- 07 May 21
As they release their acclaimed second EP, Forever Girl, Wild Youth’s Conor O’Donohoe and David Whelan open up about online trolling, mental health, fans, vaccines, and living in the moment. Main photo: Derek Doyle
Two years ago, Wild Youth graced the cover of Hot Press’s ‘Hot For 2019’ special issue. Coinciding with the release of their debut EP, The Last Goodbye, it was their first cover story – capturing a band on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Childhood friends Conor O’Donohoe and David Whelan – the Dublin group’s primary songwriter and lead singer, respectively – were abuzz with energy, as they reminisced on a healthily wayward adolescence, which included mitching off school to play music in Conor’s garden shed, or to go busking in town.
Since that interview, their high-energy, risk-taking approach to pop has rapidly catapulted the pair, alongside their bandmates Ed Porter and Callum McAdam, to heights even we couldn’t predict at the time – selling out the Olympia Theatre, supporting Westlife at Croke Park, playing a string of high-profile festival appearances, and clocking up Spotify streams in their millions.
“There was also a global pandemic,” David points out now, laughing. “A lot has gone down since that first cover...”
Although lockdown has certainly put a hold on their touring plans, Wild Youth remain firmly on course for world domination with their hotly anticipated second EP, Forever Girl, once again establishing the four-piece as an irrepressible force in Irish music.
“We always – maybe selfishly – make music that we want to make,” Conor tells me. “We’re not afraid of having to stick in a certain lane, or do a certain thing because of what we’ve done previously. We’re always trying to push the boundaries a little bit, and not put a ceiling over our creativity. We just want to try and feel as free as we can, and make whatever we want – whatever we feel at the time.”
Conor reveals that “one hundred percent” of the songwriting is autobiographical – and the hard-hitting, hip-hop-influenced opening track, ‘Weekend Rockstars’, is “absolutely about a specific event.”
“It was actually coming from a time post a break-up,” Conor explains. “Just being a bit lost, and being by yourself. I think we’ve all done it – you’re at a party with people who aren’t necessarily your friends, and you have that realisation: ‘What am I doing here? This isn’t me.’ It’s all based around true events.”
And the Forever Girl referenced in the title?
“We’re all very lucky – we’re all very in love!” Conor grins.
“All four of us are in serious relationships,” David nods.
“It’s the journey from the first EP which came from a lot of heartbreak,” Conor resumes. “So this is almost like the journal of coming out of that heartbreak, and going back into the world by yourself. And getting a bit lost on the way. You’re going through different experiences on the journey to meeting this person who has totally turned your life around, and become the girl you want to spend the rest of your life with: your Forever Girl. The person in your life who just makes you feel totally fulfilled, and brings you back to being yourself again.”
In many respects, Wild Youth are a reflection of a rapidly changing music industry – achieving remarkable successes and major career landmarks without having even released their debut album yet.
“I do think albums will always be very important, and it’s something that we definitely want to do,” Conor posits. “This is only our second EP – we’re still having fun trying different things out with Wild Youth. We’ll get to a point where we’ll finally be ready to put out an album. But at the moment, we just want to put out as much music as we can – so it makes more sense to put an EP out. We already have the majority of a third EP written, and almost ready to go. We’ll probably try to get that out as soon possible as well.”
The album, Conor tells me, is something that they “just want to get right.”
“We love being in the studio, and we’re writing a lot of music,” he continues. “But an album will probably be a whole new body of work – no songs from previous EPs, I don’t think. So when the time is right, and when we can tour again, maybe there will be an album.”
Back in 2017, when they were first finding their feet as a young band on the Irish scene, Wild Youth were taken under the wing of The Script who they went on to work with. Now, as they find themselves increasingly advancing into the upper echelons of the homegrown pop world, they’ve made an effort to be “constantly looking out for new emerging Irish acts.”
“It’s something we’re always interested in,” Conor resumes. “I remember we saw a cover that Luz Corrigan did on Instagram. We got straight on to her. She came out on tour with us then, and travelled around with us on our bus. Ryan Mack also came on tour with us – and now our manager manages him. He’s absolutely flying. There’s also this amazing girl, Elle Coves, who lives in Cork, and is still in school. We met her after a show, and she wanted to send us some songs. So now we always try to help her out with her songs and her songwriting. She’s an amazing talent.”
“There’s so much talent in Ireland – it’s insane,” David says incredulously. “For such a small little island, we have a lot of creative minds that are flourishing right now. It’s great to be Irish and get to support it. That’s the main thing – we’ve been shown so much support since we started. Now we want to show as much support to other artists as we can, and back each other.”
As they proved at their Electric Picnic performance in 2019, Wild Youth also have no problem holding their own against some of the biggest pop and rock acts in the world – having shared a Saturday Main Stage billing with the likes of Year & Years, Gerry Cinnamon, Christine and the Queens, The 1975 and The Strokes.
“A lot of people had said to us that half-three on the Main Stage on Saturday is a very important slot,” Conor recalls. “Because if people are willing to get out of their tents, hungover, and make their way to the Main Stage, it really means that you’re connecting with people, and it’s working.
“And if they don’t come... maybe it’s not working!” he laughs. “We were like, ‘It’s awful that you told us that now – our parents and our friends are all here!’ Everyone had come down on our tour bus with us, because we had the next few days off.”
“I remember that pressure, of going on stage thinking that there might only be 1,000 people there – and thinking our career would be over,” David reflects, shaking his head.
“But then to go out and get that reception,” Conor smiles. “It was a beautiful, sunny day, and the crowd was incredible. Seeing our parents and our friends in the crowd – it was an amazing moment.”
For David, the triumphant set was particularly sweet – considering he had tried (and failed) to sneak into the festival just a few years before.
“I couldn’t get a ticket!” he grins. “So I tried to sneak in and got stopped at the first hurdle. I apologised profusely, and walked out with my tail between my legs, saying, ‘I’m never trying anything like that again.’”
From the busy festival circuit of Summer ‘19, Wild Youth launched straight into their own tour, which led them right up to Christmas. From there, they headed to the studio to start recording Forever Girl – blissfully unaware that there was an industry-upending pandemic just around the corner.
“People were like, ‘This lockdown’s going to last for two or three weeks’,” Conor remembers. “So we thought it was great – we could catch up on all this sleep that we needed. Fast forward a year, and we’re still in lockdown.”
“It’s weird to process that,” notes David. “You go from being so busy, to doubting when the next gig will be. But you have to be positive about it.”
The last 12 months have taken a serious toll on the mental health of countless musicians and crew members – Wild Youth included.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” David reveals. “There’s been a week or two where I’m just like, ‘My God, what am I going to do with myself?’ I had to pull myself out of it, and try to get up again. It’s not easy for the brain to try and figure out – when the one thing that has made you happy has been taken away. In a way, we’re very lucky that we get to still release music, and this EP. We’re very lucky to have all these things in our life right now.”
“It was weird,” adds Conor. “You’re going from living your life – where you’re out doing shows all the time, and maybe at home for two days – and then suddenly you’re home all the time. It’s almost like you have to figure your life out again.”
Do they reckon there’s enough support out there for people who may be struggling with that – particularly in the music world?
“Not at all,” David sighs. “We’re very lucky that we have each other, and we have girlfriends and families that we can talk to that understand us. But the majority of people out there, who are looking in on it, don’t really understand it.”
“And it’s not even just us,” Conor points out. “There’s crew members that we know who are incredibly talented people, who have done tours all around the world – and now they have to go and look for other jobs. They’re not even working in music at the moment. It’s such a shame, because they’ve spent their whole life learning their craft, and working their way up. And then suddenly, that’s pulled from underneath them – and they’re left with no major support really, and no support network.”
“And no real roadmap as to how we can try and get it back together again,” David nods.
Conor is one step ahead of most of us, however, on the road towards a return to normality – having already received his Covid-19 vaccine.
“I live in the UK, so it’s a little bit quicker over there – and I suffer from asthma,” he explains. “It was okay. I don’t really like to say this – because I don’t want to put anyone off the vaccine – but I personally felt kind of sick after it, for like two days. It sort of felt like the flu jab. But now it’s nice – I can be in Dublin, and be around my dad, without worrying too much.”
While his vaccination news was met with plenty of well-wishes online, Conor has become only too familiar with the dark side of social media in recent years. On the first anniversary of Caroline Flack’s tragic suicide in February, he shared an image of the late TV presenter, urging people to “remember the impact of online abuse or trolling.” He tells me it’s “absolutely” something he has experienced himself.
“It’s crazy,” he says. “It comes out of nowhere sometimes. I don’t know if I’ve done anything differently, or what it is – but it can just happen. People can just turn on you, and it can become quite a dark place. A lot of the time it’s just these fake accounts that someone set up – and it could be one person that set up 30 accounts. But if you get 30 accounts everyday telling you how much they hate you, or want you to die, it starts to really get on top of you.
“It happens all the time, but that doesn’t make it alright – it makes it worse,” he continues. “Firstly, it should just be illegal. Secondly, it should be monitored better by social media companies. I saw this petition online, in support of people having to show physical ID to set up a profile. I think that’s a great idea. Some of the things people say and get away with online is just crazy – because if you said that on the road to someone, you probably would be arrested.”
While it’s certainly not acceptable, many people see that kind of public scrutiny and abuse as part-and-parcel of fame.
“That’s the sad thing about it,” David agrees. “You almost become cows to the slaughter. Someone looks at you, and they think they can say whatever they want to you – because in their eyes, you put yourself in that position. We got into this because we love playing music, and we love performing – not to be absolutely ripped apart because somebody else is feeling like they can do it, and get away with it.”
Social media’s saving grace, to Wild Youth, is that it allows them to form real connections with their fans – particularly over lockdown.
“We love our fans, and we love letting them into our life,” Conor smiles. “They’re the ones that are so incredibly supportive, even when there have been times of trolling, or whatever. You’ll go into your messages, and someone will be like, ‘I saw that on Twitter. Ignore them. We think you’re the best.’ They lift your spirits back up. They’re so incredibly loyal and kind to us. If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be on social media.”
Of course, the advent of fans, fame and success can also test the dynamic of the strongest of bands. But with their roots stretching back to childhood, the power of Wild Youth’s bond is undeniable.
“We’re very lucky,” Conor reflects. “I know this is such a stereotypical thing to say, but we’re actually so close. Me and Dave have been best friends since we were kids. There are 100% times where people say things that you would think would test our relationship. Dave’s an incredible frontman who sings and really leads the band at shows, and I write songs for the band – and sometimes people say things that would almost try to make that weird. They ask me if I’d want to try and be the singer, and all of this sort of thing. But we just laugh about it, because we’re so comfortable and content in our relationship. We know this is the way it’s always been – nothing can ever really erase that.”
“This past year alone has been difficult enough,” adds David. “That’s one of the biggest tests we’ve ever gone up against – and we’re doing okay right now. We’re still talking, and we’re still friends! We’re still pushing forward, and wanting the best for Wild Youth. We’ve proved that we’re solid.”
For now, Wild Youth are continuing to put in the tough graft – and are holding steadfast onto their dreams. But they’re also making a point of living in the moment, and maintaining a remarkably humble and positive outlook, as they face into what’s undoubtedly set to be a landmark few years for the Dublin band.
“We’re massive believers in ‘See, Believe, Achieve’,” Conor notes. “But sometimes, when you set those targets, and you don’t make them, you feel like everything else has been an underachievement – when really, it hasn’t. You have to take in the whole journey of everything you’ve done.
“I’ve done that in the past,” he continues. “I’ve said, ‘I want to do this by the end of the year’. And then I’m like, ‘I didn’t do what I wanted to do this year’. But after taking time to reflect, I look back and go, ‘I did more than I thought I’d ever do this year’. So it’s important to stay present, enjoy the journey, and keep making music that we’re very proud of. As long as that takes us to a stage or a studio, we’re very, very happy.”
• Forever Girl is out now.
- Film & TV
- 16 Aug 22