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.

Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh: “All That’s Needed is the Right Space”

Next weekend sees Quiet Lights festival bring the best of a new generation of folk, trad and related sonic alchemy to venues around Cork city and county. At the centre of it all is multi-instrumentalist Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, performing an intimate show at the chapel at the city’s Griffith College. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with O’Raghallaigh about the process, new material and the nature of prominence.

The past number of years have seen a renewed interest in Irish folk and traditional music, much of which is already well-documented. Outfits like The Gloaming have played a part in fundamentally changing how the genre is perceived, both domestically and internationally, while song-collectors Lankum have shown a new generation how standards of various stripes can be overhauled with a will toward musical and conceptual progression. For Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh, a multi-instrumentalist at the centre of the Gloaming as well as This is How We Fly and other projects, the space to create and improvise is of the essence.

The coming months see O’Raghallaigh hit the road, with new material and live improvisation forming the basis of these solo shows, away from the glare of the mainstream spotlight. The creative and compositional process for this new body of work has drawn on his ability to speak multiple musical languages. “So, I’ve been using two main avenues for making new material: writing music in unusual fiddle tunings, and writing some code that integrates live electronics in a performance setting. The fiddle I play is the hardanger d’amore, which has a whole heap of extra strings. To get the best out of it, you really need to tune it in strange ways, so that all the strings start talking to each other and the whole fiddle starts ringing. You basically optimise it to be spectacularly beautiful in one or two keys, but not good in others. The relationship between the strings is now a bit alien, nothing is where you’re used to, and so it’s a great way to disorient yourself and make a familiar environment suddenly unfamiliar. I like to think that you get ‘ideas for free’, happy accidents from putting your fingers where you think a note is, only to find a totally different note living there.”

Recording and making sense of this process is perhaps the simplest part of the creative process, as O’Raghallaigh outlines. Narrowing down the results of improvisation, and finding the next thing to do with them reveals further layers of his innate musical ability, and his desire to challenge himself. “So I’ll put my fiddle in one of these tunings, press record on an iPad, and just improvise a load of rubbish, which I then sort through and pan for gold. I’ll collect these nuggets of a few notes, and find the beginnings of a new piece that slowly grows into something. I write the code in a language called ChucK, and I’ve designed it to be an unpredictable playing partner for improvising music in a live situation. I’ve built in randomness in terms of what happens, when it happens, and for how long it continues. This is a reaction to using more conventional ‘loopers’ in the past, where you build up layers that are locked together – I wanted something much more free and unpredictable, something where I couldn’t know quite what would happen next. Seán Mac Erlaine was a big inspiration in this too – I’m a big fan of how he uses live electronics in his solo performances, it seems so seamless and natural.  I’ve a long way to go, but it’s a very rewarding process, writing the code, using it, refining or redesigning it – it continues to evolve and grow with every show.”

With such a comprehensive creative process, with so many elements at play, the question of what exactly goes into the production of O’Raghallaigh’s solo music, and at what exact point a piece of music is ‘complete’, is a prescient one. “I’d very happily commit it to record right now. I think all that’s needed is the right space and a chunk of time. Every record is going to be a snapshot in time, what you were capable of at that particular moment in that particular place, and I think that’s the beauty of it. I suppose you want enough time to elapse between records so that you’ve moved on from where you previously were, and I feel good about that now.”

This upcoming run of activity comes at a break in the action for The Gloaming, after two successive albums have come in for near-phenomenal critical acclaim and commercial success. When asked if he’s had time over the past while to process everything that’s happened with that outfit, O’Raghallaigh retains his cool discussing the events of the past few years. “The success of The Gloaming is all quite abstract for me – it’s like I’m looking in from the outside, like I’m taking a trip with the Ghost of Christmas Present. The concrete thing for me is the music-making, the real-time playing, and creating something that I believe in myself. It’s great that we’ve got such an extraordinary reaction to that band, of course. But I don’t believe it’s too healthy to get caught up in what other people think – you have to just believe in what you’re doing yourself.

The pursuit of these processes and daily mundanities can of course differ from project to project for busy musicians, and it’s no different for O’Raghallaigh when operating solo for an extended period, compared to time in collaboration with either The Gloaming or This is How We Fly. The agency that performing solo grants him, however, is what sticks. “The freedom I get from playing solo is kind of thrilling to me. I love standing on stage on my own and just jumping off the cliff, not knowing where you’re going to land, what note you’re going to play, whether you might just fall flat on your face, or the whole thing just takes off. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling, that at any point you can go absolutely anywhere, and there’s nobody expecting you to play a certain note at a certain time, nobody relying on you to stick to a plan, no plan. It’s just pure freedom.”

This past summer saw O’Raghallaigh take an extended solo run of the United Kingdom during the summer, including some of the specialist festivals and gigs that have emerged over the years. The atmosphere and location of one in particular makes for a significant story. “‘Singing with the Nightingales’ is an event that singer and folksong-collector Sam Lee runs. Thirty people set off into the forest in the pitch black of night in search of a songbird, no torches, no talking, and after walking half an hour, we dove into the deep undergrowth, where a little nightingale was singing his heart out. We listened for maybe twenty minutes to this little bird belting out the most beautiful song, wholly unperturbed by our presence. And then Sam and myself took turns playing along with him, in whatever way we saw fit. Whether he changed his tune or not, I don’t know, but the people there were quite sure he did. The nightingale will often add the songs of other birds to his repertoire, so perhaps it’s not so farfetched. We stayed there for I don’t know how long, maybe an hour, maybe three, and when we finally left, he was still singing. Ever since, my ears have been opened, and the joy of hearing a blackbird or a thrush here in the local park has added so much to the everyday for me.”

O’Raghallaigh is on tour throughout September and October, including, as mentioned, headlining the first Quiet Lights festival in Cork next weekend. Ahead of these dates, he collects his thoughts on this significant run of dates specifically, and what went into choosing the venues along the way. “Well, I really want to make a new solo album soon, and this run of dates will be very much related to that, trying out new tunes and improvising with the electronics, trying to refine the code and the notes after each night, and moving towards committing something to tape. What attracts me to these venues is the intimacy, the acoustics, or the people running them!”

Beyond the process of further refining and road-testing new compositions, O’Raghallaigh’s schedule for the remainder of the year is typically full, with new collaborations and an excursion on the horizon, as he pursues the urge to improvise and further create. “I want to start work on a solo album, that’s a big ‘next thing’ for me. In terms of collaboration, I have two duo records that I want to bring out in the next eighteen months or so: one with Dan Trueman, a follow-up to our Laghdú album from 2014, and one with Thomas Bartlett on piano. And I can’t tell you how excited I am about a piece that Dan Trueman is writing for me and the New York contemporary music ensemble Contemporaneous. We’ll be starting work on it in April next year, over in the States, and I expect it’s going to be a big challenge and a big thrill.”

Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh is touring throughout the autumn as part of the ‘Islander Presents’ series of concerts and events. For tour details and tickets, visit www.islandermusic.net.

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.”

Coughlan’s Live Music Festival: “A Way of Saying Thank You”

Coughlan’s Live Music Festival marks the Douglas Street venue’s seventh anniversary, and a special programme of gigs. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with co-founder Brian Hassett about the line-up and the future.

Ambiently-lit and covered in posters from gigs over the past seven years, Coughlan’s Live, at the back of the renovated but otherwise unassuming Coughlan’s pub at the Capwell end of Douglas Street stands as one of the unlikely pillars of Cork music. Since opening under the direction of In Bloom agency man Brian Hassett and former Lobby Bar booker Edel Curtin seven years ago, it’s been an important place for intimate gigs of all genres in the city, with a particular eye on the folk and Americana gigs that have cemented its place. Every year, Coughlan’s Live Music Festival marks the venue’s foundation with a special weekend of music, celebrating what the promoters call ‘the little room with the massive heart’.

This year, luminaries like Lisa Hannigan, Mick Flannery, The Lost Brothers and Luka Bloom share stages with the likes of psych-rockers O Emperor, groove experimentalists The Bonk, and psych-pop cadets The Shaker Hymn among others, while the likes of Emma Langford and The Ocelots build on their live momentum. Hassett, known for years to friends and collaborators simply as ‘Hassey’, talks about the fest’s modus operandi. “The first Coughlan’s Live Festival was an opportunity for us to open the doors to the venue, and to be able to celebrate what was then a new space in the city, for musicians and audiences. Since that first weekend, we have been hosting lots of shows every week, taking in local, national and international singer-songwriters, bands, DJs, rap groups, comedians, etc., so it has been a pleasure for us to work with so many people that we admire, and also over time been able to watch so many of them grow much bigger audiences.”

Assembling a festival lineup is the dream for many music fans, so it’s no surprise that for the crew of Coughlan’s, it’s an exciting time to look at availabilities, projects and local happenings, and take them all into consideration. “It always begins with a wishlist, groups or artists that we are fans of. We try to have artists who would be well established, and then have them in a more intimate space where it is a very different experience for both the artists and the audiences. As an example, this year Lisa Hannigan or Mick Flannery, who would both regularly sell out rooms the size of Cork Opera House, will be performing shows to just sixty people in a very up close and personal setting. Having established groups on the lineup also gives us the opportunity to invite some newer bands. This year we’ll be welcoming the likes of Orchid Collective, The Ocelots and Paddy Dennehy for the first time to Coughlan’s, so we are very excited about that.”

In addition to a fine lineup of folk artists, as is the venue’s speciality, bands like O Emperor, The Shaker Hymn and The Bonk are also on the billing, as mentioned. What’s the importance of that kind of variety to assembling an overall lineup? “Variety in the line-up is very important, the different types of shows over the festival also means that we can change the way the shows are presented in the venue, swapping between full-band shows with a standing audience, and more intimate seated gigs, so that people get to have different experiences also within the venue. We’re really excited to be welcoming O Emperor back, having last played here back in 2013, so it’s a long-awaited return.”

Over the course of five days, several gigs and events take place in a very small space. The intimacy of the venue, as well as the demand for space in the back room on the weekend, means production and show-running can often be challenging. “It starts on the Wednesday, September 26th, and runs to Sunday September 30th, and takes in eleven different shows and seventeen artists, over thirty-five musicians and performers. At this stage, we’re able to run it pretty well, having figured out over the years where any potential surprise might be, and we have a great crew in-house. We are lucky also to have really good relationships with so many of these bands and artists, many of whom have previously also played Coughlan’s, as well as with so many of our audiences that come to shows, so as well as making sure that everything runs smoothly we are also able to have the chance to catch up with some great friends.”

The venue has been a home for comedy over the past few years, also, and this has been reflected in the line-up. For Hassey, it’s about nurturing something new as it’s been growing in his backyard. “Comedy has grown massively in Ireland over the last few years. Both on a local and national level, there are some really great new Irish comics coming through. Every week, we host free comedy shows presented by ‘Comedy Cavern’. It can be a mix of local, national or international comedians, there’s also an open-mic night which is a great opportunity for both new comedians or established comedians trying new material. There’s also a series wherein comedians perform their Edinburgh show, which is more longform or story-based comedy. Once every month, ‘The Bold Ensemble’ perform a set of improvised sketches and skits based on audience suggestions, which is brilliantly unpredictable and always hilarious.”

The venue is also home to some of the gigs that are part of the locally-curated Quiet Lights festival in September, just announced this past week and featuring some of the leading lights of a new generation of folk and traditional Irish music. “Jon from Islander Music approached us to be part of this new festival, and we are really looking forward to working with him to establish this as part of the Cork live music calendar. We will be hosting three shows over the weekend with Lisa O’Neill, Ye Vagabonds and Cormac Begley. We have worked shows before with both Lisa O’ Neill and Ye Vagabonds, so are delighted to be welcoming them back and really looking forward to Cormac’s first Coughlan’s show.”

For the short-to-medium term, CLMF will remain in place as the centrepiece of the main venue’s calendar, alongside the crew’s Right Here Right Now festival, happening annually at the Opera House. It’s about maintaining that sense of community, says Hassey. “The festival is a celebration for us every year so we specifically programme a lot of free shows so everyone can have the opportunity to come in and catch some great live music, and also as a way of saying thank you to the all the audiences that have come to gigs and supported both us and the artists throughout the year.”

The real challenges lie ahead, though: amid all the urban renewal and gentrification that’s been happening and looks set to continue apace over the next ten years, the small venue as an urban cultural pillar is under threat, and support for venues like Coughlan’s will become all the more important. “With all the changes that have happened within the music industry over the last ten years or so, and also the changes within the city with urban renewal and gentrification, it can be difficult for a small-capacity venue to keep its doors open, but for us it is very special and rewarding to be able to share in so many great live experiences and we are really grateful for the support from both audiences and bands over the years and we really look forward to creating many more great memories in the coming years.”

Walking on Cars: “There’s Always Pressure”

After a tour of the continent’s biggest festivals, Walking on Cars take on their biggest Irish festival appearance yet – headlining Indiependence 2018. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with singer/guitarist Patrick Sheehy.

It’s the kind of story you seldom get anymore. Coming together in 2010, Walking on Cars began gigging regularly at venues in Dingle, County Kerry, before slowly travelling out further. Renting a house together on the nearby peninsula, the band assembled their initial demos over six months in relative isolation. Airplay followed in 2012 for debut single ‘Catch Me If You Can’, leading to chart placement and the number-one spot on iTunes, while follow-up ‘Two Stones’ reached No.12 in the Irish charts, and currently weighs in at over a million YouTube views. Debut E.P. ‘As We Fly South’, followed in quick succession, with production from Tom McFall, known for his work with R.E.M, Snow Patrol, Bloc Party, and the Editors. In 2016, the band released debut full-length ‘Everything This Way’, and their seemingly-unending tour kicked into gear in earnest: this summer alone has seen them take on appearances at Rock Werchter, Pinkpop, Rock am Ring and TRNSMT festivals in Europe.

It’s in the middle of this flurry of activity that singer/guitarist Patrick Sheehy takes some time to talk, his Kerry accent coming across equally satisfied and fatigued over the phone during a break in proceedings. “Really good, yeah. We’re touring mostly around European festivals this summer, and the response has been huge. We’re really lucky in that (single) ‘Speeding Cars’ has become a radio hit in some areas around the continent, but we didn’t know that, so to come in and hear people singing the songs to us is a great buzz. It’s what we always wanted.” It’s been two years since debut ‘Everything This Way’ released via Virgin EMI, and the intervening time has seen Sheehy gain a bit of distance from the finished product as a listener, providing context and focus for the next chapter. “It’s the strongest album we could have made at that time. It’s brought us to places we never thought we’d be, and now, because of its success, I guess we’re under pressure to make a bigger one, which is what we’re focusing on now, making a batch of songs that is ‘worthy’ of people’s attention. We’ve very excited. We’ve a lot written, a bit recorded. A bit to go yet, but this album is going to be big.”

With new material in mind, Walking on Cars have proceeded as a group upon their own path in terms of the creative process, channeling their hard-won experience and gut feeling into the next step. “Y’know what, when we first started writing, I think we went in with the wrong mentality. We were feeling the pressure of the success of the first album, instead of going in to be creative and put your heart on your sleeve, we went in to make a ‘successful’ album, and that didn’t work out. The wrong headspace, the wrong approach. We took a step back and went ‘this isn’t us, it’s not what we’re about’. We got honest, and we went back to basics. We feel we’re on course now to make a huge record.” The obvious question for any cynical listener follows: how much of this pressure came down from above, be it management or the majors? “The thing about that is, our label says ‘go in and do what you do’. There’s always pressure to go in, write, get a few hits. But going in to write a big hit is not the way to write a hit. Going in there to be honest, that’s where the magic is, and that’s where this record is finally taking shape.”

In the interim, the band has been working extensively with Spotify to push playlists curated by the band, in addition to the extensive work being done by major labels to establish paid streaming as the main channel of consumption. Sheehy has noted the effects on the band’s bottom line. “When we first released the album, iTunes was still a big deal. People are still buying from iTunes, but streaming has almost completely taken over, be it Spotify or Apple Music. Because of Spotify, people on the other side of the world are listening without us knowing until we look at the statistics. There’s people in Japan listening, ‘Stealing Cars’ was a radio hit in New Zealand, and we’re doing well in France, despite only ever playing there twice. So, it’s interesting for us, to see where we’re going to go next. You look at where things are going, and you say hello.”

The band is playing the Friday night of Indiependence Festival as one of its headliners – amid all the noise and activity, Sheehy collects his thoughts heading into the appearance, looking at Cork as something of a home for band milestones. “We’ve had a lot of good nights in Cork, from when we were just starting off, to the last year or two. We did the Marquee last year, and that was huge for us. We started in a small room on Douglas Street called Coughlan’s, holding about fifty or sixty people. The place was packed, a nice intimate setup. We played Indie in the Beer Hall stage a few years back, and it was the first gig where people sang our own songs back to us. Cork has been good to us.”

The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock: ‘History Rarely Repeats, But Often Rhymes’

Retelling the story of the 1913 Strike and Lockout with an eighteen-piece guitar orchestra was always going to be a big ask. Allen Blighe and Enda Bates of Dublin folk-rockers The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock discuss the endeavour.

For over a decade now, Dublin-based five-piece The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have been fusing the folklore and musical traditions of their home city with sounds and processes from further afield, with elements of drone and post-rock sitting alongside the foundations of folk and trad across their previous pair of full-length records. In addressing and recontextualising tradition during the ‘decade of centenaries’, though, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have set themselves some massive tasks in recent years. In 2013, the band undertook to document and chronicle the lived experiences of the hundreds of thousands of workers denied basic human rights in the 1913 Strike and Lockout. The final product, ‘Lockout’, is a concept album in four movements, finally releasing this March via Dublin/Sapporo label Transduction, after a number of live airings in the intervening years. Having lived with their work for a while, band founder/vocalist/lyricist Allen Blighe is content with the band’s work. “Initially it was planned as a short piece to tie into the Lockout anniversary but it grew legs! A lot happened, many were born, and many passed away in that time. We feel both happy and relieved to have created something original and ambitious, yet still quite cohesive.” Bassist/vocalist Enda Bates, himself no stranger to large-scale musical endeavours, expands on the size of the task at hand. “It was a big, complex project in all sorts of ways, both in terms of the writing and the production. We’re never stuck for ideas as a band, but the music does seem to take its own time. In the end, we’re very happy with the result and despite the logistical demands, it was really great working with an electric guitar orchestra.”

It goes without saying that anyone looking to tackle the story of the Strike and Lockout has their work cut out for them, being as it is an early milestone in modern Irish history, and in the story of organisation and struggle among the Irish working class. Taking a story with ramifications that lasted for generations, and that continues to reverberate in Irish society, and making of it a work for an eighteen-piece guitar orchestra was always going to be demanding on storytelling, compositional and logistical levels, according to Bates. “We knew we wanted to tell the story of the Lockout chronologically, and Allen had a list of key events he wanted to cover in the narrative. So we developed a timeline for the piece based on that, and it seemed to fall naturally into four sections. We already had some fragments of music written that seemed to fit nicely with certain events, and I had an idea for the opening in which each guitar comes in string by string and builds to big crescendo before dropping back down to just Allen by himself. From then on we just worked through the timeline, sometimes arranging existing ideas for the orchestra, and sometimes writing new material to fit the narrative. The story of the Lockout contains moments of great hope and unity, but also plenty of violence and despair at times too. So musically we tried to represent this through very consonant material and this big, open C tuning on all the guitars, alongside some very dissonant rhythms and harmonies for the darker moments.”

In building a timeline to work along and tell stories across the duration of an album, Blighe is keen to outline the extent of research done on both the story’s main plot, and on concurrent events of the time, aiming to present a fuller picture of a society in turbulence. ”Much reading was done on the subject. Padraig Yeates’ excellent ‘Lockout: Dublin 1913′ was a big influence. Also, Jer O’Leary’s impassioned performances of Larkin speeches really struck a chord, if you’ll excuse the pun! There were many challenges in compressing such a complex story into an album. For example, we just didn’t have time to fit in anything on the controversy surrounding the so called “Dublin kiddies’ scheme”, where the church blocked efforts to send strikers’ children to sympathetic English families to escape the deprivation of the Lockout. Some other themes, such as those presented on “Suffrage”, part of the 4th movement, were important to include. This deals with the struggle for voting equality, and Markievicz’s legacy, one as chequered as many of her male contemporaries but judged more harshly for no other reason than her gender. Matching the music to the narrative was a really interesting process. In the past we’ve written the music first, and then found lyrical themes to apply. For this project we flipped that around, which was a rewarding change of approach.”

There’s obviously a great resonance to the story today, over a hundred years later, with the current cultural impasse at the top of Irish politics and a working situation getting ever tighter for countless people since the introduction of austerity. Blighe discusses the similarities. “The decade of centenaries has been an interesting time to reflect on what exactly Ireland is. Where 1916 and the war of independence were about the struggle for national sovereignty, the Lockout and the Civil War were struggles to define exactly what this nation might be. Things are much different now but as the saying goes ‘history rarely repeats but often rhymes’. The Lockout was a struggle for a fairer deal for workers against a very hostile and callous bunch of Dublin employers headed by William Martin Murphy, head of the DUTC, the tram company and owner of the Irish Independent, who enjoyed the tacit support of the law and state. Today we have a few similar characters. Ireland since the collapse has been murky to say the least, and there are many questions around banking regulation, the wind-up of Anglo, NAMA deals such as Project Eagle, the sale of Siteserv, the write-off of debt at INM, the constant policing scandals as the disclosure tribunal continues to unfold, and most importantly, the housing crisis. There is a sense that the gains of trade union movement are being systematically stripped back in the name of competitiveness in a system that exponentially breeds inequality.”

While that might seem grim, Blighe continues to outline what can be done domestically, and what lessons can be taken away from previous popular mobilisations. “Our fear is that if a positive left wing movement, in the mode of the Water protest movement is not enacted to deal with this inequality, then we will see a slide to the far right. Irish nationalism has always had an element of Connolly’s vision for social justice. The far right are chipping away at this, and the high level corruption and growing inequality feeds this. A cynic may say that power corrupts, and that a system needs corruption to function. While in the many snares of national debt, the overreliance of tax avoidance schemes etc., there may be no hope for huge change. However, while waiting for some broader international change, there is plenty we can be doing. The water movement proved that ordinary people can organise and effect change. The housing crisis must be dealt with in a similar fashion. We can do this with the same determination and belief if we try. In a similar fashion the political and legal corruption can be challenged successfully. These goals are pragmatic and realisable.”

Another anniversary dealt with in recent years is the Easter Rising, which the Spook tackled in a shorter-form piece, entitled ‘Bullet in the Brick’, also released via Transduction in 2016. Being that the label is based in Sapporo, Japan, it’s surely an odd arrangement to co-ordinate a release, let alone pressings, deliveries, etc. Blighe explains. “Transduction is the brainchild of our good friend Patrick Nesbitt, a Finglas man relocated to Japan. He’s a veteran of the Dublin music scene since the late ’80s, and despite the big distance he has a keen interest in the Irish music scene. Talking to Nez on a VOIP call the other week it felt like he could have been five minutes up the road. Distance has fewer implications with technology and it’s been interesting to see how much of the process of writing, recording and releasing this album has been accomplished online, from us recording demos in different countries, arranging mastering with Balance Mastering in the UK, or Nez ordering duplication in the Czech Republic from Japan! Nez is a true music fan and enthusiast who had support independent music in Ireland and Japan for a long time now. We’re very lucky to have him behind us.”

With a date in Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church confirmed for March 16th, and further national touring to be announced for June, it’s a busy time for the Spook of the Thirteenth Lock. Not that it’s stopped Blighe and crew from making yet more plans. “Beyond this record, we’d love to keep playing electric-guitar-orchestra shows. It’s an incredible buzz to make such a big sound with such a big bunch of friends! However we’re also looking at stripping back toward the original five-piece line up for something less complicated. Ideas are also building for the next record, which may be something more rooted in Faerie and otherworldly myths, than history.”

‘Lockout’ is available on March 16th online and physically via Transduction Records.

Wallis Bird: Home is Where the Heart Is

Enniscorthy singer-songwriter Wallis Bird has undertaken a great journey along the Continent in recent years. Ahead of her next swing of Irish gigs, including headlining Ballincollig Winter Music Festival, Mike McGrath-Bryan hears about the road, the process and the future.

As the noughties wore on, music was shedding its skin, emerging from an almost unrecognisable place compared to today. The tail end of the CD boom spurred the major labels on to fuel a series of almost completely artificial hype trains on both sides of the pond (as most vividly discussed in Vice’s recent expose on NME Magazine’s editorial workings circa 2002) and over here, the singer-songwriter bubble was aided in part by the might of established music media. Amid all this sat Wallis Bird, a folk singer from Co. Wexford with a most unusual playing style, necessitated by a childhood accident that saw the citóg play a right-handed guitar upside-down. Signing with Island in 2006, Bird rode a wave of success with debut album ‘Spoons’ that saw her traverse the continent in support of such disparate artists as Gabrielle and Billy Bragg, before 2008 follow-up ‘New Boots’ brought along a full touring itinerary including Montreux Jazz and Pukkelpop festivals. From there, Bird struck out on her own as an independent artist, encountering great success both at home and in Germany, where she now resides.

The topic of the comforts of home, whether here or in Berlin, has been at the forefront of her work in recent years. 2016 album ‘Home’, released on digital and vinyl formats, has been the focus of Bird’s touring throughout 2017 after its release the previous year, and already, she has carved a very definite place for the LP in her own headspace as a creator and as a person. “I am getting closer to this record as time is passing. The more I play the songs, the more insight they give me. I know that sounds vain, but I intentionally wrote this album to honour the best time of my life, and to return to it when life is less good, and use it as a springboard to feel better and work better.”

Art is often the product of its surroundings, and in the process of creating a work to fortify her own mental health, Bird constructed a working and living environment conducive to creativity, and the process unfolded almost despite itself before her over the following 24 months. “(I woke up) every day with a smile on my face, knowing that all I (had) to do today is write music! I was given 2 years with very little distraction to write and record this record, so I pumped gratitude and positivity into everything because of that chance. I worked with the environment, the season, weather, resources, lust, spontaneity, and (on a constant basis). I decided there should never be anger or boredom in the making, because there’s too much to learn. For example, I’d work a month in light, then in darkness, then intensely on instrument development, switch to lyrics for when that got samey, then focus on recording technique, then focus on something else, constantly move to the other song, take a week off, spend time with friends, go swimming. Keep instruments all around me, all over the house, have the studio ready to record in minimal effort, play play play, press record, maybe take a walk, daydream, take a day off freshen up, keep going. It was all about discipline and freedom of mind. I treated it like a masters’ thesis.” After that experience, and changing the pace of her life and processes, Bird is happy to confirm she is building on that foundation for her next long-player. “Having a great time so far. I’ll be immersed all this year, thankfully.”

Bird’s touring itinerary, once out and about, could be generously described as unforgiving. She’s been touring ‘Home’ fairly hard over the last year, including dates across Europe, Asia and Australia. But when asked to compare the globe-trotting experience to playing Ireland, there isn’t even a comparison to be made. “Nothing like a home gig. It’s the familiar vibe, the family, the friends, everything about being home. It’s wilder than anywhere, and I imagine a lot of that is because of the excitement I have coming home.”

As touched on earlier, Bird is far more in control of her music compared to the height of the singer-songwriter thing here in Ireland. Her management seems absolutely devoted to her, she’s self-releasing records, etc. Bird is keen to divulge how it all gets along. “It’s about mutual respect within your team. I’m not an island, there is no way I would want to do this on my own. Working independently means thinking long-term, and that means life-changing decisions, and a team you have to put your hand into the fire for. You have to love your environment, and nurture that, as you would your wife. And it’s not work, it’s fucking art and soul and culture – it’s important. Show your backbone. What do you represent? Do the people who represent you make you proud, and can you trust them with your life to hide a body for you, and you do the same for them? You have to be real with each other and be able to talk as openly and as respectfully as possible. In our case we don’t fight, we talk. And have fun! Don’t just make it all about the work. In my case we started out as a team, and I now consider them brothers and sisters, and that’s not a cliché. We love who we work with, we aim to be craft- and longevity-driven, and work with people with a genuine love for the bigger picture of true art for art’s sake, so with that as our base, we can’t go wrong. It’s all about the people. Are they nice? Do you work harmoniously? Now look forward and work together.”

One necessary evil of being an independent musician today are streaming services. Spotify and the like have attracted plenty of derision for anaemic royalty rates and changing the attention span of younger and more casual listeners, but for Bird, the knowledge from who’s listening and where via the platforms is indispensable. “My music and my biography is available at all times all over the world, a dream I didn’t even have in 2000! The stats are important, and certainly help in many decisions like choosing what to play at a TV appearance, who to reach out to on social media to tell them that we’re coming to their town, all of this works hand in hand. Using your knowledge in a positive manner is all in your interest.”

Bird’s January swing back through Ireland takes in a headlining slot on the first night of Winter Music Festival on January 25th, to kick off the festival’s ninth annual event. Supporting will be Canadian folk wunderkind Kaia Kater. She’s done her reccy on the gig and is enthusiastic. “I’m just looking forward to being immersed in what seems like a one of a kind, inspiring, natural and fun vibe. We’re delighted to be invited!” With a new album on the slow boil, and touring winding down in the early part of the year to facilitate same, it seems like business is picking up. “I think this will be a pretty serious year for me. I think there will be big decisions this year. Think it’s gonna be an important year for me, I feel it.”

Wallis Bird plays the White Horse in Ballincollig for the venue’s Winter Music Festival on January 25th. Support from Kaia Kater, kickoff at 8.30pm, tickets €25 from box office and whitehorse.ie.