Eoin French, better known by stage name Talos, describes himself as “incredibly private”, but that hasn’t stopped the events in his life from bleeding into his new album. Here, the Cork man talks about moving from architecture into music, the joy of collaborating, and finding inspiration in Iceland
It is a midweek night in Temple Bar and Emmet Kirwan is holding us rapt. He is moving about on stage at the Project Arts Centre and reciting urgent lines about Ireland’s depressingly grim housing shortage and how it affects him, his partner and their new baby. The Dubliner’s self-written and fiercely personal new play, Accents, is a hit with this Dublin Fringe Festival crowd and, for an hour, his visceral verse hits close to the bone.
Although Kirwan is the only actor present, he is aided by a trio of musicians led by Cork man Eoin French, who makes music under the moniker Talos. The addition of live music is both a masterstroke and a necessity — it would take extraordinary powers of persuasion for one man alone to captivate with only words for 60 minutes straight. What results is an artwork somewhere between theatre, spoken-word performance and conventional gig.
French’s compositions, both ethereal and lively, are there to serve Kirwan, and the music ebbs and swells in time with his words.
Although it never overpowers the actor, the soundtrack — for that is what it is — works beautifully. The pieces — chiefly built around piano and synthesiser, and played by French, alongside Ben Bix and Brian Dillon of alt-rock band Meltybrains? — add colour to a play that, despite flecks of humour, is dark and grim.
Eoin French may not be a household name — for culture buffs — in the way that Kirwan is, but the 35-year-old is a gifted musician whose talents have been clear for the best part of a decade. And with the release of his new album, Dear Chaos, there is a chance he will reach the sort of audience his music has long deserved.
When I meet French, in a lively cafe in Dublin’s south inner city, he is a picture of contentment. It’s a couple of weeks before he releases his new album and, happy as he is about that prospect, his energies are subsumed by Accents and the business of being on stage with a livewire like Kirwan each night.
The play, he points out, is very much a two-man creation. The pair worked on it in tandem for months at a time and for the best part of three years. Kirwan would send him passages he had written and French would compose music he thought would fit the mood.
The project was a constantly evolving beast, with the theme shifting in order to, for instance, incorporate the birth of the actor’s son in March. “It was consistently being rewritten,” French says. “Right up to two weeks before we opened at the Project.”
He says he was in awe of Kirwan’s ability to continue to work on the play despite being a new dad. French does not have children, but feels now that parenthood doesn’t have to crush artistic endeavour.
The music had to be tinkered with, too, and although French had the bulk of his score written, both Bix and Dillon helped refine the edges when the three got together to rehearse and flesh out the compositions. The material may yet be released as a standalone album — and one could imagine it translating well — but for now, it exists solely as live music to enliven a stream of impassioned words.
French and Kirwan are close. They first met on the day that both were recording a podcast in Dublin with drag-artist Panti Bliss. “We got chatting afterwards and I said to Emmet, ‘If you ever need music for anything, give me a shout.’ He was in the middle of filming [the screen adaptation of his play] Dublin Oldschool at the time.
“A year-and-a-half passed and we didn’t touch base much, with the exception of the odd text here and there, and then he got on to me, out of the blue, and said he’d been listening to the last record — Far Out Dust — and he said he was writing stuff and that we should meet to see if we could do something together. That was August, September 2019.
“He came down to do a performance at [Cork festival] Sounds From A Safe Harbour and we got the ball rolling. The first idea we had was around accents and how they’re perceived.” French, incidentally, has an unmistakably Cork lilt and he says it sometimes surprises those who expect something different when they hear him sing.
Kirwan has been an inspiration to French. “I was a fan before I met him,” he enthuses. “What’s great about him — and maybe it doesn’t come across in the work — but he’s a massively humble guy.” The same can be said of French.
Although Kirwan pours all of himself into his play — every conceivable vulnerability — French is much more circumspect about his own life.
“I couldn’t do what Emmet does,” he says, but not in a judgmental way. “I’m an incredibly private human being.” However, he says difficulties in his personal life have fed their way into the new album. It’s not called Dear Chaos for nothing. “It’s an extremely personal record. All kinds of things filter through, like relationship issues, grief, loss, happiness. For lack of a better word, it feels like I’m writing a diary, or putting together pieces of a map of things that happened to me over the past two years.”
He doesn’t want to get into specifics, but he mentions rifts with people close to him. “Making a record is a very solitary experience anyway, but when everything starts to fall away” — he pauses to try to find the right words — “it just raises questions like, ‘Is this the right thing to be doing, this ‘emotional cutting’? Am I trying to dive into the void and wait for the harder parts of life to happen so I can write something?” Right now, he doesn’t have the answer to that.
The title, he says, might sound contradictory but it captures his state of mind when making it. “It was that idea of settling into a tumultuous time and accepting it. And tumultuousness is fleeting — as is happiness.”
He says the process of making albums is cathartic. “Shit happens. I’m very lucky to have music to be able to output my experiences and let that be the way I process it. Logging stuff that happens, in song, turns a negative into a positive.”
Any album called Dear Chaos, and released in the wake of a pandemic, would have most people assuming that the privations of Covid-19 have informed the songs. French insists there’s nothing further from the truth. “It didn’t inspire me in any way,” he says, pointing out that, not unreasonably, the last thing anyone wants to hear after lockdowns and general anxiety is music that dredges up memory of it all over again.
“The pandemic was a shared experience for everybody and for me to explain the experience would have been stupid. It would have been like banging your head against the wall.”
French has been making music as Talos for a decade — the name comes from a giant, bronzed protective figure in Greek mythology. He made an impact from the start and his debut album, the gorgeous, intimate Wild Alee was nominated for the Choice Music Prize — the Irish equivalent of the Mercury Prize. He didn’t win, but the nomination was quite a boon, especially when it came to overseas exposure.
French hadn’t planned to be a full-time musician. He studied architecture at University College Cork and lectured in the subject for a number of years. By his own admission, he soon came to realise that architecture wasn’t his true calling, but it gave music critics plenty of analogies to play with when he first emerged.
There’s no prospect of him returning to that profession now. “Oh, that’s gone,” he says firmly and with a smile. “It’s not something you can step away from for years and then just pick up again.”
He is determined to make a living from music, but it’s not easy when album sales for everyone are a fraction of what they once were, and when much of the revenue comes from live performance. There are only so many times you can play the Irish circuit and French has always been careful not to overstay the welcome. The opportunity to tour, of course, was denied to him during the pandemic, so he hunkered down in his West Cork home and did what he does best; he wrote songs.
For a man who makes widescreen, emotive and cinematic music, moves to soundtrack work for film and TV is the next logical step, and it’s something he is keen to do.
He already scored a short film, Bainne, made by his friend, the actor Jack Reynor. Another actor friend, Sam Keeley, stars in the video for Dance Against The Calm, the lead single from the new album. At one point, French toyed with the idea of acting, before deciding his talents chiefly lay in music.
“And, last year,” he adds, “one of my really close friends, Niall O’Brien, who does all the videos for me, made a short film [Angel Falls] and I did the music for it.”
He’s got his toe in the door, but opening that door wide is not easy. After all, there are any number of talented musicians whose work best lends itself to the soundtrack game. But French has some good people working in his corner and, already, his music has made its way on to a number of well-known TV shows, including the Fox crime drama series Prodigal Son and the popular US thriller series, How To Get Away With Murder, which stars Viola Davis.
His manager, Barry O’Donoghue, explains how the process works. “If an artist has a record deal, or a publishing deal, there’d be a sync department in each place who ‘shop’ the songs to TV and film types. Eoin has both, so there’s a few people in the label, and his publishers, who push his music.
“There are also freelance music supervisors who don’t have a direct deal with artists but have a good handle on what artists are doing, and they would deal with ad agencies or production companies. There’s a couple of good music supervisors in Ireland, which is how, say, Normal People ended up with so many Irish artists.”
Like most artists, French prefers to focus on the creative side rather than the nitty-gritty of business. Much of the inspiration comes from frequent visits to Iceland. He knows several Irish creatives who live there, including the aforementioned Sam Keeley, and he is close to Reykjavik resident Colm O’Herlihy, who runs a label and music publishing company there. (O’Herlihy had managed French’s first band, Hush War Cry.)
“I’d go over there for a month at a time; for as many as eight weeks of the year, I’d be there. Through Colm, I’ve got to know the film composer Atli Örvarsson [whose credits include Pirates Of The Caribbean] and he’s been amazing to me. And he helped me write the song, Venice, on the new album.”
Iceland has proven to be a constant source of inspiration. “It’s a mad place and I love it but it’s also a heavy place. I mean, it can be harsh. It’s not easy to live there. The summers are very strange — that perpetual sunlight is relentless. I could very easily point at the songs [on the new album] that were made in Iceland. I think if you look at them in isolation, they feel different.”
The pandemic has made him think anew about his music and, especially, the art of playing live. “I think I took it for granted a little, before. It would be like, ‘Ah, another gig to do’. Now that I’m playing again, it just feels really special.”
Accents’ run marks his first shows since the pandemic. His own material will get an airing this month in a series of gigs, including a concert in London, in support of the album.
“When something is taken away from you, you realise how special it was in the first place. Making music can be a very solitary thing to do, but when you’re out there, playing it, in a room of people who’ve come specifically to hear it, well, it’s one of the best feelings there is.”
‘Dear Chaos’ is out now. For information on Talos’ upcoming gigs in Cork and Dublin, see thisistalos.com
Photography: Lee Malone. Grooming: Orlaith Shore