Friday 24 May 2019

The many lives of The Coronas' Danny O'Reilly

Danny O'Reilly of The Coronas talks exclusively to Barry Egan about the therapy of baring his soul through his songs

Danny O'Reilly says The Coronas will never split up because the bandmates are so close. Photo: David Conachy
Danny O'Reilly says The Coronas will never split up because the bandmates are so close. Photo: David Conachy
Danny's equally talented sister, Roisin O. Photo: Brian McEvoy

Danny O'Reilly is rocking a flat cap not unlike the one that Dinny used to wear in Glenroe. For the next 90 minutes, he refrains from keeping his thoughts under the aforesaid titfer. With it all, he exhibits the charm of a 32-year-old man with a poetic nature and a brooding, searching mind, like a young Bono or Van Morrison, or Bob Dylan, on an inward journey at the speed of light.

Or even a young Mary Black - Danny's mother...

Having listened to him sing lyrics like 'Is there a wrong time to be alive?' and 'When will I know how that feels?' on The Coronas's new release, their fifth studio album, Trust The Wire, I wasn't expecting much of the ordinary or the vanilla out of the mouth, or head, of young Danny boy.

"That line - 'Is there a wrong time to be alive?' - it's mainly about being envious of a couple like my parents," he explains. "I suppose it's about people getting it right."

When Danny sings the line 'When will I know how that feels?', would his parents ever feel the need to say to him, 'Look, son, it's OK?'

"Yeah. My dad [Joe] is my mam's manager. He's brilliant. It's funny, I'm so close to them, my parents, but sometimes you get to the stage where you say to yourself, 'They're not always right'.

"It's a funny thing as you get older, you think your parents know everything, but they don't," Danny smiles."They're human too but they definitely would have said to me if I was going through a tough time, break up or whatever it is - 'Don't worry, it's alright. It will sort itself out'."

Danny laughs at the story of someone once saying to his famous mother: "Sure, isn't it great that Danny's really down to earth" - and Mary replying, "Why the f**k wouldn't he be!"

In an interview with Hot Press a few years ago, Danny mentioned that in his youth he carried a small amount of resentment towards his mother because she appeared to be always away on tour.

"Yeah, sort of more subconscious resentment," Danny says now, "because she'd come back from being on tour and for the first half an hour we'd be like, 'Oh we missed you, where's the presents?' She'd say: 'How's the football going?' And I'd say, 'Ah, mam - the football finished last month!' We'd be just cold to her. Then she'd have to pick and choose whether to be away, and she struggled with it for a long time; my da had to tell her to keep going," Danny says. "There were times when she wanted to pack it in and just be at home with us... I mean she started having kids when she was in her early 20s."

If Danny was to have kids himself one day, would he wonder about the same things - being away from them for long periods?

"I suppose I'd probably be aware of it, but I think the three of us," Danny says referring to himself and his two siblings - younger sister Roisin (now a singer of some brilliance, aka Roisin O) and older brother Conor, a land surveyor - "turned out OK in the long run. Everyone has issues. Everyone has some issue about home. I'm not standing here saying, 'Oh poor me, my mam was away' you know? It was great, a great house. We turned out great and they worked very hard for us."

Did his parents ever warn Danny, to the effect, 'There's a lot of pain in the road he has chosen to go down?'

"Absolutely, one thing my mam told me from a very early stage was, 'It doesn't matter how much talent you have, there's loads and loads of amazing, talented people out there who don't make it'. And there's a line from Heroes or Ghosts [The Coronas's debut album from 2007] that came from that: 'It's going to take a lot of time, and a little bit of luck', because it is about luck as well. I know The Coronas have been lucky and I appreciate that and I'm very grateful that we got to do this as a job because I know it's difficult. We still love it, we still enjoy it and I still think we have something to give."

This last bit could be said to be a bit of an understatement, not least because they are one of the best bands to emerge out of Ireland since U2. The Coronas's show at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in Dublin on July 1 has just sold 15,000 tickets. Later this summer, they will be jetting off on eagerly awaited tours of Europe, Australia, the UK and America (returning home at Christmas to possibly play the 3Arena.)

Long before the Meteor Music Award-winning Coronas formed in school in 2003, they were a band of brothers, life-long friends. Danny and bassist Graham Knox have been friends literally since birth.

Danny was born in the Rotunda on March 23, 1985. Knoxy, as he is known, was born in Mount Carmel 15 days later. Their parents were best friends, and Danny and Knoxy's friendship started from when they were babies. "We grew up together," says Danny, adding that there are pictures of them with gel in their hair going to 'Young Wesley' at Old Wesley Rugby Club in Donnybrook.

"I remember the first time we went to 'Baby Wesley' which is the over 15s disco," he laughs, "There's no drink, so we decided to share 10 John Player Blue - we'd never smoked before. So two of us smoked a half-pack each."

Danny went to primary school in St Joseph's in Terenure and then Terenure College, together with Knox, future Coronas drummer Conor Egan, and manager Jim Lawless.

"Knox and I went through everything together, all sorts of stuff. First loves, going to festivals together. I remember myself, Knoxy and Jim going to Witnness. We were probably 17 or 18. I remember me and Knoxy had just started playing music with Conor.

"Conor was in my primary school. I've known him since I was five or six as well. We used to play Gaelic Football together, so yeah we know each other forever.

"Dave [McPhilips, lead guitar] hadn't even joined the band yet. We met him in UCD; he was the last one to join," Danny says before returning to that idyllic memory of going to the Witness music festival as a teenager: "We were like, 'Imagine if we could play at Witnness on any of the stages!' Jim had already become our manager at this stage," Danny recalls.

"So, playing Witnness was the goal," Danny says, "And then it happened with Oxygen and then the goalposts changed." And changed again; "sharing a stage with Paul McCartney", supporting Pink, selling four double platinum albums, selling out Marlay Park.

The evolving inner-life of Danny O'Reilly is mapped out on The Coronas's new album Trust The Wire - a sublime record, full of existential ennui, that is the Irish album of 2017 so far and by some distance, too. Songs like A Little Withdrawn and Look At All The Lovers are Danny reaching deep inside himself to reveal something as much to himself as to the listener.

"It just kind of came out of me," he says of A Little Withdrawn, "and I was feeling a bit... [Pause] I was sitting with a friend of mine and you could sense that she was a bit withdrawn. I'd ask her a question and she was withdrawn, a bit antsy, not really listening to my answer. I'd say to her, 'I do that all the time, wanting to be more present.'"

He explains: "I'd be at dinner with my mam and dad, because I'm so comfortable around my family. I sort of just switch off. I might chill and take up my phone, and they'd be giving out to me, saying, 'Talk to us, be present, put down the phone'. So it's all that sort of stuff. It's finding out stuff about yourself - and it's OK."

What did he find out about himself? "That it's OK to feel a bit unsociable sometimes."

Does he ever wonder who that guy is? Does he ever look in the mirror after a few drinks and say, 'Am I Danny or am I that guy in the band?'

"Definitely. If they get overlapped it becomes, 'Danny from The Coronas or am I Danny O'Reilly?' Sometimes you can over-analyse and over-think things. Often times it's just the first feeling that you think, 'Just go and follow what your heart says'."

Following what his heart says has pretty much been Danny's artistic raison d'etre from the beginning. (He doesn't, however, want to go into the current state of his love life.) On the 2011 album Closer To You, he came across as a more joyous and loose young man from the songs that he sang. On 2014's album The Long Way Danny seemed less joyful.

With the new album Trust The Wire, Danny appears like a man considering his place in the grand scheme of things, looking at life, weighing things up.

I say to him that on 2014's album Closer To You - written in the aftermath of his break-up from Laura Whitmore - he didn't hide his emotions about that split, or his more downbeat emotions about life.

"Yeah - and I think it is just that getting older as well. Closer To You still had that sort of unashamed joy and ambition like, 'I'm great. I can do this and I'm going to be this and I can do that if I want [then, with] certain knocks, maybe personal life, whatever - OK, maybe this might take us a bit longer...'"

Is there a strength in vulnerability?

"I think my best moments as a songwriter were the honest, vulnerable moments and you can't contrive it. I remember when The Long Way was just about finished I said to the band, 'Lads, there's too many 'break-up' songs in this album'; and they were like, 'F*** that, don't worry about that stuff. All you've written is what you're going through and that's it'. I've always been honest about what's going on in my life. I just write about it."

Was he like that as a kid in school?

"I don't know, but when I started approaching song writing from an early stage I found that the strongest part of my songs were when I was really honest about myself. The more honest I was about myself the more I felt other people could relate." Danny is also honest enough to admit that at the start of last year he was at "the closest" he'd ever been to going through: "Writer's block. Not that I had writer's block. But I wasn't drawn to song writing the first six months of last year.

"We took a good bit of time off. We'd just come back from London. Knoxy was still living in London, I moved back here; Dave moved to Berlin for a couple of months. I was a bit down then and I was a bit [in a reflective place], I think, with everything that happened with Island Records - with The Coronas, everything has always been baby steps forward.

"We started off as a really small local band. We got a little bit of radio play, we went up through the venues in Ireland - you know Whelan's, Village, finally doing Olympia. It was always baby steps and then we moved to London and signed to a major record label [Island] and then we got our first knock-back when we got dropped or whatever. It didn't work out and I think that hit us. It hit me anyway.

"I was reassessing what we were doing," Danny reflects now on that difficult time, "and it's basically what the Trust The Wire album is all about. ... what the song We Couldn't Fake It is about, even Give Me A Minute is about trying to regain your focus. Regain your ambition. Do it for the right reasons. Do it because you love it. There were definitely moments where we were like, 'There's no point in us going through the motions here'."

Were The Coronas close to splitting up?

"I don't think we'll ever split up to be honest. We were living in the same house for three-and-a-half years. We didn't kill each other at all, we loved it. Knoxy was the cook."

Knoxy got engaged - to Aoife McCormick whom he married in December 2016 at Bellinter House, Co Meath (with Danny singing at the reception) - "and she was living with us then. So there was five of us in the house!

"We thought about moving back after the stuff with Island Records happened," Danny continues. "We said, 'We got away with it for three years - let's not push our luck. Let's get our own space now'. As I said, there was definitely a moment where we weren't going to break up and I don't think we'll ever break up but I think we might do other things."

What perhaps separates Danny from his Irish contemporaries is the ragged honesty in his lyrics. He freely admits that his song writing is a kind of personal therapy for him. From an early age, Danny had an interest in literature, which is pretty obvious. His favourite book is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.

"This guy was in prison in Australia," Danny says. "He goes on the run and he breaks out and he's in India. He starts in the slums. It's such a huge book and it's philosophy - and every now and again he'd finish a chapter with a weird take on things. I always loved that book."

Sipping his tea, Danny recalls that he started off playing classical piano when he was 10. "I didn't like it. I gave up after a couple of grades. I just wanted to learn how to play 'real songs' like Oasis.

"So my mother said, 'OK, well, you can take up the guitar then. Your brother is going to start'.

"So Bill Shanley - my mam's guitar player who had just started playing with my mam - came down to the house to teach me and my brother and my cousin Eoin," Danny remembers, adding that Eoin is a great musician as well.

With characteristic humility and honesty, Danny says: "I was the youngest and I was the worst. I always struggled with it. It got to the stage where they were getting better and I still couldn't get the hang of it at all. I told my ma and said, 'I don't want to do this anymore. I've had enough, ma'.''

His ma turned to Danny and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: "I'll pay you a fiver for every lesson to keep going." The parental bribe worked.

"Once I got over the hump of it sounding terrible," Danny O'Reilly smiles, "all of a sudden I could play Oasis songs, and I was away, And that was all I wanted to do."

Danny O'Reilly has been making the music business an offer it couldn't refuse ever since.

The Coronas's new album 'Trust The Wire' is released on June 2. They play their biggest headline show to date at IMMA, Royal Hospital Kilmainham, on July 1. They also play Sea Sessions, Bundoran, June 24; Live at The Marquee, Cork, June 30; Galway Arts Festival, July 29, and the Indiependence Festival, Mitchelstown, August 5

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