If you’re looking for something a little different to listen to right now, perfect for these challenging times we’re living through, I’d heartily recommend Eileen Gogan’s second LP, Under Moving Skies.
This talented Dublin-based singer-songwriter, backed by her band The Instructions and special guests Damian O’Neill (The Undertones, That Petrol Emotion, The Everlasting Yeah) and fellow Irish luminaries Cathal Coughlan (Microdisney, Fatima Mansions), Sean O’Hagan (Microdisney, The High Llamas) and Stephen Ryan (Stars of Heaven, The Drays), carries on where she left off on 2015’s rightly-acclaimed The Spirit of Oberlin, but this time handling production and mixing duties herself.
Some distance from last-year’s acclaimed Fontaines D.C. debut album, Dogrel, it may be, yet the title puts me in mind of a line from that LP’s finale, ‘And I kissed her ‘neath the waking of a Dublin city sky’, and Eileen’s on a similar creative roll, having come up with a set of songs – eight of them self-penned – that take her beyond previous boundaries, mixing pop nuggets with plenty of wistful moments, a fair few soulful, country and folk inflections presented en route.
With a voice inviting comparisons with Sandy Denny, Natalie Merchant and Kirsty MacColl, she draws on a range of influences that also include REM plus Richard & Linda Thompson, to great effect. And it’s fair to say she’s learned a lot in a 30-year career stretching from an apprenticeship of sorts with John Peel’s Irish indie favourites The Would Be’s, also working with The Revenants, The Drays, and guesting with Microdisney at their 2018-19 reunions at Dublin’s National Concert Hall, London’s Barbican Centre, and Cork’s Cypress Avenue.
Under Moving Skies, out on June 5th via Dimple Discs, also features respected session man Terry Edwards, more recently recalled for Gallon Drunk and Near Jazz Experience. She should be out there promoting the LP right now, but the coronavirus lockdown has left her back home with partner Evan, their cat and dog, 20 minutes or so outside Dublin’s city centre, where I found her earlier this week, sat in her living room.
“We’re actually getting an oven replaced, because of the lockdown – we’ve been cooking so much, it broke down. So I’m sitting here while a very nice electrician who agreed to come out installs a new one.”
I guess – as with us poorly-paid, home-based, freelance writers – it’s not so different right now for the likes of you. Worrying times maybe, with plenty of sadness and surreal moments, but nothing out of the ordinary in other respects.
“Like yourself, Malcom, I’m actually enjoying this – working away in the small, dark room I make music in. And I walk the dog, so that gets me out.”
That’s Louis, a greyhound rescued as a pup, ‘with whippet or something in him’, named after the legendary Louis Armstrong. And that led to the first of our many off-the-main-subject conversational ambles, talking about how our beloved pets become such an important part of our lives in no time at all.
“It’s weird – when people haven’t got dogs, they wonder why we’re so upset on losing them, but they put such great structure in your day. He drives me bananas sometimes, but he’s great fun as well. I was veggie for years, slipped out of it for a bit, but since getting the dog I went veggie again – these brown eyes looking up at me, thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t do this!’ They’re great company. And I’ve read a couple of great books by John Bradshaw, including In Defence of Dogs (2011), about how we didn’t domesticate them, they chose to be domesticated by us – they prefer being with us than their own kind. A fascinating read.”
It’s clear that this part-time librarian has a passion for books as well as music, also tipping me off about a biography of the aforementioned jazz legend, 1997’s Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, by Laurence Bergreen. I also see she’s performed in a few libraries in her time, including fairly recent appearances with fellow singer-songwriter Ed McGinley – part of her band and featuring on the new LP – and author Sinéad Gleeson.
While she’s Dublin through and through, there’s a loose association with Cavan, around an hour and a half away to the north west, home of The Would Be’s, with whom she first had her first real break.
“That’s how it all started for me. I was singing a bit with a couple of indie bands, then a friend who was in a very good band John Peel loved, Hey Paulette, told me The Would Be’s singer (Julie McDonnel) had left and I should audition. I did, I got it, and that was great.”
Was that was your apprenticeship really?
“Totally! They were great to work with, and I’m still in touch a lot. They had that magic, with these three brothers together involved.”
I listened back to The Would Be’s on the lead-up to this interview, reminded as to what a fine band they were, Eileen’s addition seeing them more akin to Sandie Shaw guesting with The Smiths, with maybe a hint of Harriet Wheeler from the Sundays, but added brass taking them elsewhere.
We briefly broke off there, Eileen explaining another technical problem with the immersion heater to her hired help, but were soon back on track, her potted history continuing, starting with a switch to the band The Revenants, with a link there to another band I love, fellow John Peel favourites The Stars of Heaven, who I was lucky enough to catch live three times in 1986/87, loving their debut LP, Sacred Heart Hotel. In that pre-internet era, I lost touch with Stephen Ryan’s goings on, missing out on his next step with The Revenants and beyond. But Eileen filled me in.
“When The Stars of Heaven were going, I was too young to be going to gigs, so when I met Stephen through a friend in a pub in town, and he asked me to sing with The Revenants, I didn’t know who he was, although I’d heard of The Stars of Heaven. It was only after working with him a couple of years that I felt, ‘Jesus, this fella’s really good!
“He’s funny about singing himself, getting me to sing quite a lot. He has a new band, The Drays, who had an album out four years ago, and that’s great too. He’s kind of reticent about singing himself, but I think he’s got a lovely voice. He’s still working away, and his songwriting … he still comes out with some crackers. I’m very jealous!”
I can vouch for that, Eileen introducing me to splendid 2016 LP, Look Away Down Collins Avenue. And I put it to her that she’s clearly in talented company on her new record, not just through Stephen, but also another 1980s Irish band I loved, Microdisney.
“Malcolm, I’m telling you, I still can’t believe that happened. I loved that album, The Clock Came Down the Stairs, when it came out (1985). I was 16 or 17 and listened to that over and over again, the same time I discovered Countdown to Ecstasy by Steely Dan (1977), playing the two of them all the time. When Cathal Coughlan got in touch on Facebook … well, when you live in Ireland, there’s a lot of Cathals and a lot of Coughlans, so I didn’t really think of it. But I friended him, then he messaged me, saying Microdisney were getting back together, and I was just gobsmacked.
“They were a huge influence on me and I was still pinching myself, not least because I never got to see them live, with them being based in London. And when it happened, I was kind of annoyed that I was having to wait, side-stage, called up intermittently, thinking, ‘Feck! I’m not even getting to see them, and I’m playing with them!’ But that was great, and you know Damian O’Neill is playing on this album?”
I sure do. In fact, that’s why I first took notice, knowing he was involved. We’ll get on to his involvement soon, but first she fills me in on another gap.
“I never wrote my own stuff before, it was only a few years ago that I did, bringing out an album about three years ago.”
“Is it? Jeez! And you’re right. I’m getting to that stage of my life now where 10 years ago is actually 20! Time is warping away. But I released it myself and was very lucky that a couple of people here in Ireland gave it great reviews. I was very nervous about writing my own stuff, as in my opinion I sang with the best out of Ireland, so was always a bit shy about doing that.”
Despite saying that, it’s only these past few weeks where I’ve finally caught up … falling in love with that LP. For me, it was ‘Murmuration (Cliche Song #1)’ that first stopped me in my tracks. And from there ‘Dream Time’, and I was soon hooked. There’s not a dud track. Far from it. And while I’m only a few listens into the new record, it’s clearly another belter. What’s more, with that first album relatively short, I was left hungry for more.
“Yes, it was seven songs, and that’s all I had ready. I’d never made a record before, so didn’t really know what I was doing. But it was a really good experience and the people who were working with me were great … and really patient with me!”
Reviewers have picked up on a few perceived influences, most of which I agree with. For one, I can hear Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs) in there.
“Ah, yeah. I listened to a lot of her when I was younger. What I really liked about her was that she didn’t sing in a really American accent. She seemed to sing in her own voice. And that was before I heard Sandy Denny and all that. I think I was around 16. Then in my early 20s I started going back, listening to Sandy but also Dolores Keane, the Irish folk singer. As for Natalie, I think we naturally sing in the same register or something.”
Sandy Denny was another I was going to mention. That comes through for sure. But I’ve seen comparisons to Kirsty MacColl, and much as I love her, I don’t see that so much. At least no more than Dolores O’Riordan , although maybe that’s just the accent (I realise The Cranberries hailed from County Limerick, but I’m generalising a little). I also hear Maria McKee in places.
“Oh right. I actually met her, at a friend’s hen night, we were doing karaoke together. She was great craic. I agree with you about Kirsty McColl. I don’t think I sound that much like her, but I think as well it’s someone who sings in her own voice.”
That’s true, and that love of words comes through in your work too.
“Oh yeah. I’m very particular about lyrics … you wouldn’t think it by some of the crap I write, but … ha! Some of the songs I love to dance to are a bit more, ‘Hey hey, woo woo!’, I’ve nothing against that, such as some Beach Boys songs with ridiculous lyrics, But for myself I like to listen to something more interesting … although it might not mean much to anybody else.”
She likes to play herself down, but I like that down to earth quality – Eileen not carried away with her own importance in the scheme of things … despite her obvious talent.
On to this record, and opener ‘More Time’ seems perfect for these odd days we’re living through. That line, ‘I always thought we’d have more time’ truly resonates, thinking of those we’ve either lost or fear we’ve not made the most of seeing when we had the chance.
“Yeah, I never really thought about that. It’s actually about … my Mum died of cancer a few years ago, so that was kind of me getting over that. But I love hearing other people’s takes on what I write.”
The same applies – at least for me – to the lead single, ‘Don’t Let Me Sleep’, a little more country yet soulful too, the first song most of us heard from this record, and another arguably suggesting a need to live for the now, make the most of what we’ve got.
“That’s true, although for me that was when I went through a stage when I found out some disturbing news. Every time I went to sleep, I was getting nightmares. Wrongly, you just want to go out and get drunk, and not think.”
Did you get a shiver when you first heard Damian O’Neill’s contributed guitar line on that song?
“Did I ever! He did that in his house, and it’s just fantastic. That’s another mad thing that happened. I have Brian O’Neill (no relation) to thank for that. He took an interest in me, said he’d be interested in doing something with this album. He told me a friend had released a record and I told him I’d buy a copy off him. I like supporting people.
“I listened to my signed copy of Damian’s solo LP (2018’s wondrous Refit, Revise, Reprise) and told Brian I really loved his guitar playing. He hadn’t mentioned he was in The Undertones. I don’t look up bands, anything like that. But my other half’s like an encyclopedia on all that. I just thought he must be a session musician, and said to Brian, ‘Listen, his guitar playing is great, there’s one bit where I need a guitar solo. Could you ask your man Damian if he’d be interested. I’ll pay him.
“He asked, then Evan looks him up, tells me he’s a founding member of The Undertones. I had no idea. We were sitting there listening while playing scrabble. I just loved the lo-fi quality of that record. That’s what prompted me. Nothing to do with the riff from ‘Teenage Kicks’ or something, because I just didn’t feckin’ know!”
Damian seems a good match, and in the same way ‘Friday Tune’ would have fitted well on his solo LP, it fits nicely on Eileen’s record. It has a cinematic feel, part Midnight Cowboy, as if we’re on a Greyhound bus between big stateside cities.
“Yeah, ‘Friday Tune’ is just gorgeous. Actually, he wanted me to put lyrics to it, and I didn’t have the time, but now I’ve come up with something, post-album, working on another release, which I’m really happy about.
“He’s got a great ear for melody. And I was glad to have an instrumental on this album. It’s good for the ear, especially when it’s all vocal-based. I can’t even listen to myself that long, so don’t want to inflict that on anyone else!”
“I was the same with Microdisney. I knew about them, Fatima Mansions and The High Llamas, but Evan, being a Beach Boys walking encyclopedia, tells me, ‘He was going to produce Brian Wilson’. I put my hands on my ears, saying, ‘Shut up! Shut up! I’m so nervous already at meeting them – I don’t want to know!’. But when I went over to record with them all, everyone was so nice.”
In fact, Eileen was put up by Damian and partner Viv during her London stay, friendship blossoming.
“Damian was just brilliant, and also plays the solo on ‘Echo’, and … Jesus, it’s brilliant! Cathal was in the studio those few days too, and when he heard him play, you could just see that recognition of how well he could play. When you’re used to hearing Damian with barre chords in The Undertones, y’know …”
You mention the evocative ‘Echo’, and it might have taken me a while without reading the sleevenotes to place Cathal’s backing vocals. I expected deeper tones. Your harmonies work well together.
“Well, Cathal sang on Sean O’Hagan’s most recent album, and no one copped it was him, as he sings so gentle and higher, and it really suits him.”
What’s more, rumour has it that Cathal’s working on new material right now. Not as if I got that from Eileen. Honest. I look forward to that though.
On the highly atmospheric ‘Sweet Alice’, there’s flute courtesy of Terry Edwards, adding something of a woodland spirit reminding me of Traffic maybe. Is there no end to that man Terry’s talent?
“Yeah, exactly, and he brought in a trumpet that day. And obviously through his work with Gallon Drunk and PJ Harvey, and …”
I’m old enough to know him from another John Peel favourite, The Higsons. But I don’t think there’s enough room on the internet to mention every band he’s been involved with.
“Erm, yeah, I guess. Although I’ll be honest with you, saying I love ‘I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight’ by Richard and Linda Thompson, and wanted to write something about that. The lyrics are great, and there’s a street in Dublin full of pubs and clubs when you’re walking up it, and it’s full of amazing looking young ones with legs right up to their neck. When I was growing up, no one looked like that in Dublin! Everyone’s really drunk, and usually the girls are doled up to the nines and the fellas have made no effort at all – just a check shirt.”
That reminds me of my last weekend in Dublin, making a day of it then threading our way back to the suburbs to our B&B, the younger generation passing on the way into town. That’s when I realised I might be getting old.
“Exactly! I’m usually cycling home – ‘I’ve had my two gin and tonics, I must go now’ – and the whole bloody street is wavering towards you. It was really just about that.”
And the song title? You’re probably ahead of me, but Malibu Stacey’s the name of Lisa’s Barbie doll in The Simpsons. ‘Very niche,’ as Eileen put it. As for track eight, ‘Yes, Music Does Have the Right to Children’ carries the air of early REM. I could hear Michael Stipe harmonise on that. Are REM another influence?
“Oh yeah, I love the album, Murmur. I was around 13 or 14 when that came out, that time of life when you listen to something over and over again … although I still do that! I love the sound of that record, and their melodies. Then, when I got older, I got very much into bluegrass and old American folk music, and realised that’s why I liked REM. They make songs sound like old songs. Like you’ve heard them before, such as ’The One I Love’ – that sounds like an old folk song.
“To be honest, with a lot of this album, it’s really surprising it got done at all. I paid to go into a studio in Dublin, with a couple of people to play on it, the engineer was late and had his assistant stand in, but all the stuff I got back, I couldn’t use. I’m not a great guitarist, but Niall O’Sullivan, who also plays on this album, spent two weeks in his house throwing loads of ideas at it and recording them. And I basically went back and put all the pieces together.It was like making a collage.”
“Ah great. Mission accomplished!”
As for the finale, an a cappella take on Lancashire-born Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s haunting ‘Celebration’, it’s contemporary but there’s an old time feel, as if Michael Stipe is guesting with The Unthanks on ‘She Moves Through the Fair’. Is Nuala’s work something you were already aware of?
“Well, yeah, I really like her poetry. The words really jumped out at me from the page – they were so lyrical and so well paced. I needed another song, and I made up that melody.”
It certainly works. Maybe it’s your intonation and treatment giving it that timeless feel.
“It does sound a bit like that. Although when I started off. It was basically ‘Scarborough Fair’ at first. But that’s why it’s called folk … because everyone borrows it. I also listen to a lot of Martin Carthy, and a lot of his melodies and inflections probably have a lot to do with how that ended up.”
Talking of folk, we’ve mentioned Sandy Denny and Richard & Linda Thompson, so I’m guessing you’ve listened to a lot of Fairport Convention.
“Oh God, yeah. Love them. And Stanley Erraught from The Stars of Heaven, years and years ago, made me a mixtape which had a Fairport Convention song I loved, ‘Reynardine’ (from classic 1969 LP, Liege and Lief). I loved that, started listening to them, and knew Richard Thompson’s solo stuff before. And I think Sandy’s version of ‘Matty Groves’ is just phenomenal.”
I think those influences came out more on The Spirit of Oberlin. This time it’s more you, perhaps.
“Definitely. On the last album, someone mixed it, someone else engineered it, and I had no idea when I went in to make the album. When he handed the guy playing guitar a 12-string Rickenbacker, I had no idea how much that was going to veer the album in a certain way. It was brilliant, and I loved it, but I said this time I was going to mix and produce it myself.
“It took me a year to learn. I work part-time in a library so I took time off work and – like one of those hare-brained ideas – decided I was going to mix and record my own album. I did nearly all of it at home, so thank God for YouTube tutorials!
That final stage involved three days at Press Play Studios, Bermondsey, South-East London, owned by Stereolab’s Andy Ramsay, working with engineer Ed Smith plus Damian O’Neill, Sean O’Hagan and Cathal Coughlan.
And shouldn’t you be out on the road promoting this record right now?
“Oh God, yeah. The road? What was the road? I can’t remember.”
Have you new dates pencilled in for when the lockdown’s finally over?
“Well, I was supposed to be over in April for rehearsals with Damian and that, preparing for a few gigs in London, so I’m hoping I can get that to happen, so people don’t just have to listen to my three chords! Ha! That would be brilliant, but to be honest, I think this social distancing will have to go on for another nine months or so.”
And what’s the first thing you’re going to do when this finally ends?
“That’s what I’ve been asking people. I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours! I want to go for a swim. I really like that, and we’ve a great gym amenity here, with a pool and steam room. I really miss that, even though I exercise here, do lots of yoga … and walk the dog.”