It was a night of O’Neills; Co. Down singer-song writer Brigid O’Neill and her support act Ciara O’Neill playing in Ranfurly House on The Hill of the O’Neill. This was the first night of Brigid’s tour following the launch night for her new album Touchstone in The Black Box in September where she shared the stage with Anthony Toner and support came from Bruce Joseph. In her dressing room before the show I found out a bit more about her latest release which was produced by the acclaimed Gareth Dunlop.
Gigging NI: Your new album Touchstone has just been released. For anyone not familiar with your music, what should they expect?
Brigid O’Neill: Well I suppose I fall into the genre of folk with a little country, quite Americana. And I always weave in some jazz style or in this case blues which just seems to come through in my music because I have always enjoyed singing in that style.
GNI: How proud are you of the new record?
BO’N: I am very proud. This is my debut full album of original songs and I am just delighted to have come this far. To have a full album of all my own material is very exciting, it has taken a lot of work to get to this point so to have created that catalogue of material is very satisfying.
GNI: You came relatively late into a music career. What made you take the leap, how scary was it and how much has your life changed since then?
BO’N: It has changed a lot. I mean I absolutely loved my old job that I had worked in all my life. I was an environmental scientist; nature conservation was my work for many years. I was very passionate about it, I did a lot of work on protected landscapes like the Mournes and the Sperrins and the Causeway coast. I absolutely adored that work and was very committed to it but at the same time I was always trying to keep the music going and I just wasn’t giving it the time that it needed. I wasn’t giving myself free rein to fulfil a potential I suppose. It took me years to make the decision. People kept asking why I didn’t do it full time and I had to say, you know it’s very hard to make a career out of music that’s for sure. I was also a bit afraid of leaving behind a job that I absolutely loved.
But I began to feel like this was my only chance to really go for it; time was passing by and I had to decide what I really wanted to do. I also found that people were always asking, “when is your next gig?”, but I was spending all my hours between work and the family and only a tiny amount of time devoted to the music. Yet that was what people were asking me about and I realised that my real identity lay in singing. You have to ask yourself what it is that you want to do every day, time is so precious. You can’t just wait for the right time because that might not ever come. Right now I am doing what I love but it is equally quite scary.
GNI: Where do you take inspiration from for your song writing, and more importantly, who is ‘Iron in Your Fire’ about?
BO’N: Ha ha! Well for inspiration I observe what is happening in other people’s lives. I think a songwriter is like a mirror, you reflect what is happening around you, and you draw on your own experience to interpret that. Sometimes it can be things that happened many years ago, you can draw on the way you felt at a certain time. For ‘Iron in Your Fire’ I have a notion that Gareth (Dunlop) and Dean (Stevens) had heard me singing ‘Don’t Make Me Go to Town’ and they liked that sassy approach and that “don’t make me toe the line” kind of attitude and we shaped it around that idea of a woman who knows her own mind.
GNI: You have collaborated with a lot of other Northern Irish artists, both in the writing and recording of your album, and in your live performances. How important is that network and the fact that you all support one another?
BO’N: I can’t express how important it is to me, especially the women’s network that we’ve got going and the song writing network. When I first started writing I joined a Crescent Arts Centre class and I met Dave Brown and Jim Johnston with whom I wrote ‘Arrivals and Departures’ and just having that support around you of other songwriters is phenomenally important. And then there are people like Matt McGinn who is more established as a song writer; and the Belfast National Song Writers Festival is also hugely important.
All of those people have been so supportive of me, really pushing me on. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those people telling me, “these are really good songs, you’ve got to do something with them”. Having your peers say that makes you believe it. And Gareth has been amazingly supportive, I have so much respect for him; the way he works, the way he writes, the way he sings, the way he produces. And of course, Michael Mormecha who produced the single ‘Don’t Make Me Go to Town‘, he is a fabulous producer and I just loved working with him. We are just spoilt for choice here.
GNI: And what do your family think about it all?
BO’N: My children are my best critics. My son is a very good musician, he is very knowledgeable about music. And Barra from the very start said, “I think this is what you need to be doing with your life”. If you have that support it counts for so much. And he also is a great advisor. It can be a lonely job, you have to make a lot of decisions for yourself and I have found that having a supportive partner and a wise one has been very important to me.
On stage with Brigid tonight was her very accomplished band including Matt McGinn on guitar, John McCullough on keyboard and Gareth Hughes on bass. After a couple of tracks from the new album, including the uplifting ‘Turn and Face the Sun’, Brigid dedicated a song from an earlier record to her mum and aunts who were in the audience.
Several of tonight’s songs were co-written with Matt McGinn. ‘Refugees’ is a poignant and sensitive look at an emotive and topical issue. ‘Misunderstanding’ we are told was written after a period where she felt the planets were misaligned, the world was conspiring against her and she made matters even worse by sending the wrong text message to the wrong person. It was especially nice to hear Matt’s supporting vocals on these songs that he helped to pen.
After a very sassy rendition of ‘Don’t Make Me Go to Town‘, Brigid invited Ciara O’Neill back onto the stage to harmonise on the opening track of the new album, ‘Little Birds‘. Acapella on the album but for the distant strains of uilleann pipes played by her son, this version was beautifully simple and with the subject matter of children growing up and making their own way in the world, a moving one too.
A cover of John Prine’s ‘Angel from Montgomery’ was a real treat; a brave move considering the song was made famous by the stunning duet of Prine and the inimitable Bonnie Raitt. Brigid and Matt’s version didn’t disappoint. A fantastically lively version of another new song ‘Rumours’, had the audience’s feet tapping. In introducing the title track from Touchstone, Brigid told us about her time spent writing in Nashville. Though not always a positive experience she found, it did yield some great material, and this song romantically illustrates how even when her feet were in Nashville, her heart was always in Ireland.
‘Iron in Your Fire’ is a cracking song! Co-written with Gareth Dunlop it certainly has attitude. Bluesy and sexy, it’s the battle cry of a feisty woman who’s not prepared to be just another conquest. The lyrics promise, “I got the fuel to make the flame burn brighter, hotter than hell, make you melt”, while demanding, “If you want me I gotta be your only desire”. It may be an imagined scenario, but it reveals that this songstress definitely has a sassy side.
The encore was ‘Arrivals and Departures’ followed by a raucous rendition of the Patty Loveless country classic ‘Wicked Ways‘. Virtuosic piano and guitar solos from John and Matt were a fantastic way to end the night.
Brigid O’Neill has proven herself to be a proficient song writer and a skilful performer and tonight’s show was a hit, so it looks like making that move from science to music was a wise decision. The tour continues throughout October and November and there are sure to be other exciting guest performers along the way.