Nick Mulvey: “The No-Thing Thing”

Off the back recent long-player ‘Wake Up Now’, former Portico Quartet man Nick Mulvey comes to Cork on September 22nd, performing at St. Luke’s. Mike McGrath-Bryan hears about the record’s beginnings, and the wider issues it addresses.

A wide musical frame of reference can be a real blessing for a songwriter, once one’s natural urges are given focus. Since leaving Mercury Award-nominated outfit Portico Quartet in 2011, guitarist Nick Mulvey has been busy investing American folk influences of his own with his background in ethnomusicology, in particular African guitar styles and subgenres. A working relationship with Bat for Lashes producer Dan Carey bore fruit in studio, while support slots for the like of Willy Mason, Lianne La Havas, and Laura Marling allowed him to roadtest and refine further new material. Mulvey’s full-length debut, ‘First Mind’, arrived in 2014, charting in the top ten in the U.K., and garnering him a solo Mercury Prize nomination.

Third LP ‘Wake Up Now’ builds on this extended momentum, casting an eye outwards on matters both personal and professional, in keeping with the rate of change in society, and the trajectory of his own work. “I’m really proud of this record, and happy how my fans have taken it to heart. It’s an album I felt I had to write. The songs celebrate what it means to be alive, and they draw a line between the current crises we are experiencing as a species, and our generally shallow depth of self-knowledge. The songs talk about important things: yes, we are these bodies and yes, we are these roles that we play, but only very fleetingly. Basing an identity, personally, and building societies, collectively, on these temporary things, has been unsound, and we’re watching it fall apart around us now. This album is a praise song celebrating the ‘no-thing thing’ that we actually always are and as such it’s an offering of hope.”

The creative and production processes for the record speak to the extent of changes that Mulvey underwent in its run-up. Fatherhood came calling, right as wider human rights issues began making the news, which had to have been a tonic creatively, if for nothing but urgency. The end product, meanwhile, is a result of its surroundings, with Mulvey and band settling into Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio, in Bath. “I wrote most of the songs during and in parallel with my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of our first kid. Once he was born, it seemed to be rocket fuel for the record, it all came together so quick. It was recorded at Real World at the end of 2016, and we worked live, and we worked fast. I need an atmosphere of playful intensity to get the performances down, and ‘capture’ it as a still-living thing.”

Leadoff single ‘Myela’ touched on the aforementioned human rights crises, with its focus squarely on the ongoing European migrant crisis. Collecting one’s thoughts on such a weighty matter, before putting it together into a song idea, is a deeply personal matter, so Mulvey understandably conducted as much research as possible. In doing so, the voices of the voiceless came to the fore. “I knew I couldn’t write firsthand about this subject, but it felt like something I couldn’t ignore, so I drew the lyrics from refugees’ own words about their experiences. I found an online archive of refugees’ accounts of their journeys, and as I read these stories, the song became easy to put together. I wanted to humanise these people, and so I included as many names and places and details that I could, changing bits, of course, to fictionalise where necessary.”

Travel and an external perspective are nothing new to Mulvey, though. His story began at the age of nineteen, when he moved to Havana to pursue his own personal musical education, living in Cuba right as the once-reclusive country was in hot debate internally about whether or not to open itself up to the world. Upon returning to London, Mulvey parlayed this experience into academia, and studied ethnomusicology, a discipline also taught here in University College Cork. Ethnomusicology informs Mulvey’s approach to creativity and his understanding of the process, beyond the obvious question of musical influence. “I loved looking at music with this broad lens, taking nothing for granted, and I loved situating music in its cultural and historical context. The course introduced me to so much wild music, and taught me that we don’t hear things in a pure, isolated way – that every utterance is loaded with all the previous utterances gone before it.”

Nick Mulvey plays Live at St. Luke’s on September 22nd. Doors at 7.30pm, tickets €24 plus booking fee at uticket.ie.

Rebel Reads: “Our Commitment is to Always Fight for This to Happen”

With progressives and community activists more mobilised than ever in recent years, the time was coming for a hub for ideas, thoughts and events. Enter Rebel Reads, a new community bookshop and co-operative space on Father Mathew Quay. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with co-ordinator Declan Synnott.

The tide has turned in Ireland in recent years. Our well-documented conversion from a once-conservative island fealty to a diverse, forward-looking nation has been an increasingly common international media story. The last thirty years have seen everything, from the decriminalisation of homosexuality and divorce, to liberalisation of laws regarding marriage equality and reproductive rights. The latter saw an unprecedented civic partnership of social and political groups come together, to push for citizen’s assemblies and eventual referenda on these matters, leading to hard-fought but decisive results in its favour. The question of ‘what next’ has many answers, and a great many debates are to be had regarding civil partnership among community groups and progressive political factions.

But on a local level, taking that energy and organisation forward and building on the work of the Together for Yes campaign was of vital importance, especially in the light of the loss of community arts spaces in recent years. Rebel Reads, a community bookshop and organisation space on Father Matthew Quay, occupies the campaign’s former headquarters, and as co-ordinator Declan Synnott reveals, came from the desire to move things forward. “An initial callout was made via Solidarity Books’ Facebook page. Solidarity Books was an anarchist bookshop on Douglas Street, which closed in 2015. People were attempting to reorganise, and we began holding meetings every few weeks to discuss how we’d go about it. The plan was to have a physical space with a bookshop running out of it, that would be acting as facilitators for radical, left-leaning political activities and organising, but also open to cultural and creative activities on the independent level in the city.”

The process of assembling a team and reaching consensus on a mission statement, while building on effort and enthusiasm, had to be taken seriously. In carrying on from Solidarity Books, a hefty precedent exists, and providing a progressive space requires solid policy and a plan. “Within those meeting was an overt focus on dialogue and discussing what individuals wanted and what the city needed, and start to organise according to ability to start to address these issues. That meant setting up working groups, so there was a policy group, for organisation and operation, PR groups for social media and engaging with the outside world. But there was always the understanding that they would be coming from a left-leaning background, working toward the end of social change. That was the discussion, understanding that that’s what we wanted.”

The idea of a multi-use space grew from these discussions. The process of taking ideas from different sources on board, and putting them all in one place to set about actioning them, has been essential to its development and general pitch to the public. “Part of our view is wanting to enable people to do what they want to do, or need to do, in the city. So, we’ve always had something of an open call for people to come and propose uses of the space, and we’ve attempted to enable people to do that by themselves, so that we would be in a facilitation role, providing resources. Again, it’s a conversation, we talk to them, see what their needs and our capabilities are, and find common ground.”

Community spaces right now in the city are at a premium as gentrification continues, which makes the shop’s existence even more important at this time. The response, support and interaction from other community organisations has been essential to its development. “It’s all been incredibly positive, people have been supportive. The space we’re in came through Cork Together for Yes, a lot of us were involved, and we’re, as is our policy, a pro-choice organisation, so that was one very natural relationship. But lots of people from varying backgrounds have been involved, and it’s been a positive response, whether it’s wanting to collaborate or showing support. There is that understanding that having community-focused, non-profit spaces in the cities is getting harder. People tacitly understand our existence is precarious, and want to help work to secure it. We knew space might be transient, and the nature of the rental market, gentrification, our government not really caring about how these things happen once profit is generated. But part of our commitment is to always fight for this to happen, and so many people feel the same way, cares, and reaches out.”

In terms of events – there’s screenings and plans for quiet gigs, and there’s already been cookouts and repair shops. The role of events in the space’s development is that of creating a destination for all manner of interests. “We have regular things, a screening every Friday, music. We have vegan food nights, repair cafes. All of those things are about community outreach, where people feel comfortable coming into a space where paying in isn’t essential, where we can do donations or keep admittance as low as we can, and that emphasises how we operate as a bookshop as well. We have couches, we want people to come in, drink some free tea, hang out and feel like they don’t have to pay any money to be in a space. Having these events is to have a sense of like-minded people, sharing an experience, and fostering a sense of co-operation and unity. Cities are alienating places, and spaces like this are where you find support.”

What’s in the future for the space, and what is its importance in light of the changes happening to the city over the next decade? “I believe that people will always come in with great new ideas. Keeping that open to external ideas, and letting those develop more, and more. It’s gonna add to what’s there and assist in changing things. We’re not focused on development for profit-making. We’re focused on aiding communities and positive, radical social and political change, and we’re always going to be dedicated to that. Offering support, a view to alternatives, and a sense that people care, people care beyond monetary value, about individuals.”

Rebel Reads is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10am-7pm, at 14 Father Mathew Quay, around the corner from RTÉ Cork. For more information on events and concerts, check out @rebelreadscork across social media.

HAUSU Records: “Something Local and Independent”

Collectivisation and co-operation is the name of the game in a Cork music scene ever more affected by precarity and gentrification. Amid all the uncertainty, some of Cork’s young musicians and music professionals are sticking together, with a collective, label and creative working arrangement known simply as HAUSU. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with some of the people involved.

The narrative in the city right now is of one generation coming of age creatively, post-recession: bands and musicians that have gutted out the “bad times” are perpetually set for bigger and better things. Having reorganised, focused and garnered resolve from formative periods spent garnering resources and connections without much in the way of formal help, they rightly stand centre-stage and place Cork firmly at the centre of the national music picture. But the seismic impact of DIY music on the city’s culture has left its fingerprint on a wave of younger musicians and facilitators that have witnessed change for themselves, and subsequent grown up with wider skillsets and changed expectations out of necessity. Against this background comes Hausu (pronounced ‘how-soo’), a collective of musicians, designers and press professionals based in Cork, emerging from various backgrounds but sharing a commonality of coming up through local music schools and programmes like the YMCA Groundfloor studio and student media.

Bands comprised of collective members, like Repeater and Ghostking is Dead, as well as solo projects, like spoken-word outlet Mothra (aka Hassan Baker, pictured) and electronic pop prospect Automatic Blue, provide a verdant creative offering musically for the group’s label aspect, while a team of young designers and student music journos-turned-DIY press relations people furnish the project with a unique visual identity. Repeater man Hassan Baker details how the collective initially rallied around. “We’d always talked about this while working on (first EP) ‘Who Sold It To Ya?’. We talked to other talented buds of ours, and planned on a more planned launch of it all. But then things fell into place when Ghostking is Dead wanted to release ‘Sweet Boy’ under our banner. This lit a fire under our collective asses, that just became a very Hausu way of doing things. Basically when something is going down, it’s all hands on deck, to chip in and to spread the word.” Intervening to help the artists organise were a number of volunteers, among them journalist and former college radio host Colm Cahalane, whose ‘Tapes’ radio shows had garnered something of a cult following locally. “It landed when we realised we had a lot of individual bodies of work coming up; debuts, follow-ups, singles, remixes etc – and we’d benefit from sharing support and resources every step from recording to releasing. At the start, I kind of pushed this attempt at a professional image of Hausu Records as a label; but lately I’ve been more honest about calling it what it is; a collective, a group of friends, something local and independent.”

In just over a year, the label has come to represent cohesion between younger artists in the city, something that, as mentioned, has become necessary in the absence of structure. They’re not the only ones, of course, and the lads are more than cognisant of the place of their efforts in the city’s wider musical landscape. For Cahalane, it’s arguably a Venn diagram of time, place and necessity. “I have a lot of time and respect for the shift towards collectives in Ireland as a whole. We’ve seen what people like Cuttin’ Heads and Outsiders are doing for Cork hip-hop, Anomaly taking that momentum to Waterford, what SESH FM are bringing to dance music in a national and even global sense, how Soft Boy Records are carving a niche for themselves in Dublin. We want to become a part of that scene for real and collaborate with them. I grew up on some of this stuff, going to Feel Good Lost gigs as a teen and through college to see acts like Talos and Young Wonder find their feet.” Lofty ambitions aside, it adds to the practicality of running musical projects that may be adjacent to each other regardless, to which Baker can attest. “It’s very important. We all have our own skills and experience. I spent some time in student journalism, so it helps knowing the process of journalists and bloggers. Then, for example, (collective members) Tadhg (McNealy), Emer (Kiely) and Neil (O’Sullivan-Greene) know the design world. They see trends, and formulate them into things us philistines can then understand. This helps us form our own system for traversing the Irish music scene.”

Matt Corrigan, operating under the nom-de-guerre of Ghostking is Dead, has been haunting the city in a few forms from a very young age, a preternaturally gifted musician with a tremendous flair for drama and/or sarcasm, as the mood takes him. The label this year released his most recent series of singles, and overseen a transition to full-band gigging, effectively providing him with everything necessary to expand on his vision. “Hausu has been a dramatic accelerant to my work. The force at which such ambitious and talented company drives one forward is like being pulled behind a car on a skateboard. I have come dangerously close to burning out a number of times, but the near-familial support and relationships keep me locked in. My drive is perpetually reinforced by how taken I am with the tremendous work of my friends and peers. Hausu makes me want to be better. It makes me excited to be a musician.”

Corrigan’s cousin Jack, creating music on the label as Actualacid, is drawn to the collective by the mutual supports shown among members, and how it’s benefited himself and others. “I think seeing Matt’s progress is like watching a superhero movie where they gradually begin to realize the extent of their powers. Everything he’s turned his hand to thus far, he’s been good at. He’s an inherently talented guy, same with Drew. Watching my two young cousins develop and getting to collaborate with them on the way has been the highlight of all of this so far. Hausu is a collective, a DIY label, a dangerous, dysfunctional co-dependency, but it’s family business for me. I’m just happy to be making things with the best people I know.”

Drew Linehan has been releasing steadily on the label under the Automatic Blue pseudonym, an initial aside to his role in Repeater, foreshadowing an electronic-informed indie/pop strain that draws on the likes of FlyLo and the Internet. The creative process behind the singles we’ve heard so far is a look at the ambition and greater reach to accessibility within the group’s electronic parish. “I recorded most of (debut) “Baby” in the background to everything I was doing in Repeater, and the formation of Hausu, which was more for fun without any thoughts about releasing the songs. I think I was embarrassed a bit by how poppy some tracks were. I’ve always loved melody and a good hook, and with Automatic Blue melody comes first, which is a relief now because melodies have always been the most rewarding aspect to write for me. Once I have the song though, I’m in the studio, trying to imagine what could be happening behind that melody and with the chords. I’m working on a new EP called “Junk” which has kept me in nearly complete solitude this summer. It’s gotten a bit obsessive but hopefully that’s lead to some more developed and creative songs.”


Baker himself has recently begun spoken-word work under the name Mothra, including a performance at Electric Picnic this month. Within the Hausu arrangement laid the freedom to pursue performance poetry, and transition from more boisterous punk-rock rhetoric into hip-hop. “I’ve been been writing poetry since I was young, as a writing exercise. I did open mics at (weekly night) Ó Bhéal, as a way to workshop lyrics or other ideas, and even did the odd closed mic gig. The focus was always on the music. The poems fed into the music pretty easily. It’s a lot easier to shout poetry in a punk song than to actually sing. Moving away from shouting and screaming myself hoarse, and into rap sounded like it was more suitable for my skill set.”

With a sense of community now firmly entrenched among its members and artists, the idea is to proceed with collaborative efforts. Whether it’s the fundamentals of DIY music infrastructure being extended to new venues and artists, or capitalising on the advance of the cloud and collaborative working tools, the group has an eye firmly fixed on the future, as Cahalane outlines. “Our number-one focus, even more than our next slate of releases, is getting events happening in Cork. Nights we’re playing and curating, using to support local talent, and collaborate with others outside our own reach; especially with other collectives, as I’ve said before. Hopefully we’ll do a listening party for our upcoming stuff, get proper live debuts for Automatic Blue, Mothra, Actualacid and Repeater, and showcase some other local bands while we’re on it. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be extending the lessons we’ve learned with Hausu to a national framework; running off a new Discord server or something of the sort. My own background is in software, so we’re going to try and build a community where we hold weekly demo critique and review sessions, share advice, resources and contacts, and give new artists everywhere the things that aren’t easy or obvious to find. Groups like First Music Contact have been vital for us, but we want to create a peer-to-peer environment for that too.”

Hausu releases, as well more artist and collective info, are available at hausurecords.com. Individual singles and releases are available for streaming on Spotify, and other streaming services.

Culture Night: “An Expression of Cultural Capital”

Once a year, cities, towns and villages around the country are filled with the hard work, ideas and creativity of artists and facilitators in their communities, as the spotlight goes on them for Culture Night. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with some of the co-ordinators of the event.

Since its inception in Dublin in 2006, Culture Night has become an annual highlight for arts organisations and practitioners around the country. Expanding nationally two years later with the help of city and county councils around the country, the first Culture Night in Cork city saw 34 venues partake in proceedings, a figure that has jumped over ten years to a staggering 130 spaces, hosting over 250 distinct and separate arts events, with fifty thousand revellers filling the streets for the occasion. It’s a phenomenon that continues to grow, and for City Council Arts Office’s Trish Murphy, it’s an event that places their office’s work in perspective. “This is a city wide collaboration that wouldn’t be feasible without the engagement and participation of cultural venues, both traditional and non-traditional, practitioners and volunteers across the city. It includes people and institutions from all walks of life, and across all creative genres, that make up our vibrant city, including music, theatre, visual arts, dance, performance, spoken word, literature, craft, heritage and sport. For one night only each year, this is an expression of the cultural capital this city has to offer its citizens, and all for free.”

The process of assembling a programme comes from input from participating organisations, many of whom organise major annual showcases for the night. Working from there to get everything in place, and getting the overall programme over the line involves an extended process of consultation. “Cork City Council, under the remit of the Arts Office, coordinates the production of the Culture Night Cork City programme each year. However, this wouldn’t be feasible without engagement of all of the participants, including venues, practitioners and volunteers, who make it happen on the night. The call for participation in Culture Night began in May of this year and marked the start of an intensive three-month procession of following up with venues, collating information, design, proof and print.”

Within ten years, there’s been a tremendous amount of turnover in the city’s artistic and performance spaces, which has only accelerated amid the current property bubble. Meanwhile, the city’s ongoing expansion provides opportunities for growth for the arts, alongside the resurgence that various arts groups have been having as of recent. Murphy tends toward looking forward when quizzed on her thoughts on the venue changes. “What has been evident is how much Culture Night has grown over the years, and has become such an intrinsic part of the City’s cultural calendar. What is particularly evident is the increased level of participation across non-traditional venues, like hospitals, sports grounds, offices and banks, as well as the continued growth and development across our more traditional cultural venues, like museums, theatres, galleries, libraries etc. As the City is redeveloped, and expands, it is anticipated that Culture Night’s reach will expand as well, and in particular it is hoped to reach out further into local communities to host events and to have a truly city-wide celebration.”

Meanwhile, the greater county area will be engaged in a wide-ranging series of events, as the towns and villages of Cork will play host to community-organised events, concerts, installations and exhibitions. It’s a broad church, with West Cork towns drawing from a rich vein of artistic talent, while the North and East county areas begin mounting their plans for rebuilding the arts and music in their areas as a means of community work and rejuvenation. For visual artist and Ballyhea woman Judy Reardon, the challenge of her first Culture Night as its co-ordinator is to be relished, presenting new opportunities. “It’s been a very positive experience. Everybody’s been only too happy to get onboard. There’s a lot of time invested in organising by all the participants, and everyone is doing so free of charge, and there was a lot of good feedback when I contacted them and asked them to be part of it.”

While working with community arts groups and venues is part and parcel of the Culture Night initiative, it comes into especially sharp focus in smaller towns and villages around the county, where, in many cases, such groups are the only arts infrastructure in town. Additionally, many of these groups are helping take the mantle of social recovery after decades of underinvestment and the onslaught of austerity. “People are talking among themselves, creating their own Culture Night, seeing what each grouping has to offer, be it the library, the local gallery, the local artists… it’s become more collaborative within small towns, that’s the feeling I get. When I’ve been onto participants, they’re telling me they’ve been onto others that are organising, as well. Working together.”

The knock-on effect that Culture Night has had on arts uptake and engagement in towns and villages around the county is evident, providing a rare opportunity not only for non-festival programming, but also for arts programmers and enthusiasts to co-ordinate and get planning among themselves, as stated. As an artist herself, Reardon sees firsthand the initiative bringing out the best in people. “I see it as an opportunity for artists to showcase, get known in their community, and become part of an event. It wouldn’t be as intimidating as setting up by themselves. It’s a very enjoyable way for people to get out there as artists (and facilitators).”

Culture Night happens on Friday, September 21st around the country. For more information on Culture Night in Cork City, check out culturenightcork.ie. Physical brochures are also available throughout the county, in venues and other public spaces.

…and remember to support your local artists, musicians and facilitators, because for them, every night is Culture Night.

Mark Geary: “Just See How It Moves You”

On Friday September 14th, songwriter and scorer Mark Geary takes to the back room of Coughlan’s for an intimate show, but for a man on his fifth long-player, intimacy is far from unfamiliar territory. Ahead of the gig, Mike McGrath-Bryan sits down for a chat about gigging with Jeff Buckley, changes in the label model, and the future for artists.

“I remember the morning I left Dublin, my mother wouldn’t speak, too upset, crying so much. It’s crazy how some details stay vivid.” Some people are just inherent storytellers, and with over twenty-five years of experience and five solo albums under his belt, Mark Geary more than has the experience on which to draw, answering in suitable fashion the question of his initial excursion to New York in the early nineties, to pursue his craft. He continues:  “I had a bag I had sold two guitars, both of which were gifts, to make the flight money, which broke my heart. Also, that it was a one way ticket: those desperate moments, where choices are limited. I had no job and no prospects of one. I had a beautiful girlfriend, who protected me from some of the darker moments in my life. I had an address and $100 in my pocket, that got me two days and then I would have to find work. I had been playing guitar for a little band in Leixlip. Great people, I learned so much. I had played most of the venues in and around Dublin. At the Dublin was broke, broke and broken. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t on the dole and being creative. Please don’t think that was some creative utopia, it absolutely wasn’t.”

At nineteen years of age, then, the culture-shock of landing in New York and being immediately situated at the centre of folk music and singer-songwriters at the time must have been terrifying, but if the goal was to improve, being plonked alongside the like of legendary troubadour Jeff Buckley in the Sin-é venue at such a tender age was an excellent way of getting one’s mettle tested. “New York completely made me. Almost like it gave me armour. The speed of the place, the people, the posturing, the grandeur. And the brutality and how violent it could be. The lightning bolt of realization of what I didn’t know, couldn’t know and wasn’t able… and I learned that the list of things I wasn’t able to do had better be addressed, and fast. The Sin-é cafe, my brother Karl’s place along with Shane Doyle, the coffee house scenes of the East Village and the Lower East Side. You could hustle a show in these places for tips. The trick was to get songs together and get my shit together, to be on the stage. It may sound odd but the greatest help I was ever given, was that I was offered no help whatsoever. ‘You wanna play here ? How many people can you bring!?’ ‘Oh I don’t know anyone.’ ‘Well, you better start getting to know people who might wanna come hear you.’ And really, that’s how it began. Just playing and playing.”

Playing regularly at the venue, as well as clubs around the city, rapidly sharpened Geary’s wits and skills, working with the likes of Buckley and an all-star cast of musicians that passed the venue’s doors. “Sin-é was in full swing, I just happened to land at that moment. I would wake up. And go straight to the cafe, sometimes opening up the place. I always remember how there was always something coming up – a band on the way and an event to go to, it felt like it was the center of the universe. All young people believe in such things… it became clear to me that I needed to go and get beat up (laughs)! Musically speaking, what I mean by that is, that I just hadn’t played in front of audiences, and really had a few songs. So I needed to grab as many gigs, and learn and learn, and fucking die a death on stage, and then go out after work and do it again.”

Geary revisited his roots thereafter, with a 2003 live album recorded in New York City – what was it like to see that whole time in the rear view mirror, so to speak? “It finally started to feel like a  ‘home game’. I had to leave Ireland in order to learn how to play, and to have lived a bit, in order to write about what I had seen. So returning to New York, I guess I was attempting to showcase what these ‘lullabies’ had become. A thousand gigs later, I had become just enough comfortable to be able to be present and at ease. And my friends were there to witness it, and to share the moment with me.”

Geary’s debut solo album was the starting point for SonaBLAST! Records out of Kentucky – at square one not only for a relatively busy indie label, but taking that risk right as labels had the change in business model thrust upon them by technological advances. That must have been quite something. “I was actually bartending at the time the label was founded. Gill Holland, the label’s founder and my lifelong friend, basically on a wing and a prayer, and a book called ‘Record Labels for Dummies’, set up the label so I could record my first album. I had four songs recorded just on my own and Gill funded the rest. No plan, no contract, just a handshake at 4am over eggs and bacon. I remember people I knew getting very serious record deals, lots of money advances, etc. Those bands have broken up and even those labels. But I’ve continued to make music, movie soundtracks etc., the odd movie role along the way. That’s crazy, right? So, I think that’s the way forward. Be everything. Be creative in everything, make art, make coffee, make food, make shapes.”

Newest album ‘The Fool’ released last year, Geary’s fifth studio album in all. With the finished product now done and dusted, he muses on the protracted process of the record. “This one took a while – three years in the writing. I’ve been playing in lots of places, new audiences etc. Such a shot in the arm for me. So I was only interested in the new sounds and songs, as they came. You go to the guitar and you see how you’re feeling, see if there’s anything that’s been left by the song fairies (laughs). A little phrase, a chord you hadn’t heard that way before. That’s how you do it. Few weeks with Karl Odlum and Dave Hingerty on drums, making noise and playing with ideas. What starts to happen is I start to join the dots, like there’s a pressure to finish. I work better with a gun to my head. During the recording I wrote three songs in one morning/early afternoon. By evening we had tracked them. Amazing, really. You start to commit to the lyrics and scribble as you go.”

Also renowned for his scoring work, including the like of Sons of Perdition, Geary is unusually brief on the process of scoring, and how it differs from the usual vagaries of songwriting for one’s self. “Totally different animal, which I love. You learn how to serve the movie as opposed to serving the song. It’s wonderful to sit with notes on the film and just see what moves you.”

Geary is playing Coughlan’s next month on Friday 14th, as part of his latest round of homebound touring. He’s drawn to the Leeside city by familiar names and faces. “It’s always been special, it’s always been important, and if you don’t know that – someone in Cork will tell you fast enough (laughs). I’ve been traveling for gigs for years now. The Lobby, the Half Moon, Crane Lane. Coughlan’s has become the go-to place – the people there, the kindness and appreciation shown has always been such a balm to me.”

As if to leave on the storytelling note he came in on, Geary finishes the conversation on a story, as closely told as to an old friend. “The story from the Lobby, when I was just starting to play back in Ireland, we made a deal of it, but it was really quiet. We’d pull the gig, but if more than five people came then we’d go ahead with the show. There were four payers on the night, actually, two couples, which was great. We waited and waited, and still no one, until this guy fell up the stairs and kinda slumped in the corner. Neither at the gig nor out – so he officially made five, and the show went ahead (laughs).”

Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh: “All That’s Needed is the Right Space”

Next weekend sees Quiet Lights festival bring the best of a new generation of folk, trad and related sonic alchemy to venues around Cork city and county. At the centre of it all is multi-instrumentalist Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, performing an intimate show at the chapel at the city’s Griffith College. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with O’Raghallaigh about the process, new material and the nature of prominence.

The past number of years have seen a renewed interest in Irish folk and traditional music, much of which is already well-documented. Outfits like The Gloaming have played a part in fundamentally changing how the genre is perceived, both domestically and internationally, while song-collectors Lankum have shown a new generation how standards of various stripes can be overhauled with a will toward musical and conceptual progression. For Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh, a multi-instrumentalist at the centre of the Gloaming as well as This is How We Fly and other projects, the space to create and improvise is of the essence.

The coming months see O’Raghallaigh hit the road, with new material and live improvisation forming the basis of these solo shows, away from the glare of the mainstream spotlight. The creative and compositional process for this new body of work has drawn on his ability to speak multiple musical languages. “So, I’ve been using two main avenues for making new material: writing music in unusual fiddle tunings, and writing some code that integrates live electronics in a performance setting. The fiddle I play is the hardanger d’amore, which has a whole heap of extra strings. To get the best out of it, you really need to tune it in strange ways, so that all the strings start talking to each other and the whole fiddle starts ringing. You basically optimise it to be spectacularly beautiful in one or two keys, but not good in others. The relationship between the strings is now a bit alien, nothing is where you’re used to, and so it’s a great way to disorient yourself and make a familiar environment suddenly unfamiliar. I like to think that you get ‘ideas for free’, happy accidents from putting your fingers where you think a note is, only to find a totally different note living there.”

Recording and making sense of this process is perhaps the simplest part of the creative process, as O’Raghallaigh outlines. Narrowing down the results of improvisation, and finding the next thing to do with them reveals further layers of his innate musical ability, and his desire to challenge himself. “So I’ll put my fiddle in one of these tunings, press record on an iPad, and just improvise a load of rubbish, which I then sort through and pan for gold. I’ll collect these nuggets of a few notes, and find the beginnings of a new piece that slowly grows into something. I write the code in a language called ChucK, and I’ve designed it to be an unpredictable playing partner for improvising music in a live situation. I’ve built in randomness in terms of what happens, when it happens, and for how long it continues. This is a reaction to using more conventional ‘loopers’ in the past, where you build up layers that are locked together – I wanted something much more free and unpredictable, something where I couldn’t know quite what would happen next. Seán Mac Erlaine was a big inspiration in this too – I’m a big fan of how he uses live electronics in his solo performances, it seems so seamless and natural.  I’ve a long way to go, but it’s a very rewarding process, writing the code, using it, refining or redesigning it – it continues to evolve and grow with every show.”

With such a comprehensive creative process, with so many elements at play, the question of what exactly goes into the production of O’Raghallaigh’s solo music, and at what exact point a piece of music is ‘complete’, is a prescient one. “I’d very happily commit it to record right now. I think all that’s needed is the right space and a chunk of time. Every record is going to be a snapshot in time, what you were capable of at that particular moment in that particular place, and I think that’s the beauty of it. I suppose you want enough time to elapse between records so that you’ve moved on from where you previously were, and I feel good about that now.”

This upcoming run of activity comes at a break in the action for The Gloaming, after two successive albums have come in for near-phenomenal critical acclaim and commercial success. When asked if he’s had time over the past while to process everything that’s happened with that outfit, O’Raghallaigh retains his cool discussing the events of the past few years. “The success of The Gloaming is all quite abstract for me – it’s like I’m looking in from the outside, like I’m taking a trip with the Ghost of Christmas Present. The concrete thing for me is the music-making, the real-time playing, and creating something that I believe in myself. It’s great that we’ve got such an extraordinary reaction to that band, of course. But I don’t believe it’s too healthy to get caught up in what other people think – you have to just believe in what you’re doing yourself.

The pursuit of these processes and daily mundanities can of course differ from project to project for busy musicians, and it’s no different for O’Raghallaigh when operating solo for an extended period, compared to time in collaboration with either The Gloaming or This is How We Fly. The agency that performing solo grants him, however, is what sticks. “The freedom I get from playing solo is kind of thrilling to me. I love standing on stage on my own and just jumping off the cliff, not knowing where you’re going to land, what note you’re going to play, whether you might just fall flat on your face, or the whole thing just takes off. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling, that at any point you can go absolutely anywhere, and there’s nobody expecting you to play a certain note at a certain time, nobody relying on you to stick to a plan, no plan. It’s just pure freedom.”

This past summer saw O’Raghallaigh take an extended solo run of the United Kingdom during the summer, including some of the specialist festivals and gigs that have emerged over the years. The atmosphere and location of one in particular makes for a significant story. “‘Singing with the Nightingales’ is an event that singer and folksong-collector Sam Lee runs. Thirty people set off into the forest in the pitch black of night in search of a songbird, no torches, no talking, and after walking half an hour, we dove into the deep undergrowth, where a little nightingale was singing his heart out. We listened for maybe twenty minutes to this little bird belting out the most beautiful song, wholly unperturbed by our presence. And then Sam and myself took turns playing along with him, in whatever way we saw fit. Whether he changed his tune or not, I don’t know, but the people there were quite sure he did. The nightingale will often add the songs of other birds to his repertoire, so perhaps it’s not so farfetched. We stayed there for I don’t know how long, maybe an hour, maybe three, and when we finally left, he was still singing. Ever since, my ears have been opened, and the joy of hearing a blackbird or a thrush here in the local park has added so much to the everyday for me.”

O’Raghallaigh is on tour throughout September and October, including, as mentioned, headlining the first Quiet Lights festival in Cork next weekend. Ahead of these dates, he collects his thoughts on this significant run of dates specifically, and what went into choosing the venues along the way. “Well, I really want to make a new solo album soon, and this run of dates will be very much related to that, trying out new tunes and improvising with the electronics, trying to refine the code and the notes after each night, and moving towards committing something to tape. What attracts me to these venues is the intimacy, the acoustics, or the people running them!”

Beyond the process of further refining and road-testing new compositions, O’Raghallaigh’s schedule for the remainder of the year is typically full, with new collaborations and an excursion on the horizon, as he pursues the urge to improvise and further create. “I want to start work on a solo album, that’s a big ‘next thing’ for me. In terms of collaboration, I have two duo records that I want to bring out in the next eighteen months or so: one with Dan Trueman, a follow-up to our Laghdú album from 2014, and one with Thomas Bartlett on piano. And I can’t tell you how excited I am about a piece that Dan Trueman is writing for me and the New York contemporary music ensemble Contemporaneous. We’ll be starting work on it in April next year, over in the States, and I expect it’s going to be a big challenge and a big thrill.”

Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh is touring throughout the autumn as part of the ‘Islander Presents’ series of concerts and events. For tour details and tickets, visit www.islandermusic.net.

Cork City Ballet: “Never Use the Words ‘I Can’t'”

Over the last 25 years, Cork City Ballet has gone from strength to strength, hosting international superstars and bringing the genre’s classics Leeside. Ahead of the premiere of their new documentary ‘Breaking Pointe’ at the Opera House, MIke McGrath-Bryan speaks with director Alan Foley.

The arts are a labour of love, of this there is no doubt. Look at the city’s veterans, the people that have rowed in behind their passion, and laid the foundations for future generations to build on theirs, and you see an unswerving dedication to their work, inextricably tied with the city, building their artistic and facilitative identities in its venues and spaces. These same intangibles are evident as your writer sits down upstairs in Cork Opera House for a chat with Cork City Ballet director Alan Foley, as he casually discusses corralling over twenty-five years of archive material for ‘Breaking Pointe’, a documentary on the troupe’s development and milestones, co-produced with Frameworks Films. Premiering at the Opera House on September 11th, the documentary feature includes interviews, professional performance footage and never-before-seen audiovisual material.

For Foley, it certainly doesn’t seem so long ago since he made a break with the city’s musical establishment to do something new, a change borne of frustration and the need for a body to represent the city’s dance community on the world stage. “I was a dancer, myself. I got to dance with the legendary Joan Denise Moriarty. I came to her when she was older, and tired, I suppose, and it used to drive me bonkers, when I asked her, ‘please, may I do this, may I go to New York, or London, or Russia?’, and she’d say ‘no, you may not’. ‘Why?’. ‘You just may not.’ I put up with that for so many years, I could not be dealing with it and needed to do my own thing. I was always very sure from a young age that I wanted to be in the driver’s seat, so as a result, maybe out of ignorance, I did. So, I set up Cork City Ballet in 1991, and we had our first performance at the Everyman Palace in 1992, and it’s just gone from there… it feels like about five minutes ago, then I look at this lifetime it’s been, and I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone.”

Foley has choreographed and produced all of the troupe’s productions since its foundation, alongside a busy professional career, both as a dancer, and later on the boards of various ballet organisations around the country. One imagines the work/life balance has been a bit of a challenge to maintain. “Necessity. Bottom line. It had to be done. All the jobs, I’ve always done myself to save money, and the one thing I did learn from Moriarty was to never use the words ‘I can’t’. Don’t be coming to me with excuses. If you do have a problem, come to me with it, but come to me with five solutions, and we’ll pick one. So that’s what I’ve employed, even with the young dancers I teach today… I can’t stand bureaucracy, the bulls**t that goes with so much of the world today. ‘Oh, you can’t do this because Memorandum A, Subdivision Q, Article 13 states that the green form and the blue form have to be triplicated and duplicated, etc.’ Are you serious? I want to do a ballet! That kind of thing used to, and still does, drive me to distraction. I can’t cope with it, so I avoid people like that as best I can. I surround myself with doers. Anyone that causes grief, or isn’t willing to make the tea. I don’t care if you’re the prima ballerina or the cleaner, we’re all on the same train, and it’s worked!”

The City Ballet is well-known and regarded on the international stage, with dancers from all over the world coming to town for its productions, as well as to coach and hold seminars. As anyone in the arts will tell you, relationships are everything, and Foley has over the years made a virtue of building on international working agreements. “Very much of it comes from my training or upbringing. I was the youngest of eight kids, airs and graces weren’t tolerated by my parents or my family. Very often, in the arts and particular in the ballet world, the elitism is there. Maybe not so much now, thankfully, but I’m one of those people that believes ballet isn’t just for the privileged. Talent doesn’t have an address. And I bring that ethos into every part of my working life, as well, when trying to attract sponsors or patrons, because we don’t get Arts Council funding. There is a very good product, we deliver that. And if you have that you can go anywhere. You can do anything. Another thing I don’t do too often is dichotomise and politicise. ‘Here’s the ballet, if you like it, fine, if you don’t, that’s fine, too.’ It’s a bit like Picasso, he painted, ‘d’you like it or don’t you?’.”   

The troupe’s business model has increasingly included community and corporate patronage, which allows those involved to enjoy the benefits of supporting the troupe – DVDs, discounts on the door, etc. In an age of crowdfunding and collectivisation of resources, Foley is open about how this model has added to sustainability for the group. “Ballet is very expensive. The tutus that ballerinas wear can go for upwards of three grand. The pointe shoes that they wear, they can go for €100 per pair. They run through three or four pairs of them per show. That’s a lot of money just to make this happen. We’re very lucky over the years to have had some great sponsors, great supporters. The Irish Examiner, Evening Echo, RedFM, have all been brilliant. The Arts Council pulled all their funding in 2011, they don’t approve of us as they say we’re too old-fashioned. Heard that a thousand times before. Innovation is great, it has to come along, but you also have to respect the traditions. Ballet as a modern artform has been around for over 250 years, and will be there for the next 250. The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty. They’re all milestones, that great dancers are judged by. This is what I’m trained to do. I don’t want to bring swans in on horseback or in roller skates. I want to bring them in on pointe shoes! We’ve had a presence here for 25 years, we’re bearing the torch of Aloys Fleischmann and Joan Denise Moriarty before us, so there’s a very rich legacy, and the support we get every year is phenomenal. That’s how we survive.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ began production earlier this year, mining the troupe’s extensive and meticulously-kept archive, as well as engaging dancers and staff in new interviews. While the Ballet had chronicled itself in years prior in text form, the idea occurred to Foley amid unhappiness at how the history of dance had been documented prior. “I had gone to see another documentary about Joan Denise Moriarty, and I was appalled at some of the footage that was used. It was all very well to use old footage, but there was nothing new or progressive. Nothing young people can identify with, and go ‘oh my god, this is cool’. Young people see the fifties or sixties, and it means nothing to them. They can’t relate. Bring it into their world and let them have a look at beautiful dancers, doing beautiful things, to their kind of music. You’ll attract a new audience. And I looked at the archive we have, and I thought, ‘I want to do something different’, and show people what we have today. We are all only of our time. Moriarty had her time, she did things her way. This is my time, it’ll be over soon, and someone else will do it their way. You can only do what you can in your time, and make the most of that.”

While an extensive archive certainly expedited the process of production, the dig for material wasn’t without its surprises, especially when dealing with external footage and its owners. “There wasn’t much of a process as we have a huge archive. I knew we had it documented. I went to press clippings and marketing materials and they were all there. I had wonderful interviews with some of the dancers that we’ve had, big stars, from the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, the Royal Ballet in London, the Met in New York. I knew I had all of this. And then, in the last two years, there was much more footage. Backstage interviews, interviews with the public. But once I had started exploring, I found some real hidden gems that I’d forgotten about. RTÉ came in and filmed me teaching with the Kirov Ballet when they were at the Point about twenty years ago, there was stuff from TV3. So, I was able to draw on all that.”

It’s a tall order, really: the Opera House’s capacity is about 800, all-seated, a challenge for any promoter to sell out on the local level in the current climate. For something as otensibly niche as a historical treatise on local ballet, though, it seems an even heftier challenge, one for which the venue was only more than ready, says Foley. “The plan was to screen it in the Firkin Crane, the 250-cap theatre where we’re based, and do all our classes and rehearsals. When I was speaking to the CEO of the Opera House, Eibhlín Gleeson, she said ‘no, this is your performance home, you have a great following, you sell out every year, I think you should have it here’. I thought, ‘oooh, it’s very big, will we get an audience, what if we don’t’, etc. And she said ‘no, we’re gonna do it here, and that’s it’. So I went with her gut instinct on it, and I’m pleased to say tickets are selling very well. The company and myself are used to the venue, we’ve been here for many years, so it makes sense that the showing is here.”

With the first twenty-five years of the group’s history now comprehensively catalogued, it’s time for the group to look at the future, both in the short-term and as the arts scene in the city changes alongside the city’s expansion. “We have the premiere on September 11th. On Wednesday 12th, we’re straight into rehearsals for the Nutcracker, which opens at the Opera House on the 8th of November. Nutcracker is always a sellout. There are plans afoot for ‘Breaking Pointe’, to bring it to Irish Arts Centre in New York for a screening, to London, to Cannes. But for now, we’re just focusing on the premiere and, getting that over the line.”

‘Breaking Pointe’ premieres on Tuesday September 11th at 7pm at Cork Opera House. For more info on Cork City Ballet, check out corkcityballet.com.