“…at least they’re engaging with reality rather than just being some disconnected indie music thing. Yet another love song that no one really gives a fuck about at the end of the day.” – Ian Maleney talks to Owensie.
With a history stretching back into the aether of the Dublin punk scene, Owensie surprised many people early last year by releasing Aliens, a solo acoustic effort that channeled the subdued style of Jose Gonzales guitar picking and hints of off-beat tropical rhythms, led by the quiet grace of his unusual and emotive voice. A little less than two years later, he’s back with a second collection of songs, which push his new-found sound in a couple of fresh directions. First of all, he’s brought in a band and his sound has filled out accordingly, growing more dynamic and surprising. Secondly, Citizens is not quite as doom and gloom as Aliens was, moving more overtly into bossa nova territory, to beautiful effect.
Released on Out On A Limb, Citizens will be launched in the Unitarian Church on Friday, October 26th.
So what went into the making of Citizens? How did it come together?
Time and a lot of songs. I wrote about twenty songs so these are the nine best of that bunch. I had gone in with an idea of how the album was going to start and how it was going to end and what it was going to be like in the middle. After the first recording session, I dropped the first song from the album, which was kind of scary. After the second or third recording session, I dropped the last song from the album as well. Once that happened, it totally opened up and it became freer in terms of what I was writing and what I was putting into it. I became a little less inhibited about what the songs were going to sound like or what kind of style they were. It was just if I liked the song, if I liked the melody and the sound, even if it was nicer or too poppy or anything like that, I’d still do it and not worry about how it compared with the last album. To take a bit of a risk. Not even really risk but risk for me.
Were you worried about comparing it with the first album?
The whole time leading up to the first album, just in terms of starting to play gigs alone and all that, was great because it broke away from everything I’d done before, stylistically and everything. That was a difficult thing to do. One, to bring it to performance level, it took about another year or so to even get good at doing that solo thing. Performing on your own where there’s a lot of pressure and everything has to be perfect. And to completely change in terms of the type of music you’re making as well. I had a big fear of how it was going to be perceived by people. Like, you’re worried people are going to laugh at you! So with the second album this time, I felt a little more enabled by that, because I’d done it once before, moving into that whole dark, singer-songwriter thing. I was way less afraid to change it up again, because I’d done it once before. That kind of made it exciting as well. Then, at least half the album as written for a band. That was in my mind throughout the whole process, so there was scope to change the dynamic from one song to the other, that would be totally doable. And now I’ve got a six piece band!
How did you feel being at the head of a group of musicians like that?
It’s good and bad. I’m getting a bit more used to that now but it’s hard to go from where rehearsal is just playing in your living room to contacting five people in order to get them to be in one place at the same time for rehearsal or a gig or anything. The other negative aspect then is money, which is something I’d be a lot more conscious of now. Where in the past I wouldn’t have minded as much not getting paid or getting paid very little for a gig, when I’ve got five people who I’m dependent on to make it sound right, who are giving their time, energy and focus for an album that essentially has my name on it and not theirs, I don’t really want to play any more if I’m not in a position to reimburse them in some way. I’m not really comfortable, even though a lot of the time they are there because they’re into doing it and they’re interested in the music.
The best thing about it is the band are all really nice. There are no major personalities in the band so everyone is quite easy going and supportive of each other and they’re out to have a good time for the most part I think. It’s nice to work in a group because it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s nice when everyone is on the bus.
Do you think having a band changes peoples’ interpretation of the songs? Because it’s not quite as personal when there’s a band up there.
Yeah, definitely. One of the hopes I had with introducing a full band was that the songs would carry over better in a busy setting that you’ll find in Ireland which is people drinking, talking at the bar. I hoped it would grab people a little more in that regard. In the new album there are definitely songs that don’t have that same intimacy as you’d get from the solo singer-songwriter kind of stuff. What I’m going to try to do live is mix those two elements and to have parts of the set that are solo and quiet and parts that are louder. One of the other things that I wanted to do with the album as well was that it wouldn’t just be melancholic and sombre through-and-through. That it would have a sad part to it and a dark part but a part that might make people want to dance as well, or make people laugh a bit, that kind of thing. I tried, with the music and the songs, to provoke different emotional responses, not just “the darkness”.
Did that feed into the lyrics? Were you more conscious of them this time compared to Aliens?
I’ve definitely become more and more conscious of the lyrics. I worked hard enough on the first album, in terms of trying to get good lyrics, but this time around I felt a little more settled as a lyricist. Sitting around writing lyrics had become a lot more normal to me, just doing it out of habit rather than going ‘I have to write the words for this song now’. I try to do it continuously now. Just writing down two lines that pop into your heard, doing that all the time. When I was writing the lyrics for this album, there was a pool of ideas there to draw from but I definitely spent a lot more time working on them. I think I’ll be happier with the lyrics on the next album because I think I’ve learned more from this one and I think I’m ready to write another one with more ideas, bringing more depth to the lyrics without making it more florid or complicated. Maybe because I’ve read more poetry and stuff like that now than I would have before. I think I’ve learned more techniques of how to do that in a relatively simplistic way.
Did you have a set of themes that you kept coming back to, consciously or otherwise?
I keep coming back to the migration thing again. Like in ‘Distance Of Her Love‘, with the migrant domestic worker kind of thing. It’s sort of stuff that I would have studied academically, I spent a fairly long period reading things about migrant domestic workers and things like that. When I was living in Brazil, years ago, I was teaching English and one of the students was a nanny. Basically her employer was paying for her to get English lessons because she was a rich banker and she’d take the nanny with her to London while she was working there, for months at a time. So she wanted her to learn English. She was from the north of Brazil and she’d left her children there in order to become this nanny and it was something I’d never come across in a direct way before. Living in Ireland and England, it was still relatively pre-Celtic Tiger era so I wasn’t used to that concept at all. I was looking at her going, ‘How could you leave your kids behind to go work thousands of miles away?’, so that kind of blew my mind a little bit. She used to take me out for lunch, she was obviously getting paid so much by this banker that she was taking me out. So we’d go for a beer and a chat, very nice woman, very friendly and all that. Anyway, when I was leaving the job, she gave me the present of a wallet. Which I thought was pretty random, but it was a nice wallet so I took it. This was almost ten years ago and I had completely forgot about it all until last year when I went to throw out the wallet because it was so wrecked. It was only when I threw it away that I remembered who had given it to me and from that I remembered the whole interaction with her and the way it freaked me out, how her whole life was set up. That was where that song came from. Some of the lines in it had already been written down as ideas but no directly connected to that memory. I think I finished writing the song with that memory in mind, but it was half written before then. So it was kind of coincidental in that way, like the memory helped to write the rest of it, to pave it in. Kind of subconscious or something.
So were there any new influences coming in on the new album that weren’t there before?
Well, Elliot Smith. I only started listening to Elliot Smith last year. I don’t know how I didn’t listen to him before. When the first album was released, it was a name that was kind of thrown around in reviews a bit. So I thought I should really listen to that some time just to see how much it sounds alike. I was over in Ruadhan O’Meara’s house and he’s got like framed Elliot Smith posters in his hall and I asked is he good and he said ‘He’s like my favourite artist of all time’. I think he says that about a lot of people but I said I’d definitely check it out. I borrowed four albums from my brother and started listening to them a lot at home. It took me a couple of listens to get into it but I’d kind of find, in each album, two or three songs that I’d repeat over and over again. I definitely identified with a lot of his vocal arrangements and harmonies and stuff. His lyric writing is really great too, the sort of narrative style that he has. That was a sort of a new influence on this album.
You’ve had your work remixed by a few people and you’ve collaborated with Bantum on his new album. Did working with those electronic musicians influence the direction of the new album at all?
The people like Toby Kaar, SertOne and Bantum, their remixes were mind-blowing, they were complete reworks of just taking the elements with no adherence to the original song. They just made it something mad, just turn it into a dance tune basically. That must have rubbed off a little bit I think. Darragh Nolan’s (Sacred Animals) remix was kind of interesting to me because I really like him a lot, he’s a really good songwriter and I was interested in that because he stayed quite faithful to the song itself but he changed the timing from 5/4 to 4/4 and had a lot of synthesizers which gave it a gloomy pop vibe because it was in a more standard meter. When it went up it became quite popular and it got a lot of write-ups and reviews and that, way more than the original! When he did that though, it made me open to using synthesizers on this album. It’s there in the background, not very prominent, but he gave me an insight into how it could possibly work with my own stuff. Aside from that it was great for me to get to know some of those people because I wasn’t connected in anyway with the electronic scene and it was great to get to know those people a bit. I’d meet Bantum for a coffee now and we’ve ended up collaborating on other stuff.
I’m always afraid of gravitating towards the contemporary sound, whatever is the popular sound, because I feel like I should. I’m always quite wary, for whatever reason. I also worry about the flipside of that, like that the music never going to sound like its a part of a certain time, like it’s associated with a certain era. I’m not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. Maybe the remixes help to do that, without me having to fully commit to it!
Coming back to the lyrics again, while you’re not a political writer, there is a sense of social commentary going on?
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s just from playing in punk bands since I was like 15 and political lyrics are pretty much standard for that kind of music. I did that kind of writing for so long and I still do it, I’m quite politically conscious and I became involved with radical left-wing politics through punk. I’m less involved now just because of work and family and all that kind of stuff but I’d still have a fairly critical view of a lot of stuff in Ireland and that comes through in the lyrics. When I was in Puget Sound and stuff like that, it always felt like you had these really political lyrics, anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian ideas, that you were performing to the punk scene who shared those exact same feelings. So it became very self serving: we’re right, so right, and everyone else is so fucking stupid except us. I was always interested in bringing those ideas out into a more mainstream or just a different, more public sphere. I have an opportunity to do that now with this stuff because different types of people will listen to this, not just people into underground music. On one hand, I do just write that way naturally but on the other hand, I am taking of advantage of that situation where I can have lyrics which have a critical social commentary because I don’t think there is enough of it in Irish music, just given the state of the place at the moment. I was worried about that until the Spook’s album came out. I thought it’s starting to happen now, bands are willing to talk about the situation in Ireland. Even though they’re a little vague or obscure, that’s grand, at least they’re engaging with reality rather than just being some disconnected indie music thing. Yet another love song that no one really gives a fuck about at the end of the day.
It seems like a lot of people have taken the aesthetic values of punk and garage and whatever and not taken anything else into account.
Yeah, everything is aesthetic. It’s quite sad but a lot of the time there is nothing below the surface, it’s music and that’s it. It’s all about the tunes man. There’s nothing very imaginative going on beyond that. It feels almost like the x-factor or something like that and I’ve got certain misgivings about people’s motivations in music between all the promotional industry that has developed around the music scene in terms of helping bands to break through and promoting Irish bands. It’s started to result in an accumulation of more and more bands who describe themselves in a certain way. Ireland’s hardest working indie band who are basically just a showband with a loose collection of originals, that aren’t very original.
A few months ago, I was on my way out to the Hive to do some recording, I was on the bus and I’d got on with two guitars and all my shit. This drunk guy tapped me on the back and he said ‘You play guitar, do ya?’ and I thought to myself, oh fuck here we go. He was like ‘Ah yeah, I used to play myself’ and he went on and on about he used to tour up and down the country in the 60s and they played in Germany and they supported the Beatles or something. He kept saying to me again and again, ‘Don’t play cheap, make sure they pay you’. He said, ‘Don’t play cheap because if you play cheap, they’ll never respect you’. That’s what he’d done for so long and now he was some washed up alcoholic guy. It scared the shit out of me! I was like, ‘Is that what happens to you?!’. Is that what’s going to happen to the scene now in thirty years time, a bunch of alcoholic sixty-year olds with no money? It’s a terrifying prospect but if you do dedicate a certain amount of years you may just wake up in your late forties with no money. I’d imagine it’d be quite easy to slip into alcoholism at that stage and that’s it, game over. Should have been in a showband!