Entertainment Music

Thursday 18 April 2019

'Nobody cares about your music as much as you do' - DJ and producer Daithí Ó Drónaí


Looking up: Daithí Ó Drónaí played the farewell gig of Electric Picnic last weekend. Photo: Mark Condren
Looking up: Daithí Ó Drónaí played the farewell gig of Electric Picnic last weekend. Photo: Mark Condren
Ó Drónaí on the Sky 1 talent show Must Be the Music
John Meagher

John Meagher

This time last year the much admired electronica musician, DJ and producer Daithí Ó Drónaí packed his instruments and some of his most treasured belongings into his car and embarked on the long drive - via ferry - to a remote location towards the south of France.

His parents have a small house there but he hadn't visited in more than a decade. When he finally arrived, he turned off all social media and email notifications and completely disconnected himself from the outside world.

It was then that he set to work teasing out some of the demos he had worked on over the previous summer and after a month of splendid isolation, he returned to Ireland with the most powerful and compellingly intimate music he has made to date.

If Ó Drónaí's seclusion in the middle of France sounds a little like Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon's retreat to a Wisconsin log cabin when making his classic album For Emma, Forever Ago, the comparison doesn't end there. Vernon was getting over a break-up - and that longing and regret is all over For Emma - and Ó Drónaí, too, was trying to both come to terms with the grief that came with the demise of a long-term relationship and convey all those complex emotions in his music.

Ó Drónaí on the Sky 1 talent show Must Be the Music
Ó Drónaí on the Sky 1 talent show Must Be the Music

"It was at my lowest ebb in the months after the break-up," the 28-year-old Co Clare native says, "and when I was able to bring myself to writing new music, I found it was much darker - much more different - than the stuff I'd done before."

New material may have come sporadically in the summer of 2017, but as soon as he got to France, Ó Drónaí found he was in the creative form of his life. Having no distractions helped.

"I signed out of everything," he says, "and it was amazing. When I've been working on stuff since, I turn off all notifications. It's the only way - social media can be so head-wrecking and distracting.

"I think you definitely get more done when you make a decision to take a break from all that stuff. But it's a tricky situation because it's now part of the job of a musician. It's become so vital. I mean, 60pc of my job is social media. I would have deactivated my Facebook account two years ago, but it's a necessary evil."

The fruits of Ó Drónaí's labours in France have been released in dribs and drabs. Like many of his generation, he is not convinced that the album is the only valid format with which to release new work. He has long favoured the bite-size delights of EPs and his latest, Take the Wheel, is among the best things he has done to date - and, when one considers the quality of his music, it's very special indeed.

The title song is born in the ache he felt when he and his girlfriend called time on their relationship but the words - and singing - are courtesy of Bell X1 frontman Paul Noonan. It's a deeply affecting song which seems to have captured Ó Drónaí's despair, even though Noonan was writing from his own perspective.

"I told Paul that I'd been working on music that was inspired by loss, and the recovery from that loss, and as nobody is going to be able to get into someone else's head, I asked him if he would write something based on any loss he might have felt and the way he recovered from it.

"I'd never met him [Noonan] before, but I was a huge Bell X1 fan when I was a teenager. I love the way they use Irish phrases - Paul writes in a way that's so Irish, even the line he uses 'Jesus, take the wheel!' is such an Irish thing to say. When I got back with all these instrumentals, I wrote out a list of 10 people - top-tier people in Ireland - and Paul was at the top of that list. I sent him four tracks, and it was 'Take the Wheel' - which was then just a minute long - that grabbed him."

Ó Drónaí first came to national prominence when he appeared in the audition stages of the Sky 1 talent show Must Be the Music. He offered an enthralling performance built around a fiddle and loop station. It was traditional Irish music meeting dance and it demonstrated a fledgling artist keen to do something very different to his contemporaries.

"I'm really inspired by the west of Ireland," he says, and there's a prominent tattoo - spelled out in the ancient Celtic alphabet of ogham - on his left arm. "There's so much history and culture and there was a lot of music in the family, too."

His grandfather spent much of his life playing with the internationally renowned Kilfenora Céilí Band. Ó Drónaí is in awe at these musicians. "I wouldn't consider myself a really good fiddle player," he says. "To be a traditional Irish musician, you have to have such discipline."

Hearing Daft Punk's Discovery was life-changing for him. "It's just so incredible," he says of their milestone 2001 album. "And it showed me the power of repetition in music. That's something I get from LCD Soundsystem, too."

Partly as a result of his TV exposure, Ó Drónaí landed a record deal with Sony. One album was released - 2014's In Flight - but he says it's not especially representative of him as an artist. "There was talk that it might be self-titled," he says, "but I was like, 'No way'. I'm proud of it in a way in that I was learning how to write pop songs that might be played on the radio and how to produce better, but it wasn't me."

There was little difficulty extricating himself from the record deal and, looking back, Ó Drónaí has plenty of positives to draw from the experience. "They put me in touch with really interesting people, such as David Kitt, and he really pointed me in the direction of all that ancient culture, sample of old music and so on. He really knew what he was talking about when it came to songwriting, and even if I didn't take it all in at the time, it made a lot of sense as I got older."

Ultimately, though, Ó Drónaí urges caution for any young musician seduced by the world-beating talk of a major label. "The key thing I learned is that nobody cares about your music as much as you do."

If In Flight is a much more engaging album than Ó Drónaí intimates, his subsequent work has really shown what a special talent he is. Many sat up and took notice with the Tribes EP from 2016. It featured a brilliant single, 'Mary Keane's Introduction', which included the spoken worded observations of his then 90-year-old grandmother. He has also embarked on a fruitful creative partnership with the Co Kildare singer-songwriter Sinéad White. "She completely gets everything," he enthuses. "And she's got the really cool Irish lilt to her voice, which compliments the music really well."

Last weekend, Ó Drónaí got to play an early hours set at Electric Picnic that was essentially the farewell gig of the entire festival. It was a dream come true to play that slot on the Body & Soul stage, he says, but one senses that there's plenty more to come.

He may have been on the periphery of widespread recognition for the past several years, but it would be a foolish soul who would bet against him ascending to the next level.

"I'm just happy to get to play music full-time and to know what I want to do," he says, simply. "A lot of people my generation are drifting, they're not sure what they want, so it's a good thing to not just know what you want to do, but to be really happy that you're getting to do it."

Daithí plays the Purty Kitchen, Dublin, on September 29

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