If you’ve been wondering exactly where Cathy Davey has been for the past few years, the answer can be found within 30 seconds of pulling into her driveway.
A pack of friendly dogs accompanies her to the front door. Donkeys giddily bray in the yard. She is holding freshly laid eggs from the chickens and a number of horses roam on the land surrounding her 300-year-old farmhouse an hour outside of Dublin. We are introduced to Penelope the pig, who promptly rolls over for a belly rub. If Animal Farm was a true story, she might have cause for concern.
Although we're here to discuss the small matter of Davey's fourth album – and her first since 2010's The Nameless – her extended family of animals is no coincidence. Much of her time over the past five years has been taken up with the animal charity My Lovely Horse Rescue, co-founded with her partner, musician Neil Hannon.
They live surrounded by many of the creatures they have rescued, re-homed and restored with love and care. It is, one might say, not a bad way to exist and on a sunny morning – surrounded by nature in all of its glorious forms over mugs of tea in the back garden – that aforementioned new album, New Forest, begins to make a little more sense.
Place in the world
"I've changed an awful lot between then and now because of working with the animals and being able to find my place in the world that I hadn't found then," she says of the time that has elapsed since The Nameless was released.
“[Being a musician] is such a selfish lifestyle; you’re supposed to think about yourself an awful lot, and analyse, and tell people all the things you’ve discovered about yourself – it’s a narcissistic enabler, I guess. But now, thinking only about other entities that you live through and have helped to get to better places, that only does good things for you.
"At the beginning of writing this album, though, we were only just starting [the charity] and I was in the horrors. After The Nameless, I was trying to work through the idea of death and losing people and the fear of the end. And probably, it's through working with animals that you get a more realistic sense of 'the end' and what it means. So everything's very different now. In lots of ways."
There was a “scattered” approach to writing this album, she says. Half of it was written when she took herself off to a remote cottage in the forest near Portumna, Co Galway, and later, a similar stint in Connemara. Removing yourself from the mundanities of daily life, she says, helped to clarify the important issues in her life; or as she puts it, “I can’t access interesting things when my brain is thinking ‘Is the Internet working?’ ”
Humans and nature
When themes began to jump out, unsurprisingly there was a correlation between humans and nature. Songs such as Thylacine, about an extinct dog-like marsupial, illustrated "all the things that I was struggling with dealing with – where animals were being used to entertain or to facilitate whatever humans wanted them to". Others, such as Chrysocoma, are "pure make-believe, about a character who's sitting under a tree every day, and the tree falls in love with him, and in the end he chops her down".
It's not all melancholia, though; there's one or two love songs in the mix, too. Considering that Hannon's own new Divine Comedy album Foreverland is packed with brazen, beautiful odes to the object of his affection (there's even one titled To the Rescue), Davey – who also features on Foreverland – reciprocated with one of her own. It's not, however, the most obviously titled one, My Old Man.
“No, that’s about Rex,” she laughs, pointing at her elderly dog lolling at her feet. “But Rex reminds me of Neil, so it’s probably the same thing.”
Hannon does, however, sing at the end of album track Bucket.
"He wrote a piece for his dad [the composition To Our Fathers in Distress], who has Alzheimer's – and I guess I might be scared that it might be hereditary, or something. So that was something about just trying to be someone's memory for them if something goes wrong. It's not a reality yet, but I do sort of focus on the maudlin of the future, sometimes . . ."
More lighthearted fare comes in the form of songs such as And Then I Eat It, inspired by the viewpoint of "an OCD squirrel" she saw during a writing session. Generally, however, they are tied together by an overarching concept of the link between nature and humans.
“I think all of these emotional tendencies that humans have, you can narrow them down to different animals, as well,” she says. “That’s why I put it all into a forest – because it made sense, visually, if you’re looking down into a forest and you can see everything come together.”
The forest theme came into its own last weekend when Davey debuted the album live in its entirety at Electric Picnic. In the midnight hour, crowds gathered under a canopy of oak and chestnut trees to hear her, her band and four backing singers perform these beautiful, atmospheric pop songs.
At heart, she remains a writer of pop songs, even if electronic lead The Pattern proved something of a curveball and album track Arrow sees her play around with vocal filters rendering her usual ethereal voice swarthy and masculine.
Other tracks see her take up the accordion for the first time. “Any new instruments are really good, because they open up new avenues to explore,” she says. “I’d never used it before; anything you get lost in trying to figure out, and you find new tones and it entices new melody to come to you, then you’re on your way.”
As interested as she is about furthering her craft as a writer, Davey is refreshingly frank about her ambitions this time around. Between her time devoted to animals giving her a new perspective on life and, as she puts it, “finding her place in the world”, music perhaps isn’t the defining factor that it might once have been in her life.
"This whole album-making process was fragmented and although a part of me goes 'That doesn't sound professional to say', it's also really true to life, and it's really true to my life," she says with a shrug. "I don't want to go and tour America, or break any other countries. I don't even want to break Ireland. I just want to be able to release an album and keep doing this," she says, gesturing around her, "so it doesn't really matter."
It’s rare that you hear musicians being so honest about their objectives.
“Yeah,” she smiles, shrugging. “It’s one of the things that hasn’t helped me, career-wise; not being interested enough in music that’s going around, and how people make it, and how they present themselves and get the best out of themselves, musically.
“But I guess here we are, and I’m able to balance a musical life with the main thing that I feel is the most important thing, which I guess is . . . well, nursing, I suppose,” she grins. “My vocation, is that the right word? Once you find that thing, then everything else makes sense, in retrospect. There is part of me that’s always a musician – and it’s always the thing where your strength lies, the thing you do every day without thinking it’s ‘furthering your craft’.
“I wouldn’t deny myself writing simple melodies, and that’s probably what I’ve based my career on because it’s something I do every day, just humming to myself outside. It’s an old saying: Find the thing that you loved doing as a kid, and try and do that as your job.
“So writing little melodies? If that’s my job, I’m set, and it is part of my life – it’s just not a very sophisticated honing of a skill,” she says, pulling Daisy the long-haired lurcher closer to her and smiling broadly once again. “But it’s a simple one, and that’s fine.”
- New Forest is out now. Cathy Davey tours nationwide in October and November, including Whelan's, Dublin, on Oct 22nd