Season in the sun

Sat, Mar 6, 2010, 00:00

The winner of the Choice Music Prize is a little-known Galway man whose album has made critics swoon – but the man compared to Leonard Cohen won’t be having lunch with Simon Cowell just yet, writes BRIAN BOYD

AFTER 35 YEARS reviewing albums for the prestigious French music magazine, Les Inrockuptibles, journalist Richard Robert picked up the last album he would ever write about before his retirement. Robert, it would be safe to say, has heard it all – a few times over. He pressed the play button on Adrian Crowley’s Season Of The Sparks and fell into a deep swoon.

“Dazzling in its writing and its execution”; “a beauty that enchants the lives of us music-lovers”; “a miracle of equilibrium and elegance”; and “an art that is consummate” were among the phrases Robert used in his review. So moved was Robert by Crowley’s work that he sought out his address in Dublin and sent him a letter telling him how glad he was that the last album he ever reviewed was Crowley’s one.

Over in Rolling Stone magazine, they’re talking to Ryan Adams about the best songwriters out there who people have still yet to discover. Without hesitation, Adams says: “Adrian Crowley.” At Q magazine – the UK’s leading music publication – they write of Season Of The Sparks: “These fantastical stories sound like Leonard Cohen narrating a Tim Burton fairy tale.” At his Scottish record company, they talk reverentially about the “subtle, poignant beauty of one of Ireland’s most unique and talented artists”. His press agent says of him: “You couldn’t meet a nicer person; he has the most beautiful temperament of anyone I know. He’s unbelievably dedicated to his craft and is the most eloquent songwriter of our time.”

No, the 31-year-old Galway man is not the musical Messiah; he’s just won the Choice Music Prize for his Season Of The Sparks album. If, from the above, he sounds like the most fantastically wonderful person you’ve yet to meet, he’s not that unusual. There’s more than a few Adrian Crowleys out there: musicians who exist on the margins and go quietly about their riveting work without troubling the charts or daytime radio or the 02 or the Oxegen headline slots. Known only to the likes of Les Inrocktupibles, feted only by their own small but fervent fanbase, they exist mainly in the shadows of the Lady Gagas and The Kings of Leons. Occasionally one of them escapes from this gilded musical ghetto – a David Gray, a Richard Hawley, a Seasick Steve – but most of them still scuttle around in music’s dimly-lit basement – the James Yorkstons, the Boo Hewerdines – still avoiding the day job; still hoping for the break.

In today’s economy, their lives are miserable. You’ll see them clutching their battered guitar case at Dublin airport at 5am in the queue for a budget airline flight that will bring them to Bulgaria (or wherever) for “some small club dates”. They’ll spend months on end in a cramped and overheated van travelling around the US picking up gigs wherever will have them. Their lives are measured out by motorway food stops, cheating promoters and bank overdrafts. In place of groupies, they get intense 18-year-olds reading them their poetry. Flicking through the papers, they note that Jedward are more famous than Barack Obama.

The occasional five-star review in a specialist music magazine, the odd rapturously received sold-out gig, a namecheck by one of their more famous peer group can have a brief leavening effect on their just-getting-by lives but these people remain resolutely in thrall to the idea that talent will out, that real music matters, that what they’re doing is reward in itself.

And, until the bailiffs arrive, this is what they will be doing. Adrian Crowley recalls an Irish tour he did last year with his friend James Yorkston. In the middle of another interminable car journey between gigs, Yorkston turned to him and said, “Do you think we should just get real jobs instead of doing all this?” Crowley replied: “No, I don’t think so.” Yorkston said: “Neither do I.”

Crowley is one of the lucky ones in that he was able to give up his day job (working in a photo lab) a few years ago to concentrate full-time on his music. In this underexposed parallel music universe, he is able to make a living from touring. Never enough to be able to build a guitar-shaped swimming pool in his back garden, but enough to allow him to record another album.

BORN IN BARNA, Co Galway, and living in Dublin since he was 25, Crowley came to the capital to study architecture in Bolton Street College but got disillusioned and found more reward from playing and recording music. His first three albums were self-released, with the fourth being on a small English independent label. When not on tour or in the studio, Crowley is a house husband (he and his wife have two small children). He lives in the North Strand area of the city.

Crowley has been around long enough to know that the Choice Music Prize award won’t mean he’ll be challenging Jedward for press coverage anytime soon. The Choice – Ireland’s answer to the UK’s Mercury Music Prize – is an “alternative” award to the chart-driven likes of the Meteors and the Brits. Many of the albums that have been nominated for the award over its five-year existence have been self-released and would never have been commercial “hits” by any stretch of the imagination. Crowley will have seen how previous winners such as Julie Feeney, Super Extra Bonus Party and Jape have all been unable, as of yet, to parlay the award into any meaningful exposure outside the claustrophobic Irish indie music scene.

But if anyone in the Choice’s history (Divine Comedy excepted) can make the award really work for them abroad it is Crowley. Not only is he uncommonly talented but he already has a record deal in place with a well-known Scottish independent label, Chemikal Underground, who will fight his case in the UK with a blind passion. Crowley also has four previously released albums (one of which, 2008’s Long Distance Swimmer, was a Choice Music Prize nomination that year) ready to be re-booted and re-released should the current album pique people’s interest. And it does help that in most of the superlative UK reviews for Season Of The Sparks so far, the two names that keep getting used to describe Crowley’s music are Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake.

Dan Oggly of Friction PR, who handles the press for the Choice Music Prize, says: “History has shown us that people won’t flock to Adrian because he won the Choice – it’s not like he’s lying back being fed grapes by the music industry. He is a very respected name in certain quarters of the music industry so he is in a position to use it constructively. It’s a step up on the ladder but he really will have to work this himself.”

Crowley’s Irish press officer – and also drummer in his band – Cillian McDonnell, has had a busy week dealing with the surge of interest in his charge since Wednesday’s win. “There’s been loads of press enquiries about him, he’s already been booked to do a big Irish music festival this summer – I can’t say which one – and on Thursday morning I noticed that both Tower Records and HMV in Dublin have his album racked up in the very front of their stores,” he says.

McDonnell is keen to disabuse people of the notion that Crowley is another Irish male singer-songwriter in the mould of Paddy Casey or Glen Hansard. “I’ve never seen Adrian play an acoustic guitar on stage! He plays an electric guitar or a Rhodes keyboard,” he says. “His music is a lot more uptempo than people may think. Live, he’s more like Nick Cave than he is Nick Drake.”

THE €10,000 CHEQUE Crowley won will go towards his new album. “Money is tight these days and it’s always a struggle to come up with funds for recording. I’m already thinking about how the next album is going to take shape and this will help,” he said after his win. But before that there’s still work to be done with Season Of The Sparks. With the Choice prize on his mantelpiece he has already reached a ceiling in Ireland; the appealing vistas of the European and American markets are now in his sights. And this is the album to do it for him.

His record company manager, Andrew Savage, talks about how when he was thinking of signing Crowley, he would play his album continuously in his busy office to gauge people’s reaction to it. “Normally people would come in and say, ‘Please take that noise off’,” he says. “But with Adrian’s album, every single person was going, ‘Who is this by? It’s beautiful’.” Adrian Crowley’s beautiful noise is no longer such a secret.

Who?Adrian Crowley, singer-songwriter

Never Heard Of Him:Not many have but his Choice Music Prize victory last Wednesday night should change all that both here and, if he works it properly, abroad.

What won’t happen next: Take a meeting with Simon Cowell, have an affair with a WAG, leak a sex tape to the media, get people asking for a “Crowley” at their barber shop.

What might happen next:Trudge around the continent and the US winning hearts and minds slowly, surely and steadily. They say it gets easier after the first 10 years . . .