Lisa Hannigan – Alhambra – 10.02.2017

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since I saw Lisa Hannigan playing in Lausanne. That gig was in a much smaller, more intimate venue, which is one reason I enjoyed it more than last night’s Antigel date in Geneva. But I think it was also because I have been finding it hard to get into her most recent album, At Swim. She remains a wonderful singer, a talented musician and a clever songwriter, but the newer songs feel a bit less immediate and somehow colder than those on her first two albums. I don’t think she played anything from her first album, Sea Sew, last night; and the songs from Passenger were among the best on the night.

Overall, as a musical experience it was really enjoyable. She was backed by drums, bass, guitar and keyboard, with all four musicians also contributing backing vocals. They created a really impressive sound together. While the newest album doesn’t have the hooks or gentle humour of the first two, it seems to be musically more complex. She does amazing things with her voice, riding over the top of the music and creating beautiful harmonies that sound almost dissonant at times. It was good, though, that she brought the set back to some of the warmer, more jaunty songs from time to time. It risked getting a bit too intense otherwise!

John Smith (who played guitar in her band) was the support act again, as in Lausanne, although I think he had less time than expected owing to an overrun by the opening act Melissa Kassab. (She’s a local lass, I think. She has a lovely voice and is a nice guitarist, but I felt her songs needed a bit more structure, or perhaps just some choruses. She played 8-10 songs, where 4-6 might have been more appropriate given the slot. Still, fair play to her for delivering a confident performance.) Mr Smith sounded a bit less like Ray Lamontagne than the previous times I’d seen him. He still has a powerful voice and plays the guitar beautifully. His between-song banter was entertaining but I would have preferred a bit less chat and a bit more music.

Coming back to Lisa Hannigan, here’s a nice performance of Fall, which is one of the best songs on the latest album.

Cover Me, Cover You

I was thinking a while back about how much I’ve enjoyed those few times I’ve heard other people singing songs that I wrote. That train of thought prompted me to kick off a discussion on the WeAreTheMusicMakers (WATMM) subreddit, where it became clear there would be interest in an initiative where songwriters would agree to cover each other’s songs.

I tried to get something off the ground, creating a new subreddit where songwriters could find others with whom to exchange cover versions. It didn’t take off, with only one other reddit user signing up when I posted about it in WATMM. (I still think it’s a good idea – if I were a developer I might try to create a dedicated platform that could facilitate this kind of exchange…)

The Electronic Night Before

Actually, I say it didn’t take off, but looking at it another way, CoverMeCoverYou has a 100% success rate. You see, that one other person that signed up, a Santa Cruz-based musician called Eric Taxxon, agreed to cover one of my songs, and I in turn covered one of his.

Below you can play Eric’s version of my song The Night Before. I really like it. It’s fair to say that he’s taken the song somewhere I would never have imagined.

 

I chose to cover Small Virtues, from Eric’s album The Anthill. You can hear the original version here. I recorded my version one evening last week using my Zoom H4 recorder (with a pair of stereo tracks used for the main guitar and vocal track, the lead guitar line on a single track, and some harmony vocals and tambourine on another track). It was a quick’n’dirty effort, but I think it works quite well. It’s a quirky little song and I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to pull off an acoustic version of it.

 

Those two tracks will probably be the sum total output of the CoverMeCoverYou project. Even so, I’m really pleased to have done this. There’s something amazing about amateur musicians on opposite sides of the globe covering each other’s songs without having met or spoken to each other.

Me as Bon Iver

While I’m on the subject of cover versions of my songs, I’m going to go ahead and post below a cover of my song Half-Hearted Love Affair. I’m sure my friend Richie will not be pleased with me making this available, as it wasn’t intended for public consumption. It was a project for an audio production course he was doing in Amsterdam, where he deliberately tried to replicate the style of Bon Iver. He wasn’t, as I recall, that pleased with the result. But I like it. And it’s my song!

 

(Sorry Richie. And thanks.)

A song for Robert

My Silver Son is a song I wrote for my second son Declan, just before he turned two. I finally managed, a couple of months ago, to write one for my first son Robert.

First In My Eyes is a song about being a father, making the most of the time we have with our kids, and the hopes we have for them.

Audio only:

I finished writing it in time for Robert’s 5th birthday in October, but between a busy period at work and a troublesome appendix I didn’t manage to record it in time. (They finally took the aforementioned appendix out just last week.)

I spent an evening at Mathieu Siegrist’s K-yak Studio in Gland in late November. He did a really nice job on recording, arranging and mixing the song, with great ideas for the instrumental parts and harmonies. I’m hoping we’ll have a chance to work together more in future.

While I wrote this for Robert, its sentiments apply – of course – equally to Declan… they’ll both be first in my eyes, whatever paths they eventually choose to take. I think/hope the sentiments in this song will resonate with any parent. (And I’m not just saying that in case Declan is reading this text many years from now! Don’t forget, Declan, you got your song first!!)

You can download the song from Soundcloud here.

First In My Eyes

You fell off the swing that day; it seems just like yesterday,
I pushed you too hard, I rushed you too soon.
Now you like flying high, a big boy, a bigger smile,
Maybe someday you’ll fly to the moon.

I’ll keep holding your hand for as long as you want to hold mine,
I’ll be reading you stories as long as you think that’s alright.

I know in time you will live your own life,
And I hope you’ll be strong and be happy, be honest, be kind,
You’ll go your own way, and you’ll run your own race,
But wherever you finish you’ll always be first in my eyes.

I love singing songs with you, or playing a board game too,
We can hop on the bikes, go for a ride.
I think now I understand how the child makes the man,
From father to son and on down the line.

I’m teaching you things but I’m learning from you all the while,
So I’ll tie your laces and maybe one day you’ll tie mine.

I know in time you will live your own life,
And I hope you’ll be strong and be happy, be honest, be kind,
You’ll go your own way, and you’ll run your own race,
But wherever you finish you’ll always be first in my eyes.

I won’t forget the day we met, they put you in my arms, I tried not to break you;
I buttoned up your tiny vest, cradled you against my chest, we made you, we made you.

I know in time you will live your own life,
And I hope you’ll be strong and be happy, be honest, be kind,
You’ll go your own way, and you’ll run your own race,
But wherever you finish you’ll always be first in my eyes,
I don’t care where you finish you’ll always be first in my eyes.

Cagnomatic for the people

I called into the Auberge de Founex for a coffee and to read the news on my way to work last week. On the way out I spotted something on the wall that puzzled me. I took a photo to enable further investigation…

A Cagnomatic in the Auberge de Founex

A Cagnomatic provides a means of organizing a cagnotte du bistro, a tradition that seems to be specific to parts of Switzerland. The word cagnotte can be variously translated as kitty, jackpot or nest egg. The Cagnomatic is used by a group of regular customers at a café or bistro to collectively save money over a fixed period of time towards a particular goal or occasion.

This post (in French) that I found on a blog published in Fribourg describes how it works. Here’s a translation:

The cagnotte, a veritable savings bank at the bistro, is a custom that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The principle is simple. Each member of the cagnotte commits to depositing a monthly amount. He slides the note into his slot in the Cagnomatic. A committee, elected by the members, regularly records the deposits, puts the money in a bank account, and does the accounts. Once a year they hold a soirée de la cagnotte. The café owner pays for the first drink, followed by the distribution of the money saved and a celebratory supper among friends. Note that the money saved cannot be withdrawn in advance of the soirée.

The post goes on to say that the tradition is widespread in the historic centre of Fribourg, being present in at least seven cafés at that time. (The post was published in 2011.)

I asked my Swiss colleagues whether they had heard of a Cagnomatic and most had not. On seeing the photo some remembered seeing such machines in older Genevois cafés, but didn’t know what purpose they served. It’s reassuring that one can still stumble across local, somewhat secret traditions in our globalized world.

Now I must find a cagnotte to join.

JVAL Openair – Begnins – 27.08.2016

Fùgù Mango saved my evening.

The most remarkable thing about the JVAL Openair festival is its setting. The stage is set up in the front yard of a large farmhouse in the foothills of the Jura, entirely surrounded by vineyards that roll down to the shores of Lake Geneva, with the Alps looming up on the other side. After darkness fell on the last night of the festival, a swarm of Chinese lanterns were released from another courtyard somewhere below, as lightning flashed through the clouds over the distant mountains.

In the warmth of the late evening, this spectacular natural light show almost made up for having waited through a terribly boring set from Belgian singer Kris Dane. He was accompanied by a string quartet, drums, percussion, bass, organ and a backing vocalist. Sadly, even allowing for the clear problems they were having with getting the audio mix right, his songs were not strong enough to hold the attention of the audience, who chattered noisily throughout the set.

(While waiting for him to arrive on stage I read through a profile on his website. Alarm bells started ringing when I read the following: “He also admits that he doesn’t have a library of great music and if he ever attends a concert he will leave after half an hour since he knows exactly where it’s going.” Indeed.)

Fortunately the final act of the night were his fellow Belgians Fùgù Mango, whose music was billed as “indie pop and afrobeat”. They immediately had the crowd hopping (possibly with relief) with their happy melodies and joy-filled performance. The four members – three of whom sang – were lined up along the front of the stage, with guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and a selection of percussion instruments. Their sound reminded me of both Foster the People (of Pumped Up Kicks fame) and a slightly poppier Yeasayer.

They played a very solid hour during which the energy levels never dropped. For an encore the two vocalists climbed down into the crowd, handing out a selection of shakers, to sing one final song with the audience on backing vocals. After the energy-sapping experience of Kris Dane before them, it was a warmly wonderful way to end the evening. I’d definitely like to see them live again.

I can’t find a live video that quite captures their energy, but here’s one nice performance from earlier this summer:

I should mention that the first act of the evening was Pandour, a pair of DJs from Fribourg. They were accompanied by a couple of guitarists, but their music – described as “deep orientalist and electro-acoustic” – wasn’t my cup of tea. I hesitate to be too critical, as I know that I don’t really “get” a lot of what is done by DJs like this. I found it all a bit boring, but there were definitely people there who were really into it.

I’ll definitely go to JVAL again in the years ahead. It’s a cool little festival and even the 1 out of 3 hit rate for me on Saturday was enough to make it worthwhile.

In hindsight, it looks like a master plan

In hindsight, it almost looks like it was a master plan: spend two to three years each at different international organizations, building up the skills, experience and network I would need to launch a (hopefully!) successful communications consultancy. In reality, it was more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where deliberate decisions at specific moments in time have brought me to this weekend and the launch of THAT COMMS GUY.

I surprised myself last May when an afternoon of introspection brought me to the conclusion that the time is right for me to have a go at establishing myself as an independent communications consultant. The plan came together quite quickly once I made the decision (naturally with the full support of Nadine). Thus, as of October, I will reduce my hours and responsibilities at the Ecolint Alumni Office, enabling me to start taking on clients while retaining some guaranteed regular income. (I’m grateful to my boss for facilitating this.)

macgyver

My high-level concept for this venture is to be the MacGyver of communications for non-profit organizations in the Geneva area. If you are unfamiliar with the aforementioned TV series, let me quote from the Wikipedia article (with some edits to adapt it to my situation):

“Resourceful and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciences communications techniques, he solves complex problems by making things out of ordinary objects, along with his ever-present Swiss Army knife Irish good humour. He prefers non-violentnon-expensive resolutions and prefers not to handle a gun.”

In practice I’m proposing services in three broad areas: writing and editing copy, event management, and community engagement strategies. I’m focusing on the Geneva region and on non-profit associations, which is not, of course, to say that I would turn down clients that don’t meet one or other of those criteria. However Switzerland’s higher costs make it unlikely that I’ll be a viable option for organizations based elsewhere, and with the majority of my experience having been in the non-profit sector, that’s where I’m hoping to carve out my niche.

My new website will be an important marketing tool for the business. I’ve created six WordPress-based sites before, but this is the first time I’ve worked with a premium (i.e. paid-for) theme. During the development phase I received lots of valuable comments from various friends and relations, which has helped me to bring it to a point where I’m happy to launch it publicly. Further feedback will be most welcome of course!

facebook_banner_white

So, not a master plan, but definitely the result of a set of deliberate decisions, some professional, some personal. It was not pure chance that my switch from EAZA (in Amsterdam) back to the EBU (Geneva) in 2011 coincided with the birth of Robert, nor that I started my current job at Ecolint just as Declan was born in 2014. Robert starts school tomorrow, and it would be fair to say that this next significant milestone was not irrelevant in the decision to try to establish a more flexible professional arrangement.

It’s the end of the beginning for this new adventure. I’m looking forward to the challenge. And if you hear of an organization facing a communications-related challenge, don’t forget to recommend that comms guy, you know the one with that name you can never remember how to pronounce.

 

 

Farewell to Maeve, my Liza

In May 2008 I spent a wonderful few days at the Listowel Writers’ Week, where my friend David and I had decided to join a series of songwriting workshops. Glen Hansard had originally been slated to lead the course, but being in unexpectedly high demand having won himself an Oscar, he pulled out a few weeks ahead of the event and handed the reins over to Freddie White. The latter is a fine guitarist and singer, but is not notable as a songwriter, so it didn’t result in the participants making great strides in that department. Nevertheless we had some memorable musical adventures, and if I hadn’t been there I would never have met Maeve Sweeney O’Connor.

Maeve was from Donegal and had joined the workshop to see whether she could scratch a persistent musical itch. She was someone who, as I recall, was always scribbling down potential lyrics. She played a bit of guitar, but hadn’t done a whole lot of songwriting. My most vivid memory of her in Listowel was during an afternoon song session in a pub, when she sang a beautiful unaccompanied version of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate.

Maeve Sweeney, August 2008

Maeve Sweeney at Silverwood Studios, Wicklow, August 2008

I had been writing songs for a few years prior to my trip to Listowel. One that I was really excited about was a duet called Dear Liza, based on the famous children’s song about the hole in the bucket. I was planning to spend some time in a recording studio later that summer, but wasn’t confident I’d be able to include Dear Liza as didn’t have a female vocalist. I remember nervously asking Maeve if she’d let me play the song for her and perhaps have a go at the female part. She sang it perfectly almost instantly and we even recorded a rough demo version there and then (to which I later added some additional guitar lines).

I was thrilled when she agreed to travel down to Wicklow from Donegal when I was back in Ireland for the recording sessions in August. In the end she sang on every track that we recorded over those two days at Gavin Ralston’s Silverwood Studios. I’m very proud of those songs. Maeve’s vocal on Dear Liza is spot on. It has always reminded me of Briana Corrigan’s singing on The Beautiful South song A Little Time: strong and direct, but with buckets of passion. Maeve’s Donegal lilt adds a welcome measure of feistiness too.

Maeve died on 24 July 2016. I had been in touch with her on and off over the years, but – regrettably – not in recent times. I had sent her a note via Facebook in early July, just to say that I had been thinking of her and was pleased to see that her FB timeline suggested she was about and active. Just a few days later her husband Derek sent an email to say that she was in a hospice and had stage four bowel cancer. She died the following Sunday.

I didn’t know Maeve well, but we shared the intimate experience of making music together. She was a warm, caring person, hugely proud of her children and passionate about theatre and music. She was only 44 when she died.

I don’t think any of us needs reminding that life is short and fragile. (Once again my friend Iain Twigg comes to mind.) Maeve was the kind of person who would accept an invitation from someone she barely knew to drive half the length of Ireland and spend two days hanging around a recording studio to sing backing vocals on a few songs simply because it seemed like a fun and interesting thing to do. She was the kind of person who said, yes, let’s give it a go. I will think of her often.

Here’s the studio version of Dear Liza that we recorded in August 2008 at Silverwood Studios in Newtownmountkennedy:

Maeve also did a superb job on backing vocals on the other songs recorded at that session. You can listen to them all on SoundCloud.

Eoghan O'Sullivan and Maeve Sweeney

We spent long hours hanging around on the Control Room couch at Silverwood, Maeve smiling through it all.

 

Ben Folds & yMusic – Sage Gateshead – 18.06.2016

We left the kids with Nadine’s parents in Leeds last Saturday night and took the train up to Newcastle where we met up with David (of Mulled fame) to catch Ben Folds in concert. I had seen him live twice previously and was blown away each time. Both occasions were before I started writing about gigs on this site, so I don’t have any details to refresh my memory, but I do know that he played his most popular songs. This time it was quite different.

yMusic is a New York-based ensemble with three string players and three wind/brass players. Ben Folds has been making music with them for the last while, presumably with a view to keeping things interesting for himself. And it’s interesting for his audience too, if not quite as entertaining as his usual solo or piano plus drums and bass shows.

I didn’t know any of the material that he has written for this collaboration with yMusic (on the album So There) and it didn’t make a lasting impression. (The only exception was the song I’m Not The Man, which has a really nice list-based ending: “I used to be my father’s son, I used to be number one, I used to be paper and pencil, I used to be endless potential” and so on.) But I enjoyed listening to and watching them. Folds sits in the middle behind an upright piano, so all you can see is his happy head and shoulders most of the time – a bit unnerving. The players in yMusic are clearly very talented and the arrangements were impressive.

The evening only really picked up when they started playing “the hits”. The older songs he played were probably chosen based on being ones that could work well with the additional instrumentation. Steven’s Last Night In Town was perfect in this regard (a bit more lively than the version below); Song For The Dumped worked in an odd way; and the encore of Not The Same, with no piano at all and lots of audience participation, was great.

Folds played three or four songs solo just ahead of the encore and while it was good to hear him perform them live, they were not among my favourites. They were seemingly based on audience requests and included Boxing and Lullaby.

The venue is pretty great, although I wouldn’t normally choose to see a pop/rock artist in a seated venue. I suppose it suited the line-up he was playing with, but it didn’t make for a good atmosphere.

I was happy to see him live again. He’s a truly great songwriter and I respect the fact that he wants to experiment a bit and change things up.

By the way, if you’ve never watched him doing his song Army live, with the audience singing the brass parts, it’s worth checking out… see below, from a live session he did for MySpace (!!) . David and I tried this in Mulligans of Geneva a couple of times and it worked pretty well. Great buzz!

P.S. On the journey up to Newcastle our train was overtaken by the Flying Scotsman pulling about 12 carriages. It was very cool seeing a steam engine up close like that. We got a chance to see it again at York station, which is where the photo below was taken.

The Flying Scotsman at York station

The world’s only song about the fossa?

I spent a couple of years working in Amsterdam for EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, as Communications and Membership Manager. Its Executive Director at the time was Lesley Dickie, a Scotswoman whose many passions included an obsession with the fossa, an obscure (to most people) carnivore from Madagascar. Lesley’s PhD focused on the fossa and she was, as she says herself, always “blathering on” about it to anyone who would listen.

At the end of May, in the context of launching a Facebook page dedicated to connections between art and species conservation, Lesley threw out a challenge, calling on friends to create artworks inspired by species conservation. Her successor at EAZA, Myfanwy Griffith, (a co-organizer of a related session at this year’s IUCN World Conservation Congress), specifically issued the challenge to me via Facebook to come up with a song.

Challenge accepted!

I haven’t been doing much songwriting of late, but for some reason this challenge inspired me. I decided I would try to write a song about the fossa Lesley’s involvement made that the obvious choice and that I’d do it quickly. The end result came tumbling out more or less in one evening, following a couple of days tossing ideas around in my head. The last few songs that I’ve written have been a result of a commission of one sort or another: the geek songMairéad’s wedding song, David’s Twiggathon auction purchase, and the challenge I set myself to write a song for Declan.

I wrote and recorded Fuss About The Fossa at the end of May. As far as I can tell it’s the only song about the fossa, in English at least. It took a little longer to find the time to create a video to accompany it. (Sharing music on the web without any accompanying images is fighting a losing battle these days.) I’ve used a bunch of photos of fossa from Wikimedia and Flickr, all available under Creative Commons licenses*. There some really nice images but they are all of fossa in zoos; I would have liked to use some of the wonderful images of fossa in the wild that are available from Arkive, but I wasn’t sure about the usage rights.

I’m happy to have played my own small part in raising awareness of species conversation and the surprisingly interesting fossa. If you’re wondering what some of the lyrics below refer to specifically, read more on the relevant Wikipedia page.

Lyrics

Fuss About The Fossa

He’s the biggest beast on the island to the east of Africa so they say,
Kinda like a cat, but there’s more to it than that, as you’re gonna find out today,
He only feels good hanging out in the woods and keeping out of the way,
But they’re felling the forest, so maybe tomorrow he’ll have no place to stay.
Who’s gonna make a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.

Climbing through the branches, hoping for a chance to get jiggy with a lady friend,
They’ve got very long tails but the fossa male has another impressive append…age,
Waiting around underneath the bough ’til he hears the lady yell,

If he gets his way he’ll spend half a day making love ’til the painful end.
Who’s gonna make a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.

He keeps the Malagasy beat, on his bear-like feet,
Patrolling his patch and hoping he’ll catch some lemurs to eat,
But if we don’t take care, and keep the forest there,
The loss of our friend the fossa will be the result I swear.

Fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa….
Fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa, fossa….

Does anybody give a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.
Who’s gonna give a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.

(Download the song from SoundCloud)

* The image credits are listed on the YouTube page for the video.

 

The Dude Street Top 5 (a Frozen-free zone)

(Does this post verge on me bragging about my kids having excellent taste in music? Yes it does. Is that so wrong? Probably. Do I care? No!)

Here’s a playlist to listen to while you’re reading this.

We have music playing in the house constantly. Sometimes we just let the player (a now slightly dated but still functioning Logitech Squeezebox set-up) choose an album from our library at random or we might pick something to specifically match the mood or occasion. This means the boys now 2 and 4.5 years have been exposed to a wide range of pop, rock, indie, folk and a little classical and jazz already in their short lives.

It’s always interesting to observe what songs or artists seem to particularly grab their attention. If I were to pick a playlist of songs that have stuck in their heads and always elicit a singalong reaction, the Top 5 would be the following – which are all in the playlist embedded above:

  • Buffalo Soldier by Bob Marley
  • The Lights by Mull Historical Society
  • Meditation Song #2 by Cloud Control
  • Diane Young by Vampire Weekend
  • Ship to Wreck by Florence and the Machine

All five have catchy, repetitive refrains that are easy for the kids to sing along with and to remember. I’m not a huge fan of the Florence song (the playing of which usually involves the boys and their mother having a disco in the kitchen), but the first four are from artists and albums that I really like. It’s strange and fun to hear your four-year-old son absentmindedly singing a song by a reasonably obscure Scottish indie artist (Mull Historical Society) to himself while he puts his shoes on.

Of course we also have some music that’s specifically for kids. A friend (I forget who right now) gave us a great album called the Wheels On The Bus Go Round The World, that features versions of popular kids songs arranged in various world music styles. The Indian raga version of Incy Wincy Spider is great, and the variety of different styles means that it doesn’t start to grate too soon. (Another well-meaning friend gave us a collection of Beatles songs arranged for kids, but they were just terrible – syrupy synthesizers galore. And if I want to play the music of The Beatles for my kids I’ll just play…. The Beatles!)

That kids’ album lives in the car and is played from time to time – but not every time they ask. Sometimes it’s a case of “No, today we’re listening to Daddy’s music”; or “We’ll play the Wheels On The Bus on the way home”. And they seem to accept that. Music is so important to me that I think I’d go mad if I couldn’t listen to things that I like most of the time. (And you can’t imagine how happy I am that Let It Go from Frozen doesn’t seem to have had any impact on Robert…. or not yet at least.)

The artists listed above are by no means my favourites and not those that are on most often in the house, but those are the songs that have struck a chord with the boys. I’m looking forward to the day when they start coming home with the names of artists we haven’t heard of and introducing us to new music. Hopefully by exposing them to a reasonably wide range of music now they’ll keep an open mind in the future – and help us to keep an open mind too.

(In case you’re wondering why I’ve referred to “Dude Street” in the title, we live on Rue de la Dude!)