Last month, Northern Irish folk songwriter and poet Andrew Farmer aka FRMR unveiled one of the year’s finest LPs from these shores, Amelanchier. As well as offering a short piece on the making of the album, Farmer talks to us about songwriting, self-belief and the art of slowing down.
Amelanchier was recently launched into the world. But before we touch on the album, can you tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are as a songwriter today?
In 2009 I took a year out to take part in a creative programme based in North Carolina. Up until that point I hadn’t really written many songs, so I really came at the thing quite late in life. My youth was predominantly spent working on my dad’s farm, although in hindsight this was probably the best writing education I could ever have asked for. A PhD in folklore couldn’t teach you the things you will learn on an Irish farmstead. Predicting the weather forecast is of course a farmer’s real vocation. This is what gives one real social currency amongst one’s peers and a healthy stream of proven weather predictions will gain a farmer a fairly healthy degree of respect in a parish.
There isn’t much time for writing when you grow up on a farm, feeding livestock is a relentless old chore, but there were some ripples of creativity that shone through when I think back now. When I was twelve there was this poetry competition in my school and my poem The Fox was selected as the best poem written by a boy in my year group. I can only remember the first line, “The hungry fox observes his prey, quietly creeping where the poultry lay.” The only real poetry I had encountered up until that point in my life was war poetry that I was subjected to in primary school. My prize for my literary accomplishment was the opportunity to read my work at the school open night, but to be honest this felt more like a punishment, but I muddled through all the same. I don’t really know how I became a songwriter. I didn’t go to university, I never felt like I was smart enough. Although looking back, I reckon if I’d had the right people around me, I could have probably studied English or Psychology quite successfully.
My year in America was spent living in a cabin with a group of other songwriters and musicians. I would sing at open mics around Charlotte in the evenings and co write with friends when I wasn’t in class. It was one of the most transformative periods of my life. Almost everyone I knew could play the fiddle, which was highly impressive; it’s generally the first instrument most children learn in the South. I suppose you could say that it was here where I found my voice and it was also here where I met my long-time friend and Sons of Caliber co-founder Jude Moses. He later moved to Northern Ireland and that’s when we started SOC. That band took a few forms over the years, originally we were a duo, but at one point there were up to eight of us on the stage. I played and put out music in that guise for a long time and we got to support some incredible artists, like Nathaniel Rateliff. We did a full UK tour with Gemma Hayes in 2012 which was an amazing experience. I took a break from music in 2015 and didn’t write anything for a long long time. Which I think was due to a mixture of writer’s block and fatigue. During that period I got married, bought a house near the coast and slowly began to write poetry in the evenings. This would eventually lead me back to songwriting and here we are today, putting out an album in the middle of a global pandemic.
Sons of Caliber remain one of the best folks acts I’ve seen from these shores. Looking back, how do you think your craft – and general thoughts on music-making – have evolved since?
Gosh thanks, that’s high praise. You know my process hasn’t really changed much, I’m fundamentally still a songwriter and songs are at the heart of my music. Poetry however is a new outlet, although to be honest the two are not that different—well, not that different for me anyway. There’s an old term that I’ve adopted that probably best describes my occupation and it’s that of a Verser (one who writes verse). It’s an old term and one with a rich history. The triads are just one example of some of my favourite early forms of the medium. Even the laws on this island were at one time communicated via verse.
When it comes to the music, it’s always been about the lyrics for me, the patter, the tone, the rhythm, all I hear are the words. I’m generally drawn to music that keeps the vocals at the forefront in the mix and writers who make me think. I love instrumental albums too though and electronic music has slowly become the genre I navigate to most. The electronic aspect of my music has been around since my first SOC record but I definitely ramped it up on this one. It’s taken me a while to shake off the (guitar is king) mindset I grew up with. Barrett Lahey was the first producer I ever worked with and it was he who first introduced me to electronic sound. Recording with him was a transformative experience, he really drew me out of my comfort zone and changed how I thought about music. The day we did vocals on The Tundra, I remember him having me stand in the corner of the room and yell an entire version of a song into the microphone 8 feet away; not necessarily for any sonic use but to break me out of my shell. He taught me how to bring energy to my vocals and showed me how that mattered. He would often rock into the studio with hip hop in his ears, then spend a day mixing my acoustic folk record. Diversity is the key to a good record and it brings so much to the table. Over the years I’ve definitely learned more and more to get out of the way whilst in the studio.
I experiment with synths and electronic gear alot now. During lockdown I built a functional home studio where I’ve been working back and forth as I’ve had time. I was nervous about marrying the two aspects of my work on this album. I haven’t listened to many music/spoken word records, so I didn’t really have anything to measure it against. I didn’t know how it would be received or even if people would get it, but I’ve been overwhelmed at the response so far. I think what’s notably different with this incarnation of my music is my own mindset. I’ve made this transition from seeing myself as merely a musician to that of an artist. I’m not concerned about genre or if it’s mainstream. This record was born out of my love for the craft, if it does well that’s amazing, if it doesn’t that’s grand too, the process alone was my reward and I’m thankful for the opportunity to create art.
The album is clearly very carefully-crafted, and stemming from a place of deep consideration. But was it a case of writing it in fits and starts, or did you have phases of intense inspiration that guided it along?
There are probably five years of work in that record all in all. It was pretty much finished by March 2020, but because of the fresh hell that was covid I decided to sit on it a while and spend some time approaching labels. 19 months it sat, which seems staggering now but it was one of the best things I could have done. I signed it with Bluestack Records later that year and Mark and I went to work getting the thing ready for vinyl, something which I certainly couldn’t have done on my own. During that time we re-recorded some of the poems to bring them up to scratch and added an extra track, Paraclete, which made it 11 tracks in all. This song was originally destined for the next record but an opportunity to record it live with the Ulster Orchestra last year saw it reach the surface before its time. We figured that because it was already in the public domain it was best to use that momentum and treat it like an extra single. And because we already had the live recording with the Orchestra, this gave me a degree of freedom to experiment a bit more with the studio version.
I tracked most of my parts of the record in the studio with Michael Mormecha, but a good deal of the record of it was also recorded remotely. Rachael Boyd was in Dublin, Conor Scullion – Portugal, Jude Moses – North Carolina and Luke Bannon at his home studio in Belfast. I think letting these guys record their parts from their own spaces added a very different dynamic to the record and it probably allowed them to experiment a lot more without having me in the corner glaring at them. I’m learning that the more time I can give to a project, the happier I am with the outcome. Gone for me are the days of hammering out as many tracks as quickly as I can in a studio. Technology has also advanced so much now, even in just the past 10 years that demoing and recording at home can produce work of a really high standard and good pre-production at home means less time experimenting on the clock.
Before I heard the title track, I had to Google what “Amelanchier” meant. Then a few things clicked – especially how it’s impervious to winter months, and how you sing “I’ve been plowing ground for far too long”. Are you meditating on resilience and patience, or is it something else?
It’s probably more like, meditation is what instills resilience and patience! Like so many people I know, there have been times in my life when managing my mental health has almost felt like a full time job. Days filled with meditation, podcasts, audio books and breathing techniques, in a bid to calm the storm inside. I struggled silently for years, until I finally went to therapy and unravelled what was going on in my brain.
There are elements of the record that speak to this and it offers friendship to those who have treaded the same waters. Mental health can be relentless at times and fairly labour intensive. The ploughing of the ground and the chasing of foxes speaks to this. It takes resilience to keep going, to hope for better days to understand that you are not your emotions as you face the rising tide. My greatest wish for this record is that it moves people and brings them hope. Fyodor Dostoevsky said “beauty will save the world”.
Above all else I aspire to make work that is beautiful and creates a sense of rest.
The last line in the track Amelanchier is “Now I am rest.” I chose these words carefully, because I believe rest is a place we not only endeavour to visit from time to time, but something we can become.
The Amelanlancier has always been one of my favourite trees, it’s really robust and it practically does everything a plant can, it has these stunning little white star-like flowers throughout summer, it produces fruit that is edible and in the autumn it puts on a dazzling show with leaves that turn this abounding blood orange. One of its closest relations is the Medlar and it’s fruit goes through this cycle called bletting, which is essentially the process of the fruit beginning to decay and die; but it is only at the point of the dying or the over-ripening, that the fruit becomes sweet and edible. I’ve always loved this imagery, how that, that which so often is perceived as weakness, can be our strength. And just because we’re a little older than we were and maybe even somewhat damaged, that doesn’t mean to say that our best days are behind us or that we don’t yet have something of value to contribute to this world.
As a Tyrone man, it was particularly nice to see ‘The Moy’ feature among the titles. Of course, it’s verse interspersed with song – something the album carries off with real incisive aplomb. On that track and throughout the LP, a sense of place (and often the changing and absence of those places) takes centre-stage. What attracts you to that kind of writing?
My paternal grandfather’s side of the family are from the Moy area so it’s a place I feel connected to. I think that places and people are intertwined and we will reflect our surroundings in various aspects of our lives. From our speech to our gait, the sounds that we make and the ways we move tells stories of where we are from. When I lived in the states people often told me that when I spoke it sounded more like singing than talking and when I told stories it was like going on a journey over hills, along country roads through valleys. And the more I’ve thought about it, I’ve felt that it’s perhaps more our connection to the land than our culture that makes us who we are. I don’t feel like I’ve ever chosen to write the way I do, it’s kind of all I know. This intrinsic connection to the ground instilled in me from a young age. I spent almost all my youth outdoors counting animals and chasing crows. One of my earliest memories is toddling along after my dad, trying to help him and brother lift hay bales onto a trailer, which of course I could barely do, as they weighed more than I did.
I’m fascinated at how we adapt to our surroundings, this is something I have witnessed many times in the plant world, plants adapting to the climate. I worked as a plants man for years doing various horticultural roles in businesses, from design to retail. I’ve travelled throughout Europe searching for plants that would be suitable for our wet climate. But I didn’t always get it right and I’ve seen how a plant can be forced to adapt its very nature out of necessity to survive, e.g. altering its size, pigment or flowering pattern. The fact that we live on an island too I believe shapes our psyche and there is a beautiful optimism that runs through the people here despite much hardship. I read somewhere once that Freud said the Irish were the only people impervious to psychoanalysis. And I get that, living here is a choice. There are at times more reasons to leave this place than stay, yet so many of us brave the elements both meteorologically and politically with hope, with humour and romance in our hearts.
Duke Special has rightly described the album as elegiac and post-folk. I can think of a few albums that occupy similar territory, but few from these shores, and probably none with as much emphasis on slowing down and taking in what we have on our doorstep. Was there any music (or poetry) that bore a particular imprint on you when putting pen to paper, and hand to guitar?
My work is probably much more inspired by literature, history and the natural world than it is by music. Throughout the record there is probably quite a deep sense of longing for simpler times. I admire people in the past who worked with their hands and gave their lives sincerely to one unique craft. In regards to literature, I like quite antiquated stuff, such as PG Wodehouse, George Orwell and I’m almost always reading Thomas Hardy. His work is a staple for me because of its poetic nature. One of my favourite examples of his writing is in The Woodlanders where he describes a character called Giles Winterbourne —”He Looked and smelt like Autumn’s very brother, his face being sunburnt to wheat-colour, his eyes blue as corn-flowers, his sleeves and leggings dyed with fruit-stains, his hands clammy with the sweet juice of apples, his hat sprinkled with pips, and everywhere about him the sweet atmosphere of cider which at its first return each season has such an indescribable fascination for those who have been born and bred among the orchards.”
Poetry wise, Rumi, Thomas Gray, David Whyte, Seamus Heaney. I like to listen to old American comedy albums in my spare time, which I hope counterbalances my melancholic disposition somewhat. I have a weird relationship with music, you’ll probably find this quite strange but I didn’t grow up in a house with a lot of music. As a result of which I’m a little bankrupt in regards to music history and I feel like I’ve been playing catch up my whole life. My wife and I talk about this all the time, how unlike her I don’t have songs that mark time for me or remind me of moments or specific people in my life. Often when we are out driving a song will come on and she’ll proceed to tell me what age she was when she first heard it and how it formed part of a backdrop to a particular summer, which honestly fascinates me. People sometimes get quite disturbed when I tell them this and how I don’t have a mixtape of my youth. Some of the music I was listening to around the time I made the record would have been by artists like Mogwai, Gregory Alan Isakov, Colter Wall, Vangelis. When I joined the label, one of the first things they said to me was that this was an autumn album, something which I didn’t actually see at first, but it definitely has a mood and this is why we put it out in October.
King Lear said “I will be the pattern of all patience; I will say nothing.” That popped into my mind when I mulled over how long it’s been (or at least felt) since you were visibly making music. Amelanchier, for me, is a rare reminder that how one spends one’s “absence” defines their “return”. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that.
There’s a line in a Biffy Clyro song 9/15ths, “Are you irrelevant”. It’s a line that I have often pondered as I’ve struggled to find my own relevance as a songwriter. I’m rarely not in my head, I’ve always been that way. If I lived alone I could probably go days without saying a word to another living soul. I’m quite an introverted person and I tend to immerse myself in my work. I’m prone to bursts of obsession, which in one regard allows me to really dial into a task but on the other, leaves me a little prone to my own unique cocktail of OCD tendencies. I have often considered my role as a songwriter and my relevance + contribution to society? And I’ve realised that musicians are not all the same, we have different roles, but what we all do is add soundtracks to people’s lives. To dance, to scream, to love, to sing, to mourn and we all fill people’s days with melodies and memories that mark moments in their lives.
I remember listening to a podcast a while ago where the idea being discussed was the role the arts plays in society. The example they used was the film Philadelphia and they talked about the power of that movie at that time and it’s influence in dismantling toxic societal mindsets around homosexuality and aids. It was a magnificent step in reshaping the culture. The question being asked was, are creatives spending too much time now online and are we spending so much time being angry at the injustices of our time, that it is watering down our creativity and our creative voice. I see my own personal role as a songwriter as that of giving people the words that they don’t always have themselves to convey their inner struggles. I hope this record does its job.
Slowing down… really slowing down takes a long time and sometimes means allowing a dream to die to make way for a better one. If the pandemic taught us anything it’s that we are not our jobs and we are not our art forms. You can hide in your creativity for a long long time because it often generates intoxicating opportunities, but it’s a surrogate home aswell and as unsustainable as any other hiding place. Until we can live at peace in our own bodies we will never truly be at rest. Good emotional and mental health are the two most important things that one can possess.
Slowing down doesn’t just tend to cause a person to look inside, but also around, to tap into nature and connect with others in meaningful ways. My new work reflects a lot of my observations over the last seven years as I’ve learned to live in the present moment.
Lastly, we’re not quite out of Reuben’s Glen in relation to COVID, and how that continues to affect the live music industry. But looking tentatively forward, what can we expect from FRMR in 2022?
I’m in this for the long haul. I made the mistake the first time around of thinking that there was a time limit on success, when really I can do this for the rest of my life. The quiet season is over and I’m keen to get things moving again. I have another record ready to track as soon as I can muster the funds to get back in the studio. But I’d also like to get back to playing live in some format as things start to open up again.
The last time I played a legitimate live show to an audience was St Patrick’s Day 2015. To be honest I struggle a bit with the live side of things, I was fairly burnt out when SOC was coming to its end and I suffer a bit from performance anxiety, but I’m keen to find a way. I’ve been in rehearsals back and forth with some friends since the summer and have been building a team around me.
The label has been a great support to me as well and I’m indebted to Mark for his belief in my work. The music world can be a lonely place at times and it’s crucial to have good people around you. I want to put out a book of poems and lyrics sometime in the near future as well, it’s a companion/follow on to Amelanchier and the two together are really one body of work.
I’ve played a few virtual performances over lockdown which I really enjoyed doing and I’d like to perhaps explore doing a recording of the full record. Virtual gigs are amazing and have been a great resource for both performers and audiences throughout this time, but nothing compares to playing live.
I can’t help but feel sometimes that the arts always seem to be regarded as disposable or frivolous. I just fear we may have lost a lot of creatives to other industries during this time who simply couldn’t afford to maintain their practice while the pandemic restricted their income. However maybe the slower pace of life allowed others to reconnect with instruments languishing in a cupboard. Maybe we will get to enjoy an even more vibrant outpouring of the arts in Northern Ireland in 2022.
Amelanchier is out now via Bluestack Records