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Independent & Going Places: Singer Songwriter Julie Feeney

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Stage & Screen
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By Derek Flynn

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Often in interviews with singer-songwriters, the actual “writing” or the lyrics get ignored. As Writing.ie is all about writing, we want to focus on the process behind the lyric writing, as well as the musician’s literary influences, etc. We’re really interested in new talent at writing.ie so meet one of the independent musicians who are making a name for themselves without a massive record company or PR machine behind them.

Julie Feeney is an award-winning singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, composer and vocalist who has been steadily growing her independent music career for the past few years. Julie’s third album “Clocks” went straight to No. 1 in the Independent Irish Album Charts on its Irish release. It was voted ‘Best Album 2012’ in The Irish Times ‘Album of the Year’ category for The Ticket Awards as voted by The Irish Times readers and it was also shortlisted for the Choice Music Prize, an award she previously won for her self-produced debut album “13 songs”.

Not that any of this would appear to be her overriding priority. Julie Feeney comes across as someone who is very serious about her art, although not in any pretentious way. Her thoughts seem to flow, her sentences blending into one another and overlapping as she looks for the right phrase or word to describe what she’s saying. You get the impression that she applies the same principle to her music.

Julie is currently working on an opera ‘BIRD’ and, to start off, I ask her to tell writing.ie readers a little about this.

“I got the commission from Dublin Theatre Festival, Galway Arts Festival, Kilkenny Arts Festival and Cork Midsummer’s, the four of them commissioned me. They initially said they’d like me to write all the words and write my own story and it was going to be a wordless opera. And then, as I began to look at the process I just realised it was totally a different type of thing. So I wanted to base it on a story, an existing story. I wanted the story to be something to do with flying, I wanted there to be an inanimate object on the stage, because I just love that from a theatrical and a dramatic point of view, and I wanted that inanimate object to be destroyed.”

“So, I needed a story with those three components in it and ideally I wanted it to be Irish. I trawled through all the stories and I finally found The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde and that was perfect. So I worked on the libretto and I did twenty minutes of it at Dublin Theatre Festival last October and that was really great, but I realised after doing that that it wasn’t as rewarding for me to actually use Oscar Wilde’s words. I would select his words and put them together poetically but they were still his words and I was treating them as if they were sacred because it was Oscar Wilde’s words. So I made the decision that I was going to rewrite the whole libretto and use my own words. So it was – at that stage last October – based on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and it became after that, “inspired by”. Over Christmas, something sparked off in me and it all just came together and I realised what I was going to do. There was other subject matter that I wanted to deal with that I now have as layers on top of the story. That was very exhilarating for me when I broke free because I’m more at home when I’m doing my own thing. I then started to write a big long poem. So, that’s what the libretto is now, a big, long poem.”

I ask Julie if it was a daunting task  – writing your first opera? She tells me,  “I had never done one before and I was wondering, “How do I do this?” There are many styles. I’m always interested in how writers deal with the narration part of the story, and how sometimes you don’t need to actually tell people what’s going on. It can become apparent through what the characters are saying. So, I’ve kind of gone more with that route. I love when people are just brought into a world, brought into an environment, without actually being told what it is. I’ve done three albums of songs and I’m so used to my technique when it comes to that. With the opera, I find that you begin and then you begin again … you throw out the way you were doing it already and you start again. Which I haven’t had to do really when I’m writing songs. I decided when I was making albums that I would just say, “Look, this is what I’m making right now … it’s 2012 or whatever … and I’m putting it down and putting a line under it. If I want to do something differently in the same year that will be a different thing.” But I think with this, because it’s a dramatic work, it’s on a stage, it is different anyway to an album.”

Prose writers are often fascinated by the songwriting process. Does the music or the lyrics come first, or does it vary? Julie explains how it works for her: “I’m very much connecting phrases and words and ideas all the time. I’ve a whole load of copybooks and a whole load of notes all the time. I do a process of collecting together, seeing what I have, and then I put them into different pots to see where they might go together. For the Pages album, I wrote them all out physically on pieces of paper and did the sorting out by actually tearing the pages separately because it was easier than actually rewriting each one. And I had them all in separate pieces of paper in baskets, and then you’d rewrite each one of those chunks into some kind of prose. You’d say, “Well, they’re all about beauty” and you’d put that together in one thing and you’d do another draft of that piece. And then, you’d look at it and something comes out, like, something sort of jumps out at you. The poetry of it then begins to emerge because you’ve been distilling all the time. You get to the stage of about the fourth or fifth draft and that’s when the poetry part of it starts to come to me, the whole framework of a kind of a poem. One of my songs, “Impossibly Beautiful”, reading the words when I had the poem ready, the music came from the words. The melody came from the words; the time signature came from the words.”

So, I wondered,  is it similar to the cut-up technique employed by writers such as William Burroughs? [The cut-up technique is a literary technique in which a text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text. It was popularised in the late 1950s and early 1960s by American writer William S. Burroughs]. Julie agrees,  “I do like being able to look at it like a jigsaw. I still group them in terms of categories so I haven’t done the completely random thing, but I do love looking at a table … and I much prefer writing with paper … looking at a table where you actually move things around. I really like that.”

Writing lyrics is very similar to writing poetry – I wonder if Julie  sets out to tell a linear story or if her lyrics are more abstract. She explains, “A song I have called “Monster” is all about something that looks beautiful but is actually quite evil inside. I talk about it in terms of a tree, so it looks beautiful but when you shake the tree all these horrible brambly, briary things come down and hit you. So, that sounds abstract but it’s actually very pertinent to a lot of situations. Recently, I found it pertinent to a situation with a person. So, I suppose, if I’m doing something abstract, it very much has a whole meaning. Like, you could tell from it exactly what it’s about. They’re actually very specific … they don’t sound that way but they actually are.”

When I ask her about her literary influences, Julie bemoans the fact that she hasn’t had much time of late for reading, “I have to confess, in the last few years, I’ve not been able to read as much as I’d like. I’ve actually found my inspiration from visual sources over the last few years, or musical sources. I did read a lot as a child and as a teen … a lot of the classics. And I find I’m going back more to them. With the opera, I was also looking at classic stories with new eyes. Or even, looking at Shakespeare and looking at what was that actually about. Simplifying down what they’re about because it’s such a mountain earlier on when you’re younger. I love reading Irish poetry, and I love prose in Irish. I think the Irish language is so beautiful when it’s used in a nice way. But I have not been an avid reader for the last three years because I’m just working so hard keeping what I have going because it’s basically a one person operation.”

By visual inspiration, I wonder if Julie means nature? She nods, “Yeah, I love light outside. I do find nature and natural scenery very inspiring, I really do. Particularly, when light changes. I just love places in Dublin at a particular time of the day. There’s something about it, it absolutely dances on people’s skin and colours just jump out. It just arrests me, that kind of thing. I do love the countryside … I love the smell of the trees and the grass. Another place I find inspiring, the opposite to that, is New York City. On a sunny day, you look down the street and you have all these tall buildings in a straight line, and you’ve all this wonderful colour. Another thing I find hugely inspiring is conversations with strangers in New York, just walking around on any one day, the amount of things that can happen, the amount of things you can see, that’s really inspiring.”

Julie releases her albums through her own record label – “Mittens” – and she raised the money for her latest album “Clocks” through FundIt.ie. “Funded largely,” she says, “but then I had to put a lot more with that because it cost a lot more than that to make it, a great deal more.”

“Clocks” was the first album that she funded in this way and I ask her how she found the experience. “Very intense, extremely laborious, extremely rewarding, serious hard work. You can’t plague people or bug people, you have to just let them know. But thankfully there was a good ground level of people who wanted to get involved. But the amount of work was huge. But to reach the target, I think it was ten days before the deadline, which was totally unexpected.”

Quite an achievement …

“I think it’s still the fastest to do that. That was just me on Facebook and Twitter and letting my friends know, and asking people to let people know. But you have to be so careful, you can’t push it. I mean, you need to be respectful to your funders. A lot of people say, “Oh we have no money, what will we do? Will we do a FundIt campaign?” but you can’t look on it like that. You have to think is it the right thing to do? Are there people on the ground that would back it?”

So, I wonder, is it a conscious decision on her part to remain an independent artist? She laughs. “No! I’d love someone to back me. I was signed to Sony/BMG in London by the head of Sony/BMG. But then, the label head was fired and the label was folded up. There was some kind of a cull because there was a whole restructure going on. So then they didn’t really do anything and I just continued to do my work. They just let me do whatever I was doing. They did a little bit [of promotion] for about three months but then the lady who was doing that got fired. So, I kind of got caught in a political situation going on there. But, I don’t think they knew what to do with me anyway. Then, my lawyer suggested I try to get out of it so that’s what I did. It was like a non-event. They did give me money at the time which was great but they never really did anything with me. Maybe, it was too big a record company for someone like me. I mean, it’s kind of funny … if you have people that come to the shows, people who buy your albums … I don’t really know what you have to do to get signed.”

I put it to her that it’s probably hard to put her in a box when her music doesn’t easily fit in a box.

“I suppose, but the only box they understand is money … money coming in and money going out. I think it’s down to that.”

Another musician whose career has mirrored Julie’s to some extent is Amanda Palmer. Both were initially signed to a record label, but went on to find greater success as independent artists. Palmer also “crowdfunded” her latest album, art book and tour on US site, Kickstarter, becoming the most successful music project in Kickstarter’s history, raising nearly $1.2 million.

“Amanda Palmer is amazing,” says Julie, “but she’s a serious blogger as well. There’s a whole part of what she does that’s writing and social media. And it kind of a big operation that she does run, it’s not just music. Music for me would be the centrepiece of what I do. I’d spend way more time on orchestrating and composing. I’m an artist who uses social media but I’m not at the core. She has been involved in social media and writing and documenting for a long time. I am more interested in writing the actual work than I am in documenting what I do, you know what I mean?”

“The thing about social media, if you are an artist using it, you’ve got to maintain that level. So, for me, when I leave this earth, I want to leave work behind, musical work, whether it’s opera, words, lyrics, texts, all that kind of thing, that’s what I want to leave as an imprint. I do like social media but there’s sometimes I find it’s very, very hard to be doing the two things.”

Julie says that when it comes to the musicians she plays with, she has a group of musicians, one in Ireland, and another in America.

“I have a pool of wonderful musicians that I love – they’re just fantastic people and fantastic musicians. So, I work with them depending on the show. For the last opera one, I had somebody who fixed the musicians because there were thirty people. So he booked them all and I paid him to do that. But for regular shows I generally just weigh up what kind of show it is, what I would like to do, is it going to be a bit more string, trumpet, recorder sound, or is it more harp or keyboard, or is it more electric. And I’ll decide depending on the show.”

“I’d usually give them a buzz ahead of time if I can. Like, just recently – oh my God – I had ten nights with ten different choirs. In that case, I had to ring about seven months in advance because it’s so big. So, you’ll ring ahead and say “This is the thing”. And the budget is either me paying directly or, it depends where it’s coming from, and I’ll arrange that with them. If I can – for example, with the ten choir one – we did have an amazing co-ordinator. Most of the time, I just put it together myself. Other times, if there’s a budget, you might have a tour manager. But I haven’t had a tour manager in a while. Everything is a case by case basis. It depends on budget. If I’ve loads of time, and if I’m in a period of writing and I just have one show, then that’s kind of more manageable, I’ll probably do that myself. And the musicians I work with are all fantastic. They’ll find out and they’ll help, they’ll go, “Oh, I looked up that and I saw that you go on the M6”. Because I don’t drive anyway so I don’t know where any of the bloody roads are!”

I ask her to talk a bit about the difficulties and the advantages of pursuing a career as an independent musician?

“Well, I’m just looking here right now, I’ve got three suitcases that just arrived in from wherever I was … New York, I think … I’ve got my costumes over there, I’ve boxes of cables and loads of other instruments halfway in the door that need to be sorted out. There are CDs that need to be put somewhere and there’s a pile of papers of admin stuff I need to sort out. There’s just a mountain of work. I have some people part-time when I can. For the National Concert Hall show I’ve somebody helping me but then the next day, you’re back to yourself again. You’re the common thread that goes through everything at various times. So, people come to a show and they might think, “Oh my God, there’s loads of people around.” But you may just have them for that show and the following show. You don’t have a full-time person all the time.”

“The great thing about record companies is they give you tour support. So, I remember when I was with them, I basically submitted a budget, they give you three-quarters before and a quarter when it’s over. So, that’s fantastic, you just get the money from the record company. There are other Irish artists and – even if it’s an independent label – they’ll probably give them tour support. So, they don’t have to worry. For me, I’m doing a show this weekend and what I get paid for that, I’ll pay the musicians out of it. For the video, I’d need to do whatever number of shows to pay for that. So, you’re constantly rolling the money around. Whereas, if you have a record company, you have tour support, which means that the money earned for the show isn’t affected, that’s yours … The main disadvantage is the lack of cash flow. Working capital, you don’t have working capital. It’s just a kitty of money that you can use to keep the thing running.”

To finish, I ask her if she thinks the proliferation of social media – and the amount of bands and singers on it – has made it easier or harder for musicians to reach an audience?

“There has to be the music and a world around the music. So, it’s fine to stick up an MP3 from somebody that has three MP3s to their name. And they can put up a big page and it looks great. But, actually moving on to being an artist, where there’s a world around it and there’s a life around it and a context around it … that’s a whole different thing. And then, are they performing, are they creating something, what works have they made, what’s their catalogue, what are they doing in the future? I think I’m interested more in that because it is easy, of course, to put up stuff, but it doesn’t make any difference.”

Julie headlines at the National Concert Hall, Dublin on August 9th where she has scored all of her music for herself solo with the RTE Concert Orchestra.

You can find out more about here here: www.juliefeeney.com on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JulieFeeneyIreland or on Twitter: @julie_feeney

(c) Derek Flynn

Derek Flynn runs writing.ie’s SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has an Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and was First Runner-Up in the 2011 J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress. His writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – can be found on his blog and on Twitter @derekf03

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