Articles - Features

Open Ear ’24 Preview: A Q+A with Elaine Howley, Andrew Morrison & Dion Doherty

It’s just over four weeks until Ireland’s finest festival, Open Ear, returns to Sherkin Island in West Cork

From May 31 to June 2, the festival, now in its sixth edition, will be another world-beating celebration of experimental and electronic sounds, from these shores and beyond.

As well as unmissable sets by the likes of Hilary Woods, GNOD R&D, da Googie, Lesko, Brian Not Brian and Caskré, this year’s outing doubles as a trove of specially commissioned collaborations between two artists that have not previously worked together.

Right up there with the most essential of these is long-time TTA favourite Elaine Howley and Liverpool-based Derry producer The Cyclist, aka Andrew Morrison. Featuring all brand new material, much of it composed on Sherkin itself, the set will double up as the duo’s first live performance together.

Ahead of a weekend that’s sure to underscore Open Ear as the intimate, yet expansive musical mecca we know it to be, Brian Coney talks collaboration and expectation with Howley, Morrison, and festival co-organiser Dion Doherty, also known as Galway DJ Belacqua.

Go here to buy last remaining tickets to Open Ear ‘24

Revisit our review of Open Ear 2019

A lot of people will consider this Elaine Howley x The Cyclist to be a bit of a dream collaboration. I can envisage a good bit of compatibility with your respective craft coming together as a singular live experience. How did the project first come about and how has it evolved to where it is today?

Andrew Morrison: The project has been entirely built on from ground up through a single weekend on Sherkin Island. Myself and Elaine were only faintly aware of each other previously, but the festival got in touch to put us together for this and we headed to the island for a weekend to put it together. But from there it’s gone superbly, I feel we meld and crossover on so many aspects it’s a dream come true collab for me too!

Elaine Howley: When the opportunity came up to collaborate with Andy for Open Ear and I heard his music I was excited to see what we could create for the festival.  So far we have met for a weekend on Sherkin to work on the set, we recorded snippets and will send each other bits between now and the festival and then get together for another jam ahead of the festival weekend.

Dion Doherty: Andy and Elaine had both been in contact with us individually to see about playing. Elaine had played as part of Crevice at a previous edition, and Andy had DJed and played live at consecutive editions several years ago. Elaine was supposed to play an ill-fated Halloween edition we had planned for ‘22, in what in retrospect was like something out of The Producers. 

We love to see people who are enthused about playing the festival, and also both artists are unbelievably sound, friends of the festival. However, we have such a small line-up, that with the best will in the world it can be hard to accommodate all the amazing artists on this island we would love to book. Then we realised that actually both artists’ sounds would complement each other. They had enough commonalities (a hazey melodicism, interesting use of tape), while making fairly different music, we could almost hear the tracks in our heads.

The development of the project was amazing to behold, both artists got on amazingly well, and within a few hours of jamming at a recent project development trip on Sherkin, they had the guts of the set worked out. Also, the ways in which they complemented each other became clearer on that trip. Both fast workers, with serious chops, who were able to gel incredibly quickly.

It marks your first live collaboration. On the subject of sonic through-lines, in what ways did you feel you were a good fit to unite for this performance at Open Ear?

Andrew: I think not to give too much away, timing-wise we’ll be on at just around the right time to take people in a rich and expanding headspace before bringing in the energy they’ll be pumping out the rest of the evening.

Elaine: I feel that we both have a draw towards psychedelic sounds, music that is built around repetition, has an expansive/experimental quality and uses tones with warmth and grittiness. We both started recording with cassette machines when starting out and I think that brings a shared blueprint for how we like things to sound. 

Anyone who knows anything about your respective output will know just how it bears the deep imprint of voracious, eclectic listening. Did you observe any interesting commonalities or complimentary obsessions when putting the set together?

Andrew: I think the distinct psychedelia within both our sounds was the crossover point that seems the most obvious, but I think for me it’s more how we both approach the smaller more inconsequential sounds, in a world focused on the biggest, brightest and loudest, we amplify the minutiae, the unheard, the misremembered sounds – each from our own contexts, and it’s from this perspective that I think our collaboration has worked so well.

Elaine: We both seem to like a lot of reverb/delay and generally getting in a trippy mindset. I found that even though we didn’t go through specific bands or artists once we played together the draw towards similar tones became clear straight away. We also have a shared playlist on the go so it’s been great to share some of what we are listening to. I’ve also spent time listening to Andy’s music and have really enjoyed his work and seeing the journey it has taken since his first release to his work on his own Overload label.

I’ve only been once (back in the halcyon days of 2019) but I’m sure Open Ear is the best Irish music festival by a fair distance. Have you been to – or performed at – the festival before? If so, what are your defining memories of the festival?

Andrew: I’ve played at the festival 2 times now (2017 and 2018), from my performance perspective, I played a mixed live and DJ set, which started with a barely occupied tent and ended up with a packed-out tent with wooping maniacs dancing up front, that hit me so damn warmly. But it was when I first got off the boat out that day after an 8-hour journey with a blinding hangover from a gig in Belfast, we walked up to the jolly roger, where someone was playing ‘Moonshake’ by Can mixed perfectly into some deep electro at the jolly roger in the sun, and the crowd plus the craic plus the music solidified open ear immediately as having very special tone and character, within the attendees, organisers, performers and the location.

Elaine: I have been once before and played live with Crevice (Roslyn Steer & Irene Buckley) in 2018. My defining memory was how relaxed it felt and the beauty of the setting. I unfortunately just spent one night on the island so I’m really looking forward to enjoying the full experience this year.

This year’s line-up is more collaborative and forward-pushing than ever. What are your personal thoughts on the importance of catering to one-off live performances, particularly festivals with the vision of Open Ear?

Dion: It’s of huge importance. When we started the festival we were pretty unique in the Irish musical landscape of the time. Now there are so many great festivals focusing on Irish experimental music, and even the more mainstream festivals drink from the same pond.

In order to differentiate our programme, having these special projects is so great. We were lucky that the arts’ council let us convert the money we were supposed to spend on a Covid era edition of the festival on commissioning these works, which shows the importance of funding for the arts.

It also increases the amount of good music in the world, and hopefully some of these collaborations and projects can have a life after the festival.

Andrew: I think it’s hugely important for the festival and impactful for the scene. More often than not we read and see thought pieces on how club culture and festival culture are opposed and imbalanced. What Open Ear are doing here, is providing a fresh platform for completely new musical projects that put varied musicians together, that would normally only be viable in small city venues. In putting together these artists from diverse backgrounds and locations, they are taking that in a direction that’s not normally possible for smaller and more fringe artists, and I think this is something that will benefit local level as well as festival/international level scenes and collaboration going forward.

Elaine: I find the idea of one-off performances exciting, I think it gives artists the chance to get out of their usual habits and try new ways of working, and be sparked by new ideas. It also makes the festival feel like a happening, a once-off event to experience. I think the curation of Open Ear is particularly special since the organisers are seeing connections between artists that may not even be aware of their similarities. It is creating new paths in that way and helping to bring together approaches that may seem otherwise obscure or disconnected.

Andrew and Elaine, you recently travelled to Sherkin Island last month, finding some time to jam while out there. How was the experience? Can you reveal anything about the location/stage or set-up?

Andrew: From my own perspective, I’ve been trying to collaborate more and more with different artists both in terms of recording and performing post-covid, but in many of those dynamics it has been a bit lopsided, whether that my own role being lesser within live bands, or greater when only with a sole singer. Whereas working with Elaine has been much more of a meeting directly in the middle, finding common middle grounds, sharing our equipment and exploring each other’s styles and workflows. I don’t want to give away too much, but we’ll be utilizing a pure hardware mix of analogue and digital synths, samplers, MPE midi controllers and a smattering of dub echo and reverb, of course with no laptop in sight.

Elaine: It was our first time jamming together and we had little ideas of what we would do so a blank slate really. It felt a bit daunting to begin to create a set from nothing but once we jammed I think the relief was flooding, things flowed and I think there was an openness rather than a restrictive feeling. We will get together to jam once more before the festival so hoping that there will be a newness to the set as we perform it. Our gig is on the Saturday evening of the festival!

In your mind’s eyes, what are your hopes for Open Ear 2024? Are there any other artists/collaborations that you’re particularly excited to catch?

Andrew: I got chatting twith David Donohoe and Kate Carr during and it’s seriously piqued my interest in their work. Their use of transducers to have found sounds on the island reborn through the mediums of different martials within the church on Sherkin is sure to be an extremely mind-bending experience. In terms of the craic, I have very high hopes, Sherkin has such a friendly and open, yet wild atmosphere even when the festival isn’t on, and it attracts a seriously amazing and sound set of characters that effectively forms a community when they’re out there.

Elaine: My hopes are to take in as much music as I can, have some craic and maybe get in for a swim. There are a lot of acts I’ve wanted to see for a while or haven’t had the chance to catch live in a few years. I’m excited to see Hilary Woods set, Moundabout, go on Denis Mcnulty’s soundwalk, see what magic Kate Karr and David Donehoe have cooked up and to experience Amanda Feery & Eimear Walsh’s Romantic Ireland.  

Dion: There’s so many: Vacant Heads, Sam De La Rosa, Wisecrack, Deb Googe, Lesko, 7of9, and, of course, our commissioned projects: An Trinse & Il Santo Bevitore with some eldritch fenian paganism, David Donohoe & Kate Carr using transducers to make St. Mona’s church resonate with the natural sounds of the island, Dennis McNulty’s I:Land, a geolocated sound walk that will lead our audience from one off-site performance location to another, and will live on as a permanent piece of sound art on Sherkin.

And as for hopes for the festival, they’re simple: a sold-out festival with every punter slathered in factor 50 to protect from the shtone shplittin’ sun.

Seriously, though: tickets

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.