Sorcha Richardson: ‘You learn the hard way that there’s validity in your own ideas’
the singer's promising debut album follows years of ‘swimming upstream’ in New York
Sorcha Richardson has achieved 11 million Spotify streams, without the need for international road miles. Photograph: Cáit Fahey
About a mile from the centre of Birmingham, across the ring road and past isolated warehouses of England’s second city, is an Irish pub – you’d know, it says so on the sign – called The Castle & Falcon. It’s here that Sorcha Richardson arrives on a blustery afternoon, ready for action later that night in support of Stina Tweeddale’s Honeyblood.
The show is only Richardson’s third performance in the UK; it speaks volumes about the changing music industry that, without the need for international road miles, she’s achieved 11 million Spotify streams, and inclusions in Made in Chelsea and the films of Emma Roberts (In a Relationship) and Josh Hutcherson (Tragedy Girls). It all bodes well for her debut album, First Prize Bravery.
The genesis of the album began when she was 10 and formed a band with schoolmate Eve Hewson, Bono’s daughter. She progressed to guitar lessons at Newpark school, also attended by Alfie Hudson-Taylor of Hudson Taylor and BBC presenter Riyadh Khalaf.
“They did this thing where they let you leave class for your music lessons,” she explains, kicking back in a dressingroom before soundcheck. “So I’d leave class on a Tuesday but it would be half an hour later each week so I’d never miss the same class.”
Then followed a passion for drums. “It wasn’t like I was learning drums and had great music tastes. I didn’t. I went to my drum teacher saying ‘I want to learn this Destiny’s Child song’. He was like, ‘I don’t know how to teach you this.’”
Richardson spent eight years in New York and upon her return in 2017, sat at a piano in her parents’ house in Dalkey, south Dublin, she decided it was high time for an album. “The first song I wrote for the album was Honey, and that gave me a confidence boost,” she says. “I don’t always love all the songs I write, but I liked that one and I felt I was ready to find a way to do the rest of the album.”
The bare, emotive song about “meeting somebody and feeling like your world has flipped on its head” bookends the album in two forms. Sandwiched between, the others follow suit in its fragility, dialling up or down in energy to provide its textures. It sits comfortably alongside folky works of Phoebe Bridgers and Soak.
“I’m a fan of both, but there were certain points of reference that me and Alex Casnoff, who produced it, talked about: the first two Arcade Fire albums and the Feist record, Pleasure. I was listening to that loads when I was writing. I knew I wanted it to sound live, so I could take every song and play it acoustically, like I am tonight.”
Lest we wonder, there was no one relationship on which album was based. “There are certain songs about the same person but it’s about my friendships as much as romantic relationships,” she says.
Overall, First Prize Bravery is based on the year before and after she left New York because “it began to feel like I was swimming upstream but there was nothing at the top”.
“It became too much of a struggle. I felt so lucky to live there that I didn’t want to give it up, but eight years is a long time to live anywhere. Subconsciously I knew that I was going to leave and life was going to change. I began writing songs to capture moments. It’s like a photograph for me. If I go out on a night with my friends, sometimes I write a song about it. It’s my party trick,” she says with a grin.
“When I came back to Dublin aged 26, it felt like I was moving back to a new city because I hadn’t experienced it as an adult. I found a strong music community in Dublin, and it’s a community that I didn’t find in New York.”
She’s guested on records and shows with All Tvvins, and while they’re not here for part of the tour, her band include drummer Cian Hanley, who also plays with Laoise, plus Joe Furlong on bass and Theo Byrne on keys, both of whom were in Dublin act Sails and now also play with James Vincent McMorrow.
Yet Richardson’s stateside years were formative; she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer from which she swiftly bounced back, and in her creative life, she made the transition from drummer to singer.
That involved learning not only how to step out from behind the drumkit, but how to be a solo artist, and stand front and centre of her output.
“As a drummer there’s literally a wall of armour between you and everyone else, so I had to find out how to be a confident singer,” she says. “Even lyrically, I would fill my songs with metaphors because I wouldn’t want to be open about how I was feeling. Through writing songs I got better at that. The ironic thing is that I write songs about things I find difficult to talk about in everyday life, and now they’re much more public than if I had been able to deal with it normally.”
In an industry dominated by men and peppered with women who are often sidelined in the studio, this time helped hone her assertiveness. Studying creative writing at the New School in New York, she learned to absorb classroom critiques of her work, which “made me more comfortable with being in a room where people disagree with my creative ideas”.
When it came time to making her album proper, Richardson found herself well equipped to stand her ground. “90 per cent of the time, the music industry is men, that’s just how it is. I started working with Alex in 2016, and we disagree about a lot of things, but the dynamic was that he’d say, ‘well it’s your name on it’. That’s how it should be, but it took me a few producers to get there.
“When I was younger, I was naive going into studios, and sometimes I respected everyone there too much. If someone had worked on albums before, I thought their ideas must be better than mine. You learn the hard way that that’s not necessarily true, and there’s validity in your own ideas too.”
Now signed to the same team as James Vincent McMorrow, the stars are aligning for Richardson. She’s visibly chuffed about her TV and film credits, marvelling that “it’s the coolest thing ever”. These appearances helped raise her profile but ultimately, it’s all towards the end goal of playing live as much as possible.
“Going on tour is something I’ve wanted to do for so long, but it’s expensive so you don’t want to go to cities and play in front of nobody. You have to be smart about the way you do it,” she says. “I’d love to be touring more, doing my own headline shows and travelling around Europe. We played Reeperbahn Festival in September, and that was so much fun. I don’t look too far into the future, I’m not like ‘I want to win a Grammy’, I just want to be able to do this sustainably, and show up to a city and play to people who are excited to see me.”
The first show in Glasgow went promisingly, and after tonight’s solo show, she has a run of three London gigs before heading back. When we meet, the October 31st Brexit deadline is yet to be declared an expensive false alarm, which made tour logistics more interesting, as it wrapped up on November 3rd.
“When we knew we were going to be travelling over, people were saying we had to be ready for paperwork in case Brexit happened,” she says. “When or if it happens, it’s going to massively affect the music industry. Ireland is small and you need to be able to tour outside Ireland if you want a career. But it’s very expensive for European bands to tour in America, and Irish and European bands potentially having an added hurdle when touring the UK. It also means UK bands will have an added hurdle of touring Europe so it’s probably going to be really disruptive for indie musicians across Europe.”
For the foreseeable, she’s making the most of the wind in her sails. There’s the Irish album launch tour, plus soon-to-be announced European dates for next year. A year shy of her big 3-0, it feels as if she’s now coming into her own.
“There’s been plenty of times when I’ve said, ‘if I’m not here by this age – whether it’s 21, 25 or 30 – I’ll have to give it up’, and actually, it’s hard because I always feel like I’m making progress,” she says. “But there’s nothing else that I like to do as much as I like doing this. I’ll always write music and I’ll always write songs, whether I’m commercially successful at it or not.”
First Prize Bravery is out on November 8th on Faction Records. Sorcha Richardson plays Whelan’s, Dublin on November 20th, Winthrop Avenue, Cork (21st) and Róisín Dubh, Galway (22nd).