Barry McCormack, once a singer with 1990s indie band Jubilee Allstars and now a creator of wry, literate folk songs, is one of Ireland’s best songwriters. Now, after a string of albums written about Dublin, he’s released his seventh, Mean Time, which has more of a global outlook (its artwork features Colm McCarthy’s screenprints of four stone busts from the Iveagh Markets that represent the corners of the world). It’s almost like a concept album.
"Almost a concept album?" he says, as we sit upstairs in the bar of Dublin's Central Hotel. "That's almost an insult or almost a compliment. I'm not sure."
McCormack is self-deprecating, funny and inclined to undercut his own statements with lines such as: "Put in 'he said ironically' after that" or "I'm going to pull a Van Morrison and take the fifth".
McCormack's songwriting began in the mid-1990s with his brothers Niall and Fergus in the band Jubilee Allstars. They started out on Dublin's Dead Elvis indie record label before moving on to the Sony-owned Lakota records and relative indie fame.
“Fergus was living in Phibsborough and everyone thought the band was a Phibsborough band. I’ve had to come out over the years and say that we’re actually from Rathfarnam. We’re not inner city. Our parents are culchies.”
McCormack suffered with terrible stage fright in those days, he says. "I was never a Billie Barry kid. I just sang in the bedroom, singing along to Murmur [by REM]. The first time I sang in public was the first EP we did with Lakota when [we were] being reviewed by the NME. The world has changed so much. At the time we thought we were this tiny little indie band but actually we had huge coverage compared to now, when after seven albums I'm saying, 'I'm still here!'"
Towards the end of Jubilee Allstars, McCormack became more and more interested in narrative songwriting, and was soon writing storytelling songs about a newly enriched but grimy city of early-rising yuppies. What was his own life like then?
"I'd stay up all night and watch The Big Breakfast and then go up to Rathmines to get a cheese and onion sandwich from Centra," he says. "Then I'd go back to bed and get up at four in the afternoon. Then I met my ex, Marsha [Swan, with whom he ran the Hag's Head record label and publishing company]. I was like, 'I'm so oppressed by this society' and she said 'hold on, I've four jobs and I'm paying off [my university debt].' I'd gone to university more or less for free. I was signing on. The rent was hardly anything and I was actually living like a lord."
Why did he start writing about Dublin?
“I think it was because all these bands I liked were Americana bands,” he says. “They wrote about where they were from and I said, ‘Why don’t Irish people write about that?’”
His first album featured many Dublin-focused songs. The second was a product of reading local history and the third, written when he was living in Paris, was a batch of murder ballads influenced by Flannery O’Connor and the old folk songs he was consuming. “Then I came back from Paris and that was when the last big crash was happening and I started writing the songs about that.”
He also began working with the producer Stephen Shannon and a band including his longtime musical foil Gary Fitzpatrick from The Sick and Indigent Song Club. He went on to produce a string of albums, largely inspired by the people he met and saw while living in Dublin's Smithfield.
Why did he leave those Dublin songs behind? Partly because he moved away from Smithfield, he says. But there was another reason.
"I did this gig in Limerick and every song was like: 'This song is about a guy in Dublin who walks down the street', and this guy came up afterwards and said, 'You're very parochial.' I said: 'James Joyce, John McGahern – the local is universal!' I thought he was going to be some died-in-the-wool Limerick guy. He was from Drimnagh. '" He laughs.
“So I had all these songs about Dublin and then I sort of put them to the side and thought what else do I do? I watch the news. That’s it. So they’re all about watching the news.”
Some of the new songs are literally about watching the news. Do Not Abandon Hope begins with a snippet of a Turkish news broadcast followed by McCormack singing about the Turkish coup before the news cycle moves on to a flu pandemic.
"I was watching Screenwipe with Charlie Brooker and he was talking about the feeling of watching Syrian refugees in a hospital in Syria being bombed while eating a shepherd's pie, and how surreal that is," he says. "I became addicted to the news for a while."
Distant Shores is the most beautiful song on the album, with cello and vocals from Mary Barnecutt. It's based on another real news story about a young man who joins the British army only to die of exhaustion on manoeuvres on Brecon Beacons.
Gate Fever Blues is a product of watching prison documentaries and news reports about people receiving punishment beatings. The title comes from a slang term for the fear institutionalised prisoners have before being released, but McCormack says it really started with one line: ‘To be taken from your blow-up bed.”
Why that line? “I have a friend who had a blow-up bed in his van, not because he was dodgy, but because he does wildlife photography and sometimes sleeps in the van.”
All in all, Mean Time is a brilliant, slightly apocalyptic collection of songs about an era of fake news, information overload and conspiratorial thinking. Three songs – You Will Understand in Time, Lived Through this Before, and Mercy on Your Soul – feature vaguely paranoid narrators and references to chemtrails, tin-foil hats and being poisoned by polonium.
I point out that we all know “people like that”.
"We are people like that," says McCormack. "When I was first writing this, I was thinking about these conspiracy people as being lunatics and then the whole Facebook thing happened, where it was like, 'they were right all along'."
He’s a little bewildered by the ease with which people give all their information away to tech companies. “When I joined [the text messaging platform] Whatsapp I got to the bit where it says, ‘You agree that we control your phone’ and I was texting a friend saying ‘They want to control my phone’ and he said, ‘Just press ‘yes’ or you won’t be invited to Christmas pints.’”
What's a songwriter's job? "These days it's Tefl teaching or delivering pizzas," he says, dryly. McCormack does actually work as an English-language teacher. I meant, what's a songwriter's role?
“That’s a good question,” he says. “I do like to tell stories and those are the things I go back to. You have this Irish compliment where you do a gig and someone comes up and says ‘My mate thought you were shit but I thought you weren’t bad’. People would say to me ‘Your lyrics are great but you’ve got no tunes. Why don’t you write a novel?’”
He’s being unfair to himself. His songs always have great musical hooks, never more so than on this slightly more electronic, poppy offering. He credits producer Stephen Shannon’s “wizardry” for some of this. Shannon has, for years now, been challenging McCormack with suggestions like, ‘Why don’t you write songs in different keys?’ and ‘Why don’t you write some middle eights?’. “Production wise, he’s been grooming me over three records.”
'If you're putting out your own album, by the time it's out, you're like, "Oh God, I need a break".'
He has mixed feelings about how the music industry has changed. “The good thing is you can make a record and it’s relatively cheap, but then where do you bring it?” he says. “Because what you had before were people who weren’t in bands but could create a label and press up a few thousand copies, sell them, and make enough to go on to do something else, and that’s gone because you can’t sell records anymore.”
So nowadays it's down to indie musicians to do all the marketing, budgeting and managing work themselves, he says. "When Bono puts out a record [with industry support], by the time it's out, he's ready to go. If you're putting out your own album, by the time it's out, you're like, 'Oh God, I need a break'. Then everyone thinks you're a slacker." He laughs. "I thought the end of the music industry would be amazing. That we'd all have our MySpace pages and people would break through on MySpace or YouTube. "
Instead no-one wants to pay for culture anymore, he says, and we’re all complicit. “I used to say to friends who would burn Game of Throne for me, ‘You’re killing culture. Cheers.’”
And yet, McCormack is still creating culture. He's produced a video for his excellently jaded song Lived Through This Before, featuring his friend, the actor Aidan Gillen, as a conspiracy-theorising vlogger. How does he know Gillen? "I met him on MySpace."
Really? "Yeah. I thought, 'Someone is using the guy from Queer as Folk as an avatar. Oh, it is the guy from Queer as Folk.'"
Gillen is a tireless advocate for Irish musicians. He filmed his parts for McCormack while working in Canada. Another friend filmed other parts of the video in the US. "Three camera people, four actors, three countries, zero carbon emissions," says McCormack, of the video. As he says later, "It's the best of times and the worst of times to be a musician."
Barry McCormack's Mean Time is released on November 22nd. He plays Dublin's The Workman's Club on November 30th. barrymcormack.com