Entertainment Music

Friday 26 April 2019

Lisa O’Neill: 'Like anyone being creative, there's always some self-doubt'


Rave reviews: Heard A Long Gone Song is O'Neill's fourth album. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Rave reviews: Heard A Long Gone Song is O'Neill's fourth album. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
John Meagher

John Meagher

Lisa O'Neill has got her first smartphone. It's the second day she has had it, but she's none too pleased about it. "This thing," she says, picking it up and looking at it with thinly veiled disgust, "I just hope it doesn't ruin everything."

The acclaimed Cavan singer-songwriter got the phone as a gift, but one gets the impression she would have been happy with the rudimentary 'dumbphone' she had before now.

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"I'll have to train myself not to be distracted by it. These phones can have an adverse effect on creativity."

O'Neill may sound much older than her 35 years, but many of us will admit - if we're honest enough - that we lose an inordinate amount of time messing around on our smart devices.

"One of the things I love about travel," she says, "is that if you're on your own on a bus or train, your mind can wander and you can start to think of a new song maybe. With one of those in your hands, will you make time for that headspace?"

O'Neill jokes that she may not have been made for these times. She has little time for streaming, for instance. She sighs at the very mention of the word.

"My boyfriend said I could listen to music on this phone, that my albums were on these streaming sites, but I've no interest in that. It feels so throwaway to listen to music that way."

And she abhors the very modern practice of people recording live shows on their phones.

"Why can't they just live in the moment and enjoy the gig?" she says, genuinely mystified. "Not only are they losing out, but they're killing the energy between audience and performer. Your performance will be so much better if you feel the crowd are into it. You can get so much energy from an audience, but you can also be sapped of energy, too."

She pauses for breath.

"I don't want to come across as really negative," she says. "I'm not. I'm really happy that people listen to my music and even like it, but there are some things that just drive me mad."

Over the course of four albums, O'Neill has shown herself to be one of the most distinctive Irish musicians of her generation. Her latest offering, Heard a Long Gone Song, is among 10 to be shortlisted for the Choice Music Prize. The long-running award seeks to honour the best Irish album of the previous year and while O'Neill says she is delighted with the recognition, she recoils a little at the thoughts of one album being better than the rest.

"It's so subjective, isn't it? And with the albums so different from each other, it feels strange to be picking one out from the others."

O'Neill was nominated once before, for 2013's Same Cloth or Not. She was the only female artist to be shortlisted that year and lost out to Villagers' Awayland. This year, she will be up against another Villagers' album, The Art of Pretending to Swim, and many critics expect Villagers to walk away with the award again.

"Conor [O'Brien, Villagers' creative force] is really talented," she says. "There are some very interesting people nominated. Saint Sister... I really like what they're doing."

O'Neill herself is certainly in with a shout for the prize too and, in truth, few who have heard her album would be annoyed if she was to be victorious.

"The [prize] money would go straight into making my next album," she says.

She doesn't expect to win come March 7, however, when the gong is presented at a live show at Dublin's Vicar Street.

"I haven't given it much thought to be honest," she says. "I'm just happy that someone who hasn't heard my music might be encouraged to take a listen as a result of the nomination."

It's her first album to be released on the embryonic River Lea label, a subsidiary of the seminal Rough Trade.

"As far as I know, my album is the very first they've released, which is quite an honour," she says. "I have to thank Radie [Peat] and the guys in Lankum for that because Rough Trade [who signed Lankum] were asking them if there were other folk acts in Ireland they should know about and they mentioned me."

River Lea is one to watch: the label has already snapped up rousing Irish folk combo Ye Vagabonds, and has just released an intriguing album, called The Reeling, from young Scottish piper Brìghde Chaimbeul.

Heard a Long Gone Song features original material from O'Neill as well as several traditional ballads that have been quite brilliantly reworked.

"It's the first of my albums to feature non-original songs," she says. "The label were interested in an album of traditional Irish songs, but I said to them I already have an album of my own songs that I want to do so we compromised. I was a bit worried about it though, in case people thought I was suggesting my own songs were as good as [the traditional numbers]. You know the way some [people] can be? But it's been done many times before and sometimes the results are really good - like that John Martyn album, London Conversation."

One of the standouts on the album is her plaintive rendition of 'The Lass of Aughrim'. The song, which has its roots in an old English folk ballad, plays a significant role in James Joyce's most celebrated short story, 'The Dead'.

"I've always loved that song," O'Neill says. "There's something so sad about it, especially this idea of a pregnant woman in a really desperate situation."

Might the decision to record the song have been inspired by last year's abortion rights campaign?

"Maybe subconsciously," she says. "I think achieving that [abortion rights] isn't something to celebrate although it's something that needed to happen and I'm glad it did, but what I've been thinking an awful lot lately about is the Magdalene laundries and mother-and-baby homes - and the impact they had on so many women so maybe that influences my work in some way."

O'Neill may have lived in Dublin since her college days but her Cavan accent hasn't been remotely dimmed. It comes across in her singing - "why would I ever try to hide where I'm from?" she asks, baffled - and it's there on her latest album, too.

"The idea of putting on an accent would never appeal to me. The songs have to come through my own voice."

The first three albums were self-released but Heard a Long Gone Song has got her noticed in Britain. Being on a Rough Trade imprint certainly helps. The Guardian gave it a euphoric five-star review, much to O'Neill's delight. "That sort of thing certainly helps in the moments where you doubt yourself and what you're doing. And like anyone who does anything creative, there are moments where there's self-doubt. But maybe that's a good thing - it keeps you grounded."

Lisa O'Neill plays the Liberty Hall Theatre, Dublin tonight and will be performing at the Choice Music Prize live event on March 7

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