Six years on since her first release, a lot of things have changed for Cathy Davey. She’s no longer signed to a major label, having been dropped by Parlophone as they shook their roster up. She’s won a Meteor Award, and the praise of many journalists at home. And she’s become a regular fixture on the Irish gig circuit, playing to crowds around the country.
Still, the process, it seems, has remained the same. A clutch of demos are worked out and scratched together, they get taken by the scruff of the neck, and scrubbed into something you can make an album from. The low-key langour of the early versions of ‘Come Over’ or ‘Hammerhead’ gets shined into something more urgent and more respectable, and this becomes Something Ilk, a fine debut, with some fine songs, but as was to become obvious, not quite all that this songwriter was capable of. The sound was a slightly loose fit, as though the scruffy little demos were gently pointed in a new direction once they reached the studio, and Cathy wasn’t quite happy with it.
It was her second record, the mighty Tales of Silversleeve, that brought her skill with a melody to the fore. Singles like ‘Reuben’ and ‘Sing for your Supper’ dominated Irish radio in late 2007 – songs that had begun as demos months before, debuted to anyone looking at the right MySpace page. The album went on to win both praise and awards, and rightly so. Everyone was in a celebratory mood – except Cathy, still itching to improve and make the record she wanted, and Parlophone, who were now eyeing their profit reports rather warily.
“Parlophone dropped me last summer, I was in good company though, as they dropped pretty much everyone on their books. It’s no big deal, I had been dreaming of an independent life for several years so it was nothing scary.” Unsurprisingly, this new-found sense of liberation has had an effect on the new material. “I wanted this album to be reminiscent of folk songs; not specific to any country, but to sound like they had roots. I think this is a result of feeling like I had to in some way disguise my Irishness for years, as if it wasn’t deemed credible. Now that I’m not signed anymore I’ve experienced a massive surge of… Not ‘patriotism’ as such, but the importance of roots in every form, the origin of melody, and why expression through music was so fundamental. Now that we’re a culture that thrives on expression to a fault I feel a nostalgia for the days when a single tune on an accordion or fiddle could say more about the human condition than most of our pseudo-scientific self-help methods these days. Repression has a lot to answer for, but it certainly forced art to bloom.”
The new material certainly is blooming. Retreating to France for a month with a couple of suitcases packed with equipment, and knowing little French (“All the more reason to go!”), she found herself recording in a setting that would come to influence the songs in unexpected ways.
“I was in Albi, a tiny town outside Toulouse, I chose it because the apartment was next door to where Toulouse Lautrec lived. I rented it for a month from a tiny lady whose husband had died there, and she had scattered photos of his corpse all over the place.
The feeling of absence there was over-bearing and I found it was all I could write about – so I decided to write an album based on the life of a woman who has lost her partner and her journey through life without him. It’s not sad or literal, but I enjoyed personifying death and turning him into an active character who replaces our loved ones when they die.”
If you thought that was much of a change from the themes in the hook-laden Tales of Silversleeve, think again. Back before its release, Cathy spoke of a “head full of skeletons”, and it seems they haven’t gone away. “A fair bit of the last album was about death too but I don’t think anyone noticed! I’ve no interest in making an album lacking in joy. There’s a side to death that always translates as euphoria when i try to put it to music… And the songs aren’t about death really, they are about the journey of someone who has been affected by death. It turns out that the absence of someone is stronger than their presence.”
The euphoria is certainly there, from the lusty bellowing in ‘Wild Rum’ (demo link) to the steady insistence of ‘The Touch’ (demo link), and the joyous melody that sails about in ‘Little Red’ – an instant pop classic, and a sure candidate for a lead single. ” Little Red was just a song that came out when I had spooked myself one night and needed to make a joke out of how scared we allow ourselves to get. But that can happen when you’re all alone in a 500 year old house with no one to talk to except photos of the dead.”
Quite. And does the landlady herself know anything of the role her apartment and its atmosphere played? Not yet. “I wouldn’t know how to tell her, although I think she would enjoy knowing what an inspiration she was! ”
Apart from the sojourn in France, the afore-mentioned Irish roots do indeed come into play here, offering a slightly darker, more sober take on things. Both ‘In He Comes’ and ‘Army of Tears’ are products of Donegal, and you can almost here the ocean wind rushing through them. “The Donegal batch have a strong identity to me, In He Comes and Army of Tears are Donegal batch and I think they wreak of the sea where I was. The French batch brought ‘The Nameless’, ‘Wild Rum’ and ‘Little Red’ and they to me sound as if I’ve borrowed someone else’s roots, but only because I could relate to it!”
The songs aren’t quite finished, but for such early demos, they are strikingly fully-formed. One gets the sense that the experience of releasing Silversleeve, and the multiple tours across the country that followed it, have left Cathy more capable and more confident. The last trip, titled the ‘Bare Bones Tour’ for its low-keyness – only three people on stage – was quite the success.
“It was an incredible eye-opener. Never before have I had to expose myself in such a way to an audience. It brought out the performer in me, and made me want to write dramatic songs instead of fearing drama. Now I have another Bare Bones tour lined up for May, and I have just the type of songs that should be performed at them. It took playing to crowds of 30 to discover what delivery was and now I feel I’m finally ready to commit that delivery to tape, I think.”
Speaking of which, how will this happen, post-Parlophone? “I’m releasing the album myself. I say myself but really it will be my manager taking care of that…I just want to write the songs.” Exciting times ahead then. And how does she see Tales of Silversleeve now, two years on? “Silversleeve is grand. But I’ll do better next time.”
Cathy Davey – Bare Bones Tour:
Thurs 14th May – Kavanaghs, Portlaoise
Fri 15th May – Boglane Theatre, Longford
Sat 16th May – The Thatch, Tullamore
Mon 18th May – McDaids, Midleton, Co.Cork
Tues 19th May – Kenny’s The Village Inn, Lahinch, Co.Clare
Wed 20th May – Sol y Sombra, Killorglan, Co.Kerry
Fri 22nd May – The Granary, Killarney, Co.Kerry
Sat 23rd May – The Brick Oven, Bantry, Co.Cork
Sun 24th May – Debarras, Clonakilty, Co.Cork
Wed 27th May – Cleers, Kilkenny
Thurs 28th May – Wexford Arts Centre
Fri 29th May – Greystones theatre, Co. Wicklow
Sat 30th May – Spiritstore, Dundalk, Co. Louth
Sun 31st May – Drogheda Arts Centre
This interview originally appeared on Shane’s excellent The Torture Garden blog.