Daithí Ó Drónaí: next stop, pop
Now that Ó Drónaí has rediscovered his love for pop music, the days of regarding him as just the ‘lad with the fiddle’ are well and truly over. He talks about his indie-trad-electro-math-rock progression and why the new album will be ‘pop from tip to toe’
“I love pop music. When that realisation hit, I started working on the idea of making tune that would sound amazing on radio”
On St Patrick’s Day, Daithí Ó Drónaí performed a gig in Dublin’s Mansion House on the same bill as Martin Hayes. Both are fiddle players from Clare, but that’s largely where the comparisons begin and end.
Ó Drónaí is effusive when he talks about the fellow from Feakle. He remembers being a seven-year-old going to see Hayes play and being blown away. His eyes glow when he talks about The Gloaming. He remarks that you can identify Hayes’s dulcet strings from the midst of seven fiddlers on a Tulla Ceili Band record.
But Ó Drónaí is very much aware that he’s his own man in such company. “The way I play fiddle is not accomplished at all. It’s more about the energy I put into it. There’s no finesse where I am coming from with the fiddle.”
It’s a long, long way from Ó Drónaí’s Clare trad upbringing to the pop freak scene he’s part of today. Over the past 18 months, Ó Drónaí has become the go-to man when it comes to live shows that fizz and crackle. His tunes have become fully formed, radio-friendly monsters where the groove is firmly in the heart. The image of the lad with the fiddle which tarred him for so long is fast fading.
“It’s not about the lad with the fiddle any more,” the 24-year-old says with some relief. “I was sick and tired of being the lad with the fiddle; it felt like such a novelty. I mean, I love the fiddle and it’s such an important part of the live show and I’d never leave it behind. But I wanted to show people I could create songs as opposed to just fiddle pieces.”
At the start, though, the fiddle was there. Trad was always going to be on the cards in the Ó Drónaí household in Ballyvaughan (his grandfather is noted concertina player Chris Droney) and the six-year-old plumped for the fiddle.
Other instruments came along and he was playing bass guitar in bands with school friends when the time came to head to Rockwell College. Ó Drónaí thought he’d like Rockwell: “I mean, it was boarding school, I’d read the Harry Potter books”. But he soon found himself at a significant disadvantage in that intense rugby school.
Luckily, there were others with guitars and he fell into step with them. “I went through a hibernation period of two years just doing study, school and music. That’s where I learned how to write songs. I hated boarding school, but while I was there, I learned how to write music so it wasn’t all bad.”
In between school and bunking off to see The Cribs in Dublin, Ó Drónaí fell for the fiddle again.
Listen: Daithí Ó Dronaí - Have to Go
“Foals made me turn to the fiddle again. I read an interview with Yannis where he said what he loved about math-rock was that the guitars were so crisp and clear. I thought well, it’s the same with the fiddle. So I messed around the fiddle and the Loopstation. If you listen to my first record and the melodies on it, you’ll hear it’s all inspired by math-rock.”
Galway was Ó Drónaí’s next stop. He did a media course at a college in Connemara (“most importantly, it was a course which came with a grant”), but a strange twist of fate took him onto the nation’s TV screens via The All Ireland Talent Show.
“They were doing auditions in NUIG, so a lecturer suggested we go along to see what a real TV experience was like. At this stage, I’d never played the Loopstation stuff live. They weren’t even songs. I went along with the Loopstation stuff and they were very impressed. I got through to the second round, which was when Daithí Ó Sé went ‘this is the one of the best things I’ve ever seen’, and it all lifted from there.
“I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know much about talent shows, I never watched any of them. I remember talking to my mother on the phone and she didn’t even get it. The fame thing was insane. I’d be walking down a street in Galway and people would be coming up to take my photo. I was also in a state of shock that people saw my music as fairly cool.”
While he took part in another TV talent show (Sky One’s Must Be the Music) , Ó Drónaí was now far more curious about working off-screen. He started learning how to use synthesizers and drum machines “to create structure and write songs”. He’d play gigs upstairs in Galway’s Róisín Dubh that would be “an hour or two of absolute improv”. Early days, but he was learning.
He credits some people with giving him a musical steer back then. David Phelan from The Lost Chord “was the first one to introduce me to Pro Tools and producing. He inspired to get stuff like Ableton, and that’s when the production stuff came in.”
David Kitt mentored him about writing music and song structure. “We started working on tracks and I was kind of lost because he was introducing me to so much stuff. I was taking it all in but it didn’t feel as if it was my sound.
“The best way an artist works with a producer is if you can sit down and actually explain what you want and the sound on your head comes out on the other side. I think I was very influenced at the start because I didn’t even know what that sound was or what I was doing.”
It was much different with Cork producer Ian Ring. “He’s this young dude who has grown up in his computer and built his life around this computer. He’s so gifted. He showed me how to do the proper production. It was like going on a college course.
“I could explain to Ian what I wanted. He’d reference tracks I knew and helped me put it all together. I can now sit down at a computer and create a track, and that’s when I started to write the songs which you’ll find on the album.”
The upcoming album, says Ó Drónaí, will be pop from tip to toe. “I had this thing when I signed to Sony that I wasn’t going to do pop music. No way, not for me. But I was basically lying to myself. When I stopped being such a teenager about the whole thing, pop music is amazing. I love pop music.
“When that realisation hit, I started working on the idea of making tunes which would sound amazing on radio. Myself and Ian even made up these rules: three minutes or under, get to the chorus as fast as possible, a tiny intro. Certain chord structures work really well on the radio. When we started writing, we came up with these amazing songs.”
Ó Drónaí is surprised that more Irish musicians like him aren’t making pop-dance tunes. “I think Sony were expecting me to do some kind of traddy, Damien Dempsey-like, Irish thing. They weren’t expecting pop or dance but, when they signed me, I wasn’t doing dance or pop.
“But I could see that what would work well on radio would be some really good dance-pop stuff. Weirdly enough, there’s not a huge amount of people doing that in Ireland. There’s a strong band culture and singer-songwriters, but not a huge amount of people doing what I do.”
The approach has worked in spades. Chameleon Life enjoyed a bonanza on radio last year and Ó Drónaí reaped the rewards at festival shows. “People were singing Chameleon Life back at me and that was amazing.”
Ó Drónaí promises that the album, due out later this year, will be full of “bangers”. He’s says he’s “super-proud” of what he’s produced.
“A year ago, I would not have seen myself producing something this good. This, to me, would have been the third album down the line, which means the one after this will be even more interesting. I’m glad I’ve waited this long to put it out. I had to be ready. And I’m ready now.”