By Conor O’Neill
County Down native Brigid O’Neill’s latest LP release The Truth & Other Stories has received a hot reception by critics and the public alike. Recorded in Music City, AKA Nashville, Tennessee, USA, the singer/songwriter took a few minutes out to chat with Culture Crush NI about influences, writing, how the pandemic influenced the record, working with Neilson Hubbard in Nashville and what fans can expect next as she motors on forward.
*Photo courtesy of Carrie Davenport*
CC: Do you come from a musical family?
BO’N: “Not a musical family in so much as anyone played instruments, but the house was always full of music when I was growing up. My Mother and father were very much into music and I spent a lot of time listening to my father’s vinyl collection, there was always music about the house. My mother was always the one to be asked up to sing at weddings, she had a fabulous voice that was renowned throughout the family. A really beautiful voice which she still has to this day.
“My father was into all kinds of music. He loved the musicals, Rodger and Hammerstein, Richard Rodger and Lorenz Hart and all those classic songs from that era. He also loved songwriters such as Burt Bacharach, Carly Simon, Carole Bayer Sager and Carole King. He would call me in, put a record on and we would sit and listen to the music together. That started my interest in music way back then and I wasn’t even aware off it. I’ve always been interested in song writing and lyrics, especially the lyrics.”
CC: When did you first pick up a guitar?
BO’N: “Well, I tried to learn the guitar when I was very young. I got one of those guitars for my 10th birthday but I was never really serious about it until I started to write my own music. It’s such a great instrument to write with. I could always play a few chords and sing a few songs at parties but I usually relied on having a guitar player about. It then became much more important when I began writing my own material. The guitar is very much the instrument I write with.”
CC: What’s your approach to writing a song?
BO’N: “Sometimes I will start with a line that I’ve put down in a notepad or have saved on my I-Phone notepad, a line that’s occurred to me and then I’ll muse on it and a melody will come along. At other times I’ll have a melody in my head and I’ll just work with the melody and a concept for the lyrics will come along with that. I would never sit down with a set of lyrics I’ve written and try to put music to it. The melody and the words usually come together for me at the same time.”
CC: In the LP’s notes you say how much the pandemic sort of filtered through on your perception, and other people’s perceptions, on how truths are perceived, can you elaborate on that?
BO’N: “I think with all the different conditions that the pandemic inflicted upon us as human beings, isolation and separation for example, which a lot of people, myself included, experienced, and really digging into those pandemic situations influenced the record. The pandemic influenced the choice of songs for the album. I had a lot of songs written that were going to be on the record but because the recording was delayed I ended up shifting the emphasis a bit. I got into the whole notion of what was ‘truth’ and started writing new songs. I didn’t set out to write an album about the pandemic but it was definitely influenced by the situation we were in.
“The stories that are within the songs all deal with life situations. That’s what I was striving towards. Amelia is about how having children changes you. Leaving is about situations that people face regarding domestic abuse, and Easy is about dealing with loss, isolation and loneliness. Some of the songs are from before the pandemic, some were written during it, but they’re all stories about life and the theme of ‘truth’, which was heightened during the pandemic, resonates through them all”
CC: How important was it for you to record the LP in Nashville and to work with Neilson Hubbard?
BO’N: “For me it was completing the circle. It was a beautiful thing to be able to do. When I was first invited out to Nashville by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland that’s where I think it all really started. I felt validated as a song writer.
“I’m so happy to have been picked and for the support I’ve received from The Arts Council of Northern Ireland. They run an award and grant scheme for artists on a UK wise-basis and I benefited so much and had such success from being an awardee.
“Going out there and the experiences and the people I met out there, that really kick-started the thing for me. I had often thought about going to Nashville to record, and people had often suggested it to me, so I really needed to do that. I was still exploring the process of becoming a song writer, but with this record I feel more embedded and more established as an artist.
“I knew I wanted an Americana feel, and I thought that going out there and working with Nashville musicians I would achieve that real, authentic Americana feel. I had listened to a lot of Neilson Hubbard’s work and I felt there was a lightness of touch to his work. I thought his approach would suit my music and would let the music breathe. With this selection of songs there are a number of genres and I felt he was the right person to let these come through yet to tie it all up with a certain sound.”
*Brigid O’Neill with Neilson Hubbard and Nashville musicians*
CC: If there is one song from the LP that personifies Neilson Hubbard’s sound and production techniques, what do you think that would be?
BO’N: “That’s a tough question. I love the way he took a different approach to each song, I think that’s what really drew me to him in the first place. For example Ask Me In A Year is a song which I love, and he kept the jazziness to it yet he still kept it quite Americana, it’s quite Karen Carpenterish. And then there’s Pilot’s Weather [*Edit: my favourite tune on the LP], that song is a perfect example of how Neilson really serves the song.”
CC: The record has been getting a fantastic reception by reviewers and the public alike, how important is that to you?
BO’N: “I’d say it’s very important. It’s a lovely validation for the work. What’s particularly lovely is when reviewers and radio presenters pick out something that myself and Neilson have really worked on, or myself and one of my co-writers have put so much effort into. For people to comment on it and put it into a review, whether it’s the concept behind the writing or the lyrics, which has happened quite a lot, or the melody or the different instrumentation that’s been used. All those things have been commented on and I get a real sense of satisfaction when people respect and notice that.
“But it’s also important to me to get feedback from audiences, that’s where I get my biggest buzz. It’s beautiful to get a good review, you strive for that because it then gets into the ears of more people, but there’s nothing better than when an ordinary member of the audience comments on how a particular song made them feel, how that song touched them in a certain situation, that’s really special.”
*Photo courtesy of Carrie Davenport*
CC: You’ve gigged the new album with a full band and just yourself with an acoustic guitar, what are the positives of each approach and which do you prefer?
BO’N: “I absolutely adore playing with a full band. It brings out so many aspects of the music which we spent so long on in the studio; the feel, the different colours, the different textures. There’s so many harmonies between instruments, and very importantly you get that drive, rhythm and interplay between the musicians which I always find lovely.
“But when you do play on your own, or with just one other musician, it’s funny how you really get back to the meaning of the song, and the lyrical importance of the song. It’s a great opportunity to get back to when you wrote the song, and really digging into the meaning and conveying that to the audience.
“It’s lovely to be able to do both, but I do love being with the full band.”
CC: So, you’ve songs left over from this current record, and I assume you’re busy writing away, have you any idea what’s next and what direction the next LP is going to go in?
BO’N: “I think I’m exploring that at the moment. During the pandemic I was getting a bit of space to listen to more music. I know I’ve been influenced by all sorts of music that’s been going around at the moment so it would be really nice to progress into slightly different genres. I am pulling some of the older songs out and having a fresh listen to them, trying to put a different spin on them, I’m really looking forward to exploring that.”
CC: Will the next record be recorded in Northern Ireland or will you be heading back over to Nashville again?
BO’N: “I’m going out on tour with this record over the next few months, and again that’s down to the support of the Arts Council. I’ll be touring Ireland and then going over to England. In my travels I’ll be getting exposed to all different musicians and producers, and just like this record what with going to London and then to Nashville, I expect something similar will happen, it’s all pretty much open at the moment.
Brigid O’Neill’s The Truth & Other Stories is available on vinyl, CD and digital from http://www.bandcamp.com or for further information simply visit her website at https://www.brigidoneill.com/
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