Never mind church. Let’s take Hozier to Eurovision
Other countries throw stars and hit songwriters at the contest. Is there any path back to glory?
Måns Zelmerlöw, whose winner for Sweden in 2015 was written by a production team who have written for Fifth Harmony and Iggy Azalea. Photograph: Nigel Treblin/Getty
In 2016, while covering that year’s Eurovision, the scale of the event and the power of the songs overwhelmed me and I became very opinionated. “The Irish people have failed the Eurovision!” I declared passionately during at least one radio interview.
I had caught Stockholm Syndrome, which was apt because that year the Eurovision was being held in Stockholm (I caught Kiev syndrome the following year in Ukraine). Here was my issue: We live in an era of niche culture. There are few truly mass media outlets around any more, and those that exist are viewed by fewer people. And yet, the one event that potentially puts an Irish song and an Irish artist in front of nearly 200 million people is treated by the professionals and punters as a kitsch sideshow instead of a huge opportunity. The Eurovision might be a celebration of ridiculous pop music, but the best pop music is ridiculous and there’s no reason it shouldn’t also be good.
In other countries, established songwriters and singers clamour to be involved in long-running Eurovision selection processes, like Melodifestivalen in Sweden (which runs for six weeks and gets up to 3,000 entries). Consequently the songs from these countries are indistinguishable from chart bangers.
For example, the Swedish winner in 2015, Heroes, sung by Hans Zelmerlow, was written by the production team the Family, who have written for Fifth Harmony and Iggy Azalea. Satellite, sung by German competitor Lena in 2010, was co-written by Julie Frost who has written songs with Black Eyed Peas and Flo Ryder. Furthermore, the performers from such countries are established performers – like Jamala, who won for Ukraine in 2016 and country rock superstar Waylon, who came second for the Netherlands in 2015 with The Calm After the Storm (He’s back in the competition this year; despite, I am told, filling 20,000-seater concert halls at home).
No one will write a song for it, says Louis Walsh. ‘Johnny Logan won’t even put a song in now. It’s not seen as credible’
In contrast, veteran Eurovision svengali Louis Walsh feels the competition is seen as a “poisoned chalice” in Ireland and Britain, even for those who do well in it. Last year he found it difficult to find a song for his Eurovision-bound mentee, Brendan Murray. “I’ve been here with three winners,” he says, “But now no-one will write a song for it . . . Brendan Graham, Phil Coulter. Johnny Logan won’t even put a song in now. Last year, when I was looking for a song, I rang the Mundys, I rang Albert Hammond. Chris de Burgh said ‘No’ to me . . . Nobody wants to be in Eurovision any more. It’s not seen as credible.”
But that’s not the case everywhere, right? “Not everywhere,” he says. “I got songs from Sweden and Germany and the US. Diane Warren sent me songs.” The song he ultimately chose, Dying to Try, was written by Jörgen Elofsson and James Newman, but for the first time one of Walsh’s picks didn’t make the final.
“In Ireland, people think this is an amateur competition and that’s one of the things I’m trying to change,” says the Irish head of delegation, Michael Kealy. “I got sent maybe 350 songs last year and I’d say 300 weren’t very good and came from amateurs. We get people who have never written songs before thinking this is a great place to start their career . . . or it’s seen as a victory lap for people at the end of their careers . . . I held a meeting in RTÉ last August and invited a load of record company people and serial song submitters. I invited a UK guy who’d done a PhD in Eurovision who did a presentation on the science of winning. [He said] have-a-go-heroes and amateurs at their start of their career don’t do that well.”
So Kealy has been trying to encourage more professionals to send in songs, he says, “people who are at the height of their powers in the pop music business”. (The respected indie pop band Heathers were reportedly asked to consider performing earlier in the year. This year’s Ryan O’Shaughnessy-sung entry was ultimately written by the new Swedish-style songwriting hub, The Nucleus).
Could Kealy foresee someone like Hozier doing Eurovision? He laughs. “Someone like Hozier, who is an established artist who already has millions of downloads around the world, has no real incentive to perform on it,” he says. “But someone like Hozier might write a song for someone else to sing.”
I can’t get Hozier to comment on this, but rather ominously his record label Rubyworks responds to say that its label manager, Roger Quail, has “opinions” about Eurovision.
“I just started this massive rant in the office when you rang,” Quail explains. “A few new people in the office asked, ‘Is he always like this?’ and [Rubyworks founder] Niall [Muckian] just went, ‘Only in May’. I know I’m a poor substitute for Hozier but I find Eurovision fascinating. I think it’s one of the few pan-European events . . . like the World Cup final, where everyone is engaged across a continent. I think it’s remarkable. Just the logistics of doing four hours of live television to 180 million homes It’s a bravura piece of broadcasting.”
He thinks it could be seen as a big opportunity for an industry that’s increasingly dealing with smaller outlets for its music. “With a TV audience of 180 million, it is a massive platform to showcase new talent,” he says. “I thought it was very smart of Justin Timberlake to perform in the interval slot in 2016, all his European promo done in one three-minute, primetime spot.”
He also thinks that, in other countries, Eurovision songs have moved closer to the mainstream pop charts than they were in the past. “I inflicted the Spotify playlist of the 2018 finalists on my colleagues yesterday and it’s become slightly generic,” he says. “There’s a lot of pop RnB and tropical house and not many things that make you think ‘that’s mad’ in that old fashioned Eurovision way.”
But serious artists in Ireland and the UK think its too naff, right? That could change, says Quail. “The biggest television show is Strictly Come Dancing, and if you’d said 20 years ago to The Manic Street Preachers that they would have played on something like that, they would have laughed at you.” They performed on that show in 2010. “So if people are willing to do Strictly Come Dancing which is, by any standards, high camp television, how are they not okay with doing Eurovision?”
Singer-songwriter James Vincent McMorrow thinks the ghettoisation of the Irish music industry is part of the problem. “Nobody has ever had a conversation with me or anyone I know about writing a song for Eurovision or performing on Eurovision,” he says.
Not that he’d consider it, he adds. “Not the way things are. You can enter the best song in the world into the worst system for it and I know enough about the music business to know you need 100 different variables in place for something to do well. So I’d say no because you would be asking to get eviscerated. It would be a road to nowhere.”
Euphoria, Sweden’s winning song in 2012, was a legitimate big banger of a tune. But we’re not sending bangers
But why? “I think this is part of a wider conversation about the Irish music industry in general and how fragmented it is,” he says. “I do a lot of writing and production for other artists, and in the UK and the US I’m constantly struck by how cohesive the industry is . . . In the US I go and write songs with people [from very different backgrounds], pop artists and hip-hop producers . . . That doesn’t happen in Ireland . . . I think there’s this idea that those artists are over here and those artists are over there. I think that that’s probably a big part of why things like the Eurovision have been relegated to a kitschy drinking game here.”
So, I ask, grasping at straws, if there was more of a culture of cross-genre collaboration in this country, might James Vincent McMorrow find himself cowriting a Eurovision classic? “Yes,” he says. He thinks he might even relish the challenge. “But so many things systemically would have to change before you could do it.”
Mary-Kate Geraghty, aka MayKay, formerly of the excellent Fight Like Apes and now of the similarly excellent Le Galaxie, seems to find the idea that her brand of eccentric electro pop might find a home at Eurovision both daft and intriguing. “Songwriting is a job, at the end of the day, and there’s no reason someone like me wouldn’t attempt to write a song for something like this as long as it was respected,” she says. “But, no, I wouldn’t go near it as things are.”
Why not? “Sending the turkey did not help,” she says. “That song Euphoria a few years ago [Sweden’s winning song in 2012] was a legitimate big banger of a tune. But we’re not sending bangers.”
She’s not sure why this is. She wonders if it’s because our songs are “written by committee” and have lost some authenticity in the process. She, like everyone in this country, has nostalgic memories of Eurovisions of times past and recognises winning songs like The Voice and Rock ’n’ Roll Kids as objectively good tunes. “It would be really amazing for the Eurovision to come back to its glory here,” she says. “We were nailing it for a while.”
“Le Galaxie should do it,” I say. “Le Galaxie should be in the Eurovision.”
“Jesus, this is a ridiculous conversation,” she says.
“But it’s an audience of nearly 200 million,” I plead (I’m getting desperate, to be honest).
“I wouldn’t turn my nose up at 200 million people,” she says. “It’s been a while since I played to 200 million people. It’s been years. Okay, you’ve bent my arm.”
The Eurovision Song Contest semi-finals in Lisbon are on RTÉ2 and BBC Four at 8pm on Tuesday, May 8th, and Thursday, May 10th, with Ryan O’Shaughnessy performing for Ireland on Tuesday. The final is on RTÉ One and BBC One on Saturday, May 12th at 8pm