With MTV’s European Music Awards coming from Belfast in 2011 and the commemorative commotion marking the Titanic’s centenary the cultural spotlight of recent years hasn’t strayed too far from Northern Ireland’s capital. The country’s second city however has long-awaited its turn and having been bestowed the status of the inaugural UK City of Culture for 2013, Derry-Londonderry’s year is nearly here. As far as the Maiden City’s music is concerned, it’s hard to pinpoint a time in history when the Derry walls quartered such an immense fortune of ability enjoying deserved recognition from home and away. Which isn’t to disregard the great heritage of songs whose hearts belong to the city.
2013 for instance marks one hundred years since the conception of Danny Boy and in that time not only has it gone on to become one of the world’s most well-recognised tunes, but some of the most revered figures in popular music, from Elvis to Johnny Cash, have rephrased it in their own musical mother tongues, helping a well-aged piece of Derry culture endure for audiences decades-upon-decades later. Fast-forward then from a century ago right up until the late ’70s with the outbreak of punk icons The Undertones. “Teenage dreams so hard to beat” reads the headstone of treasured broadcaster John Peel, a short inscription from the Derry band’s ‘Teenage Kicks’ calling card which the DJ proclaimed, of the unimaginable heft of music he was exposed to in his lifetime, was his pick of the lot.
Add to that prestige the release this year of Good Vibrations, an independently-produced biopic of their one-time manager and legendary proponent of Northern Irish punk Terri Hooley which swept the boards at each of its limited screenings so far and you’re left with an idea of how the legacy of just one of Derry’s most-loved exports is still resonating with newer generations today. But what of the current crop of artists primed to make good on the wealth of international interest this year’s calendar is expected to generate?
There seems to be an unspoken kinship between today’s Derry musicians that’s ever so slightly subtler than say the North Coast’s collective DIY-punk ethos or Belfast’s extroverted demeanour of solidarity. Many of the same ideals are common to Derry music too but there’s something about the kinds of resplendently languid sounds emanating from there that suggests a little more restraint, or even modesty, being filtered through that familiar mindset of ‘everyone pulling together’ in citywide harmony.
No one has made waves beyond the Foyle of late quite like SOAK. With recent Radio One rotation increasing her fan base by the play, Belfast-born Bridie Monds-Watson’s on stage moniker could soon be the name on everyone’s lips not just up and down the country, but far beyond. At just sixteen too, the now Derry-based singer-songwriter has this year alone released two EPs of such breathtaking maturity they’d bely any information gained from the young songstress’s provisional license. Having devoted the year to gaining live experience, supporting the likes of hometown heroes The Undertones and Dublin natives Villagers, while still a music student at college, SOAK is already looking likely to take the next leap into the public consciousness. December 23rd sees her warm up the crowd for an acoustic Snow Patrol performance at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall while she’s also in the running for a £10,000 Spotify Grant prize. Both could be promotional boosts that might just catapult SOAK to stratospheric realms of international exposure.
Though a very distinct talent in her own right, the north-west is currently home to many performers making a name for themselves with a similar ilk of varyingly stripped back, gently soul-baring compositions. The likes of Conor Mason, the boisterous piano-heavy pop of Best Boy Grip and the vaporous timbre of Our Krypton Son, whose airily atmospheric self-titled debut was released just last week through local label Smalltown America, typify the range the city has to offer downwards of eleven on the volume dial.
Fairly new on the scene still are Little Bear, who feature Conor Mason on piano and bass-playing vocalist Steven McCool. Formed just last year, they’ve already been turning heads in that time all over the country for their moody folk elegance. Single ‘I’d Let You Win’ is available as a free download on their Bandcamp page. Grabbing even more headlines is Rainy Boy Sleep AKA Stevie Martin, whose understated loop-driven acoustics have in two years propelled him to appearances at the Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals on top of lending his lungs to Cyndi Lauper for a live duet of her ’80s mainstay ‘Time After Time’. Having recently opened for Kinks legend Ray Davies in Dublin and with a debut album in its mixing stages, 2013 could see Rainy Boy Sleep step up to being a lauded headliner himself not just on the home front, but overseas too.
It’s not all hushed folk-stars and heart-rendering balladeers though. In recent years Derry has earned a seismic reputation as a breeding ground for heart-stopping electronica which is cemented at the height of summer with the ever-growing Celtronic festival, set to return with a four-day carnival of local and international DJs from June 26th-30th. Undoubtedly the city’s biggest dance name right now, The Japanese Popstars’ (pictured) 2011 album Controlling Your Allegiance wasn’t just a stand out Northern Irish release but one of the year’s finest dance records full stop. With meticulously crafted and compellingly executed nitrous mind-raves like ‘Catapult’ and ‘Falcon Punch’ they demonstrated a deftness for puppeteering dance floors beyond even the draw of guest names like The Cure’s Robert Smith. April this year saw the duo take to Europe in tow of Orbital, who recently returned to their signature song’s namesake, Belfast, where Derry’s other electro man of the moment Ryan Vail was called in to support.
Alongside Katie Cosgrove, Vail produces a uniquely earthy style of gloomy but hypnotic sounds using with sequencers and samplers, with no excessive digital tinkering besides a layer of sedative synths and seductive vocal depth courtesy of Cosgrove. This year’s Colours EP Vail drew favourable likenesses with James Blake and The XX and with his own label Culture Glitch gauged to release bi-annual compilations showcasing many of his beat-weaving peers Vail will certainly be a figurehead in Derry’s 2013 electronic endeavours.