- 25 Jul 18
Steo Wall is set to join the likes of Damien Dempsey and Shane McGowan as a pioneering voice in Irish folk music. He talks to Peter McGoran about touring with the former, the importance of his Traveller heritage, and his blistering debut album Where I’m From.
Having grown up in Shankill, South Dublin, Steo Wall experienced a deep fascination with music from an early age. He wrote poems and short stories as a kid and tried his hands at the guitar as a youngster, but it wasn’t until he packed up his stuff and left Dublin, moving to the vibrant local music scene in North Clare seven years ago, that he began to take music seriously as a career.
“It was exactly because it was remote that I felt I had the opportunity to write,” says Steo. “When I started, I kept asking myself, ‘Am I gonna be a folk artist? Do I want to do rap? Spoken word?’ Then I thought, ‘That’s kind of X-Factor shit. I don’t need to have those limits. I’m gonna do all of those.’”
As the artist makes explicitly clear, his music incorporates a variety different genres. He combines the hard-edge stories of living in Dublin, with lyrics that are heart-on-sleeve messages to his immediate family. Naturally enough, Steo found himself gravitating towards the Irish lion himself, Damien Dempsey.
“I wrote a song called ‘One Little Fella’ – which didn’t make the cut – and started trying to fund the EP. And around that time, I sent an email to Damo, who I’d come into contact during a gig in Clare about a year and a half back. I just said to him, ‘Look, I know there’s waiting lists of people who probably want to work with you. Stick me at the back of all those. But if you ever want someone to open a show for you, gis a call.’ And he got back and said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’
“So we went on tour in 2016, and it was at those shows that I got this incredible reaction. People were asking, ‘Do you have any CDs? Have you got stuff on YouTube?’ I hadn’t even got that then! So then there was this emphasis to record something. I thought. So I went from recording an EP to recording a full album.”
The album as clear and honest a statement as any Irish man can make. He writes earnestly to the people that made him, from his grandmother, to his wife, to his young children. But Steo begins the album with ‘Where I’m From’, a song which documents the drug addiction, destitution and poverty that characterises so many parts of Dublin city.
“I wrote that song about Dublin right after I moved away from the city,” he says. “It was so honest because it was the first time I’d processed a lot of that stuff, and I did it through music,” he says before adding with a chuckle: “I wrote it so I didn’t have to pay a therapist €100 to talk about it…”
The song itself doesn’t shy away from the uglier sides of the capital. “First and foremost I was writing the song for me and writing things that I need to say. But obviously, there’s bits of it written for the fact that… I mean in Dublin you have tourists everywhere who don’t know that a few miles down the road there’s people killing each other every day over stupid bits of land and drugs. So I wrote that because that’s what’s going on where I’m from. There’s friends I know who’ve been caught up in that. So when I’m singing that, I’m just hoping I might be holding up a mirror to the government or whoever and say ‘Look, here’s the Ireland that Failte won’t tell you about.’”
Steo also addresses his own traveller background in the album. ‘Pikey Rap’ brilliantly plays up the ‘knacker’ stereotype in the first few verses, before dressing down the casual racism directed at travellers in the final section. It’s an album highlight.
“That was the first song I ever wrote,” he smiles. “When I was growing up, with the musical connections in my family and the traveller connection, we always had this thing instilled in us, this pride, you know? ‘You come from Traveller background, be proud of it.’
“But the other side of that was that I grew up in a council estate in Dublin, and at the time there’d be, travellers coming in and setting up in the local football fields and the locals would be slagging them. And I’d be laughing with them some times. But then I’d be thinking to myself, ‘There’s a part of me that they’re laughing at. That’s my background.’
“And so, I wanted to write something that would open up a dialogue with my mates about those little bits of casual racism that people give to travellers. I wanted to write a song that would make them laugh, but then at the end of it I wanted it to have a punch. Even now, people don’t know that the racism towards travellers goes on, it could just be the simplest of things, you’ll be talking and the word ‘knacker’ will be thrown about, but when you’re part of that community, you hear it all the time.”
Steo is continuing the trend set by the likes of rapper Paul Alwright, Tallaght spoken word poet Emmet Kirwan and his mentor Damien Dempsey, in showcasing just how articulate Dublin voices – even those on the fringe – can be. His is a refreshing new sound.
Steo Wall’s debut album Where I’m From is out now.