- 20 Jul 21
Having emerged from Little Green Cars, Soda Blonde are ready to take on the world. In a candid conversation, the four-piece – lead singer Faye O’Rourke to the fore – discuss managing band dynamics, Britney’s body autonomy and the search for self-acceptance. Photos: Miguel Ruiz
Despite the title of their debut album, Small Talk, Soda Blonde would rather skip the pleasantries. Over a pint in the sun between photoshoots, the band are braced for new beginnings – and it shows.
“Obviously, our career has been our whole lives together,” says frontwoman Faye O’Rourke. “But I feel like it is really going to start with Small Talk. I think there’s going to be a feeling of rebirth.”
Rewind the clock to March 2019 when Little Green Cars – which contained all of Soda Blonde’s members alongside lead singer Stevie Appleby – announced their breakup via an Instagram post. I was in Toronto, sitting behind the counter at a café job I hated and scrolling through Instagram to mitigate boredom, when I saw the black and white statement.
The announcement that it was all over seemed sudden to fans, but privately, it had been a long time coming for the band.
Forming Little Green Cars in their early teens, the group had built their style on thunderous harmonies, big, anthemic alt-rock sounds, and visceral songwriting that could alternately incite fiery fits of rage, or make you want to crawl under a duvet.
The five-piece’s debut album Absolute Zero had made its way overseas from Ireland to my native Canada on a tidal wave of critical acclaim, just in time to provide the soundtrack to my first heartbreak. It garnered the Dublin band coveted appearances on Jimmy Fallon, multiple radio plays and won them slots at high-profile festivals. But behind-the-scenes, differences were emerging.
The quintet parted amicably. When Soda Blonde emerged months later, all of Cars’ original members were on board, with the exception of Appleby.
“It’s only in hindsight that you truly appreciate what that felt like,” drummer Dylan Lynch says. “When you’re living through it in your early twenties, you’re just a kid. It happens in the background of all the other drama you’re dealing with.”
“When everything falls apart,” adds Donagh Seaver-O’Leary, “it makes you appreciate the things that do last.”
Now, all that angst has been consigned to the past by the band’s obvious elation on the release of their glittery, breathtaking first effort as Soda Blonde.
“We were so meticulous with every single piece of this album,” Lynch grins. “I love that there’s a little detail in one song where you can hear the DART go by. Because, for me, it takes me back to that moment.”
“We’ve been working on this for such a long time,” adds O’Regan. “I really feel like, with Soda Blonde, we’re writing the music we want to write.”
Some of the songs have indeed been around for a while. O’Rourke – Soda Blonde’s primary songwriter and lead singer – began writing them as Little Green Cars were nearing their final curtain call, and their debut single ‘Swimming Through The Night’ somewhat distanced them from the sound that had postmarked Little Green Cars.
But the magic was still there in abundance.
“We Can All Be Vulnerable”
Even moreso now. Small Talk is a towering breath of fresh air, built on songs that – like O’Rourke herself – dispense sharp, devastating honesty with dry wit and a wry smile. A glorious tension gives torque to her lyrics: self-assuredness grapples with societal pressures; anger battles it out with contentment; and there is an ever-present frustration with the divide between her private and public lives.
With soaring vocals and polished production, the album chronicles O’Rourke’s twenties: the unbelievable highs, the violent lows, the sometimes deep regrets – and most notably, how she’s finally stepping into her own skin as an artist and finding peace within herself as a person.
It might make others nervous to unleash something so personal into the world, but O’Rourke is feeling comparatively good about it.
“We have each other,” she shrugs. “I have a fallback in that if I’m having a massive anxiety attack, there are three people to calm me down and give me some perspective. I respect the guys so much, and it’s their opinions that matter most.”
In fact, she’s more worried about showing her bandmates her material than she is about showing the world.
“We’ve known each other long enough that we can all be vulnerable,” adds O’Regan. “But the lyrics will have to be in the right space before she’s comfortable showing them to the band. Sometimes that can be a bit frustrating for the rest of us.”
He throws a grin in O’Rourke’s direction.
“Adam and I are really comfortable together, but quite competitive,” O’Rourke admits. “So when we send each other what we’ve been working on, we’re always like, ‘It’s not finished yet’!”
Some of the songs on Small Talk went through several iterations. “They all start out as ballads”, O’Rourke laughs. One of the highlights, ‘The Dark Trapeze’, nearly didn’t make the final cut, appearing on an early version of the record as a bonus track.
“It’s crazy to think it nearly didn’t make it,” O’Rourke says. “I wrote it from a very vulnerable, tender space, and it was supposed to be this existential song where I was equating meaning to everything and nothing. In light of everything that’s happened in the last year, there’s a lyric that goes, ‘I’m a disease running wild’. It’s like a biblical prophecy.
“Obviously, I’m a genius,” she jokes.
Prophetic or not, Soda Blonde are keen to push the envelope of their creativity. Technically ambitious videos, directed by O’Regan, accompany each of the album’s singles, and they will eventually connect to make a Small Talk short film.
“We try not to put any barriers on what we create,” O’Regan says of the mammoth project – which to date has involved a last-minute location change, drone shots and one of the largest crews they’ve ever used.
“And then we realise that we’re four grand in the hole and we’ve only made half a video,” O’Rourke says.
They seem to make it work, though.
“Not without PTSD,” she laughs. “We’ve done big-scale projects without any production company, and we’ve had to figure it out ourselves. When I was a kid, I used to see roles like ‘3rd AD’ on credits, and wonder, ‘What the hell does he do?’ Now I know these people are fundamental to the process.”
“As a group, we’ve all learned something new, after every single thing we’ve done,” O’Regan reflects. “Whether it be producing the record, making the album artwork, doing the videos.”
“We’ve done everything ourselves! Nobody helped,” O’Rourke interjects, leaning closer to my dictaphone, tongue firmly in cheek.
“I think it’s great,” she says, suddenly serious again, and beaming at O’Regan. “I’d love to see Adam make a feature film.”
While O’Rourke is a natural leader and their songs capture the female experience, she’s conscious that Soda Blonde involves four people.
“I feel very androgynous as a group, and I like that,” O’Rourke says. “But I do think a woman’s journey – particularly for someone in my generation – has been quite difficult, because you go through your teens and you’re totally validated by men, and then you go through discovering 3rd wave feminism in the 2000s, and you’re supposed to abandon that, stop shaving, be your own woman.
“I definitely straddle the line between the two. There’s a lot of pressure on women to bolster the entire sex, but I’m still exploring all of these things. We have a mutual respect for each other. It’s all very equal.”
O’Regan sums the dynamic up nicely: “The fundamental machine of what we are is four best friends making things together.”
“I’ve Struggled With Self-Acceptance”
Days later, over cocktails and a bowl of chicken wings, O’Rourke admits she is apprehensive about arriving at the tail end of her twenties. In many ways, she comes across as extremely self-assured. Looking back, however, she paints a very different picture.
“I am so awful at asserting myself sometimes,” she laughs. “I’ve been such a people-pleaser my whole life.”
By way of example, she points to the two rabbits she has tattooed on the back of each arm.
“I went to this tattoo artist to get an old tattoo redone – which I love now, by the way – and at the time, she was suggesting that it be red. Everything inside my body was screaming ‘no’! But I just went, ‘okay’! I was biting my fist in the chair, wondering what the hell I had done.
“That was one of the moments – I was 23, and I was like, ‘This is who you are’. I have friends who are extremely forthright, strong-willed and dominant, and at that particular moment, I thought: ‘You are not one of those people. You are literally getting your arm tattooed a colour that you don’t want’.”
She really does love the tattoo now. But there’s a parallel universe, where she’s stuck with a red rabbit she hates inked into her flesh solely because she couldn’t say no.
“A huge issue for me is that I base the validation of my whole life on other people,” she admits. “It isn’t just being physically attractive, it’s wanting to be liked by everybody. That was something that really hindered me and my relationships. I was in a place where I had no centre for a very long time. It’s only now that I’m starting to realise the problem has always been within me – I find it really difficult to be alone.”
Is she an introvert, or an extrovert?
“I’m both. That’s why the album has so much dichotomy to it,” she continues. “Because I feel like there’s two of me, all the time. I’m extroverted to avoid being alone. I’ve constantly used others, and things around me, to distract myself from doing any inner work at all.
“And I have been in relationship after relationship as a way of focusing my attention on other people.” She’s finally starting the process of focusing on herself.
“I’m now in – hopefully – the last relationship of my life,” she says (she got engaged in February of 2020), “but I’m also in a place where I realise that discontentment has come from not liking myself. That’s a hard thing to face. A lot of people live their lives that way. We seek distraction and stimulus from other things as opposed to actually finding peace with being alone. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but I realised at some point that I want to like myself.
“That sounds really corny,” she laughs.
Self-acceptance is a recurring theme on Small Talk. ‘Love Me World’ directly addresses O’Rourke’s yearning for approval.
“I have no vices or routine, in the sense that I don’t get up in the morning and have a coffee and read the paper. I just get up in the morning and sit there,” she says. “I have to really force myself into doing things, which is potentially a big problem.
“And I still have that desire to be valued by men. I grew up listening to Lana Del Rey for fuck’s sake,” she laughs. “My formative shit – Lana Del Rey being a damsel in distress.”
“I Ended Up Regretting It”
We’re rarely as deeply affected by music as when we are teenagers, I say, noting the crutch Absolute Zero provided in the aftermath of my first breakup.
“I was heartbroken at a really young age,” O’Rourke nods. “And nobody understood that, at 13 or 14. Nobody grasped the magnitude of it. That was my channel, or gateway, into writing.”
While O’Rourke began songwriting at 14, she still felt that she should keep quiet about her struggles with mental health and heartbreak.
“It is such an Irish sensibility, an inherited thing,” she says. “Particularly for women my age.”
She lost a close family member to mental illness, and it contributed to feelings of guilt around her own struggles.
“When I was younger,” she says, “I always felt that it wasn’t as severe as what was around me, like it had to be more serious.”
She also felt like she needed to suffer to make good art.
“I’m not proud of that,” she says bluntly. “I was a wreck. I was in therapy from a really young age. I self-harmed as a kid, and I was really lost as a teenager.”
Walking that line between honesty and protecting the people around her has proven treacherous.
“There are absolutely things I cannot discuss in my writing,” she says. “That’s the thing as well, about having an Irish family. It’s like: ‘You can’t put that on Facebook’!
“I put a statement up on Facebook – this was before the #MeToo movement, bear in mind – and it wasn’t graphic or anything, but it did talk about my experience with rape and sexual assault.”
I remember the statement, and thinking Faye was very brave to make it; it contributed to my assumption that she was brimming with confidence, whereas I had yet to tell even my closest friends about my own sexual traumas.
“I had been thinking about it for at least a month,” she says, “and I felt that I owed it to people to express myself and share my story. I ended up regretting it so much.
“I wish I could say that I don’t. But I had a really hard time with my family over it. They were devastated for people to have that information about me,” she continues. “They were all so supportive, and I have a great family – don’t get me wrong. But I felt like, in exposing myself, they were exposed too. I felt like – this is a terrible thing to say, but I was almost relieved when the #MeToo movement happened, because all of a sudden there were other women I could relate to.
“But my biggest fear of talking about my past, and putting that on the internet, was that I felt like there might be some part of me that enjoyed exposing that side of myself. Like, do I get off on having trauma, or being a victim?”
“You Can Only Really Be Yourself”
We meet on the day that the #FreeBritney movement is dominating the headlines, with Britney Spears’ unfiltered, 24-minute statement to a US court revealing that the pop star hasn’t been in control of her bodily autonomy since she was a child.
“She’s a phenomenon in the sense that you can’t compare her story to anybody else’s,” O’Rourke reflects. “She was the biggest pop star in the world, and everyone wanted a piece of her. It must be so hard for her to talk to anyone, because nobody can relate to her. But she should at least have her autonomy. If something really bad happens, a doctor can step in and she can get medical help. There’s no question, though. It’s completely fucked that she has no control.”
Meanwhile, O’Rourke herself has started vlogging. “Because I have such an aversion to the internet and influencer culture, I’m actually almost polarised in my opinion of it,” she says.
On the one hand, she finds it fascinating. On the other, she thinks it’s contrived.
“We’re starting to write the second album, and I had this idea to film myself, every day, until we finish the record,” she explains. “It’ll be mundane shit, but it’ll also be an unfiltered truth.
“Everyone seems to have the need to be an influencer now,” she adds, “so I was like, ‘Well, fine’. It might be absolutely awful, but it was just a thought I had.
“It’s funny, because now – more than ever – we’re becoming aware of where we stand in the world,” she continues, acknowledging her own sense of privilege. “We’re having conversations about equality, and in talking about social issues, I’m absolutely coming from a position of safety. I have this freedom to sit on the fence, to examine what my position is, what my opinions are. And to a certain extent it’s like, ‘Don’t be fucking sad about stuff, you’re a lucky bastard’.
“That’s not me trying to be like, ‘Boo-hoo, poor me’,” she adds. “You want to make something that’s going to help people or be culturally relevant, but you can only really be yourself in these situations.”
One of Small Talk’s many triumphs is that it’s delightfully un-preachy. O’Rourke doesn’t have any interest in being a role model.
“The whole thing about optical virtue, for me,” she explains, “is that I’m still questioning myself. And sometimes, I have to question myself about how genuine my response to a movement is – sometimes I have to stop and ask myself: ‘Am I just saying that because of the zeitgeist, or because I want this particular person to like me?’”
That said, in her music, O’Rourke is determined to be honest. “I want to be someone,” she says, “who feels they’re being truthful first and foremost.”
Listen to Small Talk below.