Wyvern Lingo: ‘Maybe it’s an age-old conservatism why female acts are played less on the radio’

Bray trio Wyvern Lingo on why women and alternative acts get less airplay, on their move to Berlin, livestreaming and why the time was right for their second album

Wyvern Lingo, from left, Saoirse Duane, Caoimhe Barry and Karen Cowley. Photo by Miguel Ruiz

John Meagher

It was — depending on your point of view — either wonderfully fortuitous or horribly unlucky. In February of last year, some three months after Wyvern Lingo had moved to Berlin to make an album and to forge a new life in the city, Covid-19 had gone from an isolated case here and there to something that was causing German health authorities serious concern. Lockdown looked inevitable, especially when the first case in Berlin was detected at the beginning of March.

The virus put paid to the plans of the all-female trio from Bray, Co Wicklow, to put roots down in the city, but they managed to leave the prestigious JRS Studios with a fully completed second album. And the highly accomplished Awake You Lie has finally seen the light of day.

“We wanted to go somewhere different and Berlin is an obvious choice,” says Caoimhe Barry, Wyvern Lingo’s vocalist and drummer. “There’s a very good music scene — mainly for electronic music — but it’s a really exciting and dynamic city too. We’d toured Germany a couple of times and it was very much a case of ‘What’s stopping us?’”

They returned to Ireland just before the first lockdown came into effect here and their hope was that the virus would be brought under control and they could return to Germany and get the new songs out. Life didn’t, of course, turn out like that.

Tour dates in support of the album had to be constantly postponed but any temptation to delay the release of the album any further was nipped in the bud. “We’re really proud of it,” Barry says. “We wanted to get it out there. Quite a bit of time had elapsed since the last album, so the time was right.”

When cases trickled to single figures at the start of July, the three returned to Berlin and stayed there until December. Right now, they’re back home, but are itching for the opportunity to return to Germany. Both Barry and singer-keyboardist Karen Cowley are still paying rents on apartments in Berlin. Guitarist and vocalist Saoirse Duane disliked the flat she was renting and will have to find new lodgings if she is to return to the German capital too.

“One of the reasons we want to live in Berlin is because the cost of living is so much cheaper there,” Cowley says. “Dublin, and Ireland generally, is just so expensive, especially if you’re a musician and the opportunities for you to make a living are dwindling.”

She says Dublin has a vibrant music scene — something reflected in the span of solo acts and bands up for the Choice Music Prize this week — but extortionate rents are pushing many creative people out, and the challenges brought on by Covid will likely accelerate the talent drain.

For a great deal of working musicians, the past 12 months has brought previously unthinkable financial worries. With the ability to gig put on the long-finger, the chief source of income has been stymied.

“It’s something that we worry about all the time,” says Cowley, who’s easily the most talkative member of the band. “We basically manage ourselves now and there’s a lot of time that we would be spending creatively on the management side.”

It’s paying off, however. Wyvern Lingo have been in receipt of funding from several sources including the Arts Council and they have recently won a bursary from the National Concert Hall, Dublin, under its Sounding the Feminists Scheme. The latter is a livestream concert award worth €15,000.

They’re already au fait with livestreams. On Friday, February 26, on the album’s release day, Wyvern Lingo played a ticketed online concert from their hometown of Bray. “We put a lot of effort into getting it to look and sound exactly the way we wanted it to. A lot of thought went into set design and we wanted it to feel immersive for people watching and that’s something we wouldn’t have got the chance to do before [the pandemic].”

“The album is based on the idea of comfort,” Duane adds, “and we really wanted to embrace that when doing the livestream and make it comfortable for you in your own home to watch.”

Cowley was also struck by a message the band received in the wake of the show. “It was from a girl with cerebral palsy and she was talking about our gig and she was saying that she hoped when things go back to normal these sort of things [livestreams] don’t just go because they’re making gigs so much more inclusive and accessible.”

The band say they were vindicated in their decision to charge a fee for access to the livestream. “The act of buying a ticket makes you feel like it’s more exclusive,” Cowley says, “and with this livestream, we were thrilled with the ticket sales and people really did engage with that.”

She believes it is important that artists charge for their work, livestreams and all. “The second they get something for free, they are so much less likely to ever pay for it again. And that’s the issue we have with Spotify and the like. It’s a case of ‘Why would we buy your album when we can just stream it?’ Luckily, we’ve got fans who do buy them.”

And those fans have been out in force since the album’s release. During the week, Awake You Lie was at number two in the Irish charts and all three were active on social media urging fans to help get it to the summit.

Wyvern Lingo. Copyright Miguel Ruiz.

Having impressed with a self-titled debut album in 2018 — which went on to be shortlisted for the Choice Music Prize album of the year — the new songs are indicative of a band on the up. The songwriting is more accomplished and the production — which they looked after themselves — is super-slick.

“I think we’re better players now,” Cowley says. “We learnt a lot after the release of the first album and all that time playing together had an impact.”

Songwriting is a democratic process — all three bring demos to the table and have done since first coming on the scene in 2014 — and Duane says their close friendship helps ensure that they can be constructively honest with each other if they’re not enamoured with what another has created. They share lead vocals too — a quality which helps give the album an eclectic flavour. There are songs enthralled to the sort of classic tunesmith of the 1970s and others that have their roots in 1990s R&B.

The album is, by any measure, commercially strong. Most of the tracks would work well on daytime radio and Cowley says 2fm is especially supportive. But, she adds, that’s not the case on another national radio station.

“Today FM seems to have really changed their tune. There was a time, around our first album, where they had a lot of artists in and they were brilliant at championing new music. But in recent years, they seem to have completely changed their vibe and they don’t seem to play bands like us — and a lot of other bands — anymore.”

Airplay on Irish radio stations has become a contentious topic. Music publicist Linda Coogan Byrne has conducted extensive research on Irish radio playlists and has shown that female musicians are chronically under-played.

Wyvern Lingo say the trend of playing men more frequently than women is not surprising to them, but they were taken aback by the gender disparity. “It’s really hard to understand why it happens,” Cowley says, “maybe it’s an age-old conservatism that still lingers or a sense that they [play-listers] have a rigid idea about the sort of music that should be played.

“And it’s not just women,” she adds. “Lots of alternative acts don’t get played either. Variety is one of the things that makes life special and if you’re hearing the same bunch of artists all the time, nobody wins.”

‘Awake You Lie’ by Wyvern Lingo

‘Awake You Lie’ is out now