Niall Connolly Discusses New Album: Sound
That Niall Connolly is a folk icon isn't debated by other musicians. He is, to a degree, a “musician's musician,” someone whose work you hear about when you ask guitarists to tell you their secrets. Ryan Langlois of the Third Wheel Band stared me dead in the eye in 2010 and said, “Everyone should listen to Niall's music. Everyone.”
Connolly's creaky, achingly sweet Irish voice is a familiar instrument, and he performs tirelessly. Among the most vibrant, poignant, and authentic indie folk artists in New York City, Connolly is proving with every album that folk musicians are creating new and interesting material.
So crack open a Guinness and kick your boots—the new full-length album Sound is officially released on April 16th (available online April 9th). An intimate singer/songwriter style is layered with the energy of a full band, trumpets lacing into electric guitar riffs, uppity or druggish or whiskey-stained ballads and clingy pops that become caught up in your brain if you impulsively listen to the album more than once.
Sound is Connolly's sixth studio album, recorded with Brandon Wilde at Studio 76 in Brighton Beach. (Wilde formerly recorded Connolly's mostly acoustic Super Cool Fantastic in 2011 in only three days.)
Connolly enjoyed working with Wilde (“He is a very focused and calming presence in the studio. He is extremely easy to work with and great at getting the best performances out of everyone.”) The two continued recording Sound a year ago.
“We really had time to arrange them and twist [the songs] into shape,” said Connolly. “So, from the outset, I wanted to take my time with it and get it right. I'm confident that we did.”
The transition from live performance to a sound-proofed studio included some effort to keep the recordings raw and uncleaned. “Part of the beauty of any live performance in any art form for me is in the moment. There is a tension that can only happen in real time in real life. The possibility for spine tingling moments . . . the whole thing could fall apart. A record by it's very nature is a recording of a moment. It cannot be the same as a live performance. On this album we were certainly thinking about how to capture the energy of the live performance. We didn't sweeten my vocals, we left in the screams and the strains. There's no auto-tuned vocals here!”
Many of the artists featured or assisting on his previous albums show up again on the new record. The artists are mostly independent and successful singer/songwriters in their own right. This is what Connolly said about some of the band members:
“Brandon [Wilde] is an excellent and fluent musician, he plays bass and vocals live with me, but plays a plethora of other instruments on Sound. . . He plays with Black Bunny, All Night Chemists and Winter Wilde. He was also a member of ThisWay whose self titled record was released on Reprise records in 1999. They toured with Barenaked Ladies, Echo and the Bunnymen, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Lit, among others. But I just learned that from Wikipedia right now, he doesn't brag about it!”
“Warren Malone is originally from just outside of Manchester in the UK. He is a brilliant singer and guitar player and one of the most prolific songwriters I've met. He also has the most interesting biography of anyone I've met in the real world. He has loads of albums, my own favorite is 'And the Ants Ate the Bee.'”
“Len Monachello, can play any instrument you put in front of him. He plays drums on this album. He was also a member of ThisWay and is the front man of All Night Chemists.”
“Dennis Cronin plays trumpet and vibraphonette on Sound. I first met Dennis over 10 years ago when he was touring with Willard Grant Conspiracy in Ireland . . . He is also now a member of the band, a good friend and neighbor of mine in Brooklyn. Dennis has played with Lambchop, Vic Chestnutt, Josh Rouse, The Quavers . . . ”
While discussing his new album, I asked Connolly about certain immovable elements of folk—sharing cultural influences, passing on songs through oral tradition, being ferociously independent and inherently non-commercial, and writing lyrics in a range from personal to populist.
I even asked him if he was a communist—the sort of question that any decent folk artist should be prepared to answer.
“I'm not a communist, more of a genial dictator,” Connolly explained. “I get a lot of people asking for lyrics and chords. So, I included them with the 'Samurai' single on Bandcamp. Last year my friends and colleagues and Big City Folk put together a cover album of 12 [Brooklyn musicians] singing my songs. I obviously got a great kick out of that, and just wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to sing the songs. The old folk idea of sharing the songs by singing them is still alive and well in the digital age.”
Lyrics with a political tone pop out on some tracks (abstractly, such as, “To bring home the bacon, you have to work with pigs,”) and one could stretch to a conclusion that Connolly has a few things he's not so happy about with society or the government. He doesn't get to vote in the country he lives in. It's complicated.
“I'm interested in people, and as much as anyone, I'm sensitive to suffering of others, and I get riled up about things. And I love singing. I feel like if I'm going to write a song I better mean it. Because, the reality is, I'm going to sing that song hundreds, if not thousands of times. And I want to mean it every time.”
Fans of the Dylan-esque will dig “Work With Pigs,” the final bonus track with semi-absurd poetic lyrics like, “The Belgian trumpeteer and the Persian prince drinking Jaeger and Heinekens with the white Rasta kids.” The vocals on this track slip effortlessly into Dylan-Waits territory, departing from Ireland; the whole album crosses cultural borders and melds contemporary Irish and Americana folk rock genres.
"It's a back and forth thing," Connolly explains. "Has been for hundreds of years before either of us. Dylan was clearly hugely influenced by Irish folk songs, the Clancy Brothers in particular. And he and his influences mean that ripples on and on. Same with rock and roll, it has been bouncing around back and forth between the port towns since the start.”
Connolly is fluent in music and recording. He studied music, music management and sound engineering at Colaiste Stiofain Noafe in Cork. He plays perhaps 250 gigs a year and has been living as a full time musician for over a decade. Unfortunately, he tells me he won't give me guitar lessons because he isn't a good teacher.
“Personally, my family was not musical. I didn't grow up sitting around the fire singing ballads. I joined a band because I fucking loved Nirvana (and Cork bands 'The Frank and Walters' and 'Sultans of Ping'). My sister was listening to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. My parents modest record collection extended from Abba to the Cowboy Junkies. I listened to a lot of Nirvana, Pavement, Belle and Sebastian, and the classic songwriters like Cohen, Waits, Dylan and local folkier and brilliant Cork songwriters Ger Wolfe and John Spillane.”
Blending the original into the familiar makes Sound a record destined to acquire a broader audience. Several tracks would work seamlessly in the context of alternative radio. “Brooklyn Sky,” “Beef or Salmon,” “Samurai” all contain a certain formulaic hook universally appreciated in the less specific “alt rock” genre. But it remains firmly folk at its core, and is perhaps Connolly's best performance yet.
Says Connolly, “It is beyond cliche to say the industry is ever changing. But there is, and always has been a very real appetite for sincere music. I know that there is larger audience out there. I want this album to be heard. I'm very proud of this album. I'll put in the hours touring and promoting and the rest is out of my control.”
The next opportunity to see Connolly and his group of accomplished artists in New York will be at the album release party Saturday, April 13th at Rockwood (stage 2). Music begins at 7 pm. Catch him before he flies off on international tours in the UK and Ireland.
Get more details about gigs, reserve tickets for the record release party, and purchase Sound at Connolly's website.
And here's the video for the single “Samurai,” previewing the new album Sound. Directed by Stephen Gevedon. Cinematography by Matthew Orr. (Posted to YouTube courtesy of singingboysees).
Photo credit: (Photo by Ger Blanch)