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.
In the Dylan Hotel, Feeney talks about “being a perfectionist”, her work ethic, doing things on her own while learning to delegate. She has to get all of the admin things out of her head before settling down to engage with her creative work. “And I still haven’t identified why, like, I haven’t really got someone that I work with full time. I think it’s just because I’m too odd or something. It must just be the things that I do . . . I don’t know really. It’s kind of, eh, it always ends up much better when it’s over. It’s always like, you forget, but then you get really . . . ” You are forced to push yourself? “I think you really do. I think you’re always better to have done that. Like 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 doing that, it opened up a whole load of other things for me. I know it’s definitely worth pushing yourself. There’s no question about it.”
Bird is partly derived from Oscar Wilde’s story The Happy Prince, which stars a swallow and a statue. Feeney wanted to make something to do with flying. “I love flying. I can’t drive, but I’ve had flying lessons. I wouldn’t say I can [fly an aircraft] yet, but I want to. I would love to get my pilot’s licence. Oh, it’s amazing. Up in the air? Up. In. The. Air. Wings. It’s amazing.”
For about 20 minutes or so, she details the narrative of the opera, which she’s not sure she should be divulging but does anyway: every character, every meaning, every plot turn, elements of the proposed aesthetic. It’s captivating. The Happy Prince morphs into a story about birds, fantasy, conflict, relationships, beauty. Feeney says that she doesn’t know why people see fantasy as a faraway thing, and that it should be very much a part of reality.
Having got sidetracked, I call her some time after we meet to talk about her motivations for undertaking an opera. She’s in Annaghmakerrig, with three days left until rehearsals for Galway, “working non-stop, every minute”. But not stressed out. “I actually never even use the word ‘stressed’. I’m very focused. I think that [saying ‘stressed’] would distract me. I just need to get five pieces done and put the words in and get the orchestration around it.
Drawn to the extreme
“I wanted it to be an opera, the theatre of it, and the extremity of it,” she says of why she was drawn to the form. “I’ve never thought why extremity appeals to me. I often wonder why, when watching a TV drama, they don’t work when they try to be extreme because they seem absurd. But on stage, the tactility of the experience, going into a space to experience it . . . I like the proximity of extremities of emotion on stage.”
Proximity is something Feeney has learned to utilise in a live setting. With Myth, a song that deals with rumour, gossip and Chinese whispers, she will inhabit the mythical piece of information itself, descending into the crowd and flowing the second-hand words through the audience.
Is she aware she perplexes people? “I really have no idea apart from people who come up to me after shows,” or people who email her. “I think you’d drive yourself crazy if you started worrying about what everybody else actually thought about you and your music, because that isn’t really your job . . . There just isn’t enough time to really worry or take that on, because then you get distracted, then you’d be something else. You’d be a commentator, you wouldn’t be an artist making stuff.
“When I’m having my minor meltdowns, the people who I work with always seem to believe that I’m going to get there, that I’ll pull it off, even when I don’t think I will. People do seem to have a faith that sometimes really astounds me. If they actually knew how far away I was from achieving it. But for some reason it does always get to the finishing line. And my mother did say ‘you always cross the finishing line’. [That] took me by surprise. Recently some people who I’m working with, they kind of said that, ‘you always do, you always do pull it off’. So . . . does that answer that?”
Bird is at St Nicholas’s Church on Sunday as part of Galway Arts Festival