Singer-songwriter Annmarie Cullen speaks about trying to make it in the cut-throat LA music scene; about coming out in her 30s; and how she has channelled the heartbreak of her marriage breakdown into her new music
The great Stevie Nicks once said: “I love to walk around in the throes of a passionate miserability.” It helped her songwriting, she said, heartbreak being far better source material of hits for Fleetwood Mac than happiness.
It’s a sentiment that Annmarie Cullen has clung to over the last couple of years. The Dublin-born singer-songwriter endured the breakdown of her marriage in 2019, uprooted herself from her life in Spain and moved home to begin a new chapter.
The result is a collection of intensely personal songs, in which the pain and loss is transmuted into something quite beautiful. Her new single, Circus, was released this week. It follows What I Once Meant To You, a searing ballad that hit number one on the iTunes singles chart for Ireland earlier this year, and marked a powerful return to music for a woman who has composed soundtracks for major American TV series, and attracted the notice of major record labels in the US, while flying largely under the radar at home.
“It was like coming back to something comfortingly familiar,” she says. “I’d been living in Barcelona for a while and had stopped writing music and I felt I’d lost myself a little bit, so it was so nice to come back to it and to feel like myself again. It’s quite vulnerable now that it’s out there, but it really helped me to process everything.”
It was her ex who took the decision to end their marriage. “You look back at a break-up and you want to feel it was relevant. You wonder was it real or was it true, and it was true. You worry that people will listen to the songs and think unfavourably of the subject. It was an amicable break-up, one that was very sad, but also necessary. I think when you’re not fully committed to the relationship any more, as she wasn’t, one of the kindest things that you can do is break up with the person.”
Some people might be daunted at starting over again and settling back into their hometown at the age of 50. But Cullen is like no 50-year-old I have ever seen. She says her incredible youthfulness is the result of good genes and vegetarianism, Despite the weary sadness in some of her songs, she appears to have reached youth in middle age.
Even in her actual youth, her “tortured teens” as she calls them, music was her balm for emotional wounds. She grew up in Terenure, the baby of a family of three, where she marked herself out as “the creative one”. The focus was going to college and getting a sensible job, but Cullen felt the allure of music calling her.
After starting a degree in economics at UCD, she went to study music at Ballyfermot College of Further Education and began gigging in the International Bar in Dublin city centre, during a time when the likes of Glen Hansard, Damien Dempsey, Paddy Casey and Mundy — who remains a close friend of Annmarie — were regulars on the bill.
“At the time it was very poptastic and Boyzone-y in Ireland and that was all that was on the radio,” she recalls. “I was obsessed with American culture, I really wanted to go there and see if I could make it. I got my Green Card and, as fate would have it, I was playing in the Baggot Inn and this guy saw me. He ended up becoming my manager, and got me over there, to America, and got me to showcase gigs.”
“It was lonely, there was no Skype and my mother hated me being away. I started my own band which was quite popular, but my break came as I was waitressing, when a guy from Disney came in and he said they were looking for music for a show.
“I wrote a song for him overnight and demo-ed it and had the job within five days. I got hired for two seasons of a show called So Weird.”
For Cullen, the breakthrough was the catalyst to quit her day job as a waitress and write full time. She changed her name to Annmarie Montade because she thought that Cullen sounded “too Irish and not snappy enough”.
“What can I say, I was young and dumb,” she laughs.
Her gigs were proving increasingly popular on the LA music circuit and she got signed to Warner Chappell Music as a songwriter. The goal, however, remained to get a contract as a recording artist.
“I got really really close. I auditioned for Sony and for the guy who signed Cher. Christina Aguilera’s co-manager was managing me. It was a different landscape — getting a record deal was the holy grail. You had to get record executives to come to the show. Even though I was only 28, they thought I was old. I remember one time I had the best gig of my life, Maverick records came to see me and they told my manager I wasn’t edgy enough or sexy enough for the label. That was really hard. I thought my musical life was over. I thought I was finished.”
In the face of this rejection Cullen decided to begin making the music she actually wanted to make rather than the stuff that would have a commercial impact. Together with fellow musician, Cynthia Catania, she formed Saucy Monky, an indie pop group. Catania was also Cullen’s girlfriend at the time.
“I think when I was younger I was in denial about [my sexuality]”, she explains. “I don’t think I even knew any gay people except for my hairdresser. I think a better description [than gay] is bi because I’ve had boyfriends and I am attracted to men but my preference is women. When I went to LA I was around more gay people but I still didn’t come out until I was 32 or something. I didn’t know how it would be received. I knew when I fell for my first girlfriend [not Catania]. I was also her first girlfriend and her only girlfriend — she’s married to a man now.”
Why does she think it took her so long to come out? “I guess there was shame involved. I thought my parents wouldn’t be crazy about it even though, as it turned out, they ended up being great. It was really painful and hard to keep such a secret. I didn’t even tell my great friends because I felt it would be disloyal to my parents when they didn’t know, but when you aren’t open with people there is a barrier between you and them. After I spoke my truth, all of my relationships really improved — I was finally my authentic self.”
When she was auditioning for major labels she faced the presumption that she was straight. “When I was signed by Warner Chappell, he said, ‘You’ll be the new Melissa Etheridge except you’re straight’. And I really don’t think he meant it in a bad way, he was just presuming, but what I heard was ‘you’d better be straight’.”
With Cynthia by her side, professionally and personally, Annmarie began making up for lost time. They recruited Katy Perry’s drummer, Adam Marcello, to play with them. They took out a $30,000 loan and put out music on their own label. “There was no pressure and maybe because of that good things started to happen,” she recalls.
Newstalk’s Tom Dunne, the oracle of Irish music, picked up their singles, as did Hot Press and they were invited to appear at Oxegen and on The Late Late Show. “It felt very triumphant because it was the antithesis of being told I wasn’t sexy enough by the labels.”
Despite the success, her relationship with Catania hit the rocks and they broke up just as their second album was coming out. “The band continued but we never quite recovered even though we had broken up. Luckily our songs were picked up by a lot of TV shows, including one on Nickelodeon, and that helped us, because we controlled our own publishing.”
Annmarie was bemused by the rise of lesbianism as a marketing tool in the 2000s. Russian duo t.A.T.u. released All The Things She Said in 2002, and affected a faux homosexuality of breathtaking insincerity (one of its members, Yulia Volkova, later said she “wouldn’t accept a gay son”) and Katy Perry released I Kissed A Girl in 2008. (‘You did not,’ Cullen thought when she heard it).
“I thought it was quite funny when that began happening, In a way it was a good thing because it normalised girls kissing girls. It might have helped me if I had heard that when I was 16.”
She jokes that groupies would have been wasted on her because there was only a small window of time when she was out of the closet but not in a committed relationship. She met her wife through a mutual friend. “I knew right away. I flew to Barcelona to take her out to dinner, but just as friends because I was almost 20 years older than her and I felt creepy.” The age gap was never really a factor in the relationship as it went on, she adds. “She was actually more well versed in the culture and music from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s than I was; she is a very old soul. When we were together, I never noticed.”
When Annmarie was back in Dublin, and her sister was about to have a baby, her soon-to-be-fiancée flew in and she proposed. “It was authentic and so lovely. She was very different to anyone I had ever met, and that was a part of the allure.”
They had a long-distance relationship for a while, as Annmarie was living in LA and her partner was living in Barcelona. Eventually, Annmarie moved to Barcelona. She spoke no Spanish at that point and wondered if she would be able to find work, but eventually she got a good job with a tech company in the city.
“It was a grown-up, adult job, something I’d never had in my life. And it helped me prove something to myself, that I could be a business person and operate in that world. But, drip by drip, I lost myself and it made me realise that it is so important to do something you are passionate about, whatever that is. I think it impacted my marriage, in a way.”
She and her wife began an IVF journey together that didn’t work out. “She was trying to get pregnant with my eggs. For my 40th birthday, my cousin bought me a fertility kit, through which I could get my eggs frozen, and we tried it with my wife. It didn’t work, which was devastating, but, in hindsight, it has probably worked out for the best.”
Now back home, she has recently bought a townhouse in Monkstown and, undaunted by her life in Barcelona not working out, has devoted herself to learning Spanish — she’s quite fluent now. As well as new single Circus, she has more songs to come out this year, including, she hopes, one she wrote with Mundy and she’s working on an indie movie-musical.
She’s also looking forward to getting back on the road once lockdown is lifted. “I had to come back in tough circumstances and I hadn’t lived in Ireland as an adult. I was with my parents the last time I was living here. But I still have great friends here and of course my family. I think all my life I’ve been looking for beauty elsewhere but lockdown has shown me how much beauty there is on my doorstep. Getting national radio play for an indie artist — you don’t get that in America. As a musician the pond is smaller but it’s easier to have your music heard. And I’m thrilled to be back.”
Annmarie Cullen’s new single ‘Circus’ is available to stream or download on all digital platforms. For more information, see annmariecullen.com