Crowley crafts the finished article
His growing confidence as an artist and wordsmith has been evident with each recording he has put out, and now, on his upcoming fifth album, Dublin-based songwriter Adrian Crowley has come into his own, writes JIM CARROLL
EVERY WORD matters. Even when Adrian Crowley is retelling an anecdote about recording in Chicago with Steve Albini, he weighs his words carefully. Just as with his song craft, there’s no room for superfluous nouns or verbs. Every word is carefully put in the right place. In the late afternoon clatter of a Fairview cafe, Crowley is talking about his new album. Season of the Sparksis the fifth album from the Malta-born, Galway-raised and Dublin-based singer-songwriter. Five albums in 10 years is an admirable canon, even if Crowley did, by his own admission, take some time to get going.
“I was 25 when I played my first gig,” he remembers. “When I first came to Dublin, I had friends who were in bands, but I was never in a band. I was a bit of a late starter in that respect, but I never really thought about that at the time.” But while Crowley was getting on with living – studying architecture for a time, doing freelance illustrations, painting murals, living in France for a year and working in photo-developing labs – he was also writing songs. His apprenticeship had begun long before he set foot on a stage.
A few days earlier, he found a box of tapes in the attic where he writes and works. “The tapes were from 1992 or thereabouts and it was quite spooky to listen to them. Everything was very self-conscious , but there was something there. I always enjoyed playing around with words and sculpting them into place. I suppose losing the self-conscious element was the most important thing for me in developing as a writer.
“Looking back now at the first couple of records, there was no expectation whatsoever. I never had anyone dissuading me or telling me to go in a different direction. But I always had this niggling feeling that I had to get a certain amount of records out of me before I was fully developed as an artist.”
Besides allowing him to develop as a songwriter, those early albums mapped a way for him through the snakes and ladders of the music business. “The very first album ( A Strange Kind) came in 1999 and I was totally on my own. I had no audience or label, but I had ideas. It really was a demo – I recorded what I was trying to get across and it was a way to get gigs. I felt I was just doing groundwork. It was a necessary thing that I had to do and I never really made much of an announcement about it.” Everything changed with When You Are Here You Are Familyin 2002. “I don’t know where I plucked up the confidence to go to Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios in Chicago to record, but all of a sudden it was different,” says Crowley.
“Psychologically, stepping away from home and working in that intense situation with a hero of mine did my music the world of good. The fact that it turned out better than I expected made me more assertive and I started contacting labels in America. The response from that was just amazing and really encouraged me.”
The third album was a bit of a misstep, though not through any fault of the artist. “By the time A Northern Countrycame out in 2004, I’d done a fair bit in the United States and the label I was working with, Ba Da Bing, were quite eager to work another album for me,” he remembers. “But a really unfortunate situation arose between the distributor and the label and, at the very last minute, they had to postpone the release date. It ended up getting released on a tiny label and there was just nothing behind it, no tours or press. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it a non-event, but it was the least ceremonious album of them all.”
CROWLEY WAS DETERMINEDto do things differently with the next release. “When Long Distance Swimmerwas done, I was really proud of it and I had this urgency about it which I’d never had about any of my records before. I wanted to release it as soon as it was done in Ireland because I was fed up waiting.” The album received great praise and sustained applause. Rave reviews, a Choice Music Prize nomination and a growing audience for Crowley’s live shows were part of the package.
“The excitement for me with Long Distance Swimmerhappened before it was released,” explains Crowley. “There was a real momentum when it came out because I had spent a year touring between recording and releasing and was really confident about the songs.” The positive reaction emboldened him. “I was used to working with very small labels, usually run by just one person who was a mate, and you’d set really small goals. The albums never really made much of a splash press-wise. It was all so low-key and dispersed, my audience as much as the reaction.
“But the reaction to Long Distance Swimmergave me extra confidence. I was really excited by the whole experience because it felt like I had found something new. I had started playing with some amazing people like the Fence Collective and had done the Green Man and Homegame festivals and it all started coming together.”
It’s obvious that his new album owes a lot to that new-found confidence. The musical backing is subtle, stately and spectral, all the better to allow Crowley’s word craft to shine. The new songs, such as Summer Haze Parade, The Beekeeper’s Wifeand The Wishing Seatunderline and emphasise just how far he has come as a writer, each song paced and pitched with carefully shaped lines and inch-perfect phrases. It’s quite the finished article.
Crowley had a completely different record in mind when he initially went to producer Steve Shannon. “I had so many ideas that we ended up with charts on the wall trying to track it all. I had all these ideas for duets and extra players and guests and using different instruments, but most of them never happened because I ended up doing so much myself.
“It ended up being a deceptively bare and sparse and simple-sounding record. I didn’t think it was appropriate to have so many people on board in the end, because it wasn’t what the record was asking for. Some people would have said I should have gone back and recorded ‘Long Distance Swimmer 2: the Sequel’ but that would have been futile.”
For once in his career, Crowley openly admits there’s ambition. “I want this one to reach more people and challenge me more,” he states. “I’ve decided to change the live set-up. I’ve always used strings but I want to try not having any strings for live shows for a while, which is going to be difficult because my regular live band in the UK are all string players. I’ve started working with members of Halfset and that’s exciting.”
Down the road, Crowley hopes his songwriting might change, too. “I’d love to have a laugh with my music. I mean, I’ll never write jokey songs, but I’d like to write more for fun and see what happens. I’ve always been cast as a very sombre performer, but I don’t really care. There’s very little you can do after you’ve been stamped as earnest or serious early on in your career. I just hope someone will be willing to listen to the record.”
THAT’S ALWAYS GOINGto be his job: writing songs, making albums and bringing that music to an audience. He left his last job in a photography lab five years ago to concentrate fully on music (and family) and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Back in January, I was doing an Irish tour with my very good friend James Yorkston,” he says with a smile. “We were driving along some country road when he turned to him and said ‘do you ever think it’s totally mad to do this instead of getting a job?’. I went ‘no, James, I don’t’ and he went ‘well, neither do I’.”
See next Friday’s Ticketfor details of a free audiostream on irishtimes.com of Adrian Crowley’s new album Season of the Sparks, one week in advance of its release on April 24.
Adrian Crowley plays Dublin’s Sugar Club on April 22, Galway’s Róisín Dubh on April 23 and Cork’s Cyprus Avenue on April 25