‘We went from The Bailey through the smelly alley to the Pink Elephant’

The death of her mother led Flo McSweeney back to music with new determination

Flo McSweeney: ‘I had always sensed I was sometimes treated like a flibberty-gibberty, girly-girl pop singer, someone of not much substance.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Flo McSweeney: ‘I had always sensed I was sometimes treated like a flibberty-gibberty, girly-girl pop singer, someone of not much substance.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

To say men with more ego and little more skill than your average X Factor contestant dominated the rock-pop music scene in 1980s Ireland is to understate the case. The country’s folk, blues and jazz constituency may have included the likes of Mary Black, Maura O’Connell, Mary Coughlan, and a few others bubbling up, but that was about it. Rock music was primarily a bloke’s game.

It remained that way until a hairstylist’s receptionist came along, and made it an option for a woman to arm-wrestle the lads into submission. These days, of course, such gender imbalance is being addressed, but back then a woman fronting a rock band was an uncommon sight. Yet there she was: Flo McSweeney on stage and performing with contender Irish bands such as Toy with Rhythm (alongside Ed Darragh, a former member of Ireland’s first all-female punk band, Boy Scoutz), Les Enfants and Moving Hearts.

The former receptionist remembers those days well but is no more sentimental about them than a stone would be. McSweeney, still as poised and striking as she was back in the day, pragmatically recalls that every Irish rock band of that time had a record deal with a major UK or US label (or, at least, said they did). Virtually every record company worth its expense account, she says, was looking for the next U2, and when A&R personnel weren’t checking out bands in venues across Dublin, they were chatting them up and buying them cocktails in the then nightclub du jour, the Pink Elephant on South Frederick Street.

You never went out at the weekends with the real people – oh, the notions we had!

“I was down the Pink spending money, having a great time, doing gigs,” says McSweeney. When she was singing in Toy with Rhythm and Les Enfants (1981-1983), she was allegedly employed in a salon at the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin. She says, without a shred of shame, that for much of her daytime hours she would be “asleep with my head by the telephone”.

The music and social scene, was full-on “but very enjoyable”, and concentrated around The Bailey (which is still on Duke Street) and the Pink Elephant. “We all used to go out midweek – we’d go from The Bailey across the little smelly alleyway to the Pink. You had UK bands like Def Leppard and Spandau Ballet based in Ireland for tax reasons, so you’d be rubbing shoulders with them. You never went out at the weekends with the real people – oh, the notions we had!” What is the main difference between then and now? “It wasn’t about careers, it was about having fun.”

Gravitas and grace

Fun remains a constant in McSweeney’s life (her husband is the acclaimed comedian Barry Murphy). This month sees the release of her debut album, Picture in a Frame. The album is dedicated to her parents, Terry and Mary, and the front cover image has Flo wearing her mother’s engagement ring. The album is a welcome take on how to blend jazz standards (Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain, Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo, Van Morrison’s Moondance) with songs you wouldn’t usually associate with the form: the title track (Tom Waits), Mid Air (The Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan), The Beast in Me (Nick Lowe), When I’m Gone (Randy Newman), and perhaps most poignantly, Leaving the Table (Leonard Cohen). Tightly threading the songs together is McSweeney’s voice, which invests the material with equal measures of gravitas and grace and that over the years has clearly held on to the skill of drawing in the listener.

Unfortunately, the time with Moving Hearts destroyed my confidence a bit

Throughout the album (and choice of songs) are hints of loss, enhanced by empathetic production by musician and composer Fiachra Trench, his son Rian and Flo herself. The album, she recounts, fell into place about a year ago, shortly after her mother died.

“The night she died in the nursing home, we stayed up all night with her. I had a gig the following night in Kilkenny, and everyone assumed I wouldn’t do it, but I went home, slept for two hours and went to the venue. Doing the show gave me such incredible strength, and because I sang that night I knew I just had to sing at my mother’s funeral. I never thought I would, but Fiachra played piano in the church, and we did the Tom Waits song, Picture in a Frame, which was co-written with his wife, Kathleen Brennan. That was the pivot.”

Fear and self-doubt

The question has to be asked: why didn’t she record an album 30 years ago when her profile was at its highest? Flo replies almost before I finish asking the question: “Fear. Absolute, total fear and self-doubt.”

But you were so recognised and respected, I offer. “I never felt that I was highly regarded – I had always sensed I was sometimes treated like a flibberty-gibberty, girly-girl pop singer, someone of not much substance. I know now, in my 50s, all of that was in my head.”

Flo McSweeney as Titania in a Gate Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph: Tom Lawlor
Flo McSweeney as Titania in a Gate Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

Living on a diet of adrenaline, coffee and cigarettes, “People get support for it now, but back then I was in a constant state of high anxiety. I thought I was just a bit hyper and overthought everything, but I would crumble if there were any criticisms, and I couldn’t cope if there was heckling from the audience.”

One of the biggest mistakes she made professionally, she says, was joining Moving Hearts, a musically propulsive trad/rock fusion group featuring Irish folk stalwarts such as Dónal Lunny and Christy Moore. “Moving Hearts were a performance unit, a message band with real musical force, which is when they were at their finest. Unfortunately, the time with them destroyed my confidence a bit.”

McSweeney shudders at the memory of a Moving Hearts show in New York’s Bottom Line venue. “Throughout the gig, there was a guy down at the back of the venue shouting, “wheeere’s Chriiistyyy” … I was in tears after the show in the dressing room, but I know if that kind of thing happened now I’d wipe the floor with him.”

A Certain Ratio

A stint with Manchester band A Certain Ratio followed, another surprise twist in that stage of her career.

She signed to the UK-based label Ten, an imprint of Virgin Records, and was mentored by famed A&R person Kaz Utsunomiya (who helped Virgin founder Richard Branson establish Virgin Airlines as well as Virgin Megastores in Japan). McSweeney may have enjoyed the work but the mismatch was too obvious.

I feel of no age when I’m on stage

“I was always afraid to do something for myself,” she reflects. “Kaz had great faith in me, and tried to put me together with different songwriters, but it didn’t work.”

And so followed years of television and stage work, a “say yes” approach to anything and everything that indicated a fierce work ethic, albeit with “no game plan”. For some reason, she admits with a puzzled tone, “I avoided the thing I was best at: singing and music.”

The tangible catalyst for her return to music was when she turned 50. “In my mother’s last years, on days of clarity, I could see her regret in not having done things, so not singing was slowly bubbling up inside me. I thought if I didn’t get back to what I know I’m really good at, then it would be my regret, my untold story, as Maya Angelou says.”

So she’s dipping her toe back into murky waters? Not so much dipping, she fires back, as diving.

“If you had told me at 35 that I’d like to be 57, I’m not sure I’d have agreed. But I do, and that’s all about getting a chance to express myself. I feel of no age when I’m on stage.”

Picture in a Frame is released today

ANOTHER PLANET: THE MADCHESTER EXPERIMENT

“I worked with A Certain Ratio for about 18 months, and it was mental because it was the very beginning of Madchester, around 1987. I didn’t know the Manchester scene at all, but the first week I was there they dragged me down to the Hacienda on a Wednesday night, and enough said! We used to share a rehearsal space with Happy Mondays, and that worked perfectly – we had it for most of the day because the Mondays wouldn’t be awake until the late afternoon. We did a Christmas gig in G Mex with them and New Order, and it was the best craic, but we were each from another planet.”

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