Interview

Ciaran Lavery: ‘I think most musicians are quite bitchy and jealous’

With the release of his new album, ‘Plz Stay, bb’, the Irish artist tells Roisin O'Connor about therapy, self-doubt, and the perils of the modern singer-songwriter trope

Wednesday 01 July 2020 21:51
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'I was a bit of a ghost. So with therapy, I thought I should try and work everything out rather than float down this road and in and out of other people’s lives.'
'I was a bit of a ghost. So with therapy, I thought I should try and work everything out rather than float down this road and in and out of other people’s lives.'

I don’t know whether you’ve had one of those periods in your life where things fall out of place,” says Ciaran Lavery, leaning against the headboard of his bed. “And then it’s a snowball of s**t. I fell down that hill a bit.”

The Irish artist had just come off a gruelling year-long campaign for his 2018 album, Sweet Decay. So overwhelmed by the pressure of it all, he began seeing a therapist. When the feelings he’d previously been unable to express began to rise to the surface, instead of writing them down in a diary, he turned them into new songs.

His latest album, Plz Stay, bb, is a remarkable collection of tracks that demonstrate Lavery’s unblinkingly honest, self-deprecating manner, but also his ability to capture the darker thoughts that often escape our grasp. Opener “Count to Ten” is a pummelling hymnal full of deep grooves and lyrics that dig at critics who, at least in the past, lazily compared him to Damian Rice.

On “Bella Union”, he offers an insight into the psyche of the struggling artist, fretting over a time when interest in his music began to dry up and his label was hounding him for new, catchy songs. Then there’s the stunning cover of jazz standard “The Thrill is Gone” (Lavery was inspired by Chet Baker’s version), placed near the heart of the album. I spoke to him over Zoom about the making of the album, therapy and why he dislikes the contemporary “male singer-songwriter genre”.

I’m just outside of Belfast, living in the same place I grew up in. I’m very familiar with it. I was in Brighton for almost a year, I was supposed to come back anyway this year, it just wasn’t supposed to be as abrupt.

Going to therapy, I was trying to unpack a lot of things in my head. Previous to that… in a professional sense, I was losing my idea of the end goal. I was trying to please so many people, and that was a part of my personality that I’ve had to learn to flush out. It became impossible, and I realised that some of that was self-inflicted. In a personal sense, it was like, everything seemed to be organised and then up to about 2017, everything slowly unravelled until the only thing I had left at that stage was my dog, Hugo. Outside of that, I couldn’t have hung my hat on any real direction, any ideas. I was thoroughly empty in that sense and could have been led in any which way. I was a bit of a ghost. So with therapy, I thought I should try and work everything out rather than float down this road and in and out of other people’s lives.

Making the album was trying to take some form of control back, and knowing there were some things I needed to take responsibility for – and other things not so much. It was timely, as [in therapy] I found the language to be able to talk about these things, to talk about different feelings in adult sentences. I was also then able to write them down, and within that be a little playful in terms of what I talk about, I could have some fun with it. I understood the power of being able to control the narrative as a writer. It’s like everything, with songs and with records, it’s like a polaroid of a certain point in your life, and once that picture’s been taken you can close the door on it. I was always scratching at that door a bit, but not with this much confidence. There was also a fair portion of myself [with this album] that had to just say “f*** it”. I didn’t tell anyone I was recording it.

With the “Bella Union” song, it’s not that I’m saying the label is a villain. It’s more like, when I was at my most desperate, probably at a point where my self-loathing was through the roof, I could be reflective about it and aware of how my brain was working. I think most musicians are quite bitchy and jealous anyway. Nobody wants to admit that. My uncle would have called them arm folders, those guys who stand at the back of the room during a gig. So it was the first time I was trying to embrace that side of myself, and also the desperation of not really knowing whether I’ll have longevity. Because at one point, I was getting emails all the time, a lot of people were opening doors for me, and then everything really quietened down in 2018 and I started to freak out. I was having this existential crisis, where I was trying to find a middle ground that wasn’t really there.

I’ve always felt quite claustrophobic about the “male singer-songwriter” genre. There’s an expectation that you’re just going to sing songs about the girls, and be quite sad. It’s honesty, but only when you’re getting your heart broken. I think there’s more room, there’s a bigger narrative that you can play off. I almost resent the fact you’re expected to sing the sad songs, and if you deviate from that… people don’t like it.

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I used to get compared to Damian Rice a lot. It’s never anything against that artist, but you’re trying to do your own thing… At the same time, I don’t blame people for doing it, because I do it. [Regarding comparisons to other Irish artists], I understand when people say the Irish are very good story-tellers, but in terms of the modern songwriter, that wasn’t what I fell in love with. I listened to Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, these people who were telling things in a much different scope, it was darker.

“The Thrill is Gone” is so melodramatic, and there’s something really satisfying about that. It’s very self-indulgent and almost theatrical, to hear it somewhere between songs about a lack of caring for what I had to deliver and then wondering, am I even going have a career beyond this? It sucked everything up in a very tongue in cheek way. It was nice to tackle a song like that.

Plz Stay, bb is out now

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