Thursday 18 October 2018

Galway musician Brigid Mae Power on #MeToo and drawing from her own experience of abuse on her new album

Brigid Mae Power's second album has attracted glowing reviews abroad but she's still flying under the radar here. The Galway musician, who last year opened up about an abusive past relationship, talks to our music critic about #MeToo and last week's Belfast rape trial

On the outside: Brigid Mae Power moved to Ireland from London, aged 12. Photo: Steve Humphreys
On the outside: Brigid Mae Power moved to Ireland from London, aged 12. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is Thursday night, a day after the so-called 'Rugby Rape Trial' has concluded, and Brigid Mae Power is thinking of the young woman in Belfast who took the case. "This is for the victim," she says, seated at the piano at Dublin's BelloBar, before launching into a song about resilience in the face of oppression.

Like many, the events in the Laganside courtroom captivated Power and the verdict - which saw Irish rugby international Paddy Jackson and his three co-accused acquitted of all charges - does not rest easily with her. As a victim of abuse at the hands of a violent man herself, the London-born Galwegian is incensed that the complainant had to go through a cruel and intrusive trial. She is firmly in the ­#ibelieveher camp.

"When you think about the way they spoke about women in those WhatsApp messages, it's just so disgusting," she says, over coffee at her hotel the following morning. "And there are so many people out there - women and men - who want to show solidarity for anyone who suffers at the hands of others. That unity between the genders is really encouraging, although there has been some really misogynistic stuff on social media, too.

"If this had have happened last year, it mightn't have drummed up the sort of anger that we're seeing now. People are really fed up and pissed off because this is too common an experience now. Look at the abuses of the church - they haven't been held as accountable for their abuses as they might have been."

Buoyed by the #MeToo movement, Power posted an article on Tumblr last November about the physical and emotional abuse she had experienced in a relationship and it made for sobering reading. "All of a sudden he was choking me in the living room," she recounts in the piece. "I was trying to breathe and trying to run away and get to the front door... He was pulling me, choking me and hitting me." The relationship only ended after she managed to secure a restraining order after being threatened with rape.

And her second album, The Two Worlds, which was released to considerable acclaim in February, doesn't shy away from addressing uncomfortable topics that many women from all over the world have been speaking out about over the past year.

"I don't sit down and say I'm going to write about these things," she says. "The songwriting comes more organically than that and they aren't necessarily about a specific experience. Songs can be derived from several different experiences but they can take on a different life in the minds of the listener. I suppose we all do that with songs that connect with us - we imagine they're about something specific that we can relate to."

Power is a remarkable talent - although she's hardly yet a household name in her own country. But she has made inroads abroad and The Two Worlds picked up glowing reviews in both The Guardian and the American taste-making online magazine, Pitchfork. "Some people here wait until there's validation from abroad before they give you their time," she says. "Is that part of a national insecurity complex?"

Some of the overseas interest has derived from the fact that Power is on the hip San Francisco label Tompkins Square, although as it was a two-album deal, she is on the lookout for a new record deal for any future releases. "They've been a really good fit for me, but it's a label that sort of specialises in up-and-coming artists so I've got to think about what's best for me when I next release something."

For those who are already familiar with her passionate songs, Power is the real deal - an artist who follows her own path and has little interest in the vagaries of musical fads. Her show in the intimate subterranean surrounds of the BelloBar is spellbinding. It's just her and an assortment of instruments, and her vocals are so compelling they silence all chatter. Anyone present is likely to remember her a cappella version of the traditional standard 'She Moved Through the Fair' for a very long time.

It is the final show following the best part of a week playing dates in the UK, including a sold-out night in London. The previous dates saw her husband, the Portland musician Peter Broderick, on drums, but in Dublin, Power is alone. "He had his own show that night," she says, adding that the especially stripped-back performance hadn't been intentional.

Power's vocals are arresting - both on record and on stage. "It's definitely my primary instrument and it's the thing that comes to me naturally. I feel really good when I'm singing."

One might imagine that she was informed by the sean-nós tradition, but she says it's only recently that she has listened to this purest of singing forms.

"And, yet, when I think of the way I sing, it's more in that line than in the standard form. There is something about the entrancing nature of sean nós that is so appealing and that I probably picked up when I was younger without really being aware of the influence. And, it's funny - sometimes people hear what they think is an Eastern influence in my singing, Moroccan even, but then I think that that's maybe the human sound as you go back to a time before music was commercialised."

She spent the first 12 years of her life in London, but with both sides of her family from Ireland - from Mayo and Waterford - she was steeped in the cultural legacy of this country. However, Power readily admits to feeling like an outsider when the family decamped to Ireland and she had to negotiate those tricky teenage years. Even now, as the parent of a seven-year old son [from a relationship before her marriage to Broderick], she finds Ireland can be a tough, judgmental place. And, much as she loves Galway, she believes there's still something of an inward approach to life taken by many in rural Ireland. "I've often felt judged, marginalised even - and I think that feeling has found its way into my songs."

But she says feeling like an outsider is no bad thing when it comes to art, and it allows her to write lyrics that probe uncomfortable subjects and seek uneasy truths. "You wouldn't describe my music as easy listening," she deadpans.

Parenthood presents challenges when it comes to her music, too. "When I'm taking time off to go on the road, it has to be for short bursts because I'm not in a position to leave my son for longer periods - not that I want to."

She takes comfort in the fact that her husband is also a musician and understands the demands of trying to combine creativity with the mundanity of everyday domestic life. And while they may play together occasionally, there's little collaboration between them at the songwriting stage. "It doesn't come easy to me," Power says. "I'm quite introverted when it comes to creativity, whereas Peter is much more open to collaboration. But doing my own thing has served me fine so I don't see any reason to change."

The Two Worlds is out now. Brigid Mae Power plays the Roundy, Cork on April 20

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