Junior Brother’s reedy, yelped, nervy tales of parochial malaise are regional in their timbre but universal in their potency
“I’ve never really been interested in pleasing people with my music at all. So, the fact people like it at all is actually a bit surprising.”
Ronan Kealy, better known as Junior Brother, is an anomalous figure within the domestic music landscape. If one were to merely rattle off the figurative tale of the tap – 25-year-old white dude with a regional accent, brandishing an acoustic guitar – the idea of exalting Kealy as a new and ultimately subversive voice might seem a stretch. Though, such scepticism surrounding the specificity (and necessity) of Kealy’s “voice” is to overlook the bracing and vital idiosyncrasy of his vocals and thematic concerns. Kealy’s reedy, yelped, nervy tales of parochial malaise are regional in their timbre, but universal in their potency. Like the plain-spoken woes of a bachelor farmer, but delivered with an almost alien, aching emotional honesty; Kealy’s upturning of rural Irish stoicism feels insurrectionary.
Days before the release of his debut LP, Pull the Right Rope, Kealy cuts a relaxed figure. There is undoubtedly a certain self-confidence required to so wholly commit to publicly baring one’s soul, especially in a style liable to dismissal due to its peculiarity. But, even from the get-go, Kealy was never too put out by what other people thought of his work. “I was going to say I ‘picked up the piano’ when I was about 8, but I wasn’t that big of a child,” begins Kealy, “So, let’s say, I started playing piano then, but moved on to guitar about a year later. Back then, it just felt like a continuation of other things I was interested in as a child. I was creative from a young age, just drawing stupid pictures, I was really into drawing comics and that stuff. When I realised I had a little musicality in me, I used that to create my own stuff as soon as I could play anything at all. I remember the first song I learned on guitar was Amazing Grace. As soon as I knew the chords, I immediately changed all the lyrics to turn it into my version of a Green Day song. From there, anything I’d learn on guitar I’d use as a tool to be creative with. Like how if I was given a pen and paper, I’d draw mad things. I still view it as a similar thing to that.”
As intertwined as Kealy’s relationship to playing is with the notion of individual self expression, there are unquestionably shades of our traditional music culture present in …Right Rope. As with many artists of his generation, Kealy’s appreciation for traditional music came about somewhat circuitously. “I wouldn’t say my house at home is isolated, it’s just out in the country, it’s a rural area. Growing up, going to school and stuff, there was nothing to do except be creative at home. I’d have friends who played trad in Killarney alright, but it always felt like it was aimed at tourists, which wouldn’t really be my cup of tea. It would be more places like Sliabh Luachra that the real stuff would be, and I wouldn’t have had access to that. So, trad stuff only came much later when I realised it wasn’t just music for tourists. I think a lot of people are coming to that realization. People who would have listened to indie bands or whatever are starting to get into listening to trad and playing trad – that’s what happened to me anyway.”
Crucially, though traditional touchstones might not serve as direct influences on Kealy’s development as a songwriter, he suggests that his work and theirs’ share a language of influence beyond the musical. “I’m from a parish called Kilcummin and I really do love it there,” explains Kealy. “Everything to do with my music comes from that landscape, the way I sing and how the music sounds, the atmosphere, the lyrics, the imagery – it all comes from subconsciously having that stuff in my head. For me, it’d be less about growing up with that kind of music and more about imagery that could make somebody think of that kind of music. I think of mine as very specifically landscape orientated music.”
Considering Kealy himself flags the vistas of his home county as a tentpole of inspiration, there is a certain irony to the route by which he began to discover his own voice. “It was something I didn’t know you could do. As a kid, listening to the music I did, nobody sang in their own accent except for music your friends’ parents would listen to – The Dubliners and all that stuff which I personally never really connected with. I suppose, when I was about 14, I found out about Damien Dempsey. I didn’t even know what he looked like, I just heard his voice and it was an accent I’d only hear in Croke Park, coming from these crazy – from my point of view, arrogant – sore loser kind of people. But that was just from a child’s lens at a football match; the point of view of somebody who didn’t know Dublin or Dublin people. Just going up on match days; I would have been intimidated by the kind of accent Damien Dempsey sang in. When my uncle recommended it to me, I thought he was talking about Ian Dempsey. That first album was a complete sea change for me, it’s still one of my favourite albums. I distinctly remember putting it on for the first time and it was like a life changing moment. The first song is him just rapping with a really minimal backing – drums, bass, organ and a bit of guitar. It was really in your face and I was shocked to the point of not knowing if I liked it or hated it. In a way, I’ve been trying to recreate that feeling in people ever since. That was huge – hearing somebody sing in their own accent and be themselves. Then, even more important, was discovering Joanna Newsom a few years later. Damien Dempsey was like ‘fair enough, you can sing in your own voice,’ but, I still didn’t feel comfortable to sing at all. Listening to Joanna Newsom made me open my mind where to where I could use a part of my voice that I actually felt like was my own, y’know? That was huge for me. It was a combination of those two artists – and many more since then – but those were the two that helped me find my voice as I use it today.”
As striking as Kealy’s songwriting and vocal approach is his willingness to self-identify as “a marmite sort of thing.” Where many of his singer-songwriter ilk are all too eager to adopt the outlook that they are great and if you don’t agree, the issue is with you, Kealy routinely alludes to the idea that many are bound to find his particular vision somewhat off putting in presentation. “I’ve never really been interested in pleasing people with my music at all. So, the fact people like it at all is actually a bit surprising. I always would have had great self-belief in what I was doing anyway. So, at the same time, it wouldn’t be too surprising. I’ve done so many gigs, well not so many, but I have experience of people walking out and stuff like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ It’s given me quite a thick skin. You can’t be precious about these things.”
The man himself might not be precious, but Pull the Right Rope is an object that seems destined to be cherished by many for years to come.
Words: Danny Wilson
Photo: Bob Gallagher