An interview with Irish singer Lisa O’Neill

Culture Life
Image Credit: provided by Lisa O’Neill

Lisa O’Neill is currently on tour across the UK and dates can be found on her website and social media handles. She is also currently working on a new album.

You’ve mentioned before that your sister is a creator too, and that she’s worked on projects on Irish immigration. What does it mean to you to be young and Irish today? How important that is for you to represent within your work?

To be young and creative is a lovely thing to be doing. I feel very fortunate. If i was born a couple decades before I wouldn’t have those opportunities, and to be honest, I’m always delighted to be Irish.

Irish folk music has always been quite political but it also has a more ethereal folkloric and universal side. Which side of Irish folk music do you align yourself with more? 

I couldn’t say one or the other: I’m interested in both. Politics is a very scary thing to write about; but I am interested, and I do care. It’s important, but it’s a scary time to be writing. Things are going so politically correct that I don’t know which is the language I’m allowed to speak, and it changes from day to day. There’s a transition period for us all to get to a point where we can still speak from the heart but not offend anybody.

It’s a funny time. I know that there’s constant change on the planet, but it is slightly strange at the moment. People are in a race, and I’m not sure that they know what for.

You moved to Dublin to pursue your career at 18. Fontaines DC described their album as being about the old Dublin written by those who can’t afford the new one. I recognise that sentiment in your song Rock the Machine. How did moving to Dublin at such a young age shape your opinion of it as a city? 

It’s very sad to see. It’s hard to watch. I guess I’m one of them as well: someone who moves along constantly. I’m not with the wealthy people – I’m working class. It’s always been happening but when you’re actually in a city it becomes very apparent. When you’re in a city area which had been left alone – in a way, run down – all of a sudden it’s cool; house prices double; and people who live there their whole lives and are embedded in it – even if they can afford to stay – find that their environment has changed, and it’s become impersonal. We all value knowing our neighbours. Life is short, so when you put your roots down you like to think that you get to know each other in that same place, and that you don’t have to be uprooted. It’s a funny time. I know that there’s constant change on the planet, but it is slightly strange at the moment. People are in a race, and I’m not sure that they know what for.

The same characters, motifs, and people occur again and again in folk music. In your music, although it narrates a story of characters, there’s also personal stories emerging from it, with an element of first person narration. Is that important in narrating and updating folk music, making it modern, personal stamp, or has it happened naturally?

Maybe within the history of folk music, it wasn’t the norm to be writing from a personal view, but I don’t think of myself as just a folk musician: I don’t even see myself as a musician, but a singer. I’m influenced by folk among other music. To write from a personal point of view is a difficult thing to do. Especially when your name starts to become a little bit more out there, when I started out, I was writing for me: I didn’t think anyone would hear it, it was easy then when I didn’t care so much, but now things are being critiqued. I’ve always been interested in people: I’m a person too, and I have my ups and downs and I’m interested in what’s going on inside this head of mine. I do want to go back there and write from a personal point of view again but it’s hard, it’s the bravest thing to do, and if you’ve stepped away from it it’s hard to get back into it.

You don’t want to be just defined by one genre of music. You’re affiliated with the Rough Trade subsidiary River Lea. Time and time again you hear of artists trapped by record labels. Do you find that at all yourself? Do you find that it’s hard to pave your own way in a music industry that seems driven by sales?

Of course those things can get in on you. My record label is good and personal to work with. You have the sense that they’ve signed us for doing what we do, and that they don’t expect us to lean in one direction or another. I hope that that continues and we come up with something they like. It’s a personal undertaking, a challenge, and you have to not let that in.

You’ve written an ode to Bob Dylan, and I saw a video of you performing outside John Lennon’s childhood home in Liverpool. Clearly there are a lot of other influences in your work: which sort of music most inspires you outside Ireland? 

Nina Simone, Nick Cave, and I’m crazy about Johnny Cash. I like songs: Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd; the list is endless. Arcade Fire has one massive song I like, called My Body Is A Cage, so it’s not just one. I might not go out and buy a ticket to their concert, but one song can really do something for you and it can be a journey. It might just be one line someone can write, but it’s a game changer. It gives me the idea that I know for the listeners they’ve captured me, and it’s a journey for me to follow their dreams and their ideas. It’s uplifting: you can come away from listening to other people’s music and you come away thinking ‘we should be able to say what we want’, and the way we feel. It’s a wonderful career to have. It’s a wonderful life to have. It’s really, really difficult, but the highs are so high that it’s worth it: ‘dull… dull… dull… magic moment, dull… dull… dull… magic moment’.

Talking of those dull moments, I was wondering what you think of with all these different stage in your creative process, from that exhilarating moment from producing a record, what is the process of recording, is it a one take day in the studio or is it a very meticulous process: how do you record, and create that sound? 

There’s no one way: everything you said makes sense and it’s all in there. One song may have taken a couple of years, and I didn’t rush it. I could be in the toilet after having an amazing conversation with someone in a bar at 2AM and it comes: a song wraps around that line and it finishes the moment it was realised. I don’t go into the studio until I know I’m ready, which I’ve done this year. I’m still gathering and cooking. It’s a wonderful place to be: you can feel the beginning of things being discovered. It feels like spring. I’ll put it in the freezer door and defrost when I come back.

It’s a wonderful career to have. It’s a wonderful life to have. It’s really, really difficult, but the highs are so high that it’s worth it: ‘dull… dull… dull… magic moment, dull… dull… dull… magic moment’.

Touring is the other side of an artist’s life. The live music seems to be a main source of income, as it’s harder to make money out of streaming. How important is live performance for you, and do you prefer it to recording? 

I prefer to have control in recording. Live is different as audience is there, and that’s a massive part of what happens. But as I get more and more mature, I’m mature and I don’t like what the microphone and the sound of different rooms: it’s unpredictable. I spend most of time alone on my sofa playing and writing: you can hear the vibration of your body singing. It’s real, and a microphone is a new thing. I don’t really like them. Something that we’ve got to consider is bringing this into the mix. It’s not very organic, and it’s the same with light. But I don’t like it. It’s no craic. I don’t want all the colours. I just want things to be a little more authentic. There’s a lot of new toys, and so I’m a bit exhausted when I get the venues. I prefer a traditional session in Dublin where there’s no microphone. A microphone is an instrument in its own right. There are some wonderful old designs, and I have discovered some wonderful ones. But that’s what we have to do, we have to magnify the sound in bigger rooms and I do understand that.

Do you have a particular favourite live experience or performance? 

Not really. There’s been some amazing moments and nights that I just happened to be present for, but I forget and I move on with regards to my own concerts. I’ve got some wonderful experiences, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.

What in the future, are you looking forward to? 

I’m looking forward to digging into the new album. I understand that I’m a few steps away. I don’t want to do it until all my bags are packed. But I’m looking forward to a new year and experimenting with some new sounds and people and musicians.

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