With a two year gap and a handful of singles since their first EP release, Niall McDowell followed 2019’s Valentine with It Was An Honour To Be Nominated last month. Without doubt, it was worth the wait.
The Belfast songwriter’s latest collection of songs displays a marked increase in confidence, with all the signs of a songwriter finding their way to the sound they’ve been looking for. It Was An Honour To Be Nominated contains some of McDowell’s best work, opening with latest single ‘Brokeback’ written around a panic attack at Mass. Amongst the EP’s five tracks, there’s the classic country rhythms of ‘Tennessee’, the vibrant haze of ‘Down To You’, the country melancholy of ‘Personal Hell’ and the grief laid bare on the brilliant ‘It Was An Honour To Be Nominated’. It Was An Honour To Be Nominated is a beautiful release, infused with Niall McDowell’s unmistakeable crooning vocals and their unique alt-country songwriting.
We asked Niall to shed some light on the writing and recording of each track.
I wrote ‘Brokeback’ in the middle of the night sometime in Summer ‘21, and it came together in about half an hour as if I’d been subconsciously writing it for a long time. I wanted to write a song that incorporated the lower strings of my guitar to add to the progression and make it almost like a bassline, as I normally play solo in a live setting. It’s an odd song to try and explain because it’s about a few different things intertwined, but I see it as a meditation on life, death and grief. I was part of a very strict all boys choir as a child and the main storyline of the song is focused on a panic attack that I had during a Mass around that time. Looking back on that scenario, modern-day me is wishing I knew then what I know now. This idea is also central to the movie Brokeback Mountain, which I’d been watching a lot around this time and was very inspired by the soundtrack as well. So, it all came together in a way that felt correct. I recorded it in Chris Ryan’s home studio, and we wanted it to be very raw and no frills, with very dry vocals and some subtle doubling on certain words. I think it came together well, and I’m very proud I had the guts to record it.
This is a very simple song, written about a guy I dated from Tennessee, and was inspired by classic country and Americana music. I was listening to a lot of Sheryl Crow and The Chicks and wanted to write a song that was incredibly specific but almost written in a relatable, pop structure focused on the feeling rather than the details. I was also very inspired by Joni Mitchell’s ‘Carey’ and how Joni keeps changing the melody and pacing of the chorus every time she sings it, and that’s what I do here, more as a song-writing exercise than anything else. It was very strange song to try and record with a band because on the surface there’s a lot of repetition, but there’s little changes throughout the whole thing that makes it constantly change. In the end though, we had a lot of fun recording it and I think you can hear it.
Down To You
When I first started writing music a few years ago, I was making reverb heavy, lo-fi demos that in retrospect are quite odd and eerie in tone. I remember having to ask producers to keep turning up the reverb on things, as I wanted to change the atmosphere and style because I had a specific sonic world in my head. I wanted to lean into this kind of world but also create an anthemic sort of song in the realm of Dave Matthews Band or Goo-Goo Dolls, and ‘Down to You’ is the culmination of that. The band got to go wild on it, and it ended up being one of my favourite songs I’ve done. We had so many melody lines and bits of ornamentation that we had to edit and pick our favourite parts. Thematically, I guess the song is about power, and rejection of it whether that’s in relationships or in my own career.
‘Personal Hell’ is an ode to Patsy Cline, Lesley Gore, Skeeter Davis and all my favourite female country singers from the 60s. It’s kind of like ‘Brokeback’ in the way that I’m telling a lot of different stories in one song, basically switching narratives every few lines. It was a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, focusing on how I felt that everything in my life was on the cusp of falling apart, and saying my goodbyes. The interesting thing about trying to record a bunch of songs in a small time period is that everyone got to just lean into the style I had briefed, with guitar solos and what I call ‘Be my Baby’ drums, and I think this song ended up being a modern spin on a classic sound, which I love.
It Was an Honour To Be Nominated
This was the final song written for the EP, and the final song recorded. It’s about coming to terms with grief and this issue that I had with how society treats the grieving socially, with this idea of there almost being a time limit on these feelings. I was just very bitter and was dealing with a break-up too which added to this need to throw everything on the table, which makes the song feel very direct. One of my favourite songs of all time is ‘Shatter’ by Liz Phair and me and Chris Ryan decided to emulate that slow, tense build-up to add to it for the bridge and climax I had written. I think the phrase ‘It Was An Honour To Be Nominated’ spiritually runs through every song and links them together, so that it almost became the mission statement of the EP, which is why I put it as the final track, and as the title. I think it sets the tone for whatever I write going forward.