Ciaran Lavery is an incredibly talented singer-songwriter who hails from Northern Ireland. I was lucky indeed to get an opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with him. He told me of how he creates his music, touring, playing at Willie Nelson’s ranch and accompanied by strings back in Belfast, the perils of wearing a suit on an outdoor stage in Texas and so much more – Davina Baynes
DB: What is your earliest musical memory?
CL: That’s a good question actually. My two uncles were in a heavy metal band in the late ‘70s early ‘80s and they went under the name of Easy Meat and were really great, actually. I remember being at one of my uncles’ houses and he was showing me one of their records. The artwork was really impressive, especially for a child: it’s this huge muscle-bound guy in the back of a motorbike and my uncle used to joke that it was an image of him. I just remember standing with his record in my hand; I think that was the first time that I held a vinyl record as well, and knowing that my two uncles were in a band. That was my first, very small, musical memory.
DB: Is there anyone else in your family that are musical?
CL: Most of the female side of my family, the cousins, are involved in music. I have a cousin who’s a really great fiddle player and another female cousin of mine who is a whistle player and they both play traditional Irish music and have been involved in trad sessions for years, since they were probably early teens. I have seen them play a few times and they are great musicians but very quiet about it in that typical Irish way that you almost don’t want to brag in case you come off like you’re pretentious or something. I have another cousin of mine who is a really lovely singer but she wouldn’t play too many shows, she just sung family events and things like that.
DB: And your uncles, of course.
CL: Yeah, except my uncles. It’s either Irish trad or it’s heavy metal, it’s never anything in between. (Both laugh)
DB: When did you start making music?
CL: Probably when I was around 15 years old. I picked up the guitar and my brother-in-law taught me a few chords. I spent maybe about a full year trying to be as determined as possible, to pick up the guitar and start putting some songs together and very quickly after that I gave it up because I thought, ‘This is too difficult.’ So I sat the guitar in the corner for about a month and then I came back and I thought, ‘I’m going to learn how to play this.’ I went back to it with a whole different type of determination and willingness to see it through and go through all the pain of the holding the strings down and all that kind of early stages of trying to play an instrument.
Within a year I had some sort of handle on the instrument and I was listening to a whole lot of music, singer songwriters from the ‘60s and ‘70s, that were definitely influencing the type of things that I wanted to write. I guess I spent that year just being somewhat of a chameleon in that I just wrote in the different styles of the people that I really admired, and I wasn’t sure if I had my own voice yet so I just used to pretend to be like one of my many idols around then. I would have tried to write something very close to a Townes Van Zandt song and the same with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen; I didn’t really think I had enough life experience anyway for me to write anything as profound as they did so I just used to pretend.
DB: Have you had any formal lessons?
CL: No. I took a few piano lessons within the last year, and that was interesting! I’ve got some sort of visual knowledge of the piano and I can hear things so, based on the years of playing the guitar, I know what different chords sound like and things like that but I just didn’t know the shapes and how to travel around a piano so I wanted to learn that. I took some lessons that brought me right back to the start again and I was learning all the really cool children’s nursery rhymes! It was definitely a huge moment for my ego to be put back in check again but it helped me establish the basic movements around a piano, which I’m grateful for, you know, because I’m able to play it live now. But I’ve never had any real formal training, like when people talk about their musical grades and things like that, I didn’t go down that road so I’m more-or-less self-taught.
DB: How much has Irish music and culture influenced your music?
CL: I guess it could be massively. I don’t, and I haven’t really ever, sat down and consciously tried to write anything Irish but I guess that’s who I am, and I live in the country, I was brought up here. It’s hard not to be influenced by everything around you, especially because I’ve spent a quarter of my life living in the north of Ireland and being influenced and being surrounded by people who are also influenced. There’s an Irishness that is just present there, I think it’s harder to recognise it when you are in it or you are an Irishman. Sometimes it takes someone from outside of Ireland to point out to me that they think my music is quite Irish whereas I wouldn’t necessarily see it like that because, for me, Irish music is always steeped in the more traditional sense of Irish music and jigs and reels and even the songwriters I wouldn’t call my style necessarily Irish, in the way of The Furies or Luke Kelly or The Dubliners, all those kind of guys. I haven’t really, and I still don’t, consider my style to be Irish.
DB: Are there any particular eras, genres or artists that influence your music?
CL: Oh boy, yeah, for sure! I remember being around 15 years old and I got my hands on Townes Van Zandt’s Live at the Old Quarter record and it’s a really great live album but it’s so dingy and dirgy and you can hear the buzz of the refrigerators behind the bar – there must be about 15 people at the show and it sounded like nothing else I’d ever heard from a live album, in that it’s quite sad. I think most live records that I have heard since then have always been like a special evening with a huge audience and you get that really warm round of applause – whereas his was really haunting and sort of slow, broken applause that there was something more human about that.
I’ve always been influenced by American songwriters, even a lot of the fictional books I read growing up (and still do read), I’m still drawn to that Americana genre. A lot of the great songwriters from the ‘60s and ‘70s: Jackson Brown, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. Tom Waits is a massive influence for me and on my music. Nick Cave is another huge one. I started listening to one and it just set off it did to a domino chain of effects and I followed a chain then that led to certain people. Joni Mitchell was always somewhere along that line as well, with Neil Young and suddenly you’re finding yourself immersed in all the big, heavyweight songwriter names. I try to listen to as much music as I can. The only type of music that I can’t get my head around is dance music. I don’t know how you feel about that…
DB: Like EDM (Electronic Dance Music)?
CL: Yeah, pretty much. I can’t imagine sitting down and putting a record on, and just having a cup of tea with the beats absolutely popping. Sometimes I kind of wonder if I’m missing something, you know when like you just don’t ‘get’ something or you’re just not able to hear what it is about that that people love and maybe, years later, you finally ‘get it’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, okay, I understand now!’ It’s like I was with Neil Young for years: I couldn’t get my head around his voice and I thought, ‘I can’t listen to this!’ And then, when I turned about 17, I heard ( think it was) “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and I remember that it was the first time that it clicked and I thought, ‘Okay, I get this now.’ So I don’t know if EDM is going to have that effect on me, I mean I doubt it but you never know.
DB: Your influences are all really strong lyricists.
CL: Yes, I’ve always been drawn to lyrics, even when I was 14-15 I listened to a lot of hip-hop records as well and it was the same thing that would have drawn me in, in that I really liked the lyrics; I liked the kind of play on words. It’s definitely an element of music that it’s the first thing that catches my ear and it’s also the first thing that either affects me or can make me switch off. Basically if I hear strong lyrics then I’m engaged and – I mean I don’t care how good the production is, or the arrangements – if the lyrics don’t really speak to me or carry much weight then I’m kind of not really interested and it’s just something that I don’t forcibly try to do.
DB: Can you describe the process you go through when you write a song?
CL: The last few years it has been very changeable. I used to be very strict with myself in that I could only write if I had both guitar, or instrument, and a jotter, pen and paper with me and I had to write the two together. It was the equivalent of working in a mine shaft: dig and dig and hope that something came out, you know; either sitting with the instrument and trying to come up with a melody that eventually worked into a lyric or vice versa. I only wrote in that way for years.
I guess I changed format a few years ago whenever I started to rewrite because I had this silly policy where, if I finished, I didn’t go back to touch it again – it was finished, it was done. If I used it either live or I recorded it, then great, and if I didn’t then I wouldn’t touch it, because I felt that that was a complete piece of work and I couldn’t delve back into that; it felt artificial to go back months or years later and try to resurrect something or take ideas from one song. But I started exorcising that a few years ago where I would rewrite old songs and that was the first time that I wrote without melody – that’s when I was really just focussing on, ‘I want to make these lyrics strong’ – and in that I found a new way to write. With the amount of touring that I’ve done in the last 12-18 months anyway, I tend to have to be more flexible about how I write because a lot of my writing can occur anywhere. It’s strange, a funny thing, I could be having a conversation with someone and if someone says a sentence or they use a word I really like, I tend to write it down or make a mental note of it and that lyric, that line, does not leave my head until I can put it down on a bit of paper and work on it. I don’t know whether that’s a form of OCD! (Both laugh)
The last couple of years I’ve been able to write independently of lyrics and independently then of music and it’s definitely freed things up a lot for me. I do still write with instrument and pen and paper when I can, but I also leave myself open enough that if I’m out somewhere, or that I am just sitting with guitar or piano, that I don’t have to go and get a pen and paper. I don’t have to write this way: I can come up with a melody or I can come up with some lyrics without the melody and then just try and make it fit – and if it doesn’t fit in then then I’ll come back and try again.
The big thing that I’ve learned over the past few years is learning when not to write anything so I generally have a feeling that I’m going to come up with something. It’s a weird thing to explain. It’s almost like a gut feeling of, not a hunger but it almost feels like anticipation or expectation in that I can feel as if I’m in a place where I can write, so I tend to try and just do that, right away. I was listening to an interview with Neil Young, about a year ago, and he said a really great thing, where he was speaking about songwriting, and he was saying how, if he gets a song lyric, or something comes into his head (a melody or whatever) no matter where he is, if he’s at a party with friends, he just leaves, right away, and goes and he has to write it down or he has to record it really quickly – and he’s found that sometimes you just have to do that to keep things alive, rather than let an idea pass you by. He leaves himself open to write 24 hours a day basically, just when the idea comes to him, he acts on it. For me, that sounds really healthy because it’s something I had been doing anyway, you know. There’s elements of the last 12 months where I have written songs in the middle of the night, just at the kitchen table, where I’ve woken up and I’ve thought, ‘There’s a couple of really nice lines’ and I just go and sit at the kitchen table and write them down and then I go back to bed again.
DB: Creativity is this weird thing that tends to leap, suddenly, into the mind when you aren’t consciously trying to ‘do it.’
CL: I completely agree with that. I’ve been in places where I have tried to force ideas and I’ve always felt slightly like a bit of charlatan in that I’m trying to fabricate an idea or create an emotion, rather than having an emotion or feeling an emotion and acting on it. I guess over the last year, I’ve had to write under pressure with deadlines and that again has been another, different process for me, having to write with other people in mind – be that labels or industry people.
As long as I can remember, I just used to write songs for me and I guess a lot of songwriters would be almost afraid to say that, because it might come off as selfish, that you just write songs for yourself but I very seldom have sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to write a song for my fans,’ because I have no idea what that will be. So I tend to try to write for me first and then if that translates to other people then I think that’s kind of the beauty behind music, you know, that you can share something quite personal and people can engage with it and hear it and attach it to their own lives, their own memories and there’s something about that I don’t think can be forced or created through any formulaic methods. The process for me has changed and it does change a lot just depending on the need, whether it’s I need to get something off my chest or some idea that comes to me or now, especially with the pressures of labels and industry I have to almost consider other people a bit, which is so strange and I really don’t like doing it.
DB: It’s like trying, or wanting, to tether a wild horse isn’t it.
CL: Exactly. It’s such a strange idea. At the end of the day your name is going on it as well so it is still a representation of you but I guess the world changes a little bit when suddenly there are more than one or two people who are invested in a project. You see a business and terms like ‘projects’ and it becomes a strange, different world and one that I’m not very comfortable in – I still like to exist in my own world and write and treat myself as the same person, just a person writing some songs. I think that there’s a lot of noise that goes on in the music industry that can be quite distracting when you are trying to create and write. I think it’s something that I may always wrestle with and there’s a lot of it that I’m not 100% comfortable with (or comfortable with at all).
DB: How would you describe your music to anyone who’s never heard it before?
CL: Ah man! That’s such a strange question. I guess I’ve always found it to be quite uncomfortable to be pigeonholed and I think people do it a whole lot. I even do it myself when I listen to other music and if someone says to me, ‘Listen to this,’ the first thing I will do is take some sounds that are familiar to me and say, ‘Yeah, that kind of sounds a bit like… this, or it sounds a bit like Nick Cave or it sounds a bit like…’ but I hate doing it with myself.
In essence I’m a singer songwriter but I think, even that term, creates certain shapes and definitely colours in people’s heads where they have an expectancy of ‘singer songwriter’ so they probably think: acoustic guitar, sad songs about being heart broken. I guess it’s honest. I try to have a sense of honesty in everything I create so I guess it’s honest music. I don’t try to over-complicate things, or try and make me sound as if I’m some sort of genre hopping, musical genius; I just like to write really honest music that can reach people in some way and it seems to have done that over the years.
DB: Live music or studio work: which do you prefer and why?
CL: They’re completely different. I guess live music is the best arena for testing out new sounds, for getting that immediate feedback and I mean, as soon as you play a certain note, or if you sing a line, you can actively and physically see it on people’s faces, whether they are affected and this is both positive and negative so sometimes it can be quite tough when you see people and you can lose them. It’s quite an unforgiving place and there’s a certain amount of exposure in that but I really like testing out music live. I think that’s the whole point, in that you can go there and stand with people and create your own world, for whatever the length of time the show is, you can create a world for people to relax into and become vulnerable and then you’re on this journey with this room full of strangers.
Over the years I’ve mutated into different forms of live shows in that I play solo and I also have a band and jump somewhere in between and arrangements change a lot. I just love being able to create for live and I treat it totally separate from studio creation. I don’t have an ethos that whatever has been created in the studio has to sound like that live. I think that if people wanted to listen to the studio version of a song, then surely they could sit in the house and put the record on or put it on their headphones. Whereas when you go to a live show, I think you want something different and you definitely deserve something different and something special, because it should be a one-off. I treat live shows like that, in that I try to change things slightly from studio arrangements and offer people something that they wouldn’t get when they listen to one of the records.
Saying that, I do love working in the studio because, I think, that is quite a strange place: you step out of the real world for whatever amount of time and it’s intense creativity and it’s right there in front of your face so there is a completely different mindset I think from working in a studio and it is quite independent from every other aspect of life. Which is why it is always quite difficult and strange to walk back out into the real world after recording for an extended period of time. There can be a huge low, a huge low point from this intense high, this kind of adrenaline high that you are on the whole way through creating something and putting it together.
Let me try and explain it in a way: I guess it’s a huge, complex, jigsaw and you’re putting all these pieces together and then you’re able to step back every so often and look and see: what else does this need, does it need a corner here, does it need a piece here? It’s quite similar to art in that you start off with that blank canvas and you put on your base colour and your base layers and then you start adding different bits of light, different bits of darkness and at any point in it you can step back and say, ‘This is done.’ Because it is so intense and so involved there is a danger in that it can be hard to step away and you know, nobody wants to end up like Brian Wilson, constantly torturing themselves to try to create the perfect record.
DB: You’ve been on tour in the U.K. and Ireland and more recently in North America and now parts of Europe: what’s it been like, being on tour and who have you toured with?
CL: I’ll do it backwards. The last tour I was on it was a headline tour, so I had a support from a guy from Norway called Jarle Skavhellen, who’s a great singer songwriter – was on that run for about a week. I spent a couple of months in North America: on tour with a guy from Bristol, a singer songwriter called Luke Sital-Singh and then previous to that I was in San Francisco for a really great festival called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It is huge, they take over Golden Gate Park and there must be, I think they say there’s about 150,000 people come through the park over the course of the weekend. It was such an intense and surreal thing to be ten feet from Steve Earl and Emmylou Harris and John Brown and people like that and just watched them do their thing. I seen some great music and great musicians and it was such a cool festival to play, so I was very honoured to play at that. Previous to that I was on tour with a band called David Wax Museum, which was another North American tour. Before I joined that tour I had spent some time in Nashville at the Americana Music Awards, which is another great festival. Before that I was on tour with Luke again, his U.K. album launch tour was in around May time, so we spent about 3 to 3 ½ weeks in the road. During the summer I was out in Europe, playing some festivals. Anything previous to May, I have no idea what I was doing!
It’s quite strange but it’s almost that, that moment where you stop and you take a break, or you have a chance to take a breather from what you’re doing from your work and the whole time leading up to the break you think, ‘Oh I’m really looking forward to just doing absolutely nothing at least for a few days and then we’ll take stock, and see where things are,’ and after like two days I’m kind of ready to go back in again and looking at the next thing, even though I mightn’t feel physically ready, or even mentally ready. I think you just train yourself to be in this routine of constantly moving and when you don’t there’s a strange kind of alien feeling, in that it almost feels wrong to not be a bit more frantic about things, you know.
I’ve been actively stocking up on books over the winter that are going to see me through, hopefully, and I’m going to enjoy the next couple of weeks off and just hang about with my dog for a while and spend Christmas with family and just read a lot and listen to records and I recently got the Love Supreme, John Coltrane album.
DB: What sort of books are you planning to read?
CL: I read a lot of short stories. I got really heavily into short stories whenever I was touring last year because I found it difficult to get to read a weighty novel whenever I was away and travelling a lot, having to dip my head in and out of a book and follow this one continuous story so it became more of a challenge to try to disappear into that world of a book. I started reading some short stories and I realised that I can get the same satisfaction from a story that maybe lasts twelve pages and you get to the end as well. There’s a certain amount of self-satisfaction that you can close that story and say, ‘Well I’ve achieved something.’
I have some philosophy that I kind of stocked up the last time whenever I was in last in North America, so I’ve been looking at some of that. I’m currently reading Krishnan Guru-Murthy book on love and loneliness which is really interesting and a book by Judith Hermann called The Summerhouse Later which is a book of short stories; she’s a German author and it’s really good, very dark and I love it so much! A friend of mine, he gave me Chump Change by Dan Fante which he said is hilarious and “very wrong” but that I would love it! I’m going to try and read some of that, if I can.
DB: Ray Bradbury and his short stories were a big influence on me as a teenager and they are really worth reading and are very weird in places. They are like lyricists in a way, because they only have a certain amount of time and space in which to tell a story, so they make every word count.
CL: I think it’s a different skill from writing a fully-fledged novel. You’ve got to get things in there and get to the point, there has to be some sort of message, although, be fair, I have read some short stories that have made zero sense to me from start to finish but there’s almost a joy in a lack of something happening, you are just reading some train of thought sometimes which can be interesting rather than looking for a result, looking for a conclusion – some of them just end. The journey just starts in the middle and it ends somewhere there as well.
DB: How does being on tour affect your songwriting?
CL: Usually negatively! (Both laugh) Possibly detrimental, it really depends. I think when I travel independently or when it’s daily travel and I’m moving around a lot, then yeah, it’s hard to find the time to do anything outside of: get to your show, and remember to eat. Those kind of basic things are the things that I try to look after in those spaces.
I tend to retrospectively write so I can collect things on tour, and even small ideas and lyrics, but I tend to not really touch them until I get home. It’s very seldom that I’ve ever written anything out on tour that I’ve been 100% happy with, I always have to take something back and then write it at home or in a less chaotic space where you know that there’s some sort of stability with your day. I mean I have massive respect for people who can write full albums and fully-fledged complete tracks when they are out touring because it really is exhausting and it’s a strange headspace to be in as well. There’s a survivalist element to touring that I think can override every other sort emotion and especially elements of the creative process that you rely on can be switched off or at least be ignored for a while when you are just trying to make sure that you get from A to B and then you play a C well and then you try to remember to sleep as well. For me it’s quite tough but I like to collect either ideas or small things and then bring it all back to a place that’s a bit more settled and try and make sense of it.
DB: Do you feel pressure towards writing towards radio play or commercial success?
CL: Yes. I’ve recently been recording a new album which is now finished, but the process was vastly different from anything else I’ve experienced in that it was a certain amount of expectation (on my shoulders anyway) from a lot of invested ‘others’. This was the first time that I had to present work to people along stages of the writing and creating process and it had to appease, or at least get a green light every so often, from either the label or management. There are so many people that are invested in things now and especially with the creation of this album that there are a lot of opinions – it’s quite difficult to work with, you know, because in that sense it’s hard to take everything on board so I’ve kind of tried to do my own thing and hope that it translates to other people and that they understand where I’m coming from, rather than me trying to change what I’m doing to appease the ideas of other people. But there are times in this album creating process that were just quite difficult, in that I had to take a few breathers and step back a bit and look at things from different angles, in order to move forward with the album. I think for me, personally, it’s always quite difficult to consider other people whenever I’m writing and I find it fabricated or false to try to write “a hit” because I don’t know if that exists any more; I don’t know if there’s a formula to writing a hit song or whatever.
So, I guess I struggle with the idea of writing with the purpose of success because I don’t believe anything genuine comes from that place. As someone who tries to write based on either how I feel about things or I kind of tend to write with my emotions at the forefront, or at least somewhere in the process, I find it quite difficult to get my head around the idea of writing a formulaic “hit” for the sake of radio. I don’t think there are too many people who can predict what a hit might be might be, or how to write one. I think they can tell, whenever something is put in front of them that it is going to be successful and even then there is a certain amount of that that may not be true, you know, there may be certain songs that are a hit on the radio that you just would not expect to and certain songs that really take off, or grab people. I think it’s hard to predict how people are going to engage with music. I have been in conversations where people have said, ‘Well we need it to be three minutes and we need a catchy chorus.’ And you think, ‘What the hell’s a catchy chorus?’ And what is that meant to mean, what is it meant to say?
I think we live in a strange world where kids these days are so involved in their phones and everything is surface, I don’t think people really want to engage with their emotions, especially that generation. I find that a lot of people deal with it on the surface and they like to talk on the surface and it’s all about entertainment and what you like and what’s the best distraction – I don’t believe that people really want to talk about proper issues or things underneath the skin, you know. Which is why I’ve always found it quite difficult when someone is asking me to write something like a catchy chorus or they maybe need a certain emotion conveyed. It’s that kind of that ‘cry on demand’ sort of ethos that you’re asking someone to pull on the heartstrings and let’s see who buys into it and for me that just feels kind of cheap, you know.
Every time I write a song I know I’m exposed, you know, and so there’s a certain element of that when you’re being asked to fabricate something or create something that’s not real or to create for the purposes of something else. I think, for a while, it really confused me and made me feel quite disconnected from what this musical world is. It did affect me for quite a while and got me really down; it got me to that point where I was quite hard on myself about creating music and I also was confused. I guess, as a songwriter, I would be an emotional person but I’m very much an introvert as well so I just buried a lot of it and it manifested in very kind of strange and frightening ways in the space of a few months. I was still actively trying to create music and not dealing with issues that were coming up and I found that it all stemmed from this idea of creating, or developing, a “hit” or a song for radio but I think it is something I’m not quite happy about doing.
DB: Because it is contrived isn’t it.
CL: Exactly, yeah. I think people can see through that and I kind of hope that they can. I think people are better than that, that they want more – people deserve more, especially from the everyday struggles of life (I’m kind of getting really deep now) but I think people really deserve more from their entertainment and from music and from any message that they listen to – it’s something that affects them and I don’t think that needs to be buttered or presented in a certain way that it will get their attention. I just think that if it organically works then that, for me, is the best way of creating that and definitely as a music listener myself I’ve always been drawn to things that are just more real and you can kind of tell when things aren’t and there’s a certain kind of bubble gum fakeness about that, that I don’t really buy into.
DB: How did you get started in the music business?
CL: When I was about 16-17 years old, a really good friend of mine Stephen, he got a drum kit and we would just spend a few days a week in his garage playing music. Then eventually I talked to my brother-in-law who had been influencing me (he showed me the chords a few years before) and we talked about putting a band together. We ended up as a seven-piece band at one stage. We played for 6-7 years, maybe more, and that was where I had my initial experiences with live music and then writing music and original music and being able to present it to a band and look at arrangements.
Things sort of petered out when I was in my mid-twenties with just “life”, I guess. People had moved on and the band didn’t really have the potential to go much further but for me I had made my mind up at that stage that I wanted to pursue music. I wanted to stay in it. I didn’t see it as a hobby. I didn’t see it as even a part-time thing, I really wanted to try and make a career, and a long career, out of it. So I carried on and started recording some house demos with a really great duo of friends who were very encouraging: a guy named Paul Wilkinson and a girl called Edelle McMahon. And we just recorded in Paul’s house and his wife was really nice, she would have given us the space and went out for the day so we could record and I had all these demos and they were just so passionate about being able to give me the space to create music. That was the initial platform for me, as a solo artist, to feel as if I could do this, you know and about a year later then I recorded my first album which had songs like “Shame”, “A Little More Time” songs like that that people still engage with, which is kind of strange. That’s where I had my first exposure to the music business.
Ever since then I have been creating music and the last couple of years then I was able to go full-time at it and signed to a label and there’s a certain amount of momentum and the trajectory that has just to get it to where I want it to be. For me, if I can create music, for as long as I am given and for as long as I possibly can, and if I’m able to do this full-time and tour and play music live to people, and there’s still a demand for it then that, for me, is success – to me that is ‘living the dream’ to a certain extent.
DB: That first album, Not Nearly Dark, was recorded unusually wasn’t it?
CL: That album was recorded in record time because I just had a budget of my own and that gave me a few days in a studio and it was right to the minute; you had a certain amount of time to get everything recorded. We had some great players who were very quick and I think, because the whole process had a time restraint, there is a certain element of that where you can never really over-cook or over-track. There was always going to be a sparseness about that record that sounded like, what I wanted was something that sounded like it was recorded in the middle of the night. For a large part we did record at strange times.
Looking back it’s funny because I never really expected those songs, and some of those songs especially, to resonate still as much as they do because I was just writing music and I just wanted to record something before I forgot it, because at that stage I found it hard to hold melodies in my head. I had to record something so I thought, ‘You know what? I want something here that I can just say, ‘ I’ve got that down. Like “Shame”, for example, which is probably one song that people talk to me about a lot, and online there’s a lot of people do their own covers of it. It was something that I had written a few days before and we just happened to have 8 or 9 minutes left in the studio and I just wanted to put something down and I wanted to track it before I forgot it. That’s almost the version that was released and I think there’s almost 40 million listeners on Spotify to this thing that was just literally created like that. It was a conversation that I said, ‘Let me put this down really quickly in case I forget it,’ with the idea that, maybe we’ll come back to it and record it ‘right’ and then whenever I went back to it I was really happy so I didn’t want to change anything with it.
I think that’s what recording records or songs is about, it’s just a moment frozen in time and then you present that. I was so excited about being able to release it, I didn’t think about the effect that it would have or anything like that. I had my first taste of recording a record, a full record, and I wanted to do more of that. I knew that, at the end of the process, I knew that I wanted to do it again and I wanted to do it quite soon.
And I’ve always been like that, you know, I kind of tend to write ahead of myself so I have enough that I can look forward to the next project – almost to my detriment in that I don’t really give myself enough time to enjoy something that’s completed, I just tend to finish it and move. I enjoy a current album whenever I’m arranging it for live shows or tours but I never really engage with it too much again whenever it’s completed. I try not to pat myself on the back because you never know… I think, when something is being recorded it is already part of the history and I think that you’re not the same person whenever the album is recorded or whenever these songs are finally finished and everything is put on them and they are packaged up and there’s a bow and everything on it and it looks really lovely, you’re already a different from that person who is presented in that work – there’s a sense of evolution about yourself. That’s why I find it’s important to, not constantly write, but definitely write in a forward manner, in that I like to write in a present state that is usually different from the one that was recorded before. It was like, all these moments in time, I was just trying to bottle them and store them up and see if I could make enough around one period of time that is a representation of me at a this time.
DB: Your next album, after Not Nearly Dark, was Sea Legs and that was with Ryan Vail? And that’s quite unusual because it uses quite a lot of recorded speech, poetry and sounds. How did that come about?
CL: Well, I remember coming up with this concept that I wanted to work with an electronic producer and I didn’t want to have a base, where all of my songs were drawn from the same instruments. I thought, working with someone who has a totally different background or comes from a completely different genre, it might be nice for me to collaborate with someone that way. I knew of Ryan’s music and for me he was probably one of the most credible electronic artists that I knew and that I could reach out to and hopefully pursue some sort of collaborative work, so I did what most people do nowadays and sent a really strange email at about 1 in the morning. (Both laugh) He didn’t really get back to me with too much enthusiasm because I jumped ahead and told him the idea that I had and asked him would he be interested and I don’t think he didn’t really knew who I was; he was quite polite but I got the sense that, in a nice way, he was saying, ‘No.’ As Fate would have it, about 3 or 4 weeks later, we both ended up playing at this one-day festival and I happened to be on just before Ryan. That was the first time, I think, that he had seen me live and then after he got in touch and he was like, ‘Yeah, let’s maybe try something.’
I already had some ideas and some demos. Initially I had wanted it to be full on – I wanted to give up all of the acoustic side of things because I was more interested in seeing whether I could lend my voice and lyrics to a different arrangement. He was in the exact same space in that he didn’t want to use his usual instruments and he wanted to see what it was like if he was more involved from a more sensitive production and not worry too much about the elements of electronic music that would have made up a lot of his previous work. We were coming from the same place but looking for the opposite results so we met somewhere in the middle.
I sent him this demo of a track that ended up being “The Colour Of Blue” and suddenly we found a theme that ran in that. I went to a night in a book store in Belfast, maybe about a year or two previous, where they had some musicians and some people reading prose and they had a guy whose Shipping Forecast drew me in and I had been in touch with him ever since. Ryan is based up around the coast so he was able to go and talk to the local fishermen (he basically put a recording device in his pocket) and then that’s where he collected all the found sounds of the water and all that and luckily he had been doing this anyway. Suddenly we were starting to put a project together: what started off as one song was now we were wondering whether we could turn this into something else. So I contacted the writer and I told him about the theme and I said, ‘Look, have you got anything? I would love to have some spoken word and if you would record it, it would be great!’ He sent me over The Shipping Forecast and he read it but he wasn’t really pleased about his voice being on it, he would like someone else to read it, so I presented it to Ryan and I said, ‘Look, I think we should involve some spoken word on this. I think it would be really good.’ He knew another guy who was a local poet who he contacted, who had written a piece called Kilda Mara, which was all about the coast and so suddenly we had the guts of some sort of project and definitely some sort of landscape was starting to form.
The whole process was really organic: we didn’t have to push or pull at all, we just were very supportive of each other’s ideas and neither of us wanted to create something that we had already heard too much of and we had no interest in trying to make anything that was for anyone else – it was just about exploring this idea and seeing what we could come up with. Sea Legs was the result, which I’m very proud of.
DB: The next album was Let Bad In which has got an a capella song as its title song: can you tell me a little about the album or the song?
CL: For at least a year or two before I had been performing at least one a capella song per show which is something that I have always been drawn to, through traditional Irish music and I used to really love when people got up in bars and just sang and it would have silenced the whole place and it was always very lyrical and very poetic. I think there’s a real bravery behind that of just standing up in a place and singing and just presenting something. I thought it was fascinating and yet very emotive.
I wanted to record something that would capture it so I woke up in the middle of the night with this line in my head ‘Once you let bad in, you cannot close the door’ and I thought, ‘That’s a really good line. I’m going to go downstairs and I’m going to write that down.’ I went and sat at the kitchen table and I basically just wrote the whole thing, inside maybe five minutes and I thought, ‘I’ll just put that down now and I’ll look at it in the morning and maybe try and put a melody to it.’ But when I got downstairs the next morning and read it, I thought it read less like a song so I just lifted the guitar and I picked a key that I could sing it in and then I just tried to sing it, just a capella, and I had to move it around a few times.
Initially I wanted a female voice to sing that part because I thought, for me, it would sound… I guess at the time I thought a female voice singing those lyrics would be quite haunting, because it’s from a male perspective, to give it a different kind of spin, but the version I recorded myself, as a reference, was the one that I thought worked out best – I was using some other musicians who weren’t from Ireland and I don’t know that they really understood the concept of singing a capella and it’s okay to not move around too much and some people would trying some kind of vocal gymnastics with it, I guess because the song has quite a linear melody as well and I just wanted something really straight. I had just recorded a version when I was sitting, just on the chair that I’m actually sitting in now, into my phone, and I sent it to the producer at the time. When I came to the recording of it, I told them to, ‘Just use that one. Use the one that we have, it’s fine.’ There’s a track that’s just like a synth kind of layer behind it, just underneath, that was just to create a certain amount of atmosphere because it was quite strange to just hear this voice come out of nowhere without a backdrop to it, so we needed some sort of bed that it could lie on.
I guess that’s where the album came from: I had a handful of songs, but they didn’t really make sense, for me there didn’t seem to be a story or I couldn’t tie them together and then suddenly when I came up with “Let Bad In” and all the elements of that song and definitely the messages of it, about childhood and about life and the decisions that you make and the different roads it leads you down. That theme really came to the forefront then for the record and everything else was just tied in around it.
DB: It works really well.
CL: Yeah, I think so. Bonny Prince Billy has a song called “Careless Love”, it’s the second song on an album called Ease Down The Road and that track sticks out because it’s not like the rest of the album, at all, it doesn’t really tie in, but it is so beautiful and it really hits you from a different place – that song comes in and blindsides you really. I heard that and thought, ‘That’s such a good idea!’ And there’s a certain amount of bravery and fragility about that, that I think the recording process can sometimes take away with over-arrangement and things like that. I was determined to record something that still sounded as fragile as it would be if I was in the bar and just got up and started singing.
DB: The EP that you released, The King At Night, uses speaking voices as well rather like Sea Legs, doesn’t it.
CL: Yeah. That was basically my ode to Bonny Prince Billy because I’ve loved his music for such a long time; I wanted to record some of his tracks and just arrange them differently. In essence I just wanted to be able to present some song that I really loved of his, in my voice and it was in between some really intense touring and I had this small window of opportunity to go in and record for a few days.
I got a handful of players together and I just brought them in for a few hours at a time and just played the tracks and got them to play certain things in the studio when they were there. I probably was being a complete arsehole in that I didn’t give anyone time to prepare, I just played the song, turned round the chair and I was sitting with the producer, and we were just looking at a violin player, a cello player and just saying, ‘I want you play us something in here.’ Between myself, the producer and the player we worked out a part there and then and once it was worked out we were like, ‘Okay, now let’s just track it.’
It was so fast as well but I really loved that process and especially because I got to work with a great double bass player called Jackie Flavelle, who was a legendary bass player here in Northern Ireland and he played with with of the heavyweights over the years. He played with: Van Morrison, Paul McCartney, he spent a lot of time in London. I think whenever a lot of musicians weren’t really leaving Northern Ireland and it wasn’t safe to tour around Northern Ireland, with the Troubles, and he did it because he didn’t have any religion, he just loved music. I got to work with him and it was the final recording that he ever worked on, that EP, so it was really sweet and it was so nice to spend a bit of time with Jackie and hear some of the stories from a totally different era. I always consider it a very special recording for me, as I got to meet and have someone like that play on my songs, which is just phenomenal and I am very grateful that he was so open to coming in.
DB: You also played a concert at The Mac: what was it like going back playing live in Northern Ireland and also what any difference, if any, did it make with the live strings that you had?
CL: It was a totally different show in that it became, by nature, quite orchestral. I had some great players in Rachael Boyd, who is a phenomenal violin player and Zarah Fleming, who played cello who’s just again a really great player: very reliable, really tasteful. I worked really closely with an arranger – and a good friend of mine, Dan Byrne McCulloch, and he basically sat down with the tracks. I delivered everything to him in acoustic form, and between the two of us, I just told him what I had in mind for a string arrangement and he worked on things and some of the sounds that he created were just phenomenal. They give the songs an intensity, and because there is no rhythm section per se – there is no percussion, nothing holding the songs together, rhythmically, apart from maybe my guitar – he hadn’t a whole lot to work with. It’s quite a difficult task but he did an amazing job! I think he’s a genius!
When we recorded over the two nights at Christmas 2015, it was totally nerve wracking because we had paid for this company to come in and to capture these recordings, we were rehearsed enough that I thought, ‘This’ll be good.’ I had Zarah, Rachael and Owen Denvir ( viola player) but there was another level of pressure on the show, not only to present it live in front of a love audience but also being recorded. There’s another element of pressure in that you want to be able to capture things right and when people say, ‘It’s okay to make mistakes at live shows, nobody notices,’ but when you’ve got that words recorded element and you have to listen back to that mistake over and over again, then suddenly you’re putting something else on the line. I think it couldn’t have worked out any better. We had two sold out nights in the theatre and then we came back the next Christmas, this time last year, and played in the bigger room downstairs and that was the launch of the live album and we had some new songs and different arrangements.
It was so lovely to be able to hear my songs with a lush, string arrangement. I think most singer songwriters have that journey where at some stage they’ll play with an orchestra, or a quartet and I just wanted to do that – just once. They were quite intense shows as well because they were still very quiet but had elements of dynamics in there that things became quite grand and at times threatening, with those string elements and quite lush and also really fragile. A lot of that, I think, is down to Dan and his arrangements because he was so sympathetic to the songs. I hope people had a good time and we’ve got a live album that I’m really proud of.
DB: You also did some Spotify sessions: where were they recorded and what was it like doing that?
CL: It was recorded in Austin at South by South West Festival, a couple of years back, and it was a really lovely experience. At that time I was very determined to have a stage outfit and I remember thinking that I used to love that Leonard Cohen always was suited, always presented in quite a classic way and I thought, ‘I’m just going to wear suits.’ I went out and bought myself a couple of suits and I did not consider that I would be playing music in different temperatures and elements! I got some press shots done and I remember saying to my management, ‘This is what I want to wear on stage and it will become like a uniform.’
So we went to Texas and the heat was phenomenal! Insane heat! 35, 36 degrees and humid, it was almost unbearable. I went to play the show that day and I thought, ‘This is the worst weather for a suit but I’ve committed to this now and I’m just going to see it through.’ I thought, ‘If anything they’ll put me in the shade, or I’ll be inside, it’ll be fine, there’ll be air conditioning.’ They brought me out to the stage and it was right in the eye line of the sun! It was just after midday and they were like, ‘It’s going to be great! A lot of people are going to be here. This is a bit of a sun trap here so it’ll draw the crowds in anyway.’ And I thought, ‘Shit!’ I think, by the time I got on stage my suit probably weighed two stone [28lbs] extra just with sweat alone and I thought, ‘I’m going to pass out!’ Just before I went on they had said to me that they were thinking of recording this for a Spotify session that they would release and I thought, ‘Oh great! This is going to be perfect! There’s going to be a moment where you’ll just hear me hit the floor and I’ll pass out.’ It was more of an endurance test than it was a show. The one thing that I took out of it whenever I walked off stage was that, ‘I’m never going to wear suits again!’
I think that year I was also lucky enough to be asked to play at Willy Nelson’s ranch; he runs a one day festival out there called the Luck Reunion Festival; it’s quite a small festival. It’s very surreal because the festival itself is in a setting of an old spaghetti Western movie set that he had bought. The set still remains so you walk in and there’s the bar, the saloon and there’s the church at the very bottom of this small strip and there’s a couple of other stages scattered around but it’s so contained and there’s only a few thousand people that go to it. It’s only maybe about an hour outside Austin and it’s quite a sought after festival because it’s exclusive. Willy shows up and he plays some with his son Lucas, and they’ve got some real heavyweight names. Again unbelievable temperatures and I’m standing there in a suit, you know.
DB: This year you have released a couple of singles “Everything Is Made To Last” and “Wells Tower”: are they eventually going to fit into an album?
CL: They are songs that are on the album. For me, personally, I wanted to be able to put out new music this year, to let people know that I was recording. I think it would have been too much of a break, to go quiet for maybe 6-7 months and still be actively touring but not able to talk about new music. I was delighted when the decision was made that we could put out some stand-alone singles that are on the album but that I couldn’t mention that it is part of the album. Spoiler alert! It’s on the album! It was almost just a way of saying, ‘I’m still here. There is new music and here’s some of it.’ It was too early to say, ‘There’s an album coming,’ when there was no date set so it was just a way of keeping things alive and ticking over. At that point I was still recording a lot of the album so these songs were the first ones that were finished and the decision was made then to, out them out into the big, bad world and just see what sort of reaction… It was a nice way to get early feedback on those tracks.
I’ve spent a lot of this year behind the scenes, finishing the album and making sure that I’m happy with it and I am now. I think in January we’ll be making an announcement then that the album will be coming early next year; that is the plan now but sometimes I’m even afraid to talk about the album because there have been so many roadblocks that I’m very sceptical about saying, ‘Yeah, a single will be coming in January,’ because sometimes I really don’t know – these decisions are made above and beyond me which is equally as frustrating. This is the most that I’ve ever talked about it in that I can say, ‘There is an album,’ but I don’t even know if I can say, ‘It’ll be coming in March or April,’ which I expect that it will but the date has changed so many times…
DB: What are your future plans, musically? Do you have a final destination in mind or is it more of a journey?
CL: I want a long career. I want something that just kind of has a slow trajectory and allows me the space to create music for as long as I can. As long as I can write and I have a fanbase and an interest there, I just like to create and write music and release albums as much as I can and for as long as I can. I always admired the old ‘60s and ‘70s ethos of one album a year, which a lot of people did back then, which is still unbelievable when you consider the quality of work that some people were putting out and one album a year was probably pretty typical. For me I would love to be able to release one a year, for as long as I could but sometimes these things are determined by other people and when it comes to setting dates and the business side of things that’s where my mind exits the conversation and I just want to get into the next, you know. I think everyone wants a long career out of music and I think everyone wants to have the definitive album at some stage – if I was ever able to come up with something that speaks to me as much as Rain Dogs or Mute Variations does with Tom Waits… I would give anything to create an album like that.
DB: What’s the best live gig you’ve ever been to by another musician or group?
CL: See I’ve been to a lot of shows the last couple of years but I’m trying to go further back because I imagine I’ve seen something beyond the last two or three years that really changed things for me, even as a person…
DB: Who would you love to support on stage?
CL: Absolutely Tom Waits! I mean he doesn’t tour anymore really but if I had a chance, Tom Waits. I’d love to work with Jeff Tweedy as well, I’ve always been a huge fan of Wilko. I would love to share a stage with St. Vincent, I think she’s amazing – she’s such a forward thinking artist as well and her new record is incredible. There’s really a ton but if I really had to narrow it right all the way down, I would say… and I mean past and present… Do we get to include people who aren’t even here anymore?
CL: Okay then, I would include: Luke Kelly, who’s a great, probably one of the best vocalists I’ve ever heard, really strong, Irish voice and it’s such an emotive voice; he was in a band called The Dubliners but his version of “Raglan Road” is, I think, the definitive. I would absolutely choose Tom Waits and, if I’m being being really greedy, I would pick John Coltrane or Miles Davis (someone like that). I would pick the Miles Davis’ quartet that has John Coltrane in it and there you go, I get both of them!
DB: What was the last live gig you went to as a member of the audience?
CL: It was about a week ago, in Belfast. A friend of mine, Edelle McMahon (who was one of the early pioneers of my solo work) it was her album launch and she had been writing and recording her own music for 5 or 6 years, so it was really nice to see her finally at that stage where she was presenting her own work for herself, because she was always involved with other people’s music as a backing singer or guitarist or something. I went to see her album launch which was a really triumphant night; I was just really delighted to see her in that lead role, rather than supportive. I’m actually going to see a show tonight. A couple of friends of mine who are in a great band called Blue Americans that are having their launch tonight, also in Belfast, so I’m excited about that.
DB: What was the first single, or album, that you ever bought?
CL: Oh God! This is going to get really embarrassing! If I have to be totally honest the first CD single that I ever bought was Savage Garden “Truly Madly Deeply” and I think I was maybe 9 or 10 years old. I have no idea what made me go out and buy that but I obviously had my own money, that I saved up myself, and I bought this single, thinking it was the greatest thing I had ever owned. I used to share a room with my brother when we were growing up and every night we would select a CD to put on to fall asleep to and I put that on and had it on repeat and the CD single had one side, one song and it was just this song over and over and over. And he lost his mind, completely!
The first album, I think it was Green Days’ Dookie album. When I was a young teenager I was very into the American Punk Rock scene and I just thought it was the greatest thing. For some reason that music just spoke to me and I think it just bottled up all the teen angst and put it in guitar form, really loud and really angry and quite fun. I loved that and I’ve still got a huge soft spot for Green Day, just because I’m quite nostalgic about it, and about that record in particular because it meant a lot to me as a teenager growing up and it spoke a lot to me, whenever I couldn’t formulate or whenever I couldn’t put into words my frustrations, I was able to do it in a very cathartic way through listening to their music.
DB: You’ve just done a cover of one of their songs as well haven’t you? “When I Come Around.”
CL: Yeah, that’s right. It was a very impromptu thing, in that I was going in to record the King At Night so I arrived in early and I had a bit of time and the producer and my manager had said, ‘Why don’t you just go in and record some acoustic versions of your own songs or just do whatever the hell you want?’ So I just asked the producer could he put some mics in the room and I was going to record some things. I recorded a few acoustic versions of my own songs and a day or two before I had been messing about on the piano and had worked out a version of “When I Come Around” and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just put this down and see.’ Then of course the label got their hands on it and loved it. I had no real intention, at the time, of it ever seeing the light of day but, here we go and it’s just been released. For me, personally, it was just a nice moment for me to arrange a song from a band I really love, it was never to challenge the original or say, ‘Here’s the definitive version.’
DB: Football or rugby or neither?
CL: Football. I grew up and we played football a lot, both Gaelic football which is… The village I’m from we’re basically the local GAA club ( the local Gaelic football club) is very much at the heart of the village and of the community; it brings people together and it’s very much a community based sport. Then me and my brother, we played a lot of soccer growing up and then he signed a professional contract with Leeds United when he was 16 so I was exposed to that side of the world as well. We’ve always been a sporty family.
DB: What is your favourite word?
CL: [Sharp intake of breath] If I could use it, because I change my favourite words all the time, but I have a favourite sentence which I have tattooed on my arm as well, that I love. The sentence is: most of the time. And I always love that it is such a throwaway few words but it holds so much weight because if you put it at the end of anything it carries a completely different meaning. So I mean for example you can say, ‘I really love you…most of the time.’ Or, ‘I’m happy… most of the time.’ I love the fact that phrases, and words like that, can really change meaning of things and there’s so much power in language. I’m still learning, I read new words all the time, every day, I always read something new, either a novel or some sort of blog in line or something, and I have to go straight away and find out what it means and then I like to maybe see, ‘Can I use that in a sentence today?’ And if I use it and I kind of feel that I have added it to the repertoire. I think language is amazing. We have so many ways of describing and explaining things that I find it quite sad when people don’t see or they don’t understand or care for the weight that some words hold.
DB: Final question: what does music mean to you?
CL: Music has soundtracked every stage of my life, and I mean the good and the bad and everything in between music is always present. And by that I mean, every type of music, that’s right down to birdsong, the sounds of nature and also the sounds of the city streets. I think it’s all musical in some sort of way – there’s a certain amount of noise that we’re surrounded by, all of the time. I think it’s impossible to be in a space where there isn’t some sort of sounds and I treat it all as music because I think it is. Music in some sort of form has been, either in the background or in the forefront of my life, and hopefully it will be for all of my life so I guess that’s it really.
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[Update: since this interview Ciaran has toured Ireland, the United Kingdom and across Europe and did some concerts in the US. Later this year he will be touring the UK and Europe supporting Saint Sister]
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.