- 11 Dec 13
Olaf Tyaransen sits down with the Galway singer/songwriter following the release of new album Songs of Love So Cruel...
When Ultan Conlon’s debut album, Bless Your Heart, was independently released in 2009, the reviews were largely positive, but it didn’t exactly change his life. Which didn’t especially phase the laidback Loughrea singer-songwriter.
“It came out and it did okay, but it didn’t really do anything commercially,” he says, with an indifferent shrug. “The first album I actually found quite difficult. I was 29 when I started making it and I had about 12 years’ worth of material. To piece that onto the one album, I found very difficult, to make it all feel like it belonged in the one place. I had songs that were eight or nine years old and some that were recent.”
Conlon first learnt how to play guitar at the age of 11, began writing songs at 15, and has been making a precarious living from music since he was 24 (“It takes time to develop your craft…or maybe I’m just a late bloomer”). Now aged 33, he has just recently released his sophomore collection, Songs of Love So Cruel.
In a reversal of the usual way these things happen, he claims he found the second album a lot less difficult than his first. “With the second album, I wanted to write something that all felt knit together,” he explains. “I started off with a song called ‘In The Mad’. It had an old feel to it. I was listening to a lot of Roy Orbison and Elvis stuff. It just sounded like an old love song from the Fifties or Sixties. There was a line in it, in the middle eight, that went ‘songs of love so cruel’, and I looked back at that line, realised that I had a bunch of love songs in my head, and decided that I was going to make an album with that title. So I set out at the beginning with that as the project.”
If Conlon seems relaxed in person, it’s probably because all of his pent-up angst comes out in his songs. Featuring dark, broody and occasionally downright depressive songs, lightened by some nifty guitar playing and memorably crooned choruses, for the most part the album lives up to its title.
“I should point out that a lot of the songs aren’t personal,” he laughs. “Some of them are written from my own experiences, but I was looking at relationships around me, kind of people-watching, like at people who are married for 50 years and wondering, ‘God, how does that work?’ I’d no idea! So I threw myself into that, and there’s a theme running through it.”
He explains that ‘In The Mad’, which opens the album, is the key to the whole thing. “That was the first song I wrote for it and it all led from there. The idea of the song is about an older man who’s been married for years and has lost feelings for his wife after they’ve had kids. Gone quiet in himself, you know? But somewhere deep inside him, there’s still that early feeling of love for his wife. In the song he’s trying to pull himself out of the hole he’s in and find those feelings again.”
Most of the songs were initially written with ex-Charis guitarist Eoin McCann in a Galway home studio. “Myself and Eoin worked for months on our own, but then we got some help in. The album was partly produced in London by Tim Ross, who’s Christy Hennessey’s son. And then I went to Sheffield to finish it off with Colin Elliot - Richard Hawley’s producer and mixing engineer - just to get that old sound and feel I was going for. He was definitely the right man.”
As we speak, Conlon’s just about to depart for the US to attend the Hollywood Film Festival. He wrote the score and some of the songs for Galway-shot indie rom-com, Songs For Amy, which is being shown at the prestigious festival.
“The film soundtrack was really a stroke of luck for me,” he maintains. “I was doing a tiny gig in this seafood restaurant outside of Galway. There was only a handful of people there, but this girl called Fiona Graham came over to me after a few songs and said she was writing a film and thought my music would suit it. You hear this kind of thing every now and again and say, ‘Right, get back to me if something happens,’ but it rarely does. So I had an album in the car with me and she took it away.
“Then she contacted me later on and said two of the songs would be ideal for the script,” he continues. “The gist of the film is that there’s a songwriter from Galway who has split up with his fiancée, and he writes these songs for her and puts them on an album and sends it to her. So a couple of tracks off my first album were deemed suitable. But as the script developed and changed a little, Fiona brought me on board and I ended up writing another song for it. Then, as things progressed further, they brought me on as music supervisor. So I recorded all the songs for the film, some of which were written by Jim McKee and some by myself.
“They also wanted some instrumental music for the score so I brought in my guitar player Eoin McCann, and we ended up writing the score. It ended up being about eight or nine months work. It actually held up the recording of my own album, but it was still a brilliant experience.”
A slightly reserved and understatedly cool kind of character, it’s hard to imagine Conlon becoming a big star. Having said that, it’s not all that hard to imagine him becoming a very successful and respected songwriter.
For his own part, he doesn’t have any great expectations. “The dream is simply that I can make enough from my album sales and gigs that I can afford to keep doing it,” he says. “I’m not looking for anything extra, really. Anything extra that would come would be incredible. For example, I’d really love if other people sang my songs. I’m not precious about that at all. If some aspiring pop star on The Voice or The X-Factor or something did one of my songs, I’d be delighted. The song would be getting out there, generating something. I’d keep on doing my thing anyway. I’d be happy for my songs more than for myself, if that makes sense.”
Songs of Love So Cruel is out now. Ultan Conlon plays Chancery Lane Theatre, Dublin, on December 20. Visit [link]ultanconlon.com[/link] for further information.