Interview: Lisa O’Neill

Interview: Lisa O’Neill

Lisa O'Neill  Almost 40 years ago, the once fledgling independent UK label, Virgin Records, released a double album with the title of V; the cover was of a hand delivering Winston Churchill’s famous ‘V for Victory’ sign, but there was something about it that made you look twice: the hand had five fingers and one thumb. The album, too, was left-of-centre, featuring a sample of acts on Virgin Records’ then roster – acts that traded on the label’s pre-full-on commercial modus operandi for signing wonderful misfits, curious oddities, deliberate outsiders and downright square plugs in round holes.

On listening to Lisa O’Neill’s second album, Same Cloth or Not, it immediately struck me that the 31-year-old petite singer-songwriter from Ballyhaise, Co Cavan, would be right at home in such company as 1975 Virgin acts Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Slapp Happy, Henry Cow, Kevin Coyne, and Ivor Cutler. O’Neill is, at very least, a spiritual descendent of creative form and structure fractured by a highly idiosyncratic worldview. There is, however, something extra that she brings to the session, something that most of the aforementioned, now mostly long-forgotten Virgin acts (the probable exception being Scotland’s criminally ignored Ivor Cutler) lack: a true sense of place, a real sense of tradition and an utter lack of pretension.

“I started writing things when I was seven or eight and hiding them because I was embarrassed,” O’Neill recalls of her childhood songwriting attempts. “I had a knack for rhyming… Songs from television and ads were sticking in my head, and I still remember them to this day. I don’t remember looking for music – it came to me.”

O’Neill has an air about her that will forever be rural Irish; she may have left home at the age of 18 to study, live and subsequently work in Dublin, but city life hasn’t necessarily chipped away at her sense of self, or shaped someone who blithely forgets her roots. We’re unsure, also, whether she’s joking when she asks me to explain what the word ‘camaraderie’ means, and to clarify what exactly I'm getting at when I describe her voice as ‘marmite’, but at least the sense of a real, unaffected person comes through, someone who isn’t shy of honestly asking for directions.

When O’Neill left Ballyhaise for Dublin over 13 years ago it was to study music full-time at Ballyfermot’s College of Further Education. She had written ‘real’ songs from her early teens, she says, but they were copies of copies, formulaic and clichéd. “They were all love songs, yet I wasn't in love,” she recalls. “I remember writing songs about travelling across the ocean to be with my true love, but, sure, I didn’t know what was on the other side of the ocean at all. They were good, I suppose – I played them for some people and they liked them. But when I went to Ballyfermot, I realized they were just okay. I didn’t enjoy playing them, I knew I could do better.”

Small rural village to big smoke equals, for some, a shock of sorts, cultural or otherwise, to the system, but O’Neill, tentatively (“I was innocent enough”) went with the flow until she learned to swim. “I was amazed at being in a class full of people who were as enthusiastic and excited by music as I was. I was taken over by that – and the fact that we were there for five days a week. I used to have some level of guilt focusing on playing music so much, but now I was allowed to. In fact, I was given license to play music, to go to songwriting class.” It was, she reflects, a very liberating feeling, yet she sensed she wasn’t good enough, felt she “was bottom of the class – or at least that’s how I rated myself against everyone else. That said, I wanted to get better, I knew there was more in me.” O’Neill admits, however, that she was a lazy student. She failed 1st Year at Ballyfermot (“I didn’t do my homework – I was too excited about nobody waking me up in the morning,” she deadpans), and departed it for about seven years of working, she says far more officiously than you’d ever think, in “the service industry”.

And so the passing clientele of Eddie Rockets, Bewley’s theatre and various pubs saw far more of Lisa O’Neill than music fans ever did. Throughout this time songs were being written (“with no pressure, no one asking”) and ensemble sessions in pubs such as The Cobblestone were being partaken of, but the implication is that she was somewhat adrift, quite possibly lonely, and most assuredly lacking self-confidence. “Maybe I was low…” she quietly affirms, “but I’m starting to realize that time which goes by where nothing happens, and which is seen to be negative, could well be process time, soakage time. Maybe the creative mind should be okay with that? You can’t have something wise and clever to say every year, let alone every month.”

The tide turned, so to speak, when her 2009 debut, Has an Album (released so softly, virtually no one heard it land), went slowly freefalling into the hands of influential music industry people. She was still working in Bewley’s theatre at the time, playing the occasional support slot if and when acts postponed or cancelled. She had enough songs for an album, she notes, but little ambition for such an undertaking. Listening to it now, O’Neill feels she rushed it. “I’m loud and over enthusiastic, but that was me then and that’s the truth of it. People heard it, which is the most important thing. The record got into someone’s car or kitchen – music always finds a home.”

And so here we are now: a new album so beautifully, oddly, appealing it defies easy or lazy categorization (you’ll try, you’ll fail, you’ll look very silly – just go with it). Here we are now: a woman whose change of self-belief is not only inspiring but also salutary. Here we are now: a singer-songwriter who is waving her own ‘V for Victory’ sign for all the right reasons.

(This first appeared in The Irish Times/Ticket, October 18, 2013.)

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