The singer talks about soul searching in Mexico, living in a tent in Paris, being a single mother in Berlin and how the 16th century Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley inspires her
Nina Hynes has always forged her own path, and that has sometimes made life difficult. The singer-songwriter was one of the crop of up-and-coming young stars riding the wave of the Dublin music scene in the 1990s that included Damien Rice, Glen Hansard and David Kitt.
Now, two decades on, Dublin-born Hynes has been based in Germany since 2007, and making ends meet throughout those years hasn’t always been easy. A single mother to 14-year-old Caia and eight-year-old Xavier, she owns neither a house nor a car.
“I live hand to mouth,” she says by Zoom from her studio in Berlin. “Sometimes, life feels like the glory days and at other times it feels like a very long struggle.”
Her songs, she says, are “a liquid that can darken or crystallise. It’s medicine. Songs cure me of all ills. After a good concert, people’s energy shifts. There’s a unification in the room.
“We feel connected. This is what I chase my whole life. This feeling of connection and joy. Everything I’ve done has led to the next thing. I’m crazily unplanned.”
It’s not an exaggeration, I think, to say Hynes is no ordinary artist – or, for that matter, no ordinary woman.
Throughout her career she has released experimental, left-of-centre albums like Creation (1999), Staros (2002), Sending Letters to the Sea (2009), A Generous Act (2011), and Zap! (2020); has had her work covered by the likes of Jane Birkin and Cillian Murphy (he sang ‘Raging Fire’ on the movie Disco Pigs); and toured with Glen Hansard, Roxy Music, Julee Cruise, and Joan As Police Woman.
She is currently working on what she describes as “a dystopian musical/rock opera with an underlying utopian vision called ‘I am the machine.’”
We’re talking ahead of Nina’s appearance at Dublin’s National Concert Hall on Wednesday for a gig to mark International Women’s Day. The Spirit Of Grace O’Malley is a collaboration with the National Symphony Orchestra and has been co-ordinated by the world-renowned Irish conductor Eimear Noone.
I was imagining a pirate who would not take no for an answer, but also a charming woman who was clearly clever
Hynes first met Noone in early 2020 and was immediately drawn in by her passion to “summon the energy and spirit of this ferocious feminist” of the 16th century.
Noone told Hynes to read Anne Chambers’s book Grace O’Malley and asked her to write about two precise moments in Grace’s life. The first was about when her first child was born, “and how that would effect a woman of the time, who was used to living with the freedom usually afforded wild men.
“It was Gráinne’s perspective,” says Hynes, using Grace’s real name. “I imagined the realisation of this unmeasurable eternal connection and new bond of responsibility... ‘from rivers of milk and blood you descend, we’re tied to a line without end.’”
The second song, she says, “was to be a gathering of her thoughts when she was sailing down the river Thames to meet the Queen of England with the intention of making a deal to have her son and husband freed from prison.
“I was imagining a pirate who would not take no for an answer, but also a charming woman who was clearly clever and held enough power herself to be granted court with the Queen. ‘I’ll sever every tie that bounds/Til you give in. I’ll make the city bleed/Til you give me what I need.’ In her mind, no was not an option: ‘If it’s sail or die, then I die.’
“Both songs are about visceral, intense and incredibly emotional landmarks in Gráinne’s life.
“This made the songwriting all the easier from my perspective. The fact that the Queen of England would meet and make a deal with such a woman speaks oceans about the spirit and intelligence of Gráinne and it was Eimear’s passion for this story that sucked me in.
“That’s a little bit of Gráinne’s adventurous spirit in me,” she adds with no little truth.
Born in Dublin in 1971, Hynes was the youngest of 10 children. Her legendary father Dessie Hynes ran O’Donoghue’s pub on Merrion Row in its 1970s golden age until 1988 (famously serving Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners “fake” gin and tonics on Good Friday in the mid 1980s on the orders of his wife). He also stood for election for Fianna Fáil in 1982.
Hynes inherited her father’s colourful character. She went to Trinity in 1990 to study French and Spanish literature and linguistics.
“My parents were delighted to have a daughter going to such a prestigious college. It took 10 kids to get there.”
A year later, they were devastated when she dropped out and decamped to Paris with her boyfriend to busk.
Seeing her off on the boat from Rosslare to Cherbourg, Hynes says her mother was in tears. She would have been even more upset if she knew what kind of accommodation her youngest daughter was headed for upon arrival in France: she and her boyfriend lived in a tent on a lake near Vincennes, outside Paris. It was not an official camping site. But nothing has ever been that simple in Hynes’s life.
“There were makeshift showers and a lot of men and some families from former Yugoslavia. We woke up early one morning to the sound of gunshots being fired around another tent. It felt very dangerous. It felt like there was a lot of drug dealing and criminal activity.”
They had made a lot of money busking in and around Montmartre so they decided to move to a real campsite after that.
While in Paris, they met a girl whose parents had a thatched cottage on a small walk-on island near Carndonagh, on the Inishowen peninsula. On a whim, they decided to move there. “I used to hitch a lift to do our grocery shopping in Donegal.”
One day a man who picked her up told her about a house for rent over Ballyliffin Beach. It had two fireplaces that would heat the house and water with a back-boiler system.
“I signed on the dole and lived there with my boyfriend for a year. We had a music room, an art room and the most beautiful landscapes in the world. We would practice and create all day and meet to cook and play chess in the evening. It was heaven.”
I told him I felt embarrassed accepting money for playing a gig and he said I needed to change that belief
She eventually moved back to Dublin and started to busk on Grafton Street to pay the rent on her flat. One day Hansard was passing and he stopped on the street to listen, impressed. Her life changed in that moment.
“He took me in to a studio in town to record for the first time. He later told me to come to the International Bar songwriter night.”
She went the next Tuesday and every week after that for two years.
“Christy Moore turned up a few times. I saw the first time Damien Dempsey and Mundy played. Ann Scott, Alice Jago, Sinead Martin, Gemma Hayes too – we were all learning our craft. Damien Rice asked me to support his band Juniper and was the first person to ever pay me for playing music.
“I told him I felt embarrassed accepting money for playing a gig and he said I needed to change that belief. He was right.”
Hynes borrowed €3,000 from her father – “he still hasn’t asked for it back,” she laughs – and brought her band to play at the SXSW festival in Texas and some gigs in New York.
She had a manager but she says: “Things weren’t going right. Seven record companies came to see me, some of them five times. None of them offered a contract.”
Hansard came to her rescue. He was curating the first Other Voices “and he fought for me to play on it”.
She was paid enough money that she went straight to a travel agent and bought a ticket to Mexico. She left with only her guitar.
She stayed two months living in a tent on the beach with very little income. “I played a lot of music,” she recalls. She was also doing a lot of soul-searching and on the cusp of “a nervous breakdown”.
“Sometimes I feel there’s not much difference between a breakdown and an epiphany. I don’t know if I had a breakdown but I was extremely raw emotionally and maybe couldn’t have a conversation without crying. But at the same time happy in many moments, really believing in the magic of the world.
“That trip changed my life. I returned stronger and more resolved. It was a learning curve.”
In 2004 she studied sound engineering and music technology. Two years later she fell in love with French musician and producer Fabien Leseure. They moved to Berlin and had two children. “No kids have ever been more loved than ours,” she says.
Their 13-year relationship ended in 2019. She dealt with the break-up by setting up crowd funding the day after to record her album Zap!, which came out in 2020.
“Zap! was my medicine and cure,” she says. “You can buy it on Bandcamp or listen for free if you have no money. It goes through all of the emotions. From broken hearted disappointment to bitchy to playfulness and joy. Life is a roller coaster.
Her father is 94 and very much “continues to be a free spirit”. Her mother died last March at the age of 88.
“She was very shy. There is an inner shyness within me that I suppress and fight. She was also incredibly creative.”
She kept the house running like an army barracks/five-star hotel – making two dinners every evening, changing all bed sheets, shining door handles and skirting boards weekly.
My kids think I am a little mad but they are not too afraid of me
“I don’t think I even do this annually,” Hynes laughs, referring to the door handles and skirting boards. “She used to write plays and have us act them out in the kitchen after dinner. She was a great singer in her early days.
“She used to make all of our clothes when we were kids. She even made the curtains and rugs. She was some kind of weird superwoman who lived out her artistic life for a time at home.
“She gave birth to 10 kids because the system wouldn’t allow otherwise. She had a very strong faith in religion and God which left her with a broken heart when all of the abuse and scandals came out. I believe all of this took its toll.”
What is Hynes like as a mother?
“I am hands-on and loving. My kids think I am a little mad but they are not too afraid of me. I like to think they can talk to me about anything.”
And how would she describe herself as a woman?
“I would say that Nina Hynes is a human above all things. A spirit in a body. I have lost interest in binaries. I seek empowerment.”
She adds that she lives by the words of her song ‘Love’: “This is your life/This is it all/This is your shame you can take it and fall/This is a breeze, this is a mire/This is your chance for holding the fire.”
‘Daughters of the Pirate Queen: The Spirit of Grace O’Malley’ will be performed on Wednesday at the National Concert Hall, Dublin. Tickets from €20; nch.ie