Rising stars of 2021: 10 Irish music acts to watch for

Irish music stars on the rise in 2021
Some have been floating under the radar for a time. Some have used the Covid-19 restrictions of 2020 to the best of their advantage, and some are acts that we just really like. Listen out for CMAT, Just Wondering, Gemma Dunleavy, Malaki and more

Another list, you say? Yes, another list, and like some of the others you have been reading too much of recently we could replace the below Irish music acts below with 50 others, such is the abundance of talent around.

Unlike other lists of this kind, the acts here aren’t presented as being the newest or hippest on the block, but rather a mix of some that have been floating under the radar for a time, some that have used the Covid-19 restrictions of 2020 to the best of their advantage, and some that we just really like.

The people here didn’t just pop up out of nowhere, though – even the youngest have been hunkered down for several years, nudging their way past gauche and naive to a place where they feel comfortable enough in their own skins, creative and otherwise, to release their work into the world.

This is what will happen: we will hear more of these people in this hopeful new year, and we’ll get to see them at their gigs. Yes, really – are we ready for that?

CMAT

CMAT in Dublin in 2020. Photograph: Sarah Doyle
CMAT, aka Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson. Photograph: Sarah Doyle

“Global Celebrity Teen Pop Sensation from Ireland” is how Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson announces herself on Twitter. Such self-promoting larks would fall on deaf ears if it wasn’t for the fact that CMAT has the songs to back up her notions.

Thompson’s songs, she has said, are a way of “telling jokes to mask the tears”. But where there are humour and vulnerability there is also resilience. An unsatisfactory time in electro-pop duo Bad Sea was replaced with advice from UK pop songwriter Charlie XCX, and so for the past two years CMAT has been writing exclusively from personal experience. Expect more single-track releases throughout 2021 and a diverse songwriting style that will not be reined in. Listen.

Just Wondering

Just Wondering. Photograph: Erica Coburn
Just Wondering. Photograph: Erica Coburn

Dublin trio Just Wondering (Adam Redmond, Wale Akande, Jack O’Shaughnessy) are bound together not just by mutual music tastes but also by long-established friendship. Knowing each other as kids equally absorbed in listening to and then making music, the trio’s early experiments in pop music (including Worth It and Cul) were knocked into touch by their most recent tune, Drive, the first song all three had a hand in writing.

Released at the tail end of 2020, the synth-pop earworm will be the first many to burrow in and point-blank refuse to leave. Listen.

Luz

Luz. Photograph: Harvey Pearson
Luz. Photograph: Harvey Pearson

Luz Corrigan used to anonymously upload her versions of pop songs from the cosy comfort of her Co Offaly bedroom but shifted from incognito to full reveal about two years ago.

Since then, she has released a few original songs and some covers (touchstones include the likes of Dermot Kennedy, Kodaline and Dua Lipa), all of which point to a pop-ballad singer of no small emotional depth. Luz’s most recent single, The Author, escorts her into 2021 with real strength and poise. Listen.

For Those I Love

For Those I Love
For Those I Love, David Balfe’s solo project

Anyone who has seen David Balfe’s performance (in the guise of his solo project, For Those I Love) on Live on Later with Jools Holland or Other Voices will know he is an original, the real deal. The Dublin producer/musician/visual artist pays tribute to and remembers his friend Paul Curran (a spoken-word artist and, previously with Balfe, a member of multimedia collective Burnt Out).

Balancing lament for and celebration of Curran (who died in 2018) with supple, deeply personal wordplay and ambient-electronic music, Balfe captures moments of truth and intimacy rarely heard. Listen.

Gemma  Dunleavy

Gemma Dunleavy
Gemma Dunleavy

Blending one of the most enjoyable videos and most serious songs of 2020 – Up De Flats – came naturally to Gemma Dunleavy. Focusing on her Sheriff Street locale and how she feels it has been severely neglected, the song – a love letter to the area she grew up in, she has said – forms part of the EP of the same title.

For the past few years, Dunleavy has been viewed more as a partner in the creative process (on work by the likes of Lost Horizons, White Collar Boy, and Murlo) than an artist in her own right, but this year she is front and centre and ready to

Shiv

Shiv. Photograph: Josh Mulholland
Shiv. Photograph: Josh Mulholland

Last month saw the release of Zimbabwean-Irish singer-songwriter Shiv’s debut EP, Me 2 Me; it was a cathartic offering from the young songwriter, who says she spent most of last year in a “self-imposed purgatory, desperately wanting to create but being so afraid of what that meant”. Not to worry – instead of staring into the abyss that was 2020, Shiv (aka Siobhan McClean) used the year in a most productive way: honing her songwriting skills to shape her sound.

Cue a six-track release that looks to the R&B likes of Celeste and Jorja Smith as well as the hip-hop flavours of closer-to-home dudes such as Nealo and Kojaque. Listen.

Malaki

Malaki. Photograph: Paula Trojner
Malaki. Photograph: Paula Trojner

Better late than never, right? 2020 was supposed to be the breakout year for Dublin spoken wordsmith/rapper Malaki (aka Hugh Mulligan), but we all know what happened. Being side-blinded by Covid-19 didn’t stop his tracks, however, as last summer’s Cocoon collaborative project proved.

The success of Malaki’s intuitively considered and empathetic hip-hop (on which he works in partnership with producer Matthew Harris) has broadened the reach of his music. All he needs in 2021 is a live music platform to seal the deal. Listen.

Cool Girl

Coolgirl. Photograph: Emer Hackett
Coolgirl. Photograph: Emer Hackett

We know guitarist/singer Lizzie Fitzpatrick from her psych riffs and vocal runs in Bitch Falcon, but this side project presents other aspects of her skills as a musician and producer/remixer. More mellow than you might have initially thought, as Coolgirl Fitzpatrick eases her way into an instrumental/soundtrack/synth-wave state of mind that is as much reflective as it is vivid.

Production work with UK producer/musician Kristian Shelley (aka Inwards) and remix duties for US producer/solo artist Varsity Star lay the groundwork for future adventures in fidelity, be they high, low or anything in between. Listen.

Smoothboi Ezra

Smoothboi Ezra. Photograph: Nicholas O’Donnell
Smoothboi Ezra. Photograph: Nicholas O’Donnell

With more than six million streams on Spotify to date and with new music on the way to push out that figure even further, Co Wicklow’s Smoothboi Ezra (aka Ezra Williams) has been making their presence felt for a couple of years without, initially, leaving a serious impression. Early material such as A Sh**ty Gay Song About You and the four-track EP Is It helped get their name out. But it wasn’t until 2020, with the release of My Own Person that Smoothboi Ezra scored an obvious mark.

Fans of what was once referred to as anti-folk (which includes the likes of Kimya Dawson and Hammel on Trial in the US and the UK crew of Kate Nash and Jack Penate) will hear much to like. Their music, Ezra says, is a “safe place for people to feel content.” Listen.

New Atlas

New Atlas
New Atlas

No, Owen O’Hagan isn’t exactly a new young tyke kicking cans around the block. But if there is one relatively under-the-radar Irish musician and songwriter who can say they have nine lives, then O’Hagan, in his guise as New Atlas, definitely can. Over the past five years he has changed tack from punk to singer-songwriter, from ambient to indie-pop.

Last year, and this, however, is another new and searching course; synth-strewn songs with a lyrically direct focus. Eminently melodic with a sonic sheen that wouldn’t sound out of place on a 1975 album, watch this particular cat survive yet another jump from the heights. Listen.