‘The Irish stick out like a sore thumb in LA, but that’s no bad thing’
Composer Ailbhe Fitzpatrick on ‘singing like a zombie, or meowing like a cat’ for TV ads
Ailbhe Fitzpatrick, originally from Malahide, Dublin, who lives in Los Angeles and worked as a music producer and composer
Working Abroad Q&A: Ailbhe Fitzpatrick from Malahide in Dublin on life in Los Angeles, where she works as a music producer and composer in the advertising industry
When did you leave Ireland and why?
I studied film and broadcasting with Irish language at DIT Aungier Street. We got to work on fiction film, TV, documentary and radio projects while also studying the theoretical history of the media as we know it. It was honestly four of the best years of my life.
I always had something in the back of my head that said: “There’s got to be more out there”. It was nearing the end of 2015, I was living at home in my parents’ house in Dublin and working hard as a producer in independent film and TV, but unfortunately wasn’t able to afford to move out, so I saw the opportunity in the J-1 visa and jumped at it. It was definitely one of the most terrifying decisions I have ever made, but I do not regret it for one second. I often meet people who have lived away for more than 20 years and they still talk about a strong yearning for home, so there is definitely a constant challenge to being away, but you have to stay positive and focused. Home will always be there and you can always go back when you need to.
How would you describe your work?
I feel like I have a very weird and exciting job. No two days are ever the same and everything moves really fast. That is the beauty and the pain of advertising and commercials, production is over in the blink of an eye and so schedules are very tight. Some days I’ll come in and sing like a zombie for a musical number about a phone company. Next day, I will have to meow like a cat for a pop song for a commercial about cat food. Or one of my personal favourites was when we worked on translating online pasta sauce reviews from real customers into Italian, and building operas out of them.
There are days when I get to sit at a piano and write a song. The best part about the job for me is that I am working with music every day and that is something that I never thought would happen for me. I honestly couldn’t live without music and so I am really grateful to be where I am today.
Tell us about your career there?
It’s been a very interesting and unexpected journey. The advertising world I am in now had never crossed my mind in Ireland. I found out quickly that there were a lot of really strong women at the fore front of the industry. This felt really refreshing to me after working in the very male-dominated world of film (which is changing now for sure). There were women CEOs, and women who owned their own creative companies and it really inspired me to know that these women had made it into huge leadership roles. I then also realised that I could segway into music production as my main job within the advertising world. thus combining a huge passion of mine with my work.
What is working in LA like?
It’s been a very interesting change from the madness of working in New York. People are definitely very hard-working, but they value their personal time and so it is very rare that you work really late hours. People out here are very good for taking advantage of their weekends, spending time with friends, outside, hiking, being active and looking after their mental health. It’s very refreshing to live in a place where talking about mental health is so normal. The work out here is really interesting too as you never know who you will get to work with or meet. LA is really the hub for all things film, music, TV… so there are a lot of opportunities.
Have you worked with any well-known people?
I have. It’s been a rollercoaster of a year. The job that had me gobsmacked from the beginning was working with the amazing Melissa McCarthy on her directorial debut for Walmart. I got to be her right-hand woman for the music for the project. My heart almost jumped out of my body when I heard we were licensing and covering Bird Set Free by Sia… one of my all-time favourite artists. Then I found out we would be working with the out-of-this-world singer and performer Keala Settle who is widely known for her character the bearded lady in The Greatest Showman.
You are a composer?
A lot of my work is very singer-songwriter style and my inspiration is deeply rooted in Celtic and Irish music as this has always been a huge part of my life. From a very young age, myself and my two sisters all had our signature Irish tune that we would sing at every family event and party. We were almost like three little performing monkeys at times, but I wouldn’t change it for the world as it gave me a level of confidence in my abilities and made me realise how much I love to perform. You can check out some of my work at freethebid.com/composers/ailbhe-fitzpatrick/
Do you perform music yourself?
I love to perform. It makes my heart sing. Most of my performances are within the realm of Irish traditional folk music.This year my goal is to start an Irish music session out here. And weirdly enough I keep meeting more and more Irish people - so hopefully that will happen! I am also really involved with The Cuala Foundation and so I will have some performances coming up later on in the year, which I am really excited about.
You soundtrack adverts. What have you worked on?
I would have to say the Sandy Hook Promise Project “Evan”. Which was a PSA (public services announcement) for the national gun violence prevention organisation in the US. It is a really shocking piece that brings home the realities of the current gun laws here. We had the challenge of finding the perfect song to accompany the piece and tell the story without giving anything away too quickly. It was a tough task but I think we struck the perfect balance with Shelby Lynne’s “Johnny Met June”.
Why is the soundtrack so important?
I truly think a project is empty without sound and music. If you think about watching a video or a piece of film and turning off the music and sound, I am sure you might be entertained for a little while, but you would eventually get very bored.
Have you used your fluent Irish in LA?
I have indeed. Tá Gaeilge agam. It has always been a huge passion of mine as I believe that is where we came from and that we should not lose sight of that. Within the language itself we can connect with some of the deepest roots of our Irish culture. I have been to a few pop-up Gaeltachts here that are run by Conradh Na Gaeilge and always have such an amazing time. You’d be surprised how many people love the Irish language here… people who don’t even have Irish heritage are drawn to it because it is such a beautiful and passionate language.
If you wanted to come and work in Ireland what are the opportunities like?
It is hard to say, because I think there are a lot of opportunities, but maybe still not enough to sustain the same standard of life that I have here. But the advertising world in Ireland and Europe is a really interesting place and a lot of my favourite work comes out of Europe… So maybe down the line?
Do the Irish fit in well in LA?
I think we stick out like a sore thumb if I am honest, but I don’t think that means we don’t necessarily fit. We have a certain ‘groundedness’ about us that sets us apart and we also love to have fun and try our best not to worry too much about what other people think of us. There is an immense pressure here to “be something” or be known as being “cool” and this means that some people are scared to be different from the rest of the pack and let go.
What is it like living in LA?
There are pros and cons as with any place. Yes, the weather is outstanding and so people are lighter and more relaxed, but there is a sense of people coming here to “make it”, so there’s definitely a layer of pressure that smothers some people to look “perfect” and drink as many green juices as they possibly can in a week. It is also a huge sprawling city, meaning that if your friend lives on the other side of town, you might not see them for weeks or even months at a time.
LA is expensive for sure. But so is New York, so I think I was prepped when I moved out here. The transport system is definitely getting better, but hardly any LA natives take the train or the bus. I am more than happy to get a train downtown for 45 minutes and read a book or listen to a podcast. It doesn’t phase me.
Has working abroad given you greater opportunities?
Yes, 100 per cent. One thing I will say about the US and people here is when they see potential, they want to help you succeed. I don’t think I would be in the same position as I am here back home, not at 26 years-old anyway.
Are there any other Irish people in your circles?
I do have a lot of wonderful, hard-working, kind Irish friends out here and in New York who keep me sane. I wouldn’t survive without being able to have a pint and a laugh with them.
What do you think your future holds?
I hope that I will end up in a place where I can help empower young women to stand up for themselves, trust that they can accomplish anything they put their mind to and never take no for an answer.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
My family, my friends and my old colleagues and definitely the art that we produce in Ireland, be it in the form of music, film, literature. I also say, I miss the fresh, organic food. There’s nothing like having a pint of creamy Guinness by the fire in an old-man pub, while eating a packet of cheese and onion crisps and laughing my head off at some sarcastic comment that floats in the air.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.