A Northern Irish solution to music with just enough swing, a little soul and the right amounts of emotion – Ciaran Lavery prepares his latest EP ‘A King At Night’ of shatteringly vulnerable Bonnie Prince Billy covers that could challenge the man himself.
Sharing the first track from the EP, ‘New Partner’, Ciaran’s admiration for the work of Will Oldham instantly shines through. Crafting his own delicate vision of the track, Ciaran partners that with an almost harrowingly, but incredibly apt, vocal delivery.
Before Ciaran kicks off his upcoming tour, and releases his next album later this year, GIGsoup caught him to ask his inspirations behind the EP and what exactly makes his musical brain tick.
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Firstly, congrats on the great EP! ‘A King At Night’ marks the fifth release of yours in just 3 years; are you constantly challenging yourself to keep recording, or do you get equal amounts of rest too?
I believe in recording as much as I can while I have the opportunity. Nobody can say for sure how long this ride is going to last so I like to keep my head down & leave something tangible behind that I can resonate with. The last few years I’ve been hungry, wanting to record certain things – like this EP for example, and I’m just grateful to be in a position to do so.
Your next studio album is coming this year too, is it a comfortable feat now? Do you feel the pressure from being recognized in a huge way (2016’s Northern Island Music Prize, for example) or are the feelings all honorable?
I try not to think about external influences and to be honest, for the most part, I stay oblivious to what may or may not be said about me at this stage; it’s still a long way to go. Recording is something I relish as a process, more so now that I feel comfortable in my own skin and in many ways it serves as an escape from touring and the real world. The pressures that I do feel are those put on myself to create something that I can be happy with. I want to push myself each and every time I sit down to write, so by the time I walk into a studio I’m as prepared as I can be.
Specifically on ‘A King At Night’ – what sparked the inspiration behind covering Will Oldham? Are these a collection of your favorite songs of his?
Will is an artist that I have admired for the longest time. His unpredictability, songwriting, prolific nature and theatricality are just some of the attributes that I have gravitated towards. There’s an air of mystery about him, he feels like a throwback. In this day and age of mass consumption and surveillance, it’s something that cannot be taken lightly. I was first introduced to Bonnie Prince Billy by a friend of mine, Paul Wilkinson. He taught me everything I needed to know from ‘Palace Music’ to ‘Superwolf’ and beyond; I was hooked from the get go.
With the body of work he has and more importantly, his delivery, it’s a tough job to narrow the choices of songs, but also to do those chosen the justice that they deserve in their own right. I wanted to be lead more by the arrangements that I had in mind rather than my heart when selecting the songs. Tracks like ‘Horses’ and ‘Bad Man’ were serious fun because I knew I wanted to create something different from their current or original forms and possibly showcase another side of them and to throw a spotlight on the songwriting of Will Oldham.
You subtly tackle, and subsequently nail, all sorts of different styles on this EP! With ‘Bad Man’ hitting a hard and heavy country vibe, and then your vulnerable vocals carrying the emotion all the way through ‘Miss Me When I Burn’. How long did it take to work on this EP, making sure you got each note and nuance just the way you wanted?
The whole process was extremely quick. I worked with producer Declan Legge and we were quite rigid about working on impulse and not labouring over anything really. I had a fair idea of the players and overall sound so it was just a matter of capturing that to the best of our collective ability. It’s great to work that way, very freeing. I had also been working a lot with string arrangements around that time, and listening pretty much exclusively to Villagers ‘Where Have You Been All My Life’. So the sounds were already planted somewhere in my brain, as well as a reference point. Each song was approached separately so there was also a certain amount of independence and I guess this is why you can hear those subtle genre flirtations.
The list would be too long if I really got into this but yes, I mean, if I had the chance to work with the likes of M. Ward, Angel Olson, Nina Simone (if I had a time machine), Tom Waits and Matthew E White, I’d be a happy man.
‘New Partner’ sounds entirely your own, and it’s possible the simplicity and production even give an added vulnerability to the track. Did you feel a pressure to try and remain true to Oldham’s vision, or did you strive to, respectfully, put the Ciaran Lavery stamp on his work?
It’s one of the most beautiful songs I think I’ve ever heard so the intention was never to do anything other than present it in a way that felt natural. With songs like this, there doesn’t need to be mass production, it was more about capturing something real. I had been playing this track live for quite a while so it was a treat to have an arrangement around it that emphasized those dynamics/ebb and flow that occur throughout. Working on ‘New Partner’ was always about doing the song justice, above all else. “For the sake of the song”, as Townes Van Zandt would say.
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Not that we’re picking favorites, but we are! What’s your favorite moment on the EP? For me, ‘Miss Me When I Burn’ is something truly special, and ‘Beast For Thee’ with those strings.
There is something personally satisfying about the trumpet outro on ‘Horses’ that makes me smile. I got to meet and work with the phenomenal Linley Hamilton so it was a joyful experience. I remember walking into the studio that morning with Springsteen’s ‘Meeting Across The River’ still ringing in my ears as my reference. I loved that thick cigarette smoke jazz free style of playing. We had a listen through together and Linley pretty much nailed it in a few takes. I guess it’s that kind of moment that could blindside the listener. I have always coveted records that were able to do that to me.
Generally, what’s been the most exciting part of your career so far for you?
It’s hard to pick any one moment in particular, I tend to live in the present and not get too caught up in the past if I can help it. Right now, I guess I would have to say working on the new record and the possibility of touring again very soon.
And finally, your sound translates so well on stage; do you bear that in mind while recording? You also seem to get great, respectful crowds. What’s best about being on stage?
When I record anything it has to pass the initial test, that being, does this sound just as good when it’s stripped of its meat & flesh? If the answer is “yes”, it means I can present it in whatever fashion I choose and it will always be at the very least strong enough to stand on its own two hypothetical feet. Solo shows and band shows have completely different dynamics and there is an intimacy that can be similar but never the exact same. Performing live is something I cherish and there’s the opportunity to genuinely connect that is difficult to replicate through a set of headphones or a phone, or however you listen to things.
New Partner is out now via Believe Recordings | The ‘A King at Night’ EP is available April 22nd for Record Store Day