Rachael Lavelle has been sleeping and thinking and writing and sleeping. She’s bringing Big Dreams to life with her debut release.
There’s a moment in Big Dreams, the titular song from Rachael Lavelle’s extraordinary debut album, where a mechanical voice delivers a poignant monologue:
“When I was a little girl, I had big dreams
I had big ambitions of being somebody
How did I get here?
I sit inside myself wondering, how did I get like this?
I sit inside myself wondering, will I ever be satisfied?”
Elsewhere, the single Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential, hears Lavelle recount a moment of divine intervention, an angel communicates with the Dublin-based songwriter and musician: “Rachael! / Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential. / Let me show who you can be. / I can see possibility,” she sings. These are just a few instances of how Lavelle candidly exercises self-reflection across her accomplished and affecting LP, Big Dreams. The aforementioned passage from the title track is narrated by Doireann Ní Bhriain, an Irish broadcaster whose career spans presenting children’s television programmes in the 1970s to alerting Luas passengers of their upcoming location. To countless commuters, Ní Bhriain has been something of a reassuring and constant presence on journeys through the city. On Big Dreams, she frequently serves as a guiding light to Lavelle.
To a vibrant soundtrack of late 1990s and early 2000s pop singles (Ray of Light by Madonna and Kylie’s Spinning Around) in a cosy Dublin cafe, Lavelle explains Ní Bhriain’s role throughout Big Dreams and how she came to be involved on the album. “Originally, when I started writing this album, one of the first things I did was use text to speech voices. It was something I wanted to explore in terms of what you could say with a voice that’s not your own and slightly robotic. I had used the Irish theory voice but obviously for licensing reasons I wasn’t able to use it. I needed another voice and was wracking my brain and having sleepless nights about it because it was such an important thing for the album. Then, one day I was on the Luas and I was like, ‘Oh!’.”
She continues, “I procrastinated for three months on sending Doireann an email. I kept drafting something, asking her to do it. Eventually, I sent it and within 10 minutes she responded: ‘Sure, give me a call!’ I got her to record herself saying loads of things because I was still trying to figure out the intention behind her voice because now she wasn’t just a text to speech voice. When I was working with text to speech, it was so fun to play with because you can say ridiculous things. But, [Ní Bhriain] is a prominent Dublin public announcement and broadcasting voice, I wanted to make her slightly disembodied so that you knew it was her but slightly off. Initially, she was the text of my thoughts. I think that process then informed the actual text of what she would say. There are moments where it’s like, ‘Is she me now? Is she the thoughts of people on the Luas? Is she my future self telling me to be open to the possibilities? Or is she my mom telling me to be grateful?’”
I suggest that Ní Bhriain is like Oz, the floating head from The Wizard of Oz. Thematically, in Big Dreams Lavelle embarks on a Dorothy-like voyage of self-discovery in a dream-like state. She sings of being in a deep sleep with no ground beneath her feet and willing her hopes into reality: “Out of my dreams and into my life,” she intones on the shape-shifting Night Train. As is often the case with debut releases, there’s a diaristic quality to much of the Lavelle’s deft lyricism. She’s generous in sharing her experiences, insecurities and hopes of someone coming through their twenties. There’s songs of lost love, self-doubt, existing but not fully living. In the case of the latter, the sleep metaphor is effectively employed. Despite the otherworldliness of Lavelle’s arresting vocals and surrounding ethereal arrangements textured with luminous synths and rich sax accompaniments, she delivers lines grounded with great humanity as she explores all sides of what it means to be unsure in life. You’ll hear her sing, “Thought I wanted to be free / Now I don’t know how to be,” on the darker Eat Clean and introspectively muse, “I was meant to be in love by now / nobody told me I would be lonely.” All the while, she continues to see and believe in the possibilities.
“When I started writing those songs, I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m gonna make an album’. I was just trying to have a creative practice,” Lavelle explains. “And I guess, I was feeling very lost and confused and wanting to express myself or how I felt in the world and put it into music. Because I didn’t have any expectations, there was no pressure so I could just do my own thing and go into this very indulgent space where you try something knowing no one will listen to it. I went in with that mindset where I thought, ‘No one’s gonna listen to these anyway. I can kind of be as free as I want within the songs.’”
And how does it feel listening back to that version of herself, today? “I definitely think of her as someone just trying to find her feet and wanting an answer and not getting it and wanting a solution,” Lavelle considers. “I feel like from writing the album, it brings that conclusion, in the later years, of ‘Yeah, it’s fine. You’re gonna be okay.’”
Another informative practice during this time was Lavelle’s increasing fascination with sleep. “During that period, I didn’t really want to do a lot of things. I became sort of reclusive, naturally. I became interested in sleep and trying to write down your dreams. I also tried to learn how to lucid dream and do all these things around sleep. I’m still really interested in sleep and listen to a lot of sleep hypnosis. I feel like the sleep theme within the album is a combination of loving sleep and not wanting to go out. At that time, as well, there were specific periods, like Summer is a funny one for me. Sometimes it feels like there’s a loneliness to Summer that I haven’t quite put my finger on. So, with the sleep aspect of it, I guess it’s me wanting to hide.”
Hiding away in her bedroom and the studio, Lavelle worked alongside multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Ryan Hargadon (Kojaque and Anna-Mieke) and engineer and co-producer Alex Borwick over a five-year period to develop these intricately detailed and enveloping arrangements which evoke a variety of artists from Angelo Badalemnti, Tirzah, Weyes Blood and Bjork. “[Big Dreams] went through so many different versions, in terms of trying to find something that I was happy with and made sense because from the start I knew I wanted it to feel like there were little details you could hook into and I wanted it to be very vocal-heavy,” Lavelle explains of the recording process. If you’ve had the pleasure of experiencing Lavelle’s outstanding vocals in a live setting, you’ll be aware of how haunting and hypnotic her presence is within her work. Experimenting with her vocals and utilising them to their fullest potential as warm and interesting textures across the album was fundamental in the development of Big Dreams sound, as Lavelle describes.
“I really enjoyed doing all the different vocal textures for the album, especially on Travel Size. I was influenced by the composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s works for the film Arrival. There’s also György Ligeti who also makes… I think of it as alien-like language in his pieces which I definitely wanted to do with the vocal stuff for the album, for it to feel alien or serpent-like. It was really fun to work with my voice in different ways.”
As the cafe fills up with hungry lunchtime customers and Mariah Carey’s Heartbreaker plays in the background, our conversation comes to a close and Lavelle (as engaging and personable in real life as she is on Big Dreams) details the extensive work that went into her debut, I ask her about what the overall experience taught her. “Stick with it,” she says with an eruption of laughter. “That, and collaboration. I’d worked a lot myself and Ryan helped me finish the last tracks, which was a lot of fun.”
Big Dreams is out now via Rest Energy.
Rachael Lavelle plays in The Project Arts Centre on Friday, November 25. Sold Out.
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photo: Cáit Fahey