Interview: Niall Connolly
I first ran into Niall Connolly when he was running an open mic at a now-defunct venue called Buskers. At the time, I had been in New York City for over a year, but was still wending my way through the expansive underground music scene on the lower east side and Brooklyn. I hadn’t seen it advertised online but rather happened to catch the open mic written on a sidewalk sign on the outside of the venue as I was walking to campus from a party. I had a great time at the open mic, and I would subsequently visit the one he ran at the also-now-defunct Path Cafe, as well as the Song Club he currently runs at Fawkner (formerly Ceol).
The thing I enjoyed most about Niall’s open mics, and which I currently enjoy about his Song Clubs are the sense of community. You see, for many years, I had been a part of a wonderful open mic in Columbus, OH (at the Treebar), which I credit for helping me to develop my skills as a songwriter. And for my first year in New York City, I feared that the densely packed, frenetic and competitive nature of the city was somehow not conducive to that kind of atmosphere. Luckily, Niall’s events reminded me of the environment I had encountered several years prior, and I’ve stuck around in varying capacities ever since.
Niall released the record Dream Your Way Out of This One in late September of 2017, and I had meant to interview him on it at some point last year. Of course, time got the best of me. However, the album’s subject matter navigates topics in immigration, politics and history, which continue to feel urgent and topical. Fortunately, some months later, Niall was kind enough to talk with me about the record, which can be found HERE.
Andy: You’ve been running the Big City Folk song collective for a while now? How many years? And how has that experience been over the years? Any changes that you’ve seen in what’s been going on in New York City music?
Niall: Big City Folk grew out of Wednesday Night Song Club in the basement of Mr. Dennehy’s on Carmine Street in 2006. Soon after I began running a Monday night session at the Red Lion and few other irregular nights around town. I was new to New York and I felt a mix of energized and intimidated by the city. I had a good knowledge of the music history of New York and was inspired and attracted to the idea of Guthrie, Baez, Dylan, and the Velvet Underground, the Ramones walking the same streets and making up songs. It seemed like everywhere I went was a song title. New York City has twice the population of Ireland. I was a little intimidated by the size and scale of the city. I had been doing fairly well at home and in pockets around Europe and was excited to play here. I remember doing a gig early on at Arlene’s Grocery and there were maybe four people at it. Two of whom were related to me. One of the band members from band after me stole my iPod from the green room while I was playing. I remember thinking. “Oh, this place doesn’t give a flying fuck about me. I’m going to have to start from scratch.”
Organizing and performing at Song Clubs really helped me see the city in a friendlier and more manageable light. Early performers included Lucius and Lana Del Rey before she was Lana Del Rey. Prince came into the Red Lion moments after we finished one night too. That was a cool New York moment. Those are some name dropping/ interesting side notes from over the years. The true value of the collective for me has been finding a community of people who inspire me and challenge me creatively. I’ve met many of my favourite people through music.
Change is constant in any city. That is especially true in one with rents like this place. So, of course, I’ve seen lots of legendary venues close. I’ve seen Bleecker street morph from an inspiring live music hub to a life sized metaphor for greed. I feel like everytime I walk down Bleecker street a cafe or venue is replaced by a pharmacy or bank. I used to love to kill time flicking through cds and records in record shops. Most of those are gone now. I’ve also seen a lot of places open up and I’ve met countless people who love live music and want to support live music in a practical, tangible way. I came here just as the industry was changing and shortly before the recession. It became clear to me that if I wanted something I would have to hustle.
Andy: When I listen to Dream Your Way Out of This One, there’s what feels like a strong immigration theme running throughout. I take it that’s been influenced significantly by events over the past few years?
Niall: Yes, though many of the songs were written before that election. As an Irish immigrant to this country, I’m particularly saddened/infuriated to hear the anti immigrant rhetoric of so many Irish Americans. I have family in Australia, UK, USA and Zambia. We’ve been welcomed everywhere we went. When I hear people who stick on a green shamrock on their green shirt on St. Patrick’s day and talk about their “Irish roots” claim “America is full, ” or “immigrants are ruining the country”, I just feel a real sadness and rage at their disregard for humanity and logic.
Andy: So, the title track is a song about political denial? You hear the protagonist wavering back and forth between whether he’s fine or not, and there’s an air of desperation in the chord progression and melody. Are there particular events that you think of, or is this trying to capture a mood?
Niall: I was thinking of how often here I’m charmed by the early winter blue skies and I think “Well, maybe this winter won’t be so bad”, and six weeks later I’m walking through yellow brown snow in wet shoes. I felt that was a good metaphor for the pre election promise of politicians and our willingness to believe the improbable.
Andy: Listening to the record, I think the thing that springs to mind – I remember reading through past periods in history in high school, like in WWII, and the teacher talking about how things would never be like that again. And now after 2016, it’s like what the hell is happening?
Niall: Yes. I’ve been thinking that a lot too. I remember reading history as a child and thinking, “Why did people allow that too happen?” I’m no historian or expert in any of this but I feel there is a real danger in the gradual erosion of dignity and humanity in society. Terrible things happen gradually and then suddenly. Many of the songs, I feel, have history judging the characters in their protagonists.
“I’ve been walking for days, these storied streets,
Where the buildings have their say,
Sacre Coeur in the dying winter sun,
It’s picture postcard perfect but with soldiers and guns. “
I Am a Good Man
“The country is full won’t you please shut the door,
Full of people like us, the grandchildren of the poor.”
Andy: It reminds me of an R.E.M. song, “I Wanted to Be Wrong”, are you familiar? The album (“Around the Sun”) was not great, but that song was a sophisticated take on political uncertainty. The protagonist obviously feels conflicted about what is going on, and tells his friend he “wanted to be wrong” about what is happening, but everyone is telling him things are fine. This is at the end of the George W. Bush administration, another time of desperation I suppose. It makes me wonder if this is just how history works. Things go to shit, and they need musicians to reflect and try and get people to wake up?
Niall: I loved REM as a teenager, I still love them. I hadn’t heard this song. I just listened now, I agree. That’s a sentiment I can understand. I have resorted to saying “I hope you are right” to end circular conversations with people with whom I disagree. It would seem that we certainly fail to learn from history. Or worse we take the wrong lessons from it.
I’m confused by people who say I don’t think musicians should write about politics. Everything is political.
Andy: The “Song for James Connolly” has that line, “When you go back hold your head high and sing your song out proud, that it might echo 100 years from now”. I was going to say that if things repeat, with Bush and Trump, and presumably in the future, I was going to say, maybe we don’t learn at all. But I suppose you’re saying that we hear about James Connolly 100 years from the 1916. So maybe that means something?
Niall: That part is meant as more positive note. It was inspired by an actual event I heard about whilst researching for this song. Women in a factory in Belfast went on strike for better working conditions. They marched together and stood up for themselves. They didn’t win but they asserted themselves and as I read it, regained a sense of pride. Similarly, James Connolly was a tireless campaigner for the rights of workers. He was wounded in 1916 Rising in Ireland and had to be carried to his execution. I suppose, I’m saying, the hope is that we will continue to hear about him and take inspiration from him to continue to stand up for ourselves. We don’t get what we deserve in life. We have to work and stand up for ourselves. In that sense, James Connolly is a helpful reference for our times.
Andy: When I hear “Come on in to the Dark”, (which is also great live) I suppose it’s apparent that a bit of escapism is still useful, which is funny isn’t it? Someone wants to hear the tale of Whale Heart because the escape is something that is helpful. And they welcome people into the dark because the brokenness isn’t out in the open, so people can feel free to be themselves in a sense? So maybe it’s a little of both – they need a little reality and a little dreaming?
Niall: I really struggled back and forth about whether to put this one on the album. It came to me suspiciously quickly. Escapism is essential. I’d be in an asylum right now otherwise. Actually, I’m not sure my insurance would cover that. But yes, that’s a good way to put it, we need both reality and the dream. I feel like America loves competition, being busy and always presenting our best selves. Except in bars. I’ve overheard people opening up about all kinds of things at gigs in bars.
Andy: You have a child now? Has that changed how you are affected by political issues? Has it changed how you think about your music?
Niall: Yes, Saoirse was born on November 5th. Her arrival has made me more determined to practice compassion and empathy and more angry at those who represent the opposite. I’ve way less time so I’m writing in shorter bursts. I’m also probably playing more guitar at home than before because I want her to be used to it. She seems to enjoy it so far. Many of my latest home demos have little Saoirse sounds in the background.
Andy: What are you working on next, musically speaking?
Niall: I’m working on some songs for a play that two playwright friends of mine are writing for Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2020. It touches on a lot of the same themes as my album and this interview. In the meantime I’m trying to stay on top of the Big City Folk Song Club weekly challenges. I’d like to do a series of digital EPs before my next full length album. I may also have to do a kids album for Saoirse. Which I would definitely call Juveniall. I also feel like I’m a ta good point in my a career to do “A best of So Far/ introduction to” type album.” Perhaps I’ll shop that idea around too.