- 12 Oct 23
M(h)aol are among the brightest and most compelling bands to emerge from Ireland over the past decade. They've made acclaimed records. They've performed brilliant live shows. But for lead vocalist and main songwriter Róisín Nic Ghearailt – the many accolades notwithstanding – there was always an enormous question mark hovering. Here, she reflects deeply on the relief she felt when she was asked to leave and looks to the future with hope.
Now they, they are the real deal.
In my final months in M(h)aol a band that I had been in on and off for almost eight years I became obsessed with the real deal. Spotting them, recognising them, becoming more and more certain that perhaps we (I) were not the real deal.
The real deal in my mind consisted of everything I was not. Dedicated with a genuine desire to be on stage, a desire born from hours spent in a bedroom as a teenager with the door shut, legs up the wall, listening to endless music.
Being the real deal meant you dreamt of being famous (for who amongst us that grew up in the 2000s in the Global North had not once thought about being famous). Or maybe you dreamt about a life where you could pay your bills, with money you’d made from singing your own songs.
You never had any doubts or if you did, they were reasonable ones, the kind that could be assuaged by a good show or a new opportunity. Not the kind that kept you up late at night wondering why you were doing this and how you had got so fantastically lost.
Being the real deal meant that your family were proud of you instead of concerned because you seemed stretched so thin you might tear. It meant getting along with your bandmates and not spending time together in tense, fraught silence staring out of your respective van windows or at the grubby screen of your phone.
Being the real deal above all else meant that it felt real to you. Not like you were living under water and your body was responding to the demands of your lifestyle in varied yet frightening ways.
TIME TO MOVE ON
I was assured by many different people during the two years that M(h)aol toured relentlessly that I was living the dream. I always pushed back at this, pointing out the gruelling nature of being in a band in the current economy. Yes, I was living a dream, but it was not and never had been my dream. I joined M(h)aol because:
a) we wanted to be the change we wanted to see happen
b) music felt like the most accessible and effective way to get our message across
c) it seemed like a bit of craic
Everyone close to me was continuously surprised by that fact that I was in a band, something I had never talked about wanting to be in before I joined one.
But I really believed and still do in the mission statement of M(h)aol, in what we were trying to achieve. We all believed in it and in each other’s ability to do right by it. And to the best of my knowledge, we all still do.
Otherwise, I wouldn’t have written the lyrics I did, poured so much of my experiences, my traumas, my joy into them. If you’ve listened to the EP or album, I want you to know, those feelings, that anger is real.
I wouldn’t have given being in the band such a red-hot go if I didn’t believe in it and my band mates. Performing my heart out night after night with all my earnest on-stage talk and my high kicks. But it never became my dream.
And in the end the physical reality of being someone with a chronic condition and having no routine, no regularity combined with the toll that touring took on me made it impossible. And the further I get away from being in the band, the more I understand how hard this must have been on my bandmates.
How they too were pouring all of themselves into this project – the difference being that this was their dream or at least became their dream over time. I think about how destabilising it must have felt to have a lead singer wracked with doubts. To be in a band right now you have to believe, there’s no room for sceptics.
Plus, it all seemed like a huge mix-up. I’d never wanted to be the person on stage being looked at, I’d spent my whole life feeling too exposed.
I wanted to be the person in the crowd reaching out and taking my friends hand in mine when our favourite song came on. Gathering them up in my arms so we could shout the lyrics. Yes, you can be both a fan and a performer.
The problem was I didn’t want to be. Not like this, not right now.
When all is said and done, we went into this project optimistically hoping to inspire change and I think we did: there’s lots to be proud of. In the end what got us were the same mundane things that get so many relationships.
We tried and at times failed to do right by each other. There were breakdowns in communication, financial worries, a lack of faith, hurt, raw feelings, too much time together in pressurised situations, too little time together to hang out and connect, betrayals both large and small. Our story is not unique. Sometimes I hurt them and sometimes I was the one getting hurt. And we all hurt each other at some stage.
Because it is not just my story to tell, I am not going to get into the details. I will say that if you ever find yourself crying, alone, in a bathroom stall in a mermaid-themed comedy club in Texas thinking over and over and over again ‘One day I will be a million miles from here and none of this will matter anymore’, it’s time to move on, honey.
Stand up, dust yourself off, fix your make-up and call it a day. You’re not doing yourself or anyone else any good…
CONSTANT STATE OF FLARE
And yet I stayed, even though I knew with every fibre of my being this was not the right thing. And yet and yet and yet. And yet it was them who had to say one overcast June morning, we can’t be in this band with you anymore.
As soon as those words were spoken, I felt an enormous weight lift off my shoulders. Being the lead singer and writing most of the lyrics felt like a huge and crushing responsibility which should have been a sign that it wasn’t a good fit for me. But who hasn’t at some point in their lives been adept at ignoring the signs.
Believe me when I say I had googled bands that succeed after their lead singer leaves more times than I care to admit.
Although it was painful, it was also an act of kindness being asked to leave M(h)aol. But many things can be true at once, I could know in my heart of hearts that being in the band was not right for me, and still cry bitterly about this strangest of break-ups.
Maybe if I’d written this essay at the start of summer it would have been a hell hath no fury like a woman scorned scorched earth piece. But I like to think not. A quote from the Instagram account Gender Sauce has been my companion recently, ‘You are not the weapon, you are the open hand’.
Perhaps if it had just been the performing and the song writing part of it, just that cold room on the Northside where we went to play and create, then maybe it would have worked out. Or if it had just been the frantic joy of tapping lyrics into my note’s app, addressing issues I’ve long fought against.
That feeling when a song comes together, and inspiration is practically coursing through your veins. And all the music we were making was an extension of our most intimate conversations and fears picked out in a bassline or a drumbeat. The righteous anger of recognising wrongs. Finding humour in the queer experience.
Maybe, if it had always been finding my girlfriend’s face in the crowd. Reaching over to kiss her during 'Period Sex', a song she helped me write, her waiting off-stage after to hug me and tell me she was proud of me, then it could have been alright.
Perhaps, if it was just drinking warm white wine, singing along to ABBA and trading secrets while a dear friend drove us through the suburbs of London, it would have worked out.
If it was just talking to people after our shows, people who had felt comforted in dark moments by our music, it would have been OK.
If it was just all the dads who brought their gender diverse kids because they remembered this kind of music from when they were young and they were really, really trying to bridge that gap, we could have held on.
Or maybe if it was the five of us telling stories around a bubbling pot of fondue being hosted by kind, wonderful people. And what about that moment right before we started playing and we all nodded at each other and asked, ready?
Or even, that feeling on stage when it doesn’t go exactly right but you know you’ve got the magic and there’s such a profound sense of trust and euphoria because you’re in this together. This beautiful, ridiculous gang.
And we’re the reason all these people are cheering (and often crying) and making friends in the audience and flirting and dancing and we’re not the reason too, because the beauty, the true beauty of music is that it leaves you and becomes something bigger than you could have hoped.
If it had just been all those moments and many, many more besides maybe I wouldn’t have been so miserable. Maybe I wouldn’t have cried in so many bathrooms and confided in so many kind strangers (you hopefully know who you are).
But – and I always have mixed feelings about saying this because it is such a profound downer – for a touring band performing and writing music is at best 20% of what your life consists of. Particularly for a band that didn’t live in the same city and couldn’t practice regularly.
The rest of it was admin, endless admin, touring, travelling, sitting in vans till your ass was numb. Identikit hotels which for someone who has struggled with sleep my whole life posed huge problems.
Would they use a detergent I was allergic to? Would the pillows and the duvet be feather (another huge allergen and a constant in Europe). Would I have to share a bed with someone and then be conscious of keeping them up all night with my itching.
My skin was in a near constant state of flare brought on by lack of sleep, alcohol and being endlessly on the move. When we arrived in New York, a city I couldn’t believe we were playing in, a city that had been my home, my legs were covered in huge painful hives that made walking difficult.
ON THE SAME TEAM
Because of streaming services gutting the music industry, touring and selling merch are two of the only reliable ways to make money when you’re starting out or if you have a more ‘niche’ sound.
If you have a more mainstream sound (absolutely nothing wrong with that) you might get a couple of lucrative corporate gigs or a particularly choice ad placement. Another way of making money or acquiring access to money is to receive an advance from a record label. But an advance is just that, and if your record isn’t as successful as they hoped then you are in debt to the label which inevitably has its own consequences.
You might be lucky and get a placement in a film or a show. However, usually to get such a placement you must have a publishing deal. And with all these deals you are signing away the rights to your work in the hopes that you will be able to make a living off this thing you (hopefully) love so much.
That combined with the airmiles racked up by those in the music industry, from private jets at one end to shoving your clothes in your instrument case so you don’t have to pay for extra carry on, on the other end, it starts to feel very bleak.
That’s not to mention the alarming discrepancy in pay. When you are starting out you might reasonably get paid in whatever beer is on special offer in Lidl. Speaking of beer, all riders contain alcohol unless otherwise stipulated. There’s not enough space here to reflect on substance abuse in the industry, but the book Bodies by Ian Winwood does an excellent job if you are interested.
Things are shifting in some ways, sober touring is on the rise, many EU festivals pay more if you come by sustainable routes, more venues are offering free meals to bands.
Bands like Big Joanie or Phoebe Bridgers’ whole scheme are showing alternative ways of existing within the industry. But it felt like swimming against such a strong current. I believe that the music industry is made up of many good people who are trying to make it better, but it is also predatory and so unbelievably mono-cultured.
In the UK most of the music journalists who interviewed us for our album cycle were white men. Without fail in almost every venue or festival we played at almost all the crew were white men. We supported or played on the same line-up as so many all-white, all male bands. Some of them were gorgeous and trying their best, some of them were awful and at times hostile.
For being in a feminist punk band, it continuously surprised me how much I got hit-on and inappropriately touched after our shows. Particularly if they weren’t headline shows. Men who’d watched the whole set told me after they loved it, their sweaty palms on my lower back or waist. Their faces much too close to mine.
Men getting rowdy in the audience and saying inappropriate things. You couldn’t completely alienate these men we all joked, after all they were the ones who spent money on merch and records. To put it bluntly, I’d always been a girl’s girl (or later, a femme’s femme) and I was suddenly existing in a men’s club.
Now, this wasn’t always true: for our album tour, the queers, the dears, the dads and many more turned out in force and it was a sight for sore eyes. The sheer joy of some of those shows were not lost on me, hopefully on us. There’s nothing exactly like playing to a room full of people who are on the same team as you.
And the truth is I love live music, I always have. As a teenager I was perpetually using my fake ID to go to the over 18s gigs. And I’m not writing this to dissuade people from being in bands – I’d be devastated if I could never go to another show.
JOYS OF MUSIC
I’m writing this to tell my story but also to say: it shouldn’t be this hard. Most of us listen to and enjoy music. We’ve relied on it to soundtrack our lives, to make them that bit more liveable.
There needs to be the people who dream of being in a band, otherwise there would be no bands. And yes, I am still grappling with the feeling that somehow, I have let these people down by admitting that all of it was too hard and most importantly not my dream in the first place. I feel like I might be deviating from the script.
But there also needs to be supports, supports that you can avail of whether you’re in a band or not. More funding: funding allows everyone to make art not just the rich. More infrastructure: there’s a climate crisis happening, so viable options to air travel should be being rammed down our throats. Personal responsibility is important – but real change comes when it becomes systemic responsibility.
A few months before I was asked to leave M(h)aol I wrote down, ‘I don’t want to suffer for my art, I want to live for it’. Over the summer, I sang ‘Óró Sé Do Bheatha Bhaile’ at a lock-in in a pub in West Cork. At 1.30am, lashing rain outside, in a room filled with unearthed rebel songs from our wild recent past and people I didn’t know, I was reminded once again of the joys of music.
A better life is possible. Change is coming, it always is.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 22 Nov 23