by / July 14th, 2016 /

Interview: Ciaran Lavery Talks Too Much

Ciaran Lavery was chatting on the phone. “I’ve gone down the heartbreak road before, but that was when I was 23 or 24.” He was talking about the lack of odes to romance on his recent album Let Bad In.  (Back then) “I was lookin’ my heart broke because that’s what I thought I needed to do to write great songs.”

At time of writing, Lavery’s ‘Shame’ from his previous Not Nearly Dark album (2013) has elicited 22, 070,750 listens. The scratchy voiced verses of love, and love gone awry, from Not Nearly Dark and 2014’s Kosher EP, are now stacked comfortably in his back catalogue of much loved favourites. Sea Legs, his 2015 collaboration with electronic artist Ryan Vail, saw the move in new directions. Songs of tenderly executed hurt appeared on the Sea Legs mini-album, but so too did the experiments, the sharpness, the fresh themes. By the time he was creating Let Bad In he “was writing in a different space.” There were other sentiments to capture, other circumstances to convey.  “I thought I’m not going to start forcing heartbreak in here.”

There’s a natural sense of movement to all this, a gathering of momentum. Last year he signed up with the world-wide Paradigm Talent Agency which has upped the ante on Lavery’s reach internationally. As we speak he is touring Europe. However, the Aghagallon, County Antrim native has certain roots closer to home that he wants to nourish before his focus shifts.

“I’ve always been of the mind that there is a market here at home that people sometimes just overlook because there is that romance with America and being big over there,” he tells me. “I would hate to be huge in America and then come home and be doing nothing for a few weeks and realise I’m going to have to go back to America to make some money or get some shows because I can’t get any shows at home.”

It’s all about thinking long term for Lavery. “Things could have gone quicker; the trajectory could have been a much steeper climb instantly. But it’s that fear of the fall soon after one of those quick rises.” Seems he’s going to take as long as he needs to make sure the career he carves out for himself is the one he wants. “The opportunities, you get more of those, but I’m trying to pick the right ones and say no to things that I don’t think are going to work out for me in the long term.”

Touring is part of that long term, and the short term. His ongoing experiences in Europe have left a good taste in his mouth. “They don’t seem to have that big differentiation between a big artist and a start-out. Everyone seems to be treated on a level plane.”

On the spring 2016 leg of his European tour, more things hit home than the fact that they were well-attended gigs. For one there were the distances people were prepared to travel to see Lavery play, and there was also how folks knew the words to his songs. “It’s new for me,” he says quietly, “especially when I’m in a country where it’s not their first language and they don’t really need to come out.”

In Europe he’s been touring with Rachael Boyd (“on violin and some loop stuff”) and Dan Byrne-McCullough (“on guitars and loops”), and for Lavery it looks like this has managed to deepen the shows and lift them at the same time. “We were able to change things as we went along and as we got more comfortable we started messing with the set a bit and make it just as interesting for us on stage, rather than going through the motions playing the same set every night.”

Working with others regularly on stage has also pointed out a new truth for the performer who is used to basically doing it all on his own. “I talk far too much,” he laughs. “I need to talk less.”  Apparently it’s unanimous. “Sometimes I really will just go off on one and in my head I’m already saying stop talking. But I just keep going because for some reason I’m on this run. I’ve never had to deal with other people on stage like that and I could just talk and talk. Then I see the corner of their eye saying ‘like seriously are we going to do the next song?’”

He wants to keep the intimacy of the solo act but “it felt right to get things moving up another level, especially with the album coming out.” He has worked with Boyd and McCullough previously. Boyd played with him as part of the string quartet he performed with last year. McCullough was the person who scored the strings in those performances, so his choice of artists felt consistent. “It was just a quick and easy transition … for both of them it seemed quite simple and natural for me to lean in that direction.”

The recently released Let Bad In is the key element to the tour. The album started life “as a handful of songs and not really a collection” he explains about the gist of the album. “A lot of the songs were already there in some sort of shape or form. Some needed either battered into shape or given a certain direction.” Then he saw a home video from the early 90s of a family holiday. “A lightbulb went off in my head and I thought I really love the audio from this … with the home video in there it gives things a narrative, a focus, whereas before it felt like a group of songs that didn’t really have an end goal … It was almost like a thread that just sits and I can pull it nicely into shape and I can pull it together.”

The album is a cache of memories, a box of letters from childhood. Some of the letters are about him, written by the adult Lavery looking back. Some of them are written from the angle of how the boy in that old video would have seen things.

In terms of the sound, Lavery considers it “a marriage between the last album (Not Nearly Dark) and the EP (Kosher) … there are elements of that very alone side and then elements of that very full band.”

Title track ‘Let Bad In’ is a prime example of “that very alone side.” It has become signature for Lavery to seize the attention of the crowd at his shows by pouring his voice a capella into the room. ‘Let Bad In’ has been one of these openers for a while. “I can never remember even having a conversation about whether I wanted to put anything else in this. It was only in one place really and it stayed there. I’d always had this idea that I wanted to have an a capella song on the album. At the time I was doing it live a capella pretty regularly and thought there’s no point if I do this and have no a capella on the album.  People wouldn’t see the connection. I recorded it were I am right now in my living room. Just basically took my phone out, recorded it as a VoiceNote and then sent it through.”

The album moves to starkly different landscapes with ‘Okkervil River’. Here we have a full band; there is mounting brass which earths the sound, there’s a big build-up and a constant crowd in the room. “It’s as bold as the album gets I think, it’s right at one end of the spectrum.” The song’s name comes from American folk/rock band Okkervil River. “I’ve liked them quietly because I was afraid that other people would like them and then suddenly they’re not mine anymore.”

It has been said to Lavery that the album is really quite dark, however, it’s not so for the man himself.  “Because I know where it’s come from, the songs bring me back to certain times and they just resonate differently with me as the writer. I thought that the album was really hopeful … a lot of what I like about music is that those moments of hope are born out of something that’s really dark. Then something has that flash, that fragment of light and you think this is real. It’s not like ‘this is hope’, it’s ‘this is real’ – this person knows what they’re talking about – this is possibly based on personal experience.”

Ever moving, forever in momentum, Lavery is “sitting on another album’s worth of material” that he is going to record in the near future by the sounds of it. “It’s obviously all new material. It’s exciting, it’s unknown, I’m putting every piece together and I’m not that concerned about finding one general theme this time … I’m at the point where I’m really excited about the songs and I think this is the best stuff I’ve ever written but it’s hard to tell until it’s recorded.”

The tour continues through Europe, including UK and Ireland. A further five-stop circuit of Ireland in October has just been announced:

October 5: DUBLIN – THE SUGAR CLUB
October 6: DUNDALK – SPIRIT STORE
October 7: CORK – CYPRUS AVENUE
October 8: KILKENNY – CLEERE’S
October 9: GALWAY – ROISIN DUBH