I learned how to be a rock star at college
John Meagher talks to a graduate of a rock course that's now coming to Dublin
Ellen Cosgrove is the youngest of nine high achievers. Two sisters are doctors. Barristers and entrepreneurs are numbered among her other siblings. Her father, Art, was President of UCD for 10 years.
But when it came to her own career, the 25-year-old -- who grew up in Dublin's Donnybrook and Foxrock -- was keen to follow a path that's normally strewn with obstacles. Yet, for those who 'make it', the rewards are great.
"Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a musician," she says. "Now, I'm following that dream." With a vocal style somewhere between Amy Winehouse and Florence Welch, don't bet against Ellen and the Echo -- as she and her band are named -- from making inroads into your affections over the coming year.
Ellen Cosgrove is a graduate of the Brighton & Bristol Institute of Modern Music, more commonly known as BIMM, and, as reported in yesterday's Irish Independent, it's coming to Dublin.
In partnership with the Dublin Institute of Technology, BIMM will offer four-year rock degree courses. A south city-centre location has been earmarked and BIMM are promising to spend €1m to kit the building out to modern music requirements.
Already, more than 100 people have applied for the course, which begins in September. Most are aged between 17 and 23 and 60% are male. Potential students are required to have an high level of musicianship.
For Cosgrove, her one-year vocal studies course in BIMM, Brighton, helped give her the focus she needed to making music a viable career option. "I had done a degree in the NCAD (National College of Art and Design) in Dun Laoghaire and had then spent two years working in Montreal. There's a culture of open-mic nights there and I started to perform in front of an audience again.
"But it can be very difficult to know how to get into the live music scene or how to go about recording music, so when a friend told me about BIMM in Brighton, I thought it could be a real opportunity for me to improve as a singer and also to understand the finer points of what can be a tough industry."
With financial help from her parents and a part-time waitressing job, Cosgrove made ends meet during the course. "It's great fun, but it's very full-on at the same time. I would imagine it's very similar in intensity to a classical music course."
Kevin Nixon is one of the founders of BIMM and is well used to those who say that rock music does not lend itself to a degree course. "It's snobbery, plain and simple," he says. "Rock effectively began with Elvis so it's not yet 60 years old, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be studied like any other genre of the arts. Contemporary music encompasses so many different styles and it has as much validity as classical music, theatre, you name it.
"We've put 6,000 students -- or musicians, as we prefer to call them -- through BIMM and while many have gone on to forge high-profile careers, others are making a very good living as session musicians, or producers, or in music management. What we're trying to do is equip people with the skills to give them an advantage, whether they want to be a professional drummer or a studio engineer."
Nixon -- whose CV includes musician, producer and manager -- says the music industry was especially unwelcoming when BIMM was established in 2001. "The general consensus seemed to be, 'What's the point? You can't teach rock music.' With such a blinkered view, is it any wonder the industry is in as much trouble as it is today?"
To illustrate his point, he talks about the day he accompanied one of his students, the blues singer Dani Wilde, to a meeting with a senior record-company executive. "The conversation moved on to some of the great blues names that Dani had been influenced by. I mentioned Lead Belly and the guy just looked at me blankly before eventually saying 'Who?' If BIMM had existed at the time that this very senior guy was starting out, there's no way he would have been so ignorant."
BIMM headhunted several well known musicians for its Dublin college including Steve Wall of The Stunning, Choice Music Prize-nominee Cathy Davey and former Turn frontman Ollie Cole.
Another staff member, Graham Hopkins, is one of the country's most in-demand drummers, having worked with Snow Patrol, The Frames and David Kitt. "Good drummers are always needed," he says, "because often the first thing a producer quibbles about is the quality of the drumming. What I would do with students is to introduce them to different styles -- take them out of their comfort zones a bit -- and hone their click-track skills (the love/hate aural guides used by professional percussionists)."
Ollie Cole will lecture in song-writing and says he, like other staff members, will be happy to talk anecdotally to students about his own experience in the industry. "We (Turn) didn't know what we signed up to when we were handed our first recording contract. We were so excited, we didn't bother with the small print. One of the strengths of a degree course like this is that graduates won't have that naivety. They will get a real sense about how the industry works."
Alan Cullivan is also part of the lecture staff. Formerly manager of The Thrills, he currently looks after the critically acclaimed Belfast band, And So I Watch You From Afar. "The music industry can be an intimidating place for musicians starting out. A lot of the legal jargon can be difficult to understand. "We aim to provide an understanding of the business in a way that an accountancy degree, for instance, would give students a real sense of its world."
For Ellen Cosgrove, the year spent at rock school is already paying dividends. "All the members of my band were in class with me so already it's felt like we've played together for a long time. BIMM taught me a lot about songwriting and I really learnt how to get the most out of my voice.
"I was lucky in that I had great support from my family. I can understand why some parents might have reservations about their children wanting to pursue a career in music, but this college really is a good way of going about it. It truly is like any other university course and at the end of the day, they have a degree and a real knowledge of the industry they are hoping to make a living from."
Already, things are beginning to happen for Cosgrove and her band. She's still based in Brighton, where she has retained her restaurant job, and she gigs regularly in England's south-east.
"I have 12 or 13 songs written and I'm really happy with them. We're honing our sound on the road and I'd be hoping to get the songs recorded soon. I am realistic about the future -- BIMM doesn't gave students inflated expectations, quite the opposite -- but I'm hopeful I can make a real go at this.
"I'm at that exciting stage now, where anything might be possible."