Josienne Walker & Ben Clark: Walking New Ground

Josienne Walker and Ben Clarke have been on the rise in UK folk as of recent years, with new album ‘Overnight’ seeing them expand their horizons. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Clarke and finds out more.

It’s a busy time for the duo of Josienne Walker and Ben Clarke, a somewhat iconoclastic double-act whose current album ‘Overnight’ has been ruffling the feathers of more than a few folk purists, loaded as it is with strings and songwriting ingenue, rather than play it safe. Their own diverse musical backgrounds provide a window into this mentality, and as Walker gathers her thoughts from gigging the night before while speaking to your writer over the phone, she provides some insight. “I was a singer-songwriter, playing bad guitar, for myself. Ben was in an indie band, not a particularly great one, and a friend of mine, a sound engineer, heard their tracks back and heard him play an acoustic guitar. He said “what are you doing in this band, why don’t you have an acoustic project?”. Ben said “oh, I don’t know any singers, I don’t know anyone”. I was still looking for a guitarist to take the pressure off my sausage fingers, and he put us in touch. I guess it’s that we have a lot of musical crossover for folk stuff, both done a bit of classical playing. The bits where we meet and the bits where we differ make a quite interesting whole.”

‘Overnight’ has seen the duo tour intensively since release to promote it. The long-player has been out for a few months now, ample time for Walker to reflect on the creative process behind their first major studio production. “Ben’s an engineer and producer as well as a guitarist, so we’ve always recorded at his home studio. He had one in his bedroom initially and then upgraded to the dining room. But it’s a very small space, and we had to layer everything one on top of the other, which led us to become massive control freaks. We would work on each track for months. One string part, then another string part, then another. This time we decided to record residentially, and pretty much live, at Rockville Studio in Wales, and that was a completely different way of doing it. It forced us not to be so controlling, and to let the tracks come out and exist. It’s a completely different sound, and it’s what I like.”

Now that Walker has had some time to live with the record, was the reward of this album worth the risk of ceding control over the minutiae of studio? “It was hard to do, but absolutely worthwhile to let go a bit, so we got really good musicians in and let them play what they felt worked for the track. We had a veto on anything we didn’t like, but we allowed them into the creative process and it’s brought about some really nice results. It’s something we’re gonna take onboard for what we do next, something that we hadn’t had the luxury of before. It’s quite a big learning curve for us, in a way.”

The album has been released via Rough Trade, the stalwarts of UK independent music, still fighting the good fight to give worthwhile, contemporary music a home via its profoundly influential label and busy retail outlets & distribution network. What have they been like to work with? “They’re great. We’d listened to albums they’d been putting out for years and I guess if we had a top ten labels we would release through one day, they’d be right at the top of it, but we never thought that that would be the reality, so it’s very exciting to work with the people that put out The Smiths. Geoff is an interesting guy, and they’re all about the music, that’s their ethos. They don’t tell us what to do, creatively. They just facilitate us. ‘Cause previously, we’d been in a very specific, folk-orientated area, and they don’t quite observe these boundaries of genre, which gives us a wide space to try anything we feel like trying.”

These risks are paying off, and are grabbing the attention of some very influential new fans: Walker relates the story of Robert from Wolverhampton approaching the duo at a concert last year: “It was really strange, ’cause we were at a tribute gig, and he came up to us and went “hi, I’m Robert”, and we were all kind of giggling, like “we know who you are, Mr. Plant!”. Really strange to, one, be in the same room, and two, for him to be talking directly to us and telling us he liked us. Not sure we provided a very good conversation, either.”

The band play Cyprus Avenue on the 7th as part of their first touring swing of dates in the country, after a few spot shows in recent years. Walker is looking forward to seeing the place properly. “We’ve been to Ireland a couple of times, first time was in Drogheda, that was a lovely gig and we did a little session in a pub there afterwards, then we went to Waterford and Dublin last year. It’s really exciting to do a full Irish leg of the tour. It’s the first time we’ll have done a series of dates in Ireland, and we’re excited about it.”

Josienne and Ben play Cyprus Avenue on May 7th. Tickets from the Old Oak and

C Duncan: Heralding the Midnight Sun

Classical composition and contemporary musical reference points collide in the work of C Duncan. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the composer/performer ahead of his Cyprus Avenue show next week.

Independent music is full of stories of self-made musicians pursuing their muses in their own time and space, but very few of these trajectories wind up bisecting the worlds of classical and contemporary composition in the way that Glaswegian musician/composer C Duncan has. Debut album ‘Architect’ showcased Duncan’s way with compositional strokes and earned the songwriter a prestigious Mercury Prize nomination, no mean feat for someone so young at a time when the award’s role in star creation is up for debate. And it all stems from childhood fascination, though having a pair of classical musicians for parents certainly helped. “I have been interested in music since I was very young. At age six, I decided that I wanted to play the piano so my parents got me lessons. Shortly after that I wanted to sing so I wanted to sing so they got me lessons. Shortly after that I wanted to play the viola so my mum taught me… they were very accommodating! It was always me who wanted to learn music and they were never pushy at all, but would help out along the way. I was around classical music a lot as a child but my parents also listened to pop music, so from a young age I was very into both.”

What was the adjustment like from piano/viola to settling into the routine of playing with bands and their regular instrumentation, then? “Having only really performed alone, to myself, it was a fun experience to share it with others. I joined my first band when I was about thirteen as the guitarist and I have loved it since.”

Sophomore long-player ‘The Midnight Sun’ released in October of last year, bringing Duncan copious critical acclaim. Heading back out on the road for another leg of touring has prompted him to evaluate his relationship with his now-finished synth opera. “It’s a strange one. I was so wrapped up in it when I was recording it that I kind of lost touch with what it was about, especially when editing it, having listened to each track about a hundred times. I can honestly say now that I’m happy with it. It is a step up from my debut, and it works better as a whole, as well as being a much more personal album. With every song I write I keep (hopefully) progressing artistically, but ‘The Midnight Sun’ really sums up a time in my life.”

With artistic progress has come progress with the process of creation, and ‘The Midnight Sun’ was written with this experience freshly minted after his debut record. “I wrote a lot of the melodies and lyrics in the back of a van whilst touring the first album. I wanted to release it around a year after my debut so there were some time constraints, but this really focused me. After returning from tour I locked myself away in my studio for about 3 months to record it. I wanted this album to have a more distinct and overall sound than the first so I also limited myself to what instruments I would use, already knowing that I wanted to make a more electronic album. Having spent a year learning and recording the first record, I was a little more clued up this time around when it came to producing and mixing which really sped up the process.”

FatCat in Brighton have been releasing Duncan’s work, a vitally important label for independent music in the UK. Duncan has been on the roster for a few years, and is effusive about their work for him and his output. “They have been really wonderful. I have formed a real friendship with the owner and have been encouraged every step of the way to make the music that I want to make. As such an eclectic label there are very little boundaries as to what I can do musically which is really exciting for me as an artist. I’m sure they’d hate me for saying this but what makes them so cool is is that they are so uncool – they are excited about music that is interesting and genuine, not music that’s going to make them big bucks or one hit wonders.”

Duncan is playing Cork and Dublin next week, at Cyprus Avenue and Whelan’s respectively. The dates open his new UK tour, a thought which Duncan relishes at the outset. “I have only ever been to Dublin in Ireland, which I love, so I’m very excited to see more of the country, given that it’s so close to Scotland. It’s always exciting starting a new tour, and what a great place to begin! We are playing some songs from the new record which we haven’t performed to an audience yet so that’s also rather exciting.”

After the next few weeks, the vista is quite clear – the festival grind, and back to the studio to continue building momentum. “We are playing at a few festivals in Europe over summer. And I have started recording the third album so I’ll be spending the next few months locked away in my studio again! I’m also keen to get into screen printing this year, not that that has any relevance.”

As a parting shot, your writer can’t stifle his inherent, pop-conditioned curiosity regards the world of classical music and the conservatory education, and the question emerges: what’s it like to hear your work performed by a ensemble for the first time? “Absolutely amazing!! My first work that was properly performed was in my first year studying composition at conservatiore. Having spent months writing the notes and putting my all into it, it was exhilarating hearing it come to life. A feeling I’ll never forget.”
C Duncan plays Cyprus Avenue next Thursday at 8pm. Tickets from and the Old Oak.

Brigid Mae Power: “The Work Somehow Gets Done”

Quarter Block Party’s Friday night headliner, Brigid Mae Power, speaks about the festival, her recent self-titled “debut” album and the process behind it.

Gently swelling drones and metallic sounds punctuate the brittle psychedelic folk of Brigid Mae Power’s making. A cathartic listen at first, Power’s self-titled new album has been marked by the artist as her first “proper” long-player, released last year via Tompkins’ Square Recordings. Power readily explains the story behind this monikering, and the resourcefulness she’s used in the past. “Well, in a very basic way, it’s just because it was able to get to a wider audience, because it was released through a label. And also it was recorded ‘properly’ as in, in a studio. My previous album (I Told You The Truth, self-released) had been recorded by a handheld Zoom recorder that I just left in the middle of the room, in a church. Which had a nice effect, but it was done because I had no recording equipment or way to pay for a studio. So I was making use of what I could around me.”

The record itself was a long time coming in earnest, and when the time was right, Power took herself out of her own environment and out to the States, to work with folk singer Peter Broderick in his studio in Oregon. The process was quick and necessity was the mother of invention.“Well, some of (the songs) were very old, that I hadn’t yet put lyrics to or finished lyrics for, and then some were written just before I went over to Oregon. I basically had a plane ticket booked to go over, and then had two and a half weeks to have songs ready. So every morning when my son was in playschool, I forced myself to finish up all the half-written songs I had. Then when I went over I had about ten songs, and I just played them live and trusted Peter to add anything he could hear working with the song.”

The process was a departure from Power’s usual working conditions, going about the matters of recording and production alone. “It was an amazing experience, in many ways life-changing, but it was great because although we have different ways, we really met in the middle with a similar intention, so working together was easy. I think why I had worked so much on my own before was because I was sort of waiting to meet someone who would understand what I was after. Someone who doesn’t label things.”

Power has released her music via a number of independent labels, settling with folk/archival label Tompkins’ Square for the new album. How have they been to work with? “They’ve been great, I’ll always be grateful for Josh (Rosenthal, label head and renowned “record man”) giving me the chance to release my album. He was committed instantly to doing it and treated the music like it had value.”

Though the record is a deeply personal assemblage of tunes, as one can discern just from listening, Power is frank in her admission that there is limited personal importance of any of the usual routine of music for her. “To be honest, I’m not a day-to-day musician at all. I’m very busy with being a mother mostly. I walk around like a headless chicken most of the week. I sometimes think of how I would love the time to play every day, and set aside special time to work, but then I realise even before I was a mother, I wasn’t a day to day musician either. I’m quite the procrastinator and very disorganised. I can’t work to a schedule at all, the work somehow gets done and I sort of magically can’t really remember how or when. When I have every intention of working in one space at a desk or something, it’s like my whole body avoids it, and I go up and write or play guitar on my bed instead. But I see how for some people routine is important and keeps them balanced, but for me, and I have tried many times, it just doesn’t work. I have to throw routine out the window and see where I naturally gravitate to in the day. I have to sort of feel called to do it, if you know what I mean.”

Power’s releases are fronted by her own visual art, but much like her own relationship with creativity, says no rhyme or reason goes when selecting her cover artwork.“I don’t think about it so much. I definitely alternate between phases of when I am doing a lot of painting or doing a lot of music. Right now I’m doing more music than art. Sometimes I will sort-of see a few colours in my mind or some lines, and then I go to draw… with music I definitely gravitate towards it more if I feel a need to communicate.”

Power is playing Quarter Block Party on the Friday night, at St. Peter’s Church, and headlining the fest alongside Naive Ted. Having had a look at the extended programme, she’s enthused about the proceedings. “It looks great! I’m looking forward to catching lots of things. There’s lots of acts whose names I don’t recognise, and I like going into something with an empty slate so I can be surprised. I actually played at the Quarter Block 2015 and was really impressed with the festival, so I’m honoured to be headlining a show.”

Quarter Block Party is the outset of a busy upcoming year for Brigid Mae Power, including an anthology extended-player and more touring, as she outlines to finish our conversation. “This year, I will be releasing an EP/mini album with a German Label called Oscarson on vinyl that comes with additional artwork. I think that will be out in April and it’s all older songs that have been re-recorded and one cover of the song ‘As I Roved Out’. The songs aren’t necessarily connected to each other so it kind of has a ‘collection’ feel to it. I’m going to be doing a fair bit of touring and also I’m hoping to have a new album ready by Autumn.”

Brigid Mae Power plays St. Peter’s Church on North Main St. on Friday. Doors are 10.30, single tickets are €10 or admission with a day/weekend pass.

Mick Flannery: Owning the Opera House

With his fifth album in the can and the touring underway, Mick Flannery is a busy man heading up to his New Year’s Eve gig in the Opera House. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the singer-songwriter.

It’s been over a decade since Mick Flannery first entered the public consciousness, lurching from attempting to write a musical to solidifying that work into a debut album, fresh out of the Music, Management and Sound programme at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa. With new album I Own You now in the can, and doing the business on both national and international levels, Flannery is keeping characteristically busy, conducting interviews on the road during snatches of time between travel, checking and performance. It’s in one of these breaks that we find Flannery in quiet form, tired after encountering logistical issues with continental travel.

I Own You is a different beast to its predecessors, aesthetically and musically. The album cover tells its own story– a man, masked with horns, poses outside a housing estate set against a grey sky, the image drenched in sepia tone to the point of washout. Meanwhile, with more electronic influences creeping in came more synths and a more rhythmic sensibility. Flannery gives some insight into its creative process. “Christian Best and I worked on and off for two years or so in his studio outside Midleton. We tried to give preference to the rhythm section, we used a few different instruments and synths, and we got a few guest singers in. It took a while but it was very enjoyable to make.”

While it might be a while yet before Flannery can settle on his own feelings about the album as a body of work, the nature of record releases necessitates a certain awareness of how a record has been received, what the buzz is. He seems minimally concerned with this end of the process, recognising it as the other end of the business of releasing records, when questioned on the matter. “I’ve got a few nice texts about it. I think I read a couple of nice reviews, as well. The build-up to releasing an album inflates the importance of it to an unsustainable level, I think. When it comes out, you realise that it isn’t going to change the world, after all.”

A hot topic surrounding the album’s release has been the sharp veer into social themes Flannery’s songwriting has taken, a long wander from the rather more inward focus of his previous excursions. Listening to Kendrick Lamar among others certainly sharpened these instincts for him, but the greater point of it has all come from observing the world events of recent years, the seeming unbalancing of current affairs, and its knock-on effect, including the dear human cost of recent conflict. “Certain events in America regarding police brutality, and abuse of power, which goes unchecked”, mentions Flannery, “footage of refugees fleeing Syria. As I get older, I find it hard not to be disappointed with humanity.”

This turn away from the self as the germ of creative thought hasn’t gone unnoticed. So much of modern society and pop culture is aimed inwards – the scourge of personal branding, the unending gallery of selfies that awaits one’s own newsfeeds, and so on, and so forth. Flannery has stated prior that he was ‘bored of himself’ before and after writing and recording – how did he reach this conclusion, and how might one explain this externalisation to others? I’ve written a fair share of self-referential songs. “Playing them at gigs over and over again, I get tired of hearing me talk all about me. I think it’s natural that after a person’s twenties, they start to lose a sense of self-importance, and see themselves as another disappointing animal among many.”

Though his music has been made available on streaming platforms such as Spotify and Deezer for those that are so inclined, press material and official websites push heavily in the direction of CD and vinyl sales as a means of experiencing and owning I Own You. One wonders, in the wake of the deaths (and New Orleans funerals) of bands like Fight Like Apes and Enemies, if creators like Flannery are keenly aware of the knock-on effects of the ongoing changes the major-label music industry have been forced, whether by piracy or their own refusal to embrace same change at such a rate in the past, to weather. Whatever the solution may be, Flannery is hopeful of a market righting itself. “Technology has dealt a blow to the music industry, and to the pockets of artists. I like to think that things will right themselves, and that people who endeavour to make good music will be able to eat as a direct result. I think that music fans value the music they like more than what they are charged for it, and perhaps this value will be reflected in the future.”

On New Year’s Eve, Mick Flannery plays one of his biggest hometown shows yet, an evening engagement at Cork’s Opera House booked and promoted by Coughlan’s Live Promotions, the sister company of the venue of the same name, dealing in presenting bigger gigs than their home base can handle in venues around the city. These are boards he has trod before, of course, as a chart-topping artist. So the conversation on the Opera House turns not to the usual thoughts on a big show, but rather of the small details, the facets of performing at the venue that Flannery prefers the best. “I like having two pints in Cashmans beforehand. Also, the sound in there is very good, thanks to Chloe Nagle and Sandra O’Mahony.”

What next for himself and the band in the new year? “I hope to keep getting away with this for a while longer. It’s a very nice way to get by.”

Mick Flannery headlines the Opera House on New Year’s Eve. Doors are 7.30, tickets on sale now at the box office and online.

Loudon Wainwright III: “There’s Work to Be Done”

Folk legend and actor Loudon Wainwright finishes the Jazz for the Opera House on Hallowe’en night. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with him on family, acting, and getting bottled at Páirc Ui Chaoimh.

A musician, an actor, the great-great-grandson of a politician, and both progeny & progenitor of an immensely musical family, Loudon Wainwright III has done it all, from experiencing decades of life on tour, to the process and grind of the studio, and taken his place on the sets of television hits on both sides of the Atlantic. He also just hit 70 just last month, and to begin an early-morning phone call, is quite laid-back about it all, when asked about continued motivation and success later in life. “Well, aside from the fact that I still have to earn a living (chuckles), y’know, I like my job. I’d even go so far as to say I love my job. I love the part of it where I can get out and perform, jump up and down and sing the songs. I don’t care for the travelling and being away from home aspect anymore, and haven’t for a long time, but y’know, that’s an occupational hazard of touring. I like to perform and play songs for people, that’s the major incentive”.

Wainwright grew up amid a musical family as mentioned, and has quite successfully continued that tradition, not only handing it on to famous folk singers Rufus and Martha Wainwright, but tapping into the complexity of family relations for songs. What are his thoughts now on the relationship between music and family? “Well, as a kid, my father had a great record collection. A very wide range, from jazz, to folk, to Broadway musicals, to classical. So I received my initial musical education from listening to those records. Then, as a young man, it happened that I fell in love with another musician, Kate McGarrigle. So genetically, I’d say the deck was stacked. I have a second daughter – I’ve three, actually, my youngest is a college student – my other daughter Lucy, her mom was also a musician. So it just happens. The other thing is that family is a good song topic. The people in your family, your parents, your siblings, your children, your grandchildren… great song fodder. The people in your family, aside from the people you fall in love with, are the biggest characters, and sources of drama in your life, so it makes sense to write about them.”

In 1972 came novelty single Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road), which led to a memorable star turn in wartime comedy-drama M*A*S*H, as singing surgeon Captain Calvin Spalding. Wainwright explores his memories, or lack thereof, of the time and circumstance. “I was performing in a club in Los Angeles called the Troubadour, legendary music venue, still exists, actually. One of the creators of the show, Larry Galpard, saw me performing in the club, and thought it might be interesting to have a character in the show that burst into song from time to time, have a guitar and things. I was in three episodes, and somewhere in the world right now, there’s a M*A*S*H re-run happening on TV. Such a hugely popular show at the time, it was a lot of fun to do it. Everybody was really nice. It was a long time ago now (laughs), but I remember it just being a fun, exciting thing to be involved with.”

Wainwright is no stranger to either small or silver screen – a conversation with Opera House staff before the interview brought about memories of his role in cult-TV sequel Undeclared – and there’s no small part of his UK success attributable to his screentime in Carrott Confidential. Wainwright is quick to outline his feelings on the relationship between sound and screen. “I studied to be an actor, I thought that was the way I was going to go. I went to drama school in the late sixties, got a little bored of that, dropped out and became a hippie, and after that, drifted into music. But I always thought I was going to be an actor, so through the years, I’ve done things on TV and movies, y’know, a couple of small parts in movies. I’ve always enjoyed it, it’s a different kind of performing, more collaborative than sitting around dreaming up your own songs. I’m always happy to have an acting job.”

Like every folk singer that ever came across the slightest hint of success, Wainwright has been called “the new Dylan”, targeted to fill a void that won’t really exist until the man himself departs. The day before this interview, Dylan had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. As self-effacing as Wainwright is about that time, he recognises the benefits that came from the piquing of industry people’s curiosity. “There were a number of ‘new Bob Dylans’. I actually have a song called “Talkin’ New Bob Dylan”. Some journalist wrote the term. I’m a big fan of Dylan and play a lot of the same chords, as him, but my writing is not similar or my style particularly similar. I’m a fan, but I don’t see myself as Dylanesque, y’know. It was useful, it helped me get a record deal (chuckles).”

Wainwright emerged from a hiatus in 2001 after the death of his mother with a deeply personal record, and has resumed full service ever since. What more does Wainwright see himself doing and accomplishing at this point in his body of work? “Well… I’ve gotta get in a car today and drive to Bristol for a show (laughs). In the short-run, it’s about making the next town, including Cork. There’s work to be done. But in the bigger picture, I have a theatrical piece I’ve been working on for the last few years called Surviving Twin. My dad was a journalist, he wrote for Time Magazine, and in this show, I take some of his writings and combine & connect them with my songs. I did it this summer, actually, at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. That for me is the most exciting thing on the horizon.”

On October 31st, Wainwright plays Cork’s Opera House. No stranger either to Ireland, the conversation turns to interesting stories he might have from his time here. “I’ve been going to Ireland for years and years, lots of fun and misadventures. In the stadium in Cork (Páirc Uí Chaoimh), about twenty-five years ago, I did an afternoon show there with Kris Kristofferson and the Wolfe Tones. The audience was comprised largely of drunk fifteen-year-olds, it was a free show, I hasten to add. The major beverage being consumed was cider. I was performing early in the afternoon, and was being booed and heckled, and someone threw a plastic litre bottle of cider at me, a full one. It hit my guitar! I left stage, and Kris Kristofferson came out and they did the same thing to him! Which goes to show they’re democratic in Cork. They behaved perfectly for the Wolfe Tones, of course.”

Though he’s led a long and distinguished career, that itch to perform and create hasn’t left him. He’ll be taking it easy for the rest of the year after this, mind you. “I go back to the States after my time in Ireland, I have four shows there. Not quite the endless tour that Dylan is on, but there’s work to be done. Then on to work on the Surviving Twin show.”

Loudon Wainwright III plays the Opera House on Hallowe’en night, Monday 31st. Tickets on sale now.