It’s hard to imagine any Northern Irish artists that can boast as good a year as Ciaran Lavery. The Aghagallon singer-songwriter and his husky voiced folk was something of a best kept secret in Northern Ireland just a couple of years ago. Now though, he’s taken his music much further afield. Frequent trips to the UK and Europe this year, plus a few North American shows, have gone hand in hand with some heady numbers on streaming service Spotify. An acclaimed second studio album named ‘Let Bad In’ won the NI Music Prize in November and Lavery topped his year off with a first live album ‘Live at The Mac’.
Celebrating the launch of the live album with another Christmas show at The Mac this year, Ciaran Lavery chatted to Aaron Cunningham about the release and of courses some of those 2016 highlights.
► Last time I saw you on stage you on stage you were picking up the NI music prize, have you had any time to celebrate or reflect on that?
I think when I got the award, I might have been heading off straight away to do some shows. I spent a couple of weeks over in England with Lanterns on the Lake, doing some support slots which was nice. Any down time that I’ve had I’ve been in Dublin just working on the new record.
The idea of just sitting and looking at it, I’ll probably freak out. I never liked the idea of ever stopping. I think there’s probably going to be a point in time where I will reflect and think ‘right, this is what I’ve achieved’, but I don’t really see it any time soon I’m in that mode now where I feel like I need to keep on setting myself goals. And I’ve always liked to do that anyway for the last few years where I give myself a few things to achieve for the next six months. That’s just always the way I’ve worked. I’m happier pushing on rather than sitting back, it’s that fear of becoming stale or just sitting still for that two second period where I might have missed some opportunity.
So to answer it shortly, no.
► You’ve ticked a lot of boxes this year with European tours, a well received album, a live album and everything. Have you already set your ambitions for the next year?
I think a new record has always been the priority. I’ve set myself this goal a while ago of one album a year. If you look back at the sixties with Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, those boys were banging out one album a year. It wasn’t just filler albums, they were proper quality. I don’t really like the idea of doing one album and then sitting for five years and then maybe coming back with something else because I don’t know what you do in between times. So right now, I think I’m on track to have some new music for next year.
I suppose America is now calling. I’m going to start to tread into those waters because I’ve only really dipped my toe. By this time next year I will hopefully be well immersed – that’s a lot of water references all at once… There’s lots of places that I’ve found this year in Europe and the UK that I was making mental notes on. Suddenly you just begin to narrow your field a tiny bit so it doesn’t become so sporadic or a mad spread of just being everywhere the whole year round. Germany’s been good to me, and Holland’s been nice, and the UK and Ireland are still priorities for me to get a reputation in there and get to a point where I’ll be able to shift more tickets and get more buzz. Then if I do happen to head away to America or somewhere else, by the time I come back I’m not forgotten about.
► You’ve done a lot of European shows this year, has the reception been good when you’ve returned to those places?
The good thing about those countries, especially because English is their second language, I’m not lost in there. And they’re good music listeners. That sounds like such a cliché to say but they really love music over there, they still buy CDs and physical products. I’ve talked to a few different musicians about it, and it’s the strangest thing, there’s some places that you’ll get in Europe where people will give you constructive criticism at the end of your show. They’ll say, ‘I really like this song, but not this one, and I think you should play this song because you didn’t play it tonight’. And you think, ‘alright’ and you make all these notes. It’s nice and I don’t think they do it in a way that they’re trying to be nasty or trying to say they know your set better than you, it’s just that they know what they like. They’re still there to listen and to sit.
The first time I played a show, somewhere in Germany, but there were two people talking and the whole place turned at once to shush them. And nobody knew me, so I didn’t really have the right to have everyone’s attention but they’re just very respectful people in that if they come to see a certain show they’re going to give you all the attention you need to get through. If you can get them on your side then it’s a bonus.
► Your Live at the Mac release, was it a goal to release a live album or was it a case of you’ve got a good live show, record it and see what comes out of it?
I think it was the second point. We had tried the strings show, on The Barge earlier in the year and a few people said they really enjoyed it. Then when it came around October time, myself and Lyndon talked about maybe doing something and the idea of doing a strings show again came up. I think a while later it was kicked around about trying to record it and we’ll see what happens. If it’s good, then great and if it doesn’t work out, there’s nothing lost. It’s just a bonus that the two shows back to back were sold out, and then the fact that the live album came out. I was really happy with it, the label were happy and everyone seemed to be really pleased with how it all sounded.
It was one of those things that listening back it managed to capture whatever went on over those two nights. Hopefully when people listen to it they can get a sense of something different about the songs, the feel of how they were delivered on the night. Hopefully that’s bottled within the album when you listen back. It’s been a bit of a bonus this year to have a live album at the end of it. Last year I don’t think I ever really had it on my list. I think when the opportunity came up to record something and then suddenly now it’s out, it’s just a nice addition.
► And favourite live albums?
I’ve heard a few live albums and there’s a couple I really love. The Eels – Live at Town Hall was always the benchmark when I listen to live album, that’s such a great album with strings. It sounded so grand but at the same time there’s moments of it that are really bare and delicate and it’s live enough that you know it’s not perfect but it’s great and raw. The Bob Dylan – Rolling Thunder Revue was great and the band were stupidly good.
► How was the process of arranging the strings with Dan Byrne-McCullough?
The good thing about working with Dan is that he’d listen to them knowing that it was all about placement rather than trying to fire strings over the top of everything. He was very sensitive about where to put things and I think we were both aware of how many singer-songwriters have used strings before. So it was trying to use them in a slightly different way, and for the strings to add some tempo which is tough for them to drive your song on rather than the guitar but there are no other instruments there. So he was trying to create all these different dynamics just with three instruments, he didn’t even get a quartet, it was a trio cause that’s all I could afford.
We played a lot of shows this year, myself and Dan and he’s come on as a guitar player for this year’s show and it’s nice to have someone who’s on the same side of the fence. He plays the songs, understands them and the ebb and flow of everything. This year we’ve had to look and he’s already said he wanted to make some changes from last year’s show and change some notes because he’s probably now looking at it as a player as well as a composer. I think he did an amazing job.
► How did you select the right tracks to arrange for the live album and show?
In my head it’s the songs that first and foremost that I would be interested in trying out. I think if they can work with me on a guitar and if I like to hear some strings, then that’s what I’ve thrown to Dan. You have to draw a line at some stage so I’ve had to be quite strict because you could probably have a go at everything. You could spend an obscene amount of time working on songs that may or may not work and suddenly you’re wrestling with a song for a week and you don’t really have the time. This year it was a matter of looking for a few additions on top of the set from last year and tweaking whatever we had to tighten it up. And because Dan is now on stage, he’s filling in different gaps and adding in different elements that we didn’t have before. I’ve just tried to be really strict about the song selection rather than mull over things, I’ve just tended to go with my gut. If it doesn’t work then just get it off the table quick and move onto something else.
► And what about selecting the covers that appeared on the live record?
I honestly can’t remember how we came to decide those. I’ve always wanted to try some sort of Springsteen, and it’s hard to pick a Bruce Springsteen song that isn’t either already covered to death or pick something that people are too precious about. I don’t really know anybody who would pick ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ as a choice on a jukebox. I love that song, and it is underplayed and nobody really talks about it too much. I had someone who wrote a tweet to me about it saying ‘this is my least favourite Springsteen song, I never listen to this’. And I just thought, well don’t listen to it then, maybe you should tell Bruce Springsteen yourself. That’s why I like it, there’s a certain charm to it, people aren’t precious about it. I don’t want to try something like ‘Born to Run’, it’s a perfect song, why would you want to touch it? This was just something I thought would be nice to hear with strings.
The Christmas song last year was something we tossed around. I knew I didn’t really want to do something that would take away the essence of a Christmas song itself, or go too far away or obscure, so I tried to stick to one of the classics. The strings were lovely on it, and it gets very grand. I’m happy with what we’ve chosen. This year we added in a Bonnie Prince Billy cover because there’s possibly going be a special record for Record Store Day next year and the song was something we’ve worked on in the studio, it seemed a natural thing to add to the set.