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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Zepha: “We Do What We Want”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eddi Reader: “Whatever Flavour My Instincts Desire”

In a career that’s gone from pop stardom, to new-wave and post-punk, to folk and song-collecting, Eddi Reader has long been following her own instincts. As she prepares to embark on her eleventh consecutive annual Irish tour, including the Everyman Palace, she talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about her new album, and being in the moment.

After a few initial attempts to reach Eddi Reader over the phone go unanswered, a warm, Glaswegian-accented voice comes hurriedly down the line, running a tad late from other interviews and quickly settling into one place again. “Ah, you’re from Cork! I know that accent!”, she chuckles when told who she’s being interviewed for, and from there, the floodgates are wide open. Coming from someone with the body of work that Reader has had – UK number one singles with eighties hitmakers Fairground Attraction, several BRITs, an MBE and time on the road alongside contemporaries like the Eurythmics and the Gang of Four – this kind of candour comes as a huge surprise.

New album ‘Cavalier’, co-produced by Reader and her husband/bandmate John Douglas, released this past September, and has been greeted warmly by press and blogs in the UK. Reader is content with how the record has turned out, both as a songwriter and in her capacity as a collector and interpreter of folk songs. “I feel proud of it, and surprised at how unattached I am too. I feel like a postwoman delivering a lovely thing. It usually takes me a while to drop my insecurities surrounding music I’ve committed to forever on a record, but ‘Cavalier’ has given me the confidence of a mother regarding the beauty of her newborn.”

A DIY effort from start to finish, the creation and co-production of the record is reflective of the entirely self-directed nature of Reader’s operation: sessions for ‘Cavalier’ were quick, with Reader allowing her collaborators freedom over their contributions, both in arrangement and performance. “It’s different, because it’s a different time, and I have tried a different production approach. When you have all the final say, there’s nothing to question your artistic decision, and often times there’s a ‘settling’ into old predictable habits in your choices, but a collaboration brings compromise and those two things, collaboration and compromise, although tough for a selfish musician, bring a richer, more expanded experience.”

Challenges typically present themselves in the handling of traditional material on any record, but for Reader, a sensitive and informed approach, as rooted in her politics and compassion for others as much as any adherence to precedent, was the way to go about it. “I didn’t find any of the trad songs challenging except trying to get Mike McGoldrick on ‘Maiden’s Lament’, I sent it to him and waited, and waited, then, just as I was giving up hope, Mike played me what he’d designed for a solo, thinking I had moved on and didn’t need him anymore,  but he had been working on it and it was magical, so we rushed him into the studio and grabbed it… I hear trad songs as brand new songs. Their history interests me, but it doesn’t define the limits of their worth as songs. I don’t hear songs as “now” or “then”. A song sung at 12:30 in the afternoon can manipulate our emotions in a different way as the same song sung at three in the morning. Some adult people have never heard The Beatles, all that will be brand new to them. Also, these trad songs sparked my creativity and newly written songs flowed out to support them. I think the trad and the contemporary songs sound like new songs to me. I called the album ‘Cavalier’ because the word also means ‘freedom’. Freedom to sing in whatever flavour my instincts desire.”

With a career-spanning compilation putting a full stop on her first thirty years in 2016, the question arises of the secret to staying creative and fresh, in the face of an industry that seems bent on freezing veteran artists, women specifically, in a certain place in time. Reader has blissfully distanced herself from both the trappings of ‘legacy artist’ status and a dependence on ‘the hits’ to anchor a live excursion in the eyes of casual music fans. “Don’t get involved in ‘industry’ too deeply.  Do your own thing, and focus on the musical moment as it is happening, and nothing else. Live your life, but when you want to be a musician you can’t survive if you think that only the music industry is gonna allow you to be a good one. Some of the best musicians I know have never had what’s known as ‘a deal’. They set their own gigs up, and finance their own recordings. Having a hit was and still is a great help. But sustainability comes from not trapping yourself. I’ve done plenty of shows that didn’t include one Fairground Attraction song, but not because I didn’t want to sing some of that collection, only because of lack of time, or the set not needing my history. My sets are dominated by free-flowing communication. I instinctively pluck my way through an evening’s performance, and I get surprised and excited at what songs want to be included.”

Reader is heading to Ireland as part of her eleventh consecutive annual Irish tour, taking on a deep itinerary of dates that take in venues around the country, in smaller, ‘secondary’ live-music markets as well as the usual cities. This tour is prologue to a busy 2019 for Reader, as follow-up touring for ‘Cavalier’ takes her to see old friends around the world, and fittingly, partake in new experiences as a performer.  “I head to Japan for a week, then a U.K. tour, which will take me into summer. And I fancy celebrating all my years by busking in the South of France as I did forty years ago. Then Jools Holland wants me on the road with him for October through to November, then it’s Phil Cunningham’s Christmas Songbook… In the middle of it all I’ll be doing what everyone else gets up to: expanding my joy.”

Eddi Reader plays the Everyman Palace Theatre on Valentine’s Day, Thursday February 14th. Kickoff is at 7.30, tickets €30 are available from everymancork.com.

Cafe Move: “We Wanted to Offer an Alternative”

 

For one Wilton-based exercise centre and class space, Saturday mornings mean one thing: members getting together for a cup of coffee before working together on movement and flexibility. The endgame? Building up to the task of executing a handstand. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with Café Move co-owner Robbie O’Driscoll about a pressure-free alternative for New Years’ fitness kicks.

It’s 9am on a fresh Saturday morning at Doughcloyne Industrial Estate, just up Sarsfield Road, and nestled among the warehouses, retail units and even a children’s amusement complex, lies an exercise and fitness centre unlike any other. Café Move is being opened as we come in the door, and at first glance, as wooden pallets create a small corridor to a fully-stocked coffee bar that’s being readied for the day, slinging tea and speciality coffees as well as protein supplements, the idea sets in. Opened three years ago by owner-operators Robbie O’Driscoll and Karen Lunnon, Café Move styles itself not necessarily as a gym, but as a ‘movement centre’, prioritising exercise and wellbeing in comparatively unorthodox ways, especially for the current climate. Weight equipment is noticeable by its absence, and brass rings for gymnastics and acrobatic use hang from the rafters on both floors. The whole air of the place seems to be the polar opposite of the iron temples that seem to be springing up all over the city as of late.

At the forefront of the centre’s drive for accessibility is a simple yet starkly ‘different’ idea: a class simply entitled “Coffee and Handstands”. Doing largely what it says on the tin, the class allows for participants to file in early for a cuppa and some chats with the facility’s staff and fellow exercisers for about an hour, before getting down to the brass tacks of stretches, collaborative warmups and exercises combining gymnastics with resistance training. For O’Driscoll, it’s about bringing a lifetime of movement and fitness experience to a welcoming, inclusive space. “The whole concept comes from the point that exercise and socialising ought to be brought together, for the full package of developing a person. There has to be a bit of craic, in regards to exercise. It needs to be a constant, week in, week out, and if you’re doing it by yourself all the time, it’s going to suck. But if you’re in the company of good people, and the theme of the class is that it’s playful on the weekend, I think it ticks all the boxes regarding staying social, staying healthy, staying strong. And it’s a draw to have that chance to bring people together, to have the chats, a bit of interaction and discourse before we get things moving.”

It’s one of those questions that seems so simple for an interviewer that it becomes difficult by overthinking: how does one teach somebody a handstand? Even the mention of the word ‘handstand’ likely conjures up one’s own childhood images of small gymnastic feats among friends while out playing, gangly legs kicking up awkwardly into wobbly displays of athleticism that ranked alongside cartwheels and forward rolls as serious achievements for the day. The process of reverting to that mindset, and tapping into exercisers’ inner children, is what sets the class apart from any other offering in Cork gyms at present. And it’s making a difference, says O’Driscoll. “In this environment, there’ll be a general warmup, so everyone can benefit from strengthening and mobilising the fingers, wrists, hands, shoulders, core. So, nothing is outside the capacity of anybody. Anybody can join the class, we have an age bracket here from early twenties up to sixty. And as the class progresses, we split into groups, who is able for what, and then there’s individual practice. And it’s taught in a way that involves a partner or a group, so that everyone achieves their handstand, achieves their goal. You have that sense of camaraderie, it has that playfulness to it… There’s one person that sticks to mind to me, Martha, she showed up here a year-and-a-half ago with a shoulder injury, she was an avid Taekwondo player. She turned sixty recently and is now kicking up into a handstand, coming from a place of no gymnastics training, arriving with an injury and developing that practice is something.”

The centre’s regular custom has been slowly increasing in number over the past three years, as its reputation has spread among people looking for something different from a fitness experience. But even for such an eclectic group of people, this morning ranging from athletes to former quantum physicists, the idea of building from absolute zero to a handstand might be strange for different reasons. The idea, however, has been received well, according to O’Driscoll, acting for some as a goal, and for others, a gateway to more movement. “Let’s say somebody hasn’t been referred to us, they see a post (online). ‘Coffee and handstands, what’s that about?’. So, they’re quite apprehensive, they’re expecting something a bit hipster-y. They expect, ‘hey, man, peace, high five, wanna mocha-chocha-latte’, and I can see how we’d fall into that mix, with pallets around the place and coffee. But we meet them on a one-to-one level. People who have been recommended to us are all quite enthusiastic about arriving on, they’ve heard great things about us. People outside the centre, in (the fitness space in the city) look upon us as being quite airy-fairy, that’s one term we hear a lot. Maybe they’re the regular gym-goer and they see us with coffee and hanging upside-down, and it seems like an airy-fairy approach, not understanding that when we get into it, there’s some serious training, there’s a lot of sports-science, exercise-science, and I’ve travelled the world collecting these exercises to bring them to a public domain.”

It’s all in contrast to the current gym and fitness scene in the city, to say the least. There’s no disputing the rise in gym culture over the past few years, as people take to the benches and attend circuit training to get fit, boost their self-confidence, and get an all-important endorphin rush, the latter being an increasing point of discussion within the overall mental-health discourse. But with a number of new gyms opening up around the city, O’Driscoll is emphatic about creating an inclusive space, where the kind of gatekeeping that can sometimes happen in regular gyms, and the intimidation inherent for some people to working with fitness equipment, becomes a non-issue. “When we first opened, one of the first installments was a café, put right in the centre, creating a social atmosphere for a physical lifestyle and culture, was the idea. Not to say you’re a gym-goer, but that it’s more a lifestyle, you meet people you already know, like the ‘Cheers’ of the gym world. There’s no obligation to exercise in one format here, no dogmatic view. I teach the content I teach, I keep it as broad as I can, without restrictions on the members to not explore their own approach. We shake hands and meet each other, and that was the idea. In this setting, also, it’s more attractive to those who aren’t drawn into the gym scene. I wanted to offer an alternative.”

It’s January, and the natural course of events dictates that people venture trepidatiously into gyms at hotels and other locations around the city, prompted into action by the dawning of a new calendar year, and the traditional cocktails of well-meaning New Years’ resolutions and a seeming carnival of advertising that negatively reinforces peoples’ perceptions of themselves. Playing on insecurities by leading advertising campaigns with unreasonably attractive models and vaguely aspirational sloganeering, the intimidation factor is both a draw for facilities and an eventual turn-off. For O’Driscoll, the inclusive atmosphere at Café Move is aimed at helping trainees avoid that cycle, and play to their own strengths. “We don’t offer fat loss, and we accept anybody in whatever way they show up. We’re more interested in physical ability and whatever that is to the individual. Wherever they’re coming from, wherever they’d like to go, we’d like to be part of the assistance, and offer an environment where they’re not under pressure to adhere to a particular aesthetic, because that’s absurd to me. I believe weight loss, etc. is a by-product of tweaking of one’s lifestyle to improve their physical ability and their quality of life. Nor is it driven by what they ‘ought to’, or ‘should’. Because those negative motivations burn out quite quickly, I’d prefer it to be something that gives them an improved experience of life. ‘Now I can go hillwalking, now I can play with my kids, now I can have fun with my own body.’ Whatever that is to them, I’d like to be part of. And that perpetuates itself, being around others, without the sense of judgement.”

As the interview progresses, our seat at the space’s coffee bar allows us the opportunity to meet the attendees as they come in the front door, and get settled in for a chat before the proceedings. Martha Lynch, of whom O’Driscoll was speaking in reference to transformation stories to emerge from the facility, is softly-spoken, but effusive in her praise for the facility and what it’s done for her wellbeing. After demonstrating a handstand technique hard-won by training and exercise, she’s quick to reiterate. “It’s improved my fitness, my core, my balance, strength… everything. My energy… it’s great fun. We end up laughing halfway through the class most of the time, and it’s just great fun, and the coffee’s brilliant (laughs). It doesn’t matter what level you’re at, Robbie adjusts everything so you can participate in class and do your bit. I’m trying now to learn to do a pull-up, haven’t gotten near it but there’s variations all the way up, and it’s just getting your bit and working your way up. No machines, and you’re talking to people all the time.”

It’s hard not to look at the current slew of gym openings around the city and county as something of a bubble, if one is being entirely cynical. Time will tell how new facilities might fare in the long-term, and if the ongoing surge of casual interest in personal fitness becomes a permanent fixture in punters’ routines. O’Driscoll and Lunnon have put three years and a lot of very personal touches into Café Move, right down to portraits of their parents alongside various heroes of theirs in the changing facilities. There’s a vision at play here, and O’Driscoll’s mission statement speaks to this. “I’ve often thought of the movement centre, ‘Café Move’, a ‘movement café’, as being a social requirement, in city centres and all major suburbs, as maybe the new age community centre. We’re quite aware that sedentary living, fast food and high technology has us not moving a whole lot, and quite highly stressed. It’s nothing new to say that movement is a requirement, socialising is a requirement. So how I see it in the future is almost like a household name, in a sense: ‘I’m off to Café Move’, or however you want to refer to it, the movement centre, because it is a requirement. They may not be ‘sports’ people, but they do need to move, do need to be around other people, and I see the place like you would, in a day, go to the pub, you go to Café Move. I’d like for it to be a household name for taking care of yourself.”

‘Coffee and Handstands’ happens every Saturday morning from 9am to midday at Café Move, Unit 3, Doughcloyne Industrial Estate, Sarsfield Road, Wilton. For more information, check their social media pages.

Cork Youth Orchestra: “We’re Standard-Driven”

Having celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year, Cork Youth Orchestra is getting ready to take to one of the biggest stages this country has to offer, as ensembles of young musicians nationwide converge on Dublin’s National Concert Hall next month. Ahead of their big performance, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with director Tomás McCarthy.

For over sixty years, young musicians from schools all over the county have come together for their first experiences with large-ensemble performance with Cork Youth Orchestra (CYO), rehearsing currently at the CBS school in Deerpark. Debuting in 1958 at UCC’s Aula Maxima for an audience including the then-Lord Mayor and Mayoress, CYO has subsequently fine-honed its reputation for developing members’ talents and its legacy among the city’s artistic institutions. Down through the generations, the ensemble has performed at every major venue in the city, taken excursions around Europe, and performed at the openings of major national cultural events, cementing its place in the fabric of the city’s educational and artistic life. CYO’s musical director and conductor Tomás McCarthy summarises a busy year. “We have an ongoing programme, all leading toward a concert tour of Italy in 2020. We’ve just come out of our sixtieth anniversary, with concerts in City Hall, Killarney and Kenmare. Over six concerts, we played to nearly five thousand people. We had five sold-out concerts in City Hall. In April, we had four orchestras performing, and one of them had 120 members, who had been in the orchestra at any time between 1958 and now, including two people that had played sixty years ago. In preparing for the concert, we had two of the principle performers from Phantom of the Opera, and they were phenomenal to work with.”

Under McCarthy’s tuition, the ensemble continues to go from strength to strength, and a two-year path to a major performance series in 2020 begins with next month’s gathering of youth orchestras at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, under the auspices of the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras (IAYO), itself based in Cork city centre. As another year begins, McCarthy’s twenty-first as musical director and conductor, he brings us into the nitty-gritty of preparing for a performance on such a large scale. “The National Concert Hall comes part of our journey toward Italy in July 2020. We’ve been working all year ‘round on the concerts we’ve performed, and in amongst all of those are the rehearsals. We also have to rehearse for this concert in four weeks’ time, which is a much different programme. We would be the largest orchestra taking part, and at that, we’re the largest youth orchestra in Ireland at present, with 131 members on-stage. There’s a huge logistical support team involved, it takes fourteen people to run this, and it can’t be done without their involvement or input. A managerial team, libraries, roadies, transport… the National Concert Hall is a great opportunity for our members, who have never and may never again have the chance, that’s the primary reason for doing this. To play there is a good experience for all players, and we’re delighted to be able.”

The background of the ensemble’s membership is varied, taking in a wide range of young ages, and attracting applications for positions from around the county, such is the standard of musicianship that the ensemble has displayed in recent years, and its subsequent reputation for polishing and enhancing musical talent. Maintaining this state of affairs is a priority for McCarthy. “Of the 131 members, we would be approaching most communities in Cork county and city. The majority of our members and performers would come from the county. We have people in from East, West and North Cork… Kinsale, Midleton, Carrigaline, they come from everywhere, really. So, without specifying schools, most of the city schools would be represented. We’re Cork, the greater Cork area. We’ve taken sixty years to establish our identity, and we’re quite proud of that. We’ve established a reputation as the primary orchestra in the South of the country, we would be highly-regarded, and people are aware of our audition process every Spring. We’re standard-driven. It can be quite difficult to get in at this point, because the standard of tuition has risen dramatically in the past few years. It’s a wonderful thing to see, and we’re one of the beneficiaries of this.”

While the CYO requires time, effort and a good amount of dedication over one’s time in the group, it offers young people something a little bit more than average by way of an introduction to professional musical experience and a set of events to attend. Generations of families in Cork have come through the Orchestra’s ranks and picked up social and teamwork skills that complement their innate musical abilities, and members find those skills easily transferable in other environments. “I had three of my own children go through the orchestra. My youngest has just left, she’s eighteen now. It involves getting ready to go from around six o’clock, and getting home at ten o’clock on a Saturday. You have this teenage outlet, from September through to May. For any young person to have somewhere to go to meet such a large group of friends, and they become friends for life, it’s a great attraction. For some the music might even be secondary, but it all mixes to become a powerful energy. People always comment on that, this togetherness. They don’t have to work hard to make this happen: they’re talented, and they’re team players. It’s a magic you won’t get with an adult group.”

Over the course of twenty-one years, McCarthy has seen a great amount of young people become alumni and continue their musical training through third-level education, further orchestral experience and their own solo adventures in other genres and formats. Narrowing noteworthy examples of same down to a few favourites, then, is understandably difficult. “The list is so long. Speaking from my own family, my brother Declan has gone on to play with the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra. Another brother, Mícheál, has gone on to be highly-regarded on the Australian music scene. Not to name names, one of our former members, Muirgen O’Mahony, has qualified in London as a singer, and on New Year’s Eve, performed live with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, so that’s an accolade for her. We did a survey a few years back, and 27% of our members continue into the profession.”

This year’s IAYO excursion, entitled Young Musicians Centrestage, will feature, alongside the Cork contingent, orchestras from Galway, Meath, Dublin, Louth and Limerick. It’s a unique annual opportunity for audiences to see more than four-hundred young musicians from around Ireland, performing classical works and new arrangements. McCarthy has put together a special programme of performance for the occasion, and discusses what goes into selecting pieces for the ensemble and the stage on which they’re performing. “We’re going to be performing a piece called ‘Danzen #2’, by Arturo Marquez, and we’ll perform a Festive Overture by Shostakovich, as a sample of what we’re doing: good, strong, classical work.” As the year’s preparations for the 2020 performance in Italy continue, and the ensemble enters its seventh decade, there’s a lot for McCarthy to consider as he collects his thoughts heading into the NCH performance. “I’ve always loved performing there, and I’m delighted to be able to accomodate the members, give them the opportunity. I’ve played there as a teenager, and to come back there as a conductor several times over the years, it’s a fine experience. It’s about the young people, their experience, and their families, seeing their children onstage, the pride they get from that.”

The Cork Youth Orchestra perform at the National Concert Hall in Dublin as part of Youth Orchestras Centrestage on Saturday February 9th, with performances beginning at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets priced from €7.50 to €15.00 are on sale from the National Concert Hall box office or online from http://www.nch.ie. See http://www.iayo.ie for more details.