2015 has been a real breakthrough year for Aghagallon singer-songwriter Ciaran Lavery. Having zig-zagged across the UK and Europe over the last few months, he has been hailed far and wide as one of the most naturally gifted, utterly engrossing songsmiths of his generation. Touching on everything from life on the road, the weight (or lack thereof) of expectation and special Christmas shows “With Strings” at Belfast’s MAC, Lavery chats to Brian Coney.
See below for premiere of Lavery’s ‘Little More Time’ With Strings.
Hi Ciaran. It’s been a really busy 2015 for you. Looking back to the start of the year, right up until the present day, how has the last eleven months been?
It has been a busy time for sure, but I feel like I’m just getting started and it’s a long road I’m well aware of that. There’s been times it’s been a bit of a slog, other times exceeding expectation, but I try not to look back too often. I’m more interested in what lies ahead and I generally take that day to day as much as I can
You’ve been on the road quite a bit during that time, touring across the UK and further afield in Europe. How have you found touring so regularly, night after night, in so many new cities and venues?
You know it’s been really great seeing lots of new places that otherwise I may not even have been to. I like to stay busy so packing in the shows as much as I can is something that I have always wanted to do – so far I haven’t blown up or run out of steam. It’s interesting moving around and getting a different reaction each night or in each area, meeting new people (and I’ve met a hell of a lot of real nice people) so I can’t complain one bit. Sure it gets a little tough at times; same cheap hotel rooms, fighting over plug sockets, wrestling with the sat-nav, driving through the night to the next place etc. But it could always be worse; I have a bed and a roof over my head most nights. I used to hear the horror stories of bands on the road, with only mars bars to eat or one pair of socks between them for a month. Things haven’t been that tough on me, I’m grateful for that.
Whilst it’s always been a thoroughly engrossing experience, your live show is nigh on unmissable at the minute. How much do your attribute that sense of confidence (or what can be perceived as confident) to gigging so regularly?
The regularity helps in many ways, I mean I grow into my set as the gigs continue and then at that point I have the freedom to almost make it up as I go some nights or change things depending on the room or how things are feeling. I still get as nervous as the first show I ever did, every night, but in a weird way I hope that never leaves me. I would hate to become complacent or take anything for granted. Music moves so fast, always developing and evolving and lots of great forward thinking acts being born every waking minute so for me those feelings of nervousness keep me hungry enough to want to stay fresh as a live act. Complacency isn’t really an option
Your incredible debut album Not Nearly Dark is about to be released in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. How does it feel getting that kind of coverage and how important is it to reach audiences on the continent?
It’s been a bit crazy how the album has almost found a second lease of life; I really didn’t expect it. For some reason the album has resonated with people at this stage, and especially in parts of Europe, it’s found a home. I’m not sure how or why but all I can do is try to make the most of it now. It’s a blast being able to offer these songs in a fresh way like how they were created. I’ve been to Berlin briefly to take part in some PR work for the release and in a short space of time I fell in love with the liberal open way of living. I spent a real fun time in Switzerland as well playing a handful of intimate shows and all helped dip the toe into these markets.
Outside of that particular re-release, what plans – if any – are there to record and release new material in 2016?
Indeed. I have been busy working on a new album that will be readied for release in the New Year; it’s pretty exciting. There’s lots of things bubbling under the surface regarding the release that I would love to tell you now but I may have to kill you first
Touching on your songwriting for a minute: has your approach to penning lyrics, writing music and constructing songs changed much over the last couple of years, or do you have a tried and tested method, so to speak?
I think like any songwriter there’s a method that tends to work better than others. I guess over the years of trialling different ways or working I’ve found my own way of comfortably creating. I’ve always been a pretty sporadic writer and more often than not, once I’ve sat and written one song there’ll always be another few that follow in the same sitting. I have no idea why, but I find myself making notes for other songs as I approach the end of the current one I’m working on. I also read as much as I can, it seems to help accessing ideas and I listen to as much music as I can, across as many genres as I can. It again helps in its own way to clear the fog. About the worst thing I feel I can do is listen exclusively to singer songwriters if I’m writing.
You’ve even countered quite a lot of acclaim and praise this year – many writers and publications singling you as a singer-songwriter to watch. Do you ever feel pressure to match that sense of expectation?
I live out of the reach of the city and more or less in my own bubble here in Aghagallon, I can avoid any magazines or press if I hide my phone enough, so no, I don’t feel pressure. As far as I’m concerned I’ve been quietly working away before the praise came on board and I’ll continue to do so regardless of how many stars I get in reviews. It’s obviously nice to know you’re doing something right in the eyes of these people, but I’d like to exist just under the radar as much as I can. It keeps me grounded
What artists and albums are currently catching your ear – old or new – and have you noticed the influence of current listening habits seeping into your own songwriting?
Lord, there’s lots. For a while I became very obsessed with the Sun Kil Moon Benji album, just for the honesty in the lyrics and how it was so autobiographical without seeming too ‘me me me.’ I recently watched the Nas documentary Life Is Ill-matic and again it’s a great album because of lyrical content & cross pollination of sounds that were used on the album. Around the time I was recording the album coming out next year I was on a staple diet of Kendrick Lamar and Damien Jurado. I like to move my musical taste around. A friend of mine Dan Byrne-McCullough handed me Q Tip’s The Renaissance for which I’m eternally grateful, and I’ve heard lots of Rufus Wainwright’s The Want’LPs but I need to sit down with them. I do the majority of my listening on long drives. Locally there’s so much – Joshua Burnside is on another level for me alongside Conchur White’s songwriting for Silences, I keep getting late night snippets of Emerald Armada’s new stuff that people are going to love, Flynn Johnson is a really great young hip hop artist from Dublin and I recently lost my mind over new stuff from Paddy Dennehy, Blue Americans and Liza Anne. I could go on all day.
You’ve racked up millions of Spotify plays to date – a huge achievement by any artist’s standard. Do you ever find yourself taking a step back and going, “Woah… that’s a bit mental”?
It’s now approaching 25-26 million so I’m told so yes, very mental. I think if I consciously took a minute, sat down and really thought about it, my head would explode in a mixture of confusion and vanity, so I really try not to. You know it’s so great that an unsigned artist can rack up those kind of numbers, I hope it gives heart to other acts without a label, that it’s possible and you don’t need lots of money behind you to achieve this. I count myself very lucky, there’s lots of music out there.
On December 22 and 23, you play Belfast’s Mac in a show with strings. You’ve performed with strings before (as the accompanying video for Little More Time here shows) but never in this fully-fledged live capacity, is that correct? How has the preparation for piecing the show together been, in terms of the re-imagining the poise and flow of the material?
We’ve performed live a few times now as part of festivals (CQAF, Chagstock and Stendhal) but this will be the first stand-alone shows we’ve played, so yes, it’s all exciting. Strings have been something I was always afraid of working with incase they became too grand but I’ve got a great team in Rachael Boyd, Zarah Fleming and Owen Denvir and with Dan Byrne-McCullough as writer it’s been an easy process. I think once people hear the songs in this different format they’ll wonder why I never recorded with strings in the first place; there are times I’ve been scratching my head asking myself the same thing. It will be two special nights, plus we’ve got Rosie Carney and The Bad Hearts as special guests, so it’ll be extra special
Finally, what schemes and plans are afoot for Ciaran Lavery in 2016? One assumes there’s no plans for slowing down and easing into an early retirement?
If anything, next year will be another step up on this one. There are lots of plans including a new album, videos, tours; (might even buy me a new suit). It’s all beginning to take shape so we’ll see how the new year pans out.
Ciaran Lavery With Strings takes place at Belfast’s MAC on December 22 and 23. Go here for more information and tickets.