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).”

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.

Gender Rebels: Fighting for Visibility and Rights

Gender Rebels are a group dedicated to working on the rights of transgender, intersex and non-binary people in Cork City, negotiating obstacles both infrastructural and everyday, and providing an outlet for social events and peer support. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with chairperson Jack Fitzgerald.

With Pride month in the rear view mirror for another year, and celebrations around the country winding down, it’s easy to bask in the colour, pomp and circumstance that the weekend’s proceedings confer on the city. Inclusivity and visibility have traditionally been at the heart of Pride celebrations, stemming from its roots in civil rights protest. But with criticism mounting in recent times of co-option by major sponsors of the Pride movement, the importance of maintaining that visibility for the city’s LGBT* community on a day-to-day basis has been drawn into sharp focus. For transgender, intersex, non-binary and otherwise gender non-conforming individuals, representation and community has historically been of utmost importance in the absence of substantial infrastructural assistance, with this year seeing Dublin host Ireland’s first ever Trans Pride march.

Enter Gender Rebels, a group formed last year to provide peer support and social outlets with a distinctly Corkonian identity. For chairperson Jack Fitzgerald, being part of its foundation was about strengthening connections between people in the city. “The last peer support group in Cork had kind of wound down, and (advocacy group) TENI was looking for something to fill the gap. Just from other things, they knew who I was, called me and asked would I be interested in taking up the peer support group. From looking at what the support group did and the resources it had, I kind-of figured that I might as well do my own thing here, that wasn’t connected to any organisation. I thought that would give us more of a voice and more visibility.”

Last November saw the group’s inaugural AGM, at the Village Hall community venue on Patrick’s Quay. With the event’s agenda ranging from social events to addressing the wider infrastructural needs of Cork transgender, non-binary and intersex communities, reaching a consensus among members before settling on a mission statement was a considered process. “It took a while. When I set the AGM, the community was very dispersed in Cork, there wasn’t one epicentre for people. Loads of people are online, in online groups, that’s where we advertised it, we got the name out there, as well as networking with people we know, and we booked the space in The Village Hall upstairs for the AGM. It was surprisingly well-attended, about 50 people, which was absolutely fantastic. There, we just said what each wanted from the scene in Cork, what we were looking for, and then, from that, hearing stories. From there, I was able to pull together a steering group, we set it up and outlined the aims of our community, how to raise awareness, and then also to try and get better resources for ourselves here in the city.”

Among the key items on the agenda, and one that has defined the group subsequently, has been that of addressing the needs of the city’s community, in different ways. Recent years have seen an upsurge in national awareness of the issues facing trans, non-binary and intersex people, but on a local level, Gender Rebels have been putting in the work on educating others on the issues that affect people on a daily basis. “The big one is if you’re wishing to transition and get onto HRT, there’s no services in Cork for you. You have to go to either Galway or Dublin, and the waiting list for Loughlinstown in Dublin is twenty months. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get onto HRT after that time, either. They’re using a very outdated mode of care for trans people, they’re not applying themselves to the international standard, the WPAT. There’s a movement in Dublin, This is Me, trying to get the international standard of care brought in. The other issue is people don’t know. They don’t know what being trans is, don’t know what being intersex is. If you’re an individual trying to access a support or service, the people you’re dealing with don’t know what you are. That can be very difficult. People that are going to their GPs or their counsellors are often in the position where they are the educator, and that can be very difficult as they may not know everything themselves, but they are expected to. Other people may choose not to come out because of that, so they may use a service in the city and people may not know they’re trans because they don’t want to have that conversation.”

Among the biggest issues facing the community in Cork at present, is the coarsening of discussion on the topic of gender, thanks in no small part to the rise in agenda-driven online debate channels and personalities. Recurring jokes and memes belittling minority social groups have been a pillar of their online strategies, and Jack has seen the attrition on discourse in his everyday life. “You get the people that think this is some new fad that just came up, don’t realise there’s a history to it, thinking that it’s okay to have “debates” with trans, non-binary and intersex people. This could be a person just going about their day, and all of a sudden, they’ll meet an individual that has this pre-planned debate, made out in their head. You’d be, y’know, just trying to get your coffee. You don’t want to be debating if the ‘they’ pronoun is singular or not. I just want to have a coffee. You’re always expected to ‘perform’. Part of that is, as the gay and lesbian movements have picked up acceptance, visibility and allies, they’re no longer the ‘easy target’. Trans people are likely to be more vulnerable or isolated, so they might be an easier target for this stuff.”

Another stated goal for the group has been garnering better resources with which to work, and provide spaces for people from the community to meet up and support one another. The processes of dealing with officialdom and venues around the city have been relatively easy for the group, with goodwill being extended from different quarters. “It’s been very positive. I was volunteering with Cork Community Art Link, who are at the Lido (in Blackpool). I had asked them if we could avail of the space and they were more than happy to give us that space. So, while you do have those people online that are anti-gay, or anti-trans, the average person is more than willing to be accepting, almost like they can’t do enough for you, and it’s really been heartwarming to see that. People are really kind, or if they don’t know, say, the right way to go about things, they just ask questions like ‘how can I support you better?’, which is really encouraging. Interestingly, we have had difficulty in accessing (lesbian and gay spaces), but it is getting better. The Cork Gay Project has recently changed their remit to include trans men, which is really encouraging. Bi Ireland has been fantastic. I’m surprised by the amount of trans people in bi groups in Ireland. They’re an accepting space and they’ve made sure that they’re an accepting space.”

With the polarisation of online discussion and subsequent second-hand talk, it could be difficult for some people to know where to begin getting up to speed on matters pertaining to the city’s trans, non-binary and intersex communities. Discussion regarding preferred pronouns, gender identities and trans rights have come to the surface in recent years, but for Fitzgerald, knowing how to help starts with the everyday ways in which people interact and support each other. “The biggest one is, first and foremost, view us as human. There’s a lot of ‘othering’ that can happen. Some people can be so different to you, so out of your norm, that it’s easy to other them, but when you do that, you dehumanise them. Just realise that we are human and the vast majority of us want to live our lives. I’d be very unusual, by being very proactive and advocating for trans rights, but the majority want to live their lives and get on with things. The second one is, if someone has come out to you, and has changed their pronouns, to just respect those pronouns, try and use them. I know it can be difficult if you know someone for a long time to change to a new name and new pronouns, especially if it’s ‘they’ as a singular. It can a take to while to get used to it. If you do make a mistake, misuse pronouns, etc., what works best, I find, is to say sorry and move on. One thing that often happens is someone will get the wrong pronoun, and then spend the next half-hour saying sorry for it. It comes from a place of kindness… if it’s an accident, it’s an accident. It happens.”

Another pillar of the group’s remit is raising the local profile of the community in Cork, with this awareness feeding into the main aim of better resources and support in the city. To this end, creating visibility has been a major part of the group’s activities. “I think the mere fact that we exist has created a lot of awareness. I’m after getting phone calls or emails from people where a family member has come out, or they have a client who’s trans, and they go online because they don’t know anything about it, they Google it and they find us. We’re a place for them to ask their questions. Another one is having been involved in Pride this year, which allowed us to have our own trans event. In UCC, I’d do a lot of talks… when anyone calls us asking to do a talk, I’d always raise my hand. During the Repeal campaign, I was asked to provide my perspective as a trans person. Y’know, we have meetups and social events, we do so in public, to reinforce the idea that there’s nothing wrong with being trans. We can exist in public spaces. When we launched the group, a gay man came up to me and said he thought it was unusual that we would have gatherings in public. He said he knew two trans women that wouldn’t “pass”, didn’t ‘look’ female, and because of that they shouldn’t be out in public. It’s that kind of thing we want to challenge. We are as entitled as anyone to be in these spaces.”

While the social events include coffee gatherings, nights out and games nights in places like Tabletop and Barcadia, an important offering for the group is a closed-doors peer support group at the Lido, happening monthly. Provided is an accepting space for people to present themselves as who they are, with group discussions, workshops and changing facilities available. “Mainly, we meet up in cafes. It’s a lot more chill for people. If you saw us sitting around, you wouldn’t twig that we are trans, non-binary or intersex. We just look like everyone else. We get people that go to our peer support meetings, those are closed spaces, people can be ‘more’ themselves, can dress the way they want, act the way they want. Some people can be more reserved in public, depending on how ‘out’ they are and where they are in their transition. It’s a place to support each other, discuss their experiences. If someone is just coming out, don’t know where they fit, groups like this are very handy, they can hear stories, ask questions. Oftentimes, it’s the first space (people) have been in where they’re ‘out’, or the norm, they’re not ‘unusual’. And just to have that, where they’re not the different person in the room, can be very liberating.”

The group has come along in leaps and bounds, with another AGM due later in the year, advocacy work ongoing, and social activities planned throughout. Fitzgerald points to ongoing growth and hard graft. “To grow bigger, have more events. Weekly events. Down the line, our own centre or space. When you look at Belfast, they have the Trans Resource Centre there. Seeing what they’ve done up there, we’d love to have something similar up there, where you can get resources and info. Another thing is more of an online presence, at the moment, we’re all based on Facebook. We want to move from that to our own website, so that will be a resource to access, as people might be afraid of using socials, others might not know they’re out, etc. There’s a few other things lined up, but right now it’s about getting stable, growing and building our community.”

For more information on upcoming peer support groups and social activities, email genderrebelscork@gmail.com, or find Gender Rebels on Facebook.

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.”

Cian Finn: “Making It Work Was Always a Hustle”

Having travelled the world and worked with legends in his field, Cian Finn has slowly been brewing his own reverential brand of reggae. This weekend, he returns to Cork after living here for six years, and talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about two very different shows.

A well-rounded veteran of his craft, Galwegian singer, musician and songwriter Cian Finn’s body of work is inseparable from the love of his life: reggae music and culture. Not a big shock in any case regarding musicians, especially where an established and easily-executed set of social and cultural tropes exist, but the degree to which his passions inform his work is readily evident, in everything to how his music is presented, in gig posters and album artwork, to the journey he’s taken around the world in pursuit of it. “I started listening to reggae around twelve years of age. A friend of my folks would have been on holidays in Jamaica, and brought back an Island Records compilation of reggae on CD, then left it at our house after a party. There was a lot of Motown & soul music played in our house at that time, so this new music sounded familiar, like tropical soul. Songs like ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff & ‘Soul Shakedown Party’ by Bob Marley were anthems to me then. In my later teens, I started going to jungle and drum & bass nights in Galway, hearing for the first time remixes of more modern Jamaican music. At sixteen, I got a summer job in Dara Records in New York for three months & started collecting hip-hop records. KRS-One was my favourite, and a lot of the hip-hop records had a reggae influence to them. The next summer, my cousin got married near Nice, in the south of France, so I stayed on and got a job gardening in the area. There, I went to see Burning Spear live, which was an incredible experience, and the friends I made introduced me to modern Jamaican music, which was more high-energy & had a hip-hop influence to it. So at that stage, I was hooked, and started learning Peter Tosh & Bob Marley songs I’d recorded onto a tape at a house I was staying at, and started busking them in Nice, then onto Amsterdam and Barcelona.”

A nomadic early adulthood brought Finn back to Ireland, where chance encounters led to the formation of Finn’s first notable musical endeavour. Reggae is a strange one in Ireland: while it’s never quite obtained mainstream status beyond the usual tropes, casual listeners are more than amiable to some of the genre’s more relaxed aspects, while the genre has a solid core of crate-divers, sound-system operators and musicians that’s sustained it all along. Getting something going against that background took time and effort. “I moved to Cork at nineteen, and formed a band, Intinn, with two childhood friends from Galway and a great guitar/bass player we met in Cork. We played covers of rare reggae and dancehall songs we loved to listen to, and then as time moved on, we began writing original music. Making it work was always a hustle. Haggling fees from venues, getting favours from friends with vans to drive us into the unknown, selling extra tickets from festivals to cover costs… madness, but a brilliant experience.”

Intinn’s debut album saw Finn confront the nitty-gritty of creativity, production and post-production for the first time, and the experience was almost marred by a brush with the musical establishment in Jamaica. “Intinn’s debut album was self-produced by the band, with a lot of help from our good friend Seán Salmon in 2011. The process was mental. Recorded in bedrooms and kitchens of rented houses, with blankets duct-taped to the walls for sound reasons. We were inexperienced, but full of passion & ideas. The album was later sent to a highly-regarded Jamaican producer for proper mixing, to raise the quality of the record, but he took the money and ran. We were broke!”

Debut solo album ‘This Applies’ followed three years later, and saw Finn take matters into his own hands, and in the process, cross paths with modern reggae royalty as subsequent touring criss-crossed the European festival circuit. “The band split around 2013, I think, and a year later, I was on tour with a producer I’d started making tunes with in Cork, called Radikal Guru. Prince Fatty was performing after us at Ostroda Festival in Poland, and I was blown away by the sound of the tunes. He’s captured the sound of the seventies reggae that had originally magnetised me to it. So after the show, we talked, and he invited me to visit his studio in Brighton. A few weeks later I headed over, and we started to produce the “This Applies” album.”

Finn’s most recent Irish festival engagement came at Macroom’s Townlands Carnival festival, happening two weeks ago. While reviews have been positive, Finn holds the festival in particular esteem for its work with electronic and bass music over the last five years. “Yes, Townlands is great. I really like the style of the festival, and their taste in music. It reminds me of Boomtown festival in the UK. A piratish, jungle-steppin’ circus of bass music, with a dash of reggae.” The following week, Finn performed at the Poor Relation in the city centre, as part of the Cork Heritage Pubs’ Ska and Reggae Festival season, now in its second year. For Finn, it’s symbolic of the genre’s modern development in the city. “The scene in Cork has meant a lot to me over the years. I lived there for six years & was a regular attendee of Revelation Sound System parties, (Kinsale dub band) Wiggle gigs & West Cork raves. It’s great to see Cork having an annual reggae and ska fest in the city.”

This Saturday, Finn returns to Connolly’s of Leap, taking another trip under the venue’s famous hammers with a full sound-system. The following day, he heads to the city, and showcases a body of work he’s been working on for a while now. “The acoustic gig in the Yoga Loft on Sunday this week is very different from my regular shows, like the one this Saturday at Connolly’s of Leap, which are generally high-energy, bass-heavy, big-speaker affairs. This gig will be unamplified and unplugged, voice and guitar, with explanatory introductions to where the songs came from. I’ve written around thirty acoustic songs over the years, so this gig will be a showcase of those tunes. An acoustic album is also in the pipeline.” That forward-looking perspective informs Finn’s schedule going forward, as he seeks to expand his touring footprint into the New Year. “Next is to finish the new album, inbetween gigs, before the winter months. Gigs in Waterford, Dublin, and a few more festivals, including Electric Picnic and a trip to the UK. Heading on tour in Kenya around New Year’s, and then off to India for early 2019. I also have recently started to release my own productions on Emerald Isle Records, with a new tune available for download now.”

Cian Finn’s new single ‘Refugee-La’ is available for streaming now on Bandcamp.