'Music can be part of dealing with grief'
Songwriter Ross Breen talks to Barry Egan about channelling emotions through music, and the piercing quality of Roy Orbison's voice
In 1966 Claudette Orbison was killed in a motorcycle accident. Her husband Roy was riding on a bike in front of her when the tragedy happened. In 1968, a fire destroyed Roy's house in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Two of Roy's three children died. They say you could hear the sadness in Roy's voice from that point on - and that his songs were him singing his pain. Ross Breen - who choose Orbison's I Drove All Night to cover for The Windmill Lane Sessions on Independent.ie - says, "I loved nearly every Roy Orbison song I ever heard. I think he is probably the best singer in pop history."
With the saddest voice, and the saddest life, I say.
"That too," Ross says. "I guess you can hear. His voice seemed to stay the same from when he was very young right up until he died. It still had the same piercing quality. I'd say it was something to behold when you'd see him recording in the studio or sing live. Those songs, as a singer, are fantastic. They are a challenge to sing because he has amazing range and power. Listening to him is sort of a lesson in dynamics. There is always that big note towards the end."
Ross - who released his debut album When I Met The Devil in 2011 and has his second album New Born Vibrancy out soon - has the look of a troubadour. He gets compared to Neil Hannon and Paolo Nutini because of the way he sings.
His new single, One Last Kiss, is, he says, "clearly about the parting of waves, and dealing with grief, or something like that." In the video for the song, the woman character dies. "Well, I've lost people in my life as well," Ross says. "So I think every song I write is imbued with some sort of personal experience. I find writing is great for the healing process. So One Last Kiss is one of those songs."
Tell me about the healing process. What have you lost?
"I won't go into who, but a friend and a cousin recently as well," he says, haltingly. "I think music can be part of dealing with it - channelling all those feelings positively. Catharsis is what it is, I suppose. Even just playing music is good for that, but also using your lyrics to get your head around those kind of emotions."
I ask him is One Last Kiss a song about a break-up Ross went through.
"It could be. I like a song to be ambiguous. I want a listener to draw from it what they want to draw from it," he says. "I also see the song as a gospel kind of treatment. I enjoy old-school gospel music, like The Golden Gate Quartet or The Blind Boys Of Alabama, their early recordings. Anything like that, that I feel has a lot of soul, you know?"
"There wouldn't be too many gospel choirs in Leixlip where I am from," Ross adds with a smile. "But there were musicians in my family, mostly traditional music. So I love a lot of folk songs. Luke Kelly would be someone I admire a lot, and his songs too. I don't know what's in my music. I guess all those streams converge somehow and come out somehow in the songs that I write. I hope that they do."
Possibly giving a glimpse into the man behind the music is the fact that one of Ross's favourite books is One Hundred Years Of Solitude. "I'd be into Gabriel García Márquez and his magic realism," he says, adding that he also likes the Beat Generation writers. "I'd have a lot of Jack Kerouac's stuff steeped in the back of my mind somewhere."
Do you ever feel you were born in the wrong era? "Sometimes it feels like that. But I like modern music as well."
For the full interview, and two exclusive performances, see the Windmill Lane Sessions at independent.ie You can also watch the Sessions on TG4.
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