NEW TUNES?The Niall McCabe Band are set to release their debut album ‘Part of the Light’. From left: David Duffy, Niall McCabe, Davey Ryan, Hugh Dillon. ?Pic. John Allen
Island roots to transatlantic soul
A sheep-shed clinging to the edge of an Atlantic-battered cliff may not be quite as conventional as a basement or garage for a teenage band. But for Clare Islander Niall McCabe his dad’s outhouse overlooking the ocean was the perfect place for his first band to pound out those teenage beats and riffs.
It was 1997, and ‘The Big Fat Mamas’ (Niall and his brother, Rory, and friend, Olof Gill), were all at boarding school, where, obviously, the points race was sometimes more Honky Tonk Woman and Brown Eyed Girl than Shakespeare and Seamus Heaney.
Sixteen years later, Niall is a graduate of music and history at UCC, living in Kinsale, about to launch his debut album ‘Part of the Light’ with his band. Here, he talks to Áine Ryan about his musical background and the inspiration for his music.
Á You have said the insularity of growing up on an island has had a profound effect on your music. Explain that.
N The insularity of a small island keeps you looking outwards to the rest of the world. It’s hard to imagine that you are the centre of the world in any way, so any reflection on yourself (which songwriting must surely be) tends to incorporate the wider world and community somehow. So I suppose what I’m getting at is that the insularity of the island has the surprising effect of connecting you more deeply with the world than you would think. In the same way that cities can alienate you from others even with so many living around you.
Á Did the ethos of traditional music fostered by your mother (in primary school) and your grandmother’s box-playing influence you?
N Traditional Irish music had a huge impact on me. It would have been the first music I ever heard ‘live’ and that is so important with music. You can listen to greatest recordings all you like, but when you hear even mediocre jazz or blues live, it has so much more of an effect on you. My granny’s melodeon playing, and her singing actually, is down there at the very foundations of music for me. Whenever she played, it was only about the tune or the song. Tears would often fill her eyes when she sang, and that’s the kind of emotional connection to music that I’ve had ever since.
Á You are back in that sheep shed on the edge of the cliff with the Big Fat Mamas. Capture the atmosphere.
N Ha! We’re completely hooked on ’60s and ’70s rock and roll. The sheep shed is the only place on the island that we can make a racket and not disturb anyone, though I think Kathleen Bessy said she could hear us across the bay. For us there was nothing unusual about setting up in the sheep shed. It’s where we would often go to hang out and daydream or scheme. It was always a great escape to carry up our gear, set it up and just let go. The sheep never seemed to complain and they at least kept their criticism to the occasional bleat or dropping.
Á When you later went to UCC, did the discovery of the academic dimension of music change your approach.
N I don’t think it did really. I could never read music and picked any music courses I did around that fact. For the entrance exam I learnt the basic theory the night before and just blagged my way in. I mostly studied history. Though moving to Cork opened up a lot of doors, musically, for me. I was introduced to jazz and soul for the first time properly and started seeing far more live music.
Á You fronted a big band, Soul Driven, that had its genesis in the university. What was that like?
N Soul Driven was great while it lasted. I had been fooling around with singing lots of different styles and decided to put together a band that could reflect this. It was very funk-soul driven with some jazz sentimentality thrown in, but all very solid and musically muscular. I certainly learned a lot about singing and managing my voice in such a potentially hazardous environment. I also learned a lot about arranging songs and reinterpretation.
Á When did you start writing your own songs?
N Myself and Olof were messing around with writing songs when we were younger and like any teenager I would write terrible poetry and songs when the notion took me, but I suppose it wasn’t until I moved to Kinsale that I started writing in earnest. It takes a long time and a huge amount of bad songs before you start to get a feel for yourself as a writer and start to find your style. For me, I’m still working on it, but I can also see bits of where I want to go in the songs.
The ‘Part of the Light’ album was written over the course of a few years when I was getting to know songwriting. There’s a lot of different approaches in there. Since writing those songs I’ve moved a little further along and am getting a little more focused in my writing. What I’m shooting for is something that I call Transatlantic Soul. Having so many influences it can be easy to get lost stylistically, but what I’m working towards now in songwriting is to try and marry the realism and everyday struggle of folk music with some of the transcendent uplifting qualities of soul music.
For more on the Niall McCabe Band, including videos and the upcoming Part of the Light Irish Tour, visit www.niallmccabe.com.