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Real to Reel: An Interview with Katie Gerardine O’Neill

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Dublin-based artist Katie Gerardine O’Neill talks to Sophia McDonald about breaking new ground via a new-found love of techno and analog recording

Photos by Loreana Rushe

“It’s like hoarder levels. This is just an excuse for me to be a very strange person.” Katie Gerardine O’Neill is describing the masses of music files and field recordings that have accumulated on her laptop. Crumpling up paper and crunching tinfoil is all part of the process for the Dublin-based artist, whose new record, Into the Beyond, combines traditional analog tapes with more modern electronic elements. 

Following her previous album, Message Green, O’Neill felt she had more to say this time around. “With Into the Beyond, I relished making this quiet, mysterious, introverted work. I think of it as the record where I went quiet. I tried to remove myself from it as much as possible. I felt like I had something to say with words again. Sometimes I get fed up speaking with words and I want to use a different approach but now I was back in that headspace where I wanted to use my physical voice to express something again. It’s a less solitary album.”

Leaning into a more ambient sound, Message Green was a reflective record produced in completely different circumstances than its newest musical sibling. “I was very interested in going inwards at the time, so it definitely came out of this place of it being a coping mechanism,” says O’Neill. “I’m quite an introverted person so I enjoyed being on my own quite a lot. I got to do a lot of things that I’ve wanted to do for a while, like making a film and getting vinyl out. I think I needed a project to keep me sane as well, otherwise I would have been staring at the wall at home.”

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Working with the likes of Eimear Reidy (cello) and Dan Walsh (saxophone and flute), O’Neill was able to work on songs that had been patiently waiting to be released. “It was a funny process, it was a bit messy but it worked out,” she reveals. “I was waiting for the right time for some reason to release these. In terms of recording and producing my own stuff, I felt like it was a step up for me, so I wanted all the songs to be on that level.”

Pushing herself further meant combining old and newfound loves. Growing up with the likes of K Records in the background, American indie was always an influence, but another, less expected genre caught her attention – “I got really into techno,” she says with a laugh, “through going to various club nights, because Dublin’s having a resurgence of that right now. I felt really inspired by it so something clicked when I realised I could tie together my guitar stuff with my electronic stuff and create something completely new for me. Instead of doing sparse guitar or super noisy stuff, I could blend them.”

“That was a huge thing for me,” she continues. “I leant into Ableton and electronic techniques, which was a big learning curve. Pushing myself in terms of vocal expression and mixing different tape sounds, vinyl and field recordings so that I was going for it in a way I hadn’t before. Trying not to be safe. I definitely did try and use all my tricks on this one. I’m just throwing it all into this record at once to see what happens.”

Recording on analog devices like a Reel-to-Reel and a Zoom handheld recorder allows O’Neill to capture anything that catches her ear. Keeping up with the local stock of electronics in charity shops sees her add to her equipment and sound file collection. “I started looking in charity shops for old things,’ she says. “You get this community of weirdos into scouring these shops, texting each other saying “saw this here, thought you might want to pick it up.” I picked up a Reel-to-Reel in a charity shop that came with a load of tapes. I seem to have a magnet that draws weird tapes to me. I also found this weird recording of someone getting a psychic reading which was so creepy. Someone had just recorded a lot of stuff off the radio with the Reel-to-Reel and it’s really strange. Some of that even made it onto the album.”

Discovering long-gone audio is one perk of fishing for analogue recorders, but with a little help from her friends, O’Neill’s own catalogue started to develop. “When I started doing field recording, my friend Stu Geelan – aka LuxuryMollusc – found a handheld dictaphone with a mini tape in a charity shop and gave it to me as a present. I became obsessed with it. Ian Mullany also came in during a residency with Draíocht in Blanchardstown and showed me how to use a four-track tape recorder in a few different ways. That was really special for me because it opened up a whole new avenue of creating sounds and textures.”

A multi-disciplinary artist, O’Neill has a lot of plates spinning at one time. “Part of me thinks the way my brain works is that I have to be doing two projects at once so I can avoid one or the other. It’s terrible. I’m very chaotic that way but it somehow works. They feed into one another which is a good thing. I always thought I was a jack of all trades and a master of none. It’s all these different threads which serve different purposes.”

With many tools on her jack-of-all-trades belt, there is no lack of creativity for O’Neill. “I go with what I feel is right for me at the time,” she says. “It’s a strength and weakness because I’m always wanting to move on to the next thing. I have a lot of creative energy that I need to pour out into different things and that depends on where I am.” Sophia McDonald

Into the Beyond is out now via Cruel Nature Records