On The Road Again

Well, the day is finally here: I’m hitting the road, beginning my very first national tour as Mr Billy Fitzgerald. To mark the occasion, myself and my wife spent far too long this morning speaking to each other in impressions of The Band from The Last Waltz (above), expounding ridiculously on the existential and philosophical effects of “the road”. In a few hours, I’ll be back on that road, for the first time in five years.

Those years feel like they’ve been particularly long. I’ve spent a lot of them playing music exclusively to myself in a series of rooms in Dublin and Sligo. I went looking for a sound I felt was uniquely mine and hopefully I’ve found at least some element of that. Now, as I knew I would do at some stage, I’m bringing that sound around the country, playing to new pairs of ears in new places and hopefully picking up some fans along the way.

I can’t deny that I’m nervous about the next week or so of shows. While I’ve been playing live for close to 18 years now and I’ve done my share of gigs in great venues all over Europe, this is a little different.

This time, I feel like I’m operating without a net. This time, it’s just me and my songs and no one else to share it with. I won’t be able to turn around to bandmates and laugh about something mid-show. There’ll be no in-jokes or long, tired chats about music in the van. This time, I’m on my own. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

Over the last few weeks of rehearsals, I’ve been putting together a show I think will surprise a lot of people. As I’ve only released three tracks so far, almost every song I play will be new to whoever comes to see the shows. But how I’m playing the songs and the instrumentation I’m employing might be quite different from what people expect. I wanted to make these shows fun for me to play as well as great to experience for the audience.

I’ve accumulated an awful lot of instruments and technology over the years and it’s been a lot of fun culling down the potential set-up to what’s now sitting in the hall, ready to go into the car. Along the way, I’ve dumped instruments, changed how I play some of them, stripped down, built up and ultimately streamlined until I found a balance between what will be fun to do and what will do justice to the songs.

So tonight, I play Cork. Tomorrow, I’ll be in Belfast. At the weekend, I’ll be playing in my favourite live room in the country, in McGarrigles in my hometown of Sligo – the site of my very first gig in 2001 (and where I played with The Frames only 2 weeks after that). After a brief stop in Galway, I’ll be finishing up with my biggest show to date, upstairs in Whelans in Dublin. There’s a lot of driving ahead of me, a lot of podcasts and coffee and setlists and soundchecks and traffic and unfamiliar beds. And it’s all in the name of bringing my songs and my performances to people I’ve never met. I cannot wait.

If you’d like to see me do my thing, come join me in:

Cork Brú Bar, Tues 18th April, 9pm.
Belfast Empire Music Hall, Wed 19th April, 10pm.
Sligo McGarrigles, Sat 22nd April, 9pm (with special guest Cathy Quinlan).
Galway Róisín Dubh, Sun 23rd April, 9pm.
Dublin Whelans, Wed 26th April, 8pm (with special guest Laura Ryder).

April 18, 2017

Posted In: Thoughts

The folly of making an album in this day and age.

Since the Spring of 2014, I’ve been engaged in a one-man mission: to make an album I actually liked. It’s been tougher than I thought, taken longer than I wanted and been more fun than I could ever have hoped. But it’s not over yet.

Are albums dead? And does it matter?

In the past decade, there has been no shortage of articles proclaiming the death of things we have taken for granted. In musical terms, it started with those of the, “Is the single dead?” variety. Personally, I never felt this would be the case. Individual songs will always have more staying power with the general public than entire albums. Sure, White Ladder and other mainstays have practically become part of the furniture for certain generations, but songs are the only short musical medium we hear drifting past in a car, on a tinny shop stereo or even (heaven forbid), played on a nearby radio.

I felt that compilations such as “Best Of”s and “Now that’s what I call vacuous forgettable pop” would easily die out quickest in this era. After all, why would you need a compilation of all of this years hits or the best songs by a certain band when playlists were just as easy to create? (I am still baffled by how wrong I was on this). But albums? I thought that albums would survive. Albums, after all are something else.

I remember sitting in a tiny bedroom in a small village in rural Holland, listening to the final master of the album and thinking, “Shit. It’s like 1977.”

When I dig an artist – hear their song, see them live, see their video – the natural thing for me is to want more. And what better way to get more than diving into a 45 minute playground of that artist? Entering their world where they decide what sounds you’re going to hear, which songs will be included and in what order. Where they control the horizontal and the vertical. I remember getting back from Electric Picnic and rushing to listen to TuneYards’ latest album for this reason. Alas, in reality, it is the album which has lost its place, become ever more expensive to mass-distribute and increasingly considered irrelevant. In some ways, this is probably a fantastic development.

My first album.

The very first CD I ever bought for myself was Ash’s 1977. I had just turned 14 years old, kissed my first girl and learned my first proper chords on the guitar. This album was utterly perfect for me, all loud guitars and thunderous drums with super-catchy choruses and a voice which, let’s face it, sounded like a 14 year old boy’s. But even I couldn’t escape the central issue with a 12-song collection by a band heretofore known mostly for infectious singles and the music off a beer ad on TV: a lot of it just wasn’t very good.

Yes, possibly as many as 6 of the tracks were not only forgettable but difficult to sit through while waiting for something better. That album, for me, set up a constant yardstick – the height of the highs Vs the depth of the lows. If an album could contain a number songs that were truly good enough, they could compensate for the duds. Not all albums manage to do that. But people seem to remember the highs in a lot more cases than the overall impression the album leaves.

Albums on Compact Disc
Looking through my old CD collection and the memories contained therein.

Zooming forward 14 years to April 2010 and the release of my own first album, I could fully understand why albums were so difficult to get right and also, why many consider them a dead art form. Prior to the release of Gentlemen’s Club, myself and the other Dead Flags worked our asses off trying to make the best debut album we could. We had a bunch of fantastic songs, a great producer/collaborator and we figured we could do it. But I remember sitting in a tiny bedroom in a small village in rural Holland, listening to the final master of the album and thinking, “Shit. It’s like 1977.” (In reality, it’s not. I would be lucky to get near that album but the comparison was more in my personal impression). It had some good tracks but yes, mostly, it didn’t really measure up to the lofty goals we had for it.

Why make albums anyway?

So, if the album is difficult to get right, expensive as holy fuck to produce and largely irrelevant to the wider public, isn’t it a good thing that the album is dying out?

Well, no. I don’t love Beck because of “Where It’s At”, I love him because of Odelay. I love Radiohead because of The Bends and Ok Computer, not because of “High & Dry” or “Paranoid Android”. When I think of music I love, the album covers for Electo-Shock Blues and The Soft Bulletin jump into my head. I remember listening to The Best of Blur and even 1 by The Beatles and being underwhelmed. I’m a fan of both of those bands but compilations of hits don’t tell the real story of a band – only an album can give you that sort of viewpoint. That’s why I love albums.

Albums do that crazy thing of taking you to another place. If they’re sequenced just right, you go on a journey with it – you press play and leave the ground, travelling out into the darkness, taking turns and rolls, ups and downs before being depositing safely back where you started. And the journey changes you. Especially as a teenager, albums have the ability to stretch your brain, open you up to new possibilities and make you see the world from new perspectives. Now, in my middle-30s, it happens less frequently but it still happens. That is why albums matter.

And so, yet again, I embark upon the making of an album, hoping to make the best 45 minute collection of music I possibly can. I am still proud of Gentlemen’s Club but I see it as my first attempt and when is the first attempt at something ever the best? 1977 may not be perfect but I still love it. Most importantly, everybody has to start somewhere – you can’t learn how to make a great album by studying or watching others. You can only learn how to make an album by making an album.

Here I go.

February 25, 2017

Posted In: Thoughts

Art should not be democratic, it should be selfish as fuck.

I wouldn’t class myself as some sort of industry veteran. I have however certainly been around the scene for long enough to see some shitty trends developing and later enveloping what we call the Irish music industry.

Yes, it’s very easy to say that the biz is completely beholden to marketing, promotion and money rather than art and talent. It’s certainly true but it’s nothing new. Here’s the thing though, this isn’t the fault of some cartoonish fat-cat suits imposing commercial values on a creative medium.

No, sadly, we’ve done this to ourselves.

Talent is over-rated.

A hero of mine, Conan O’Brien, has repeatedly stated an unpopular and much-misunderstood view: that talent is over-rated.

O’Brien is referring to the fact that talent will only get one so far in any creative field but hard work is what tends to separate the successful from the also-rans. And he’s not just referring to commercial success.

Artistic success – the creation of major artistic works or pushing into new areas is also the result of hard work. Have you ever heard DJ Shadow talk about the conditions in which he created Endtroducing… or how much the Stone Roses rehearsed before playing a single gig? These artists (and pretty much any you’ve ever heard of) have worked their collective asses off trying to find the next undiscovered country of artistic merit.

Unfortunately, it also means that some of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever met will never be heard by anyone while Ed Fucking Sheeran is the most successful male pop star on the planet right now. I may not think much of Mr Sheeran’s abilities in terms of songwriting or singing. However, I cannot begrudge him his success.

The man has toiled hard, taking advantage of every opportunity put in front of him and, to paraphrase the great Quincy Jones, has always being ready when those opportunities came along. I’m sure he has also been incredibly lucky. However, luck and talent won’t get you anywhere on their own. One has to work hard to get where one wants to go.

This is certainly true in the Irish music industry where vacuous, derivative indie-rockers play to packed houses while Big Monster Love (exceptionally talented writer of one of my favourite Irish albums of recent years, Game Over) has vanished into obscurity.

The success trap.

I started writing songs over 20 years ago. It took me years to find my voice, writing-wise and perhaps decades to find a full confidence in my own abilities. For several glorious years in my late teens and early 20s, I hit a rich vein of songs which allowed me to evolve as a songwriter and musician while being totally true to my own worldview.

Looking back, it wasn’t anything particularly memorable or ground-breaking, just my own particular perspective on life and relationships which felt completely “me”. Unfortunately, all of this was waylaid by a major distraction: success.

I have not experienced much commercial success but certainly, when myself and The Dead Flags embarked upon a proper career, it was not long before our lead songwriter (your humble author) started to buckle under this distraction.

I started to confuse marketing our songs with writing our songs: instead of figuring out how to promote our natural sound and songs to the world, I started to craft our songs to better suit what people liked.

I wrote shorter songs with big choruses, strong hooks and fast tempos. These songs were not bad and none of them were necessarily insincere. But they did not come from a pure place, a place where the songwriter had something to express rather than something to sell.

Of course, it’s not as if any of this translated into particularly noticeable commercial success. The Dead Flags appeared on TV, got playlisted on national radio, were interviewed and reviewed in major publications and played to people all over Europe. We had an absolute blast and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. Being in a band is intoxicating and when one is on that ride, you will do what it takes to stay there.

Of course, I am not the only artist to ever experience this. The standard ways of working within the music industry make it exceedingly difficult to prioritise your own artistic expression. It is very hard to take time out every month, every week, every day to work on your music. But you simply must do this.

Commercial success is something which is not necessarily related to artistic merit. Often, the two coincide but they are merely adjacent, not causal factors of each other. From my own experience, seeking commercial success alone will leave one hollow regardless of whether or not you achieve it.

Artistic success (not necessarily the same as critical success) on the other hand, leaves one proud and full with a lasting satisfaction.

Writing for yourself.

And this is why I have heartily embraced the notion of being a selfish artist.

Music should not be democratic, seeking to appeal to large numbers or dictated by the whim of the crowd. No, I would argue that music (as with all art) should be totally and completely selfish.

One should not write for the crowd, assuming that you know what they will like – that is insulting to both yourself and the crowd. It creates lowest-common-denominator fare such as movies like Pearl Harbor and every U2 album which came after Pop.

There is only one audience member whom you can properly read: yourself. You know when something excites you or moves you. You can immediately tell if something feels false or inauthentic to you. And that is why you must write only for this audience member.

Play music that makes your feet unable to remain still. Sing melodies that make your hair stand on end. Touch subjects which are specific to your viewpoint. Move yourself.

So yes, we should honour and respect those that come to see us. If they want to hear a particular song, why not play it for them? Just remember that if you try to only play what others want you to play, you will quickly cease to be anything but a disposable, temporary item. To them, and yourself.

Play what moves you, what excites you. Your audience may not love it but if they do, they will really love it. Be selfish, make your own art. And let the audience come to you.

February 15, 2017

Posted In: Thoughts