How Music Works: how Colm O’Herlihy found his Icelandic calling
Colm O’Herlihy recounts his journey from backing up Morrissey and putting on back-garden festivals to running Icelandic record label Bedroom Community
Reykjavík calling: Colm O’Herlihy
Colm O’Herlihy’s first foray into the music world was pretty atypical for a teenagers. As a 16-year-old in Macroom, Co Cork, he formed Remma, a band with his friends, only to be signed by none other than Morrissey to his own vanity label.
On his birthday, O’Herlihy and the band were playing Earl’s Court in London supporting Moz, but things would fall apart just as sharp as the rise. They were dropped by the label and found themselves back where they started, somewhat dazed by the experience.
“The dream died,” says O’Herlihy. “It was a huge learning experience because we realised it doesn’t just happen. You have to work super-hard. For us, it just fell into our lap. Looking back, we were definitely not ready.
“It was probably the best thing that could have happened because it showed both sides of what can happen and how you have to have the right mentality coming in.”
Multi-tasking touring experience
O’Herlihy may have been young and relatively green but that didn’t stop him pushing forward on the touring circuit with other musicians. He toured the US and Europe with Nashville singer-songwriter Chelsea Crowell, Hüsker Dü’s Grant Hart (who Remma supported) and Kentucky singer-songwriter Joan Shelley.
He found himself taking on different roles: tour managing, organising interviews and booking dates, particularly with Grant Hart – who didn’t have a manager and who didn’t do email.
“I was like his PA,” remembers O’Herlihy. ‘When he released his album on Domino, I was essentially running his side: organising interviews, hitting deadlines and making sure the release was on track.”
That hands-on experience was invaluable. O’Herlihy learned how labels worked and had established a network of musicians and industry people to draw from.
The Iceland connection
O’Herlihy’s relationship with Iceland started when he was introduced to Icelandic band Samaris at ATP by their booking agent. O’Herlihy had put on a festival in his parents’ family home called Mountain Dew and told the Icelandic band about it. They were enthusiastic about the idea and six Icelandic bands ended up coming over for the back-garden festival with Colm booking them an Irish tour to make it worth their while.
Those connections lead to O’Herlihy getting an internship at Bedroom Community, the label founded by Valgeir Sigurðsson, Nico Muhly and Ben Frost 10 years ago in Reykjavík.
He moved into the spare room of Jofridur’s of Samaris and fell for the country in the six months he spent there. After returning home to tour with Joan Shelley and Young Wonder, the label realised they were missing a Colm-shaped hole in their operations, and offered him a role as Bedroom Community’s label manager and studio manager of Greenhouse Studios.
O’Herlihy’s roles echo the gamut of tasks he took on in his touring days: organising dates, accommodation for visiting musicians using the studio, booking producers, mixing, mastering and looking after every aspect of the label, which is releasing five albums this year.
Niche digital possibilities
“It’s the kind of label that its fans will buy every release,” muses O’Herlihy. “Right now, Spotify is great for us. We’re finding our tracks in specific niche playlists for ‘Concentration’, ‘The Most Beautiful Song In The World’ or an ‘Abstract’ playlist. The digital realm is amazing for us because it puts music you don’t find in the mainstream and putting it in specific pockets. Digital is our number one now.”
In recent months, Greenhouse studios has already hosted one of the biggest rappers in the world along with The xx and Tim Hecker. Colm says people are lured to Iceland by its unique geography and people.
“There’s so much talent here for such a small place,” he says. “There are so many people I’ve met here that I would have never met in Ireland. ”
Perhaps because it’s a small country, Iceland’s musicians are more focused on the art than the promotion, but they have a very proactive music export office. For a country with a population of 330,000, they have long since punched above their weight, with acts such as Björk, Sigur Rós, Of Monsters And Men, GusGus, Ásgeir, Samaris, Emiliana Torrini known worldwide.
“When I worked here as an intern, I was sent to Eurosonic by the music export office for the label on an all-expenses-paid trip,” says Colm. “I had only been in the country about a month or two. I went to LA and Seattle on this Nordic Music Mission. There is huge funding to promote Icelandic music. They set up meetings for us with music supervisors, labels like Sub Pop and everybody. It really helps.”
With 2016 being the 10th anniversary of Bedroom Community, there are some special things planned: the Whale-Watching Tour, which puts six label artists on tour together has shows in LA and London; the label is making an app and exploring virtual-reality possibilities for music; and for Iceland Airwaves Festival in November, every act on the label will be performing with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra in Harpa, Reykjavík’s impressively modern concert hall.
With two parallel roles, O’Herlihy is kept busy with Bedroom Community, but he’s still planning on doing Mountain Dew in Cork later this month along with whatever releases the label brings and whatever high-profile names visit the studios in future.
“I could see myself being here for a few years at least. Already, looking at the schedule we’re talking about things that are happening after next summer.”