Whelans

GEMMA HAYES

The swagger of the remarkable hurling teams up in The North Mon during our secondary school years in the early 1980s would regularly entice entire slabs of Cork’s northside on tour beyond the county bounds and out of reach of regular reason. On assorted mid-week afternoons every winter, a slew of battered old buses and coaches would fetch up at the gates and deliver the school’s travelling army to remote, rural venues all over Munster for big colleges games. And these were all bleak, barren and backwards places ;- with our crudely-formed inner-city smarts, anywhere other than Blackpool was.

Decked out in our duffle coats and hooped blue-and-white scarves, and with our cheese sandwiches packed away in our pockets, we saw the very best of emerging locals like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Jim Murray, Liam Coffey and the mighty Connerys of Na Piarsaigh up close in their callow bodies and pimply faces in villages and towns all over South Tipperary and beyond. Those young men were never beaten and consistently left it all out there on the killing fields in the school’s cause and, back in The Mon, we made sure to commemorate their heroics.

We had a song, ‘Amhrán na Main’ – a bit like Amhrán Na bhFiann meets The Green Fields Of France – which we’d rehearse in class before big Dr. Harty Cup games and, on those occasions when we’d reach a provincial or national final, the school would produce it’s own hurling fanzine, a badly photocopied, Pravda-inspired issue called ‘Monsoon’. In which you were told all you needed to know about the teenagers on the panel – club, height, weight, the class they were in and their own favourite hurlers – with a cursory line at the end about their off-field peccadilloes.

Frankie Walsh was one of a small number of pupils who were trusted with load-hailers and hand-picked to lead the cheering and chanting on the days of the big games. He had a wheezy smoker’s rasp and a fine beardy shadow and some of those in the school clearly thought his sharp tongue and quick wit could be channelled a bit more positively and, for a change, to the school’s benefit. And so, on the marquee occasions, he’d be given a bit more latitude than usual and enlisted as an official rabble-rouser.

But Frankie was easily bored too and would sometimes deviate off-script and into more dangerous territory [‘Tax The Farmers’ was one of his better originals] and, from his seat at the back of the bus, would slyly drop the teachers’ nicknames into some of his post- watershed material. It took a brave boy to stare down The Christian Brothers but Frankie had a hard neck and a soft head and he’d give anything a decent old shot. And on the days immediately after we’d put one over on Thurles C.B.S. or Saint Flannans of Ennis or Saint Colman’s of Fermoy, he’d strut the ramp up to school like someone returned from a fortnight in America with a buffalo’s head in his holdall.

It was hurling that first took us to Emly, New Inn, Cahir, Clogheen and Ballyporeen, and they were vile places ;- one-bit, two-horse towns that whiffed of diesel and whose pop-up tuck shops and filthy chip vans lured the per diems from the sweaty palms of the day-trippers. How the locals, we imagined, must have feared the bumper days when The Northside, in it’s rattling fleet, rolled into town with it’s history, cocky young hurlers, loud-hailers and quotient of un-reconstructed tulls.

Decades later I married into the South Tipperary crowd and, for the last twenty years, I’ve routinely driven those roads through the same villages and towns deep within The Golden Vale, often over the hills into Kilworth and back home by stealth to Cork from my in-laws house in Ardfinnan. And every single time I drive the four-and-a half miles from Clogheen into Ballyporeen, a part of me is still fifteen years old, thick and back there with the Mon boys on tour, taxing the farmers. And another part of me is older but no less clueless, wondering which of the narrow by-roads around these parts could have inspired such wonder and magic in the songs of Gemma Hayes ?

Born and reared within a large family in Ballyporeen, Hayes remains a peripheral figure and real curiosity within Irish music circles and, even after nearly twenty years spent making records and keeping on, is frightfully difficult to pin down. Sitting neither in the fish bowl of the kooky left-field set populated by Lisa O’Neill and Julie Feeney or in the often ungainly mainstream of Imelda May or Sinéad, she’s long paid the price for her ambition and wanderlust and even more so for her indifference.

I’ll happily stand corrected but I’m still not convinced she’s been given the credit she deserves as one of Ireland’s most consistent, curious and captivating writers and solo performers, as engaging over long distance as Neil Hannon, Conor O’Brien and even Sinéad herself. So much so that, when I see Imelda May vamping it one more time for the cameras, the latest in line of national sweethearts, I wonder if Ireland just likes it’s contemporary story-tellers far better if they’re more malleable and just available ?

During the summer of 2015, Gemma did a short radio insert with Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio One ;- she was plugging her fifth album, ‘Bones And Longing’ and, from a remote studio in London, performed a couple of numbers on acoustic guitar and gave her host a terrific if all- too-brief interview. During that exchange she revealed that Louis Walsh, the one-time Boyzone and Westlife manager and now a well-known figure on British television, once suggested he take her under his wing and manage her career. ‘He wanted to work with me at the time. He was saying to me, ‘Gemma, you need to play the game more. We need to get you out dating another celebrity, we need to get you on the scene and in the papers’’, Gemma told Miriam.

Walsh, who she described as ‘a brilliant businessman’, also suggested that Hayes stop writing her own material and that he employ a team to do that on her behalf instead. And kicking the corpse once more for good luck, he assured her that she did indeed have ‘The X Factor’ which, no doubt, thrilled her no end.

Walsh is a diverting, often creepy and always boisterous figure with a traditional view of the entertainment industry – ‘the business we call ‘show’’ – who’s long understood the enduring benefits of good teeth and the utter pointlessness of the creative process. Alongside a couple of RTÉ presenters, Walsh is easily the most available ‘well-known face’ in the country and, to this extent, is a world removed from Gemma Hayes who remains at a distance and tends to hold her whisht unless she has a record to perform or promote or something of interest to impart.

Which has it’s advantages too, of course. Because if Gemma was more visible and closer to hand, like all national sweethearts, would her terrific songs still carry the same degree of mystery ? Does unsung and distant give her more room to roam, more of a licence to take risks and distort her sound ? Either way, she had a lucky escape with Louis Walsh.

Hayes first made herself heard during the late 1990s when, around the fringes of the post-raggle taggle Dublin scene dominated by the likes of The Frames, The Mary Janes and Mark Geary, you’d sometimes see her with the Whelans and Mother Redcaps set, often alongside the cellist Julian Lennon. There have been five albums since, all of them flushed with the soft, acoustic touch of the old school folkies, the frenetic, shoe-gaze blitz of Slowdive, the up-beat pop swagger of The Bangles and the giddy eclectics of Kate Bush. And every one of which, kicking against convention, has been progressively better and more ambitious than the last.

Foremost among which is 2008’s ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, a terrific break-up album seeking both ‘order in the chaos’ [and indeed ‘chaos in the order’ too] in the aftermath of a split, whether that be from a person, place or thing. Or indeed all three.

Sharply produced by David Odlum, one of the original members of The Frames and a member of Hayes’s kitchen cabinet for years, it’s easily one of the best Irish albums of the last two decades. And yet ‘The Hollow Of Morning’ rarely features on anyone’s list ;- another recurring theme of Hayes’s career. Unsurprisingly, the records that followed it – the excellent ‘Let It Break’ [2011] and 2014’s ‘Bones And Longing’, both of which, like ‘The Hollow Of Morning’, were independently issued – didn’t trouble the chart compilers either. Indeed despite a handsome cluster of terrific, guitar-fuelled albums, she is arguably best known fora cover version of Chris Issac’s ‘Wicked Game’, which featured on the soundtrack of the American teen drama series, ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and, to a lesser extent, for ‘Making My Way Back’, which sound-tracked the Lidl supermarket chain’s Christmas advertising campaign some years back.

But she remains one of my own favourite artists and I routinely return to Gemma’s songs ;- after a recent post here about Joe Chester, who’s collaborated with and featured alongside her for years, I’ve listened to practically nothing else since. And there’s a lot of material to suck in too, most of it determined by simple melodies and those gorgeous, breathy deliveries and smart, often arrant lyrics that have long been among her signatures.

Over the course of a random shuffle, she’ll divert and shift gear from the giddy, piano and plucked string staccato of ‘All I Need’ [from ‘Let It Break’] to the up-beat, guitar pop workouts of ‘Happy Sad’ [from ‘The Roads Don’t Love You’] and ‘Out Of Our Hands’ [from ‘The Hollow Of Morning’] to the introspective, fuzzy shoe-gazed tuning of ‘Laughter’ [from ‘Bones And Longing’]. And in spite of myself, I’m still suckered every time by the full-frontal pay-off in ‘Keep Running’, her 2011 single that, after a mildly-tempered rattle that name-checks some of the most interesting cities in the world in which the writer ‘might as well be lost’, proceeds to flail blindly, like a drunken uncle at an indie disco.

No one song captures the breath of Hayes’s ambition better than ‘I Let A Good Thing Go’, from her sturdy 2002 debut album, ‘Night On My Side’, which boasts all of her primary strike assets within it’s four minutes :- the carnal vocals, acoustic underlay and full-frontal thrashing that plays with skewed tunings and distorted lower ends. Ingredients she’s long favoured throughout her recording history, in which the most obvious variances have been in her increased use of beats, loops and dips ;- her most recent work is certainly infused with far more ambience and space. As if, almost, the more perceptive and confident she’s grown, the easier it’s become for her to pare her songs right back ;- on ‘Bones And Longing’ as if she’s often just corrupting the beauty.

A couple of summers ago, I produced ‘Saturday Night With Miriam’ for the RTÉ One television schedule and, with no little prompting from the show’s music booker, my old friend Caroline Henry, we invited Paul Noonan from Bell X1 and Gemma to come in and perform a live, acoustic version of ‘The Snowman’. Trading for the occasion as Printer Clips, a solo project of Paul’s, they fetched up in Studio Four without fanfare or fuss and, working the song through during afternoon rehearsals, had a core of us absolutely distracted as they did do.

Gemma had arrived bearing gifts ;- as well as her acoustic guitar, she also brought along her husband, who was also minding their first child, a little boy. And hours later, and in front of an audience of just over one hundred, Paul and herself delivered a mighty live performance, directed with her usual brio – in one shot only – by Niamh White and captured on camera in a single take by Gerry Hickey, a formidable and skilled operator. Once we’d downed tools for the night and repaired back-stage, Gemma told us that she’d successfully crowd-funded a new record, even if motherhood had given her far more pressing priorities and, as you’d expect, plenty else to occupy her mind and her time.

Months later she’d also delivered ‘Bones And Longing’, as absorbing a record as any and easily her most salient. And across much of the promotion she did in support of that record, she spoke about how becoming a mother had genuinely liberated her and about how music no longer absorbs her so intently or exclusively.

Life as a parent clearly suits her.

And her work.

BRILLIANT TREES :- GOLDFINGLAS

I absolutely loved The Brilliant Trees and, listening back to their two excellent albums from a distance, time hasn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for them. Some had them marked as being as good as early Oasis, others cited a Blur influence and there were times when, with the vocals stripped out, they had the classic reach of The Trash Can Sinatras. Eitherway, the band’s ambition stretched out far beyond their base in the Dublin suburb of Finglas. And further again from the tender, hesitant soul of the David Sylvian album from which they took their name.

The Oasis references would haunt them and, I think, undermine them a bit eventually. Both bands shared many traits and the comparisons are obvious and well-founded ;- from working-class backgrounds on the outskirts of big cities, both groups had an axis of brothers among their number. Both played a sinewy and uncomplicated guitar pop with unsophisticated lyrics, were led by brooding, good-looking frontmen and had an unshakeable belief in their own ability. But I never once heard The Brilliant Trees crow about how good they were. And, in their pomp, they were damned good.

I worked alongside Jeff Brennan in The Rock Garden for eighteen months at the start of the 1990s. My job, ostensibly, was to promote the venue and to generate coverage for the bands we had in-coming but, in reality, I just hung around the place and annoyed the bar staff and the waitresses. Jeff had made the short move across from The Underground Bar on Dame Street, where he had developed the small, downstairs venue into Dublin’s most vibrant live draw. When last I passed by, The Underground had been replaced by a lap-dancing club and, knowing Jeff, the irony won’t be lost on him. Or, no doubt, on the hundreds of noisy oiks who played there over the years, all of whom put their own arses on the line for the smell of a few pound.

The Rock Garden had opened in a blaze of publicity, an Irish take on the Covent Garden original, paying decent coin to international and local acts to keep live music going nightly inside it’s cavernous belly on Crown Alley, in Dublin’s Temple Bar. The Cranberries once played there to eighteen people and died a slow, slow death. Pulp arrived one sunny Saturday afternoon, unimpressed that they’d been booked into Dublin’s cheapest hovel, off Gardiner Street, and having had half of their back line stolen after a London show the previous night. ‘Ah, sorry to hear that’, Jeff told the band’s sour-pussed tour manager. ‘The other half is bound to be stolen tonight’. Less than a hundred turned up to see them, a matter of months before they released ‘Common People’. To the best of our knowledge, their equipment survived the trip.

Radiohead played their first Irish show at The Rock Garden, as did The Auteurs. The Sultans Of Ping FC, The Frames, A House, The Frank And Walters, The Golden Horde, Into Paradise and a litany of workmanlike British indie acts also visited and, for a couple of great years, The Rock Garden really had an edge.

The Brilliant Trees were one of a number of high-profile Dublin bands who played the venue regularly – Blink and Sack were other notables – and they consistently rammed the place. Not only that but they rammed it with a different kind of crowd, bringing a large, partisan following into town from their hub out in the North-West. Like Aslan, they actively ploughed a furrow deep in the suburbs and mobilised a pretty serious audience that was far from the usual alickadoos and liggers.

Tony Barrett, the band’s guitarist and driving force, worked with Dublin Corporation and I’d often see him around town during the day. I loved the cut of his jib, his relentless enthusiasm and his absolute belief in the power of music. The Brilliant Trees may not have been the most original band in the world but they were certainly one of the most spirited Irish acts I encountered during the early 1990s. For a while they were seriously courted, and rightly so.

They were still honing their craft when they played the famous Cork Rock bill in 1991 alongside The Frank And Walters, The Cranberries, Toasted Heretic, Therapy?, The I.R.S. and The Sultans of Ping F.C. and, after No Disco first went to air in the Autumn of 1993, Dónal Dineen, Rory Cobbe and myself got behind them with no little gusto. Tony would phone us regularly with up-dates and we’d make sure that the lo-fi videos for ‘Home’ and ‘Talent’ – with their plaintive images and no-budget feelcourtesy of directors Donal Scannell, Eamonn Crudden and Niamh Guckian – featured regularly. In fact listening to ‘Home’ over twenty years on – a reflection on the destruction of the heart of inner city Dublin against the shadow of cranes on the sky-line – one is reminded that while The Brilliant Trees were a pop band at heart, they had a keen and prescient eye too. Which, I felt, set them apart from the pack.

And so when No Disco required a headliner for the Dublin Aids Alliance benefit concert we ran at Whelans in May, 1994, we went first to The Brilliant Trees. They were as obliging as they were enthralling and, of course, we were guaranteed that they’d stuff the place.

Probably later than they’d either wanted or expected, they released their first album, ‘Friday Night’, in the early summer of 1996. Later that year, I sat down with Tony Barrett, singer Alan Hoey and the band’s articulate drummer, Dave Farrell, in advance of what was to be the band’s biggest headline show ever, at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre. The band was clearly at a cross-roads and, beyond the thoughtful and considered tone of our exchange, there was a real frustration too, and I tried to capture this in the gut of the piece. By now The Brilliant Trees had been on the go for a while and, although ‘Friday Night’ had been released to no little acclaim, the entire project had come at a cost.

My piece ran originally in The Sunday Tribune on November 10th, 1996, under the heading ‘Money grows on Trees’ and is re-produced in full here

 M o n e y   g r o w s   o n   T r e e s

It’s a rusted chestnut to be sure, but great records needn’t cost the world and it’s left leg. Rather, most record company debts are mounted by promotional budgets, mismanagement and by impractical and bloated band hand-outs.

Dublin’s Brilliant Trees would no doubt concur, an endearing and enterprising guitar pop group that have, in seven years, served their time, played their score of odds and that are still very squarely, however happily or unhappily, at an impasse.

The Brilliant Trees have been around long enough and hard enough to see both sides and, despite their noble if blind faith in popular music’s theories, it’s the industry’s defined sense of commerce and practice that has caused their greatest and most recurring problems.

And still The Brilliant Trees are arguably the only unsigned domestic act that can actually justify their press release hyperbole with fact. Their last Dublin show drew a capacity crowd to The Mean Fiddler. Which is probably what you’d expect from a band that was once described by the N.M.E., over-rashly and quite possibly in an over-flush of zeal, as being better than The Smiths. These days, over mid-afternoon, weekend lagers, they can afford to laugh. But only just. And while size and history may count for little when push comes to shove, The Brilliant Trees, a band that would rather do than talk, at least deserve a hearing.

‘We more or less pay for our own records’, Tony Barrett – the band’s guitarist and primary motivator – tells us. ‘We have a management company that, out of necessity, has become a record company and they bring out our records. We repay them the money that they’ve invested in us, but we’re thankfully at the stage where we’re almost quits with them now’. So while The Brilliant Trees may coyly shake all of this off as some sort of mild debt of love and devotion, the reality is that, for them, for now, it’s empty at the bottom.

Their first album, ‘Friday Night’, released shortly before the start of last summer, should have been their defining calling card ;- a pick and mix of wholesome, efficient and sinewy guitar pop songs that wear their hearts very blatantly but that make no apologies or outrageous claims. But the exercise has instead woken the band to the very essence of the music industry, to the point where these days band meetings are more about money and less about songs.

‘All in all, between the recording and the manufacture and artwork, the record cost us about £11,000’, reckons drummer Dave Farrell. ‘All of the money that we take in at gigs goes straight back to paying off the album debt. It’s not particularly easy at the best of times, but we do this because we love it, simple as that’.

Popular music has traditionally been the playground of the middle classes, rarely venturing to beyond the beyonds, and while The Brilliant Trees make light of their backgrounds in the working-class suburb of Finglas, many of their concerns are far more real than popular culture’s glamour guides would have us believe.

‘I’ve got a job doing wages in Dublin Corporation’, says Barrett. ‘I’ve got a young daughter, I’ve got a mortgage and I’ve already taken next year’s holidays so that we could play some American shows earlier this year.There was a time when we used to buy 20 cans and rehearse down at the shed for hours on end but we don’t even seem to have done that in an age. It’s probably a sign of the times’.

‘The reality is that we need regular record company money to make the kind of records we desperately want to make’, says Farrell. ‘With the ‘Heart Strings’ single, we just didn’t have the money and the clout to advertise the thing on radio or to do fly-posters and basic stuff like that which can mean so much. Ultimately it’s all very well and good making great singles but it’s another thing entirely trying to get the songs heard’.

‘To be perfectly honest’, Tony Barrett confides, ‘we’re very disappointed that ‘Heart Strings’ didn’t go into the Top 30. We were desperately looking for a genuine hit on this one because we know the song is good enough. It’s just a shame that it comes down to not having enough money to push the thing over the cliff’.

A well-received American jaunt earlier this year offers them a shard of hope, although again The Brilliant Trees move shyly. ‘We’re old enough and smart enough to know that it’s not going to happen for us in England’, claims Farrell, ‘and the only option open to us now is in America because America seems to be far more open to what we’re doing and what we’re about. The last time around we played nine shows in Boston and New York and we went down so well that we’ll probably move over there, however temporarily, at the start of next year’.

‘We were genuinely taken aback by the response we received in America’, singer Alan Hoey recalls. ‘Once again we know faraway fields are always greener but the thought of playing to a whole new audience and dealing with a new set of people is all very exciting for us, even after all this time’.

In an industry that works largely on a tissue of mutual lies, deceits and distortions, The Brilliant Trees have at least come this far with their dignity intact. These days, however, they’re dealing in far more abstracts and with far more numbers than they probably ever imagined.

‘No matter how well you do in this country, you’re never going to be able to support the band in the long-term’, Dave Farrell concludes. ‘The point is that if there were 800 people at our last show in Dublin, then there may easily be another 800 out there, and if there’s another 800 out there, then there may be another 8,000 out there. Who knows ?’.

NOTE :- The Brilliant Trees did roll on, doing what they’d promised they would. And in 1999, with Florida-based management in place, released a second, excellent album, ‘Wake Up And Dream’. Tony Barrett is currently part of Elevens, alongside Sack’s Martin McCann and Mark Healy from The Josephs.