you’d just look at it and you’d go, (sighs) ‘Sure look!’”
“Yeah,” Caoimhe avers. “Your whole life, no matter how stressful things get… ‘Sure look, it’s grand!’ But trying to explain it to non-Irish people is another, different thing. The guy who was doing them originally thought we said ‘Sherlock’. As in Sherlock Holmes! But it’s nice to have one because we talked about it for so many years.”
EUROSONIC FOR THE TROOPS
We’re meeting in the bar of a Dublin hotel to discuss their soon to be released debut album. They did actually toy with the idea of naming it Sure Look, but ultimately decided on the rather more straightforward Wyvern Lingo.
“Yeah, we were considering Sure Look for a while,” Karen laughs. “There was a lot of talk about it. We threw around a lot of album names, but nothing felt right, to be honest, so we just went for self-titled.”
“Yeah because we were trying to get something that said Wyvern Lingo, you know?” Caoimhe adds. “Something all encompassing, like Lingoland or whatever. We were throwing around all these words and then we were like, ‘Wyvern Lingo is just perfect’. It’s the name of the album – it’s just what it is.”
Karen: “And the fact that the name is so weird I think makes it better because when you google ‘Wyvern Lingo’, we are it, there are no others.”
People will be fascinated to know where the name Wyvern Lingo comes from.
“How did we pick the name?” muses Caoimhe. “Well, we’ve been friends since we met, around the start of secondary school. We picked the name around then, and we just landed on a word in the dictionary: ‘Wyvern’. It’s a pretty epic word, so we thought, ‘We can’t really leave that behind, it’s meant to be’. But we’re also big into Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings and stuff, so we weren’t so against the dragon vibe. Although I think people might think we’re a heavy metal band when they hear the name.”
Saoirse smiles. “It does actually sound like that, yeah, but now Game of Thrones has made dragons cool again, so we’re embracing it.”
Hot Press last encountered the band just over a year ago in Groningen, Holland, at Eurosonic 2017, shortly before they began recording the album. Was that festival a turning point?
“Oh, Eurosonic was incredible,” says Saoirse. “We got a couple of festivals out of it, in Germany and Vienna. We did quite well on Dutch radio, which was great. But it was a weird one for us, because it was a month before we were about to go into the studio for our album, you know, so I think any sort of connections that might have been made or anything that kind of put us on anyone’s radar, will only come into play now. We’re only releasing our album – and now we’re going on tour.”
“But Eurosonic certainly gave us a massive taste of what we really want,” adds Karen. “Like there’s something about it over there, where it’s the energy and the enthusiasm that everyone has for the music. We felt like we were really got by the crowd, which was really cool. Then we went to Hamburg after that and had this room full of people absolutely loving it, who’d never heard of us before. And we also went to Sweden actually which was cool. So it was a successful trip.”
The riddle of the blankets
Perfectly showcasing their soulful, R&B influenced, vocal harmonies, Wyvern Lingo is a very different-sounding beast from their 2014 debut EP The Widow Knows.
Caoimhe nods in agreement. “I think a lot of people were surprised,” she says, “when we brought out ‘I Love You, Sadie’ as a single (just nominated for the Choice Prize Song of the Year – OT). A lot of people were saying ‘huge departure for Wyvern Lingo’, but I have to say – if people had just heard The Widow Knows EP, I’d totally understand, but I think we were working towards this sound with the Letter to Willow EP. And then when we got to making the album it just made loads of sense. For us, it was a natural progression really.”
Karen: “I think maybe our second EP wasn’t on as many people’s radar. It was a lot more R&B, more rock, I guess. We recorded that with a guy that was very much from an R&B background.”
Their album was largely recorded in Dublin with producer James Kelly, with additional work taking place in Donegal, London and Cologne.
“We spent two weeks in Hellfire Studios which was a wonderful place,” recalls Karen. “The album has a lot of electronic sounds, a lot of programmed sounds, but the core of every song is a live take. At the end of the day we’re a band – and that’s what we do. So when we were in the studio, we recorded everything live, drums, guitar and bass. We’d just do three takes and pick the best take and we’d leave it at that.
“Then we did that in the studio, and we were working with our producer as well to build up the sounds. We’d already done some pretty detailed demos. So we knew a lot of what we were gonna do… and we also didn’t know a lot. When it came to vocals, we went up to my aunt’s house in Donegal, just the three of us, and we brought mics, you know. I think it’s really important that you’re relaxed.”
They maintain that laying down vocals in an unpressured, domestic environment is far more fruitful than recording in a proper studio. “We’re more picky with our vocals than any producer or any recording engineer,” explains Caoimhe. “If you feel any kinda pressure of, like, ‘Our studio time’s about to run out’, or you can even sense that, you can clam up. It can be hard to get the right take. So in Donegal, we could just run up the stairs if we were feeling in the right mood and just go for it.
“Actually, the girls got food poisoning and I had to record some by myself,” she continues. “I knew no one was in the room, so that’s when I wrote the bridge for ‘Rubbish’. You guys were in bed and I went upstairs and I was screaming my head off to the last song on the album. I think there were a few of the other songs where you just wouldn’t have done that. Like, it would have taken us a long time to get that comfortable with an engineer.”
Saoirse: “We built like a little vocal fort out of blankets so the actual experience of singing was really intimate because you were in darkness under blankets, you know, crying into a microphone. Well, me for one, because I had food poisoning (laughs), but we definitely got textures that we couldn’t recreate anywhere else.”
Caoimhe: “I think our label thought that some of our vocals were a little too relaxed so we went over to Neil Comber in London and we did have a very magical week of recording there with him.”
So what’s a scary word, then?
Their label Rubyworks suggested both producers. It was a good call. They’ve already decided to try to work with James Kelly and Neil Comber again, if at all possible. “We’ve been so lucky with this process,” Saoirse enthuses. “James Kelly, who we worked with in Hellfire, is a totally brilliant man and he’s so great to work with. We had the best experience from start to finish and we loved what he did, and then getting to work with Neil as well was amazing.”
Caoimhe: “It’s the kinda thing where now we’re finished this album, I feel like we’ve already had conversations with the lads about working together again. It may not happen, but we’re like, ‘What will we all do for album number two?’ We’d do it all over again, they’re a great, great team.”
They describe the songs as “a collection of experiences both separate and shared. Experiences that shape how we view the world, and how we’ve come to terms with the way our lives have unfolded.”
Album opener ‘Crawl’ takes a pop at one of their former lovers: “I’m so sick of your lies/ I believed your alibis/ You still need to apologise to me.”
“It’s experiences, little pockets of experiences,” Karen explains. “I mean, we can’t write good music unless it comes from somewhere sincere. Lyrically, anyway, I think all our best songs are from things that moved us, or something that happened, or a conversation we had or a moment in time. That is very much the running theme. They all have slightly different themes within themselves, but they’re definitely all things we have experienced, maybe talked about a lot and worked through.”
Is every song a co-write?
“Oh I’d say so,” Caoimhe nods. “We co-write everything. The songs that are on the album would be written by Wyvern Lingo. But we have had a few people say to us – some of these songs that have come in are kind of politically driven or driven by what is going on socially in the world right now. That is kind of true, but it is only true incidentally, like, as you can see, we chat about stuff, we dissect issues that we see as they arise.
“We are constantly, I guess, trying to exist as better people on the planet and try to make sense of this crazy world. So in that way a lot of our songs incidentally comment on social matters, around political matters, but it’s never the point, we never started with that idea, it would always be like it is influenced from the world around us for sure, but it is always from a very sincere place.”
They describe themselves as proud feminists.
“We are feminists,” Caoimhe says, “but we say we believe in equality for all, that’s what feminism means. I think Blind Boy [of The Rubberbandits] did a really interesting interview on the Late Late Show, and he was saying how young men in the country need feminism. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but you know feminism entails that everyone should be treated equally – but also that that social pressure of what’s expected of your gender needs to be abolished, so that men don’t feel this pressure to not be feminine and to be only masculine.
“How bad, actually, that is for the male psyche and how damaging it is – and that’s why young men need feminism. That is just what it means: it seems like a scary word and it needs to not be. As soon as it’s not a scary word, you know the world will be a slightly better place.”
In the current post-Weinstein climate, in many ways the gender divide seems to be becoming even more pronounced.
“I don’t think so,” says Karen. “I’ve been so impressed with so many guys I know who may have not have talked about these things a year ago, and now they are talking about it. Having really frank discussions with people that I don’t know that well, and at family gatherings and stuff, I am being so impressed by all these people. Guys who are taking it upon themselves to be like, ‘That is not right’, you know, and it is really nice.”
BURGER KING IS BANNED
The album will be released at the end of February. Wyvern Lingo will then hit the road on their longest tour to date. They’ve previously toured the UK with the likes of Hozier (their labelmate on Rubyworks, and also a friend from their college days) and James Vincent McMorrow, so they know what to expect.
“We toured with Hozier two years ago and then we went out with James Vincent McMorrow,” explains Caoimhe. “It was such a nice tour of the UK. It was class.”
“So now we’re doing our first headline tour in the UK,” adds Saoirse. “So it’s really nice because we have kinda planted seeds there, doing those tours, and we have people now who will come to see us. So we’re really grateful to both of those nice people for letting us come out with them, you know, because it’s such a great way to make new fans.”
They’ll be on the road for about six weeks.
“It’s hard to get used to at the start,” says Karen, “because – to put it bluntly – you’re offered free booze all the time. It’s definitely hard to not go and party, but I think we’re pretty good at looking after ourselves. We’ve learned to be healthier – especially in the UK, where it’s so hard to get food on the road that’s healthy. So you just have to like not go to Burger King and, instead, get a salad or whatever.”
Caoimhe: “At least we have each other. We’re all quite encouraging. I’d imagine it’d be very difficult if, say, I wanted to be healthy and you two were not into that. That’d be exhausting! But the fact is that we’re all into staying on top of our health.”
Saoirse concurs. “Karen can wake up one morning and be in flying form and be like, ‘I’m going for a run’. It gives you the kick up the arse then to be like, ‘Okay, I’ll exercise with you’. We do all love a party, like, absolutely – and because our crew are such good craic we love downtime as well. But the problem is it’s just too addictive. It’s too hard if you have promo the next day, to have to drive four hours as well. We physically can’t do it.”
While they enjoy a drink, they’re conscious that it can seriously affect their live performances.
“As a rule, we don’t really drink,” says Karen. “We might have one before a gig, but generally – I don’t know if it’s because we’re always playing or singing – there’s a lot to remember. There’s a lot going on. If you’re just singing with a microphone and you’re a little bit tipsy, that’s often okay, but we just have a lot of hand eye co-ordination that has to happen. And so I personally wouldn’t – my brain would just go to absolute fudge if I tried.”
“We have to stay very focused when we’re playing together,” adds Saoirse. “It’s important that the vibe is right for us, at the start of a gig. We have to just get ‘in it’ and be very connected. I can’t see alcohol helping that.”
Sure look… they’ll be grand. Wyvern Lingo is released on February 23 on Rubyworks