- 19 Dec 22
Former Walking On Cars piano-player and vocalist, Sorcha Durham, tells Will Russell about growing up in Dingle, the impact of Other Voices and her fantastic new single ‘Fireside’.
I’m envious of Sorcha Durham, speaking to me as she is, from the hills around Ballintaggart House on the edge of Dingle. It’s a town and a house that I know only too well. Lying under the shadow of the twin stacks of Cnoc Bhaile Uí Shé and Sliabh Mhacha Ré, the old hunting lodge of the Earl of Cork gazes out across Dingle Bay to the distant horizon and the transcendental Skellig Michael.
A quiet boreen of vivid fuchsia wanders from the house down to wild Beenbane Head, and the enchanting opera of caterwauling terns, black-back gulls, goldfinch, redshank and orange legged oystercatchers. Trek the cliff-top path, above the pounding Atlantic, past the lighthouse and the red and white keeper’s house, past Hussey’s Folly and into Dingle town itself.
Past the cosy taverns of O’Flaherty’s, Dick Mack’s, Foxy Johns, McCarthy’s and into Sorcha’s local - candle-lit Kennedy’s on the top of Goat Street for a pint of the finest plain. Ah! Heaven.
‘Tis no digression - listening to Sorcha Durham’s powerful new single, ‘Fireside’, I am struck by the elemental and wild Dingle Peninsula becoming manifest. Sorcha agrees.
“Totally, I always seem to end up talking about the weather,” she laughs. “We are so exposed to it here; it dictates how you live your life. In ‘Fireside’, you can hear the anger and the power of the storm, but it is almost a feeling as well. By default, the environment here influences me, there is a melancholy in it.
“Also, I am influenced by traditional Irish music, particularly uilleann pipers. Their heartbreaking melancholy has creeped into my stuff naturally.”
The apple doesn’t fall from the tree. The daughter of no less than two uilleann pipe players, Sorcha was reared the youngest of four, a stone’s throw from Tigh Bhric in An Riasc, just outside Ballyferriter, immersed in the vibrant Corca Dhuibhne trad scene.
“Tig Bhric would have been the centre of our universe, musically,” she recalls. “My father [great piper Con Durham] ran the Friday night sessions - 30 musicians would be in there playing, drinking pints.”
Sorcha played the tin whistle in school, but took another road - studying classical piano, eventually achieving a prestigious gold medal from the Royal Irish Academy. So, no slouch. Influenced by Chopin and Einaudi, listening to Arcade Fire and Norah Jones, above the blare of Metallica, Green Day and The Offspring from her brothers’ rooms, she began writing her own music.
Although regularly composing, it wasn’t until she returned to Dingle after three years studying at UCC that she began playing with other people. And not just any other people - jam sessions with her school-friends evolved into the phenomenon of Walking on Cars – a decade of sold-out tours, massive outdoor gigs, chart-topping albums and viral singles ensued.
Where was their first show?
“McCarthy’s in Dingle was our first proper venue,” she replies. “All of our friends, family and locals came to our gigs at the start, which provided a great foundation for getting better. We’d just test our songs live, get to know which ones were working, which ones people were grasping on to. Then, we’d go back and rewrite them or scrap them. It was a good system.”
I remind her of a wild gig of theirs at the Hillgrove Hotel in Dingle that I attended on a doused Christmas night.
“That was gas,” she laughs. “At the time, we were trying to fill out our set. We had something that wasn’t really an intermission, it was, Sorcha you play your really long, six-minute piano instrumental’ – just to beef out our set.”
What was the music scene around Dingle at that time?
“There were a lot of boys playing in bands,” she says. “Most of our friend group were in bands together - garage bands, but apart from the trad scene, there wasn’t very many people breaking out of Dingle.”
Thank God for Other Voices, the hugely successful and influential festival and television series that has taken place in churches, bars and shebeens across Dingle Town for over two decades. This year Sorcha is particularly looking forward to seeing Paolo Nutini and Just Mustard. She is something of an über-fan of the latter - seeing them for the first time at Other Voices in 2018 started something of an addiction, and she has taken in half a dozen of their gigs since.
Sorcha’s old mucker, Pa Sheehy, former lead singer of Walking On Cars will be also performing this year at the IMRO Other Room. I wonder about Sorcha’s all-time favourite performances from the festival?
“Temper Trap were awesome and Jesca Hoop – there’s one song of hers that is always going to stay in my head – ‘Tulip’. And Sigrid - I lent her my Prophet, my synth. I was very proud of that, it’s not a very common one, she needed one and I was like, I have one! My claim to fame.”
You love your synths?
“I do,” she nods. “I really love that arpeggiated sound, but mixed with piano. For Walking On Cars’ second record, we recorded at Angelic studios in Oxford, which is owned by the keyboard player in Jamiroquai. He had amassed a crazy amount of vintage synths - we did a synth a day and started incorporating them into the tracks.”
Following the break-up of Walking on Cars in August 2020, Sorcha wasted little time in getting back into the game.
“I started working on tunes right away,” she notes. “It was like okay, I have this opportunity now, I’m just going to get stuck in. It was the middle of lockdown and I started writing songs. We have a good studio set-up at home, so myself and my boyfriend did most of the recording there. We had a studio booked, but with everything shut down, we just kept firing away at home.
“We reckoned on getting everything ready and then adding bits at the end. We didn’t expect to get so far, but we ended up with so much that our mixing engineer was a bit scared with the amount of channels we had. We went to Monique Studios in Cork to put down some live drums and piano. We did some vocals, but we used most of the vocals that we had recorded at home.
“There is always magic in those initial performances. We also had the drum parts we knew we wanted – Alex Ridley was so good, he rocked it, and brought everything up another level with that thrashy drum sound, which was exactly what we wanted. We recorded four tracks, so more will come out next year.”
Regarding influences on the recording, Sorcha speaks about listening to BANKS’ second record The Altar, First Aid Kit and Maribou State’s Kingdoms In Colour.
“I’m inspired by them,” she says of the latter. “They have this ability to programme everything, but really organically. They use outdoor sounds and it gives this soft, rounded sound to their songs. If I could sound like them that would be the dream.”
I’m looking forward to seeing her on the road.
“I’d love to have drums and another keyboard player,” she says. “That would be the ideal set-up. I’m going to work towards that next year when there are more songs out. It’s going to be a slow burner. People didn’t really know what to expect from me as an artist, people are just sort of figuring out, ‘Okay, she’s singing, this is her sound’. This is my labour of love. I’m selfishly in control, which I adore. It was an opportunity for me to throw everything that I wanted into it. I am delighted with how it all turned out.”
• ‘Fireside’ is out now.