- 02 Oct 20
Joshua Burnside opens up about his latest record, Into The Depths Of Hell, a powerful exploration of 2020’s tumultuous social and political landscape.
Joshua Burnside and I are discussing the current state of the world, which we both admit is pretty depressing. Strangely, the Co. Down singer-songwriter, while happy to be working again, is missing the calm and quiet of lockdown.
“I’ve been learning to play the violin,” he says. “Lockdown was a bit of a break from the normal rat-race of everyday life. And learning an instrument was very meditative for me. Practising every day, you sort of overcome the stress of the uncertainty.”
Now back in his recording space at Vault Artist Studios in Belfast, he’s getting ready to release his sophomore album, Into The Depths Of Hell – which is as intense and frenetic as its title suggests.
The album feels particularly reflective of the times. Brooding and stormy, it explores a landscape of emotional turmoil. From mental health, to politics, to the environmental crisis, the record sees Burnside grappling with the weight of a world that appears to be crumbling around him.
Surely Burnside is no stranger to the threat of political tumult, growing up just outside of Belfast during the ’90s – and with a policeman for a father, no less?
“Although the politics were maybe raging around us, my parents made a lot of effort not to bring it home with them,” Joshua reflects. “They didn’t want us to be sectarian or grow up with any of that baggage. I do remember my Dad checking under his car for bombs every morning, before taking us to school.
“That was part of our daily routine. And that was very normalised for me and my siblings. We didn’t really think about it until we were much older, and then we were like, ‘Oh yeah... that’s kind of fucked up’. I think there was a time when things were really bad and my parents were very tempted to move to Canada or America to get away from it all.”
Luckily for Ireland, his family remained here. “I do love where I come from,” he adds. “It really has a rich musical heritage that I feel like I’m contributing to in a minor way.”
THE TROUBLES AND FOLK
My hunch is that, in years to come, Burnside’s contribution will be much more significant than he thinks. The experimental folk that thunders across the opening bars of Into The Depths… proves beyond a shadow of doubt that Burnside is more than just another troubadour attempting to carve out his place in an over-saturated landscape. Burnside chalks his perseverance up to the encouragement from those close to him.
“I think that’s the most important thing you can have when you start off,” he says. “Nobody that has any talent got to that place without a huge amount of support from the people around them. It’s a credit to their community as much as it is to the person themselves. No one is an island, that’s the truth.”
The exception is perhaps Burnside himself, when he’s working on an album. Notoriously particular about every last detail of his work, he produces almost everything solo.
“I think I’m going to start mastering my own music as well,” he chuckles. “I’m becoming a hyper control-freak about every aspect of the creative process. I’m just very precious about how it sounds at the end.”
It’s clear that Burnside’s instincts have yet to lead him astray. His innate ability to turn a phrase – coupled with an innovative infusion of postmodern and electronic elements into traditional folk – make him one of the most intriguing artists of the day.
Ironically, Burnside wasn’t really exposed to traditional music until he went to university.
“I was coming at it with very fresh ears, and it was an exciting genre waiting to be explored,” he recalls. “It helped that it was this mysterious, beautiful and intangible thing. I love playing it so much now because I came to it at that time.
“But it wasn’t a big part of our lives when I was younger, the way it would be with other trad musicians. That music, because of the Troubles, is often not really appreciated by loyalist or unionist communities, because they consider it a culture that belongs to republicans.
“Which is ridiculous. Truly, it doesn’t have anything to do with loyalism or nationalism. Before the Troubles, there were as many Presbyterians and Protestants playing Irish traditional music as there were Catholics. And that was another sad thing about the Troubles – a lot of Protestants stopped playing trad. It’s their culture and their music too, but a lot of people think it isn’t.”
FEELINGS AND EMOTIONS
In case you missed it, Burnside is a bit of history buff. In fact, he set aside a concept album that brought together elements of history and fiction in order to make Into The Depths.
“I got too sucked into its world,” he says, “and then got really fed up with the idea of it. I felt like it was a bit too contrived. Now that I’m about to release this record though, I’m kind of excited about going back to it to record it properly.”
One of the tracks snuck its way onto Into The Depths of Hell.
“‘Noa Mercier’, was originally meant for the concept album,” he says. “It crept onto Into The Depths and didn’t want to leave. And it fit nicely there. Noa Mercier is a fictional character, but in the story, she was the lover or mistress of a real character in history called Patrick Murphy, who was a giant from Co. Down. It’s sort of her story – well, their story.”
As much as the new record is Burnside’s furious and piercing commentary on the outside world, it’s also an honest look inward. On ‘Whiskey, Whiskey’, the singer uses a dulcet vocal and a remarkably tender guitar to reckon with fear and anxiety. Both themes are ripe for exploration, especially among young men in Ireland.
“With ‘Whiskey, Whiskey’, it’s less an anxiety about flying and more an anxiety about mortality and how fragile it is,” Burnside says. “A few songs on this album came about because I’d been deeply affected by something and went straight into the writing process, trying to process the feelings.”
Does Burnside have a hard time processing his emotions?
“People close to me will tell you that,” he laughs. “To talk about feelings and emotions with people we’re closest to, it seems hard for young men. It feels like every month you’ll hear about someone who goes missing or kills themselves, and I think being a musician or an artist opens up a way to connect with people emotionally. It’s life-saving, for me.”
• Into The Depths Of Hell is out now.