Sunday, 8 February 2015

Avril Whelehan - Interview & Debut E.P.

Avril Whelehan, 'Coat Of Arms'

Info: Dublin based, and Mullingar native, songwriter Avril Whelehan recently completed her debut self-titled E.P. which has been in the works since 2010. The four track release is the culmination of a journey the 29 year old musician took her first tentative steps on at the age of sixteen when she first picked up a guitar. Singing and song-writing followed quickly afterwards and before long Whelehan was performing live at local venues. Toward the end of 2014 she finally made it into the recording studio at Bay Studios in Co.Wicklow, and has produced a beautiful, at times hair-raising, set of original songs.

The E.P. opens with the track 'Fold' (below), the starting point of consecutive soft and gentle songs. A delicate piano intro and atmospheric background effect provide the backdrop to Whelehan's emotive vocals, before the song picks up and the tone switches, light shades of SinĂ©ad O'Connor appear in the singing at this point. Second track, 'Secret Night' feels, aptly enough, like a lullaby, with perhaps the strongest indication of the folk-leanings on the whole E.P., whilst also providing the first indication of the more contemporary sound which becomes more obvious by the end of the E.P.. 

'Follow' is a good showcase for the high vocal range Whelehan can reach and features some solid harmonies, buoyed by the drumming at the half-way mark, it also marks the end of our tender journey and brings us to my favourite track on the E.P., 'Coat Of Arms' (above), a song that made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck the very first time I heard it. It was as though the first three tracks had been deliberately lined up so as to lull the listener into a certain state that would leave them wrong-footed for the powerful finale. There's a slightly darker feel to the song, and both lyrically and musically it reminds me very much of older traditional Irish songs like 'She Moved Through The Fair', haunting in a way. It's the song's finale that has the most striking impact, the heavier drumming and Whelehan's vocals reach an ethereal plain, the production is rock-solid and you don't want it to end, it compliments the E.P.'s softer side very well and is a style she should definitely embrace more of.

Avril Whelehan, 'Fold'

It shows that this E.P. has been a work of labour over a period of time, for a debut release it is accomplished and self-assured, but also focuses on Whelehan's strengths, benefiting greatly from the simplicity of it's production and the quality of her vocals. When the time is right, a full-length album would be most welcome and interesting.

I braved a slightly chilly beer-garden with Avril in Ranelagh yesterday to discuss all things music, the new E.P. and also a moment of self-realisation that I am in fact, a closet Take That fan.....

With her father Richard being an accomplished guitarist, as well as her sister Ann-Hilary who both plays the guitar and sings, it was perhaps inevitable that Whelehan would embark on a musical voyage of some sorts in such a household;

'Yeah definitely, music was a big part of our home life growing up, my dad has a very eclectic mix of musical tastes, he's big into classical music, but also The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Neil Young and The Beatles, so there was always that kind of music playing, and my mum on the other hand would be a big traditional Irish music fan. When we were kids she'd have Mary Black, Christy Hennessy, Martin Hayes, Dolores Keane etc. playing in the car when she'd pack us all off to primary school, so definitely it was a big thing, it was always around. I actually didn't develop an interest in playing and writing until I was about 16, when I first wanted to learn the guitar, playing songs I wanted to learn, without much interest in the theory itself. It eventually progressed to singing and writing my own songs from the age of 17 and throughout college, but it was always quite sporadic until now, I might write something and not come back to it for 6 months, or even longer.'

Given the stop-start nature of the song-writing process over the years, the relief of finally having her music down on a recording has been a big relief;

'It's been in pipeline, this particular E.P., since 2010, when I met a guy called Pete Meighan who is now in Bay Studio in Wicklow, and we talked about heading into the studio, but it took years to get it sorted, for a variety of reasons. I was always worried that I'd never actually get the E.P. made, and I reached the stage that I didn't even care if no one ever heard them, or only a few people did, it's just to have it done, that they're made, they're your songs and you've put the work in and now you have something physical, it's both a relief and exciting to finally have the finished product and getting it out there now.' 

Listening to the E.P., I struggled to come up with comparisons to other female singers regarding the vocals and wondered had anyone previously identified artists past or present they felt might have been reflected in Whelehan's voice;

'I'm actually quite relieved to hear that, one of my fears would be to be described as a second-rate 'this artist' or 'that artist'. Probably because I started learning their songs first, when I was younger, there were a few comparisons to Gemma Hayes, Dolores O'Riordan and once or twice Juliet Turner, it's great to be compared to artists like that in one way, because I respect them and what they've done. I never consciously tried to sound different, but I think as I got older and became more confident, my voice developed in it's own way of it's own accord, yes there's been a few comparisons, but thankfully no one in particular has stood out which I think is a good thing because it hopefully means that you're doing your own thing.'

The opening three tracks on the E.P., 'Fold, 'Secret Night' and 'Follow' set off on a slowly rising curve towards the climactic end of 'Coat Of Arms', the folk / singer-songwriter traits of these tracks starkly contrasts to the slightly rockier feel of the final track, a conscious decision?;

'The music is very natural for me, when I'm writing I don't sit down and say, this song is going to be a folk song, and this one will be a bit more rockier, I don't think there's a dominant style, but I think maybe my style has changed a little bit in recent times. Definitely my comfort zone would be in the folky songs, the more reflective or soothing songs as you've mentioned, but probably the more recent ones, even the stuff I'm writing right now, have a change in tempo, I don't know if that's the product of the type of music I'm listening to at the moment, but I enjoy writing both styles, once I've hit on a mood in a song I'll explore it. Even 'Coat of Arms' begins quite low-key and the pace doesn't build until towards the end of the song, so I suppose I don't decide from the outset how it's going to sound, it's really just whatever works and how it comes out at the time. In the studio Pete was a huge help in terms of giving advice and he really influenced a lot of what you hear on the E.P., and 'Coat of Arms' in particular, it could have turned out quite differently without him.'

 Photo: Louise Farrelly

Within the E.P. itself, Whelehan has blended older musical styles from the 60's / 70's era and a contemporary indie edge, I wanted to get a whistle-stop timeline of music she had listened to from when she first started playing the guitar and writing, right up to heading into the recording studio last year;

'It's actually only in recent years that I've gotten into a lot of older stuff like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Led Zeppelin, but as a teenager, I loved David Kitt, The Frames, Damien Rice, Gemma Hayes, a lot of Irish singer / song-writers like that, and over the last couple of years I've been quite a fan of Laura Marling, who I love, Bat for Lashes, Alt-J and London Grammar whose sound I really like, it all the depends on the mood I'm in really but certainly my tastes have broadened considerably in recent years.' 

Whelehan has played live many times before, so being in front of an audience shouldn't necessarily phase her, but the difference will be going from mostly cover music to original material, which brings with it it's own set of anxieties;

'Well firstly upcoming gigs are something I hope to organise in the coming months, as soon as possible, it's all a matter of planning. With regard to being anxious, I suppose when you're a one-person act, there's no one to hide behind, but I actually wrote 'Secret Night' a long time ago, when I was 20, so it's been a long work in progress, but it has had public outings before which helps, anyone who was at my first live performances would have heard it. Out of interest what are your favourite songs to cover?  Well, a big favourite would be 'Daniel' by Bat for Lashes, Gemma Hayes, 'Back of my Hand', Bic Runga, 'Sway', all of which I really enjoy playing.' 

At this point we decided to share guilty musical pleasures, it was the logical next step following talk of covers;

After pouring my heart out about the devastating affect Maroon 5's music had on me a number of years ago I admitted I was broken down by Maroon 5's 'Moves Like Jagger' with Christina Aguilera, and also Gary Barlow's 'Open Road' (which I actually learned the chords to, Jesus), then I added a strange fondness for Mark Owen's 'I Am What I Am' and Take That's recent hit 'Greatest Day', a horrific and damning trail of evidence pointing to the fact that I enjoy Take That on multiple levels. Avril pointed to Taylor Swift as pure pop enjoyment, in particular 'Shake It Off', 'it's cheesy pop but it does what it says on the tin'. 'I find it hard to think of recent ones but songs like The B-52's 'Love Shack' from ages ago, and now that I think of it I also caught a reality TV show a while ago which featured loads of boybands / girlbands who had broken up years ago, it was called The Big Reunion, it had 5ive, Bewitched, Eternal, A1 and watching it I found I actually knew all the words!' 'No Steps?' (Remy) 'That was actually my first concert!' 

At this point we decided to end the interview, as we were aware that we may be overheard by the growing number of revellers around us. 

You can stream Avril Whelehan's entire E.P. on her SoundCloud page here and you can Follow her on Twitter where future gigs & news will be announced here

Further Info:

Photographs by artist and milliner Louise Farrelly

Recorded and produced by Pete Meighan at www.baystudiowicklow.com, Co. Wicklow

Mastered by Fergal Davis on Abbey Street

Drums: Paul Lally / Bass: Pete Meighan.

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