Sound: Brigid Mae Power

Posted March 22, 2018 in Music Features

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I met Brigid Mae Power in Dublin’s Central Hotel in mid-January, to discuss the impending release of her second album The Two Worlds, following 2016’s Brigid Mae Power. As luminous as her music is, her conversation more than matched it: thoughtful, compassionate, with a streak of genuine iconoclasm. If, even now, you are still unaware of who she is, go out immediately, do yourself, your family, and society at large a favour, and buy her albums. When you do, you will be listening to some of the most evocative music produced in Ireland or the UK in the last ten years.

TL: For those unfamiliar with your story, can you give us a synopsis? What’s your background?

BMP: I grew up in northwest London, near Wembley stadium. I’m from an Irish family, and we lived in a large Irish expat community. That’s why I began to learn the accordion from an early age, because I was immersed in Irish music all the time. Then when I was twelve we moved to Galway. I went to school in a convent, and got the biggest shock of my life – that only lasted one year (laughs).

Anyway, I stayed in Galway until I turned eighteen. Then I spent a few years moving around, living for spells in London and New York. I moved back to Galway at the age of 22, and I’ve basically been back in Ireland since.

TL: I can guess the source of your shock, but still, what was it that got you?

BMP: Well, I really grew up in a London-Irish bubble. The thing everyone was clinging to was a sense that ‘we’re Irish’. And the minute I got over, and was hanging out with children my own age, I was suddenly English. And I was like, ‘I’m definitely not’. But at the same time I was a Londoner, so I had had a certain kind of education. Religion was taught very differently in the convent to how I had experienced it up until then. Everything was just memorized, and learned by rote. Nothing was explained. You came in and the prayers were just barked at you, and you barked them back. In the Catholic school I went to in London it wasn’t like that at all. In a lot of ways it was quite a dangerous school – some of the students carried knives. But you could speak your mind to the teacher, and not be afraid of punishment. And the convent just wasn’t like that.

TL: You mentioned you were interested in music from a young age?

BMP: I always played traditional music, for as long as I can remember, and the accordion was my first instrument. In London, before we moved, the community we were in – members of the Irish families would have a few drinks in the evening, and start singing, and maybe cry (laughs). So I was exposed to a lot of singing early, and I used to sing then. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I thought I really liked singing, and not until my early twenties when I actually began song-writing. That’s when I picked up the guitar.

I’m also self-taught on the piano – I didn’t get lessons until I began to do the Leaving Cert. For a long time I was obsessed with people like Dr. John and Professor Longhair, who were New Orleans-style boogie-woogie and fast blues piano players. That was really my thing, that style, for a while. But those skills have completely gone now (laughs).

TL: Your voice is fantastic. I know it may be a cliché, but it’s very instrumental. It feels spontaneous and improvisatory, rather than just a means to convey lyrics.

BMP: I feel like that too. I certainly want to use it like that, and that’s why I don’t like too much going on in the background. My voice is my main thing to go to, it’s what I’m most confident in. Some musicians, you know, they can pick up a guitar and just play along to anything and for me, I have that same feeling with my voice. And in terms of what inspires my use of voice, it’s not so much other singers, but more instruments, like the uillean pipes, for example. I feel like that comes from the same place. The uilean pipes and some brass instruments are very vocal to me, they’re so flexible, and they have a breath-like quality.

TL: And when did music begin to occupy you seriously – were you always planning a career in music?

BMP: Yeah, from a very early age. When I was little I used to daydream about knocking the teacher out of the way during assembly and singing for everyone (laughs). I don’t know. It’s the only thing I can do really. Sometimes I work part-time in an instrument shop in Galway, but otherwise… I think if you always do what you love, what you’re good at – and I don’t want to sound like a total optimist – I think it works out. It’s just really easy for me, even the supposedly hard parts, like touring for instance. Some people complain about that but when I’m doing it I just think ‘God I could do this forever’. There are obviously some little stressful things, but I find it more stressful to be in a house every day, with that routine, more than travelling. I find the routine of home-life really stressful (laughs). I suppose I always presumed I would do it, even when I had my son, and I wasn’t writing. I’ve definitely procrastinated so much. But I knew I’d get there eventually, that I’d commit myself eventually. It would always appear, that desire, to remind me of what I needed to do – I mightn’t have done anything for a long time, years say, and someone would ask me ‘why don’t you do a course in whatever’, and I’d be like ‘no I’m going to be a professional musician.’ And they would be shocked, and that shocked me in turn – I just thought anyone who knew me would know what it was I had to do. But of course, how could they?

TL: It’s great to know that you stuck with it. It’s not always easy to pursue something creatively when you haven’t been productive, or successful, and the only thing you feel increasing is your age.

BPM: The thing is, if there was no possible option of making money out of something, whether making music, or writing, or painting, of filmmaking, you have to ask yourself would you do it anyway. And if the answer is yes, then that’s it. You have to keep to that. And the age thing – that kind of haunts me too. But it’s been haunting me since I was 21, so I have to give it up.

TL: You released both of your albums with the San Francisco-based label Tompskin Square Records, who work with the likes of James Blackshaw and Will Tyler, and who have a substantial interest in releasing material by fêted 1970s artists, like Tim Buckley and Rick Deitrick. How did you become involved with them?

BMP: Well it’s funny – I contacted them years ago, before I had done much, so I never heard back. But I always thought in the back of my mind that, somehow, they’d be a good fit for me. So anyway, I have these friends, two great guys from Cork, you might know them: Mark and Craig Carry, who produce the Fractured Air blog. After I had recorded my first album Brigid Mae Power, I was looking for a label to pick it up and I asked them if they knew anyone I should contact. And they made such a huge effort of writing individually to about ten different labels they knew. Tompskin Square said that it was the way they wrote about me and the sheer effort they had put in that made them listen, because they get emails from prospective artists all day, every day. And once they listened, they said yes. So it was a mixture of luck and just fantastic help from friends.

TL: And how did that first album come about? Was it material you had been working on for a long time?

BMP: A bit, but not really. So I’m married to the musician and composer Peter Broderick. I met him through those guys I just mentioned – Mark and Craig put on a gig in Cork at which Peter played, and I supported him. It went great, he and I hit it off straight away, and he asked me to go on tour with him, which I did. That went well too, so he ended up inviting me to go to Oregon, where he’s from, to record the songs that I had. I was a single mother and completely broke, but I knew that I had to do it somehow, that I had to take this opportunity no matter what. So I got to Oregon. At that time, I had actually recorded an album already, under the name Brigid Power-Ryce, which I done very DIY, recorded in a Church with hardly any equipment, and put up on bandcamp. When we got to Oregon, Peter thought we’d re-record the songs from that bandcamp album, but I couldn’t – I really wanted to do new things. So I went through my all of my notebooks and scraps of paper, and managed to put things together. I was very doubtful then, but I just thought I’m going to go for it. That was it really, we recorded those new songs there. I don’t really remember when I wrote the majority of them, when I had the ideas that became the songs on the album. Mostly in 2014 and 2015, I guess.

TL: It is such a beautiful album. Every time I listen to the song ‘Sometimes’ I get a little overwhelmed. The quality of your song-writing is so intimate, so personal. Even your lyrics don’t sound like conventional songs, they’re more like conversations, or letters to someone close to you.

BMP: Thank you. That song – I’ve been playing that melody for years. And I had that one line for years too, and I didn’t know who it was about or how it came to be. When I was in Oregon then, I just put the two together and that was the song. My memory of the events that lead to my writing a song goes so easily – I don’t think I use that part of my brain when I write, so it never stays.

TL: Now you’re releasing your second album, The Two Worlds. Did you go back to Oregon to record?

BMP: No, I recorded it in February and March of last year in the North, near Newry, in a studio called Analogue Catalogue. I loved the sound of the studio, so we booked that first and then I had a few things I had been playing around with, and it came together.

TL: To my ear at least, this album is more forceful than the last, both in terms of instrumentation and subject matter. What was different for you in the making of The Two Worlds?

BMP: I’m in a different place than I was when I recorded the first one. My debut album was kind of an ecstatic time for me. This album is more grounded I think, and Analogue Catalogue contributed to that sound. I had been craving something more down, something natural, closer to the earth. We added very simple overdubs, and there’s a lot more drums. And while mostly it was recorded live, with me and Peter playing together, I produced the album more than my first time around. Before this album I just sang and played, you know? I admit that I’m a bit stubborn and a bit scared of technology, so I tend to think ‘no I want to stay live’ because that’s what I know I can do. But on The Two Worlds I did more: I harmonised with myself, played accordion over tracks – that kind of thing. It felt good because I have a lot of ideas for what melody lines I want for different things, so I think in the future I’ll explore that avenue. The first time I held back from production. That time I was just so overjoyed at the opportunity that I said to Peter, ‘you do whatever you like’. I mean, within reason – obviously if I didn’t like something at all, I would tell him. But mostly he’s very intuitive in terms of what I play. I would say that 90% of his ideas completely work, and he gets it. And if I ask him to change a sound quality, to make it more ‘sandy’, for example, he’ll understand what I mean immediately. And sometimes that’s hard with an engineer, because they need you to use their language, and I don’t have access to it, and won’t anytime soon.

TL: ‘Don’t Shut Me Up (Politely)’ is in some ways the primary track, the first one to be promoted and released on its own. What can you say about that?

BMP: Well, given all the experiences that have been in the media recently, it just seemed well timed. That stuff was boiling up in me. Not just the sexual harassment thing, but in many different ways. For years I had had those experiences, in my schooling, my relationships, my community. Occasionally I have found Galway an extremely judgmental place – that’s just been my experience. As a young single mum, the judgment I felt was terrible. And it was always underneath things, no-one ever said to me ‘Jesus, you shouldn’t have done that.’ That would have been easier. After all, if someone says outright what they think, you can deal with it. My problem was that I was being subjected to a lot of judgment and even put-downs, but never directly, almost invisibly, and that kind of interaction has always been something that has driven me mad. It’s all in a look, in an implication. And I don’t want to analyse county to county, or be too critical, but the activity of ‘keeping up appearances’ is really alive in Galway. So yes, I wrote that song ages ago.

At an earlier age I drew a lot of people toward me who were problematic, both socially and romantically, and I just reached my limit. Originally, however, I tried to record that song in Oregon on the first album and it didn’t work. In America I didn’t feel the same way, didn’t have the same experience of repression. There wasn’t the same energy, so when I sang it, it just hit the wall, it didn’t travel. But recently, I had begun feeling angry again. It just felt like so many people’s experience. I have so many friends who have internalised things, and been depressed as a result. I was very aware of the low self-esteem that people are dealt out from the Church, from school, and from the individuals who were supposed to protect them. And now, it’s good – it’s not so easy to do things invisibly anymore. Now you can say, ‘what was that’?

TL: Things are very fraught now, certainly. And like you say, that’s good – stuff comes out, things get expressed more fully, and it allows us to deal with issues better. I always think it’s important to know your country’s history, to understand how and what your issues are. Because we’re English-speaking, I think we can get somewhat seduced into taking on the burden of history of countries like the USA and the United Kingdom, which are not in fact our own, and are therefore not always the most illuminating models for national discourse.

BMP: Definitely. The problems here make more sense to me when I began to read and understand more about Irish history. Specifically, when I was looking into my own family’s history, that threw some light on the problem of communication some Irish people have, the trouble we have in expressing ourselves. My great-granny died in the poor house in Kilmacthomas in Waterford, and in those poor houses, you had to remain completely silent if you wanted your one bowl of soup a day. If even one generation go through that kind of institutional abuse, how could you not pass it down to your child? Not being allowed to talk. Making them feel like it’s not OK to express themselves. Even something as small as that rule in the poor house can have massive consequences later on in society.

There’s a lot of trauma in this country, and it’s recent. It also makes sense why people obeyed the Catholic Church so readily, having fought so hard for their religion. But that’s a whole different story… It makes sense to me why Ireland is what it is, which takes some of the frustration away. It doesn’t take away from the intensity of the problems, the issues, but it does put them in context. And at the same time the people are… there’s so many amazing people here can see through stuff.

TL: Why did you call it The Two Worlds?

BMP: For many reasons, actually. At the time of writing I was feeling the conflict between living in a rural place and loving being around nature, but at the same time, needing to be in company, to be in the city. Neither felt completely right. I also had to try to balance being a parent and having a steady, stable life for my son, and at the same time wanting to go off, to roam. If there weren’t restrictions on me, I think I would embrace him in that way of life more, but it’s hard with school, and my obligations to his dad. In Ireland you need permission from the father every time you take the child out of the country.

In the UK, there’s a more sensible law – the primary care-giver can take their child out the country for up to a month without having to receive permission. I suppose in all, I was trying to find balance, and answer the question ‘how can I honour myself, and yet also accept reality’? That was the crux of it. But then in a wider sense, I was observing the same thing everyone is: the two worlds in politics. I was probably thinking, or I’m interested in, how do you deal with the harmful people in society, harmful humanity? What do you do with some people? You can’t change or help everyone. I wondered what was going to happen, because there are so many people who really like the right-wing thing, and we need to understand how to relate to them, because often they’re our relatives, and we can see their lovely sides. How do we put those things together? How can I accept you, even when something about you makes me want to scream? At the moment, it seems like, on the one side, something is rearing its ugly head, and on the other, there are so many great people. I’m noticing a huge contradiction in lots of things. Like in politics – we are so invested in the ideas expressed by various politicians, without knowing anything about the reality of the person speaking. Social media has really exacerbated this: it’s all just ideas. Until you meet someone, you don’t know them. And if someone says they will do something, it’s not the same thing as them doing that thing.

TL: Finally, can you tell us when next you’ll be touring?

BMP: I’ll be in Bello Bar in Dublin on the 29th of March, but I’ll be touring in the UK before that, and in July I’ll probably be in the USA for a week or two.

Brigid Mae Power plays The Bello Bar on Thursday March 29th with support from Jim Ghedi, €14


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