Lisa O’Neill – Space Is A Very Important Thing

Lisa O’Neill chats with Ian Maleney about creativity, touring, and being brought down to earth hard in Cavan, ahead of her gig in Whelan’s this Friday with Barry McCormack & Bunnoscoinn.

Lisa O’Neill chats with Ian Maleney about creativity, touring, and being brought down to earth hard in Cavan, ahead of her gig in Whelan’s this Friday with Barry McCormack & Bunnoscoinn.


Lisa O’Neill keeps busy. From touring America and the UK with David Gray to working on the follow-up to her wonderful and charming debut album, it’s been a pretty crazy year for the Cavan-born singer. She is capping it all off this Friday with a headline show in Whelans, supported by Barry McCormack and trad group Bunnoscoinn.

Over two years after the appearance of her first record Lisa O’Neill Has An Album, O’Neill now has a host of new songs and a full band in tow. These “new” songs, which have been bouncing around O’Neill’s head for the past couple of years, are now at the forefront of her mind. Over the past few weeks she has been at home demoing these songs on an old four-track recorder, a testament in itself to the simplicity which marks her best songs. This simplicity, or the hardened core of the song, is an element that O’Neill wants to focus on as she begins work on the new record. “The first album was just a collection of anything I’d written at that stage in my life,” she says of Has An Album. “So I don’t know if it fits well together as an album. I was very excited to be in the studio, I’d never been in a studio before. I was very excited that we could record as many layers as possible and we just did it all. Since that, I respect space a lot more. Also, the subject matters are a bit all over the place, there’s lots of different things on the first album. The second album is quite melancholy I think and quite personal.”

It’s not a complete change in direction though, and O’Neill sees it as both more relaxed and more considered. “I’m getting older as well and I think it’s a little more mature,” she says. “I’ve played a lot more [since the first album came out]. I’m learning to use my voice in different ways now. It’s gentler. I know I don’t need to roar to be heard, there’s a microphone there. Space, I’ve noticed, is a very important thing. I think the songs were sped up with excitement and to get them over and done with on the first album and now I’ve slowed it down. I think I learned there’s nothing wrong with my first album but I definitely don’t want the second one to sound anything like it. That was a big learner.”

While she describes the new works as heartfelt love songs, O’Neill retains her ability to approach well-worn subjects in a refreshingly new way. She manages to bring new airs to old words, a sign of a true folk artist. “No one wants to write what’s been heard before,” she says of avoiding clichés. “When you’re an artist you want to put your own mark on it but also, everybody’s heart and brain are different. We’ve all had different experiences and these are my experiences. This is one way I put things down and one way I deal with things. It’s like writing a diary, you know, but being poetic about it because I enjoy that.”

Despite such startlingly fresh results, O’Neill’s process is typical of almost any songwriter, though it is perhaps more off the cuff than most, something which may explain the indelible mark of her personality on her work. “Songs derive from different places and I would rarely plan or decide at any time that that’s something I’d want to write a song about,” she says. “The way I write would be more I’d sit over the guitar and I’d mess around with a little riff or a few chords and hum over it until a tune starts coming. Then I start blurting out words that might not necessarily make sense and then they begin to make sense and then it just comes out.”

A personal favourite is the beautiful love song, ‘Musehead’, with it’s carefully constructed lyrics and awkward rhythms. Its origins were a little different. “Hmmm, ‘Musehead’ is a funny one. I was in a pub, very late one night about two or three years ago, drunk. I was in the toilet when I had this lyrical idea, “Pillow-talking muse-head, will you beat me eggs and bring me bread?” and I put it down in my phone. I don’t know where it came from but your mind is a little more relaxed when you’re drunk as well. A couple of weeks later I remembered and took out the guitar and started messing with it. The song came out in a day I think. Some songs are different and as time goes on you change your ways and you want to work harder at things so sometimes I’d get half a song written and I’d get it very hard to finish it. Some times it could be weeks or months or even more to be happy with a song. I’d go over and over it, playing it over and over again, trying not to lose patience with it until something else comes out.”

Some songwriters give off a sense of constant inspiration, always working on something. With O’Neill it’s a little harder to tell. She seems more careful than most about what she puts out in the world, helped up until recently by the lack of any web-presence stronger than an old, unused Myspace page. Still, her songs can and are about just about anything so if everything can be inspiration, there’s a lot to write about. In the end, it seems the act of writing is more important to her than the end result. “I’m prolific but I don’t know, I don’t often finish things,” she says. “Sometimes when I started writing, it would start off in song form where I had a verse and then I’d get really into it and it wouldn’t be a song any more. It would be a poem and then it would go from a poem into me writing what I think about something. So the idea of the song is gone but I’m after releasing my thoughts on something that I’ve never verbalised before and it’s like a little diary on. I keep all this and sometimes I’ll go back to and sometimes I’ll get a song out of it.”

One of the big changes in recent times for O’Neill has been living solely as an artist since leaving her post in Bewleys of Grafton St. last year. The shift to full time musician has had its ups and downs. “I quit in December and I haven’t been working in any kind of job since, just trying to get by and trying to be an artist. I’m trying to stay at home and get a routine going where I get up at the same time every morning and try to get a certain amount of hours in. I’m trying to learn some new instruments too, like piano. Someone gave me a piano a month ago, a very old piano. I can’t play and I can’t read music but I’ve written a couple a songs on it just by messing around on it, just feeling my way around it. When you don’t know anything about it, it is exciting. You don’t know what you’re going to come out with. You’ve no restrictions because you don’t know what restrictions are.”

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