ØXN is the new experimental doom folk project born out of lockdown and the first release on Claddagh Records in 18 years.
In the depths of lockdown – January 6th, 2021, to be precise – an event occurred that united people online in Ireland and further afield. In the eerie setting of a Martello Tower in Dublin, and not a governmental building in the United States, two of Ireland’s most enthralling and inspiring artists, Katie Kim and Radie Peat performed a special “audio-visual collaborative streaming event”, as it was billed. The event, named Nollaig na mBan after the date it was shared, featured striking imagery by artist Vicky Langan which heightened the haunting atmosphere of Kim and Peat’s performance, which featured additional musical contributions from Eleanor Myler and John ‘Spud’ Murphy. Over the course of the stream, audiences shared on social media their amazement and appreciation of the extraordinary set which included foreboding traditional folk songs such as The Trees They Do Grow High and Cruel Mother, the latter dating back to the mid-18th century. Alongside those historical tunes, were contemporary works such as The Wife of Michael Cleary from Maija Sofia’s 2019 debut album Bath Time and Farmer in the City from Scott Walker’s Tilt.
It was something of a seminal moment at a time when the world felt claustrophobic and, frankly, bleak. The electricity between Peat, Kim, Myler and Murphy throughout the Nollaig na mBan stream surged through laptop and televisions screens; the power of their chemistry as a band cast a spell on audiences that night, one that was not easily shaken. “The feedback for that stream was huge,” recalls Eleanor Myler, “We didn’t expect the reaction we got, at all!” The positivity surrounding the stream, and the work that had been put into it from all involved, had a lasting impact not only on those who watched Nollaig na mBan, but on the four musicians.
A little over two years after that event, in May of this year, word began to spread of a new band called ØXN, a green-tinged press shot showed Radie Peat, Katie Kim, Eleanor Myler and John ‘Spud’ Murphy making the group official. A month later, ØXN released their first single, Love Henry, and announced their debut album CYRM, which would follow in October to be released via Claddagh Records. This would be the first new signing to the legendary label in eighteen years. To say that CYRM [pron. sy-rum] has been one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of the year is an understatement.
Given how online ØXN’s existence has been to its fanbase up to this point, it feels fitting to speak to three quarters (Peat is absent for our chat) of the band via Zoom on an autumn afternoon. Sitting in a row in Dublin’s Guerrilla Studios, where Spud records and mixes work for an impressive array of Irish acts such as Lankum (of which Peat is a member), Ye Vagabonds, Hilary Woods as well as Katie Kim’s solo material and Percolator, the band he and Myler are in. We begin by talking about Nollaig na mBan, and its origins which sparked from an initial collaboration between Kim and Peat which had been suggested to Kim by a few people and a connection was made.
“Radie was calling over to my house a couple of times a week and we’d go to my bedroom and plug things in and run through loads of different songs. Whatever we used for [Nollaig na mBan] were the songs we’d played during that period. But we didn’t know if it would work or not. I certainly didn’t know because Radie’s voice is so powerful and I’ve got a completely different timbre. But it did work and we were delighted with how things were going and we did two gigs and then lockdown happened!”
During that time, Myler had been playing drums with Peat for her solo material and Kim made her way back to Ireland following a period of living in New York. The three came together in Guerrilla Studios to explore and develop their sound, and gain a bandmate. “Radie was really excited about working with synthesizers because she hadn’t really got the chance to do that with her other projects, or even when she was doing solo stuff. I had had experience working with those kinds of sonics and, of course, Spud is very good at that stuff and building on that sound. So it was extremely natural that he became involved,” Kim explains.
CYRM captures the magic of Nollaig na mBan which is no surprise given that much of the development of the six songs that make up its tracklist was done during the period when they were working on the stream. A unifying theme of the album is anchored by songs sharing stories of the grave persecution of women through history, as explored on the haunting Cruel Mother and The Wife of Michael Cleary. Kim describes the importance and impact these songs have had on her as both a person and performer.
“There’s definitely something almost cathartic about singing about these women, and also with the arrangements that accompany them, it’s extremely powerful singing about these women. It’s also made me more aware to go back and read more about them. For instance, I didn’t know anything about Bridget Cleary before Maija Sofia had written that song. So finding out about her story, which only occurred in the last century, was just so insane to me that that could happen. I would never have discovered that without Maija’s song. So, I think these songs make you more aware and more interested to find out about what happened to these women and bring their stories to life within the arrangements. It never ever feels boring singing the songs.”
Thematically, this has trickled into the visuals for ØXN’s music videos, which have been co-directed by Kim and Myler, respectively. Most recently, they shared a video for Cruel Mother, featuring revered actor Olwen Fouéré. Myler expands upon the inspiration for the work and how it was inspired by women who had been victims of a domineering patriarchal society.
“When I started researching the song, it tied into some other interests of mine, such as Baroque period artists and all the different kinds of imagery that they use. I found a lot of that tied into the story of the Cruel Mother, when the story was and why the song was written. It tied into a lot of other things that I was reading from around that time which had to do with persecution of women. There’s a baroque artist called Artemisia Gentileschi whose father was the famous artist Orazio Gentileschi. And even though she was born into extreme privilege, had a really difficult life. She had been raped by a guy that worked for her dad, which again was tied in with the story of the song. But in his trial, she was tortured with thumbscrews. The people giving evidence were also tortured, to give evidence. A lot of her work got really dark after that, and I used a lot of the imagery from her work in the video. Also, after Sinead O’Connor died, I think there was more of an awareness of women who had been poorly treated. That was in the air, so all those things met.”
CYRM is an immensely visceral and vital body of work, which is charged by the commanding and vast synth-focused arrangements and the harrowing stories contained within. The excitement from Kim, Myler and Murphy with regards to performing the songs to a live audience, which they will do for the first time in The Sugar Club in October, and CYRM’s release is palpable. Reflecting on the making of the album, Kim beams, “It’s been a really nice process; all of us finally getting the songs and the album together. Even the logistical stuff has been fun to organise! We’re all excited for the album to come out. Of course, there’s pressure because sometimes when members of other bands come together to be in another group, I’m not gonna say the word,” she laughs, “But sometimes, I’ve found, it can sometimes be a little bit disappointing in the result. So, I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, God, I hope people are gonna like it! I hope the expectations aren’t too high!’ But we’re really proud of the way all the songs turned out.”
CYRM is out on October 27 via Claddagh Records. ØXN plays in The Sugar Club on Tuesday, October 31 & Wednesday, November 1. Both shows are sold out.
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photo: Megan Doherty