Ciaran Lavery on Shaking Songwriter Stereotypes

Photo by Kathrin Baumbach

There’s a fine line between art and artifice, and Ciaran Lavery of Aghagallon, Ireland has spent his career aiming for the right side of it. His last project, a stripped-down solo interpretation of his album Sweet Decay, may have been his most intimate musical self-portrait to date, but the singer-songwriter still had paint left on the palette and misconceptions left to dispel.

Let’s keep the indulgent art metaphor going: some people paint singer-songwriters with a broad brush, but Lavery is out to show he’s not just some guy with an ex and an acoustic ax to grind. To that end, he’s released a new double A-side single that takes his writing to a more personal, honest place.

First comes “Full Love,” a soulful slow-dance jam built on a bold demand for real human connection. Then “Selene” strikes at the reality behind the archetypal songwriter persona, plus pokes fun at the shallow snapshots of life we see filtered through social media self-marketing.

Here Lavery puts down the guitar and kicks all contrivance to the curb, focusing on understated piano arrangements and his voice in near-total isolation. Though not quite as minimal as Sweet Decay (The Solo Sessions), it strikes a similar chord in its close, quiet atmosphere.

After the release, Lavery spoke to The All Scene Eye about changing genre narratives and kicking down the doors of honesty.

Tell me about recording these tracks. What was the dynamic between you and the producers?

Well, “Full Love” was recorded with Dan Byrne-McCullough. Myself and Dan, we’ve been working together for a lifetime, and he’s one of those producers who’s got a brilliant ear for the things I really can’t hear. It’s a nice little cozy setup that we have, and working with him is working with a friend, so there’s an honesty that you don’t really get, or that I don’t really get, from working with a stranger. We could work quickly, and there was a lack of bullshit. If something was good, it was good, and it stuck, and if something was terrible, we were able to have a quick chat about it and move on. He plays a ton of instruments as well, so it meant that I could be quite lazy about the whole thing and then take tons of credit for the instrumentation when really a lot of it was him, which is–you know, it’s a great position for me to be in.

“Selene” was recorded with Julie McLarnon at Analogue Catalogue. Julie has been in that analog game for 20, maybe 24 years, so that was somewhere I was looking at around a year ago. She’s got this huge converted barn studio that’s fuckin’ amazing, and it’s in the middle of absolutely nowhere, so you really get that sense that you’re there to do the job and there are no distractions. I really love that. She’s a very classic engineer in that whatever goes on tape, it’s going to stay there; she wants to get it as live as possible. We recorded a lot of it there, and then I took the tracks to Oil Tape Studios to a couple of guys, Danny Boyle and Chris Platt. They’re, again, close friends of mine and great musicians. All I really wanted to do was add some textures; after being in Julie’s place, I started hearing a few other things. It didn’t really need a whole lot.

With both songs, it’s more about the space, you know? The spaces in between what was being said were just as important, and they had enough in them to keep the songs moving and interesting, especially in something like “Selene.” It’s quite intense, so I wanted to ramp up the intensity without being Steven Spielberg and really driving the drama down your throat. I was very careful about not making it overly emotive or treating the listener like they’re stupid, trying make them think something they maybe don’t, so I throw an orchestra at them. I didn’t really see the point in that, and I hate when people do that in movies anyway because there’s something kind of cheesy about it. I always feel like I’m being sold something that I didn’t really want to buy. With “Selene,” I wanted it to be quite simple, but also have those little shades and colors that could complement the song.

We were able to do both sessions quite quickly, and a lot of that is to do with the people I’m working with. I really believe in being quite honest, and I think everyone understood what we were trying to achieve. I could walk out and say, “yeah, this is enough,” and that’s what I’m going for rather than, you know, “throw a ton of shit at the wall and see what sticks.” It was a matter of being able to know in advance exactly what I want as the outcome, then trying to reach that point, and if I need to, pulling back a little.

So if not Spielberg, who is the director you would compare these tracks to?

I’d love to say somebody like Harmony Korine, like, a proper lo-fi indie king–I think I have that similar spirit–but “Full Love” was produced with a little more shine to it than “Selene.” In that sense–[laughs] if we’re still talking directors, I guess it was more Wes Anderson at times, but I certainly was trying to make sure there was that Harmony Korine thing going on with “Selene.” If I had to pick a lead actor, I would go for someone like Tilda Swinton. I like the strangeness she brings to every role that she has, and if I could do that musically, I’d be fuckin’ delighted.

You talk a lot about honesty, and that’s very important in these two tracks. How has your thinking on honesty evolved since your last record, Sweet Decay?

I think as I’ve gotten older, what I would have declared before as honesty, I was probably still hiding a fair bit behind lyrics and being a little bit shadowy. It wasn’t wanting to be mysterious and certainly not trying to create any sort of mistake around myself as a character, but it was more having the maturity to say the thing I wanted to say without the fear of exposing either myself or other people around me. Before, I was looking through the windows of a place that was quite honest, but walking into these two songs, and especially “Selene,” I think I really kicked the doors down.

There’s something wonderfully cathartic about it. There’s something unbelievably frightening at the same time because there is a complete level of exposure there. It’s funny, at the time I thought, “this is great. I’m really happy that I’m doing this.” Then I read an interview with Tom Waits back in the early ’80s, and he said he really hated honest songwriting, like, people who put it all out there on the plate, because he doesn’t want anything to do with it. I really love Tom Waits and I felt so disappointed in myself. [laughs] I was like, “shit. I’ve done this the wrong way. I’ve disappointed Tom Waits.” It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but at the end of the day, I think these two tracks have opened up a new narrative for me.

Generally, 95% of songwriters will profess or declare, “this is the most honest thing I’ve ever released,” or they’re trying to be really honest, like, “heart on the sleeve.” These little cliche superlatives or descriptors are always put with “the songwriter.” I really wanted to push that and say, “I’m actually, really attempting to do this,” because it is uncomfortable to write those things down and then sing them, rather than it’s just coming from an area where–well, what I think is that most honest songwriters, the ones that I really look up to, the likes of John Grant and Conor O’Brien, they actually say the things–and they’re hilarious as well. Father John Misty is another one who’s quite great at that. Joni Mitchell has come out with some brilliant lines that are just so direct. You know, they can’t be anything other than honest.

It doesn’t always have to be about heartbreak. It can also be the person talking about themselves, and again, it doesn’t always have to be self-deprecating. There can be humor in it, which I think is harder to do. I was trying to put myself in a position where honesty doesn’t have to equal heartbreak, or it doesn’t always have to be shitting on someone who did something terrible to me because it’s easier to be the victim, and the second easiest thing as a songwriter is to put yourself down. I was trying to strike some sort of balance of being completely honest, and I was hoping to cover a wide range of those things rather than just one specific area.

Social media is one theme that’s pretty prominent in “Selene.” How have you experienced that as an artist, where you have to sort of market yourself in this social media culture?

I think it’s terrible. [laughs] I used to really detest it. When I look at social media, a lot of it is about trying to look really great and also come across quite professional. I don’t have social media on my phone or anything like that. I generally put anything up that I need to put up online and then I take them back off my phone again. I just don’t bother procrastinating on them anymore because, for me, it’s a downward spiral into some dangerous territory. It brings on all of these feelings of self-loathing and jealousy, all of these things that aren’t really welcome, or they’re not really justified.

I had to rework things in the last few months and try to approach it from a different way. I don’t want to take it serious, so what I would like to do is kind of let people into–not the silly side of things, but I don’t have to always be looking nerdy and intense and playing the hurt songwriter.

I think there’s a lot of unwanted focus on social media alone rather than the songs themselves, but I don’t really know how I feel about it, personally. I think it causes a lot of problems and a lot of depression. It’s the modern day beauty magazine where people are looking at very famous or successful people and thinking, “why don’t I look like that?” It’s a tool, I guess. I just don’t want to waste time trying to put on 15 different filters and then panicking if a post doesn’t get 15 likes inside 10 minutes, so I think I was able to remove the shackles of the importance of it and just have some fun. That’s how I can deal with it now in a sane way.

You cite a lot of references for these tracks, from Raymond Carver and Anne Sexton to Bojack Horseman. How do those intersect in this single?

I think with all three of those there’s a really fine balance of dark and light. What I really love about Anne Sexton’s work is that you laugh about something, and within two lines, you’re uppercutted somewhere right underneath the heart. I think Carver possesses the same sort of skill, as does Bojack Horseman. I know those names aren’t generally put together very often, but it’s certainly something I’ve watched in the last year that I’ve really enjoyed.

With those three examples, they push the boundaries of what they’re trying to do to uncomfortable levels at times, and I really enjoy that–when people are trying to do something that challenges rather than just delivering the same shtick because that’s maybe what people want or what people are familiar with. When you push that little bit more into deeper water or stranger territory, I think that’s where you stumble across all of the gold. As references, those three–I admired the audaciousness of how they approached their work, and I sort of do the same with everything that I see or hear or read.

You would never want to just eat the same bland meal every single day, so suddenly when somebody introduces a little bit of spicy sauce or peppers or whatever, your palate widens and your interests change. I think it’s natural for us to want to find more. I’m not really a big foodie, so I don’t know where that analogy came from, but there you go. You can keep that one.

Assuming there’s another full album on the way, how do these tracks fit into the bigger arc of what you’re trying to do?

It’s more the start of a conversation. What I spoke about earlier about kicking the doors open with the amount of honesty–I think these songs lead into that, and with the tracks that will follow, very much of the same nature, if not even more direct. I’m really trying to push and push down that road as much as I can, and some of it isn’t easy listening. Some of it’s pretty tough, and I still find some of it hilarious, so I think as a writer, it’s a little shift in narrative. Where I spoke before about trying to be honest, this is where I wanted to get to.

I’m not sure if that’s a road I can further push down or whether I want to switch it from here. I really haven’t thought about that, but these two songs were like the equivalent of two bridges, basically, to bridge that gap between what came before and what I’m going to be walking into. At the same time, then the bridge is totally destroyed because although there are ties musically with things that I’ve created in the past, pushing into this area for now seems kind of standalone, you know? These songs set that up.

I think for the first time I’m writing in the way that I speak. Generally what you do as a writer is you find a certain amount of words that work and then those words become familiar and they become a part of your identity. I wanted to break all that down and just speak the way I would normally, so everything is a little more direct than before, which is nice because then I feel really comfortable in my own skin talking about these things.

You wrote both of these songs on the piano, which I don’t think is your typical approach. Is that another way of getting out of your settled vocabulary?

Yeah, what the piano opened up was this whole universe that was totally different for me, even in how you approach it–everything to do with the hands and eyes. And because, you know, I play the piano like a scarecrow plays anything, I knew that I was going to be limited to what I can do right now, and sometimes I’ll surprise myself. I liked being able to be in that place because it opens up that little doorway to these treasures that you stumble upon accidentally. Songs can kind of take their own direction, and I enjoyed that process.

It’s something that I’ll continue in the live shows I’ve got coming up. I’ll play a lot more piano, and it’s because, again, it’s a new thing for me, and I would rather put myself in these positions than just be sitting back on a big fuckin’ lounger and playing the hits. I just don’t find that interesting, and I wouldn’t find that interesting, people having to watch me go through the motions. When I put myself in awkward or uncomfortable positions, that’s where I generally find something that I like. It’s just a pity that I have to go through all of the anxiety and stress to get there. [laughs]

“Selene” starts and ends with a cassette player sound effect. What made you want to frame that track that way?

I think it was my nod to the fact that I did everything on tape. Well, that, plus I’m a deeply nostalgic person. I was born in the late ’80s, so I remember having a Walkman and a CD player and those kinds of things where they were very physical and large chunks of equipment. I loved them so much.

When I was 12 or 13, I used to walk about with a Walkman in my pocket, and I would put the headphones around my neck. Half the time I did not have a tape in there, but I thought it was the most amazing accessory to have. I really thought I was super fucking cool because I had this on me. I used to do the same with CD players as well, with those CD Walkmans. You obviously can’t have them now, and it’s much more practical to have everything on your phone, but there’s something comfortable about it, and especially, as I said, with recording the song on tape, it just felt right.

There’s a way that kind of physical memory apparatus comes up in “Full Love,” where you say, “life’s a shoebox of photographs.” That’s very physically evocative–more so than, say, “life’s an Instagram story.”

I mean, it’s harder to rhyme “Instagram story” as well. [laughs] But yeah, I really do believe that that is the case. When you look back at photos of yourself growing up, or even when you look at the person that you were two years ago, you’re not the same, so you have a detachment from that person. We change every day, so it’s this ever-evolving thing that we all are as people, so as silly as I think it is to constantly be documenting every single thing that you’re doing on your phone with a million photographs, I do it whenever I write, so I’m the same as the person who’s taking 10,000 photos when they’re at Disneyland. I just take them in a different way.

What I really find interesting is that changing version of ourselves that we are, and when you look back at photographs, you can see emotions and things. Even though you can recall the memory, you can’t recall what the person felt at the time, even if that person is you, so that blows my fuckin’ mind. At the same time, I would hate to be–and I’m sure you feel the same, where you would hate to be the same person you were when you were 12 years old or 20 years old.

If you could write with any instrument that you don’t play, what would you choose?

I’ve had this obsession in the last year with brass. The likes of the trumpet, even, in itself. I like instruments that aren’t supposed to be lead instruments. If you’re a jazz musician, of course, that’s your bread and butter, and that’s probably the equivalent of what an acoustic guitar or piano would be for a singer-songwriter, but as a singer-songwriter, I like the idea of instruments that wouldn’t be used as the lead when it comes to the songwriting process.

There’s something to be found within those instruments that sit outside of this world, and by that I mean this genre that cages all of songwriters in. In that brass world, there’s so many different ways you can play one instrument. It depends on not only your comfort with the instrument, but I guess your breathing, so there’s something about it that’s quite organic. I don’t know if I’d have the lung capacity, but I have this current obsession with not being defined by genre. Anything to help break out of that pigeon hole you’re put into automatically when you walk out on stage with a wooden guitar. If I can do that, even for myself internally, then it helps the whole process.

I’d seen a video last week of Bjork in 2017 playing some woodwind, like, some flutes, and she was saying she tries to master an instrument every time she goes in to record. It’s the same with Bonnie “Prince” Billy; he went out on tour and played this little autoharp. He wanted to teach himself an instrument on tour, but he taught himself every night live in front of an audience, which is really bold, because obviously, the first handful of shows are going to be total dogshit, but there’s something I really admire about that–about people who are constantly trying to get outside of their comfort zone.

The first thing that popped into my head were those brass instruments because when I’m not trying to get into my own world, I listen to anything I can apart from singer-songwriters. Jazz has been really good for me in the last year; it’s a complete breath of fresh air. I mean, it would be the equivalent of if you were a comic book writer and when you went home, you just read comic books. Your influences would be so narrow that surely your ability to create would just dry up. So yeah, I’d love to sit and try to write with a brass instrument solo, but it would sound horrible. I mean, I wouldn’t tell anybody about it, and then I would probably get a really good player in, record them, and just claim it for myself.

[laughs] Right.

That’s how I’m going to go about it.

Who are some jazz artists that you listen to?

I really love the stuff Johnny Hartman does. I used to listen a lot to the John Coltrane records, especially in airports. Miles Davis as well, obviously. What I do is I’ll put on one or two and then I’ll do that thing you can do on Spotify, which is like, it’ll just give you a run. Now I’ve got enough of those interests that they get a nice little playlist together, so I don’t even have to really check. I just let it run in my pocket.

A Love Supreme by John Coltrane is one of the greatest albums ever for a reason, obviously, but it’s one of those records that–it just sounds so good, and as someone who leans a lot on lyrics, I find it really welcoming that it doesn’t have any, but it speaks with everything else going on. There are so many different emotions that it throws upon you without having to use literal words. I just think that’s such an amazing skill to have. But yeah, if you like walking through airports with no music on, then great, but if you don’t, I definitely encourage that record because it soundtracks so many people’s movements, especially those people who kind of crazily run through the airport in that frantic, don’t-really-know-what-they’re-doing sort of thing. You should try it.


To keep up with blog updates, follow The All Scene Eye on Twitter or Facebook

Leave a Reply