Lisa O’Neill, the startling Irish singer songwriter, hits Australian shores for the first time this month for a series of shows, including Port Fairy Folk Festival. She also joins Glen Hansard for his show at Melbourne Recital Centre on the 14th March. With her new album ‘Same Cloth Or Not’ shortlisted for the Meteor Choice Music Prize – Irish Album of The Year, O’Neill’s unique sound has a strong sense of tradition while being utterly original at the same time. Brooke Russell spoke to O’Neill for Unpaved about songwriting, musical influence and keeping Elvis alive through puppetry!
Tell me about your new album, ‘Same Cloth Or Not’ and how that came about?
Well I’ve been writing for years and I did record my first album six years ago. I had just so many songs and thought it was time to go again. Also I’ve got a small fanbase as well so people were asking.
The instrumentation on the album is sparse and beautiful with strong traditional influences. How did these sounds come about? Was it heavily arranged or do you improvise quite a lot with the musicians you work with?
I improvise a lot. I mean I do hear a lot of it in my head, you know, a band an orchestra while I’m writing. Then I communicate as much of that as possible to the band, to the musicians, to the producer.
You moved to Dublin from County Cavan at 18… How is Dublin city for a young songwriter? Is it an encouraging environment to be in?
Yes, I think it’s really encouraging… for a musician as well as a songwriter because there’s a lot of quite casual sessions. Any night of the week you’ll find a bar that you can go into and sit in and listen and join in if you want to.
Your style and sound is utterly original. Was this something that developed over years or was it fairly organic for you?
Of course it’s developed over years. Anyone’s music collection develops over their lifetime, doesn’t it? It is organic… I mean I’m not academically trained in music so it did develop over years.
Were you influenced by other singers?
I suppose I was. I guess what I listen to would be my main education. It started off with what was on the radio when I was a kid, what my parents would have been playing in the house. And then I got to the age of a teenager and I realised I can go and start picking out some music myself that I like. Just through friends playing me music I heard some new stuff, new sounds. Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave, Kate Bush…
I’m sure you get asked this quite a lot but I love that your accent is very present in your sound! Was that a concious decision for you to use your accent?
No! No, of course not! It wasn’t a concious decision to have music as such a big part of my life at this point. So I wasn’t, for a long, long time playing music to present to people… just for myself. For pure expression. So it would make no sense. I do get asked that question a lot and I don’t understand why it’s even a question because I am honest so of course I would sing with my own accent. And I sing as I speak, you know?
I was very interested to hear your opinion on that because there are a lot of Australian singers that use their own accent and get a little bit of a hard time in Australia…
I don’t want to sound like somebody. I’m only going to be in this life once, I think, so I want to sound like me. I’m trying to be me as much as I can… maybe that answers your question?
Yes it does, it’s a wonderfully honest thing, I love it! Now, I have fallen in love with your song, ‘Elvis, I Give You Irish Stew’…
Oh, that’s not on the record!
No, I discovered it on YouTube and I particularly love the part about describing modern day audio to Elvis… “well that’s a CD see Elvis, it came after the tape”. Do you find that a sense of humour is very important in your writing?
Well it seems to come out and I’m not trying to do that. I mean when I write, I’m not sitting down to try and impress anyone but myself. To begin with. So they’re questions, my subjects are questions I have. The CD has come in in my lifetime because there was tape first… and in the last ten years I’ve been introduced to vinyl. So I think that CDs are a little silly… even though my album is out on CD! So, I was sitting writing the song about Elvis, I don’t know if you know this story but I built a puppet of Elvis. That’s where the song came from, I was looking at this puppet and I was thinking I need to learn an Elvis song now so I can make a video with this puppet. And then I thought I’d write the song and then I thought I’d speak to Elvis and what can I tell him that he doesn’t know. What has happened since he died that I would know that he doesn’t know. And I realised he’s interested in music, I can tell him that the format has changed! The CD has come in and it’s nearly on it’s way out because it’s not great. When I say that “when you turn it around you can see your face” I mean it’s a mirror, it’s your face in the back of the CD. It’s just a couple of little simple facts or thoughts I have on the CD! I don’t think the CD is great… but I have to be careful about that because I want people to buy it!
Yes of course! Haha! You’ll be playing shows with Glen Hansard while you are here in Australia and you two have already worked together quite a bit…
We’ve worked together quite a bit in the last year. I only met Glen, Christmas 2012. And he has been so generous with his knowledge of this world and music and where it can bring you. Glen is a real believer of dreams and so am I and he is kind of the person that made this debut come true. And now I’m here! It’s amazing! And I find it so amazing that music got here before me and I think that music’s more powerful than me.
You’ve been described as having a “true sense of place, real sense of tradition and utter lack of pretension.” That’s a glorious description! How do you feel about this statement?
Well it’s a compliment. The lack of pretentiousness I really like and I’m glad and I hope that continues. I mean, what is pretentiousness? It’s somebody who thinks they’re a cut above everybody else and I disagree with that. I think that we’re all equal and I think what I’m coming out with is just imagination and everybody can do that. I suppose I’m not shy to open my mouth and I’m better melodically than I would in conversation (laughs). And the beginning of that quote… I really like that. I can’t tell you if I agree with it cause then I’d be a big headed person, wouldn’t I? A sense of place… well I don’t feel lost at the moment, in my life, I feel very in touch with myself. So I think that is true, I do have a sense of place and I hope I can hold onto it.
For more about Lisa, go to www.lisaoneill.ie. And make sure you catch one of these shows!
On her debut Australian tour Lisa will be accompanied by Mossy Nolan bouzouki, guitar, and Aoife O’Sullivan violin/viola and backing vocals.
Wednesday March 05 The Thornbury Theatre – Melbourne VIC With Lunasa Bookings: www.thethornburytheatre.com 03 9484 9831
Thursday March 06 The Light House Theatre – Warrnambool VIC
Bookings: www.lighthousetheatre.com.au 03 5559 4999
Friday March 07- March 10 Port Fairy Folk Festival Port Fairy VIC
Wednesday March 12 The Spotted Mallard Brunswick Music Festival
With Blair Dunlop Bookings: www.brunswick musicfestival.com.au
Friday March 14 Melbourne Recital Centre – Melbourne VIC With Glen Hansard Bookings: http://ow.ly/skoBo 03 9699 3333
Saturday March 15 Meeniyan Town Hall – South Gippsland VIC Bookings: www.lyrebirdartscouncil.com.au 03 5664 9239
Sunday March 16 The Metro Sydney – Sydney NSW With Damien Dempsey Bookings: www.metrotheatre.com.au 02 9550 3666 Monday March 17 Sydney Opera House – Sydney NSW
With Glen Hansard Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com 02 9250 7777
Tuesday March 18 Petersham Bowling Club – Sydney NSW Enquiries: www.thepbc.org.au 02 9550 3666 or 0424 741 886
Thursday March 20 Sydney Opera House – Sydney NSW
With Glen Hansard Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com 02 9250 7777