Ahead of his upcoming solo show at Coughlan’s on the 25th, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with John Blek about his new record.
Glanmire singer-songwriter John O’Connor, better known as John Blek, has been touring and performing for years, with a knack for whip-smart indie-pop accompanied by friends and collaborators referred to as the Rats, a play on graffiti artist Blek le Rat. But as of recent years, he’s ventured into solo territory, drawing from his own experiences and outlook. O’Connor gets into the differences between creative in a band, and alone, during the recording of new album Cut the Light, released via German label Tonetoaster Records. “There are a lot similarities in the process, but with the band I come into rehearsal with a bare outline of the songs and as a unit we figure out how to make it better or more interesting structurally and melodically. When make a band album there is a larger bank of instruments to choose from when arranging. With Cut The Light I wanted to make a record that was almost entirely about acoustic guitar and voice. There are drums, bass, keys and electric guitar on the new album but mostly just as colour to accompany the songs.”
The new album took O’Connor to new locales during its creation, and experienced full control while in studio, an experience he was enthusiastic about while putting it together. “The initial idea behind this album was write a set of songs that would push me as a guitar player. With the band I really only play rhythm guitar, but with this record I wanted to play more finger style and to make my playing a lot more melodic. That was the real difference between writing for myself and writing for the Rats. I recorded it with a guy called Brian Casey in Bantry which is a studio I had never been to before so that made for a welcome change as well. Having the ultimate say over the sound of the album was refreshing as well for a change. Now that the album is done I’m still really proud of it and really enjoying playing the songs live. It’s definitely a direction I will pursue further.”
A hot topic at present is money in Irish music, considering Fight Like Apes’ breakup statement. What are O’Connor’s thoughts on streaming and other vagaries of the modern music industry?
“I’m probably not the best person to ask this question to, as I’m a complete technophobe. I don’t have spotify or even an mp3 player. I still buy my CDs and records in local independent shops like MusicZone and Plugd. I mean it’s not good for music if bands and solo performers can’t survive but if it’s something a person wants to do for a living then you have to find a way. I’m not rich by any means but I have always paid my bills through music. Mostly from performance I suppose. Royalties have never played a big part in my life.”
Cut the Light was also crowd-funded, via fund:it, to get it over the finish line. What was the process like, in pitching, the wait for the big deadline, and eventual delivery? “Crowdfunding is great for independent music. It can be really nerve-wracking at times but always worth it in the end. When I first used fund:it a number of years ago I had this weird stigma about it in my head. That I was kind of begging for help to release the album but the out pouring of support was pretty overwhelming and altered my perspective on it pretty quickly.”
O’Connor’s last album with the Rats, Borders, is now just gone a year old. O’Connor discusses the record in a little detail, including his feelings on the record now he’s had some time to live with it. “I’m still really proud of this album. It’s a definite sign of where we will go next sonically. It took us a little while to grow into the songs live as the production was far more dense than anything we had done before. But we got there with it and now a lot of them are our live favourites.”
At time of writing, O’Connor is on the road solo, responding while on a break in a German tour. How has that been, and again, does the experience change without the Rats? “I’ve been on tour pretty heavily in Ireland and Europe for the last 6 weeks. I’m in a city called Kiel in the very North of Germany as we speak. It’s a pretty strange way to live your life. Travelling for hours every day to play a couple hours of music. It’s a vocation rather than a profession I think. At this stage I’m pretty tired but still really enjoying every show. The touring experience solo vs. with the band is quite different. A lot more alone time. With the band it’s like a gang of friends travelling around having a good time where as solo you kind of have to make your own fun (which I’m fully capable of doing). Both are rewarding in their own ways.”
Despite being off on the road most of the time, O’Connor maintains ties to the Cork scene, including a date in Coughlan’s on Douglas Street on the 25th. “I love the Cork music scene. I always think that musicians in Cork are far less affected by trends and fashions, and as a result the music is more original and interesting. To create under the influence of a trend isn’t really something that I view as creating at all. To do something truly free of external influence is what an artist should aim for, always. Best album I’ve heard come out of Cork in a long time was The Shaker Hymn’s Do You Think Your Clever?. Great lyrics, songs and production.”
As the year rounds to a close, O’Connor keeps himself busy, with more writing, recording and touring on the way. “I have a new solo album written that I think I will record in January but may not release. Just want to document the songs really. I have a couple of nice collaborative songwriting projects coming up in the new year, as well as writing the rest of the songs for the new Rats album. Busy times ahead, but all is good.”
John Blek plays Coughlan’s on the 25th, at Coughlan’s on Douglas St. Kickoff at 9.30, €12 in.