‘Alt-folk troubadour Ciaran Lavery has channelled the quiet despair of isolation into timeless songs of beauty and heartache’.
That’s what is says on his website. And anybody who has heard him live, singing an unaccompanied version of Tom Waits’ “If I Have To Go” would agree. Anybody who has identified with the lyrics of “Shame” from his Not Nearly Dark album would gladly accept this as true.
He can play with a full band, but generally it is one man, and his voice, his guitar and his harmonica for company. So how does that work with the crowds here? “Usually, if I’m playing quietly, then the crowd quietens. 9/10 times it works. On saying that, I would avoid bar gigs as much as possible now because of the noise”.
When he played the Other Voices music event in Dingle last year, he played in Dick Mack’s Pub. “I was told I won’t need any amplification because it’s so small. So before I was due to play, I of course called in to have a look. It was full of people, wall to wall, talking and enjoying a drink. I had no idea how I was going to be able to play in a place this crowded and this loud.”
“When it was time though, something came over me and I asked some people to clear a table. I just climbed onto it. I’ve never had such a feeling of instant regret. It’s the most vulnerable performance I’ve ever given. It just took one step backwards and I would be on YouTube forever, falling off that table and being a mess all over the floor.” But it worked. Standing on the table let people know he was playing. They hushed, and he sang, with no amplification, to that crowded room. It was a success.
So with all this in mind, what are his musical influences? Well just to fly in the face of everything already said, he looked me squarely in the eye and said “I’ve been into hip-hop since I was about 13.” He used to sit in maths class with his friends and write his own hip-hop classics. He laughs at the thought of it, but it shows it was always there, that yearning to write.
“Hip-hop is amongst the most intelligent forms of music in regard to its message” he urged. “With hip-hop you can write a deep affecting song without it being in your face. The words can be so much different from the sound.”
His next release is in April. It’s a collaboration with electronica artist Ryan Vail, and they have just started a PledgeMusic campaign to raise funds for their mini album Sea Legs. Described as ‘dark ambient, electronica, pop folk’, the mini album will be released as a 10″ sea-green marbled vinyl record, with cover art by Theo Bowden. “I wasn’t sure how I felt about it” said Ciaran looking down at his coffee. “But when I saw that artists like Simone Felice, and other big acts, run campaigns like this, I thought then let’s just do it.”
“I’m a 80s child so I can’t avoid the synths. I’m interested in atmospheric sounds, and we’re getting more of it in folk and indie. That’s why I contacted Ryan Vail, because he does it so well. It was probably a bit creepy coming to think about it, how I contacted him. It was late at night after sitting at the computer having a YouTube fest in the house. But he got back to me really quickly, thank God.”
With all the different genres he is working with, where does he start with his song writing? “I was 17 when I started writing my own music, and I started going to live gigs soon after. It wasn’t just the music; I was learning my craft by watching other people on stage.”
“I think song writing is a really personal thing. The lyrics are the most important part. I write some without instruments, and some with. It’s never really structured. I sometimes get an idea, so I play it on the guitar. And I’ve started on the piano which really opens my writing up as well.”
He’s taught himself to rewrite songs. This doesn’t come naturally to Ciaran who tends to see the first version of a song as its purest form. “I feel like the first thing I write is the right thing. But I’m getting older, I’m in the twilight of my youth now” (grin) “and I’m just not as protective of them as I used to be. In a way, once I’ve recorded a song I’ve handed it over to other people. It’s up to them what they make of it, what it means to them.”
“I don’t know everything about recording. I don’t know everything about the drums or all the technology. So I do a lot of homework. I take notes; they’re broken down to the second, with all the different instruments involved. That keeps me on top of things, but it’s important to make sure we have the freedom to do just what occurs on the day.”
He is also “collecting and recording” for a solo release later in the year; probably in the summer. “The recording is spaced out over the months, a few days at a time. This means I’m able to bring in different people as it grows.”
What sort of collection is it going to be? “There are lots of beats in it – live drums, and I’m throwing things over the top it – samples and percussion. That’s all I can say. At the minute it’s like looking at a house with scaffolding round it.”
Does he have anything else on the cards besides these two releases? In February (18th-22nd) he will be over in Kansas for the 2015 Folk Alliance International. He’ll be sharing billing on the Sweet Beaver/Anti Records showcase, with names including Morgan O’Kane, William Elliott Whitmore and Devon Sproule.
He won’t be long back from that before he plays Coughlan’s in Cork for Guinness Amplify on 26th February. Then he has a couple of Communion gigs in London. 1st March is in Notting Hill, and 26th is in The Slaughtered Lamb. Then at the end of March he has 4 gigs with Emily Barker.
Ciaran is on the upward ascendancy. Within the last couple of weeks, his song “Shame” has been streamed over 4 million times on Spotify, and “Left For America” broke the 3 million mark. So is he starting to feel like he’s made it? He laughs – “I live in a wee tiny village called Aghagallon. At home people ask me questions like have I heard of Nathan Carter!”