Flying form: the operatic world of Julie Feeney
In between making indie music and taking flying lessons, the renaissance woman has turned her hand to opera. Her working life is as hard to keep up with as her conversation
Julie Feeney, whose opera Birds will premiere at the Galway Arts Festival : The first orchestra thing that I did was hugely scary. Hugely scary. And I actually took three days to decide whether or not to do it. And then… then that, because doing that, it opened up a whole load of other things for me. So, it’s definitely, ‘I know it’s definitely worth pushing yourself. There’s no question about it.’ Photograph: Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The courtyard of the Four Seasons hotel in Ballsbridge is bustling. The fountain is drowned out by the clinking of champagne glasses, the chatter of the self-satisfied on a hot summer’s day, the clacking of red-soled heels and guffaws of linen- trousered men. Julie Feeney is getting ready for some photos, raring to go until the manager wags his finger. No photos allowed, to protect the privacy of the glass-clinkers. The Four Seasons is ditched in favour of a derelict warehouse down by Poolbeg, a much different D4.
Feeney leans and pouts, twists her body, and positions her sky-high heels so that they don’t fall through the slots on a blue crate used as a makeshift stage. “Give me some . . . Julie Feeney,” the photographer requests. “Whatever the f*** that is!” Feeney responds, before contorting her body again into a model-perfect pose.
Give me some Julie Feeney. We might be at the Pigeon House but there’s probably no other Irish female contemporary artist who eschews pigeonholes more than Feeney. She makes indie music and won the inaugural Choice Music Prize for her album 13 Songs. She composes, conducts and orchestrates. She’s working on an opera, the music of which will be presented in concert form at the Galway Arts Festival. (She is now based in Dublin, but comes from Athenry.) She probably takes on too much, but it would be a waste of her talent if she didn’t.
The Feeney effect
Right now, she’s slightly edgy. Pages of music from the opera, Bird, fill a plastic shopping bag at her feet, yet she’s immaculately coiffed, with her usual keen sense for avant-garde fashion. Feeney is a perfectionist; I once watched her rehearse for hours with the Paradiso orchestra in Amsterdam before a concert that night.
She’s also confident; she doesn’t play down her achievements. Making an opera isn’t exactly a populist move, yet she turned to the crowd to fund third album Clocks, netting €23,000. She’s prolific. And she is sweet and kind. Maybe it’s not about categorising her; maybe a lot of people just don’t know what to make of her.
When she’s working on something, she’s immersed in it night and day. “I keep ending up on things that either have no budget or I’m, like, doing way more than you would normally do. And it’s always, like, horrendous, but then it’s amazing. In the end it always works out.”
It’s difficult to generate an easy-to-transcribe conversation with Feeney. She’s friendly, open, accommodating and polite – but following her train of thought is challenging. Sentences are dispensed like images from a carousel slide projector. Sometimes they are related, sometimes not, often starting one way and jerking off in another direction, or just left hanging. When asked to explain her work, she sometimes explains herself and vice versa. She often ends with, “I never really thought about that actually”, indicating what came before was an explanation in progress.