Conor Walsh – The Keys, the Secret


Posted December 1, 2015 in Features

Cirillo’s

Having released his debut EP entitled The Front this October – the first release on local label Ensemble – Conor Walsh has been causing a stir with his minimalist piano compositions and mesmerising live performances. This isn’t a new vocation for Conor though, who has been patiently perfecting his craft since the formative years spent writing music on the piano in the reception of a hundred year old hotel in Swinford, County Mayo. Conor spoke to Totally Dublin about growing up in Mayo, his influences and his experiences on Other Voices and touring with Hozier.

He explains how growing up in Swinford helped to shape his compositional style: ‘Well, I grew up in Mayo. I started to write tunes as a teenager on a guitar with vocals. I did this all through my teens and ended up transposing a lot of these tunes to the piano when I was about 19 or 20, and figured out that all of the tunes I had been writing sounded a lot better on piano than they did on guitar and vocals. I was a teenager in the ’90s, so I was from the Nirvana era, but my main influences as a late teen and my early twenties were Aphex Twin and Tool, especially the Aphex Twin album Selected Ambient Works 1985-1992. That was my introduction into ambient and minimalist music. So I continued to write tunes on the piano, and that was kind of the beginning of it.’

Conor’s story is a familiar one, and something that a lot of ’90s kids would be able to relate to. He recalls the early years studying for his grades: ‘The piano was like something that I was made to do when I was in my teens and I couldn’t stand doing grades and stuff like that, so I did a couple of the early grades and then, once I had an opportunity, I quit and focused on the guitar. But when I was 19 I returned to the piano and it was really nice returning to it without having to think of exams or scales, or all the other boring stuff involved with preparing for grades. It was really nice to have the freedom to just play my own music and develop my own style.’

‘In the ’90s, the ultimate thing was to play guitar and sing. That was all I wanted to do, well, and play football of course. Definitely the grades thing was, to me, as anti-music as possible. I’m not sure it was really all that bad, but it just seemed bad *[at the time]*, so I never went back to the grades but I did go back to the piano to transpose the tunes I had been writing on the guitar. I had a lot of melodies and hooks and they sounded so much better *[on the piano]*. But on a deeper level I suppose, in doing that, I discovered that I was more confident and I felt better and more sincere about the process in that I *wasn’t* trying to say anything, and I didn’t have a whole bunch of lyrics that I had to craft and decide whether they were profound enough or not. I felt much more comfortable with instrumental music and what I like to refer to as the non-directive nature of my own music. You’re putting it out there and leaving a certain amount for the listener to work out themselves. To put their own images in their head and to create their own narrative or story to the music. But I definitely felt more comfortable doing that rather than putting lyrics to music.’

Over the years Walsh has been slowly moving into the production side of things. The electronic drones and effects that pepper his EP were all created by Conor in his home studio. ‘I do write a lot of electronic music,’ Conor explains, ‘and have done all the time for the last 16 years, and it was about merging the two and being comfortable with my identity as an artist that straddled both sides. I always wanted to include more electronics with the piano and I think that over the last two and a half years – and particularly over the last year – I’ve really become comfortable with having my own sound identity. The EP was recorded at home on *audio production software* Reason and, yeah, all that production is my own. A big decision about bringing the piano out, more into the electronic world, was about not doing too much, but just doing enough, and finding a position where you can say, “That’s enough,” and not drowning out or losing the character of the piano pieces. It’s a balancing act but it’s one that I’m more comfortable with taking on now. Four years ago when I started to commit to this whole project, to become a musician, I just started off with piano, so it’s really nice to have come along a couple of years later and to have included a lot of atmospherics and synths, and to still have retained the character of the piano tracks.’

This ethos seems to be written into the fabric of Walsh’s EP, a production process that gives the compositions room to breathe, while at the same time adding a depth and darkness to his compositions. Walsh’s music is meditative and melodic but there’s a melancholy that runs through his pieces. He muses over the genesis of this stark contrast within his work. ‘I think that I’m always drawn to music that’s profound, and I sometimes struggle with music that’s too happy, or too much fun. I like to think that even though some of it is melancholy, there’s hope in there as well. I don’t really know where it comes from, I mean, one of the biggest influences on my creativity is landscape and countryside, the kind of wild countryside here in Mayo is definitely inspiring and it can be really great but it can also be really dark as well. I’m looking out the window here on a November afternoon and it’s just miserable and it’s pouring rain. I hope it’s not too depressing, I hope there’s some hope in there as well. But then I can’t tell anyways, because some tunes, people say, “Wow, that’s a real happy, uplifting one!” and I’m dumbfounded that they’ve said that, I’ve always thought it was the opposite. So I’m not a good one to judge!’

You would be forgiven for thinking that Walsh is heavily influenced by some of the modern minimalist and new-classical composers but his influences lie in simpler terms. ‘Eric Satie, some of his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, had the same kind of impact as the Aphex Twin album had, in that they conveyed so much through so little, and that was something that really, really grabbed me. Of course I could tap into all the new classical composers, Dustin O’Halloran, Yann Tiersen, Nils Frahm, but in terms of a direct influence, like, I hadn’t heard of Nils Frahm until two years ago when someone said it to me after a gig! I guess I’m influenced by all sorts of music. I find, for example, that when I limit myself to listening to Lyric FM for a couple of weeks that I write better music than, say, when I listen to current affairs.’

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Walsh has already accrued an interesting assortment of past gigs, ranging from Other Voices to his tour with Hozier. He remembers how he got to play at the Other Voices main event in Dingle in 2013. ‘Other Voices was really massive for me, it was amazing. I played the Music Trail in 2013 and I hadn’t realised it, but as a result of playing it you enter the competition for the IMRO Other Room. I won the IMRO Other Room competition. The competition provides a couple of emerging artists with an opportunity to play on the real show. That was really massive, and it happened really quickly. I really hope that in the future I get to play the real thing again because I think a lot of it went over my head. I remember going in the day of the shoot and being completely bedazzled by the whole set up. There was, I don’t know, 15 cameras, loads of production people running around, and to think for a second that “Jeez, this is all for me, and for my performance, this is crazy like!”. And I think it almost happened too soon, that I wasn’t ready to appreciate it, but it was a brilliant experience and a brilliant learning experience as well, and it lead to a lot of opportunities as well.’

‘*[The Hozier tour]* was an unreal experience that came out of nowhere. Hozier had a couple of gigs left here in Ireland before he was about to leave the universe and become this massive star. I got a Facebook message off him one day – I didn’t really even know him – and ended up doing three gigs. The first one was a typical kind of club situation where everyone was standing up and drinking, and that didn’t suit my music at all, but it really didn’t suit his music either in my opinion. But the next two gigs then were in theatres in Waterford and Offaly and they were possibly two of the greatest experiences of my life. They were completely sold out gigs, in utter silence and I got a great reception. It’s funny when you think about opening slots, sometimes it’s really good to have a completely different opening act. It felt like I was setting up the audience into some sort of meditative trance for Hozier to come on and play in complete silence just before he was about to become the biggest star in the world. The other thing was that all those people at the gigs kind of knew what was happening, all the crew and everybody behind us knew that this was about to really explode, actually it had already started since the video *[for Take Me To Church]*. It was an amazing experience and it did work, yeah.’

Walsh has also been working with a number of video artists and film makers over the last few years. Mark Hearne of Le Tissier has provided visuals for Walsh’s gigs on a number of occasions and recently Louise Gaffney directed the video for the title track from Walsh’s EP, as well as creating the artwork for the vinyl release. Walsh also expresses an interest into composing for film. ‘That’s something that I’m absolutely desperate to get more and more involved in. I did some work last year for Kamila Dydyna. I scored a short film for her that’s been very successful and has been very well received all over the world. That was my first professional short film and I absolutely loved every second of it of the experience. Being directed to compose for imagery is a really beautiful experience that I really love and I’m very eager to get more of that kind of work.’

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So, a horizon that’s full of opportunities for a Mayo man that seems destined for great things. When asked what he has planned next, Walsh laughs: ‘The first thing I’m focusing on is getting my laptop fixed because after four years of almost always being on it finally died last night! But in the longer term, of course more releases. I have tonnes and tonnes of music I want to release. I’m not sure if I’m going to release an EP or an album next, but for now I’m going to call it an EP to give myself a target to work for and get a few more tunes done. I’ve just been awarded the recording assistance grant award from Mayo County Council so that’s going to be a great help in getting some new music recorded. I never stop writing music. I guess the experience of writing the EP and facing up to letting go of the tracks was a really good experience and I’m looking forward to getting back in the zone with that now and letting go of the tracks.’

 

Conor Walsh’s debut EP The Front is out now on Ensemble from www.ensemble.ie

Words: Dave Desmond

Photos: Mark McGuinness

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