- 16 Jul 21
Joining forces for their new EP In The Half-Light, Laura Quirke and Joshua Burnside discuss the music scene in Ireland, the pros and cons of lockdown, John Prine and strange dreams.
Here in Ireland, we’re all too familiar with leaving. Generations have left in search of a fair crack of the whip. It’s a part of life we’ve all come to accept and expect. While many of the drivers of emigration are still wildly at large, thankfully for Irish music, a new cohort of young musicians have decided to stay.
While the pandemic stifled live music, our pool of home-grown talent is fighting fit. Two such artists making strides are Joshua Burnside and Laura Quirke. Co. Down’s Burnside released his acclaimed sophomore album Into The Depths Of Hell last September, while Carlow native Quirke released the exceptional Oil & Water EP as one-half of Lemoncello.
Brought together by Ray Griffin from Belfast’s Duncairn Centre for a live stream last August, Laura tells of how their collaborative EP In The Half-Light came about.
“Ray asked us to come up, separately. He wanted us to do our own sets and one song together. I’d just finished writing ‘Taking The Wheel’ and knew I wanted to sing it with amale voice,” she notes.
Seizing the opportunity, Laura decided to mail this Sufjan Stevens-like earworm to Josh.
“We sent it back and forth a little bit and ended up singing it on the day. Josh had a duet of ‘Rana The Fortunate’ so we sang both of those. Afterwards, Josh said ‘if you ever need someone to produce your songs I’d love to,’ so I was like ‘what about next week?’”
The two laugh in agreement. “How does Monday morning sound?” Josh enthuses.
Though the three of us are meeting remotely, it’s clear, even over a disjointed Zoom call, that Laura and Josh are at ease in each other’s company. Having known one another for just over two years, I ask how they first crossed paths.
“We have different stories about this actually,” laughs Josh. “We met in a pub in Clonakilty.”
Looking slightly sheepish, Laura admits she forgot this initial encounter.
“I was so memorable,” teases Josh from his recording studio in Belfast.
While the when and the where might be foggy, both songwriters distinctly recall how they instantly clocked one another’s talent.
“We were jamming away in the pub and Laura played her song ‘Stuck Upon The Staircase’ and I was like ‘holy shit, that’s deadly’,” Josh reflects.
The feeling was mutual with Laura equally struck by Burnside’s talent.
“Josh played his song ‘Red And White Blues’. I’d never heard someone our age singing something that could be seen as political from a very personal, childlike perspective. I thought it was amazing, genius.”
While their recent collaboration is a fine one, it hasn’t come out of the blue. Ireland has become a nexus for musical collaboration, particularly amongst its younger artists. From David Keenan and Gareth Quinn Redmond to Susan O’Neill and Mick Flannery, they’re forming a scene and an ethos that hasn’t been seen here for a long time. Aside from the remarkable music produced, they all seem to have each other’s backs.
“I think that it’s got to do with the fact that the music industry has changed so dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Josh. “The idea of getting famous in London or becoming a big star is an old school kind of notion. People realised that they need to make their own scene and not try and leave. There’s so much going on here, you need to value what’s around you and try to use the resources close to hand, on this island.”
This burgeoning scene of Irish singer-songwriters echoes the spirit at the heart of Laurel Canyon in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Youth, beauty and talent living in close quarters, forming friendships and making great music – all the while spurring each other on.
“The more aware I am of the talent in Ireland, the more I’ve had to go, ‘Right, I really need to step up my game here,’” laughs Josh. “I’m so impressed by so many artists. I find it inspiring and motivating.”
I ask if they’d like to write a song for a fellow Irish artist à la the Laurel Canyon crew.
“I can imagine Junior Brother playing one of my songs better than I do,” says Josh. “I find it quite hard to give songs away, though. I feel like they’re little pieces of me. An artist shouldn’t be that precious about their art. You should be able to let people take it over, but it can be quite difficult if you’re unhealthily proud of something!”
Given the calibre of these artists and the positive, collaborative environment they’ve created it’s easy to see the cross pollination in their music.
“I find that, whatever I’m listening to at the moment. I’ll start writing in that style without realising that I’m doing it. I’m trying to write a Laura Quirke song, or a Junior Brother tune and then I think, ‘I’m gonna have to steer it away and bring it back to my own world.’”
Songwriting duties were split between the two on this four-track EP, which was recorded at Vault Artist Studios in Belfast.
“‘In The Half-Light’ is the song that really got the ball rolling,” Laura explains. “When I came up to record ‘Rana The Fortunate’ and ‘Taking The Wheel’ with Josh, we thought I would release ‘Taking The Wheel’ and he would release ‘Rana’ separately, but while I was there that weekend, In The Half-Light just sort of happened by accident.”
In The Half-Light’s understated last track highlights Quirke’s exquisite voice. Whilst taking a break from the studio, Laura wandered down to the piano in Vault’s dance hall.
“It just fell out of my mouth that day and that’s never happened to me before. Josh created the ending which is expanded with electronics. So that song felt more collaborative just because I’d written it right there and then. Then Josh wrote ‘Far Away Where The Hills Are Green’ which ties the whole thing together.”
This alt. folk-minded EP explores a singular theme: the desire for the unknown. Its songs are full of undelivered promises and ambiguous endings. The track that illuminates both artists’ vocal and songwriting abilities is ‘Far Away Where The Hills Are Green.’ Josh was inspired to write it when he heard Laura’s ‘Taking The Wheel’.
“It’s those troubled relationships that you have when you’re young and trying to deal with complicated emotions,”‘ he notes. “‘Rana The Fortunate’ has the same element to it as well.”
There’s a clear sense of yearning throughout the EP.
“When you get to ‘it’ it’s not necessarily that good,” Laura reflects. “A constant desire for a different situation, a more exciting life - all of the songs have that theme somewhere.”
Lyrically, the EP reflects their singer-songwriter roots. The everyday and seemingly mundane, can often lead to more memorable lyrics.
Having spent a lot of time listening to the masterfully gifted John Prine, it comes as no surprise that his authentic storytelling filtered into Quirke’s ‘Taking The Wheel’ - a kitchen-sink drama about two people, Sarah and David.
“Putting the images and stream of consciousness into a conversation between two people, that was John Prine influenced. He uses names and gives all his songs characters as if they’re sort of a play,” she smiles. “My favourite song of his became ‘Taking A Walk’. It really resonated with me in lockdown because it’s about being fed up with how complicated things are, and then just going outside and taking a walk. What’s the line? ‘I’m taking a walk, I’m going outside, I’m watching the birds, I’m just getting by.’”
A mantra many of us lived by last year.
Raised on different sides of the border, both artists’ parents thoroughly enjoyed music. But did their religion have any influence on their musical journey?
“My Dad played the flute and my mom used to play accordion in the marching bands, Ulster Scots heritage there,” says Josh. “I don’t know how much of an influence that has been!”
“I was raised Catholic, so I was in choirs and stuff like that,” says Laura. “I’m not religious at all really now, but a lot of my first songs ended up sounding like hymns. My mom loved blaring the radio as she was doing housework.” recalls Laura. “I remember listening to A Woman’s Heart 150 times! Mary Coughlan, Mary Black, all those amazing women.”
The pandemic hasn’t just affected our waking life. A study is currently underway by the University of Cambridge to examine the influence that lockdown has had on people’s dreams, with reports of negatively toned dreams with bizarre story lines.
“I’ve been sleeping like a ghost, as soon as my head hits the pillow that’s me. I’ve been having really pleasant, dreamless sleeps; I don’t know what that means,” laughs Josh.
While Josh has been sleeping soundly, Laura has had an unwelcome visitor in her bed.
“I keep having a recurring dream that there’s a needle in my bed. I wake up in the middle of the night and I’m trying to find it. And then I can’t. They’re such hard things to find, you know, like you’re never even sure it’s still there when you’re going back to sleep.”
Ever the writer, Josh is intent on finding some deeper meaning.
“That’s definitely a perfect metaphor for something,” he enthuses.
Laura isn’t so sure.
“I haven’t learned to use it to my advantage yet. I just get three hours less sleep!”
In The Half-Light is out now.