Last September, Maria Somerville moved from Cornamona in Galway to Dublin. The singer-songwriter feels at her most creative on the shores of the Corrib. There's something about the place, she says, "the landscape, the people, the struggle. In a way, I've a love/hate relationship with home. I love it, but even in the songs that you'd hear, I needed to leave. The way it can be, you can't stay there for too long. It can get very closed-in. In the future I'll definitely settle down there, but in order to keep progressing with this, I couldn't really stay there. It can be a bit small-minded in a way, but you take whatever you can from the place".
Somerville, who performs under her surname alone, speaks in hushed tones, unused to interviews or talking about her work, extending each word as if searching for the next one, slightly unsure of herself.
When she uploaded a couple of tracks online to BreakingTunes, a fantastic resource for discovering Irish acts, they caught the ears of a few. She played a gig at Electric Picnic. Curator Aoife Tunney enlisted her for a show. Block T in Smithfield got in touch. Then, in May this year, she travelled back west to Inis Oírr to perform at Drop Everything. Most in the room hadn't heard her but came away buzzing about her quiet, enchanting performance. Imma got her on board for one of its Summer Rising events in July.
Happenings – the pop-up cinema and concert series – had blogger and event curator Nialler9 come up with a gig at Fitzwilliam Square in August, and so Somerville played in the park. Then it was back to the Body & Soul area at Electric Picnic this year and a stint at Hard Working Class Heroes festival. You’d be hard-pressed to put together a live schedule that would be so particular to a person and a crowd – and that would be, essentially, so cool.
Somerville, though, hasn’t really thought about it: “The only gigs I ever get offered are ones that I want to do.”
Her music is sparse, and loaded with atmosphere. You can almost hear the wind in the lakeside rushes flow through it. It has a deliberate slowness, the notes from her guitar shrouded with minimal electronic sounds, and then, lounging on top, a pure, sweet voice.
Music is in the family. “Dad and his brothers would be into all the old ballads. He doesn’t play, but there’s five brothers and they used to sing amazing harmonies. I probably shouldn’t have been in the pub, but I just remember listening to these, especially one uncle, he had a real haunting voice. I still have some tapes that I listen to. Michael Somerville. He passed away, so I do think about him a lot when I’m doing gigs or writing. A lot of those kind of songs are reflected in my own lyrics, maybe.”
Somerville did a music-tech course in Galway and borrowed some gear from her friends to start recording. At the time she was getting into more electronic stuff, an interest prompted by listening to Donal Dineen's Small Hours radio show. Her first gig was in May 2013, supporting David Kitt in the Róisín Dubh in Galway.
For a while, she wasn’t sure what to do. “I was always a bit lost.” Unlike others intent on making a go of music, she hadn’t been writing tunes throughout her teens. She moved to Melbourne for a year, came back, and for a while wanted to be a sound engineer, staying up until five in the morning, “getting really bogged down in small things that kind of took away from the writing. I took a step back from that and got more done, rather than worry about the tech stuff.”
Interning at studios in Dublin helped her gain the hands-on expertise to producer her own material. In Galway, she was mesmerised by what was happening in Dublin, "the likes of the Joinery and acts like Somadrone and Katie Kim, Sunken Foal. I was mad to see them live. So it's been cool, because I've done a gig with Patrick Kelleher, and I was a massive fan of his over the years, so it was all a bit overwhelming – like a little fan girl."
On stage, Somerville is simultaneously unassuming and captivating, vulnerable and in control. It would be rude not to point out the obvious, her shyness (sample tweet: “First time on the Luas. Scared not scared.”)
“Some people might say that I can be quite scatty and shy. But it depends on the situation I’m in. But I am quite shy. Definitely on stage, I get worried sometimes that it comes across that I’ve a wall up, because sometimes I just can’t talk. If I’ve nothing to say, like. And yeah, some people would say that I’m not sure what I want, different people that I’m working with, collaborating on different things. But I think there’s a method to the madness.”