Jenny Greene: Nineties Anthems with an Electric Orchestra

Ahead of her Marquee appearances with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with DJ Jenny Greene about the challenges and rewards of rearranging dance classics for an orchestral stage.

Jenny Greene has been a stalwart of electronic music in Ireland for nearly twenty years, DJing in clubs and festivals up and down the country for night-time dance staple The Electric Disco on RTÉ 2fm, serving up a mix of dance classics and newer, more accessible electronica. While better known to a casual radio audience now for sharing a 2fm slot with Westlife man Nicky Byrne, one of the surprise successes of last year in the Irish musical mainstream had to have been the reception for her surprise show with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra at Electric Picnic. Rumours had spread all over festival grounds that day that something special was happening at Greene’s rehearsals, and by the time showtime rolled around, not only was the tent full, but over 2,000 people stayed outside specifically to listen. Hoping to recreate that magic, Greene and the Concert Orchestra filled up 3Arena when they recovened in November of last year, but with a sold-out date on June 17th and another engagement the following day selling up rapidly for Live at the Marquee, Greene faces her biggest challenge yet: rinsing the time-tested classics, recreated from the ground-up to facilitate an orchestra, in a city steeped in dance and electronic music history.

Greene is keenly aware going into this show that challenges present themselves in reinterpreting hits that have etched themselves into the consciousness of a generation. “The idea came about when bosses at 2fm had the idea of taking dance classics and fitting an orchestral arrangement around them. I was nervous, but I was asked to make a list of songs I felt would do well, then they were taken to the RTÉ Concert Orchestra where notes were taken, songs were knocked off the list because they wouldn’t work, etc. We only have an hour, so we have to see what works. There was no “issue” with any of the songs, so to speak. But with Faithless’ Insomnia, one of the biggest songs of the set, obviously we couldn’t use (Faithless frontman) Maxi Jazz’ vocals, because we have to recreate everything ourselves, and we didn’t want anyone to recreate that vocal, because I think only Maxi Jazz can do that song justice.”

In recreating nineties dance standbys like Rhythm is a Dancer, Children, Not Over Yet, Everybody’s Free and Insomnia, there’s no input or help from labels, publishing or owners of masters: everything is custom-built from scratch for this show, allowing for rearrangement, reinterpretation, and the contributions of guests, including Cork singer Gemma Sugrue at the upcoming Marquee dates. With the weight of gig-goer expectations, the differences in venue size, the natural question is of the difference in stage experience between going on in a club, and striding a major stage like the Marquee? “It’s funny, in that it feels easier because you’re not the only one on stage, but there’s also a lot more pressure when there’s a gig like that, because a lot more people are depending on you to get it right. At least when you’re DJing, there’s only you and you only have yourself to answer to (laughs). So you are trying, you’re making sure everyone else is happy. Also, there’s the case of Orchestra themselves wouldn’t be used to the environment they’ve suddenly found themselves in at all. Where I would be well-used to being blasted out of it with volume on the stage, that would probably be a new concept for them, so it took them a little while to adjust. But then it paid off, because I don’t think they’ve ever had a reaction like they got, so it’s twofold, y’know?”

The process of setup and going onstage changes utterly in a large enviroment, so one imagines the process of going through a set, listening out for and interacting with the orchestra, its arrangers and conductor, to be an even bigger challenge. “My role on the night, except from actually putting the tracklisting and set together, is that I’m on decks, I’m playing the beat, and obviously the orchestra are playing the arrangements, and they’re being conducted by Gavin Murphy. His work on the night is incredible, and it wasn’t til I was in rehearsals I realised that literally every split-second is accounted for, and he’s not just waving his hands around, you’re seeing every detail and trying to really grasp exactly what he’s doing. He is literally watching every single musician onstage, telling every single group when exactly to come in, when to go out, cueing in vocalists. It’s amazing to witness that having never experienced it before.”

Irish electronic music is in a golden age at present, in particular on its fringes. Eclectic electronica ranging from ambient noise to end-credits synthpop, and gritty, world-influenced hip-hop in particular are having moments, while practitioners like Daithí and Le Galaxie have had flirtations with the major-label bubble. Are there any plans to bring the idea of collaborating with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra to the work of present electronic acts, and maybe putting them in that well-earned spotlight? “I don’t know. I mean, I never thought a year ago we’d be in the position we’re in now, so, I would say anything’s possible, and in order for (the project’s) longevity, I don’t see why, for the Orchestra to have dipped their toe in this, wouldn’t be keen on doing something else down the line. They’ve done it before, they did a special recording of Fish Go Deep at the Savoy years ago, obviously that’s a big Cork act too. I’d love if they could look at doing something with (Galway fiddler/beatmaker) Daithí, (vocalist) Elaine Mai, or (live synth-pop quintet) Le Galaxie, something like that would be a lovely fit. I think there is great electronic music being made, particularly now, so I don’t see why it couldn’t happen in the future.”

The distinguishing aspect of these Marquee shows for Greene, as mentioned earlier, is the history of electronic music in Cork City, well-documented as is, with a rich library of historical reference points and long-standing personalities, many of whom from its previous nineties heyday are still performing or involved with music in Cork intimately. The culture of electronica in Cork presents Greene with the challenge of doing justice to the knowledge and enthusiasm of a crowd quite possibly equally split between back-in-the-day revellers and their kids, now discovering house and techno via a busy scene in the city’s current venues. “I’m really looking forward to it. Electric Picnic to me was the most special of all the gigs, probably because it was the first but also because it was a festival, the tent had a lovely atmosphere. The Marquee is gonna have that, but it’s also gonna have the Cork crowd, who have always been great for me over the years. I played the Savoy for years, and that’s always been, a big kinda following there for this genre of dance music, the nineties. I think a lot of that stems back to the days of Sir Henry’s, so it’s there in the music. We got a big reaction out of Dublin, which is a hard one to do, so I can only imagine what it’s going to be like in Cork”.

Jenny Greene and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra play Live at the Marquee on June 17th and 18th. The 17th is sold out, and remaining tickets for the 18th are available online and from usual retail outlets.

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