By Kevin Hannon, Contributing Writer
In his sophomore album, “Let Bad In,” Ciaran Lavery shines as one of the brightest songwriting talents in Ireland. Hailing from the Northern Irish village of Aghagallon, located approximately 25 miles west of Belfast, Lavery is a stellar lyricist and a musical alchemist, fusing his acoustic guitar with electronic beats, perhaps foreshadowed by the 2015 album “The Colour Blue,” in which he collaborated with minimalist electronic musician and fellow countryman Ryan Vail. With over 22 million plays on Spotify, Lavery has been described by The Thin Air, a leading Northern Irish arts magazine, as one of “the top three greatest songsmiths in the country, if not the most naturally-gifted Northern Irish voices of his generation.”
WSN: In “Okkervil River,” you sing, “when I was 15 I had everything.” Do you feel like you’ve gained more than you’ve lost as you’ve grown older? Your songs suggest that there are invaluable feelings exclusive to being young that we lose as we grow older, but there’s also an admirable grit and determination that comes with age that you sing about in songs such as “Return to Form” and “Train.”
Ciaran Lavery: I think it’s only natural that there are things lost among the naivety of youth. It’s a strange one and something I found interesting to consider when I approached this collection of songs. On one hand, in youth, you crave the experience and almost race to feel older because older means being more mature. But then, in retrospect, when you’re older, you crave the energy and wide-eyed wonder of youthfulness because everything was new then – it was fresh and exciting and where all first experiences happened. So, I guess I’m somewhere in between and I wanted to bring that out in the record.
WSN: It seems like a positive attitude is something that you highly value, exemplified by songs such as “Let Bad In.” Yet, you also write often about indecision and the fear of letting go. One of my favorite lyrics is “I burned my fingers on the stove / I have problems letting go,” contrasting a reflex reaction with a thoroughly thought-out decision. Do you find yourself being more driven by reflexes, if only to spare yourself the burden of indecision?
CL: I wish I did, but I’m a highly indecisive person; just ask any of my closest family and friends. In songwriting, there’s a lot of trusting the gut, especially when it comes to writing and recording songs, but there’s also a lot of static and noise from all the uncontrollables that can have an effect. Over the years, I’ve learned to block out the noise and trust what I’m trying to say without filter or worries of things being too personal. So, when it comes to writing I tend to do so without any real consideration for anything other than the benefit of the song and what the message or story is. In my day-to-day life, there are many decisions to be made and things I absolutely struggle with, and I like to put that across in my songwriting if it’s relevant. It’s who I am, it’s real.
WSN: Can you describe the process of writing the song “Let Bad In”? Musically, it’s incredibly sparse, with only a faint drone that gradually peaks in volume near the middle and then fades out towards the end. Why did you make that musical choice?
CL: “Let Bad In” was a line that came to me late one night with the melody soon after. From the beginning, I knew it was best to present it in almost an a cappella state since the lyrics were all written at my kitchen table without any instruments at hand. I think it took maybe five minutes to write from start to finish; it kind of just fell out onto the page. I’ve learned not to ignore things like that over the years.
WSN: You were raised in the very small village of Aghagallon, Northern Ireland. How did your upbringing influence your songwriting? Did you embrace your surroundings or were you trying to find a way out? Was your family supportive of your musical pursuits?
CL: Everything that I draw from in my songwriting is based around memories from home. I guess growing up and now being based here has always been good for me. Aghagallon is my bubble away from the rest of the world, where I can exist outside of everything that happens in the music world. Don’t get me wrong, there’s easy access to the towns and Belfast is pretty close, but I treat home like an escape. I can retreat to here and have nobody bother me if I don’t want it. My family and oldest friends are all within reach so everything about being at home keeps me grounded. It’s important for me to remember who I am. With all the crazy Spotify stats and touring around it’s nice to know at home I’m still just Ciaran from down the street.
WSN: You’ve been quite outspoken about your desire to not be categorized musically. Do you think this has been made easier now that music is so accessible and someone can listen to a song on Spotify in just a few keystrokes instead of driving to a record store and buying a physical product? The cost of listening to something that you may not like seems much lower than when music wasn’t available digitally. Does this also make it easier for musicians to be more experimental?
CL: Access to music in general has become so easy and I think it’s become a whole lot simpler to reach an audience anywhere in the world as long as there’s Wi-Fi close by. For me, as an artist, it’s important to continually develop so I’m never stuck solely in one genre – it feels claustrophobic and one-dimensional. With the advances of musicians and bands being able to create new sounds and push boundaries sonically, I think it’s only natural to want to stand out in some shape or form so that listeners who have an almost infinite amount of music available to them via any major streaming service can still find you in among all the noise.
WSN: You’ve made a conscious decision to not move to Belfast, which has become a prominent music hub in the past decade. Is there any urban-rural divide in the Northern Irish music scene? Is it difficult to feel fully part of the community when you’re not living in the city proper?
CL: I’ve never really felt a divide to be honest and I would pay little mind to one if it existed. My mindset is literally to keep my head down and stay as busy as I can. What I do know for sure is that there is a hell of amount of great music in NI at present and I’m still finding it all the time. Everyone seems hungry and that’s a good thing.
WSN: You made an unlikely collaboration with minimalist electronic musician Ryan Vail, who’s also from Northern Ireland. How did that come about?
CL: Working with Ryan was a result of wanting to scratch an itch of climbing outside my comfort zone and seeing where it would lead me. At that stage, I had been listening to more electronic music and found interest in placing my songs in a different place than I could achieve on my own. Ryan had been one of the most forward thinking electronic artists in Northern Ireland for a few years so I pretty much cold-called him over Twitter about working together. In hindsight, it was probably came off quite weird but at the time I had nothing to lose by asking. We shared a bill at a festival in Belfast around a month later and from that point onward we talked more about doing something together. The original idea was to try one song and see what happened, and it just evolved from there.
WSN: Some of your earliest experiences with music included listening to ‘80s singles on your sister’s record player; however, whereas many songs in the ‘80s consisted of very dense composition (i.e. The Police, Genesis, U2), your songs are quite sparse. Did those early songs influence your music in other ways?
CL: What’s great about typical ‘80s songs, especially those of the synth-driven nature, is that underneath all those layers are brilliantly written songs. Quite typically, I’m drawn to the chorus lines and hooks of things like Human League, Blondie etc. Growing up, I wasn’t a huge fan at all; it was just the noises that surrounded my childhood. But, over time and as I grew older, I realized how many of these songs were familiar to me and I guess I had a whole new appreciation for them.
WSN: What influence did American music have on your own music? You’ve often mentioned musicians such as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Crosby, Stills and Nash & Young as being important to your own musical upbringing.
CL: Those songwriters arrived at a perfect station in my life when I was a sponge for music. There were a lot of things that took me a few years to understand and get my head around — Townes Van Zandt for example. I don’t think at age 14 or 15 I was ready to grasp the depth of those songs, but I got there eventually. I think American music has always had a huge influence on everywhere else; it was always accessible. Discovering Tom Waits was a game changer for sure and he’s someone that I have been fascinated with for many years. The ties between America and Ireland are very strong so I guess it’s only natural to feel that influence.
WSN: I first heard about your music from another upcoming Northern Irish musician, Owen Denvir, who’s played viola for you. What other Northern Irish musicians should American audiences check out?
CL: Joshua Burnside, Michael Mormecha, Malojian, The Bonnevilles, Alana Henderson, The Emerald Armada, Robocobra Quartet, Hannah McPhillimy.
Email Kevin Hannon at email@example.com.