- 06 Mar 23
Back with her majestic new album, All Of This Is Chance, Lisa O’Neill discusses Patrick Kavanagh, signing to Rough Trade Records and her Cavan roots.
Lisa O’Neill is one of a kind. As an artist, she is a supremely talented singer-songwriter and performer. As a person, O’Neill is wholly authentic. Sitting at the back of McNeill’s pub on Capel Street, she walks straight up to me with her hand held out. I know her music and I’ve seen her perform, so I have an inkling of what she’ll be like in person: honest and no nonsense, with an ability to see straight through any sort of pretence. And she’s just that.
“My friend Claire made it,” she says. “It’s beautiful... It’s a photograph she took of the moon. The seeds are dandelion and echinacea. She was just playing with it and she sent me a photo and I thought, I like this, that could be an album cover. Then her dog Larry came in and sneezed on the seeds! Where they landed, that was it, that was the shot.”
The planets have aligned for O’Neill in every way on this album, her most complete to date. Stepping away from the stripped back sound of 2018’s Heard A Long Song Gone, her latest release has rich, cinematic soundscapes created with long-time collaborator Joseph Doyle; Kerry concertina guru Cormac Begley; Colm Mac Con Iomaire; and Kate Ellis of the Crash Ensemble amongst others.
O’Neill’s voice is captivating and full of emotion, as she guides us through her poetic lyrics and otherworldly tales. All Of This Is Chance is also O’Neill’s first release on Rough Trade Records. Was it a conscious decision not to have her own image on the album cover?
“Sort of, yeah,” she replies. “I certainly don’t see the image of myself representing what I’m talking about, no. Not on this one, not at all.”
O’Neill has taken her art up another level with this album. Has the move from River Lea Recordings (a folk imprint of Rough Trade Records) to Rough Trade proper had a notable effect on her music?
“It’s definitely made a difference to my confidence to make the album,” she says. “Creatively, it’s like, ‘Ok you’re up’. You’re getting a shot here. I see it like a promotion. I wanted it and I was very clear about that. I’m a songwriter, I’d love my songs to come out on Rough Trade. We got there and it was a great sense of achievement.”
Moving to a less folk-centric label also puts her music in front of a new audience, potentially boosting her following.
“Everyone has different priorities on their journey in their career, and popularity wouldn’t be on the top of my list,” she says. “Rough Trade is a great label. Some great acts signed with them over the years, so it’s very exciting to exist among them.”
O’Neill has always struck me as a formidable individual. In making this label move happen, it’s clear she knows her own mind and what she wants. I ask her if she has a strong sense of who she is.
“You hear that in my art,” she notes. “I get to choose what I put out. It took me five years to decide, ‘The songs are finished now.’ I don’t know if I can honestly say if I have a strong sense of who I am. In some ways I do and in other ways, I’m as lost as anyone.”
Born in 1982, Lisa O’Neill grew up in Ballyhaise, Co Cavan. The album is full of stirring meditations on nature and a yearning to return to the land. Her connection to the countryside and nature itself is undeniable. So what kind of childhood did she have – was her family encouraging and supportive?
“My upbringing was good - consistent,” she reflects. “The personalities in my house were consistent, be it my parents or my siblings. I think we come from much further back than that, you know. Our grandparents and great-grandparents who we haven’t met are all part of our personalities. We were raised with rural Ireland basic values. Be mannerly to people, respect your elders, listen to people and don’t get ahead of yourself. There was a great value on music in the house.
“We were listening to a lot of Queen and The Beatles, and a lot of good American country music like Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. The Dubliners would have been in there and a little bit of trad. Songwriting was in my early life – stories from different points of view from around the world.”
O’Neill is a born storyteller. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, with a quick wit. She holds the attention of the room in the palm of her hand, whether telling a story in a pub or singing a song on stage. And like John Prine or Guy Clark, half the joy of seeing O’Neill perform live is her wonderful storytelling in between songs.
“I found myself explaining my songs from the moment I started performing,” she says. “It just felt natural to want to bring the listeners into my point of view and where the song came from. We want to be heard, we want to be understood. It’s natural.”
O’Neill moved to Dublin when she was 18, and in 2009, self-released her debut album, Has An Album. Fast forward 14 years and her lyrics have become far more metaphorical and perhaps, guarded in comparison.
“My first album... I cringe, like,” she admits. “I think it’s terrible, but you have to have a first something, you know.” She pauses. “There’s a lot of ‘I’ on that album. When I was younger and first started writing songs, I wasn’t so self-aware. I wrote my first song when I was eight or nine, for the same reason I’m writing today – something affected me and it needed to leave me, so I put it down. It’s really no different to a diary, only mine came in a more compact rhyme and I sang it. I don’t think that’s very strange. Looking at one of my nieces, she’s not even talking yet, but she’s singing. I do think it’s a language that’s in us. It’s very emotional, we feel things through it. And if anything, as we get older, we start to correct that.”
O’Neill’s songwriting on her new album is strikingly visual. She paints vivid pictures with poetic lyrics, while her vocal performance heightens the emotion throughout.
“We use metaphor and abstract ideas, not only to connect our message in a universal way, but also to protect our private lives. When you’re in public life, you need a private mind. You can’t share everything. I’m afraid to talk about it all honestly, because I’m afraid of how it’ll come across. It’s like a well. It’s a place that you go to drink from. What you put out to the world is a choice.”
At 40, O’Neill has plenty of life experience to mine, and there’s a strong thread of wisdom throughout the album. A commanding narrator, O’Neill has you hooked within the first 30 seconds of the eponymous first track, inspired by Patrick Kavanagh’s poem ‘The Great Hunger.’ It’s a tense, dramatic opening.
“He has a line in it: Unless the clay is in the mouth, the singer’s singing is useless. I think he may be suggesting that unless you’ve tasted what you’re talking about, it’s not going to resonate. When you’re making art, everything comes through your experience, or from empathising with something that really moved you. It might be someone else’s story, but Jesus Christ it spoke to you – you felt it. I think your idea is worth more when you can universalise or magnify it.”
In 2021, the Abbey Theatre invited O’Neill to perform in their adaptation of ‘The Great Hunger’.
“He was tapping into so many topics and themes that I’m going at in this album,” says the singer. “He was there 80 years ago with a lot of the same stuff, from a different pair of eyes of course, and I suppose that influenced the choice of songs for the album.”
Born 80 years apart, both Kavanagh and O’Neill were raised in rural Ireland, moving to Dublin to follow their artistic pursuits. Back in Kavanagh’s Dublin, he and Brendan Behan drank in McDaid’s pub on Harry Street. Behan regularly dismissed Kavanagh as a “culchie” or a “bogman”. Did O’Neill ever feel like she wasn’t taken seriously, coming from the countryside?
“No, not exactly,” she says. “I definitely felt inadequate in art for a long time and I still haven’t shaken it. Moving to Dublin I didn’t feel judged coming from Cavan in that sense, but I definitely ironed out my accent very quickly. I remember being laughed at a couple of times. I hadn’t travelled, like. We went to Donegal on holiday in the summer and to Dublin to the zoo, or for some shopping, but we’re talking once every five or six years. So I really was Cavan.”
She tells of a time when her father picked her up at the bus station in Cavan.
“I remember the day he said to me in the car, you’re losing your accent,” she recalls. “I remember the complex feeling that went with that, to hear him say that. I felt a little bit ashamed, I felt sad, like I didn’t notice it happening. I felt robbed, like I gave something away. And still people say, ‘She sings in her own accent,’ and I think, ‘Hmm, I don ‘t know if I do.’ Singing influences your accent – there’s such a thing as a singing accent.
“I really want to bring you on to my page when I perform a song. There’s Cavan in my singing and in my accent, there’s Ulster in it. I enjoy Kavanagh so much because I can hear his accent in his choice of words and his turn of phrase, just like my mother’s people. It’s very nostalgic. John McGahern as well, you just feel like you’re being brought into your Granny’s kitchen: ‘Sit down and we’ll tell you a story and eat the bacon and cabbage’. You can smell it, you can feel it. There’s a talent in that.”
What comes to mind when describing Lisa O’Neill is something my grandmother used to say: “She’s been here before.” By this, I mean O’Neill has a powerful aura. She is calm and wise beyond her years. Talking about the album title, I ask if there is a particular time in history that O’Neill would have liked to have lived through.
“I have thought about it and I keep gravitating towards the 1920s. In the writers that I’m interested in, and the movements. There was a lot happening in the minds and imaginations of writers at the time. I identify a lot with it.”
O’Neill interrupts her story, pointing upwards to say, “This is an amazing song, ‘The Four Green Fields’. Tommy Makem wrote this in the 1950s when not many Irish people were writing songs. Anyway, sorry!”
Lisa is a raconteur, a real seanchaí. I could sit here and listen to her musings all day long. But back to the 1920s we go! She speaks of James Joyce, her study of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and her love of Dublin writer James Stephens while she quotes AE Russell.
We discuss the progressive spirit of the 1920s and the conservative chokehold of the state that followed for the next 50-plus years. Amongst many other of our greatest writers, Kavanagh’s 1948 novel Tara Flynn was banned and remained out of print until well into the 1960s. As far as we’ve come since, are we returning to a form of censorship – imposed by society, rather than the government?
“In one sense we’re liberated and in another, we’re taking big steps back,” says Lisa. “Religion doesn’t have such a hold over us any more, but something else does. People are judging each other constantly – and themselves. There’s no debate anymore. People are being stopped mid-sentence sitting around in a bar. ‘You can’t say that’; ‘I wouldn’t say that if I was you.’ We’re correcting each other and that’s judgement.
“I will write about this someday. Sometimes you have to work with metaphor because you’re not allowed to say what you actually think – it has to be dressed up. And so art often comes out of oppression. ‘I wasn’t allowed to say x so I’ll put it this way instead.’”
Although O’Neill is Cavan through and through, she has spent most of her adult life living in Dublin. Pubs in the capital and all around the country have always been melting pots for writers, artists and musicians, and the singer has expressed her preference for performing in an unplugged pub session.
“There might be only five people in the room, but it’s much more important than playing in front of a thousand people,” she says. “ There’s a level of purity. I can’t explain it, they’re growing places. They’re places where you feel safe to express and explore a new song or idea, but there’s also standards. It doesn’t mean that anything goes. There’s high quality as well. They’re important – like scared wells. They’re like classrooms but without the rules and regulations.”
We discuss the Irish Vintners application for rural pubs to be put on UNESCO’s cultural heritage list in a bid to save them, and the demonstrations that have taken place to stop the demolition of Dublin city hostelries like The Cobblestone in Smithfield.
“The Cobblestone is a wonderful, exciting movement, but I wish it didn’t have to be happening, it’s shocking,” she says. “Dublin is dying, like. Elements of Dublin that are fundamental and the basis of culture. It’s scary. What makes me annoyed is that there’s a huge recognition of the value of our culture and arts, but they’re not saving it, they’re selling it. I want to be honest, I want to be true about how I feel about things.
“I also feel like I’m standing on my tongue, because I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing – but I know my intentions are good. We’re throwing things out and then we’re like, ‘Woah, come back!’ Sometimes the spirit is gone. I get very frustrated and annoyed about these things. This doesn’t have to happen, we’re prioritising tourism. Most of my friends have left Dublin. They were pushed out, like. It’s lonely. It’s not right. I’d like to think the priorities of the majority of the people of Ireland are the same as those in the Dáil, whoever it may be in government. We need to fix the basics first.”
Whileour cultural heritage is in the hands of our leaders, I ask if, after all, O’Neill does believe in fate?
“I could have easily not been conceived,” she says. “Depending on anything else that happened that day or that year. My parents might not have met. We never know everything about ourselves.”
She tells me of a conversation she had with her parents late one night last year that, you could argue, proves Lisa O’Neill was destined for a life of music.
“My father was a drummer in the showbands,” she says. “He was on the showband scene when I was getting born. I didn’t know this, but mam went on tour with them to London when she was four months pregnant with me. I was 39 when I found this out. So I was bouncing around in the womb in London for a week at dances, showbands, Irish people in their thousands coming together to dance and meet and court. Could that have had an effect on me, I don’t know, maybe?
“I asked my mother if she was happy that week and she said, ‘Oh yeah, we had a great time.’ So there was joy in the womb. There was rhythm and there was music. Now, look at my relationship with London and Rough Trade, like. You can ignore all these little factors or you can take them into account and say, ‘That’s kinda cool, that’s wacky.’ If that helps you have fun and be abstract with your own sense of yourself, then why not like?”
Why not, indeed.
• All Of This Is Chance is out now on Rough Trade Records