Wednesday 25 April 2018

Loved-up couple Sorca McGrath and Simon Cullen, aka Ships, on how they used crowdfunding to finance their debut album

Real-life partners Sorca McGrath and Simon Cullen, aka Ships, tell how they used crowdfunding to finance their debut album and their surprise - and pride - at their nomination for a Choice Music award

Labour of love: Simon Cullen and Sorca McGrath recorded Precession in a bedroom in their own home. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Labour of love: Simon Cullen and Sorca McGrath recorded Precession in a bedroom in their own home. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Meagher

John Meagher

For most fledgling bands, the business of recording an album together means arranging mutually convenient times, hiring a studio, getting a producer involved and being mindful about deadlines. For Ships, the reality could hardly have been more different.

Sorca McGrath and Simon Cullen are both musical partners and a real-life couple, and recording their debut album meant repairing to the make-shift studio they had assembled in the bedroom of the suburban house they were renting in Dublin.

"It worked for us," McGrath says, "although when you don't have deadlines on you, it can be very hard to let go, to really know when the album is finished. There is a benefit to having a finite amount of access to instruments and the recording process."

Although the album was mastered in a professional facility, everything else was recorded in a regular house.

"To the right of us there was a garage and to the left there was a lovely woman called Frances who used to play the piano even late at night," she says. "We'd be mindful because we were living in a residential area, but I don't think it held us back."

And when did she realise the end product, Precession, was complete? "I don't know if it is finished, to be honest," she says with a laugh. "I suppose when you pay to get it mastered, that imposes completion, but even then I don't know if it's possible to be completely happy with any work because there's always a sense that you could have done such and such better.

"It was difficult at times, and towards the end of recording was almost murderous," she adds. We tried to make time [to make the album]. We're busy doing our own thing - but we'd try to block off whole days or weekends. But it can be maddening, like any creative process."

Precession certainly impressed on its release last year thanks to its assured fusion of organic and synthetic instruments, the captivating quality of McGrath's vocal and the smartness of the production. Several songs have the potential to attract a large audience if given a chance, not least 'All Will Be' and 'Where We Are' which sounds like great lost records from 1985.

The album garnered several enthusiastic reviews and is among the 10 nominees for the RTÉ Choice Music Prize - the competition which seeks to honour the best album of the year.

Cullen says the pair were delighted to receive a nomination.

"We put it out ourselves," he says. "Whatever press was to be done, we chased it ourselves. From the outset, we had modest hopes for it. So, part of me is surprised and yet another part of me isn't because other self-released albums have made the list. Previously, I would have assumed that it takes an engine of sorts [record company and PR] to get it in."

Like many bands short of money and keen to self-release, Ships opted to finance the album via FundIt. They sought €6,000, which they achieved a week before deadline.

"Having autonomy on the release was really important," Cullen says, "as was being able to release it when we wanted to and not have it on a conveyor belt at a label. Mostly, we wanted to just do it ourselves.

"It was mostly to make a physical copy - on vinyl. The designer - Dave Darcy -blew our minds. He runs a letter press print company called One Strong Arm. We wanted to do a short run of something special - to make it real, in a physical way."

They also used some of the funding to make a video for standout song, the synth-pop, 80s-inflected 'I Can Never'. "We put the word out for anyone who wanted to tender an idea for a video that we had some money there to pay an artist to make a video."

The actual recording was done cheaply and the pair freely admit that advances in software have ensured that deep pockets are no longer required to make an album that sounds sleek and polished.

"It would have been possible to do what we did 20 years ago but it would have taken much longer and it would have taken a lot of money. The software changes everything - and it's pretty cheap."

And they used what instruments they had at their disposal. "Much of it was 20 or 30 years old," Cullen says, "but it's great."

While their fingerprints are all over the end result, they called on musician friends to help with recording. Among those who pitched in were Rian Trench of Solar Bears, 'Goodtime' John Cowhie, and Ross Turner from I Am The Cosmos.

There is a cliché about debut albums being a labour of love, but Cullen and McGrath happily insist that that was the case with Precession.

"The album format is something that's still hugely important to many people, despite all the times it's been written off," Cullen says. "I think people enjoy a journey… a mixtape is different, it's eclectic. If you like a song and you like a band, you want to hear more and see where they bring you.

"And when it came to making this, an awful lot of work went into it in the five or so years since we started it. We had put out a couple of singles, but we were thinking of the whole picture rather than the individual parts."

"I don't have any babies," McGrath adds, "but, corny as this sounds, I think of this album as my baby and I'm so happy that people are enjoying it."

The RTÉ Choice Music Prize is at Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 8. 2fm will broadcast the entire event live

THE OTHER NINE NOMINEES

Come On Live Long - In the Still

An assured second album, four years after a much-admired debut, embraces R&B and electronica and sophisticated pop.

Marlene Enright - Placemats and Second Cuts

The Bantry, Co Cork native cut her teeth in Americana group the Hard Ground, but this bewitching debut suggests she was correct to go it alone.

Fangclub - Fangclub

Hard rock and grunge are hardly in vogue of late, but the north Dublin trio boldly plough their own furrow as this startlingly in-your-face debut demonstrates.

Lankum - Between the Earth and Sky

Arguably the best received Irish album of the year - especially overseas - the second offering from the trad revivalists, formerly known as Lynched, is an arresting listening experience.

James Vincent McMorrow - True Care

The Dubliner wasted little time in following up his We Move album - Choice nominated last year - and while True Care is not as special, his talent shines through.

New Jackson - From Night to Night

David Kitt's electronica alter ego is another fine album to add to a superb discography. He's been nominated twice before - might this understated effort be the one?

Otherkin - OK

The straight-up rockers cite the Strokes as a key influence and there's plenty of the New Yorkers' lo-fi approach in their appealing, no-nonsense songs.

Fionn Regan - Meeting of the Waters The Bray singer has been nominated before, but not won. His latest is a singer-songwriter album par excellence.

Talos - Wild Alee

Corkonian Eoin French's debut album pits his falsetto against guitars and synths, and his widescreen sound is rarely less than compelling.

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