China Moses: “I’ve Never Had So Much Love!”

Singer, broadcaster and ambassador for the artform – over the years China Moses has played many roles. Fitting then, that on her newest album and run of gigs, she finally gets to cut loose. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to jazz royalty about family, songwriting and the Great American Songbook.

From a young rapper, to a broadcaster and custodian of the arts, to a versatile singer and social commentator, it’s been quite the journey for singer China Moses. Born into jazz royalty, the daughter of the legendary Dee Dee Bridgewater and pioneering African-American theatre director Gilbert Moses was always going to have massive boots to fill, but rather than try and follow where they lead, Moses has simply done what she’s wanted to do, leading her to become a headline jazz singer in her own right, by way of European hip-hop and the Great American Songbook.

This journey has brought her to the release last year of newest album ‘Nightintales’, a mature piece of work that sees Moses fuse soul, jazz and r’n’b into cogent, compact pop, dealing with modern issues like alienation and anxiety. Though it released last year to critical acclaim, Moses has been living with the record for a lot longer. “The album was finished in 2015. It took me two years to find a label that wanted to release it! I met the lovely people at MPS Records in Germany, and they’re a small label, so their release calendar was really backed up, so they asked ‘would you mind waiting a bit?’. That was in 2016, and I asked ‘how long?’, ‘cause I’d been touring this project already, trying to keep my live work going. And they said ‘if you can wait until March of 2017, we’ll be all yours.’ And I’m very, very glad that I waited. ”

In keeping the record to short bursts of accessible, whip-smart pop, Moses has invested ‘Nightintales’ with the kind of brevity that is the soul of wit to modern-day, streaming-centric audiences. That immediacy was at every level of the album’s creation, from writing, all the way into working with collaborators in studio. “I’m very proud of the way the album sounds. It was recorded in the jazz tradition of keeping everything to one take. The musicians are one-take, I re-recorded my vocals as there was a lot going on, and we had way too little time. So, what you  hear, piano, bass, drums, are all one take. Them boys, they can play. I still love it. The reason I can still love it, is the songs are still very short, on purpose, on the album format, so in concert we can stretch them out. It’s an opportunity for the musicians to play, to interpret the song the way they’re feeling it that night. I find that as a vocalist, we often have a tendency to concentrate on the voice, but for me, and this is what my mom taught me, you are nothing without your band.”

Over the years, Moses has also worked comprehensively with the accepted Great American Songbook, across numerous stage shows and heritage projects. No great surprise, of course, considering her roots, but an important and distinct influence on her creativity and frame of reference. “I didn’t graduate high school. My deal with my mother was I would get a GED (Leaving Cert-equivalent diploma for school leavers in America) after my first album. I’ve always lived with two ‘burdens’. Having Dee Dee Bridgewater as your mom is definitely not a burden, I can attest to that. She’s a great mom and an amazing artist. But that’s one thing, trying to live up to what she’s done, and on the other side, I had the burden of not knowing who I was musically. So, when I did two (blues-influenced albums), it was like I went back to school, and ‘Nightintales’ was my thesis. It was like, ‘how do I take my heritage, my Black American musical heritage, and tell my story, my testimony, respecting the past while staying in the present?’. I didn’t want it to sound like something that could be mistaken for being recorded earlier in time.”

In 2012, Moses performed for UNESCO’s first annual International Jazz Day in Paris, alongside her mother and numerous other jazz luminaries, among other performances for the organisation over the years. It was a landmark performance for Moses, and it all came together on the day, while also tending to her duties as a broadcaster and interviewer at the event. “UNESCO are awesome! I went to Mexico this year, for UNESCO Mexico, for Culture Week in the region of Guadalajara. On the Jazz Day, at first I was just supposed to co-present the evening, then they came around and asked me to sing a song. I was like ‘whaaaaat?’ (laughs). It was crazy. I remember being scared, completely freaking out for the first song I did, and I think it really sounds like that. When it got to the finale, we did ‘On Broadway’, which was crazy, because I didn’t rehearse. I was co-hosting and interviewing everybody. I didn’t have time to rehearse the finale! I thought I was just singing background vocals, and right before we go on stage, my mom says ‘you have the third verse’. And ‘On Broadway’ keeps going up in key, the last verse is the highest, and I have a lower voice than my mom. I’ll never forget seeing George Benson’s face when I started singing. I had Uncle George’s approval! I was over the moon. It was so much fun, so laid-back, hanging with all these greats.”

As an aside to her music career, Moses has worked comprehensively as a broadcaster in France, including time with Canal Plus’ ‘Le Grand Journal’ music show, radio shows on JazzFM and TSFJazz, and documentaries with arts broadcaster ARTE. Music and broadcast media are odd yet complementary bedfellows for creative types, and Moses is quick to discuss her experiences on the ‘other’ side of that equation. “TV made me a better stage performer. It taught me to speak to a group of people at once. A lot of artists aren’t trained for that. I have no problem hyping up a song like Nancy Wilson or Frank Sinatra, who could set up a song. It’s also kept me extremely humble. There ain’t nothing special about me. I’m just doing what I do, the best that I can, and having a lot of joy doing it, and if it makes someone else happy for the space of a concert, or if I can make ‘em feel different kinds of emotions, take ‘em on a journey, shit, man, I’m happy. My job is done. Radio keeps me connected to music, to my love of what I do. Without music I would be a crazy person. It’s not just my passion, it’s my anchor.”

Moses is coming to Cork for her first Jazz Festival excursion this year, performing on a double-bill with the Pablo Ziegler Trio at the Everyman on Saturday October 27th. The appeal and enthusiasm of Ireland’s jazz community for getting behind major events is what stands out to Moses ahead of the big event. “I was in Dublin for the Cork Jazz Festival’s press event there, and I played for twenty minutes. Last year I was in Bray, for the jazz festival there, that was my first time in Ireland. It was a beautiful day, I wanted to live here, but then I thought of all the rain I hear about (laughs). I had the most amazing time in Dublin. It was a joy, and what was funny was, I didn’t recognise any of the people there, I found out the day after that they were all these social media influencers and tastemakers, and it was neat to see them discover jazz. I’ve never had so much love!’”

China Moses plays the Everyman Palace on Saturday October 27th, in a double-bill with the Pablo Ziegler Trio at 8pm. Tickets on sale now from guinnessjazzfestival.com

Cork Jazz Fringe Festival: Engaging with the Community

The Fringe and Music Trail events have always been important to the Jazz Weekend’s engagement with the city’s community, with hidden musical gems and workshops aplenty. MIKE McGRATH-BRYAN takes a look.

Engagement with the city’s community groups, residents and businesses has been key to the growth and development of the Jazz over the past four decades: it is, after all, with this support that the weekend festival has been able to expand into a bank-holiday staple capable of attracting music fans from all over the world. The Jazz Fringe Festival, a programme of events at venues around the city, is an important part of this process, bringing music, tuition and performances to the citizenry as part of the weekend’s proceedings.

At the heart of the Fringe is the festival’s club, running all day and night throughout the weekend from the festival’s spiritual home at the Gresham Metropole Hotel, where the first Jazz was booked in 1977 to fill a gap left by a cancelled bridge tournament. With numerous resident performers, and appearances from ensembles also playing elsewhere throughout the weekend, it’s the very heart of the festival itself, and any perusal of the festival requires a stop at the Metropole at some stage during the weekend. Other all-weekend festival venues around the city for some free jazzin’ include the outdoor stage at Emmet Place (outside the Opera House, also playing host to the Jazz Bites Food Fair), and the River Lee Hotel’s Riverside Bar.

The City Library has long been a staunch source of support for musicians in the area, and it’s fitting that the library’s music department opens proceedings with a pair of crash-courses in music theory and appreciation. Wednesday 24th sees a special beginners’ seminar in reading sheet music take place at 11am, as musicians and guests attempt to help stave off confusion surrounding the written language behind the sounds. The class is suitable for all levels of musical knowledge and all ages. The following day, same time, same place, a special workshop on listening to Jazz takes attendees through the question of jazz music, and why casual listeners have historically odd about it. This presentation is aimed at introducing jazz to suit all tastes, new pathways into listening and enjoying jazz, and to providing information on a vast and exciting sonic world.

Hallowe’en preparations kick off in earnest on Thursday 25th with a Festival Parade, winding through the city in celebration of Dia de Los Muertos, the Latin-American Day of the Dead. Held in association with Cork Community Artlink and setting off at 7pm, it’s suitably spooky fun for all the family, as a marking of the beauty of life and death takes in major floats, dancers, musicians and performers, weaving their way through Cork city. A New Orleans-type jazz funeral is at the centre of proceedings, with live improvising jazz musicians paying homage to departed jazz greats. Friday the 26th marks a major first for the Jazz, as the Festival has commissioned ‘Unity’, its fully-immersive audiovisual experience, fusing Jazz, contemporary classical and electronica, juxtaposed against the surrounds of St Luke’s Church, now better known as the ‘Live at St. Luke’s’ venue. 4k microscopic projections, a full lighting show, and The David Duffy Quartet unite to accentuate a show that examines what it is that connects, unifies and binds us. Tickets are €15, from uticket.ie.

The CIT Cork School of Music has long been a destination on Jazz Weekend, for a look at the new generation of musicians and performers, as well as family-friendly entertainment. On Saturday 27th at 10.30am, the CITCSM Youth Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Sarah Dewhurst and with special guests from the New York Jazz Standard Project, provide a programme of big band music, suitable for all ages. Wee jazzers will also have the opportunity to meet all the different instrumental families, as they feature in familiar tunes from TV and the silver screen. At noon in the same building, the CITCSM Jazz Big Band gets ready for a High Noon Jazz Gala, as the finest young musicians on the degree programmes of the CSM are directed by award-winning composer, pianist and arranger Cormac McCarthy in a recital of modern and standard classics that’s kept the event a hot ticket among jazz fans for years. Tickets for these events are are online at events.cit.ie.

While the Sunday is packed with the usual favourites, including live jazz at Cork City Gaol at 4pm (tickets €5, email info@corkcitygaol.com), Monday 29th has a pair of highlights for musicians and poets alike amid all the sore heads and smaller shows that typically accompany the festival’s last day. Vocalists can head to Voiceworks on South Terrace at 1pm, for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with Cork Jazz headliner Sachal Vasandani, alongside veteran Cork vocalist, Gemma Sugrue. These two world-travelled singers promise an intimate vocal workshop, working with all levels of singers to up their vocal development game (€40 for participating students, €20 to attend as a non-participating member). That night, poetry night Ó Bhéal has its annual jazz-poetry session. The night begins as usual at 9.30pm, with the group’s customary five-word poetry challenge, followed by impeccably-monikered guest poet Sex W. Johnston, who will be accompanied by jazz musician Darragh Hennessy, who will also improvise music to the later open-mic poetry session.

Meanwhile, throughout the weekend, there’s a lot on for more discerning palates, as the best of original music from Cork and further afield can be spotted amid the chaos and jazz standards of the music trail. Electric on South Mall plays host all weekend to performances from Cork folk singer-songwriter Marlene Enright, as well as DJ sets from this parish’s own Ronan Leonard. Fred Zeppelin’s keeps metalheads happy on Friday night, with a crushing headliners double-bill of Scots doom lads King Witch and Leeds post-metallers Hundred Year Old Man, while punk rockers can shine their boots for Saturday’s free gig, featuring Dublin oi merchants Jobseekers and seldom-seen Cork punx Stanton’s Grave. Sunday sees Cork’s finest neo-soul six-piece hit the back room of Coughlan’s on Douglas Street, as Irish Times Band of the Year winners Shookrah look likely to pack the venue out for a late show at 11pm.

For more information and tickets, check out GuinnessCorkJazz.com.

Cork Folk Festival: Heralding Change

Gender equality, book launches, and the appearance of a new generation: the 39th Cork Folk Festival has all the makings of a defining year for the annual weekender. Mike McGrath-Bryan looks at highlights of the billing, and talks to some of its voices.

Over nearly forty years, the Cork Folk Festival has been the city’s premiere showcase for folk and traditional Irish music in its multitude of shades. This year, with forty-five gigs and events across fifteen venues, this year’s line-up is among the busiest in the festival’s history. With the festival’s landmark fortieth anniversary approaching next year, a huge cross-section of folk sub-genres, age groups and city communities are catered for, arguably setting the tone for the future of one of Cork city’s landmark cultural offerings.

The festival is underway, and last night saw the launch of legendary poster designer Barry Britton’s first poster book, with An Spailpín Fánach serving as the venue for a celebration of a lifetime forging the identity of folk festivals all over Europe. Showcasing his trademark Celtic motifs, spiritual fantasy themes & penchant for metapictures, the book features over ninety posters for music and surfing events, including the Hawaiian Triple Crown of Surfing, the Rossnowlagh Intercounties, Cork Folk Festival and Ballyshannon Folk Festival, the longest-running event of its kind in the country. As in the book, stories were told about the creation of many of Britton’s celebrated works.

There’s been a great emphasis in the new wave of Irish trad on cultural crossover, with bands like Slow Moving Clouds fusing Nordic and Irish sounds together with the modern post-punk tendency. This sets the stage for another international crossover tonight at the Triskel, when the age-old sean-nós tradition meets its Portugese counterpart, fadó, as singer Claudia Aurora headlines at the venue, making her Cork debut after her sold-out concert as part of the inaugural Songlines Fadó Series in London, last September. Much like the current rush of new blood washing through trad, Aurora has been heralded as the voice of fadó’s new generation, investing it with a bluesy tinge. Meanwhile Máire Ní Chéileachair and Nell Ní Chróinín open proceedings with their take on sean-nós.

While a lot of the emphasis of the festival is on the future of folk and trad, a powerful nod to the genre’s past occurs tomorrow night at the Triskel, as three of Ireland’s longest-tenured instrumentalists bring their KGB supergroup to the Folk Festival billing. Paddy Keenan (The Bothy Band), Frankie Gavin (Dé Danann) and Dermot Byrne (Altan) began touring as a trio in January of this year, and the trio draws on their historic songbook throughout their live performances, with violinist Kevin Burke accompanying.

Also playing tomorrow night at the Roundy on Castle Street, is John Blek, a singer-songwriter better known as the leader of indie outfit John Blek and the Rats. In recent years, he’s solidified his reputation as a prolific creator, and this year marks a milestone for him, with his first Folk Festival appearance, with Laura Ní Carthaigh in support. Speaking ahead of the gig, Blek discusses what the show means to him. “It’s a genuine pleasure to be invited to play the Cork Folk Festival this year. It’s an event with integrity and heritage that is held in high esteem in the folky calendar worldwide. I played a show in Birmingham last month and was informed by a couple in attendance that they have been making the pilgrimage to Cork Folk Fest for the last 15 years. That’s impressive! It’s an honour to be involved and to become part of its long and wonderful history.”

Saturday sees a multitude of afternoon events kick off at venues around the city, but among the highlights will be a speaking appearance from former Solas vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Karan Casey, at St. Peter’s at 12pm, as she continues to plough new furrows for gender balance and equality in folk with the Fairplé organisation. Speaking to your writer earlier in the year, Casey outlined the immediate need for this conversation in Irish music, and the talks that brought it about. “Many of us started asking questions about why there were so few women at many of the gigs. There is a clearly visible imbalance in the line-ups for traditional and folk music festivals and gigs, most are populated and dominated by men, even though the gene pool has many female performers available for work. We also started talking backstage at Celtic Connections 2017, about walking on and off the stage, and how awkward that seemed at times. Ewen Vernal, the bass player I often work with, mused “is it perhaps a gender issue?”. This really opened up the conversation that we were all afraid to have. The main people at the table were myself, Ewen, Pauline Scanlon, Niall Vallely, Seán Óg Graham, and Niamh Dunne. I was really surprised to hear the inside of my head being given a voice that night. It really got me thinking, and it gave me a bit of hope that perhaps something could be done.”

Saturday night at 7pm in An Spailpín Fánach, the conversation continues, as Greenshine’s Mary Shine presents Gals at Play, an all-star line-up of women in Irish folk, including Limerickwoman Emma Langford, a well-travelled singer-songwriter who’s been gigging furiously in recent months to promote her new record. Ahead of her performance, she waxed philosophical about playing Cork Folk Festival for the first time, and memories of her first Leeside excursion. “I still remember my first ever Cork gig. I used to hang out with the emo kids on Paul Street – tacky Penney’s corsets, lacy gloves and purple lipstick were all the rage – and I played music with my pal James. I remember joining him on stage for a couple of tunes at a battle of the bands called in the Half Moon Theatre. It was… I wouldn’t say it was the defining moment of my career, but it was interesting. I certainly don’t think I could ever have imagined myself playing gorgeous festivals like the Cork Folk Festival. I’m really excited to join the Gals at Play lineup, Mary Shine has curated a great show and I think everyone involved has something really special and unique to offer.”

The festival comes to a close this Sunday night with headliner Kate Rusby taking to the hallowed stage of Cork Opera House. As early as 1999, at the age of just 26, Rusby was named as one of the Top Ten Folk Voices of the Century, and has spent her career as a flag-bearer for folk in England subsequently. Defying convention to garner Mercury Prize nominations for her music, Rusby has made a virtue of refining her strain of folk songwriting, staying true to an acoustic-centric approach.

For more information, check out corkfolkfestival.com.

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.

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).”

Marsicans: “We’re Always Going Down the Rabbit Hole”

From DIY stragglers to BBC radio playlisting, indie four-piece Marsicans have had a fairytale eighteen months. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with members James Newbigging and Rob Brander ahead of their gig at Cyprus Avenue next month.

Sometimes a good story is made interesting because a certain trope is subverted, or at the least, flipped convicingly. In a time when artists going it alone and wearing the multiple caps of a DIY musician, it’s increasingly interesting to see a band sign to an independent label and obtain success by any measure. In the case of Marsicans, the process of gigging, recording and generally slugging it out has accelerated exponentially since signing with indie label LAB in 2017. What began as just a means of getting the band’s new music out has landed the band at festivals, in high-profile touring, and in a most unlikely occurrence, providing the theme song to Channel 4 reality confection ‘Made in Chelsea’. For frontman James Newbigging, it’s been a lot to take in. “It’s been full-on, but in the best kind of way. Working with LAB has helped us keep doing what we were doing, but on a bigger scale, and more frequently. Each release has been gaining more momentum, and we have been lucky enough to have BBC Radio 1 and Spotify supporting us along the way.”

The band’s arguable breakout single, ‘Wake Up Freya’ released earlier this year, and aside from online success, is the anchor track for an EP of LAB Records singles of the same name. Newbigging discusses how he feels about how they’ve fared creatively in the past while, in terms of writing and production. “I’m very happy with what we’ve released so far, but there’s always ways to improve. I’m mostly happy that each song has its own kind of ‘place’, if that makes sense. When writing, we try not to stick to one exact formula. I think some bands find something that works and stick to it. That’s not to say they won’t do well, but we’re always calling each other out if we’re trying to get away with the same tricks song after song. Production-wise, we’re always going down the rabbit hole in the studio. That might not always end well, but we make sure we give everything a go.”

The band has hit a million streaming listens, also – while vinyl and merch is important to any indie band, Spotify has had an increasing impact on bottom line at management level. As mentioned earlier, Newbigging credits the emergence of the service and its accessibility for much of their newfound success. “I think it definitely makes your band more accessible to a wider audience. For example, we were sat in a restaurant in Ipswich the other week and our song ‘Too Good’ came on. They had put on a Spotify playlist that we’re featured on, and I don’t think those chance plays would happen without Spotify. There’s definitely a change overall with streaming, but you’ve got to roll with it, because ultimately you want your music to be in as many people’s cars/ radios/ ears as possible. Spotify and streaming make that a lot easier.”

Not to discount radio and the like – singles of theirs have made the aforementioned BBC daytime playlisting, placement on Channel 4, etc. with backup from the numbers that the band has reached via streaming. For bassist/vocalist Rob Branding, these are all signifiers of progress. “Those kind of things are, first and foremost, a great validation that you’re doing things right. It’s such an open-ended industry that it can sometimes be difficult to know whether you’re making the right decisions. So when Radio and TV start supporting then it feels really good. The two platforms are great for helping to get your music further afield, but I’d say the biggest thing that having media backing does is to tell your existing fans that things are happening. The people who have been with us from the beginning get just as excited as we do about that kind of thing, so it’s good to make them feel their support has been worthwhile.”

After endless grinding in support slots and spot-shows, the band is just off its first headline tour of the UK, off the back of some high-profile tour supports in the indie and pop worlds, and all this media excitement. Branding is keen to emphasise that this is what the lads are after. “It’s the best feeling in the world walking on to stage in a room full of people who are all there to see you play your songs. The other stuff is nice to have, but ultimately it’s the energy you feel from those people that you chase.”

The band is renowned for the constant roadmiles it’s putting in, and as with any other band that leaves their effort and energy around the touring circuit of DIY venues in the UK, the question emerges of how they have managed to balance all this with a personal life, health, and wellbeing. There’s a certain amount of sacrifice, but Branding maintains its value. “In terms of having ‘normal’ personal lives outside of the band, we kind of just forgot that idea a long time ago. It sounds like a sad thing, but when you spend all your time in a van with your best friends seeing new places and meeting cool people, it’s not worth crying over. Being in a band is all-encompassing, so it’s not just the touring that has an effect on our personal lives, it’s the everyday stuff too. We have to be ready to go at the drop of a hat and having structure and routine is almost impossible. That can sometimes have a negative effect, but at those times we try and look at the bigger picture and think about what the alternative might be. We soon start to feel better about ourselves!”

Marsicans are touring Ireland next month, including a date in Cyprus Avenue on the 7th. It’s looking like a voyage of discovery for the four-piece, lying just before another stint in studio and the pressure to maintain their considerable momentum. “For most of us, it’s our first time in Ireland full stop, let alone as a band, so we’re really excited to come over and see that part of the world. The travelling element is one of the most fulfilling parts of band life and it’s always fun to be somewhere new. It’s also a nervous time because you don’t know whether there will be 1 person or 1,000 people there to greet you. Let’s hope it’s the latter (laughs).”

A Hawk and a Hacksaw: “We Took Our Time With This”

Ex-Neutral Milk Hotel man Jeremy Barnes and violinist Heather Trost come to Cork next Tuesday as part of a small run of Irish dates as A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Barnes about their new record.

“I just saw that your last name is McGrath. My grandma was a McGrath. Her grandfather came over to California from Ireland in the nineteenth century.  We still have a few connections to family in Ireland… I’m hoping they will come to the show in Cork.” Such ease in connecting traces of family and history around the world, and connecting them to the present, informs the music of A Hawk and A Hacksaw, the solo-project-turned-duo starring Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes and world-travelled violinist Heather Trost. As we chat about how the record has been received, this forthrightness is a constant, as Barnes addresses the road itch that inspires their music time and again. “We haven’t toured in awhile, and it has been wonderful to be out again playing live.”

On their seventh full-length, ‘Forest Bathing’, the band have tapped into a natural interest in the music of Eastern Europe, indulged with visits to the area. Indeed, a greater connection with the world is a theme of the project. “Some of the stories were inspired by a melody, while some of the songs were inspired by a particular scene or meditation we had somewhere in Eastern Europe. When we were in Koprivstisa, Bulgaria, we learned about how the merchants of that area travelled all through the Ottoman Empire selling textiles. It led me to thinking about what it must have been like, for a Bulgarian to go down to Istanbul and into the Middle East, to see all the cultural richness of those areas, and then to head back home. That is really what we are interested in – when so-called borders are crossed and people open themselves up to the world outside.”

While the band has traditionally featured more collaborations than have occurred on this record, the process for the duo hasn’t exactly been isolated either, as musicians from around the world have brought their experience to the table. “We wrote all the songs, and most of the music is played by us. We had a few key musicians play here and there, including Cüneyt Sepetçi, who is a wonderful Roma clarinet virtuoso from Istanbul, and Balazs Unger, a cimbalom musician from Hungary. Our old friend Sam Johnson from Chicago played on one track, and closer to home, a great bass player from New Mexico, Noah Martinez played on a few tracks.”

The attention to detail that comes across when Barnes discusses the album extended to the recording and production processes, with the duo working at their own pace. “We took our time with this, which made it much more enjoyable, and we are introducing new instruments, some of which will be with us when we play in Cork. I’ve been playing the Iranian santur and davul drum, both of which we will bring with us.”

The band has been releasing records via its own label, LM Duplication, and has been for a while. The tectonic plates that have shaken the music industry continue to move, and adjusting for the movement has presented challenges. “The transition from physical copies, to downloads, and to streaming has at every step meant less income for the artist, and more income for places like Spotify. The music industry looks nothing like it did when I began playing professionally twenty-two years ago. I don’t feel like an old man, but in this business, I guess I am. Starting our own label has given us a lot of freedom, and it is wonderful to be in full control. But of course there is a lot more work. We are in involved in every aspect of the release of our records, from mixing and mastering, to album sleeve design, down to filling orders at the post office. With the way the industry has been set up today, I’m not sure that I would want to be a musician if I were nineteen again. In 1995-96, I could see a way for a musician to make a living on a small scale, without having to deal with major labels. I’m not sure that I can see that now. Our music is heard by more and more people, but we receive less and less income.”

The duo is playing Cork next week, on the 14th, upstairs in Cyprus Avenue. Heading into their Irish dates, Barnes is excited about getting in front of Irish folk audiences. “We love playing in Ireland! We’ve found that Irish really listen, and they can handle instrumental music. Few places have as much of an understanding of the violin as Ireland does – Hungary, Romania, certainly, but I think of all the countries we’ve visited they are the only ones.”