Elaine Malone: “Like a Little Burial”

With her debut E.P. having launched just this month, and her first Electric Picnic appearance under her belt, Elaine Malone’s time has seemingly just begun. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks to the singer-songwriter.

As we get to sitting down at a corner of the bar of the River Lee Hotel, Elaine Malone’s gears are already turning for the next step: after a chat here, she’s out to find the manager, to location-scout some of the hotel’s lengthy corridors for an upcoming video. It’s this kind of seemingly innate ingenue – identifying a means of telling a story in the environment around her, and tying it in to personal imagery, that has made Malone an important part of the Leeside scene in relatively short order.

Her knack for storytelling is best summarised in debut extended-player ‘Land’, self-released over the summer. A collection of brittle, alternative-inflected songs given life by Malone’s clear and increasingly confident voice, the E.P. takes in both external stories and internal monologues. For Malone, it was a long time in the making, but the work is starting to pay dividends. “It was kind of overwhelmed with how well-received it was. People were very generous with their time, their reviews, which is overwhelming, because it’s a nice little bonus, but you can’t rely on that (for motivation in the event of a bad review). I try not to read them too much, but it’s nice to have support from people. I’ve been getting some more opportunities as a result, it’s great.”

Written initially as solo guitar pieces, some of the songs on the record were years in the writing and refinement, before being played and having live arrangements worked out over a number of months at open mics, etc. To finally be sharing them with the world, with expanded arrangements with live band members Sam Clague and the brothers Sampson, represents a turning point. “It was such a long process making that E.P., two years from start to finish, and one of those was written when I was seventeen. I’m 24 now. It’s been a long time. And I suppose, in a way, it was like a little burial of them. I just wanted them to be made, and go into the world their own way, just to find a place there so I could free up space in my mind to write more… Because I started quite young, I think there’s a lot of teenage angst, which I’ve come to realise is kind of funny. It’s a timescape, almost, this little capturing of the last ten years of my life, in four songs. I don’t let go of things, until I make a deadline that’s irrevocable.”

Leadoff single ‘No Blood’, recounting the story of the death of Ann Lovett and its societal fallout in a country that had just begun life under the Eighth Amendment, had been a regular part of her live sets, before being released during the Repeal campaign. Having appeared at several fundraisers in Cork for the Together for Yes civil campaign, Malone is beginning to see the song, and what brought it about, in the rear-view mirror. “I feel immense pride, I think, for the Repeal campaign. Everyone that was involved. It was the biggest example of courage I’ve seen on a wide scale. So many women, and so many men, that were affected by (the Eighth) and had shared their stories. And that was such a pivotal thing: is this going to be a new Ireland, or are we going to stay the way we were? Be oppressed and hold on to Catholic guilt. We’re still not at a point where anything has changed, no legislation has been written. I was glad to be asked to play so many fundraisers. I saw how it affected people. There was no triviality to any of it.”

Accompanying the release of the extended player was a pair of visual pieces, in the ‘You’ and ‘Mindless’ promo videos. In different ways, each draws from the city’s landscape and people, with different circumstances bringing out the best in the pieces’ directors and focal points. “The video for ‘You’ was a last-minute thing. Celeste Burdon was fab, she’s a great photographer. Super-talented, and my friend Izabelle Balikoeva, we both had an afternoon free, it was like, ‘let’s get it done, let’s make it impromptu’, and I love improvising in general. Went home to get changed, pick a cool outfit for the video and shit. And then, I’m outside my house in last night’s mascara, looking really manky. Couldn’t get into the house. Door locked. A broken lightbulb in my bag for some reason. Jesus. I just legged it up to Celeste’s house to try and get something together. I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncomfortable (laughs). A couple of months ago, then, myself, Oriane Duboz, Mary Kelleher and Inma Pavon made this video for ‘Mindless’. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever been a part of. I suppose I co-directed it in a way. I had this image in my brain of a woman wrapped in plastic, and we were very lucky with where we shot it, it was a lovely space.”

The Cork music community is a tight-knit one, and among dedicated gig-goers and musicians, Malone has been an important part of it: this year alone has seen her open Quarter Block Party, be the first live performer to tread onstage at Dali, and perform at fundraisers for the Sexual Violence Centre. “The city’s so different now from when I arrived. Even the places we used to go to. It goes in waves. A genre grows in popularity and dies off. We’re fortunate to have a group of people that are constant, and are keeping the levels really high. People have space to develop and experiment. There’s some great youngfellas and girls coming out of the city. Jimmy Horgan’s got PLUGD, and the Roundy’s developed a lot more. I’m excited to see more alternative spaces, to be loud and make weird noises.”

With a landmark year nearly sewn up, it’s not too long to go before the next set of milestones presents itself. Malone is looking at 2019 on a step-by-step basis. “To keep tippin’ away. Writing as much as possible. Keep playing. I’m in the frame of mind now where I want to learn more now, about my craft, just being a better musician. That’s where I’m at right now. Maybe a new single after New Year. Just more cool shit like that.”

Elaine Malone’s new extended player ‘Land’ is available now on all streaming services.

All the Luck in the World: “We Wanted to Take a More DIY Approach”

Germany-based folk-pop trio All the Luck in the World have travelled all over the continent and racked up hundreds of thousands plays online, and this month sees them finally ready to come home. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with frontman Neil Foot.

Perhaps the inevitable result of a set of circumstances that saw Ireland declare its young people expendable in the face of economic difficulty, a young diaspora of Irish emigrés scattered across the world over the course of the bad years, taking with them their art and ingenue. Stories are filtering back of the musicians and visual artists that settled elsewhere and took authorship of their roots, as well as their body of work, subverting the ‘wild geese’ narrative that romanticises such displacement routinely. Though formed in County Wicklow, where the band’s self-titled debut was recorded, folk trio All the Luck in the World in the end turned to Berlin for a headquarters from which they could realistically plan tours, and be at a continental centre of creativity.

This relocation has led the band to cut its teeth on touring European venues and festivals rather than building a bottom line at home, but also informed the band’s approach to creativity, keeping busy enough in the interim with live activity to approach second album ‘A Blind Arcade’ the way they wanted, says band founder Neil Foot. “Yeah, we’re really pleased with how the record turned out. The writing and recording of our first album was quite rushed and we were determined to take our time with this one, so there was no real chance of us being unsatisfied with it. In the end we probably spent a little bit too much time sitting with it, but we’re just happy to have it out in the world now.

Recorded between the band’s own ‘Haven’ studio in Wicklow and the Golden Retriever facility in Berlin, the band’s more relaxed approach this time around has resulted in a fine example of accessible folk, with textures alternating from brittle string-plucking and baskmasked chords to sweeps of strings. That cavalier mentality of self-direction prevailed, says Foot. “The creative process usually involved the three of us sitting around, showing each other musical and lyrical concepts, and then developing them together. There was no overarching theme to the record, we just wanted to create a collection of short stories that felt like they belonged together.  A good portion of the record was produced at home, we wanted to take a more DIY approach from the outset. When we were happy that we’d taken the songs to certain level, we brought our recordings to the studio in Berlin, where we worked with our producer Paul Pilot, and then back home to add some finishing touches.”

Since the album’s release in February of this year, some three years after work began on it, the band is happy with how things have been proceeding, with positive reviews and growing crowds at their shows. Sharing in that goodwill has been a big part of how the band has managed the slow trickle of success that’s been coming their way. “We’ve been fairly pleased with the reception online and at the shows so far. We’re always hoping to reach a larger audience of course, and that’s not always easy. But it’s great to go on tour and really feel the reaction to the music, and to meet the people who have been listening.”

Being based in Berlin, as touched upon earlier, creates a different angle on the perception and question of creating within the Irish space, at once being able to say they took a go at wider success, while perhaps not benefiting from the tight-knit structure of community that supports Ireland’s DIY music scene. What’s that like as a cultural, diaspora and business experience? “Of course we are Irish artists, but we don’t have a very strong support network here in Ireland, and we’re still relatively unknown, I think. We’re based in Germany, as is our management, distribution, and previous labels we’ve worked with. Most of our touring so far has been in central Europe, this is our first ever Irish tour actually. But yeah, looking forward we’re hoping to make more of an impact (at home)!”

Said excursion happens over the course of next week as part of a wider swing of UK/Irish dates, including a stop Friday week at the Roundy on Castle Street for a show promoted by The Good Room. Foot collects his thoughts on the upcoming dates, and coming to the Leeside city. “Yeah, we’re really looking forward to all of the Irish shows we have coming up, and it’ll be our first time playing in Cork city. There’s a pretty unique energy to Irish crowds, and that’s always exciting. We played Indiependence a few years back, and the crowd were fantastic, so we know there’s a great buzz for music in the county.”

With their second album in the can and another major notch on their touring belt complete after this run of dates, the question of what’s next is quite straightforward for All the Luck in the World. “After these gigs, we’ll take a few weeks off over Christmas. Then we’ll hopefully get straight into writing lots of new material at the start of the new year. We want to share a lot more new music with people in 2019.”

Cork Folk Festival: Heralding Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, check out corkfolkfestival.com.

Nick Mulvey: “The No-Thing Thing”

Off the back recent long-player ‘Wake Up Now’, former Portico Quartet man Nick Mulvey comes to Cork on September 22nd, performing at St. Luke’s. Mike McGrath-Bryan hears about the record’s beginnings, and the wider issues it addresses.

A wide musical frame of reference can be a real blessing for a songwriter, once one’s natural urges are given focus. Since leaving Mercury Award-nominated outfit Portico Quartet in 2011, guitarist Nick Mulvey has been busy investing American folk influences of his own with his background in ethnomusicology, in particular African guitar styles and subgenres. A working relationship with Bat for Lashes producer Dan Carey bore fruit in studio, while support slots for the like of Willy Mason, Lianne La Havas, and Laura Marling allowed him to roadtest and refine further new material. Mulvey’s full-length debut, ‘First Mind’, arrived in 2014, charting in the top ten in the U.K., and garnering him a solo Mercury Prize nomination.

Third LP ‘Wake Up Now’ builds on this extended momentum, casting an eye outwards on matters both personal and professional, in keeping with the rate of change in society, and the trajectory of his own work. “I’m really proud of this record, and happy how my fans have taken it to heart. It’s an album I felt I had to write. The songs celebrate what it means to be alive, and they draw a line between the current crises we are experiencing as a species, and our generally shallow depth of self-knowledge. The songs talk about important things: yes, we are these bodies and yes, we are these roles that we play, but only very fleetingly. Basing an identity, personally, and building societies, collectively, on these temporary things, has been unsound, and we’re watching it fall apart around us now. This album is a praise song celebrating the ‘no-thing thing’ that we actually always are and as such it’s an offering of hope.”

The creative and production processes for the record speak to the extent of changes that Mulvey underwent in its run-up. Fatherhood came calling, right as wider human rights issues began making the news, which had to have been a tonic creatively, if for nothing but urgency. The end product, meanwhile, is a result of its surroundings, with Mulvey and band settling into Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio, in Bath. “I wrote most of the songs during and in parallel with my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of our first kid. Once he was born, it seemed to be rocket fuel for the record, it all came together so quick. It was recorded at Real World at the end of 2016, and we worked live, and we worked fast. I need an atmosphere of playful intensity to get the performances down, and ‘capture’ it as a still-living thing.”

Leadoff single ‘Myela’ touched on the aforementioned human rights crises, with its focus squarely on the ongoing European migrant crisis. Collecting one’s thoughts on such a weighty matter, before putting it together into a song idea, is a deeply personal matter, so Mulvey understandably conducted as much research as possible. In doing so, the voices of the voiceless came to the fore. “I knew I couldn’t write firsthand about this subject, but it felt like something I couldn’t ignore, so I drew the lyrics from refugees’ own words about their experiences. I found an online archive of refugees’ accounts of their journeys, and as I read these stories, the song became easy to put together. I wanted to humanise these people, and so I included as many names and places and details that I could, changing bits, of course, to fictionalise where necessary.”

Travel and an external perspective are nothing new to Mulvey, though. His story began at the age of nineteen, when he moved to Havana to pursue his own personal musical education, living in Cuba right as the once-reclusive country was in hot debate internally about whether or not to open itself up to the world. Upon returning to London, Mulvey parlayed this experience into academia, and studied ethnomusicology, a discipline also taught here in University College Cork. Ethnomusicology informs Mulvey’s approach to creativity and his understanding of the process, beyond the obvious question of musical influence. “I loved looking at music with this broad lens, taking nothing for granted, and I loved situating music in its cultural and historical context. The course introduced me to so much wild music, and taught me that we don’t hear things in a pure, isolated way – that every utterance is loaded with all the previous utterances gone before it.”

Nick Mulvey plays Live at St. Luke’s on September 22nd. Doors at 7.30pm, tickets €24 plus booking fee at uticket.ie.

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.”