Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone. Hope you have a good day drinking pints of Guinness, listening to U2, or reading Yeats, Beckett and Joyce. Alternatively you can sit back and listen to my award-winning alternative Irish national anthem, Read the story of the song here.
Love this. Hitrecord.org is such a cool example of creative communities coming together and collaborating in the internet age, simply because everyone on there believes that making beautiful new art together is awesome. So much respect for Joseph Gordon-Levitt for building this online sandbox for artists of every discipline to share and create
Many moons ago, myself and my friend Loughlin formed a band called The Analog Revue and we made some amazing music by exchanging files transatlantically. The end result was an EP we called Urban Future Cowboy. The tracks on the EP were all originals (which I will upload in due course) with the exception of this one – a recording of the original German language composition Die Moritat von Mackie Messer by Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill (popularised in English as Mack the Knife). I love the recording and mix Loughlin did with this, especially the crazy guitar strumming pattern. I also have fond memories of doing my best Tom Waits auf Deutsch on vocals, with a towel over my head in my apartment in New York to record the vocals as cleanly as I could. Still sounds fresh to me.
One of the more bizarre things I can list amongst my artistic achievements is award winning songwriter. Here’s the short version of how that came to pass. Back in 2010, our leading newspaper The Irish Times put out a call to write an alternative Irish anthem. It was to be judged by members of the band The Duckworth Lewis Method, as well as Irish rugby international Frankie Sheahan, and then Arts editor Shane Hegarty (who has since gone on to write the superb Darkmouth novel series). I had written half of the song (the simple repeated verse) some years previously during a rowdy, boozy party in my apartment in Queens, New York. When this competition cropped up, I called upon my friend Enda Roche to help me record it. But let me work backwards through the song to capture some of the creative process.
Once in the studio we had the fun idea of adding a primitive Irish language call and response element. So I drew on the simplest phrases from my primary school days:
Conas atá tú? / Tá me go maith [How are you? / I’m well]
An bhfuil tú anseo / Tá me anseo [Are you here? / I am here]
You’ll notice in the second rendition of the chorus, I actually get the call and response wrong and ask in Irish “Cá bhfuil tú?” [Where are you?] and Enda’s brother Kevin, who was assisting on backing vocals, improvised a perplexed sounding response of “Níl fhios agam!” [I don’t know!]. When we listened back to it, it made us really chuckle, and somehow had echoes of a real Irish primary school classroom, so we left it in.
Given that the song could only be 90 seconds long I knew that brevity and sing-along-ability was the key, hence I kept it to an extremely simple structure especially the bombastic foulmouthed verses:
Oh my blood is boiling for Ireland
My blood is boiling for Ireland.
Ireland fucking Ireland!
My blood is boiling for Ireland!
The swearing seemed fitting with the Irish vernacular, but knowing that the winning song would air on the national radio station Today FM (on the Ray D’Arcy show) we sensed it might be a good idea to bleep it in some way, so I cooked up the most Irish way to do that – the sound of a sheep baa-ing. It seems mad that we even considered this fact, expecting full well to not win the thing.
The opening Irish language countdown –“A haon, dó, trí, ceathar dhéag . . .” — was a reference to U2’s song Elevation which was out at the time (where Bono counts it in bizarrely as “Unos, dos, tres, catorce” [one two, three, fourteen]. So we thought we would give a nod to that, and have it almost as an Easter egg for U2 fans (of which I am a huge one).
When the Irish Times announced we were the winners I couldn’t quite believe it. I particularly loved Shane Hegarty’s description of it in the Irish Times as “somehow angry, fun and patriotic all at the same time” which described it far better than I ever could have and pretty much made my day. I recall them playing several of the runners up on Ray D’Arcy’s show and I seem to remember D’Arcy being kinda snotty and dismissive of my song, but it didnt matter really, his blood clearly wasn’t boiling for Ireland. I do remember Thomas Lewis from The Duckworth Lewis Method saying he liked it because it sounded like something you’d sing at 3 in the morning.
It has since gone on to be our signature tune at The Brownbread Mixtape and we close every show with it. We ask everyone to rise for the alternative Irish national anthem and it never fails to get a huge reaction. I still love performing it, partly due to the energy it brings to a room, and equally for how utterly ridiculous it is that it won an award.
One of the prizes for winning the competition was time in a Dublin recording studio, where I gathered many of my favourite performers from past Brownbread Mixtape shows to record a sort of gospel reworking of My Blood is Boiling for Ireland that has never seen the light of day. I will dig it out and post it at a later date (along with the other song we recorded that day which was a soul number I had written for the occasion). But for now, crank it up to catorce and shout it with me — COME ON IRELAND!
In my mind, Bob Dylan is without an equal in the modern living songwriter stakes – he is our poet laureate and Shakespeare and oracle all wrapped into one. But there are several other lyrical and melodic masters that I adore that I would love to share with you. For some of you, these names are not new and for others only a handful may be familiar. Either way, all of them will hopefully resonate with you and open a new world or extend existing ones. I urge you to seek out more of their work and listen to it. There is nothing quite like the joy of discovering a fantastic new musician or poet and then realising that they have a huge body of work to dive into. Life is good to us sometimes!
1. John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)
The Mountain Goats are one of those best-kept-secret bands that are whispered about in hushed reverence by those who know about them. I am one such fan, but I want to shout about them. John Darnielle is one of the great living songwriters and each song brims with intelligence and humanity. He began his songwriting career by recording songs onto hissy tapes on a boombox and garnered a deserved cult following. In recent years he has released full studio albums (often incredibly realised concept albums) and enlisted the help of talented bandmates to produce glorious, gorgeous songs about the world we live in. Many of Darnielle’s songs manage to tell a compelling story with great characters, while swinging around a hooky melody and killer chord changes. All in 4 minutes. All delivered in his trademark, arresting singing voice. Yep. John Darnielle rules.
What album should I start with? Tallahassee
2. Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)
When they put together those lists of the best bands and albums of all time, Wilco rarely show up on them. But anyone who knows their music and who has seen their live shows know that they might not be the most popular but they are the best. Jeff Tweedy writes songs with such invention, melody and emotion that you would be hard pushed to find many better living songwriters with such a volume of high quality songs. From the alt-country simplicity and beauty of a song like “Box Full Of Letters” to the brainbending oddity of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart“, Tweedy has the capacity to wrap words around chords in a truly compelling and original way. History will remember him as one of the greats.
What album should I start with? Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
I remember when I first heard Katell Keineg’s album “O Seasons O Castles” years ago and being struck by how exquisitely crafted it was, both musically and lyrically. And that voice. Oh my goodness. That voice elevated the entire experience to a near spiritual experience. Some time later I saw her in Whelans and that elegant songwriting seemed to extend to her magnetic presence on stage. Every single song was spellbinding and inspirational. Do yourself a favour and immerse yourself in her songs. You will arise refreshed.
What album should I start with? O Seasons O Castles
4. Ed Hamell (Hamell on Trial)
Ed Hamell is a one-man folk punk band with explosive songs that tell wild tales of working in upstate New York, delicate ballads about love, powerful political treatises and hilarious stories of a life well lived. To see him live is to witness a hurricane of profanity and sincerity wrapped up in lyrical complexity and cool chords. As a test of his own songwriting skills, he recently embarked on a project where he wrote a song a day for over 440 days! A great songwriter with songs that kick you hard, just as quickly as they tickle your funny bone and tackle your conscience. A true original
What album should I start with? Ed’s Not Dead: Hamell Comes Alive
5. Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse)
Alas, Mark Linkous is no longer with us but he left a legacy of incredible layered, inventive songs. I first heard Sparklehorse open up for Radiohead on the OK Computer tour, but my brain wasn’t ready to hear the brilliance on offer. Years later I heard a friend play “Piano Fire” on an acoustic guitar and the stripped back simplicity of the song revealed the pure poetry of Mark Linkous’ songwriting. I immediately returned to my Sparklehorse albums and marveled at the potent production as much as the poetic lyrics. I dare you to listen and not find magic within the layers.
What album should I start with? It’s a Wonderful Life
6. Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams is probably one of the more well-known names on this list thanks to his songs “When The Stars Go Blue” and “New York, New York“, but he has a wealth of incredible, captivating songs that are equally worthy of your ears. (He also does an unbelievable cover version of Wonderwall by Oasis.) Adams is a prolific songwriter and has managed to amass a body of work that stands alongside the very best out there. For me it is his ability to bring both melancholy and sweetness in the twist of a word or bend of a note that mark him out as a really great songwriter. Lyrically strong, melodically masterful, consistently brilliant.
What album should I start with? Heartbreaker
7. Dan Bern
Dan Bern is a songwriter in the mould of Dylan and Guthrie, but with his own anarchic, witty songwriting twist. His songs tackle topics from the ridiculous to the sublime and always with real heart. Again, he is best experienced in a live setting, but on record he brings his quirky sensibility to the studio and delivers one fine song after another. His trademark, humorous take on the world shines through best in his marvellous “Tiger Woods” song. Once you have heard it, you will never be quite the same. Dan Bern is a truly prolific songwriter with the ability to write children’s albums as easily as powerful socially conscious albums for an older generation. One of the good guys.
What album should I start with? Fifty Eggs