Monday 18 November 2019

Irish women of note: Six up-and-coming Irish female musicians you need to know


Vocalist and songwriter Jess Kav from the band 'Barq'. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Vocalist and songwriter Jess Kav from the band 'Barq'. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Meagher

John Meagher

It may not always be reflected in the summer music festival line-ups, but this is something of a golden age for Irish female musicians. Our reporter meets six of the brightest young talents the country has to offer


The Dubliner, 31, fronts rising Irish band Barq and has been a backing singer for Hozier

Earlier this month, Jess Kavanagh prowled the stage in front of thousands of punters at a big outdoor concert at Dublin's Royal Hospital Kilmainham - and she looked completely in her element. Her band, Barq, were supporting the ever-popular Coronas, and she's winning fans at every turn.

"Live performance is a great way to connect with people and when you're doing support slots, you get the chance to make an impact with people who may not have known your stuff before."

Her half-Nigerian mother gave her a great grounding in both music and feminism - and Jess has been keen to use any profile she has to raise awareness for the Repeal campaign. She appeared topless on the cover of Hot Press last year with the word 'Mine' written across her chest.

She credits her mother with much of her approach to life. "She died when I was 21. Cancer. It was devastating, but that sort of loss sort of makes you stronger.

"She had been born in a mother-and-baby home but was later adopted. She would have loved to see how multicultural Ireland has become today - it's definitely a better place."

Jess knew she wanted to be a singer from an early age and the R&B-loving rocker has taken the long route to fulfilling her dreams. She was a backing singer for Hozier in his early days and she got to see how his career took flame. "At the time he asked me to sing with him, he thought there was a chance he would get to play Electric Picnic.

"Andrew [Hozier's first name] had no idea how big it was going to get - none of us did - but Take Me to Church just resonated with so many people and it took off from there."

It's a story that fuels her own desire to make soul, jazz and funk music. "Never underestimate the power of a great song," she says. "The music industry may change, but a great song will always connect."


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Singer, producer and musician Elaine Mai. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Sive, songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist. Photo: Tony Gavin
Singer Chanele McGuinness. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Singer, producer and musician Elaine Mai. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Tara Lee

The Mayo musician (32) and remix specialist has been admired by discerning music fans for quite some time.

Having a parent who has a deep love of Abba can drive offspring one of two ways. For Elaine Mai, it's a love that refuses to fade. "I adore Abba," she says. "One of my earliest memories of how much music can mean was to see my mother enjoying their songs so much and that really rubbed off on me."

Elaine grew up in Charlestown, Co Mayo - a town that became famous in the 1960s thanks to the book written by one of its most famous sons, journalist John Healy. The Death of a Town captured how it, like many other places on the western seaboard, struggled to survive thanks to outward migration.

"Urban Ireland has been a draw for many of us," she says. "I live in Dublin now and had lived in Galway for a decade, having gone to college there, but there's definitely something to be said about how your creativity can be fired in rural places. You've more time to reflect and there are fewer distractions."

Today, she works in a marketing job - a profession she enjoys - and fits her music around it. "I feel lucky that I'm able to make music," she says. "You have to pay the bills, so most of us need to have a regular job, and that's okay. There's no point in trying to be a full-time musician if you can't support yourself."

She has been a name to drop for the past five years thanks to her choice collaborations and inventive remixes. She provided the vocals for Le Galaxie's Love System - one of the most appealing Irish singles in years. "It's been such fun," she says, "especially when you're singing it in front of thousands of people at a festival."

Her own music is a little more subdued. Enniscrone, a wistful instrumental track from her latest EP, The Colour of the Night, is inspired by the memory of her cousin, Eanna, who died in 2014. "We used to spend sunny summer days in Enniscrone in Sligo. It was probably the closest nice beach to us growing up and even the name reminds me of care-free childhood and my cousin."


Tara Lee

The Wicklow-born actress and singer, 22, has moved to London to try to grow twin careers in movies and music

Several Irish actors cut their teeth on the RTÉ restaurant drama series Raw, including Charlene McKenna, Sam Keeley and Amy Huberman, and it also introduced Tara Lee to the wider public.

She was just 16 when she was cast for what was supposed to be a handful of episodes, but she lasted two years. "It was a fantastic experience," she says. "Raw opened the door for everything else that followed." Her CV includes The Fall and a host of movies, including her personal favourite, A Date for Mad Mary.

But while Tara has built up a career that many of her contemporaries would be envious of, acting is not her first love - music is. And she grew up in a household where music was everywhere all the time.

"My dad [Stephen McKeon] is a soundtrack composer [who has won IFTAs for a pair of John Boorman films] so from the first moment I can remember, I was exposed to music and if you have a parent whose job it is to create music, it's natural enough that you'd want to do the same."

The perky pop-rocker has released several self-penned songs to date, although she intends to bide her time before delivering a debut album. "I want to feel it's right and I can devote uninterrupted time to it. I've been lucky that I've had quite a bit of work of late, although, funnily enough, it's for parts about musicians so having that other string to my bow might be helping me to get parts."

She's now resident in London and enjoying every moment of it. "I've chosen to come to one of the most expensive places on earth, but I felt there might be more work opportunities here. I hope to live and work in other cities for the next 10 years and then maybe come back to Dublin when I'm in my mid-30s - hopefully with a few albums to my name!"


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Sive, songwriter, singer and multi-instrumentalist. Photo: Tony Gavin

The Kildare singer, 28, uses music to help the marginalised and has crowdfunded her latest album

Sive O'Sullivan has been making music all her adult life and is proud to have released two albums of original material. Her latest, The Roaring Girl, was released at the start of the summer and it wouldn't have happened had she not gone down the crowdfunding route. She raised €4,000 to make the album - €500 over her target.

"I know it's arguably easier to make music now than ever before thanks to technological advances and so on," she says, "but if you want to get a string quartet, you need the money to pay them and to use a proper studio, and that can really add up."

A heart-on-sleeve troubadour, after attending the Ballyfermot 'Rock School' she undertook a master's degree in community music at the University of Limerick. It's a course that encourages a greater spread of music in the community, especially when it comes to incorporating music into healthcare.

Now, her 'regular' job involves working alongside a number of groups in Kildare, including senior citizens. "It's a comparatively new field," she says, "and it's exciting because it's all about how much music can enrich lives."

While she says she has not encountered overt sexism in the industry, there are moments that would fall neatly into the 'everyday sexism' box. "You'd be sound-checking and the sound engineer would make a comment about the position of the mic, and so on. I wonder if they'd do the same if it was a male singer? I wouldn't have thought so. While I think most don't mean to be sexist, some of it is just below the surface."


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The London-born Dubliner is going places fast, thanks to her slick brand of pop-inflected R&B

Samantha Kay studied tourism and languages in college but music was always at the forefront of her mind. "It's something that's been part of my life for as long as I can remember," she says, "and I think I always knew that I wanted to make music myself one day."

As Soulé, she released her first single in September and it's been a whirlwind ride every since. "Things are happening really quickly for me," she says. "It was such an honour to be nominated for the Choice Music Prize for Song of the Year [for Love No More] and my music has been reaching a lot of people online."

She was born in London but moved to Dublin at a young age. There were stints living in the city centre and Blanchardstown, but Balbriggan in north Co Dublin is where she spent her formative years and where she now calls home. "I like the vibe there," she says. "It's a big small town. You see the same people on the street. There's a sense of community there."

A local youth club imbued her with the confidence to perform. "Foróige was very important for me," she says. "It's all well and good to sing in your own bedroom, maybe just in front of your friends, but if you want to be a singer, you've got to make the leap and do it in front of an audience too."

Soulé played Dublin's Forbidden Fruit festival last month and has been handpicked to play at Other Voices Berlin - an offshoot of the Dingle music festival.

At present, she is one of a number of artists who are under the wing of Diffusion Labs - the Dublin-based production factory. "They're doing some great work and they really 'get' what I'm about."

She says she is "Irish, first and foremost" but hopes her Congolese heritage plays some part in her music. "Ireland's a melting pot now and it's exciting that musicians from so many different cultures are emerging."


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Singer Chanele McGuinness. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The Donegal singer (24) has taken an unusual route - having sung on a high-profile TV ad while still comparatively unknown

Although neither of her parents "sing or play music", Chanele McGuinness has lucid memories of performing around the time she first started school. "Me and my sister and friends would do little concerts for everyone in the neighbourhood," she says. "We'd organise everything ourselves, rehearse for weeks and invite everyone around to watch." A singer of soulful torch songs, her influences are somewhat surprising: Britney Spears captivated her pre-teen heart but it was Avril Lavigne who seemed to speak directly to her. "She was the first musician I really obsessed over. I thought it was so cool that she was a girl playing guitar and singing about her feelings, and she seemed so original to me at the time."

In 2015, a Galaxy chocolate ad featured Chanele performing in a studio alongside a young male musician, and then sharing a bar of said chocolate after their session. "A studio working on the project found a demo I had online and asked me to come over to London for an audition," she says. "It was all really fast - I think the whole thing was cast and recorded within a few weeks. Doing the ad introduced me to a whole new audience and allowed me to move to London and experience life there for a while."

Chanele believes it's a mixed blessing to be female in the music business. "Women bring a completely different energy to a room and I'm really proud to be a woman doing music, but it can be hard when you feel a little outnumbered. When it comes to producers and engineers, women are really under-represented and I hope that changes soon. It's always a strange thing to be the only woman in the studio. Women scientifically hear frequencies differently and bring a completely new vibe, so I'd love to work in that environment some day."

Despite such preoccupations, she says she tries to "embrace my femininity but also not let my gender have too much of an effect on how people see me as a musician". Chanele is currently at work with [Donegal producer] Orri McBrearty and will release new music before the end of the year. She says it's important to be thankful for small mercies. "This might sound cheesy, but my biggest achievement is being able to say that I'm still a musician. There are so many times I've wanted to quit because it's not the easiest, most stable life to pursue - but I really don't feel like I have any other option."

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