Persona Most Grata – Laura Sheeran


Posted 1 month ago in Music Features

The name Laura Sheeran has been on my mind for over a decade. Usually as part of a conversation about the most important women in Irish arts since Sinead O’ Connor.

In the halcyon days of 2010, when the world seemed a little less ablaze, it was so damned rare to find an artist working with sound the way she did. The textures and shades with which she draped her intoxicating, otherworldly compositions were almost unheard of from these shores, closer to Diamanda Galas and Jarboe than the admittedly excellent  Imelda May, or a half dozen folk singers I could barely tell the difference between.

Cuts like ‘Lamenta Fra’ charted a gregorian course through the extended technique tones that today are so ubiquitous, and more traditionally structured pieces like ‘To Carry My Bones’ marked a heady, somber waypoint between PJ Harvey and the contemporary Irish gothicisms of new artists such as A.n.e.n.o.m.e and The Fathoming.

Ten years later, those cataclysmically dark songs still sound groundbreaking, years ahead of what’s happening today. Tinged with classical flair and a breathlessly contemporary edge, the rare pearls the internet offers up are still essential. Still important.

It seemed a surety that she was set to leave a mark, carve an indelible niche, and embark on the kind of artistic career that inspired generations of young upstarts to explore their own avenues of expression. And then, like a whisper, like a ghost, Laura Sheeran all but vanished.

“In my 20’s things were very wild, there was some pretty heavy family turbulence and lots of grief. Writing music was always how I coped with difficult emotions but it started to become a bit too much because on one hand it was my full time job, but on the other it was like some kind of grief container. My mother died from cancer when she was 47 just a few weeks after I released my first album so the two events became woven together for me internally. Then right around my second album the following year there was another family tragedy and it became impossible for me to separate music from all those painful associations.

 

There was more to it than just  that, but that was a big part of why I stopped doing music back then. It took me years to untangle it all but I’m in a much healthier place with it all now. I want to make art. I want to be creative. I want to perform. It’s taken a lot of work to be able to build up my strength to be able to express what’s inside of me from a place that is secure, if I don’t do it, it’s going to make me sick. There were definitely echoes of that in my mother, so yes I had to find a way to be brave enough to face back into it, it’s not going away any time soon.”

 

The first musical expressions in nearly a decade are underway, under the moniker of Persona, Sheeran once again weaves peculiar spells.

With Persona, what I’ve been trying to learn is how to actually have a persona. That’s something I didn’t have in place before.

 

Except for the remarkable ‘Light A Fire’ single in 2016,  those years away from music have seen her, quite literally, on the other side of the spotlight. Sheeran turned her hand to the visual arts, making a name for herself as a director and visual artist in demand. From working with Laura Cannell and Kate Ellis on their video for ‘Ancient Moons’, recording live performances by Rhiannon Giddens, or the many momentous concerts from Crash Ensemble, with whom she is filmmaker in residence. As we sit for this interview, another of her collaborations is due to be premiered at the New Music Dublin festival. ‘Terrarium’, a new work composed by Anne Cleare will be performed by Crash Ensemble, featuring film elements and movement direction by Sheeran.

I’m a member of Crash Ensemble, working with visuals instead of instruments. On a practical day to day level, I film their performances. In the more creative role, I do visuals for newly commissioned pieces,  and they also run programs for new composers coming into their own, and if they want to work with visuals, I facilitate that. I love being a part of Crash, it’s always something different. With new music, anything can happen. I once filmed Crash performing a 10min piece without a single note of music in it. Never a dull moment.

 

And how did you find the transition from the stage to the directors chair?

I was so blessed because I had made so many connections with amazing musicians, and I was able to shift gears into a more visual role, but maintain a lot of the same community around me. The seeds had been sown for that move to happen. I had already started making visuals working on music videos, portrait photography, for all of my own projects. I had been leaning into that side of things anyway, so it made sense to harness that, and expand my branches into that area. Over the course of three years, it developed from working freelance alongside a full time job, then part time, and over that time I built up a library of work. Then in 2017 I made the jump and went full time into freelance. It was terrifying, but at some point you have to cut the cord.

 

I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening night of ‘Gammy’, a stunning one woman play which is the debut of  gifted actor/aerialist/ playwright, Kate Finegan, directed by Sheeran. I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t expect it to be a tour de force on every level, as I said on the night. Performed by the chameleonic Eimear Keating, with lighting and design by Zia Bergin-Holly, the darkly hilarious story was a masterclass in tone, suspense and surprise that had me perplexed throughout. Talk turns to the massive painting that served as a backdrop for the titular Gammys remarkable day.

We thought it was going to be this big reveal, and that everyone was going to be blown away by this shadow figure, and all the heads and faces, but everyone missed it.

 

Perhaps they were spellbound by the performance.

Eimear’s access to emotion is incredible. The way she can ride the waves of switching between roles, and so many characters, truly incredible. We were delighted with the run. Three sold out shows, you couldn’t hope for better. We have a run in Galway coming up in May, and in July we’re in Sligo for the Cairde Festival. I’m shooting a film in July so I won’t be at the festival, but I’m hoping to bring Gammy on tour next year, especially around rural Ireland. It’s great having it in Dublin and Galway, but I’d love for it to go to other festivals like Clonmel Junction, Kilkenny Arts Festival, because the roots of the play are in rural Ireland, the places where people are living these lives. When I read ‘Gammy’, I immediately wanted to work with it. It made sense to me, and I couldn’t have been happier how it came together. And Kate is already writing her second play which is exciting.

 

How did it all begin?

I’d been working with Kate on different projects for years, and she had been talking about doing a little writing. We’d had some chats about themes, and things that resonated with each other from early experiences, so when told me she’d written something and asked to send a couple of scenes, I obviously said yes. She sent a draft that was written almost as a stream of consciousness, a general gist of a scene. We didn’t know what it would be. We thought maybe a short film. We screen tested little bits up at the Hill of Tara on a whim one day. There was also talk of theater. When she sent me the script, I was blown away. It was unbelievable, so brilliant, and so condensed. She worked a lot with the director Wayne Jordan as a dramaturg on the script, they did amazing work together. By the time the script was done, there was zero fat on it at all. Everything was so potent, distilled into its essence.

 

What about your work with Ann Cleare, the ‘Terrarium’ project? Even the brief I read for that suggests a lot of scope.

Ann works in a very unique kind of way, where it’s not just about the music, it’s a whole process, she creates a whole culture for the music that she’s writing while living through experiences she’s creating. She worked with Lay of the Land, a company that works with landscape and installation. Some years ago, they went to Lough Boora and brought along fabrics like cotton, calico, canvas type fabrics. They rolled them up and tied them in knots with various fungi and mushrooms in them, buried them and left them for months. We returned to dig them up  and to see what happened with the minerals in the earth, and the colors that have grown into them are incredible. They’re literally alive. Then they reburied them, and returned a few months, repeating a very long process of burying and unearthing these canvases, and I got to film the process.

So ‘Terrarium’ has been written all along this process, and those tapestries are actually part of the staging now, so I’m making visuals to be projected onto these living canvases, dyed by the earth. Then there is other imagery to symbolize the process of a bog coming to be. We’re talking ice age scale timeframes, there’s layering that goes on and the visuals are there to represent that also. Aside from that she often brings a lot of movement into her pieces through the musicians.

Another piece of hers at New Music Dublin, MIDHE, involved the National Symphony Chorus working with Justine Cooper, a dancer and movement director, to orchestrate symbolic gestures and synchronized movements that were so powerful, with singers moving through the audience as well. With ‘Terrarium’, I’m helping a little bit with movement direction, bringing the musicians on a journey around the audience. It’s about trying to communicate the essence of a thing you can’t quantify. Our lives are so fleeting and short that it’s hard for us to comprehend these kinds of timelines, bog being formed.

 

What moves you to start a project?

I work on instinct. If I feel like I’m being pulled in a direction, I go with that. I don’t have any formal tools at my disposal of how to do things. I’ve got to where I am by lots of doing. In that way I have to lead by my instincts. I liken a lot of what I do to editing. Whether it’s music or visual work or photography, a lot of it is capturing a moment and refining it into the shape that will be the most impactful thing. That process is the same, no matter the medium. And it’s the same in collaboration, knowing when to let the other person do the thing, and when you need to do the thing. It’s a process of elimination. If you’re working on a theater or dance production, a piece of music, a pop song, a film, everything is moving elements in relation to each other in a space.

That’s all it is, so being tuned into the connectivity of everything, and how everything balances. I’m always thinking from a kind of outside perspective. As a director that’s essential. And in collaboration, I understand the push and pull of that. I can’t make anything in a void. I need there to be something going on to have a musical idea. Likewise, say for example, with Crash, I can have endless back and forth with a composer before I hear the piece, and I won’t have a single idea. When I hear the music, immediately, everything is there. When I’m composing, it’s similar. The other day, I was frustrated, and just getting into the shower a melody came into my head, so I sang it quickly into my laptop. That’s something to work with, and then it starts to reveal more of itself, I know what needs to come next. It’s all from instinct. There’s no real formula.

 

After making such a name for yourself as a director, photographer and videographer, what is it now that draws you back to working in music?

The whole time I was working in visual territory, I never stopped writing music. It’s in you. You can’t stop it from happening. It comes through you and that’s part of how you work. You need to get that out of you, but I wasn’t putting it out there for anyone else to hear. I found myself in a position where I had a library of maybe 200 songs, sitting on drives. When I would go back and listen through them, they were like little snapshots in time. I realized over time, my songwriting, because there was no expectation to make it listenable to anyone else, I’d actually become way more pop oriented. Snappier songwriting,  leaning into that direction. I realized that I’d been putting pressure on myself to be weird all the time, because I loved that obscure world. I was always trying to find a way to turn it on its head, to find a way to make a whole world out of it. When I wasn’t doing anything performatively, I found all the songs that came out of me were more snappy, bite-sized nuggets. That frightened me a bit too.

 

I can understand fans having some expectations. Especially with work like your own, which was so different at the time. If the music is honest though, surely that’s what makes it compelling.

I realized that I wasnt so much scared of failure as I was of success. I associated success with this huge, out-of-control thing. I had put the brakes on myself for fear of that, then I realized that making more poppy songs was naturally what was happening. I’m not trying to be arty, or trying to be different, or trying to be unique, I’m just ‘being’ and doing.

 

And what inspires you now, when you write music?

One of the changes that has happened, my life was a lot darker than it is now. It was a very jumbly time of lots of chaos with very few anchors. There was a huge amount of tragedy and turbulence in early life, up to my mid 20’s, so music became a tool for navigating that grief. I wasn’t even able to process things really, because there was just more and more piling on top. All of this was coming through in my music. In life, I’m quite a chirpy person, and people were often surprised, so many songs about death and loss. ‘Take Me Where She Sleeps’, “Walk Out WIth Me’, were about losing people. I still have the same desire to express the truth in my music, but the things that are coming up in my songs now are more to do with complex relationships, being an adult in the world and navigating adult life. When a really difficult thing happens, I’m able to write about it, and then it becomes something else. It cleanses the toxicity of it, for some people it might be through yoga and meditation. For me, it’s through music. I also discovered pole dancing which has been hugely transformative.

 

One of the other things that Laura Sheeran has gotten very, very good at over the years is the art of pole dancing, incorporating it into her other creative endeavors in surprising, expressive ways.

It allows me to express elements of freedom in sexuality. I’m able to be that now, whereas before I felt it was in me but it was trapped. I’ve been performing with Pole, and been able to bring in a whole other dimension of stage performance I can incorporate. My upbringing was very much against any sort of glamorization of the woman. Makeup and heels, no. Or dressing provocatively. When I was a teenager, by nature, I loved glam. I was stealing makeup from my grandmother’s room, any way I possibly could to explore visual transformation.

And what ended up happening was that I internalized a lot of shame around that part of myself. I would spend time getting ready before going to an event, I’d dress up and then at the last minute I’d wipe the lipstick, kick off my heels and reach for runners. I had this collection of shoes and makeup I could never wear, and in wanting to overcome that, I found Pole Dancing. It was incredible, being in that room with people who are all coming from completely different angles. From bodybuilders who want to be more flexible, single parents with four kids trying to find a moment for themselves and connect with their bodies again after giving it to children for ten years. People who are professional pole athletes competing all over the world, to professional strippers and sex workers. All types of people. So in that room, immediately there is this sort of unanimous acceptance. I don’t know any other environment like that, not a gym, not dance classes, nowhere. It is just a liberation space, and I found that over the course of a few years, I was able to accept my body.

Now I’m wearing 8 inch heels every second day and have found great power in expressing female sexuality in this way. Through pole dance I’ve met people from Brazil. Singapore, Venezuela. They haven’t grown up with shame around their body like we have. Growing up as a woman in Ireland, there’s a lot of stigma around expressing sexuality. It’s a lot to have to shake off, having been to school in convents and growing up in Tuam.

 

It’s certainly a path the nuns might not have approved of. Not the dancing, so much as the act of self expression, or vocalizing problems.

It was an oppressive environment to grow up in, but it’s served me well having come through that, because now I’m able to use a lot of that background as fuel, or to facilitate what I do now. Digging down into the guts of things. That’s what I feel is important. Things like the Tuam Babies, and the Mother and Baby Homes, all of that. These atrocities continue for so long because of the culture of “look the other way” or “that’s none of my business’. At some point you just need to dig your hands down, rip it up, show what’s really going on at the root of it. This is how I approach creativity, and it’s how I try to approach life. It’s not the easiest route but it’s the most rewarding.

Words: Adhamh Ó Caoimh

Images: Hazel Coonagh

NEWSLETTER

The key to the city. Straight to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter.

SEARCH

National Museum 2024 – Irish

NEWSLETTER

The key to the city. Straight to your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter.