- 11 Apr 01
Last issue we profiled a selection of Irish acts who released records for the Christmas market. Here JACKIE HAYDEN, GERRY McGOVERN AND COLM O’HARE PROFILE five more who've come up trumps – from Jimmy MacCarthy, one of Ireland's best known songwriters, to young hopefuls, Sunbear.
By any standards Fiona Joyce is an extraordinary woman. From her home in Baltinglass in the heart of rural Wicklow she simultaneously performs the roles of singer, songwriter, guitarist, single parent, part-time farmer, self-sufficiency enthusiast, teacher and record company owner.
Her second album This Eden was recently released in this country following its availability in markets as far apart as Japan and Italy. With indomitable determination and an expenditure of energy that is exhausting even to contemplate, she oversees the mastering, manufacturing, sleeve-design, photography, printing, distribution and promotion of her own records and still somehow finds the time to look after the two kids, a horse, a dog, two kittens, assorted accoutrements of new age mysticism and her muse.
Indeed not so long ago her domestic situation was even more fully populated – by two horses, numerous ducks (which one by one absconded to the less chaotic environs of the nearby River Slaney), several chickens which ended up on the menu of the local fox, a cat since allegedly eaten by the dog, two goats no longer in stock and a husband who also departed.
In fact, the trauma of that break-up and its aftermath inspired several of the soul-baring songs on This Eden which, in a bizarre twist, was actually produced by the afore-mentioned ex, Colm McElwee. As Joyce tentatively recalls, "When we first discussed the possibility of Colm producing the album, he asked if he could hear demos of the songs I was considering recording. I can still recall the feelings that ran through me as I sat there. But I think we both realised that there was a lot of deep personal stuff we both had to leave at the studio door and I think he did a brilliant job on the album."
In many ways the recording of the album seems to have been a rewarding and perhaps cathartic exercise for Joyce, helped no doubt by the involvement of some excellent musicians of the calibre of violinist Máire Breatnach and former Clannad percussionist Paul Moran. But it contains many songs whose lyrics cut deep and reflect the views of an angry but ultimately understanding woman whose unchained spirit pushes her relentlessly on.
Born in Jersey, Fiona Joyce has been living in Baltinglass
for about eight years in a house built on an acre of land. Her initial stab at rural self-sufficiency somehow got out of hand and the place was soon overrun by the menagerie described above. "Because we had no money we took on a couple of goats to provide us with some free baby food, but it was really tough work looking after the babies, plus taking care of the animals and trying to grow some vegetables in order to stay alive," she explains.
She readily admits that the first reaction of the natives was a wary bewilderment with these slightly odd new people who might just have arrived from Planet Zog but she now feels totally at home, and avoids having to go into Dublin as much as possible.
Amid the chaos, and occasionally inspired by it, she put together the songs for her debut album. That album was a dark, sombre work but its delivery onto the marketplace was even more difficult.
"I got totally fed up with the negativity of people in the music industry and I was determined not to let them stop me getting my work heard. So I pestered people all around Baltinglass to buy advertising space on the vinyl album cover to fund the record's release", she recalls.
That commitment inspired her to form her own record label called River Valley Records and before too long she was selling it to keen buyers and distributors in Europe and the Far East and having strange folk from Germany and Italy turning up unannounced on her doorstep wanting to meet her. One cannot help but contrast her independent cottage-industry approach with the attitude of those smarter-than-thou bands who hang out in Temple Bar waiting for a record deal to fall out of somebody's pocket and then blame everybody else when their careers are stillborn.
A firm tenet in the gospel according to Joyce is that there is a basic choice most artists have to make. "You can spend all your time and energy hustling for a deal that might be totally non-existent, waste years talking to record company people who have absolutely no idea what you are about, or you can go and do it for yourself,” she says. “I'm not suggesting that doing it my way is easy, far from it, but if you really feel you have something that you truly believe is worth saying through your music, then you can do it. And it has the advantage that not only is it very satisfying when it's all over but you are answerable to nobody and you can follow your own artistic instincts without outside interference."
Paradoxically, for someone for whom grit and determination seem to be almost a fundamental part of her make-up, Joyce is far from precious about her songs, including those which are obviously deeply personal to her. "I have no problem accepting the fact that some people will like my stuff and that others don't. I don't like everything I hear, so why should everybody like me? I write and record and perform what I do because I get tremendous personal satisfaction from doing it.”
Although one would not accuse her of self-deprecation, Joyce
points out that what she does can be done by anyone with the guts to take on the challenge. She believes that the information is now available for anyone who wants to put out their own record and that a positive approach brings its own karmatic rewards. She also espouses the philosophy that one positive step seems by some mystical law to lead to another step in the right direction.
To illustrate this last point she refers to an inquiry she received from an Italian radio station looking for her album. Not unreasonably, she reckoned that if one Italian radio station wanted her record then others might, so she paid a visit to Music Base. Armed with a list she mailed off copies of her album with a basic press pack and in due course she got some decent orders from Italy and that first album is now well on its way to selling 5,000 copies.
She does emphasise the importance of packaging an album professionally whenever sending to the media or to potential distributors, and she always includes a press kit with her promotion albums. Indeed she reckons that it's easier to compete oversees on that basis.
"If somebody in Japan, say, gets a package from me their heads are not cluttered by the knowledge that I'm running my own little company from a tiny village in County Wicklow way across the world in Ireland. So they listen to it with no preconceptions and in that way it can compete against the latest arrival from Geffen or Sony. As a result they can listen to it and judge its marketability without prejudice."
On the lyrical front Fiona Joyce's work is influenced by some heavy duty reading, from the Old Testament psalms to the poetry of John Milton. The mystical 'This Moment’, in which a touch of eastern mysticism blends seemlessly with a spontaneous moment of love, owes its birth to a poem Joyce read by a Zen Buddhist monk. Other extracts such as 'Before The Resurrection' contain obvious allusions to the break-up of a relationship but she cautions against the listener assuming that every single word she writes is autobiographical.
“Sometimes something important in your life might be the initial inspiration for a particular song, but once the song starts to come together it can take on a life and a character of its own. Other ideas start to come into play which might make sense in the context of the song but which might be more a product of the writer's imagination than having any connection with the original inspiration for the song. I don't mind if people speculate about the origins of this line or that line, but I'm happier to let them find their own meaning in the song rather than giving them the easy option of spelling it all out."
But then easy options are not a commodity that Fiona Joyce seems terribly eager to trade in anyway.
BEING BasED in a rural outpost in County Monaghan might not at first seem like the ideal move to build a career in music in Ireland, but so far it seems to have done little harm to Deirdre Cunningham whose debut album Sunny Days was rather favourably reviewed in these pages recently.
However just like fellow musician and composer Fiona Joyce, Cunningham believes that the absence of big town distractions are actually a boon to any artist, and the fact that she lives adjacent to Lake Recording Studios owned by her husband is an added bonus.
“I think you’re better off away from the city. In a city there’s a danger you can get lost in it. It can swallow you up and you can so easily become anonymous. I’ve lived in cities like Leiden near Amsterdam and I’ve experienced that sense of anonymity. But out in the country you have a greater sense of space and relaxation and a lack of pressure.”
However she does concede that from the business perspective it can be difficult being so far from the hub of the Irish music industry. “I’ve been lucky in finding the right musicians where I live, but wherever the population is sparse the musical population is likely to be proportionately less. Equally, the major media are a long drive away. It’s takes about five hours to come up to Dublin for an interview with Hot Press or to meet someone from RTE. Being stuck on the roads into Dublin during peak traffic periods is no fun, I can assure you.”
Musically, Cunningham ploughs a furrow closer to the gutsiness of Mary Stokes or Mary Coughlan than the softer approach of Mary Black or Marian Bradfield, but contrary to the assumption of those of us trapped in the big smoke, she has little difficulty maintaining a busy gigging schedule in the western half of the island.
“I can get regular gigs in Sligo, Galway, Longford, Castlebar, Connolly’s in Leap, The Lobby in Cork, venues in Midleton and Clonakilty and other places. In Galway there’s a whole roots scene developing. You find more new-age gigs, folk and traditional in the West than I think you get in Dublin. The circuit is actually growing, so there are plenty of gigs out there if you are prepared to travel. At the moment I work as a trio with myself on guitar and vocals, Liam, my husband, on keyboards and accordion and Ken Sampson on congas.”
However Cunningham also uses a bigger line-up, a six-piece band which sees the trio augmented by a bunch of musicians including Belfast guitarist Brian Rawson and Castlebar drummer Donal Hoban, both of whom made worthy contributions to the Sunny Days album.
“I wanted the album to be a celebration in the sense of having a party or a good time,” she adds. “I believe people respond well to that, but they might need a little bit of a push to start them off. From doing so many gigs over the years, one thing I have learned is that that there are not enough up-tempo songs to give people that lift, so when you come across something like ‘Hurry Make Love’ you tend to hang on to it. I’d like to find some more songs like it.”
Seven of the songs on the album were either written or co-written by Cunningham, and two, ‘Take Me For A Fool’ and ‘Coming Down With Love’, were brought to the album by noted Irish guitarist Philip Donnelly, who produced them as well. Her own approach to writing tends to depend on inspiration.
“Sometimes it might start with just one line that appeals to me and seems strong enough to work a complete song around. ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ on the album was inspired by a pub name I saw in Castlerea. I started looking for other lines that connected with the theme of hell’s kitchen, like ‘hearts of stone, nerves of steel’ and the idea of looking after each other when you’re in places of danger, and it grew from there.”
Obviously the availability of their own recording studio made it comparatively easy for the Cunninghams to produce their own album.
“There seems to be some kind of ‘iron curtain’ between artists and major record companies in this country,” she comments. You can spend an awful lot of money and an awful lot of time talking to them and getting nowhere, so we just decided to do it ourselves. This country is oozing with talent. The world out there is looking to Ireland now as a huge source of talent, musicians, writers, singers, everything.
“I’ve been privileged to meet many of them as I travel all over the country and I’d like to see them keeping body and soul together more gracefully than some can do at present. I’ve been lucky enough to get my own album out and to be happy with it, so I can’t complain.”
“Up in the hills/In the back of your head/Godless, lawless/Lovers of life/Living love on the open land/Godless, lawless/Lovers of life.” (‘Godless, Lawless’)
“It’s about the place in everyone’s head where there is no God and there is no law, and there are no external structures that can regulate what you think,” Frank X Hibbit, singer, guitarist and songwriter with Far Canals explains. “You can think what you like inside in your own head. For me that idea comes from being Irish and having absolutely no faith in the Catholic Church in Ireland, which is the main moulder of Irish society, its education, its morals.
“The laws of the state are so influenced by a Catholic, nationalist viewpoint. And our constitution, on which all our laws are based, is written from that very narrow viewpoint. And I personally cannot have any faith in it.”
Rock ‘n’ roll was never meant to be something that was safe. Chuck Berry summarised its ideals best when he sang, “Hail, Hail, rock ‘n’ roll/Deliver us from the days of old.” Because your parents shouldn’t like rock ‘n’ roll. The authorities shouldn’t like it. It should be rebellious. It should be on the edge. It should be a release, an escape, a route to that place in your head.
Most of us have a group or a song which knocked us out and woke us up. Something that said, hey, there’s a world of possibilities beyond Ballinulty, Dring, Co. Longford. Frank has his memory. “I remember being fourteen years old and having a copy of a Lynyrd Skynyrd album,” he says. “And seeing this gang of long haired’s singing about whiskey, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, life on the road. For me growing up in suburban Dublin that was a glimpse of something outside. It excited me.”
Far Canals are a rock ‘n’ roll band. Their If You See K debut album doesn’t give a fuck. It doesn’t give a fuck about the Gardaí, about authority, about the Church, about anything that might try and make it fit in. It does care about searching for that place. It cares about the individual. It has enough belief to hope.
So, how did Frank escape the suffocation of a repressed Irish childhood? He travelled. Much of his youth was spent trekking around Europe, and he has lived for periods in France and Spain. He read too: the anarchist writers and philosophers, the libertarians, anything to do with the Sixties counter-culture.
What he learned from all this is that keeping it all in in the traditional Irish way does you no good at all. He has decided that through his songs he will deal with the problems that are facing him.
“The police come around and they raid your house, and you get a heavy time about it,” he explains. “And you bring that out in the open and you write a humorous song about it. And you see how pathetic it is, how little it matters in the grand scheme of things. It’s demystified. You know, people only have as much authority over you as you allow them. Because there always is that place in your head where you’re always just in there. And they can’t take that away from you.”
Frank hasn’t fully escaped the demons of his past. He admits to being an alcoholic, but says that he has managed to stay off the drink for a long while now.
“You think that by releasing a song,” he replies, “everyone will understand you a bit better, or maybe accept you a bit more. It doesn’t happen like that. People just hear a song and say, ‘oh that’s a nice song’. It clicks with some people and it doesn’t with most people. Despair can set in from that. You’ve just expressed yourself and that’s all there is.”
Frank is back in Ireland, living in the West, facing up to his past and bringing up his children. He’s not so sure how he feels about Ireland, but the fact that he has his children here says that he has perhaps more belief in the place than he might realise. He is guardedly hopeful, feeling that things are slowly changing for the better. There’s a long way to go though.
“I mean we’re facing this problem in Ireland now,” he says. “That here we are, the Republic of Ireland, and we’re lumbered with this Catholic Constitution. And we’re trying to entice Northern Unionists/Loyalists/Protestants to join us in this wonderful island. And this is going to require this huge leap to tolerance-land. Have we got the capacity to stand and say to people that you are free to do and believe what you want?” Let’s hope we have.
CALL IT fate, coincidence or a happy accident but for singer-songwriter Jimmy MacCarthy, gaining a new next-door neighbour largely determined the overall sound on his recently released second album.
“Just after my first album, Song Of The Singing Horseman had been released about three years ago,” he says, “I was listening to Van Morrison’s Avalon Sunset a lot and I was thinking to myself ‘Jesus the sound on this is great – whenever I do the next album, I’d love to use whoever did the string arrangements on it’. The name on the sleeve said, Fiachra Trench, and I presumed he probably lived in the UK or in the States or somewhere like that.
“One day,” he continues, “I was up in the Wicklow mountains driving around the Sally Gap and when I arrived home there was a big blue removal van parked outside the house next door. The house had been empty for a while so I was curious to find out who my new neighbour was going to be. When I enquired, I was told it was someone called Fiachra Trench!”
Not surprisingly, MacCarthy and Trench subsequently became friendly and eventually got around to discussing the possibility of working together at some stage in the future. But it was all done at a leisurely pace without the usual studio constraints and record company deadlines.
“It was a luxury,” says MacCarthy. “Not many people would be in a position to collaborate over a period of three years but that’s the way it worked out. At times it was very casual, literally talking over the garden fence, chatting about song arrangements etc.”
The fruits of that chance collaboration can at last be heard on MacCarthy’s new album, The Dreamer, a lushly orchestrated collection of mainly new songs which adds to his stature as a performer as well as reinforcing his reputation as a songwriter. The twelve tracks include well-known favourites like ‘Adam At The Window’ and ‘No Frontiers’ as well as finely-crafted new songs like ‘The Highest Point’, ‘Lorraine’ and ‘Harlem’.
With his gentle, almost fragile tones, MacCarthy tends to let the words and melody do most of the work. But on The Dreamer he takes this approach a step further, allowing his voice at times to blend unobtrusively into the background.
“That was a very deliberate decision on my part,” he says. “I wanted to go for a sound that was round and soft, the way the old records were recorded with valve microphones. Artists like Sinatra and Jim Reeves had voices with a softness and roundness about them and I wanted to try and recreate that feeling. For me it’s important for the voice to project a kind of balmy texture – it’s going back to an older value. I’ve also used some lower keys in the songs which makes them seem quieter though I think the lyrics are still distinctive.”
As part of the production team (along with Philip Begley), Fiacra Trench also brought his film-scoring abilities to bear on the project, complementing MacCarthy’s lyrical approach.
“We decided that it would be filmic and that the whole idea of what I was doing was that it was visual in terms of scapes and things happening within those scapes. For example, the first song on the album is ‘Adam At The Window’ which goes: ‘Adam’s at the easel, painting in the wrinkles and the grey’. He’s this artist, painting himself in and out of lives. It’s this hand within everybody that creates an inner kingdom of a self and for me it’s where creativity meets spirituality. It’s very transparent within the songs and the cinematic arrangement underlines that feeling.
With over sixty songs in the bag, recorded by artists like Christy Moore, Mary Black and Maura O’Connell, MacCarthy is arguably the most singularly successful songwriter on the domestic front. His songs certainly seem to tap into a particular vein in Irish audiences, finding wide acceptance with all who hear them. But as a solo artist in his own right he’s been slower to embrace the spotlight, sometimes coming across as a reluctant performer. Does he see himself as a songwriter who performs or a performer who writes songs?
“I think I’m both,” he says. “I suppose I’m a direct line to the source of the song and I think people get something out of that. There’s always something about hearing the original version of a song, done by the person who wrote it.
“The great thing for me is, I can go out and do a gig and sing songs like ‘Ride On’, ‘Katie’, ‘Adam At The Window’ and ‘No Frontiers’ and I’m singing songs that are well known and popular, which is a very fortunate position for me to be in.”
He points to ‘Ride On’ as the song that firmly established his reputation as a songwriter to be reckoned with, and a turning point in his fortunes after a decade in the music business.
“I think it was also the song,” he suggests “that brought Christy Moore into the mainstream. ‘Ride On’ could be played on 2FM and classic hits radio, whereas before that he was known more as a traditional folk artist singing songs like ‘Cliffs Of Dooneen’.
“Someone once said that trying to get a song out of Jimmy MacCarthy is like drawing teeth,” he adds, laughing. “I’m not a song salesman and I’m not very efficient either. I don’t say to myself ‘I better get a couple of songs together for Christy Moore or Mary Black today’. I write them as they come to me and I’m not great at motivating myself and that’s the way it’s always been. I love my songs being done by other people but I’ve always had a fear of them being rejected.”
That said, he confirms that ‘Ride On’ was written in a mere twenty-five minutes and his most recent single, ‘Lorraine’ was written on a Sunday afternoon.
“I won’t force it if I don’t know the way out,” he says. ‘No Frontiers’ was spread over a couple of years and ‘The Dreamer’ idea was nearly ten years in the making. I’ve a big bag full of scraps of paper so it means that I’ll never dry up. My own style of writing is that it’s work-in-progress all the time. I don’t finish things for the sake of finishing them. An idea is as good in ten years time as it is today, so it can wait if it has to.”
So how did he feel then about Mary Coughlan’s radically different reading of ‘Ride On’ which speeded up the rhythms and tempo transforming it into a steaming tour-de-force? “I loved her version of it,” he says. “But the song was actually originally written in a more up-tempo manner – the way Mary recorded it – so if anything, Christy’s version is a change from the original.”
Having achieved undoubted homegrown success, MacCarthy is now looking to wider international markets for his brand of mystical, introspective but melodically accessible tunesmithery. With The Dreamer he now feels he can reach out to those audiences: “It’s definitely much less ethnic than the last one and doesn’t deal with the Irish psyche as much as some of my songs in the past have. It has a more universal theme and I hope it’ll appeal to a wider audience.
“The first album was an appropriate foundation for a solo career,” he concludes, “but The Dreamer is a much better album. It’s my ultimate wish for the songs to go out into the great big world and be heard and enjoyed.”
And if he fails in this ambitions objective, he can always rely on an appreciative next-door neighbour!
To listen to Sunbear is to be uplifted. They have this sense of youthful innocence and sincerity. They mean it. Not, for them some big, grand statement, nor some cool, hip statement; rather they breathe in and swim in their music.
Sunbear’s just-released, self-titled debut album is astonishingly beautiful. (It’s self-produced and funded too.) It manages to combine perfect, honeyed pop with a music which veers from simple melody to barely controlled distortion and strange, twisting sounds.
Sunbear are from Phibsboro, Dublin. The line-up is: Martin Kelly on guitar and vocals, Colin Morris on bass, Patrick Moran on drums and Paul Kelly on guitar. They’ll be together two years next April. It’s a bit of a family affair. Martin and Paul are brothers, while Colin and Martin were in school together from the age of six. Sunbear got their name from the Natural History Museum as Colin Morris explains. “It’s a Malaysian bear, kind of cute. An endangered species.” Each band member has a very broad range of musical tastes, although as Martin Kelly explains, “One of the main reasons we all got together was just seeing Whipping Boy.”
Colin agrees. “I think seeing them,” he says, “influenced us to get a band together and do something. ’Cause they’re so powerful on stage. They’re the one band we all have a common interest in. And they’ve the best frontman in the world.”
Another inspiration are Sonic Youth, whom the band had the honour of meeting on O’Connell Street one night. “They were in Dublin five days,” Colin remembers, “and we were the first people to recognise them. We were just coming from playing a gig and we gave Thurston Moore a flyer. And Martin just said in a joke like, will you play something off Daydream Nation for us. So, the next day (Sunstroke 1993) Thurston Moore said that this song is for Sunbear. It was ‘Candle’. It was amazing. We still have it on bootleg at home.”
Martin smiles. “I just got them to sign my guitar,” he says excitedly, “like really stupid, you know (laughs). In the middle of O’Connell Street about two o’clock in the morning, signing guitars.”
It’s such ‘stupidity’ which is at the core of what makes Sunbear a bloody brilliant band. It’s such a powerful innocence and love of good music which has allowed Sunbear to dive deep into the art form itself, and to come back up with an album, which while having signposts to groups such as Whipping Boy, Sonic Youth and The Byrds, is very much their own.
Sunbear are always searching for that perfect, trademark sound, that exact combination of music and lyrics which knocks you into another dimension. So far, they believe they’ve come closest to getting all the ingredients right on ‘Your New Laugh’. “That song kind of says everything,” Martin explains. “Exactly how we felt. Brilliant music, really nice melody, and then it kind of rips your head off. It’s a kind of a mixture between The Byrds and The Whipping Boy.”
Sunbear have been courted. It’s funny, the music industry tends to descend en masse on a young band, see what the pickings are like, and then fuck off to hover over another band’s future. “We just got all these phonecalls from BMG and Oxygen Records and stuff,” Colin remembers. They got that big record company big money talking shuffle too. A fella came up to them in Slattery’s one night and told Martin that he loved their melodies but they’d have to get rid of the noise. “And I thought, fuck off, that’s what we want to do,” Martin says.
There was an inevitable comedown and lull after so much attention being heaped so quickly. They began to go through some bad times, times when they were “really, really depressed,” and they did some crap gigs. But they kept at it and then along came a Sebadoh support and a blinder of a performance. “It was unbelievable,” Colin remembers. “The Rock Garden was packed.” Lots of people came up to them afterwards, telling them that they were better than Sebadoh, and they even had the honour of signing autographs for Spanish students!
Sunbear want to bring their music as far as it will go. Of course, along the way there will be those seeking to manipulate them and turn them into cash cows, but they have one vital advantage in relation to withstanding such pressure. “We all get on so well,” Colin says. “Somebody said there a couple of weeks ago that we were like a family. Like, we give out shit to each other, and then forget about it.”
Live, Sunbear are capable of finding a level which they can bring their audience up onto and help them forget everything but the music. On album, they have superb, moving songs. Songs which have a heart of strong melody but which flow out in multiple currents of imagination. Sure, it’s early days, but no matter what happens – whether they break up tomorrow or never – Sunbear have already delivered something beautiful and lasting.
“But we will make other albums,” Colin says, his confidence showing. Martin agrees wholeheartedly. “Even if we have to do it ourselves,” he says. “And the next one is going to be better.