Dr. John Cooper Clarke: “Get Me While I’m Alive!”

He’s the Bard of Salford, a punk-performance poet par excellence whose influence has trickled down from sharing stages with Joy Division to collaborating with the Arctic Monkeys. Ahead of his show on April 28th, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats about poetry, stagecraft, and the legacy of punk with Dr. John Cooper Clarke.

John Cooper Clarke is in very good form at the other end of the phone, a midweek presser interview happening on a sunny afternoon. Personable and honest, his Mancunian-accented voice resonates warmly down the line, spoken deliberately but with good humour and a wit you’d expect from a performer whose way with words and non-traditional influence led him to a legendary career, culminating in a doctorate from the University of Salford. He mulls over a line of questioning he’s been sent in advance. “We’ll talk about it like gentlemen”, he chuckles. It’s almost disarming, coming from a man of his stature.

Growing from a young boy in Manchester with the gift of a turn of phrase, to the artistic contemporary of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, and Joy Division, rock ‘n’ roll mythologists might be slightly surprised that his body of work began with a very brief stint in folk clubs in his home city. It’s a dichotomy that didn’t quite sit right with him for a few reasons, and set the tone for how he’d proceed. “I give ‘em a wide berth, to be honest. Maybe once or twice. But if you grew up in 1950s England, you’ll remember that enjoyment of folk music was rigidly enforced, to counter the perceived Americanisation of popular culture, which I was in favour of. I always saw folk as some creepy, state-sanctioned f*ckin’ brainwashing technique. I’m not talking about Christy Moore, Dylan or the Pogues, more Morris dancing and that anti-American rubbish. I wanted to get into show business. I’d determined I would take it up as a profession, and the only way I knew of, really, given that there weren’t any venues, or any chance of anyone from my background getting a publishing deal right away, was to drag it into the world of showbiz!”

Poetry had scarcely been reaching non-traditional audiences up to the point of Clarke’s youth, reaching his family via Pam Ayres’ recurring spot on ITV’s postal-vote talent show Opportunity Knocks. In a world of YouTube poetry videos and shortform content, the idea of poetry topping the billing on such a television show today is nearly astounding, but for Clarke, it was what he needed to win his family over on his calling. “When I became interested in becoming a professional poet, I didn’t get much encouragement. They were only thinking of my welfare, I’m sure, but my parents pointed out that to their knowledge, no-one had ever made money out of it (laughs)… I’d mention famous modern poets like Philip Larkin, and they’d say ‘he’s a librarian’. Things like that. They were trying to be kind and discourage me from an ill-advised avenue of wealth.”

As mentioned, Clarke earned the moniker ‘The Bard of Salford’ by sharing stages with greats of the punk oeuvre across the late seventies and early eighties. While his live run and recorded work placed him firmly in that genre’s performance-art pantheon, to Clarke, it was a means of getting out and expanding his range. “Let’s deal with that moniker. After getting lumbered with that label, my first priority was to move to London. Who wants to be a local eccentric? F*ck that. The world of punk-rock provided a ticket for this, it only lasted two years, I think, but it provided an intense personal connection for the fans. For me, it got me out of Manchester and around the world, several times. It provided an opportunity for this kind of thing. It only lasted two years, and very few people were involved, but its effect on the cultural world, and in the UK, was disproportionate (chuckles). It shows you the power of mythology! It’s developed its own mythology which has intensified over time. And a general “anti-hippieness” that was so intoxicating at the time.”

A long-form poetry film is something that is just not seen anymore, much less given the opportunity to reach any sort of audience. While formulating a question on his memories, or current thoughts, of the creation of his own masterwork, ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, he’s quick to issue a correction that’s shown up in this very parish lately via the festival rounds. “I’ll give you one – Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gerard Depardieu. Blinder! It’s got swordplay as well! ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, I haven’t seen it in about thirty years. It hasn’t aged very well, I imagine. I watch my films once, and once only. Why suffer more?”

Salford returned the favour to its Bard in 2013 with an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford. Given his feelings on the discrepancy between literary academia and non-traditional forms nowadays, it must have been quite an experience to receive that recognition. “Why not me? At first, I thought, ‘why me?’, but then I read somewhere that Benjamin Zephaniah has sixteen doctorates from as many universities. ‘Thank you’, that was my response. Anything that entitles me to call myself Doctor, ‘thanks very much’. You don’t see him using them, though, he doesn’t call himself Doctor, and he’s entitled sixteen times over, whereas me, I won’t let people forget about it! I’m not wearing those ridiculous clothes in daylight and not call myself Doctor!”

His legacy in music continues to this day, including collaborations with the Arctic Monkeys and Reverend & the Makers, and regular live appearances reciting his own work at music venues around the world. When asked for his thoughts on the influence of his work on younger musicians, poets and performers, however, he’s happy to let that with those he’s influenced. “You’d have to ask somebody else, really, Mike. I’m glad of all the interest that I’d been shown, by Alex (Turner, Arctic Monkeys frontman) and Ben Drew, who used one of my works in the movie ‘Plan B’. I’m very grateful for this mass-media attention, obviously? What’s a poet if nobody knows about it? Without glamour and/or money? A schnorrer, a beggar (laughs). Anything that brings me closer to financial security (laughs louder).”

Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith, as part of an extended run of Irish dates he’ll have been on, including a big show at Dublin’s Vicar Street. He readily offers a message to the gig-goers, word-speakers and general culture-vultures of the Leeside city. “The last one I did in Ireland was three weeks ago in Vicar Street, which was fabulous. There’s no reason to suspect that St. Luke’s won’t be every bit as good. All I can say to the people of Cork is: ‘no pressure, but get me while I’m alive!’.”

John Cooper Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith in support. Tickets €30 on sale now via uticket.ie.

King Zepha: “We Do What We Want”

With a self-produced fusion of ska, rocksteady and jump-up blues, Yorkshireman Sam Thornton is ready to take a working-class English sound to genre fans in Ireland under the moniker of King Zepha this month. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.

Couched in the warm familiarity that reggae recorded directly to tape seems to magically generate, and possessed of a sunny disposition without resorting to genre stereotype, Yorkshire outfit King Zepha have a gentle balance of sonic elements to keep both casual listeners and die-hards happy. Led by producer, songwriter and live bandleader Sam Thornton, the project’s new album ‘Northern Sound’ releases this month, a one-man job written/arranged and produced by yourself and released via boutique London label Happy People. After preparing the record for the better part of a year following a two-month spell of songwriting, Thornton took it upon himself to realise his vision in every aspect of the recording process, performing tracks and overdubs on everything. Not that life didn’t get in the way over the course of proceedings, though. “As the father of a boisterous 6-year old and 18-month-old twins, I’ve had to adopt an as-and-when approach, often involving whole nights holed-up in my attic, hunched over a mixing desk. I couldn’t have managed it without strong coffee and my wonderful, supportive partner, Natalie. The test-pressing of the vinyl LP has just arrived. It was pressed in Ireland, by Dublin Vinyl, and it sounds great. I’ve rehearsed all the new material with the band, and now all that remains is to get out there on the road and play it live, the fun part!”

It’s unusual for a central person to take a ‘producer’ role as a featured musician nowadays, with bands, soloists and collaborative songwriting having long since overtaken the studio system of “star” producers and their in-house bands, etc. Transmuting his own ideas to a live setting, then, is a continuation of time-honoured tradition and method. “I’ve been brought up listening to, and playing in, big bands and jazz bands. In that tradition, there’s usually one or two players in each group who contribute compositions/arrangements and the rest are players who bring the music to life. I’ve never actually played in a band that compose songs collectively, so I don’t know how that works. With the writing and the producing I find it easier to do it myself, at home, and then send rough recordings out to the band to learn. We are all involved in other musical projects and this seems the most productive way for us to work. In the early days of King Zepha, we’d try out my original compositions in our other band, Louis Louis Louis. We’d just sneak them in, between two cover versions, and see what response they’d get from the audience. We’ve got a good system for working out songs and vocal harmonies now. Our pianist always takes the bottom harmony, our bassist the top, and so on.”

Recording to eight-track tape is a brave move in the current technological climate, for many reasons. The ease of digital recording has changed the game, and while a number of studios still proudly boast of using tape equipment for the as-live process, parts for old gear and tape itself are increasingly becoming a specialist business. Thornton speaks on how the method informs the message. “Over the last ten years, we’ve experimented with everything from using just one ribbon mic for the whole band, straight to a two-track tape machine, right through to full digital recordings. We’ve even tried overdubbing one instrument at a time for complete control over reverb, bleed, etc. before arriving at the sound we like best. We’ve tracked this album using an 8-track, quarter-inch tape machine and, because of the amount of tape hiss, you have to hit the tape quite hard. This produces a bit of distortion, but it’s nice distortion, not the horrible “clicky” sound you get from digital distortion. That slightly distorted sound reminds me of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s rocksteady recordings by Lee “Scratch” Perry, my production hero. It’s definitely not the “textbook” way of recording, but I love it.”

The title of the album and subsequent live incarnation, King Zepha’s Northern Sound, bears immediate and heavy connotations of working-class English subcultures, harkening back to obvious ports of call like Northern Soul. When asked about the implications, however, it’s as much a call to belonging and togetherness in a time of barely-precedented social and cultural fracturing close to home. “I didn’t realise until now that I had such a fixation on geography! To be honest, the “northern” reference is more of a descriptor than a political statement. The band are all from northern towns and cities, mostly in Yorkshire, and this is reflected in our dialect, appearance and sense of humour. Musically, there is a very strong Jamaican influence too. I think that our album titles and artwork reflect this fusion. There is a political message in some of our music, but it is one of unity, not of division.”

An interesting aspect of the record, with that in mind, is when it zeroes in on the views of Brits abroad, taken from conversations on the band’s touring excursions. It’s a contentious question, amid a hail of Little Englander stereotypes and gags about Marbella, but in the context of the facts of the ramifications of Brexit, a positive realism, and confronting Brexiteers’ greatest-generation rhetoric, are important. “Without generalising too much, Brits abroad are an interesting breed. Watching a group of them on holiday, for example, can be like watching a group of toddlers or chimps in a zoo and it can be embarrassing sometimes being tarred with the same brush. I’ve been asked a few times, whilst touring in mainland Europe, why did “we” vote to leave the EU. The fact is that the British public are hugely divided on this. Roughly half the population wish to remain and many people didn’t really understand the ramifications of what they were voting for. There was, and is, a lot of propaganda and fabrication, being circulated by the tabloids and social media, on both sides of the fence. I’m very pro-Europe, as are the other band members. Our current Government have a terrible track record of looking after the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable and our workers’ rights. EU legislation currently keeps them in check on some of these issues and, if the UK were to leave the EU, I dread to think what monstrosities they’d unleash.”

It is this fear, brought on by the seeming sleep of reason that Brexit has wrought on the United Kingdom’s citizens, that informs the record’s sunny nature in other ways: the sustained push from certain political quarters for disunity is ready to be met with a rally to the aforementioned togetherness. “The question of Brexit has driven a wedge between people, from all walks of life, and seems to have encouraged some unsavoury characters, such as Nick Griffin (former leader of the far-right groups National Front and British National Party) to resurface from underneath their rocks. Hate crime, xenophobia and Islamophobia are on the increase and people are genuinely scared. And of course, in Ireland, there is the worrying issue of a potential hard border between NI and the Republic and the impact it could have on the peace process. It’s very telling that the politicians who started the Brexit process have done a runner and left the people with a mess to clear up, whichever way it goes!”

Amid the weight of all this, the band are getting on with it, playing the Crane Lane Theatre in Cork on the 21st as part of a run of Irish dates to get the new album out there. Ska and reggae have always had small but dedicated followings in the city, but with the emergence of genre festivals in the county in recent years, and a new community group having just been agreed upon, the timing is perfect. “This will only be our second time performing in Ireland, and our first appearance in Cork. The theatre looks fantastic, and I’ve heard great things about the city from many of my friends who’ve performed at Cork Jazz Festival. I can’t wait. I’m a huge fan of Guinness, and it really is so much better in Ireland, so that’s another thing I’m looking forward to.”

King Zepha’s Northern Sound play the Crane Lane Theatre on Sunday April 21st. “Northern Sound” is available now on all streaming services and on 12” from Happy People Records.

Inni-K: “Something New Opened Up In Me”

Eithne Ní Chatháin’s new album under the alias Inni-K resides somewhere between Irish folk’s brittle nature, and quiet indie innovation. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the Kildare woman about writing, recording, and the Gaelgoir revival in Irish music.

Inni-K, the working name of singer and multi-instrumentalist Eithne Ní Chatháin, brings a broad church of sounds under her remit. Parlaying a background in folk and trad music into contemporary composition, elements of wider folk, indie music of various hues and more experiemental fare permeate her work, playing to the strengths of a clear, yet distinct voice. Her penchant for progress has brought her to share stages with a gamut of established names, including Malian kora exponent Toumani Diabate, drummer Jeff Ballard, Frames man Glen Hansard, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Lisa Hannigan and many more.

Second album ‘The Hare and the Line’ has released this past month via Green Willow Recordings, marking the end of a four-year wait and heralding an expansion for Ní Catháin’s sound that makes itself felt right from the opening seconds of its title track, not shy of asking grand questions (‘how do you/I define her?’) of her own place as an artist and as a human being. With the album available now, the question of what comprises a ‘finished’ record emerges, chiming with her feelings on the album as a whole. “I feel very satisfied & proud, to have the new album completed, and to have it out in the world. I really look forward to performing the songs live over the coming months, at gigs and festivals, (and also) to see how people interact and engage with the songs.”

The creative and post-production processes differed this time around, coming together over the past year or so, after the jettisoning of an unreleased long-player. The disappointment of a body of work not coming together can be a difficult one to overcome for many artists, but Ní Catháin took the impasse and new start as a challenge. “I pretty much had the guts of an album of different songs ready to go about a year ago but something in me knew to hold off, they didn’t feel quite right. I think, in hindsight, they were a stepping stone in clearing the way to the new songs on this record, but it is always a little disappointing to let go of something you’ve been working on and face the blank page again. In doing so, however, I think something new opened up in me, and the songs on this album came quite easily once they came. They are, I think more personal in theme and tone, and feel quite different.”

Collaboration and co-writing opened up the process of creating the new record for Ní Catháin, with arrangements and post-production making all the difference not only for getting the record done and dusted, but for doing so in a manner that kept her own engagement up as a creator. “The whole process was a much less lonely experience for me than ever before. It was a lot of fun. Songwriting for me seems to be an alone endeavour, maybe necessarily so; and I do really enjoy that. But from the moment I brought the songs to my friend, drummer & main collaborator Brian Walsh, things started getting interesting. Brian was more involved in the makeup of the songs much earlier in the process than with my last album (‘The King has Two Horse’s Ears’), and I think the songs are richer for that.”

Post-production began after that whole process came to its conclusion, with producer and engineer Alex Borwick leaving his mark on proceedings. The motley crew decamped to a remote location in the depths of winter, with embellishments made at various locations thereafter, and the resulting mix of atmospheres resonates throughout the record. “We totally hit it off as a team, and within a couple of weeks, after pre-production work on the songs in Rathfarnham with Alex, and with Brian up in the lovely Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Monaghan, (we) headed to a farmhouse in Co. Wicklow with two jam-packed cars full of our gear for a week before Christmas, and got to work on the bones of the album… we kept working pretty much over Christmas, spending a day recording rhodes, organs and piano up in the stunning Hellfire Studios, in the Dublin mountains, and then in various guest musicians houses around Dublin. I was so happy to have such great musicians & friends join us for the project: Dónal Gunne on guitar, Seán Mac Erlaine on clarinets, Patrick O’Laoghaire (I Have a Tribe) on backing vocals, Caimin Gilmore & Cormac O’Brien on bass. It was a really fantastic collaborative experience and I couldn’t have asked for a better team.”

It’s eclectic company to keep, but Ní Catháin is no stranger to breathing rarefied air, having shared the stage with some of the living legends of folk musics from all over the world. Her comfort with operating within folk is displayed most deftly on the new record in the quiet, tape-warm sparseness of ‘Póirste Béil’, and it’s this ability to bridge gaps that has put her to the forefront of the new wave of trad and folk. “I’ve seen it mostly in Dublin, just ‘cause that’s where I spend most of my time, but I’m sure it’s the same around the country. It seems there’s more of interest in songs and tunes, in a stripped back kind of way, that they stand on their own. There’s definitely more pride, and an interest around it now, and so many fantastic singers and musicians.”

Ní Catháin’s use of bilingual lyrics is an important talking point regarding her place on the Irish music scene, as the mother tongue has made a steady re-emergence in Irish music. Rappers like MC Muipéid and Belfast trio Kneecap, dancehall crooner Ushmush, blackened metallers Corr Mhóna, and even Corkonian humourist Craic Boi Mental have all made An Gaeilge central to bodies of their work. It’s a point of pride for many people. “It’s great that Gaeilge is being used in different genres, and that people are finding it to be the expressive, poetic and beautiful language that it is. Again, like the resurgence in trad & folk music, it’s inspiring and uplifting to see more people take pride in our own language. I saw Kneecap perform in Inishbofin last summer, they were something else! (laughs)”

Just off the road from gigs in the US and Canada over the course of February, Ní Catháin and collaborators are hitting the road again, this time with a national tour to back the new record. This jaunt around the country includes a pair of Cork gigs, in Coughlan’s of Douglas Street and Levis’ village pub in Ballydehob, two modern-day outposts for forward-thinking folk. It’s the jumping-off point for the kind of interaction she relishes from a gig. “The Cork shows are the first dates of the Irish tour, and two more gorgeous, intimate venues you’d be hard pressed to find. I love both venues, and can’t wait to play them. We hope to raise the roof with the new tunes!”

Inni-K plays at Coughlan’s Live on Douglas Street on Friday April 5th, and at Levis’ of Ballydehob the following night. New album ‘The Hare and the Line’ is available now across all digital services. For more information, check out inni-k.com, and stay tuned to her social media presences.

Hot Cops: “It’s Been Borne of Dissatisfaction”

Having put in the hard yards over the past few years on Northern Ireland’s ever-fervent DIY scene, Hot Cops are co-headlining a national tour, including a stop at the Roundy next month. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with vocalist/guitarist Carl Eccles.

There’s an immediacy to the music of Belfast trio Hot Cops that’s almost disarming upon further contemplation, really: taking in bits of the indie/alternative oeuvre and melding its poppier aspects to a distinctly Northern strain of smirk and sarcasm. It’s become something of a calling card for the band and their contemporaries, a small but dedicated scene of low-fidelity guitar pop, grappling equally with the current condition of existence, and the post-genre cultural mood. New single ‘Negative One’, the lead-off for an upcoming new body of material, sums this up nicely, a compact running time and pop song structure holding sweet-and-sour riffings together, both lyrical and musical.

Ahead of touring the new single and other new tunes around Ireland with compatriots Junk Drawer in tow, Hot Cops’ Carl Eccles is quick to outline the nature of his compositional economy, and the process that followed it. “‘Negative One’ was the first song I wrote after we had taken a break because of the disintegration of plans we’d made in 2017. I was sitting down to working on the demo for an older song idea, but the main riff for “Negative One” was the first thing I played when I picked up my guitar that day, so I thought I’d just record it quickly in case I forgot. Once I’d written the bassline, I flicked through the notes for lyric ideas I keep on my phone and strung together the ones I felt were most fitting with the tone. It took about an hour to write and record the demo after the conception of the riff, but half the lyrics had been written months before.”

When quizzed on how it’s been received live and among the usual Irish music people, Eccles boils down the process behind the song to its essentials, refusing to ‘pedestalise’ such ideas as wider approval. For Eccles, the feeling of performing it live is the end result in itself. “Most of my writing is coming up with fragments of ideas, documenting them and then just waiting and working on other things until I can find a way to bridge them together. We try not to get too bogged down on the reactions of others, the most important thing is if we’re happy with it, but it’s always nice to get some kind words, and we’re open to constructive criticism. It’s been a highlight in the sets of our last few shows, there’s a real bounce to the track and the audiences have latched on to it.”

This single, and other previous releases, was recorded by Chris Ryan of Robocobra Quartet, an exceptional fusion of hardcore punk, jazz and spoken-word statements, of which two of Hot Cops are members. He’s an interesting dude on multiple levels, from your writer’s experiences in interviewing and reviewing their work, but it’s surely an odd one to work together in studio with someone growing ever more used to horns and string sections? “Chris is a delight. He’s very creative and supportive in the studio and committed to making sure things sound how we want them to sound”, says Eccles. “He encourages any of the more experimental ideas we might have but will be fully honest when he thinks something isn’t working or is taking away from a song. Communication is the most important thing when recording with someone and he’s been very patient with us considering how insufferable we can be. Recording ‘Negative One’ was very straightforward. We did a few live takes of bass, drums and guitar and decided on the best one and overdubbed vocals afterwards as well an additional guitar.”

‘Negative One’ follows on from the compilation and release last year of ‘Speed Dating’, a collection of remastered singles from recent years. Each released on a DIY basis through various online platforms, they formed a contiguous body of work that benefited well from a lick of paint. “This task was pretty simple, as the tracks had been written and recorded around the same period of time. In our minds, they’ll always fit together.”

It seems to be a really good time for DIY rock ‘n’ roll in Ireland again, for many reasons. The amount of great bands that have been touring and gigging small venues around the country lately is testament to this, while it’s a good bet that the industry success of the likes of Fontaines D.C. and The Murder Capital wouldn’t have happened five years ago. From the lads’ vantage point, it’s an interesting time, to paraphrase the old curse. “I like how it’s been borne of dissatisfaction, and people’s passion for finding a way to do what they love. 90% of artists can’t just be artists, they have to be their own managers, bookers, PR, social media wizards, etc. It’s not ideal, and it’s something everyone struggles with, especially ourselves. But it’ll never stop being inspiring to me to see people put in all the hard work, purely because it’s something they believe in and want to do. Good examples of this are the DIY LK collective in Limerick, who’ve rejuvenated their alternative music scene, and the Pizza Pizza Records gang in Dundalk, an entirely independent label putting out records and putting on shows for acts they love.”

By the same token, Belfast has always been ticking over with great DIY music of all stripes and sorts. Eccles collects his thoughts on the upsides and challenges of being part of that scene. “The upsides are that you’re in great company and there’s such a wide variety of music being made that there’s something for everyone. The people are friendly and there’s always familiar faces at all kinds of shows. The hardest parts are starting out because at first it can seem quite insular and afterwards it’s difficult to successfully expand beyond your own scene just because you’ve grown accustomed to it, playing somewhere new can feel like starting over again.”

Hot Cops are playing The Roundy on April 5th for Alliance Promotions, as part of a few nights of touring alongside Junk Drawer. Gordy and Arlene’s house of DIY wonders has been continuously putting on great gigs for the past few years around the city, taking chances on venues and shoring up the local scene, and on this scene, they’re giving over the floor to new outfit Culture Night to open the show, a side-project of local DIY stalwarts referring to themselves as Cork’s answer to Guided By Voices. It’s a hell of a fray for relative newbies to be thrown into. “We’ve never been to Cork, but we’ve been hearing good things about the Roundy. It’s likely to be a little daunting, but we’ve played with Junk Drawer loads of times, so there’s some reassurance.”

Hot Cops, Junk Drawer and Culture Night play The Roundy on April 5th, an Alliance Promotions presentation. Tickets €10, available on the door.

Sarah Buckley: “I Saw Things Differently”

Having played a part in the Rising commemorations in 2016 with a ballad of her own creation, singer-songwriter Sarah Buckley is readying herself for a year of new material, and taking on new horizons in the process. Mike McGrath-Bryan gets a word in, inbetween rehearsals.

Patience is a watchword in the music game, especially when operating off your own steam. Things don’t always fall into place quite the way one might like when pushing away at the industry end, while timing and hitting a nerve with the Irish music community can make all the difference to an artist or a band getting started, in creating goodwill and a reputation. Between those two camps falls singer-songwriter Sarah Buckley, who’s been gigging away patiently for the last few years, putting an impressive number of road miles under her belt, including a couple of navigations of the Irish festival scene, including Electric Picnic, Vantastival and other summer-season weekenders, as well as appearances at Cork’s own Jazz Weekend.

Buckley’s debut single ’You Got Me’ rolled out last month, after two years spent getting a tranche of debut material ready for release. Following a strong run of gigging and festival appearances, the tune arrived with a premiere stream on Dublin entertainment mag Hot Press’ recently-renovated web presence. Speaking over the phone as rehearsals continue for upcoming live activity, Buckley seems relieved that her own tireless DIY efforts in getting material out to press and radio has borne fruit. “I suppose it was a relief. I’d the song written, and after working on music for two years, now was the time to get it out there. I was terrified to be producing my first one, but now that it’s out there, the next one will be less daunting, now that I’ve been through the process once.”

Taking no half-measures, Buckley went to work with material that was hard-mined from her own experiences and influences, heading to studio with engineer/producer Karl Odlum (Glen Hansard, David Keenan) and mastering engineer John Flynn (Bjork, among many others) over the course of the single’s recording. “Karl is well-respected in the music industry, and when you work with him, it’s easy to see why. He is really great at what he does, and made the process easy. He has a great balance of being able to give input without taking the song over, and technically, he couldn’t be better. We went through a few iterations of the song, as by the time I got to the end of a mix, I had learned just a little more and so, saw things differently! John is based in London and so I worked with him online, (but he’s) another talented man who made the process straightforward.”

The market for music media in Ireland has changed beyond recognition in the past decade or so, and as listeners’ tastes have fragmented and become more diverse, a great range of online publications and specialist print magazines have emerged over the years to give Ireland’s independent music community its due recognition, on its own terms. With so many options available that are more amenable to newer artists, and with Buckley garnering praise from the like of Dublin’s Goldenplec and Belfast’s The Thin Air magazines, it was quite a ‘get’ for a self-released record like ‘You Got Me’ to get its premiere via Hot Press, whose remit has traditionally been in major-label signings and legacy artists. “I’m working on my own, doing my own PR. There’s a lot you can do nowadays, yourself, until there’s something bigger than yourself to get people involved in, so maybe I didn’t have an enormous strategy (laughs)… I just thought, ‘that’s a great magazine, everyone knows it, it’s well respected, and it’d be great if they got behind it’. People do seek, I don’t know, a level of verification, that Hot Press and RTÉ can offer by coming behind you, people start to pay more attention.

Radio airplay and the aforementioned online exposure swiftly followed, much of it off Buckley’s own back, as stated. Cork’s RedFM, RTÉ’s online-only 2XM outlet and regional stations around the country were quick to pick it up for airplay on specialist shows, but with the aforementioned shifts in both listener habits and overall patterns of media consumption, it’s arguable that the radio business has become ever more risk-averse, with such shows often placed on quieter live slots, or as on-demand online programming. Buckley outlines how she’s tackled the airplay grind, and reaped dividends. “I emailed people that I thought would be interested in the song, and some people (then) contacted me for it online. It was great that a lot of local stations all over the country were happy to play it, and obviously its inclusion on RTE Radio One’s playlisting was a huge boost for the song, due to the audience size. As you say, it can be a difficult sector, with a lot of ignored emails, but in this song’s case, there was enough of a response to not pay an enormous amount of attention to those. There will always be different opinions with music.”

Placements of all kinds have, for better or worse, become a big part of widening an artist’s audience. In some markets, they can dominate the industry conversation, with your writer regularly receiving press releases from touring bands where television and film usage ranks as highly as critical plaudits and road miles. Buckley’s opportunity came with an appearance on RTÉ’s ‘Reflecting on the Rising’ series of gigs in Dublin in 2016, with artists performing newly-written responses to the conflict that changed the course of history. ‘Wedding Bells’, written as one draft in a Dublin city pub, inverts some prominent narratives around the event. “For the 1916 Easter Rising centenary, RTÉ put on a series of gigs around Dublin. It was a great day, and well attended. I was on a side stage in Smithfield, and so the pressure wasn’t huge where I was. Just a great day really, I played a couple of ballads and wrote one for the occasion, (which) was well received on the day. It could probably be considered the flip side of The Wolfe Tones’ song ‘Grace’. It tells the story of Grace Gifford’s short marriage to Joseph Plunkett, on the night before his execution for his role in the rising, from her point of view.”

We’re at that odd stage for festivals, where we seem to be every few years in the current climate: new events like Cork Sound Fair are steadily being announced and work begins on bedding them down into the national music calendar, while others, at the end of that initial period of experimentation, are simply reaching the end of their life expectancies. For Buckley, for whom upcoming excursions will be nothing new, it’s a matter of staying out there and reaching new people. “One of my highlights was Electric Picnic. It felt like a great achievement to just be accepted onto such an important stage. They’re enjoyable from a singer-songwriter point of view. I’ve always had positive experiences so far with the festivals. I’ve always played to people I haven’t played to before, and they’re always glad to be there!”

‘Wedding Bells’ finally sees a formal release on April 15th via all streaming platforms, two years on from its creation and the opportunities that have resulted. Taking everything that’s happened since for Buckley into account, she was quick to further an effective working relationship with Odlum and Flynn, parlaying their work together into a more streamlined recording and post-production process, befitting the personal nature of the material. “That story is very poignant, but all of those stories haven’t been told by the women on the other side. Getting married on the night before the execution, she was obviously very supportive in his story, in what he was able to do, and I wanted to have a woman’s perspective on things. The song didn’t really change, it was written in one draft, and when we brought it to the studio, Karl liked it the way it was. He added a few bits in the background, but it’s one of those one that came rolling out in the first draft.”

Sarah Buckley’s new single ‘Wedding Bells’ hits streaming services on April 15th, and current single ‘You Got Me’ is available now. Buckley hits the road in May and June, for more information and announcements, be sure to find her across the major social platforms, or on sarahbuckleymusic.com.

Lee Side Story: “The Opera House Can Be Daunting”

The culture of the city is explored, and the divisions that drive a wedge between starcrossed lovers are also the ties that bind, in Leeside Story, a new musical directed by John McCaffrey, featuring the voice and songs of Corkonian troubadour John Spillane. Mike McGrath-Bryan gets a chat in ahead of the show’s debut at Cork Opera House.

On either side of the river that wends its way through our beloved home city, two tribes eye each other suspiciously. Age-old rivalries have come to the fore, and seemingly insurmountable differences drive Corkonians North and South ever-closer to complete isolation. But as the light fades on a seemingly unending feud, in a Shakespearean take on Cork city, a Northside boy and a Southside girl emerge from the shadows. It’s the classic boy-meets-girl tale, plunged deep into the well of local humour, and placed amid the best light-entertainment stage traditions. ‘Leeside Story’, presented by the Leeside Drama group and debuting at the Opera House next week, draws on theatrical tropes and Cork’s cultural heritage to deliver a new work, embellished with local song and cutting Leeside humour.

Originally designed for smaller spaces in Cork city, the play’s story and vision quickly grew, catching the eye of programmers at the Opera House, and for director John McCaffrey, scaling up not only the production of the show, but its cast, was a challenge to be relished. “The stage in the Opera House can be daunting for many actors, but as I have found in the past, if you get used to working the stage, it’s no more daunting than a country hall. An audience of twenty people is the same as five hundred plus. Logistics have to be worked out, weeks in advance. Lighting plans, sound, projection needs, set design: never leave any of these items a week before a show.”

The Opera House’s generous stage portions must surely pose a challenge, though: while the play itself features a total cast of thirteen, the usual struggle with prop placement, and keeping the onstage action tight while emphasising the space available to them is a perennial challenge for playwrights, dramaturges and casts. The venue’s high-tech setup has done a little bit of the heavy lifting in that respect. “The main challenge for this show has been the inclusion of background screens and video. One has to be careful not to distract the audience too much with fancy backgrounds. Thankfully the Opera House has a lighting system second to none, so we envisage no problems there.”

As stated at the outset, the premise of the show plays on the oldest story of all: conflict, love and resolution, investing the cultural heritage of Cork with a readily accessible pop-culture narrative, as hinted at in the show’s title. Veteran writer Derry Cotter has taken the local vernacular and history, and brought it to a new life, according to McCaffrey. “Derry Cotter must have studied in in the same bizarre college of wit as John Spillane, I reckon. During a cold spell earlier in the month, John reminded me that the record for the coldest place in Ireland goes to Birr! Derry’s puns are legendary within UCC. One comes to mind from a previous play I worked with him on: ‘there are people dying now, that never died before!’ As a perfectionist, Derry often suggests changes to the script. Sometimes I say ‘okay’, other times I tell him to hop off. There is a cutoff after all, when you have to let your baby go. We see this show as a flagship production for Leeside Drama Group, and would hope to run it again in the near future.”

Music is a vital part of the show, including the involvement of Leeside legend John Spillane, armed with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Cork’s culture and song. Working with himself and musical director Jimmy Brockie, McCaffrey comments on what the collaboration has brought to the overall feel of the show, as well as the process involved. “Both Jimmy and John are a pleasure to work with. Jimmy has been working closely with anyone with a singing role to hone their skills. He is also adding wonderful musical colour to the show. As regards John, that man will walk on stage with guitar, and just do his magic.”

Spillane’s career has been well-documented, notable for the breadth and depth of his local knowledge and how it’s been implemented across a deep discography from which he’s drawn, not only for solo shows and regular residencies, but projects like this, which keep him going creatively. “I’m very happy that Derry and John decided on the songs, the context in which the songs are used. It’s an honour, and an honour to be involved in a play that sets out to be pure Cork, that I was the guy they went to for the songs. Dr. Con Murphy had a night to honour him at City Hall there lately, I’m getting a lot of that kind of stuff now.”

The experience of using four of his songs in a new context, while maintaining a certain familiarity in line with Cork light-entertainment tradition, was the end result of a process of working closely with writer Cotter. Contributing to the show’s creation, and influencing its use of Leeside humour, it’s only fitting that Spillane makes a few walk-ons over its course. “It’s very interesting. It’s a lovely crowd of people, and it’s nice to work with people that are different. We call it ‘amateur’ drama, but amateur drama is huge in Ireland. There’s a lot of people that are really good, and really passionate about it. It’s lovely to hang out with that (kind of) crowd.”

Just about a week from stage night, and with myriad concerns as a director to get addressed before doors are open, McCaffrey is chipper about his thoughts heading into the big show itself. Keeping things ticking over seems to be the name of the game. “So far, going tickety-boo! With a core cast of thirteen, and numerous stage and production staff to deal with, scheduling rehearsals has to be managed accordingly. Thankfully, the crew I have are dedicated, one hundred percent, to the production.” After this is done, it’s a wide spread of duties for the production team involved, including a dalliance with Hollywood stars in an unlikely location, and an immediate return to the grindstone with more new plays and productions. “No rest for myself. I’m stage-manager for ‘The Blarney Stone’ in April with Patrick Bergin in Macroom. I also know that Derry has further plays in the pipeline with Leeside Drama group, including another run at this show.”

Leeside Story debuts at the Opera House on Thursday March 14th, at 8pm. Tickets on sale now from €25 at corkoperahouse.ie and the venue’s box office.

Alex Petcu and Peter Power: “We Let the Building Win”

The Cork Orchestral Society has brought together two leading local lights in new music for a  show in the Curtis Auditorium, playing with new compositions and touching on the development of contemporary classical. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with percussionist Alex Petcu and sound designer Peter Power.

In addition to maintaining a home for classical music, and a platform for generations of emergent genre musicians from Cork’s conservatories for eighty-one seasons, the Cork Orchestral Society has long been a place for classical music and its practice to develop. In this spirit of innovation, the Society’s latest collaborative concert sees composer and sound designer Peter Power and seasoned percussionist Alex Petcu come together for ‘On Sequences’, a show that brings together elements from each of their respective backgrounds. Hitting on standards from the percussion repertoire, new compositions of Power’s, and previously-performed collaborative work, the show also allows for improvisations, using a wide array of instruments that help blend percussion pieces together.

Although percussionist Alex Petcu was born into a musical family, and benefited from an upbringing within the School of Music’s walls via both his parents being teachers there, it was another passion of his that has informed his body of work, both as a more traditional percussionist, and as a researcher in sound and the properties & potential of everyday objects that create it. “I’ve got a science background. I did physics in college, actually. One thing that drew me to percussion, really, was that, I like all these crazy instruments, it feels almost like a lab, y’know? You come up with all these crazy sounds, and anything becomes an instrument, really. Sometimes things don’t sound like how they should: certain things will sound nasty because that’s what you’ve heard them be, but actually, they can sound completely different, depending on what you do with them, how you hang these things.”

Over the years, Petcu has followed in the family footsteps, partaking in various shows and currently participating as the college’s artist in residence, taking opportunities to develop his craft, and fine-tune concepts like the upcoming Curtis Auditorium show. His formative years being spent in the School of Music have been key to this development. “It helped me a lot. When I didn’t have many instruments of my own, I come in, get practice, get lessons. If I wanted to do a certain piece, most of the instruments, I’d find them there, set them up and rehearse there. It was a safe place to practice, rehearse and get better. With the new building, having the concert hall… when I was there, doing my Master’s, I could use the Curtis Auditorium, and put on my own shows, there. I also organised a couple of group projects there, and it’s nice to get access to a venue like that.”

For Peter Power, the pursuit of sound and its design has been all-encompassing to his development as a practitioner and as a professional. Working with collaborator David Duffy in audiovisual outfit Eat My Noise, Power has run shows in venues all over the city, including installations in St. Finbarre’s Cathedral, and on his own, has worked on commercial projects like Prodijg, at Cork Opera House. Shifting between composition and sound design, this line between the two disciplines is where Power’s contributions to proceedings lie. “I don’t mean to be blunt, but sound design is design, more so than composition. A lot of your role is to become part of the concept, and creative generation of a piece. You’re brought in, there may be a script, or a show idea, built around dancers or singers, and your job is to come in and conceive of the ‘sound world’ that that piece of work occupies. It’s a mixture of technical roles, like knowing how to setup different sound systems; how the software works, presentation, etc., with the creative side of things. It’s quite a funny thing: if you’ve done your job correctly, people don’t realise that it’s happening… or if the sound design is very brash or very loud, people can obsess on it.”

Taking his own musical background into consideration, somewhere between scoring and contemporary composition, the experience of working with Petcu on this collaboration is new territory for the pair, interacting with pre-existing work new and old, but their upcoming Curtis Auditorium excursion is far from their first rodeo. “We’ve collaborated before, more so in these big-scale things, like shows. In this instance, he came to me, said, ‘I’ve approached by the Cork Orchestral Society to do a concert, and I’d like to do something a bit more unusual’. I’d love to work with him, as you rarely get to work with someone like Alex in your musical career. We wanted to do some work that wasn’t just mine, so half of the show is the work of other composers. I said I’d like to write some new pieces, and perform one or two older pieces that are presented in a new way. And how the collaboration grew from there was, Alex and I went to what we called ‘workshop’, where Alex brought in every instrument he had, and we just played, and took notes.”

Speaking on their collaboration, Petcu points out that Power’s experience with big installations, as well as the rapport between them from previous collaborations, has been a difference-maker for his own process in this case. “I’ve done a couple of projects with him already, as part of Eat My Noise, one of them was called ‘Moiety’, which featured percussion, and included myself and a lad called Tomas Gaal. We built on that, but it’s the two of us now, for this gig. It’s not going to just be our stuff, it’s going to (feature) some pieces that I might bring to the table, one piece by Steve Reich, one piece by Michael Gordon…it’ll be (a good mix).”

With a world of big-hall experience between them, the third participant in this experiment becomes ever more important, as the acoustician-designed Curtis Auditorium is custom-built to deliver world-class sonic experiences from live performance. With a DIY approach this time around, the sonic aspect of it is taken advantage of in this case, says Power. “A large part of this was, it’s not a massively-funded production, so there are immediately limitations. It’s what would be called ‘extended concert’ form. It’s going to be presented as a concert, but in a slightly unusual way. It’ll be massively stripped back, there won’t be much in the way of complicated lighting, or any of that. A big concern of this concert for us was how to integrate electronic music, composition and spatial audio into an acoustic percussion ensemble. The thing we’ve been experimenting with the most is a way for the sound to blend, so that it sounds like a new instrument. We allowed the building to ‘win’. It’s huge, it’s got a four-second reverb, it’s unwieldy, and it doesn’t have a huge technical crew, so now what we’re doing is presenting ourselves before the audience, and take some risks, musically.”

‘On-Sequences’ happens at Cork School of Music’s Curtis Auditorium on Thursday March 14th, at 7.30pm. Tickets €20 on sale at the door or corkorchestralsociety.ie.