It sounds like the opening line of a clumsy joke: “A guitarist from The Cranberries and an actor and singer from The Commitments walk into a recording studio...”
The problem is, it didn't quite work out that way for Noel Hogan and Bronagh Gallagher. In fact, the pair haven't met in real life, much less spent time together in a studio – but that didn't stop them from collaborating on a new song.
Cry Baby was born via a thoroughly modern method of working, but one also necessitated by the pandemic. They were aware of each other's work, of course, but wasn't until a mutual friend, the tour manager Ciara Davey, made a virtual introduction at the beginning of lockdown last year that they hit it off creatively.
Plenty of emails, phone calls, messages and voicenotes have passed between them since then, so it's apt that they have come together to discuss Cry Baby via Zoom: Hogan in the studio at the end of his back garden, in Limerick, Gallagher in the sitting room of her Dublin home.
“Ciara had mentioned to me that Noel was making his own music and was working with different songwriters,” says Gallagher. “I suppose I’d be sort of seen as a songwriter and lyricist, so she just basically joined the dots and said, ‘Well, maybe I could suggest it – would you be up for that?’ It was such a boomerang into outer space to put the two of us virtually into a room, because we didn’t sit down and have that chat and throw around songs like you normally would. But we just got on the phone, and it was such an easy, joyous experience. It really was like the teacher left you alone in the school library and says, ‘Right, there you go. You have three months – give me a song!’”
Working from opposite ends of the country was no big deal for Hogan, who says that that was his usual modus operandi. “Obviously, with The Cranberries I was writing with Dolores [O’Riordan] for a long time, and that was kind of the way we wrote; we never sat in the same room together,” he says. “I had tried that with people in the past few years – before Covid, obviously – but it’s a strange experience, I find, to pick a day and go ‘We’re going to go in on Wednesday and write a song.’
The song's romantic themes are entwined with ones of nature and space
“For me, I like to write something and then leave it. I know my strengths, and that kind of topline thing, lyrics and melodies, is not one of them. So to meet someone like Bronagh, who is happy to take the seed of an idea, was great. We spoke on the phone a couple of times, and when Bronagh sent back the first idea she had, straight away you could tell that we were both on the same page. You can hear it in the track; it sounded like the two of us were in the same room to write this song, and that’s what you hope for.”
"I was saying to him, 'You're Elton John and I'm Bernie Taupin, '" Gallagher jokes. "He wanted to be Bernie, but I said no."
For Hogan the song is also a milestone, as it's the first time that he has made a collaboration public since O'Riordan's untimely death, in 2018.
“I have worked with people, but it’s not something you think about too much,” he says, shrugging. “If you were to do that you’d probably never do anything, because you’d be constantly thinking, Is this as good as what I did before? So you just approach it in a different way, and don’t overthink it. We started doing music when we were teenagers because we loved it, and that’s what you want it to be, still. With this it was a case of ‘We like the song, here is is. Hopefully other people like it, too.’”
Hogan says that he has amassed "hard drives full of songs" in recent years, but instantly knew Gallagher was the right person for Cry Baby, which was inspired by their mutual love of the 1960s sound practised by producers like Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin; Gallagher also mentions Dusty Springfield as a notable touchpoint.
Hogan says he knew straight away what would work. “I wasn’t flicking through a bunch of songs. And I kind of thought it was a bit different from what she’d done before, and that was the challenge: here’s something that’s slightly over the top, with strings and horns and things. We never questioned the choice of track: it just flowed all along.”
For Gallagher, the song's long gestation meant she could take time to write the lyrics and vocal melody. She didn't record her vocals until she returned to Dublin last summer; she spent the initial lockdown period at home in Derry, walking a rural route that took her through farmland across the Donegal border as she figured out the song in her head. The song's romantic themes are entwined with ones of nature and space; the lines "Let the music pull you through/ See the rubies rain on you" were inspired by Nasa's deep-space photographs, of all things.
While there were clear advantages to the pair having time to write and fine-tune the track through the various lockdowns, it also meant that there were delays in the creative process; for example, Hogan had to rerecord several parts, and direct a string quartet remotely because he couldn’t be in the studio alongside them. He wryly notes that “if you were to do an album this way, you could be quite some time”.
In the meantime, both have been busy on other projects. Hogan has been scoring the soundtrack for an HBO documentary alongside several other collaborations set for release later in the year. Gallagher has been continuing to work on her music between acting jobs, and is planning to finish and release her fourth solo album as soon as it is possible to tour it. The million-dollar question is, would they work together again – perhaps on something more substantial?
There’s a pause as each waits for the other to answer. “Well, I wouldn’t mind ... but it’s up to Bronagh. I mean...,” says Hogan, trailing off.
“It’s like First Dates – ‘Would you like to see each other again?’” Gallagher says with a cackle, covering her eyes. “But, no, I absolutely would.”
“This worked so well, but it would obviously make a lot more sense to be in a studio together. I mean, it took from March to Christmas to do one; if we started now we’d have the second done by next Christmas – so that’s two down,” Hogan says, smiling. “Hopefully we’re near the end of this pandemic thing and we can all get back to some kind of normality. So it’d be great to do more, yeah.”
Cry Baby is released on Saturday, April 17th