NewDad: ‘Suddenly we were playing sold-out shows and people were singing our music back to us’

The young Galway alt-rockers have come a long way since they got together to avoid having to perform solo for their Leaving Cert music exams

NewDad: 'We just didn’t want to stay in the indie world forever, and be an underground band forever.' Photograph: Alice Backham

It sounds like a story made up for a press release, too perfect to possibly be true. The members of NewDad, the young Galway alt-rockers making ones-to-watch lists across Ireland and the UK, supposedly formed their band to avoid having to perform solo for their Leaving Cert practical music exams. On a Zoom call from her London home, NewDad’s frontwoman, Julie Dawson, insists with a wide-eyed sincerity that their creation story is true.

“We were in a cafe during lunch one day, and it was just a case of, ‘We should try jamming together,’ just because the idea of doing it by myself scared me too much,” the red-haired singer and guitarist says, laughing. “We did Thin Lizzy’s Dancing in the Moonlight.” She grimaces. “I absolutely butchered the solo.”

Now in their early 20s, and following a slight change in personnel (Cara Joshi took over on bass after Áindle O’Beirn decided the touring lifestyle was not for him), NewDad are about to release their very fine debut album, Madra. Dawson is the fulcrum of the band, its main songwriter and lyricist and an understated yet effervescent presence on stage.

The band’s dreamy alt-rock sound has been described as everything from indie pop to shoegaze in the four years since they released their debut single, but Dawson’s formative influences were not C-86 bands or the 1990s grunge that she now claims as inspirational. Instead it was Rodrigo y Gabriela and Spanish classical music that were her initial focus when she began playing guitar, around the age of 12 or 13.


“I started going to lessons with my mom,” she explains with a slightly mortified chuckle. “We’d do a shared half-hour lesson, and we’d learn the same piece. I loved playing guitar, but I never imagined myself singing, or writing, or anything like that.” It took until her first few weeks of college – she was studying arts and human rights at the University of Galway – to realise that she was on the wrong path. So, like any good budding rock star, she dropped out of the course after just three weeks.

NewDad (who chose their moniker from a random name generator) began releasing music just as the pandemic swept the world, their incipient career nipped in the bud – at least in the live forum. They continued to release promising singles throughout 2020 and 2021, and when the world opened up again they began to notice something: they had a living, breathing fan base in real life as well as online.

“Before lockdown we had played to, at most, 50 people,” Dawson says. “Then, when we came out of lockdown, we had a sold-out tour. Our first gig back was opening for Fontaines DC at Custom House Square in Belfast, and we were suddenly in at the deep end – we’d never played outside of Galway, or even outside of Seven, which is a bar venue in Galway. We didn’t really see the growth; it was just there. Suddenly, we were playing sold-out shows and people were singing our music back to us. It was, like, ‘Where did this come from? How did this happen?’”

Having things like the St Brigid’s cross, I remember making them every year in school. It reminds me of home, and these songs remind me of home.

Madra tackles themes of isolation, depression and the bullying that Dawson experienced at school. “I think it’s a lot of self-reflection,” she says of the record’s lyrical themes. “I’m an overthinker, and it’s quite easy to look at things you’ve done and overthink them to death; I guess it’s almost therapeutic to just get all that stuff down, put it out and let go of it. It’s an important part of learning and growing: to look at what you’ve done, put it into words and make more sense of it. Generally, how I see myself or my relationships with other people is mostly what I talk about on the album.”

NewDad recorded the album at Rockfield, the studio in Wales where Queen recorded much of Bohemian Rhapsody; it’s also where NewDad signed their deal, virtually, with Atlantic Records. Dawson is unapologetic about their desire to reach a wide audience – if that means signing to a major label, so be it. “I guess we just didn’t want to stay in the indie world forever, and be an ‘underground band’ forever,” she says with a shrug. “We believe in our music, and we think if it reaches enough people it could be something really big.”

Recording at Rockfield was a dream, she says. “We were there for 15 days, in the Welsh countryside ... That’s my happy place, just the fresh air. You’d literally get out of bed and walk a few feet and be in the studio. It just didn’t feel like work at all – we came out with 15 songs and we even had a day off. There were some nights we were in there ’til 2 or 3am, but most nights we’d be wrapped up by 10 or 11pm. So it just happened really quickly and really easily.”

The album takes a deliberate slant towards a heavier, more downbeat sound than their early material, as evidenced on songs such as Nightmares and the title track. It was produced by Chris W Ryan, who has worked with Just Mustard – a band NewDad love and admire, says Dawson – and mixed by Alan Moulder, who has mixed some of the biggest rock bands in the world. “We ourselves didn’t really know what we wanted the record to be a year ago,” Dawson admits. “Before, I think we were asking ourselves, ‘Are we indie? Are we rock? Are we shoegaze?’ and we were still figuring it out. But all my favourite albums are rock albums. I never thought we’d make a ‘rock’ album, but I’m really glad that’s what it turned into, because that was the music that made me want to be in a band.” She shrugs. “It has its little indie moments, which is nice, but I think, at the end of the day, what we want to be is a rock band.”

Spending the past two years in London, where they have been championed by the likes of the BBC Radio 6 Music DJ Steve Lamacq, has meant that NewDad have become removed from the Irish rock scene. Still, they have maintained some subtle – and not-so-subtle – nods to home on their releases, from the St Brigid’s cross that adorns the artwork of their recent single Let Go to the title of their album, which means “dog” in Irish.

“It’s a good conversation-starter,” Dawson says, smiling. “Visuals are not our area of expertise, but when we started figuring out all the visuals from the album it felt important to us that we had something that aligned with our ... Irishness, I guess. Having things like the St Brigid’s cross, I remember making them every year in school. It reminds me of home, and these songs remind me of home. And that’s the reason we picked Madra as a title: it felt like it was ours, like it belonged to us.”

They all miss home, she says, but this year is looking like both a busy and an exciting one for NewDad. “It is hard to connect with home when you’re living in a city like London,” she says. “I think we do miss that – that connection, that tie to what’s happening in Irish music, because it’s so exciting: it’s flourishing since we were living in Ireland. Even in Galway there’s so much more music and so many bands. It’s nice to see that it’s getting appreciated around the world. There always has been good music in Ireland, but maybe because of the success of Fontaines or whoever, it seems more achievable for us.”

Wide-scale success may be just around the corner, but what matters most to Dawson is that Madra resonates with the loyal audience that has been with them from the beginning. “And I guess I want it to be a comfort to people, because writing it has been a comfort to me,” she says. “People mess up, and you’re allowed to feel shit, and that’s okay. It’s cheesy, but all bad things pass, and as long as you’re learning and reflecting, that’s a good thing. So yeah,” she says, thinking out loud about what she wants Madra’s message to be.

“Oh, and also, just that NewDad rock,” she adds. “I’d like people to think that, too.”

Madra is released on Friday, January 26th. NewDad play at the Button Factory, in Dublin, on Wednesday, February 28th, and Thursday, February 29th