The art of poise
Julie Feeney has always operated beyond the bounds of convention and has never been afraid of big statements. “I’m actually at a stage where I’m quick at realising the ideas I have in my head, and then executing them,” she tells TONY CLAYTON-LEA
SHE IS, let there be no nonsense about it, one of the most adventurous musicians that Ireland has ever produced. We’re not just talking about Julie Feeney the performer and the way she might wear an outlandish hat; or Julie Feeney the singer and the way she might quiver a quaver in your general direction.
No, we’re talking about Julie Feeney the songwriter, who operates so far outside the usual “songwriter from Ireland”conventions that she might as well be from a different universe. Feeney has, over the past six years, continually confounded us – and always, it would seem, in the right way.
She began worming her way into the public consciousness in the mid-2000s with her debut album, 13 Songs. That the album won the (inaugural) Choice Music Prize came as much of a surprise to her as to the public, but it set her up – provisionally, at least – for album number two, the high-quality pages. That album has few, if any, points of comparison: it is, quite simply, a brilliant pop record made with an orchestra in a way that you’ve never heard before.
And now comes Clocks, Feeney’s third album. The new record is another high point in the invigorating career of a person whose background isn’t in pop (or rock) at all, but in rather less commercial areas such as choral singing/composing, sonology, contemporary dance and opera.
Clocks sees Feeney reach some kind of maturation point, one which puts her quirky creativity in perspective. But the album also highlights the current music business dynamics that an artist of Feeney’s increasing stature has to negotiate – artists’ fees are being reduced but the quality of the work they produce (or are expected to) is not. Something else has emerged, crucially, since the release of 13 Songs, and that is the absolute necessity for an artist of Feeney’s visual awareness to align herself with YouTube.
“In terms of visualisation,” says Feeney, “everything happens in sequence in my head. The first part is the song – I’ve found it’s impossible to visualise things when I’m creating the song. I first like to focus on the words, then the music, then the mixing/mastering, and then the sequencing of the songs for the album.
“When you’re so into the music, you know you want something to be visual, but it’s rarely, if ever, there from the start of the song-making process. For example, when I’d finished pages, I hadn’t really wanted to do anything on the visual side, but it ended up that quite a lot of videos were done for it, and I’m doing that more and more these days.”
Another change for Feeney is that while 13 Songs was released on her cottage-industry label, Mittens, pages had a brief alignment with a major label. With Clocks, however, she is back once more in full control in cottageindustry mode – albeit this time with a few outhouses attached.
“What happens as you go along is that, as the responsibility of you as an artist gets bigger, then so do the expectations of the audience. I now have people who return to my shows more and more – and I didn’t have that at the very beginning – and you need to have much more in order for the third record, particularly when you have a more developed audience. So now the label side of it for me has become really large. I have to fund it all, of course, but I’ve got people helping out on that side of things.”
Feeney didn’t always have people helping her out. Back in the mid-2000s, before the Choice Music Award gong gave her and the album a higher profile, she walked into record shops in Dublin and Galway with copies of 13 Songs in a carry-all, pitching a few sales here and there.
“Unbelievable, isn’t it? And I’m still doing it! This morning I made a phone call to a record shop in Tralee. It’s just a quick hello to let them know that Clocks is on the way. But, yes, it’s gotten a little bit bigger.
“With 13 Songs, the only people who were going to come along to my shows were those who were in my paper phone book and my mobile phone book. But at more recent shows, you kinda know it’s going to be full of people you probably don’t know, so the expectations of everything you do are going to be higher and higher. I was probably more secure when I first started because there wasn’t the drain of the money there is now. There’s an awful lot of multi-jobbing and overlapping. You have to work harder, far harder, than you did before.”
This is no bother to Feeney, as she unfolds an outline for her forthcoming nationwide tour, wherein she will visit 10 venues with 10, respective, local choirs.
“We had to select 10 of the best choirs we could find, and that involved research into what they had done before, because this is definitely not a community music project, which would have had a totally different focus.
“Basically, I wanted to get choirs that are as professional as possible – they may not be run on a professional basis, and they may not actually be professional, but the idea is that I wanted to get them to sound as professional as possible. I picked 10 of my songs – all from pages – and scored them for choir. It’s a monstrous undertaking, but the choirs are just great.
“I adore the sound of a-capella voices and I wanted the quality of that for the shows. The essence is that it’s my show, so I had to fuse my take on things with them. But it’s worked so well – I see it as another colour added to my music and work.”
Kaleidoscopic pop? Pop music and choirs? Pop music and orchestras? Pop music and odd-shaped headgear? It’s all to play for as far as Feeney is concerned – blending not so much genres as concepts, and coming up with an end result that is as much headspace as heartache.
“An awful lot of creativity is taken up with procrastination,” she posits, “but that’s just your process. You need to walk around with the ideas in your head until they cook. And a lot of creativity comes down to logistics – the entire process is taken up with those. Now I’m actually at a stage where I’m quick at realising the ideas I have in my head, and then executing them.”
According to Feeney, a sure-fire method of getting things done and dusted is to fuse strife with practicality. “That way, you don’t dilly-dally as much as you once did.”
Already, she reveals, she has much of the next album swirling around in her head. And, lest we forget, there is the opera she is developing to be rolled out next year.
“I’m a little bit more liberated from the fear of the work than I used to be,” she admits. “Now, I just get it done. I’m much more there, if you know what I mean, and that’s a good place. I just need to liberate myself more from the business side of things.”
If she did that, Feeney says, she’d simply whack out even more work. “I’ve discovered I can write very quickly, the ideas come really fast, and execution time is much shorter.”
Julie Feeney. Billy Whizz. You go, girl – you go!
Clocks is released via Mittens/Essential, November 16th (see review, page 14). Julie Feeney undertakes a nationwide tour from Friday, November 16th. See juliefeeney.com