Jeremy Hickey is a strong-willed guy. He’d have to be, to have the balls to record a double debut album as good as his 2008 Irish breakthrough Organic Sampler as R.S.A.G (Rarely Seen Above Ground), on his own in his bedroom in Kilkenny. And then, take the songs on the road, solo, from behind a drumkit with only visuals for backup and a gas can for percussion? Confidence and requisite balls Hickey indeed has. Which probably explains why, being a man who likes a challenge, he approached Leo Pearson, a studio engineer and producer from his home county who has worked on records by U2 and Elvis Costello and asked him to record his latest and best album yet, Be It Right Or Wrong.
The pair ended up working together on RTE music TV series The Raw Sessions where they recorded the song ‘All Along That Road’ and hit it off immediately. ‘I went out to him in Thomastown and saw his studio, ‘ says Hickey. ‘Straight away we had a conversation where we established very quickly that we understood each other and what we both wanted. He said the only thing he wanted to do was work on my vocals more. I didn’t want anyone to tell me to change.’
As it turns out Be It Right Or Wrong is marked out by change, introducing a more varied sound richer and more layered than before. The instrumentation is more subtle and indeed, the vocals are more prominent and expressive. ‘We just tried to experiment with harmonies and layers. Leo has a lot of experience in working in that way with people like Bono,’ explains Hickey.
It was Hickey’s trust in his producer that allowed the two to scrap early recordings of the album, completely on Pearson’s suggestion. ‘After doing the first record all on my own, I wasn’t too happy about it at first,’ he says. ‘I had a think for about five minutes and agreed because I knew it would be interesting and that he could add a really nice, spatial sound compared to the more angular stuff on Organic Sampler‘.
The other major change which defines Be It Right Or Wrong is the influence of vintage blues, rock ‘n’ roll and even ska. That seeped into his songwriting after moving into a house with his mates in Kilkenny and hearing lots of releases from Chess Records (influential Chicago label founded in the ’50s) and Stax for the first time as well as listening to every Rolling Stones album ever made. ‘Stax is more funk-based but I much prefer the blues of Chess,’ Hickey says ‘I like the idea that things are always good but never right. The blues is the perfect platform for this album, and the whole idea.’
On the new album, Hickey played every instrument apart from brass and pedal steel. Those familiar with Hickey’s prior projects will hear echoes of his past, particularly in the brass instrumentation. Hickey used to drum for Blue Ghost, a Kilkenny band who showed some early promise in 2006. The band split up, but Blue Ghost members, including founding member Davey Holland helped him record the horns and brass parts for Be It Right or Wrong. Kilkenny’s influence is rife on the 44-minute album, thanks to Hickey’s regular Sunday night jam sessions in The Pumphouse in the city, where he plays with Holland and three others. ‘We get together and play alternative country, some Bo Diddley, stuff with swing so that would have influenced some of the stuff on this album. I heard a lot of songs I hadn’t heard before.’
Hickey has once again taken R.S.A.G out on the road, promoting Be It Right or Wrong, playing festivals as well as shows in Dublin (this Thursday 24th June in the Academy) , Dundalk (Saturday 26th June, Spirit Store) and Kilkenny (Saturday July 24th, Set Theatre) coming up. Those familiar with his enthralling live show will know how much he as a solo performer gets out of himself, aided by Paul Mahon’s visual backdrops for each song – an idea which originally came from Hickey’s brother who filmed visuals for Organic Sampler standout ‘Stick To Your Line’. For the new album, Hickey and Mahon have worked out new visuals which push the idea of a virtual band further. ‘With the new visuals, it’s more like a band than ever, albeit on the screen,’ says Hickey ‘It’s a really interesting idea’.
That’s Hickey in one though – interesting, idiosyncratic, creative and always keen to move on, shattering the myth that a one-man band is a novelty affair. ‘People are always surprised that it’s just me up there. I just want to do something different. It’s not an ego thing. I just want to try something new. ‘