- 12 Mar 21
Bray trio Wyvern Lingo tell us how hitting their late 20s and upping sticks to Berlin shaped their acclaimed new album, Awake You Lie.
According to the astrologically-inclined among us, we undergo a cosmic rite of passage in our late 20s, before entering the dark, daunting world of adulthood proper. It’s a phenomenon known as the Saturn Return, marking the 27 to 29 years it takes the Ringed Planet to do one full orbit around the Sun.
“There’s a kind of self-renewal and a self-assessment at that time,” Wyvern Lingo's Caoimhe Barry tells me. “We’re all going through that, in different ways.”
The sceptics might be tempted to write it off as a slightly delayed, neo-Hippie-ish quarter-life crisis, but it’s a concept that’s explored with considerable maturity and emotional depth on the Bray trio’s sophomore album, Awake You Lie – which arrives almost three years to the day after the release of their Choice Music Prize-nominated debut album. As well as evoking celestial imagery, the project finds Caoimhe, Karen Cowley and Saoirse Duane tapping into the common millennial concerns of restlessness, insecurity and uncertainty.
“We’d been chatting about the title for the album for a long time,” Caoimhe begins. “It was a really hard thing to do – finding something that represents how all three of us feel about it. The first album was very much ‘The Album’. We had tried to fit in everything that needed to be on ‘The Album’ – and kind of forgot that there would be more work after that. So it was nice for all of us to start working on this album with a common theme in mind.
“It’s about that anxiety, of worrying about where you are in your life, and worrying whether you’ve made the right decisions,” she continues. “And being in the dark about how you feel. Awake You Lie is a lyric in ‘Aurora’, one of the songs on the album, and it sums up that feeling of lying there at night with your thoughts, and the way they fester.”
These themes – with the common thread of a search that needs to be fulfilled – were informed by Wyvern Lingo’s own experiences in this era of unprecedented anxiety, particularly as they hit their late 20s together.
“I actually cried on my 28th birthday,” Caoimhe admits, laughing. “The girls arrived at my door with cake, and Saoirse put on Ariana Grande, and I was like, ‘I have to leave the room’. I felt like I was being dragged, kicking and screaming, from my youth. I’m over it now – I’m fine now!
“I’m the oldest, so the girls saw me have the biggest panic. Did I take the sting out of it for you guys?”
“No!” Saoirse exclaims. “I totally panicked as well. I moved to Germany and freaked, like: ‘Oh my God, what am I doing?!’ I thought the world was closing in on me. It happens to everyone.”
“I don’t know,” Karen interjects, with a wry smile. “I wore a plastic crown and tinsel for my 29th birthday just gone. I drank loads of wine, and had a great time!
“When you’re in your early 20s, your perception of age is very much that of a child,” she muses. “You’re in this weird time in your life, where everything’s really intense and really extreme, and you see only a couple of years as a huge gap. You think of 29 or 30 as a much older age. And then you get there, and you’re like, ‘Oh’. Your brain just changes. Your whole perception of time just starts to be more adult.”
This period of transition also saw Wyvern Lingo becoming the latest Irish artists to join the creative exodus to Berlin.
“We were going to record the album over in Germany anyway,” Saoirse explains. “So we were like, ‘Why not kill two birds with one stone, and just bite the bullet and move?’ We also had the panic of, ‘Oh my God, we’re getting older, we’ve got to move out of home – so let’s move to another country and tick that off the bucket list’.”
“We’d done two full tours, and a couple of festivals in Germany before that,” Karen elaborates. “We’ve always had a really good response there, and a really good feeling about the place. We always said that, if we were to move somewhere together, we’d move to Berlin – and honestly, it’s been amazing. It’s done such good things for our heads and for our creativity.
“Obviously our situation right now is really uncertain,” she adds, with a sigh. “We’re all in Ireland now. We came back in early December, because we had a few things on, and we needed to quarantine – and we’re still here. So it’s all been really higgedly-piggedly. But I can’t wait to go back.”
As Caoimhe notes, “A lot of people would spend their 20s travelling or moving abroad for a few years, dedicating time to a bit of self-discovery.” But since the release of their debut EP back in 2014 – which was followed by extensive international touring with James Vincent McMorrow and longtime friend and collaborator Hozier, as well as a subsequent record deal with Rubyworks – Wyvern Lingo have had to prioritise their career over the more typical coming-of-age experiences.
“We all dedicated our 20s to being musicians, and being in a band together,” Caoimhe continues. “We’ve never even taken more than a month off, at most – and we’d all have to go travelling at the same time. We had to make those decisions together, to keep the band going. You don’t regret it, but you do start looking back and thinking: ‘What if...? What if things had been different?’ You start to see where alternate realities could have existed. Ultimately, though, I’m so glad that we did dedicate ourselves to this.”
Of course, there are other factors motivating Irish artists to relocate to Berlin, including, most notably, the extortionately high cost of living in Dublin.
“You do have to stop yourself from constantly being like, ‘Jesus, this is so affordable – imagine what it would be like in Ireland!’” Caoimhe acknowledges. “There is a bit of that.”
“The German system is great,” Karen adds. “They really support artists. It’s all quite bureaucratic, as you can imagine, and you do have to have your shit together. They have a lot of rules – you have to register your apartment, and do loads of things like that. But once you do that, and you’re a working musician who fits the criteria – which we would – the government pays half of your social insurance. So you get your health insurance half price, and there’s lots of funding and initiatives available. Berlin is a very artist-friendly city, and they pride themselves on that. So if you’re living there as a musician, it’s easy to see how you’d feel like you’re getting a much better deal, and are much more cared for, compared to Ireland.”
Karen also argues that acts like Wyvern Lingo have to endure fewer demands to explain themselves on the more alternative German scene.
“When we’re in front of a new audience in Germany, it’s just like, ‘Oh – three women making music that’s a mix of genres. That’s cool’,” she shrugs. “The market there is so big, so there’s much more opportunities. That’s really exciting for a lot of artists and bands.”
But that’s not to say that the trio intend to settle down in any one spot anytime soon.
“I’ve just got started!” Caoimhe grins. “I’ve actually been having nice little revelations. The last year involved so much going between Berlin and Ireland, and we had to include quarantining within that. That meant you were spending a month in a place, and then leaving. So for me, 2020 felt like lots of little chapters in a year. It’s made me realise that I would like to carry on that way – having lots of different chapters, in different places. So I’m not thinking of settling down anytime soon! We’ll always be anchored back to Ireland anyway.”
“Our hearts are in Ireland, for sure,” Karen agrees. “I definitely think I would settle down – I’m shuddering as I say that, excuse me – in Ireland. But it’s also about practicality. I can’t afford the house prices in Ireland, and I don’t fancy the rent either. So I’m very happy to continue in Berlin for the moment, and see where the wind takes me.”
Despite Wyvern Lingo’s success, in this ever-changing industry, Caoimhe has also learned that you can never have too many strings to your bow – branching out with her epically-named DJ side project, Lil Brendan.
“Initially, it was for one of the Wyvern Lingo after-parties,” she says of the roots of Lil Brendan. “I was like, ‘Come on, we’ll DJ!’ The girls were like, ‘Ah, it’s real hard!’ I was like, ‘It’s grand, come on!’ And it was hard! It was a bloody nightmare. But it was also really fun. And just from doing that, I kept going with it, and I got a couple of residencies in Dublin. I actually managed to travel a bit with it as well. My brother was like, ‘You’ve only been DJing for a second – what are you doing in Belgium?!’ It’s nice to put on different hats in that way, but still be working with a crowd in a room.
“My DJ sets are either kind of cool ambient, or else a total piss-take. Floor-fillers, gas craic, indulgent R&B.”
Those R&B influences, which were among the calling cards of Wyvern Lingo’s self-titled debut album, are still safely intact on Awake You Lie – as well as some surprising new elements, like gospel. They assure me they haven’t been getting religious in Berlin, however.
“It’s probably the most heathen place in the world,” Karen laughs.
“That gospel influence probably came straight from Chance The Rapper,” Caoimhe reckons. “It’s a lovely trickle-down effect from the R&B artists that we’d listen to. They would’ve been influenced by gospel, and it’s a happy little afterglow of that, coming through in our layered vocals.”
Although they haven’t ditched their trademark effortless harmonies – of a kind you’d usually only find in sister acts – Awake You Lie finds Wyvern Lingo pushing at the boundaries of their sound.
“We wanted to have a big vocal sound on the album,” Karen explains. “We were experimenting with how it would sound if it wasn’t just our three voices in harmony, the way we usually do it. We ended up setting up a mic, and we all just belted every line into it, which had this really strong choral feeling – and I think it came across sounding quite gospel. The whole album has a kind of reverence to it, so it suits that vibe.”
The trio found the freedom to explore these new directions in a rather unique rehearsal space...
“We got introduced to this sound engineer, Toshi, when we were over in Berlin first, and he owns this beautiful boat,” Saoirse tells me. “It’s class. Downstairs became our rehearsal room, and upstairs was the recording studio area.”
“Toshi and Anja are this couple that really care about music, and about nurturing bands,” adds Karen. “They have a couple of other bands that rehearse there too, and they’re a testament to how open the scene is there. People really go out of their way to help you, and it’s been really easy for us to find our feet because of that.”
Fellow Berlin-based expat Wallis Bird also reached out to the band upon their arrival in the city, inviting them to hook up as her backing band for the Summer 2020 festival circuit – plans that were ultimately upended by Covid-19.
Like Wallis, the trio have never been afraid to confront the pressing social issues facing Ireland and the wider world through their platform. Their 2020 single ‘Brutal Lottery’ highlighted the plight of the tens of thousands of refugee and migrant children reported missing upon arrival in Europe – and raised funds for Missing Children Europe in the process.
Undoubtedly, there’s an increasing pressure on artists to remain socially-engaged in this volatile world – in which social media platforms have become significant arenas for both politics and activism. In Wyvern Lingo’s case, Karen stresses the importance of ensuring that their words and actions consistently come from a position of truth and authenticity.
“We do try to speak on things, and support things, where we can – but it has to be from a natural place,” she posits. “Forcing any opinions out doesn’t really work for us. It has to be a natural reaction.”
But as young Irish women first and foremost, they also felt the stark significance of the landmark Mother and Baby Homes report, published earlier this year.
“Everybody is really touched by that – because it could have been your grandmother, or it could have been your mum,” Caoimhe reflects.
“We could’ve been born in Mother and Baby Homes,” Karen nods. “The first few days after that report came out, I was personally just depressed about it all. I couldn’t separate all of that from me, and from all the women I know – and the people I know who were directly affected by it, and whose parents were victims. It’s such a disgrace, and it’s absolutely sickening. It’s actually stunned me. I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and a lot of listening, to try to understand how this has affected people.”
In an effort to bring some comfort and light to these universally dark days, Wyvern Lingo recently contributed to Janis Ian’s Better Times Project – performing a cover of the legendary singer-songwriter’s new track ‘Better Times Will Come’. They’ve since kicked off an online friendship with Janis, who describes them as her “current favourite trio.”
“That was class!” Caoimhe enthuses. “We just got an email out of the blue from Janis Ian. We were chatting about our boat stories, because she lives on an island, and was talking about getting a houseboat. Then she was trying to figure out how to pronounce our names – and we were like, ‘This is bizarre’. At the time, by pure coincidence, I had just started to learn ‘At Seventeen’. So we said that in our email, and she was like, ‘Ah that’s a mad song – sure the chords are all over the place!’ It was gas.”
“We’ve invited her to Ireland and we’ve invited her to Berlin when things open up again,” Karen reveals. “We’re hoping to be able to actually meet her.”
“So yeah, I’d say we’re mates!” Caoimhe resumes, laughing.
Until then, the small matter of their album release is keeping the trio busy enough for now – albeit in a socially-distanced manner.
“I do have little daydreams where I’m like, ‘Oh, this is a song we never finished – we should work on that’,” Karen reflects. “But at the moment, the aim is to try and get the album performance-ready, and really do it justice live – whenever gigs do come back...”
•Awake You Lie is out now.
Read Pat Carty's review of Awake You Lie here.