Cathy Davey: Making a name
Early last year, the bottom fell out of Cathy Davey's world. Out of the blue, her label phoned up to say she'd been dropped. A beloved elderly relative passed away. She had split from her long-term boyfriend. Even for a natural optimist such as Davey, it was a gruelling time.
"Someone in their old age had died. I had broken up with someone," she remembers with a sigh. "It was all the normal life stuff -- a death in the family, the end of a long-term relationship. Having lost someone that you loved and going through all the changes ... you feel like you're not yourself."
Realising personal upheaval is ultimately just one more thing to be inspired by, she quickly pulled herself together. Relocating temporarily to a small town in the south of France, Davey set to work on the semi-autobiographical songs that would become the backbone of her latest LP, The Nameless.
A concept record of sorts about love, loss, death and redemption, the album was an opportunity for her to uncork her emotions and and put them to fruitful use (The Nameless concerns a woman whose lover dies, in the process robbing her of her own identity -- a none-too-subtle metaphor for what Davey herself had gone through).
"The interesting thing is I got to deal with the guilt and everything that comes with someone dying -- I got to pretend it was someone else and make up a story about them," she says. "It was her story, not mine. So I could step aside and look at this objectively. It's not pleasurable. But it's a good way to do it, I suppose."
Splitting from the most serious boyfriend she'd ever hard was obviously a terrible wrench. Because of the largely nocturnal nature of the job -- to say nothing of the year-round touring -- musicians often find it difficult to maintain long-term relationships. Davey, though, doesn't want to take the easy way out and blame it all on her pop career.
"I don't know if it was any different from anyone else's experiences," she says. "In a relationship, you have to be as good as you can to the other person. In my experience, the difficulty has always been when you forget how important it is to be sweet, and things come too easy. Whether you're near or faraway, that's an issue. I don't think it makes any difference [what you do for a living] as long as you communicate. All that anybody wants from someone is for them to be honest."
Running a hand through her tumble of blonde hair, she sighs. "I don't know... relationships are hard, whether you work in a bank or you have children at home. In their own way each one is interesting and quirky and odd."
Speaking a few weeks ago, Davey was stinging about former label, EMI. She had gone top 10 in Ireland with second album Tales of Silversleeve and notched up a string of radio hits -- achievements which, according to Davey, went more or less unnoticed at corporate headquarters in London. If she wasn't successful in the UK, they really weren't interested. Today, she is more sanguine.
"I'm definitely not bitter," she says. "I've had a great time since they dropped me. I feel free. If you are signed to someone who has invested a lot of money, they are in it for the big win. There's that constant feeling that you're always going to let them down. They did some great things. On the last album, they put on a set of residencies for me around the country. At first, nobody was coming, then the next week there'd be a few more, until eventually the venues were full. No way would I have been able to afford that at this point. So there are great things that come from labels. At the end of the day, however, they've got to make a lot of money."
She can afford to be philosophical. Despite its morbid subject matter, The Nameless went straight to the top of the charts, the first album by an Irish female solo artist to do so. Not long afterwards, a celebratory show at The Olympia -- Davey's largest ever headline date -- was a sell-out. No longer required to shift 100,000 records or feel a failure, she's having the time of her life.
"I wasn't expecting to go to number one at all," she says. "I got a message from my manager saying: 'I've got some news.' I presumed I'd picked up the Late Late Show. It's always something like X Factor that takes number one. It never enters your head that it might be you."
The Nameless features cameos from friends Conor O'Brien of Villagers and Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy. She's particularly close to O'Brien, who played in her band until his Villagers were anointed darlings of the Irish indie-sphere. She sounds a bit appalled when asked if she feels protective of O'Brien, her junior by several years.
"How old do you think I am?" she laughs, mock offended. "No, there wasn't any mothering. If anything, the opposite was the case. He is highly intelligent and very grounded. He's been a huge comfort to me."
The daughter of composer Shaun Davey, Cathy was signed by EMI as a wide-eyed 23-year-old (she's 31 now). She would eventually disown her grungy debut, Something Ilk, which she was obliged to promote with endless stints on the UK toilet circuit. It didn't help that she was struck down with chronic stage fright. What she really wanted to do was make music in the studio, away from the prying gaze of the public. Years would pass before she was able to look on live performance as something to be enjoyed rather than a necessary evil.
Given the uncertain nature of the profession, did her father have any opinions on her decision to follow him into music?
"When I was younger he must have thought, 'it's so painful listening to a 14-year-old's music'.
"That's a pretty horrible experience, if you're a musical person yourself. Because you know your child is going to go out there and be told exactly what everyone else thinks about them -- and it's hurtful. I wasn't the only one playing music at home, my older sister is very musical too. It didn't mean I was going to end up doing it for a living. I was going to art school, that's where I was destined for. Things just took a bit of a turn when I got there."
She will have another opportunity to celebrate the success of The Nameless with a prominent spot on the Oxegen bill. In view of her long-running struggle with pre-show nerves, does the thought of stepping in front of 40,000 screaming punters fill her with excitement or dread?
"I always disliked festivals because they're quite scary," she says. "But I did Oxegen and it was great. Once you start seeing your own crowd and they've got that excited energy about them, it becomes a very different thing. When a festival is good, it's pretty magical. And when it's bad, it's horrid."
Cathy Davey plays Oxegen's Heineken Green Spheres stage on Saturday, July 10