Limavady native turned Calgary blow in Emét (Emmét McGonagle) has taken a long path to get to where they are now. Their current era began with the release of single ‘JJ Johnston’ in 2020 and has led to the release of their debut album Carlin’s Farm last week. Recorded, at least in part, in Belfast’s Half Bap studios, Carlin’s Farm is a confident and cohesive release and the culmination of their flowering talents. There’s more than a hint of bohemian finesse in a collection of songs that flow into each other, with musical and even lyrical links from one song to the next. Whether it’s drawing inspiration from home (JJ Johnston), weaving lines and purpose around Leonard Cohen and New York’s iconic Chelsea Hotel (The Chelsea Hotel Is Closed Until Further Notice) or fictional police raids (Seeking A Friend for the End of the World), Emét’s knack of warmly off-kilter storytelling is at home here.
The eldest of nine, my ma Marie was raised on a farm in Tamnaherin, just outside Derry. From what I gather the farm was one of the highlights of her childhood, and so it became a symbol of nostalgia and comfort during the writing process – topics which weave in and out of the album as a whole.
The lyrics are based on a conversation I had with my ma when I was twelve or so. We were in a carpark in Coleraine, and she was being really open about the importance of picking battles and accepting inevitable changes in life. There was also a mention of reincarnation in there, which I hadn’t considered as a wee Catholic altar boy. All in all, it was probably the first time I realised my ma was an actual person, and – while there’s nothing worse than chatting about death with a loved one – it was a sincere moment which I wanted to put to a traditional Irish melody.
The album artwork is based on a painting by my father’s father, Eddie McGonagle, of Mulroy Bay in county Donegal. My talented mate Nichola Irvine added some flames to reference Carlin’s Farm, but aye it’s just a wee house in the artwork, not a farm.
The Chelsea Hotel Is Closed Until Further Notice
‘The Chelsea Hotel Is Closed Until Further Notice’ was inspired by a self-portrait of Leonard Cohen. He was looking miserable and wearing a trilby alongside the caption “one of the days when the hat doesn’t help”. The image took me back – I hadn’t considered that other people do tiny things to perk themselves up on a shite day.
The song starts with the hat, but goes into bigger themes of purpose and wasted opportunities, reaching its peak at the (currently closed) Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. I really did visit the Chelsea Hotel a few years back to see where ‘Field Commander Cohen’ stayed, but it was closed for renovations, which felt like a wasted opportunity in itself since I wasn’t in New York for long. It felt like a full circle moment for the song, which is a class feeling as a writer.
Right, so this was actually the first song I wrote as Emét. JJ Johnston is my friend, hairdresser and next-door neighbour back in Limavady. When the pandemic hit he had to close his business for a few months, during which time everyone and their granny were getting buzz cuts or looking like Honeybear-era Father John Misty.
The whole scenario was a tough blow for poor JJ (and the rest of the world, for that matter) and so he asked me to write a song about it, which I thought was a strange suggestion. Regardless, I gave it a go and the end product was sorted in 45 minutes. That was the first song I wrote in two years, and I’ve no intention of stopping now.
These Better Not Be The Good Old Days
This one was written when I was back at my family home over Christmas 2020. It was snowing, and I was chatting to my partner Charlie via Facetime from my childhood bedroom. There was this old ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’ poster in the corner of my screen, and I felt embarrassed by teenage Emét’s questionable taste in bedroom decor.
This was a few months before I recorded the bulk of Carlin’s Farm, and with ambitions of making music with little-to-no money during a pandemic I felt down on myself. I was writing about the concern I was biting off more than I could chew, and shortly after read a tweet from Phoebe Bridgers which said “these better not be the fucking good old days” which brought a tongue-and-cheek element to the track. Lines like “I’m six of one, but sure you know yourself” felt pointless in the best way possible, and so I figured that – if nothing else were to come of the album – I was making something brilliant that nobody would hear.
I settled on “the easy road was never clean” as a chorus to remind me that while making music is a shameless money game, while I still have two pennies to rub together I’m gonna have a damn good time doing it.
Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World
When it came to Seeking A Friend, a decent amount of the album had been written and Carlin’s Farm was starting to look like a concept album about the apocalypse. I sat down and thought “this is the heavy one”, and wrote about a (fictional) late-night raid of a high-rise building, with armed police removing people from their homes and beating up innocent people left, right and centre for the fuck of it.
After I wrote the song, I listened to Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher and Hozier’s Wasteland Baby and quickly realised the world didn’t need another album about the apocalypse. The song still slaps and the album does have that concept element, but it’s all jumbled up now.
Sticky Floor Serenade
A lifetime ago I studied English with Creative Writing at Queen’s, and naturally spent a lot of time on the tear in some cheap local spots. This particular song is based on a night in Villa with my mate Paddy Clarke, which ended with him getting tackled by a bouncer while dancing to The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Apache (Jump On It)’.
A few years after we graduated (the weekend before the first Covid lockdown), Paddy and I met up in Liverpool, and it felt like we were back in the QUB Students Union drinking three Coronas for a fiver. ‘Sticky Floor Serenade’ is the name of a song he wrote, and since my song was about him I figured I was justified in stealing his song title for the craic.
Hate To See It
To quote Courtney Love: “This song’s about a jerk, I hexed him and now he’s losing his hair.”
‘Hate To See It’ is about a middle-aged man who still buzzes off The Troubles and all the political unrest still felt in its wake. He knows his views are outdated, but instead of recalibrating his view on the world he doubles down, much to the disappointment of the people around him. Imagine you’re chatting to a mate at a bar, and some drunk fella chimes in with a “not to be the devil’s advocate, but…”
Scarecrow (I Think I’ll Miss You Most Of All)
For context, I’m listening to Soak’s Grim Town as I write this for Chordblossom. Every teenager in Derry wants to leave Derry at some point, and I wasn’t the exception.
I wrote Scarecrow because I didn’t want to live and die in Limavady. In retrospect, incredible people live incredible lives in the Roe Valley and my views have softened a wee bit, so don’t be sending me any cheeky messages about Limavegas. The ending of The Wizard of Oz felt like a good metaphor for Limavady and my misgivings about home at the time. Dorothy taps her big red slippers to go home, meanwhile everyone she met along the way stays in Oz. I’m still not entirely sure why she’ll miss Scarecrow “most of all” – it seems a wee bit unfair on the rest of the cast.
Hold Me Down
I met my partner Charlie when I was studying magazine journalism in Cardiff, and I thought she was class from the get-go. I was right, she is class, and so ‘Hold Me Down’ is about the awkwardness of chatting someone up outside a pub.
I remember flying back to Belfast for Christmas after an unsuccessful night of flirting, and thinking to myself “I really need to sort my priorities out”, which is actually what my song ‘Thran’ is about. We messaged a lot over the holidays, and so this song is about wanting to meet in the middle, cut out the ballix and build towards a relationship. We’ve been together four years, so it all worked out grand in the end.
Named after a Tibetan purgatory in which the dead spend 49 days before being reincarnated, ‘Bardo’ (ironically) took on a lot of forms before reaching the end result. I started writing it about five years ago, but the Tibetan influence stemmed from a documentary on the topic narrated by Leonard Cohen. As you’ve probably gathered at this point, I’m a big Cohen fan.
The song follows an exhausted protagonist on a seemingly-endless journey to an unknown destination. It’s a pretty dark concept, but towards the end it has a hint of optimism thanks to the line “awk, sure we’ll get ‘em next time,” which I felt was a reassuring line for the character to repeat in the hopes that there’ll be more journeys to come.
I Sang You A Song (Now, Please Leave Me Alone)
My producer (George Sloan at Belfast’s Half Bap Music Studios) and I referred to this song as the “spooky scary”, since we initially didn’t know how best to approach the synth element. We were going for a blend of Doctor Who and Scooby Doo villain, but the end result is an equally-campy synth.
One of several songs about people I don’t like, this one follows a middle-aged woman who wants to celebrate her birthday with as much chaos as humanly possible. After being removed from a bar for dancing on tables and badgering the band to sing Happy Birthday, she gets a taxi home and returns to a disappointing life with her partner.
We were going for a “big finish” for the album, and so Carlin’s Farm ends as though the album had been a live performance. All instruments are going hell for leather as I encourage the audience “tip yer barbers, kiss yer mates, now go away home and read a book”. Not much thought was put into my closing remarks, but since everything was recorded in the pandemic it felt nice to be in a live environment again… even if it wasn’t real.