It is a gloriously sunny May morning in the Phoenix Park. Paul Noonan has met Review for a socially distant interview conducted on neighbouring benches on high ground overlooking the Liffey and the Irish National War Memorial Gardens.
"Who would have thought that this would be 2020?" the Bell X1 frontman says. He is not just surveying the strangeness of journalist and interviewee studiously staying two metres apart, but noting that the spiritual and financial lifeblood of the musician - playing live - has been rendered null and void for the foreseeable future.
Even the business of recording new music has been made exceptionally difficult. Right now, the plan was for Noonan to record the eighth Bell X1 album with bandmates David Geraghty and Dominic Phillips, but everything was scrapped in March when the Government introduced tough restrictions to cope with the Covid-19 threat.
"To be honest, I'm a little ragged at the moment," he says. "The last nine weeks or so have been a bit of a rollercoaster. I haven't felt creative - I've felt quite stunted on that front. I feel there's inertia there, in terms of creating anything.
"There are days when it can be tough and you sense that people are fraying at the edges a bit." He jokes that he has had his fill of Zoom, but says that technology has, at least, allowed people to connect.
He has used social media to share cover versions he has recorded live from his Dublin home. "I've been playing covers on my piano at home and I've been posting a lot of that," he says. "I have been engaging with social media in a way that I hadn't before. And I've found that very comforting."
His song choices have taken on an extra resonance in this 'together, but apart' period. "It's hard not to see all these songs through the prism of what we're living in at the moment," he says. "A song like 'Together in Electric Dreams' [from Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder] has a weight and gravitas to it now. And I did a Tom Waits song, 'Hold On' - it's a song I've loved for years - and it has a whole new meaning now.
"I've taken refuge," he adds, "in playing other people's songs and seeking out songs from my life and songs I've always loved."
One of those - an understated cover of Don Henley's 'The Boys of Summer', which he recorded with Bell X1 several years ago - has been used by RTÉ's The Sunday Game to soundtrack an emotive short film on a year in which the GAA has had to stop. "I'm not the biggest GAA fan in the world, although I do have memories of going to all those Dublin-Meath matches [in 1991]. It's a sign of what we've lost, aspects of life that can make it so special."
Noonan is in his mid-40s and has been a fixture on the Irish music landscape for 20 years as singer and chief songwriter of Bell X1, one of the most popular homegrown bands. He is also a restless spirit whose collaborations with the likes of Lisa Hannigan and Daithí has won plaudits.
It was at secondary school in Celbridge, Co Kildare in the late 1990s that he first started making music. He was the drummer in the band Juniper, which was fronted by schoolmate Damien Rice. When Rice left to go out on his own, Noonan took over singing duties. The band's debut album, Neither Am I, was released in 2000.
More recently, he has been pursuing a rewarding path out of the public glare. He graduated with a master's in Music Therapy from the University of Limerick and had been working at a Dublin pre-school when the lockdown came into effect.
"I was on week seven of a 10-week placement at a fantastic school with kids aged three to five. I'd been in two days a week and had really built up a rapport there, and then, I remember being in on the Thursday [March 12] when it was announced that schools would close, and that was it."
Partly to connect with those students, Noonan holds a one-hour music Facebook class available to all at 3pm on Fridays. "The school has been on board with it and some of those kids have connected with it too, which is great. But I also wanted to do it because I know what it's like to be a parent in the pressure cooker of being at home with kids who are at home with no school, and myself and my children [he has two daughters] would have goofed around with music. I wanted to try and convey a bit of that fun."
Perhaps there's something in the genes: his father was a school teacher. "I've never really thought of myself in that way," he says. "I've been asked to teach music a lot and come in as a guest in various capacities and I've never felt that was something I'd be good at or comfortable at. I don't see this as teaching, but using the language of music to connect."
What was the motivation behind the master's? "I'd hit 40 and bought a vintage car and leather trousers. Okay, maybe not the latter. I wanted to flex a muscle that had been lying dormant. I read a book by Oliver Sacks, called Musicophilia. He's a neurologist and he writes about music and the brain and how it does what it does.... how it can repair brain damage. How music can help people who've lost speech through brain injury to sing again."
He has seen how music can help disadvantaged children and he also saw its power to assist those at the end of their lives. He spent 10 weeks working in a hospice not far from his home and he talks about it with such feeling that one feels it must be among the most rewarding experiences of his life.
"You'd talk to these people about their lives, get a sense of what songs had been important to them and then maybe write a song with them, referencing people and places that had been part of their life's journey. And their family can listen to it too."
Noonan has been working with the National Concert Hall for the past few years as part of its Writer's Block initiate. He has a writing space onsite, too, and has helped bring a number of the NCH's more esoteric events to fruition.
"It started with Starboard Home [a project inspired by the Liffey and Dublin's docklands] in 2016 as part of the [1916 Rising] Centenary celebrations. Myself and Gary Sheehan [NCH's head of programme planning] put a lot of work into these one-off events. They're quite ephemeral: they burn brightly and then disappear, but they can leave this nice tail."
He is especially proud of his work on Imagining Ireland. "We had Loah, Lisa Hannigan, Mango X MathMan, Saint Sister and we took it to the Barbican [the London venue].
"With that show, it was the first time those guys from Mango X MathMan had met Lisa and she ended up playing on one of their songs from a few months ago. It's been great in terms of commissioning artists and allowing a cross-pollination to happen."
Noonan worries about the impact Covid-19 has had on artists' livelihoods. Much of the focus has been on the perceived unfairness of streaming and how little most musicians can recoup from the Spotifys of the world. "Very few artists have made money from streaming but up to now, they've been happy to live with the status quo because it can build an audience to see them play live. And the live aspect has gone - for now - so it really has become an issue.
"It's not as simple as 'Spotify should pay more to artists'. I understand the attraction of finding a boogie man but, in my view, a lot of the problem is down to the relationship between artist and [record] label. Artists who signed traditional record deals are on the 15/16 [percentage] points of what what's called the published dealer price of an album. It hasn't changed since the 1960s/70s. While Spotify might pay 70pc of their revenue to the rights holders, it's what happens to that pie. The labels are getting most of it, basically."
Next week, he will play a solo online show as a part of a new National Concert Hall series. "There's an intimacy there with virtual gigs. You see the amount of people watching and you read what they're saying. It's comforting - although it can be distracting. In actual gigs, I always manage to find the person yawning or on their phone and," he says, with a laugh, "I try to win them over with my intensity!
"As pale an imitation as it is, doing these concerts is a portal to connection. And that's one of the things we really miss - connection."
Paul Noonan plays a solo show live online on June 5 at 8pm. It is part of the NCH Livestream series, which includes performances from singer-songwriter Lisa O'Neill and pianist Barry Douglas.