It felt comfortable, relaxed,” says Adrian Crowley, sitting in the basement of a Dublin cafe, watching his son eat a sandwich. He is talking about the launch of his newest album, I See Three Birds Flying, on the Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre the weekend before last. Three Birds is Crowley’s sixth album and his first since 2009’s Choice-winning masterpiece, Season Of The Sparks. It is not a huge departure from his previous work, ringing still with that particular resonance of his; intimate but never over-exposed, warm but rarely fully at ease. The factors that have defined Crowley’s work to date are still front and centre. His baritone vocal remains mostly unadorned, breaking dolefully through beds of shimmering guitar work and delicate string arrangements. His predilection for seriousness hasn’t gone anywhere either, though – similarly to Leonard Cohen – a wry smile is behind more than a few lines. The grand melancholy is an unshakable presence in all of Crowley’s work, though it doesn’t often come through in person. He’s thoughtful, sure, but never morose.
The songs on Three Birds came together in the studio over the course of a year, a year which included a nasty bout of pneumonia which left him unable to work for a couple of months. Still, with time on his side and a close working friendship with Steve Shannon, things eventually began to line-up the way he wanted them. The songs, for the most part, were brand new.
“A portion of them I had played live,” he says. “The others I hadn’t played in front of anyone, but I had been working on at home, trying to get the right feel and atmosphere, just the balance of the instruments, the spaces and the level of intensity, how it was all delivered. All that kind of thing was shifting around for a while and it had a huge part in the end with what it sounded like. I found that interesting, where I’d have something written but I wasn’t sure what level of intensity to pitch the whole thing at. So that was the thing that took a little bit of time to get right but it felt easy. I didn’t feel rushed. I had a pretty clear idea of what things should sound like but we left a lot open to chance as well because it’s nice to have surprises happen, especially when other people are involved and what they can bring to it.”
It was the older songs, some of which had been hanging around since before Season Of The Sparks, that posed the greatest difficulty and it was letting them go that cleared the way for the new album to finally get finished. “We left aside some songs that we tried to include,” says Crowley. “I thought if we shape those and finish them, that’ll add something to the record and it’ll be really complete. But they were just holding back the whole feel of the record. Once we left them out it was really, really refreshing.”
In the end, the natural process of selection took over and instinct guided the way. “There were some songs I was going back over again and again and then they just wore out on me and they didn’t make it,” he says. “Others felt like they needed a little time but I left them alone, didn’t overwork them. It’s a little instinct. Some times you just have to be patient with them and work something else and when you’re working on something else, they start developing by themselves. I dip in and out of all of them so it’s quite difficult to say exactly how long anything takes. At one point I felt like nothing was finished, you know? Then maybe a day later, everything felt finished.”
Many songwriters imbue their songs with overtly personal references, either out of some cathartic impulse or simply a lack of anything more important or interesting to write about. While Crowley’s songs are no doubt personal, they are not overtly so. They scan like stories told at a certain remove, where meaning is implied and much is hidden behind a veil of lyrical craft. It is strikes him as strange that someone might feel like they know him as a result of his songs.
“It’s an interesting question. It’s funny, because Steve was talking about one of the songs and he said, ‘That’s so you’, and I said ‘Really?! Is that what you think?’. He goes, ‘Yeah, it’s typical’. When I had finished writing it, I wasn’t quite clear whether or not it was an obvious side to me. So maybe it’s not exactly for me to say. I feel for absolutely everything I write but I can’t say for sure if it represents the side of me that people see all the time.”
One of Crowley’s lyrics serves as the title a new collection of short stories, Silver Threads Of Hope, and one of his songs is featured in the book itself. Edited by Sinead Gleeson and due to be published by New Island Books in October, the book collects short works by 28 Irish writers – including Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright and Belinda McKeown – and Crowley’s lyrics are far from out of place. The increased importance on lyrical expression in his work has often led to his lyrics being called poetic, though he finds that to be a complex description.
“It’s probably just a loose term on their part,” he concedes. “I don’t think it’s poetry as such. It’s made with and for music. But I suppose also, I like the way things look on a page so maybe that’s an important side to it as well. But no, I just think poetry is something else entirely. Still, it’s nice if they work in printed form. That’s really nice because it’s not always the case and it’s not always necessary either for songs and music, for the words to be taken out of context. When you see them that naked and silent, it’s like they don’t have the same effect, remotely. It’s like a deep sea diver taking up a mother-of-pearl shell and it’s totally bland looking. That can happen. It’s nice that those words work on a page too. Maybe I am conscious of that, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t feel like it’s there yet if it doesn’t work on paper.”
Crowley’s work also sympathizes with the multi-layered refinement of the best poetry. Words are not just there to fill space and each word must be the right one. The gravity of his work is reflected in his less-than-florid style, often using simple outlines instead of detailed, expressive images, letting the listener’s imagination work out the rest.
“It’s something I’ve just gotten used to doing over time, where I look for the economy of everything,” he says. “Where I say or write something in a way where it’s not insisting on itself but it creates something else in your mind. I don’t know. In a way I like the idea of something coming to life in your imagination just from the instigation of the words and music together. They create a moving picture or sensation in your head but you’re not necessarily conscious of the words as they’re coming out. Sometimes over-descriptive passages can get in the way of that. It’s like showing too much. It’s like a book with too many pictures; you can’t form your own image of what you’re reading.”