- 28 Feb 20
With her superb new album Never Say Goodbye having just arrived, Wicklow country-pop artist Luan Parle talks about working on the record with a stellar cast of collaborators, bouncing back from career disappointments, her experiences of sexism in the music industry, and more.
Luan Parle is not in a hurry. Everything about her suggests a woman who lives life at her own pace, with appropriate attention to detail. Her new album, Never Say Goodbye, is her first in 10 years and features a couple of songs written with Hal Lindes, the ex-Dire Straits guitarist. It also has New York-based violinist Deni Bonet adding fresh tones to two tracks, all under the watchful of eye of award-winning Wexford guitarist Clive Barnes.
When I meet Luan, she’s in the middle of a whirlwind promo stint. Between visits to radio stations, she switches effortlessly into interview mode. “I had a very clear vision for the album,” nods Parle. “The songs were written, so Clive and I approached the recording from the point of view of only adding to the songs what they really needed. Sometimes you can be tempted to add and add just because it’s possible, but we didn’t want to overload the tracks. We gave the songs space to breathe.”
And breathe they do. Tracks like ‘My Something Beautiful’, ‘Change Your Mind’ and ‘Falling For You’ are immediately accessible, yet reward repeat listens. “We started with me going into a studio in Kilkenny with Thomas Donoghue,” explains Parle. “We laid down guitar and vocals for each song, and then Clive built carefully from there with drums, bass and guitars. I had the confidence in the songs to guide us. It was all very organic. It just grew into exactly the album I wanted to make, with the help of some very talented people.”
While Luan is happy to be described as a country singer, she’s wary of the clichés of the genre. “My voice always comes out country anyway,” she reflects. “We could have added a steel guitar or whatever, but I wanted the album to float freely, so it could be appreciated by country, pop and rock fans. That’s exactly what appears to be happening.”
Pressed as to her musical inspirations, Parle acknowledges Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and Stevie Nicks. However, she’s also tuned into the current music scene, and is keen to emphasise that Irish music now is better than ever. Indeed, the singer reels off a veritable who’s who of contemporary Irish acts, including John Blek, Marlene Enright – who she’s seen frequently in the White Horse in Ballincollig – and Wexford’s Basciville. This new slew of talent is nationwide, she says, covering all ages and styles of music.
Parle often mines her own life for material, so I ask her about the fine new track ‘Cocaine Corner’ – not the sort of subject matter you expect from Irish country-pop writers. “That one isn’t in any way autobiographical,” she smiles, “other than I’ve seen so many great artists come through the music industry bearing scars. This song is about someone with the ambition to have it all, who has gone down a road he can’t seem to come back from. I can only feel grateful I never went down that road myself.”
And the connection with the aforementioned Hal Lindes? Parle explains that she’d worked with him before. “In selecting the tracks for the album I thought two of them needed something extra,” shes notes. “Getting the kind of flavour he brings to a record appealed to me. I sent the files to LA and he worked his magic on both tracks there!”
Not all artists have honesty to admit that something they’ve done falls a little short of genius. “I suppose it’s a sign of musical maturity,” she suggests. “I’m sure there was a time when I thought everything I did was perfect, but the music scene soon knocks that out of you!”
In fact, her interactions with the Industry of Human Happiness have taken her on the proverbial rollercoaster ride. “I was signed at the age of 12,” recalls Parle, “although my parents were smart enough to make me finish my education before letting me head off to LA. But I ended up being signed with Sony Music and Elton John’s management company, Twenty-First Artists.”
The singer’s CV shows how she went from appearing on The Late Late Toy Show aged 11, singing her own song, and hanging out at the Cannes Film Festival, to critically-acclaimed albums, driving around LA in a flash limo, and touring with James Blunt. She also opened for Elton himself on tour, scooping awards and living it up in celebrity-ville. Her top 10 hit single ‘Ghost’ spent three months in the Irish charts, and was the most-played Irish single of 2008, featuring on several top-selling compilation albums. Then one day the bubble burst.
“I was invited into Sony’s office in Dublin, where they explained to me that although sales in Ireland were really good, they were not enough to justify doing any more albums. So they were letting me go,” she recounts. “I was totally devastated. People wonder why I wasn’t already aware that this is what happens in business when the numbers don’t add up, but I think I was in a naive bubble of my own, because I had gone into the industry so young. I knew that a lot of money had been spent on me, and I had to learn that in the end you’re a product. But this experience really scarred me. I was very peeved with the industry, though I never lost the love of the music. It wrecked my confidence and it took me a long while to get it back. But now it is!”
Confidence restored, Parle says that she would not be put off entering another label deal if the right one came along. However, she’d be more aware of the pitfalls now. She also knows that it’s a totally different industry, and admits she’s still learning. “You have to embrace it because you can’t change it and you can’t fight it,” she says. “So with the new album, it’s self-released and that brings both pressure and a sense of freedom.”
Nor had she escaped the sexism that pervades large swathes of the entertainment industry. “The #MeToo movement has shone a spotlight on what goes on in many places. There was a time when women, and maybe men too, took these things for granted, but the mood out there is totally different now. I’ve never spoken about this before, but I was told by a male member of my team that I was fat. Furthermore, if we went to a restaurant for dinner, I wouldn’t be allowed the luxury of ordering my own choice of food. Instead, it would be ordered for me!
“As far as I was concerned I was a healthy young woman in my early twenties and had no weight issues whatsoever, but it was such a constant thing that it took its toll. I presume they wanted me to look a particular way. But I was still young and vulnerable enough to let it get in on me. I even wondered was it just a way of someone trying to control or manipulate me. But I just absorbed it and did what I was told. My confidence was shattered and it took me a long time to get over. I feel I’ve dealt with it now after struggling with it for many years. I suppose there was part of me determined not to let it win, and in the end it didn’t.
“I knew there was a product to sell,” she adds, “but I wasn’t the product. The music was the product. It also made me feel that maybe people I worked with, who I thought of as my friends, were not really my friends. I suppose I realised that you don’t necessarily have too many people you can trust. When my life came to a bit of a standstill, after being dropped, I had time to reflect and try to put it into perspective, but it took a long time. It was one of the reasons I only very tentatively dipped my toe in the business again until I felt good about myself.”
Parle is keen to share her experiences and observations with younger musicians. She has been on the Board of IASCA (Irish Association of Songwriters, Composers and Authors) since its inception in 2009. Perhaps in that guise she says that, “Irish radio could support Irish artists more, as they do in other countries. I believe there’s some extraordinary music coming out of Ireland and I feel it big time when I go into classrooms. Now that songwriting is part of the Junior Cycle, the quality is going to get even better. We should nurture it and cherish it more.”
Recent years have seen her touring extensively in Germany, the USA, the UK, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Ireland, where she is currently in the middle of a tightly-scheduled tour with ace guitarist Clive Barnes, a fine performer in his own right. That said, Parle likes having the option of fronting a band.
“I have a band ready and rehearsed, with Clive as part of a line-up similar to the album, and we’re looking at some festival dates later in the year.”
We’re looking forward to it already.
• Luan Parle visits Bob’s Hideout, Durrow (February 27); Birr Arts Centre (28); Balor Arts Centre, Ballybofey (29); and Whelan’s, Dublin (March 27).