Having encountered severe anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, Naoise Roo is focusing on her therapeutic process and her relationship with herself. Oh, and she’s coping with promoting her music during a global pandemic.
Across Ireland, the talents of musicians often surpass song sheets and the stage. In many cases, songwriters, out of necessity, don many hats from the role of a manager, tour booker and promoter to establish their career and ensure their music reaches an audience. Such exertion can severely affect the wellbeing of an individual with so much expectation placed upon them from external and internal sources. Naoise Roo is all too familiar with this pressure and professional duality since starting out half a decade ago.
You may wonder, then, what it’s like to be an independent artist releasing new music in the midst of a pandemic, particularly when returning after a brief hiatus. Back in March, in the lead-up to lockdown, Roo was set to share her highly-anticipated EP, Sick Girlfriend; the follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2015 debut album, Lilith. Reflecting on recent months, we eschewed Zoom for a good old-fashioned phone call to catch-up on a hazy June evening.
When speaking about the release of Sick Girlfriend, Roo described the experience as surreal. She continues, “You’re amped-up because it’s stressful releasing a record anyway and then [Covid-19] happens and you think, ‘I hope I manage to stay alive during this crisis!’ Coupled with that, levels of expectations for yourself plummet massively. So, I found promoting the record online really difficult. Inappropriate, actually. A lot has happened recently and art has never been more important, but the pushing of art has never felt so deeply unnatural, also.”
Since time has passed, Roo’s humbled by the warm response her latest material, of which recounts deeply personal experiences, has received from audiences. “I was bowled over by how supportive people were. One of the positive outcomes in putting Sick Girlfriend out during lockdown, when everyone is so isolated and consuming a lot of music and art, was having people tell me that my music was a necessary thing for them or that they were enjoying it.”
Her overall openness surrounding the unease of projecting a certain mindset or persona online along with broader perspectives of functioning and surviving in this day and age extends to her lyrics. Her articulation regarding her mental health is evocative and eloquent across Sick Girlfriend. The EP commences with the Dublin-based songwriter pondering, “Who is someone else when they are not themselves?” atop somber chords during the introduction of ‘Falling Stars’. A beautifully immersive song which heralds elements of Lana Del Rey’s introspective instrumentations. We can trace the aforementioned conflicting roles from that opening line, which subsequently informs the overall narrative arc.
“That [song] is about my relationship with being a musician and one who has a lot of mental health issues,” explains Roo. “We’re in a social media age where everybody is telling you that you have to be your own PR machine. Everything you do has to have some sort of angle and what you express is supposed to be part of a brand. I find that deeply uncomfortable. It doesn’t resonate with me to be pushed to present the most positive ideal and self-aggrandizing form of yourself. I just wanted to be honest about how shitty it felt to do that.”
Across a quartet of differing arrangements, combined with this sense of discomfort, themes of depression are addressed, along with a critical takedown of oppressive stereotypes projected onto women experiencing mental illness. The period that ensued Lilith’s release is remembered by Roo as one shrouded by anxiety and a deep depression. “About five years ago, I was very suicidal. It was during that period when I wrote about the feeling of wanting to disappear and what that overwhelming and all-consuming suicidal ideation is,” she recalls. That evolved into Ocean,â€ the first song penned for the EP. An interval between Ocean’s conception to the writing and recording of the remainder of Sick Girlfriend followed, during which Roo retreated from music to recuperate in the wake of a breakdown.
She returned to the studio reinvigorated by the recording process. In contrast to the LP, born from a mind map comprised of PJ Harvey, Anna Calvi with a Rob Ellis approach to the production, she entered the studio free from sonic stipulations. Prior to laying down tracks, she spoke to Liam Mulvaney (with whom she worked with on her record) in his kitchen where she played skeletal versions of songs written for the EP. Upon hearing the material, Mulvaney suggested going into the studio with no rehearsal or preconceptions of where the songs would go. To allow nature take its course, so to speak.
For the Sick Girlfriend sessions, Roo was joined by Girl Band’s Dan Fox, producer and multi-instrumentalist Rian Trench and Jamie Hyland. Through laughter buoyed by reflected assurance, Roo jokes that with this particular trio of producers accompanying her in the studio she felt confident to proceed with Mulvaney’s advice. “If I was going to trust anyone to do that it would be those people! Over the course of a day, drum and bass parts were tracked with vocals and guitar taking slightly longer. “We just let it all happen and it came together really naturally. It became this wonderful experiment where we sat around and I told them the vibe I wanted and the feelings behind the songs. Those were the only references everyone received before they did their thing. And so, a few days later the EP was done!”
Roo becomes animated reliving the recording of Sick Girlfriend, such is the joy it spurs in her. “I love the studio and making music. That’s the part that makes me really happy,” she says enthusiastically. “I really liked that way of working, too. If you get a room of musicians together, whose aesthetic and artistic intentions you trust, that can lead to a wonderful collaboration. I think [musicians] can get really bogged down with nuances whereas I like to capture things as they’re happening in the moment. I like when it’s rolling fast and feels very intuitive. When you allow people breathing room and freedom with interpretation, you facilitate more opportunities for really interesting and unexpected things to happen. A piece of work is not supposed to be particularly perfect, in my opinion. It is what it is in the moment and then you move on and make new work. I say that even though it’s taken me a long time to put something out! It just took me a while to write it,” she smiles.
One such evolution in Naoise Roo’s sound can be heard on the infectious Black Hole (“I never thought I’d write a bop! People were shocked”, she exclaims). Awash with wonderful 80s motifs from Roxy Music-like guitar flickers and sparkling synths the listener is presented with a tonal palette we haven’t heard from the artist. As we’ve seen in recent weeks, artists are already thriving on the challenge of producing Quarantine records. In May, Charli XCX released How I’m Feeling Now under a limited timeframe.
That record was workshopped over Zoom with fans and recorded entirely from her L.A.-based home. Has Roo approached songwriting and quarantine in a similar vein? “I’m never writing a quarantine song, it’s such low hanging fruit!” she laughs. “I’ve done a bit more [writing] recently. During the first two months of lockdown, however, I was just like, “I’m not going to be creative; I don’t have it in me and I’m way too anxious to be doing anything.” She continues, “I need to be in a certain state of mind and feel emotionally open to write. If you’re in survival mode with something like Coronavirus, it’s very difficult to even think about being creative. Initially, I was hibernating and taking care of myself. It’s only in the last few weeks that I’ve started being more creative; looking at songs written during the Sick Girlfriend period that I might demo. Otherwise, it’s mostly been a time of reflection and consuming other people’s art rather than creating my own.”
Accessibility to the arts is something Roo is extremely passionate about. In May 2019, Roo curated a special performance in Temple Bar’s Project Arts Centre with Naoise debuting songs from the EP. “The first time I presented that work, I wanted it to be in an environment where people were really going to listen; where reverence was required. I wanted it to be free because music is an amazing source of therapy and, unfortunately, sometimes when you need it the most you can’t get access to it. We were so grateful to have received funding from the Arts Council which made this possible.”
In the future, when gigs re-enter our lives, Naoise Roo hopes to do more performances like that. The realities, unfortunately, are challenging. Especially as we enter an uncertain landscape in Ireland’s Music Industry, in the wake of Covid-19. However, with the right steps and people spearheading the recovery, Roo is hopeful we’ll find ourselves navigating towards some semblance of reform. “In times of crisis such as this, the greatest changes often occur. In Ireland, we need a lot of reform across our music industry and support systems. For a country that produces so much music and art, there’s so little support and general funding available for artists compared to other European countries. It would be great to see something like Help Musicians start-up here,” she says. “Of course, there are bodies in Ireland to help but it still doesn’t feel like enough. There shouldn’t be one small office of people with a gatekeeper overlooking and funding the entire Irish music scene. It doesn’t make sense. It would be amazing to have more representation and people fighting for artists rights. I’m really hopeful that people will have the time and passion to do more of this work. Fingers crossed!”
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photograph: Bob Gallagher
Naoise Roo’s Sick Girlfriend EP is out now. She hopes to launch it in Bloody Mary’s at a future date.