By Kevin Hannon, Contributing Writer
In his latest album, “I Was An Astronaut,” Conor McAteer chronicles the ebb and flow of a relationship from the perspective of a wearied mariner trying to steer a sinking ship. The Northern Irish singer-songwriter, whose album has been hailed by the BBC as “one of the most beautiful albums from this part of the world in recent years,” delivers a stunning performance with haunting harmonies and cinematic lyrics that transport the listener on a journey that both celebrates and mourns the extraordinary and wonderfully ordinary parts of a relationship. McAteer expertly narrates his maritime epic, both looking forward to the future, exemplified by “Tiny Song,” while sorting through the emotional flotsam in his ship’s wake.
WSN: The cover art of your new album, “I Was An Astronaut,” is a ghoulish woodcut originally from Harper’s Weekly in 1873, while your lyrics often reference literary figures, such as Seamus Heaney, as well as mythology, notably in the song “Atlas.” Do you view these references as being essential to understanding your music, or are they supplementary? Is it possible to fully ‘get’ your music without getting the references?
Conor McAteer: I really hope that my music is accessible to people whether they get the references or not. I’m not one of these voracious readers who always has a book on the go but what I do read has an impact and I think it influences my writing. On this album, all the songs are about relationships of one kind or another and the songs focus on the emotions involved. Hopefully, if I’ve captured these emotions properly, people will find a way into the songs and will be able to relate to them. The rest, I think, is just how the emotional content is framed.
WSN: I had the pleasure of visiting Belfast last autumn (though unfortunately didn’t get a chance to visit Derry!) and was very inspired by the depth and breadth of the musical environment, especially with regard to the nurturing of new talent in places such as the Oh Yeah Music Centre. You’ve been a strong promoter of the Derry music scene; what about Derry makes it such a great place for new music?
CM: It’s weird, I have asked myself and other people that. None of us really know. The thing about it is, although a lot of the people making music are pretty friendly and supportive towards one another, most of us work very independently. There doesn’t seem to be a common thread that runs through everyone’s music (a “Derry sound”) and there’s plenty of diversity in what’s being produced. To be honest, I don’t feel part of a scene at all and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the other artists felt the same. We all seem to be coming at music from different places; even if you were to listen to a number of artists who could be broadly categorised in the same genre, you’d probably find their music didn’t have that much in common. That said, it’s why the place is interesting and there’s a lot of respect between many of the musicians. One great thing about Derry is that there is a certain amount of support for artists. Not as many people break through on a national or international platform as should but hopefully that will change in the coming years. We are lucky enough to have local radio presenters who are willing to play our music on their shows. We also have a great record shop that is happy to stock and promote local music and then there’s the Nerve Centre, which runs courses etc. and gives a lot of support to musicians, particularly younger artists.
WSN: Who has influenced you most musically? Simon & Garfunkel seem to be important, both in terms of fingerpicking guitar style as well as vocal harmonies. Are there any albums in particular that most influenced your own?
CM: My mum got me listening to Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie when I was a child. I still love all those artists and I guess if I look at my music, I must have developed a love for vocal harmonies through listening to Simon & Garfunkel, although I also sang in choirs for a few years. I like the idea that the vocals can form a proper chord rather than have the harmonies buried in the mix like they’re some kind of afterthought. The fingerpicking style, I’m less sure about. I started experimenting with ways to keep rhythm in my playing while allowing particular notes and runs to be emphasised – It’s just bits of lead running through the rhythm playing to give it a bit of colour. Elliott Smith was great at that. I’ve also been holding bass notes with my thumb more in the last while so I could play certain notes with open strings elsewhere…I don’t know, a lot of it just comes from messing around and landing on something you like. I don’t think about influences very much. I figure if you do, you’ll just end up writing a watered down version of someone else’s song. I listen to lots of music from lots of different genres. Stuff just seeps in and you’re not always sure how but hopefully you end up with something that feels like your own.
WSN: Your songs are almost cinematic in their telling of a story, often describing events as though the listener is actually in the room, watching everything unfold from a distance. Do you consider your lyrics to be the most important part of your songs? More generally, do you primarily consider yourself a lyricist, a singer or a guitarist?
CM: Thanks for that. That’s a lovely compliment. I think I just consider myself a songwriter. I don’t think one part of it is more important than another. I just try to make everything work the best way I can so I take time to figure out arrangements, guitar lines, vocals and lyrics too. The longest part of the process is probably editing – changing a word here, taking out a chord there. I’ll spend days tweaking the songs until they feel right.
WSN: I love the sparse aesthetic of this album, as nothing is added other than what is absolutely essential, often just a guitar and a bare vocal. Have you found it difficult to translate this album into a live show, given that it is so minimal in its production? Is it possible to play the album in venues that are not traditionally suited to solo acoustic performances?
CM: Haha! I haven’t even tried this yet. I don’t gig that often these days. I don’t love it the same way I love writing and recording. The thing about the album is that, like you said, there isn’t anything in the recordings that doesn’t add something to the songs – but what is there feels difficult to go without. There are layered vocals everywhere and a lot of electronic bleeps and swells that I really want present. I don’t like the idea of playing with backing tracks. Who wants to sit around watching a guy press the play button and then sing karaoke versions of his own songs? Urrrgh! That said, when I gig, I’m playing with no band and nothing but an acoustic guitar and sometimes have to rearrange the songs slightly to make sure they don’t lose their impact. It’s a challenge but live music should be different to recorded music, I think. Otherwise, what’s the point in going to shows?
WSN: Many of the songs, notably “Boats,” revolve around imagery of tumultuous seas – a historically favorite subject of many Irish authors. What inspired you to make this thematic choice? Was it a conscious reference to literature or more based on your own mindset and personal experience?
CM: When I started writing the album, the nautical references came subconsciously. Derry’s near the coast and the River Foyle runs through the city. It feels natural that references to water would come into someone’s writing if they’re from that kind of area. I’d also been reading a novel by David Mitchell called ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ which is about Dutch merchant sailors based in Japan towards the end of the 18th Century. That was a big influence on the song ‘Heart & the Harbour’. Anyway, after a while I noticed these maritime themes as well as some musical ideas recurring in my new songs and I decided to go with that. I like the idea that albums should have threads that run through the songs. It feels like a cohesive piece of work. As for ‘Boats’, a friend of mine always used to say that all great albums end with an epic. I thought that was funny but I decided that this being the closest thing to an epic I’ve ever done, it had to be the closing track so it’s kind of a nod to him. I decided then that the lyrics would almost sum up the emotional content of the album so the nautical imagery I’d used in other songs also felt like the right frame for this one which ended up being about long-term friendship. A lot of my friends don’t live locally anymore so the “body of water” lyric is not just metaphorical but literal too.
WSN: Relationships are the central subject of this album, and your remarkably balanced treatment of them is a core strength of the album lyrically. In “Atlas,” the mythological strength of one caring for their significant other in a time of distress is juxtaposed with quotidian late night drives around the town in search of excitement. Similarly, in “Get Over Him (And Get Under Me),” the “mood dictating the weather” ascribes elemental power to the bombshell conversation in the doorway, yet you later admit that, in fact, you’ve never actually met this other man. Do you find yourself drawn to realism in songwriting? None of the songs are emblematic of perfectly clear skies, yet neither are there any that are completely bleakly overcast; instead, it seems to be an album of some sun, some clouds and some silver linings.
CM: I’m glad you picked up on that. I must have done something right! I think life is not about feeling one emotion at a time. There is usually a mix of things going on. For example, I’m moving to Scotland in a couple of months. Part of me is really excited about a new development and the hope that can bring but it’s tinged with sadness and trepidation as I’m leaving family and friends behind and going to a place where I hardly know anyone. There are conflicting feelings in lots of circumstances and I hope this comes across in my lyrics.
To get into specifics, the story of Atlas, as I know it, sees him punished by Zeus and made to hold up the sky or the heavens to stop Uranus, the god of the sky from “visiting” Gaia, the goddess of the earth. I thought this image of him holding up the heavens was a good metaphor for life and death and the song is about wanting to protect the people closest to you. The first half of each verse is the stuff you value in your relationships – ordinary things like conversation and being in the same place. Then later in the verses, my hometown’s fragile economy is used as a backdrop for impending trouble.
“Get Over Him” is different. I might have been too subtle with it as I have very little sympathy for the protagonist. I find his wallowing pretty pathetic (although he has a degree of self-awareness around it). The sky going black and the mood dictating the weather feels like bad teenage poetry to me and that’s to reflect the character’s lack of maturity. Still, he feels the things he feels and I guess we’ve all been there.
WSN: One of the most unique songs on the album is “Tiny Song.” Can you explain its origin? It seems slightly out of place on an album of such contemplative, introspective lyrics, discussing “snots and bogeys,” although I suppose this makes it introspective in a different, much more literal way!
CM: Haha! I suppose it does. I wrote ‘Tiny Song’ for my niece shortly after she was born. My hope is that when she gets a bit older it will make her laugh. I was trying to write a kids’ song so like a lot of writing aimed at children, there’s lots of repetition and ideas around connecting things. There’s a quote that I saw attributed to John Lennon, although, I doubt he really said it: “you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but you can’t pick your friend’s nose”. Like I said, I don’t think John Lennon really said it but that doesn’t mean it’s not solid advice. My youngest sister is the first person in my family to have a child so my niece is really special to all of us. Stupid as it sounds, the first time I saw her, it blew my mind that a real person could be that tiny! Although there’s a lot of struggle and turmoil in a number of other songs on the album, I think it’s important to celebrate the good things in life and that’s part of the reason ‘Tiny Song’ is there. The other reason is that my grandparents’ voices (her great grandparents) are in the instrumental section as are her baby noises when she was only eight days old. My granny died a few weeks later and I suppose as well as being a celebration of a new arrival into the world, the song took on something of a “circle of life” feel for me. It actually feels really personal rather than just a novelty song.
WSN: What musicians from Derry would you recommend American audiences check out?
CM: Derry has a lot of talented artists working across different genres and this list is certainly not exhaustive but here’s what springs to mind today:
Singer-songwriter acoustic-type people: Ego the Jackal (although he now lives in Edmonton, Canada), Ruairi & the Owls, Simon Herron (although he now lives in Liverpool), Conor Mason…I could go on and on here.
Rock Your Socks Right off of Your Feet Music: The Woodburning Savages
Electronica and minimalist ambience: Ryan Vail
The ‘Categorise Them at Your Peril’ Category: Das Motorik (hopefully they’ll finally release something soon), Autumns.
Just to make a special mention for a friend of mine who isn’t from Derry: I lived in Leeds, England, a few years back and met a great songwriter called William Gray. He’s living in China now and you could do a lot worse than check his stuff out.
Check out Conor McAteer on Bandcamp.
Email Kevin Hannon at email@example.com.