Lisa O’Neill – Cavan's material girl
Cavan singer-songwriter Lisa O’Neill makes a triumphant return with her second album Same Cloth or Not, a beautiful, oddly appealing record. “Music always finds a home,” she says
Almost 40 years ago, the once fledgling independent UK label, Virgin Records, released a double album with the title V; the cover was of a hand delivering Winston Churchill’s famous V for Victory sign, but there was something about it that made you look twice: the hand had five fingers and one thumb. The album, too, was left-of-centre, featuring a sample of acts on Virgin Records’ then roster – acts that traded on the label’s original modus operandi of signing wonderful misfits, curious oddities, deliberate outsiders and downright square plugs in round holes.
On listening to Lisa O’Neill’s second album, Same Cloth or Not, it immediately struck me that the 31-year-old, petite singer-songwriter from Ballyhaise, Co Cavan, would be right at home in such company as 1975 Virgin acts Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Slapp Happy, Henry Cow, Kevin Coyne, and Ivor Cutler.
O’Neill is, at the very least, a spiritual descendent of their creative form and structure fractured by a highly idiosyncratic worldview. There is, however, something extra that she brings to the session, something that most of the aforementioned, now mostly long-forgotten acts (the exception being Scotland’s criminally ignored Cutler), lack: a true sense of place, a real sense of tradition and an utter lack of pretention.
Lisa O'Neill - Same Cloth Or Not
“I started writing things when I was seven or eight and hiding them because I was embarrassed,” O’Neill recalls of her childhood songwriting attempts. “I had a knack for rhyming . . . Songs from television and ads were sticking in my head, and I still remember them to this day. I don’t remember looking for music – it came to me.”
O’Neill has an air about her that will forever be rural Irish; she may have left home at the age of 18 to study, live and subsequently work in Dublin, but city life hasn’t eroded her sense of her roots.
We’re unsure whether she’s joking when she asks The Ticket to explain what the word “camaraderie” means, and to clarify what we’re getting at when we describe her voice as “marmite”, but the sense of a real, unaffected person comes through, someone who isn’t shy of honestly asking for directions.
When O’Neill left Ballyhaise for Dublin more than 13 years ago, it was to study music full-time at Ballyfermot’s College of Further Education. She had written “real” songs from her early teens, she says, but they were copies of copies, formulaic and clichéd.
“They were all love songs, yet I wasn’t in love,” she recalls. “I remember writing songs about travelling across the ocean to be with my true love, but, sure, I didn’t know what was on the other side of the ocean at all. They were good, I suppose – I played them for some people and they liked them. But when I went to Ballyfermot, I realised they were just okay. I didn’t enjoy playing them. I knew I could do better.”
Moving from rural village to big smoke, for some, is a shock, cultural or otherwise, but O’Neill (“I was innocent enough”), tentatively went with the flow until she learned to swim.