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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Jake Bugg: “Through the Worst of It”

Indiependence headliner Jake Bugg is on the road to promote his fourth full-length. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the singer ahead of his Mitchelstown appearance.

Indiependence Festival is no strange ground to pop superstars. Early iterations of the festival provided interesting footnotes to Cork’s pop-cultural history, as chart-botherers like Dannii Minogue and Coolio made appearances in Mitchelstown to provide the nascent event some of that mainstream rub. Meanwhile, this year’s edition of the August Bank Holiday weekender includes pop producer du jour Sigala, fresh off a succession of gold and platinum records for recent singles.

No surprise, then, that straddling the line between pop and the broader, more folkish ‘indie’ aesthetic that’s trickled down to a new generation via osmosis, post-Britpop, is Nottingham man and Indiependence 2018 headliner Jake Bugg. The son of musicians, Bugg picked up the guitar at twelve, and proceeded to follow his influences in the rich seam of mainstream-friendly folk and MOR rock of the seventies, eighties and nineties. Rising through the ranks in short order after dropping out of school, Bugg found his way into a major-label deal in 2011, signing to Universal imprint Mercury after an appearance at BBC’s Introducing stage at Glastonbury. Success followed shortly, with festival bookings and collaborations with producer Rick Rubin and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith among others helping build his profile.

Bugg’s fourth album, ‘Hearts That Strain’, came out last September, followed by top-ten placement and some intense touring, leading to this year’s summer festival circuit. Speaking on the matter, Bugg is happy with the end result of his work, an attempt at emphasising the importance of folk and rock overtones to himself personally. This is especially true, now that he’s had some time to live with it. “It’s the record I’d always wanted to make. Working in a more traditional way, with a band playing in a room, and a great producer capturing wonderful sounds, was a very satisfying way to record. As a result, I’m very proud of it.”

Authenticity is a funny thing to go in search of, especially regarding influential music – many of the bands and artists that have influenced Bugg’s generation were the products of their place and time, and would make for a strange transmutation to the current music scene in 2018, at least outside of the nostalgia bubble. To the end of that pursuit, though, Bugg relocated to Nashville for the duration of the recording of ‘Hearts That Strain’, working with The Black Keys guitarist and vocalist Dan Auerbach. Much was made of the partnership of the time, though Bugg insists it was a team effort. “Dan was a factor, as was Matt Sweeney. In truth, it was a combination of having top-drawer people in the room. Dave Ferguson is a great producer and engineer, his contacts in Nashville meant I had all the best musicians playing on the record, and that made me raise my game to try and keep up with them.”

In terms of albums – obviously we’re in a time now where streaming has outdone digital sales for the first time, the labels are redistributing money from the Spotify IPO, etc. As a singer-songwriter with an eye on a broader audience, Bugg is cautiously optimistic about the business’ new models, echoing the sentiment of many attached to the majors, as they return to profitability amid debates on royalty distribution. “I think the industry is through the worst of it, as music is being paid for, rather than being pirated, and for music lovers, the access to all kinds of music is incredible.” That access to music has informed managements’ decision on where to go for young artists looking to take the next step via statistics dredged from streaming services and the like. This has meant that since the album’s launch, it’s been busy for Bugg, with acoustic gigs across North America and Australia, as well as full-band shows in the UK. “I love touring, visiting other countries and meeting fans. It blew my mind a bit when we got to Beijing this year, and fans met us at the airport!”

Touring wasn’t the only means of broadening horizons for Bugg, however: last soccer season saw Bugg become the shirt sponsor for hometown team Notts County F.C. for a month as part of a rotating sponsorship the club ran. It was the kind of band-branding largesse that was deemed fanciful back in the nineties, when his influencers Oasis were considering sponsoring Manchester City prior to the changes that club undertook on the way to the top. According to Bugg, his favourite team approached him about seeing name across their kit. “I’ve been a fan of County all my life, so it was incredible to be asked to sponsor them, and to really support the team in that way was nice to do.”

Bugg is among the top tier of acts on the Indiependence billing this August, alongside homegrown folk-rockers Walking on Cars and indie veterans Primal Scream, as well as MOR prospects like Hudson Taylor, cult Britpop heroes Cast and more. He ought to be right in his element, then, and Bugg is enthusiastic heading into the August bank holiday festival, right before sitting down to knock out his next full-length record. “I’ve always enjoyed coming to Ireland, as the crowds are great, and I don’t mind a drop of the black stuff when I’m over, so it’s a win-win!”

Sigala: “I Was a Bit Hesitant to Believe It”

From the pop remix payroll to chart success in his own right, Norwich’s Bruce Fielder, aka Sigala, has had an interesting path to Indiependence Festival this August. Mike McGrath-Bryan gets caught up.

The pop myth of the “overnight sensation”, breaking out from nowhere with an inescapable earworm that suddenly lands on daytime playlisting or Spotify’s Viral 50, is oftentimes a fallacy, with even the most commercially-viable performers’ progress dependent on a number of external factors. From “the right song”, to the office politics of major-label deals and the people that broker them, pop is a minefield. All of which is why the rise to commercial stardom of tropical house producer and remix specialist Bruce Fielder, aka Sigala, is a bit of an anomaly. After grafting away as a working songwriter and producer for the majors, Fielder struck commercial oil with ‘Easy Love’, a track he simply put together after a few drinks between commissions, driven by sheer boredom, and the rest has fallen as it has: chart placement, superstar collaborations and festival headline slots, including this August’s Indiependence festival in Mitchelstown.

His path to the songwriting mill that frustrated him in the first place came, via academia, settling into the role after graduating with honours from a degree in commercial music. Fielder explains how his musical background stood to him when sitting down and working with others. “My parents pushed me to learn an instrument when I was younger, I didn’t really want to sit down and practice, but they made sure I played about an hour every day, and I’m so glad they did. I went to London to university, and then went straight into songwriting for people. I do everything on the piano, writing chords and taking the music from there (so my background has informed that). My music is very melodic, and without being able to play, I wouldn’t be able (to compose).”

For a number of years, assisted by the rise of YouTube more so than any other streaming service, pop-inflected house, specifically the more accessible tropical house subgenre, entered a huge boom period, but with that wider audience came restrictions on sound and form, specifically with artists and management demanding rearrangements of clients’ music on spec. “When I started doing remixes, dubstep was a big thing, and I was just copying other people and doing what they were doing. My heart wasn’t really in it, I was doing it because I felt that was what was going on, maybe six or seven years ago. But my heart really lies in dance music, specifically house music, which is what I grew up listening to. I do experiment and make other things but house music’s the one that comes naturally to me, and doesn’t seem focused. So when there was a big boom in tropical house, three or four years ago, I stood back and went, ‘wow, I feel like I’ve been doing this in my own time and not sharing it, maybe it’s time to show the world what I’m doing’. It felt natural for me.”

Debut solo single ‘Easy Love’ was a spur-of-the-moment affair borne of the frustrations inherent to the commercial production grind, and ironically became a smash success under the watch of Ministry of Sound, whose media empire saw the track well-positioned and primed for platinum status. Its spot atop the UK charts came as a surprise to all concerned. “Massively surprised. It was around the time when I was songwriting and working on a different genre of music every day. I was confined to very specific tasks each day, with a brief of what each person wants. When you’re pitching music as a songwriter, there’ll be briefs going around, every top artist, looking for music to sound like ‘this’, and a little bit like ‘this artist’. So, it’s very formulaic, and not very creative. So, I got a bit sick of it, and just said I’d do something for myself, not really planning on sending it to anyone. Just wanted to get it out of my system, making something without any rules or regulations. I sent it to my manager, he sent it to Ministry of Sound, and they signed it, it went straight to number one. This all happened in a very short timeframe, like a month or six weeks, from writing the song to the charts. When we met (Ministry), they said, ‘y’know, we really believe in this, we believe in you as an artist’. And it’s something as a kid, I’d wanted to be an artist, but it was something I’d given up on. Then suddenly this other door opened up. I was a bit hesistant to believe it, actually.”

Most recent single ‘Lullaby’, a collaboration with blue-eyed soul singer Paloma Faith, has gone gold this past week, the latest in a long line of industry accolades and milestones. In an age where single sales and radio airplay have begun giving way to streaming figures, playlist placement and social media reach, Fielder eschews awards and prizes for live reactions. “I try not to base success of a song on numbers. It’s more just the reaction I get from people when I play a piece of music live, and how proud of it I am. But, yeah, those statistics, I try not to chase them. I’ve been fortunate, and I keep doing what I did with that first song, trust my instincts and do what comes naturally.”

Another milestone that awaits Fielder along the shifting tectonic plates of commercial music signifiers is his debut album ‘Brighter Days’, on the way in September via Columbia. Releasing solely across digital services with no physical press planned for launch, it points to the humble pop long-player’s future as another streaming format, an artist-focused playlist more so than a cogent listening experience. Regardless, Fielder’s first full-length is a chance for him to stretch his legs musically. “It’s very exciting, and slightly terrifying. It’s something that, when I was starting, I said, ‘why would I ever want to put out an album?’. Singles were working so well, but now I have so many songs that I can’t release them all, I can only do one single at a time. I just want to get this music out and show people the bigger picture of what I do, the music I can make, and to give people that are really into my music more to get stuck into. It’s an opportunity to show more sides of what I can do production-wise, so it’s exciting.”

Fielder is playing Indiependence Festival this August, ahead of the album’s launch. A jog around the summer festival circuit provides ample preparation for a solo headlining tour of the UK and Ireland in October, and Fielder is measuring his thoughts heading into it. “Festival season is the most fun time of year. I’m looking forward to sharing new music and seeing the reactions. I’ve been stuck in the studio for nearly six months now. It’s nice to have a balance, perform to people, and I’m really looking forward to Indiependence Festival. There’s some awesome acts there.”

The Shaker Hymn: “There’s No Redoing Things”

New single ‘Dead Trees’ sees Corkonian poppers The Shaker Hymn in hollering, apocalyptic form. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with vocalist Caoilian Sherlock about the process behind the band’s upcoming third album.

It’s one of those odd things, independent music: for a wide umbrella of music that prides itself on creative freedom and cultural autonomy in order to help progress the overall artistic discourse, there’s also no shortage of revivalists of various stripes, putting a new lease of life into previously well-worn sonic tropes. It’s been hard in the past to look at Corkonian psych-poppers The Shaker Hymn and not get some degree of the warm-and-fuzzies: emerging from teenage adventures in the folk and alternative genres, second album ‘Do You Think You’re Clever?’, self-released last year veered wildly into tape-hiss, big sounds and the kind of vocal harmonies the like of Supergrass would have been envious of at the outset of Britpop. It was a mix that intrigued a lot of people, and preceded a furious touring schedule in small towns and small venues all over the country, before the band took a breather to try other things and collect their thoughts before readying another salvo of new material.

In that context, then, the band’s new single, ‘Dead Trees’, is something of a surprise: though the hard-won authenticity of fuzz and hiss is granted permanence via recording directly to analogue tape for the first time, it’s something of a beast of its own. Vocalist/guitarist Caoilian Sherlock, a naturally happy-go-lucky fellow, drops the youthful distrust of the band’s post-Millennial fug in favour of fire-and-brimstone doomsaying, warning of an uncertain future, in direct contrast to his fine fettle as we meet at L’Attitude on Cork’s Union Quay for a natter. Sherlock is relaxed about the response the single has met with at the band’s gigs so far this winter, a return to live activity that foreshadows an upcoming third album. “It’s been good. I forgot what it was like to do gigs. We hadn’t performed in about a year, except for one gig in Belgium where we tested out all our new songs. It’s nice. The songs are different. It seems boring to other people, but they’re longer. I guess we’ve given up the idea of trying to impress anyone else, I think. When you’re a bit younger, you try and write something to get in the charts, or something. We’ve been doing that since we were sixteen. We’re twenty-eight, twenty-nine, now. The point of us being in a band to give us that expression that comes from being together, so there’s less rules and a lot more of a democratic process going on between the four of us. The intention is to make the most exciting thing we can.”

The process of creating music for record is obviously far different now than it would have been in the days of the band’s broader influences, and in trying to put down a document of where they are at present, the outfit have opted to keep recording their third album on tape, in order to instill the same sense of urgency, immediacy, and the finality of limited takes into their tunes. “Music nerds will be like, ‘oh, how exciting!’, but for those that don’t really care about the music recording process: we’ll be recording to tape, like they did up until the late Eighties, early Nineties. It means everything has to be done live. That’s exciting for us, ’cause it’s a different process, there’s no sitting at the computer and redoing things. If you sound good or bad on the day, it doesn’t matter: that’s what happened, and that’s really exciting for us. We recorded two albums in three years and before that tonnes of EPs, so the recording process can get a bit flavourless, so for us, this is a bit of spice,” smiles Sherlock.

‘Dead Trees’ itself touches on some fairly hefty business, shifting creative focus from bon-vivant appraisals of the maladies of twenty-somethings in the binds of austerity and ladder-pulling, like in previous single ‘Trophy Child’, to altogether broader subject matter as mentioned at the outset of this piece. The question is: what prompted this turn for the thematically heavy? “’Trophy Child’ was on our last album, and I couldn’t help but write about things that were going on around me. All my friends were going away to the UK, leaving Cork to go to Dublin, go to Australia and New Zealand, coming back, then going to South East Asia… much of that album was about that lost kind of feeling, not that I was lost staying in Cork, but a lot of people around me were having the conversation of not knowing where to go. So a lot of the songs were about that. This time around I wanted to write from a more thematic point of view, as much as I could, but not so personal, more universal. So, I was doing a lot more travelling, as this album began to be written. I got to go to Iceland and LA, and other places I’d never seen, new landscapes, so I wanted to write something about nature, and the more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t not write about the world after Trump, and Brexit. There was a heavy feeling at the end of last year and the beginning of this year, so there’s a lot of that on this new album. There’s also a lot of joy and excitement, and a feeling of ‘ooh, what’s gonna happen next?’”

The band’s recent downtime allowed Sherlock to spread his wings on a solo basis as Saint Caoilian, releasing his debut one-man effort, ‘The Faraway’, earlier in the year. Away from a shared creative process, Sherlock’s tendencies toward lovelorn pop, bearing the hallmark of power-pop pioneers like Big Star, are writ large all over leadoff single ‘I’ll Be a Fool For You’. It led to a massively busy summer of gigs, both in support of his own record and of fellow Corkonian troubadour Marlene Enright, and with the ball rolling on the endeavour, there’s little stopping him from continuing his path inbetween bursts of band activity. “I’m recording another EP this December! It’s funny, the reason Saint Caoilian came about was because I had about fifty demos at home. They weren’t going anywhere, and they weren’t necessarily Shaker Hymn songs. On top of that, I’ve been in this band since I was sixteen, you can’t expect three other people to travel all the time, can’t expect them to drop everything because you’re anxious about your life. I wanted to travel for the summer, so I recorded an EP that gave me an excuse to do just that. The process of the Shaker Hymn will take another year or so, but with Saint Caoilian, I can do everything in a week or two, book some dates.”

Sherlock’s tour of duty over the winter also extends to festival management of one of Cork’s most important festivals, Quarter Block Party, transpiring this year from February 2-4th along the city’s historic spine. Among the first wave of acts announced so far for the Main Street community extravaganza are comedienne Alison Spittle, fresh off her new work with RTÉ, and Waterford post-punks Percolator, returning to the city after launching recent LP ‘Sestra’ on Cork-based label Penske Recordings. Rolling out more announcements, fundraising & organising for the event itself will occupy Sherlock’s entire remaining free time for the winter, and he’ll not be able to raise his head above the parapet much. “Between here and Quarter Block Party, I can’t see much further than that. Keep the head down over the Christmas, then Quarter Block Party on the first weekend of February. After that, maybe sleep for about a hundred years?”

The Shaker Hymn’s new single ‘Dead Trees’ and Saint Caoilian’s extended-player ‘The Faraway’ are both available now across all digital services. Quarter Block Party tickets are onsale now, more info and lineup updates at quarterblockparty.com.

Soulé: What Do You Know?

After a busy debut year, Dublin singer-songwriter Soulé is ready to take on the world, and it starts with a headline slot at the Jazz. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.

It’s been just over a year since the debut show of singer-songwriter Samantha Kay, under the nom-de-plume of Soulé and, propelled forth by a wide range of soul, hip-hop and R&B influences, already HAS quite a number of achievements and milestones under her belt: national radio play, features in national print & online music media, and a nomination for the Choice Music Prize for debut single ‘Love No More’. On the eve of her debut Cork headline show – as a festival headliner for the Jazz, no less – it’s little wonder that Kay’s head is spinning at the minute. “The last twelve months have been crazy and quite overwhelming, in a good way. I haven’t had much time to sit and take it all in, because a lot has happened. But I’m so grateful for the love and support that I’ve received. It honestly means so much and it’s very motivating.”

‘Love No More’ became somewhat of a sleeper hit last year, appealing to both more discerning musical sensibilities and a wider audience on the way to the aforementioned Choice nomination. Its dichotomy of personal lyrical material and big production turned heads, and Kay explains the end result came on a creative whim. “’Love No More’ started off as a ballad that I wrote on my keyboard. That explains why the lyrics of the song are quite emotional. When it was time to record it, we decided to turn it into something fun and uptempo. I thought that it would be cool to turn a sad ballad into a dance track.”

Follow-up single ‘Troublemaker’ passed a million plays on Spotify this past summer, a rare occurrence even in a supposedly-democratised environment of on-demand audio still under scrutiny for the prevalence of playlisting for casual listeners. Kay outlines the importance of the medium to her as a listener, and defends it as a necessity for new artists. “As a listener, digital streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music & SoundCloud help me discover new artists that aren’t as well-known as the big names. It gives new artists like myself a fair chance to get their music heard.”

‘What Do You Know’, her most recent effort, has also gone down a treat, including single-of-the-week laurels from the Irish Times. It’s also shown that Kay’s wave of initial momentum may add up to more than the usual cycle of hype that surrounds some artists’ very early work when breaking down industry doors. “I’m very humbled by all the positive feedback I’ve received for ‘What Do You Know’. I was so excited for the world to finally get to hear it because I was so proud of it. I wrote that song as a conclusion to the ‘Troublemaker’ story, and it came together so well.”

Even at this early stage, Kay’s success has seen her begin to be feted as being at the forefront of the new wave of soul, electronica, hip-hop and R’n’B in independent Irish music, a wide spread of sub-genres that are collectively entering something of a golden age, along Loah, Jafaris and others. Kay has her thoughts on her place in this moment for Irish music. “The Irish music scene has always been booming in terms of rock and indie music. We are just adding to what is already there. It’s a great time for music in Ireland right now, and it’s great to see so many more new artists come out with quality music. We work so hard to be heard, and it’s finally happening. I’m just so grateful to be a part of it.”

The team behind Soulé’s success has been Dublin production trio Diffusion Lab, an active trio of producers and performers based in Dublin, boasting a fingerprint all over Irish hip-hop/R&B via collaborations with Soulé, Jafaris and many others. A far cry from creatively dictatorial studio producers and big-talking Svengalis, DFL function as a collaborative one-stop shop for artists, offering everything from production and co-writing to consultancy and graphic design. “Diffusion Lab has been my family way before I ever considered releasing music. We’ve been family since 2014, ’15. I’ve learned so much working with them, and we have so much fun together. The main motto we have is to always have a positive mindset and to always put in the work in order to succeed. Working with Diffusion lab has been awesome and I can’t wait to see all the great things they achieve.”

Soulé is playing Cyprus Avenue on Thursday October 26th, the eve of the Jazz Festival’s kickoff proper, having being formally announced as a headliner for the event. Collecting her thoughts heading into the event, she says: “I’m very nervous and excited all at the same time. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, and I love the energy that a Cork crowd gives. So, I’m excited to sing for them.” She then goes on to play her biggest headliner to date, next month at Dublin’s Button Factory, just over a year after supporting fellow Irish hip-hop breakouts Hare Squead there. Smiling, when asked to sum up how the time inbetween has been, she simply says: “The last year has been: unexpected, fun, crazy and exciting.”

Shrug Life: “There’s a Small Victory in Articulating Absurdity”

Observers of the mundane, be-moaners of the grind and fond custodians of lo-fi pop propulsion, Dublin trio Shrug Life have been doing the rounds for a few years now, and with 2014 E.P. The Grand Stretch long since committed to the review pages, the long-term project of putting down a full-length has finally come to fruition. Recorded in 2015-2016, the semi-eponymously titled album, sees the band address their mission statement in more detail, marrying a slow seethe at the state of play with some genuinely excellent power-pop. Vocalist/guitarist Danny Carroll provides the context for the band’s complaints regarding modernity.

“Shrug Life is the shared hobby of three man-children from Dublin, and collectively, we started stumbling into song in the summer of 2014. At this time, I was permanently lamenting my spirit-sapping career in the cancellation department of a TV & broadband provider. Keith (bass) was jumping from temp job to temp job and secretly hatching a plan to become a meme-worthy emoji translator, and Josh (drums) was committed to going on the session at every music festival in Ireland. He managed about nine that summer. Thankfully, we’ve been able to tolerate each other since then.”

The band is very obviously influenced by the Irish tradition of power-pop gems, including a love for the Undertones, as well as the lo-fi pop scene in Dublin. Lofi staple Fiachra McCarthy (So Cow, Dott, Squarehead), then, must surely have been the best possible hand at the production tiller. “Fiachra is a good man for reference points. His knowledge of music is encyclopaedic and his love for guitars unending. He’s also a big fan of using a mini-megaphone he bought for a tenner in Tiger, and open to the notion of using a 1watt Fender mini-deluxe for recording guitars. What more could we ask for?”

The band’s focus is heavily set on critiquing the current way of things for young(ish) people and the failings of Irish society, gleaned from their own experiences and the common experiences of our generation in (post-) austerity Ireland. How does one settle on a more, for lack of a better term, light-hearted approach to heavy topics? “There’s a Keith Richards quote I like: “rock n’ roll’s great weapon is humour”. In theory at least, it makes the message easier to listen to. There’s a small victory in articulating the absurdity of Irish society. In the bleak gags and self-deprecation, I’m trying to diminish the power these factors have over my life. Maybe in acknowledging its ridiculousness it becomes that little bit more tolerable.”

A highlight of the record is the joyfully riffy ‘Temp Job’, a koan to the shitty side-jobs that serve as distraction from our own callings and an Elastoplast over the shotgun wound of unemployment. It also showcases the band’s real strength – gentle observations of topics that, while not a tonne of bricks in the short-term, are just as crushing and grinding as the more immediate social concerns. Carroll outlines the creative process and considerations behind the commentary. “Every song tends to demands its own approach. Something consciously political and outwardly focused usually takes a bit more research and reading – it’s less instinctual because you’re trying to distil a bigger, social topic into the confines of a lyric. You start to ask questions of over-simplifying things and the perspectives sacrificed to fit this subject into a song. However, I think with any polticial/social commentary it’s about humanising the impact of the issue. How do macrodecisions affect myself or others on a micro level? “Personal ennui” can also take time to express, but it’s certainly a more navel-gazing process. Those songs have more to do with taking ownership of your own shitty situation or nagging conflicts.”

Pro-choice homily ‘Your Body’ seems more relevant than ever off the back of last week’s March4Choice. Carroll has no issue discussing the obstacles facing the Repeal campaign are now that Leo Varadkar has called for a referendum, including the attempts at tone-setting that official Ireland has already tried to get a start on before the formal date is announced. “If the marriage equality referendum is anything to go by, the next few months could be very difficult – anti-choice campaigning will inevitably rely on scaremongering and distortion of fact. Organisations such as ARC are excellent in helping people consider the facts and myths surrounding this issue. There’s an obvious obstacle in the fence-sitting taken of Varadkar and others, but the March For Choice last week chipped away at my pessimism. It’s funny, we were playing in Galway recently and I was accosted by a 50 something man who waited all gig to tell me my belief was wrong and he’d been about to buy our album but would no longer do so, because of our pro-choice stance. I politely informed him that I would rather express my belief than have his money. That night he messaged us on Facebook to re-iterate “any band that promotes the killing of unborn babies should have been aborted themselves”. Seems like a contradiction in terms there, but that’s just one microcosm of the idiocy we’re up against.”

Considering how irrelevant the idea of the seemingly unending “death” of rock’n’roll is, does even entertaining the argument for it in ‘Japanese Bonus Track’ kind-of validate the kind of tedious rhetoric that the aul’ lads that complain about guitar music being “dead” come out with in lieu of bothering looking for new tunes? Ah, but I love “the aul’ lads”. I’m complicit with and repulsed by the nostalgia surrounding “rock’n’roll”. I make music documentaries for RTE Radio 1, and the first significant one I made was celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whiskey In The Jar’. I enjoy the notion that rock n’ roll is permanently dying, or now graduated to the stage of niche old man concern like jazz. The song is also a comment on the endless commodification of this once rebellious concept – be it bloated Beatles reissues for granddad or the overpriced summer festival for junior. All that said, you’re quite right, if you think it’s dead, you’re probably disconnected from what’s happening around you locally. Stop moaning, go to a gig!”

The band is working with Little L for the local release, a prodigiously active label for physical releases in Ireland at this stage, and Seattle-based Jigsaw Records is handling the album’s international release. Carroll outlines the plan from here. “Young Callum Browne is the impresario behind Little L Records. A good friend and guitar nerd. I suppose his contribution boils down to caring about what we do – going to gigs and encouraging the endeavour where most others are indifferent. He’s doing a few tape cassettes for anyone who owns a car made before 1995. And for anyone who owns a car made from ’96 onwards, there’s the compact discs of Seattle’s finest, Jigsaw Records. The latter came about at the suggestion of Tuam tunesmith Brian Kelly (So Cow/Half Forward Line). I asked him for advice when the album was complete and he suggested Jigsaw. Yet again, their optimistic assistance surpasses the embarrassed disinterest of the rest of the world. The plan is to muddle through as we always do… then world domination. Maybe beg Aiken or MCD for a support, get ignored by Hard Working Class Heroes, y’know, the usual.”

The Dublin launch of the record happens on the 20th at the Grand Social, with Limerick’s Slow Riot and local boys Handsome Eric supporting. Coming off Galway and Belfast launches, Carroll is happy to finally be playing the home leg of the album’s launch excursion. “It’s actually these scant few gigs that make the thing real and worthwhile to be honest. We’ve gotten to meet so many pleasant people from different parts of Ireland over the last couple of years, and it’s those connections that justify all the other slog. We’ve wanted to play with Slow Riot for a couple of years now. It was actually a mutual friend of ours, Brian Morrissey, who encouraged Josh (drums) and I to play together in the first place. Handsome Eric is the project of the enviably young, talented Steve O’Dowd and features the aforementioned Callum B on drums. His songs remind me of how I felt at age twenty, but had no capacity to articulate. Suffice to say, we’re hyped to have a party with our friends… you’re all invited.”