She is, let there be no shilly-shallying about it, one of the most adventurous musicians that Ireland has ever produced. We’re not just talking about Julie Feeney the performer and the way she might wear an outlandish hat; or Julie Feeney the singer and the way she might quiver a quaver in your general direction. No, we’re talking about Julie Feeney the songwriter, who operates so outside the usual conventions of what people might come to expect (or recognize) from a ‘songwriter’ from ‘Ireland’ that she might as well be from a different universe. Feeney has, over the past six years, also continued to confound – and always, it would seem, in the right way.
She began worming her way into the public consciousness in the mid-2000s with her debut album 13 Songs. That album’s win of the (inaugural) Choice Music Prize came as much of a surprise to her as to the public, but it set her up – provisionally, at least – for album number two, the high quality, lowercase pages. That album has little or no reference/comparative points: it is, quite simply, a brilliant pop record made with an orchestra in a way that you’ve never heard before.
And now comes Clocks, Feeney’s third album; the new record is another high mark in the invigorating career of a person whose background isn’t in pop (or rock) at all, but in rather less commercial areas such as choral singing/composing, sonology, contemporary dance and opera. Clocks sees Feeney reach some kind of maturation point, which puts her quirky creativity – and levels thereof – very much into perspective. But the album also puts into play the kind of present-day business model dynamics that an artist of Feeney’s increasing stature has to negotiate – notably that fees for artists are being reduced but not the level of quality they provide (or are expected to). Another aspect that has changed, crucially, since the release of 13 Songs is the absolute necessity for an artist of her visual calibre to align herself with YouTube.
“In terms of visualization,” states Feeney, “everything happens in sequence in my head. The first part is the song – I’ve found it’s impossible to visualize things when I’m creating the song. I first like to focus on the words, then the music, then the mixing/mastering, and then the sequencing of the songs for the album. When you’re so into the music, you know you want something to be visual, but it’s rarely, if ever, there from the start of the song-making process. For example, when I’d finished pages, I hadn’t really wanted to do anything on the visual side, but it ended up that quite a lot of videos were done for it, and I’m doing that more and more these days.”
Another change for Feeney is that while 13 Songs was released on her cottage-industry label, Mittens, pages had a brief alignment with a major label. With Clocks, however, she is back once more in full control in cottage-industry mode – albeit this time out with a few outhouses attached. “What happens as you go along is that as the responsibility of you as an artist gets bigger then so does the expectations of the audience. I now have people that return to my shows more and more – and I didn’t have that at the very beginning – and you need to have much more in order for the third record, particularly when you have a more developed audience. So now the label side of it for me has become really large; I have to fund it all, of course, but I‘ve got people helping out on that side of things.”
It wasn’t always that Feeney had people helping her out. Back in the mid-2000s, before the Choice Music Award gong gave her and the album a higher profile, she walked into record shops in Dublin and Galway with copies of 13 Songs in a carryall, pitching a few sales here and there.
“Unbelievable, isn’t’ it? And I’m still doing it! This morning I made a phone call to a record shop in Tralee. It’s just a quick hello to let them know that Clocks is on the way. But, yes, it’s gotten a little bit bigger. With 13 Songs, the only people who were going to come along to my shows were those who were in my paper phone book and my mobile phone book. But at more recent shows, you kinda know it’s going to be full of people you probably don’t know, so the expectations of everything you do are going to be higher and higher. I was probably more secure when I first started because there wasn’t the drain of the money there is now. There’s an awful lot of multi-jobbing and overlapping. You have to work harder, far harder, than you did before.”
Where to start to define exactly what it is that Feeney excels at? Kaleidoscopic pop? Pop music and choirs? Pop music and orchestras? Pop music and odd-shaped headgear? It’s all to play for as far as Feeney is concerned – blending not so much genres as concepts, and coming up with an end result that is as much headspace as heartache.
“An awful lot of creativity is taken up with procrastination,” she posits, “but that’s just your process. You need to walk around with the ideas in your head until they cook. And a lot of creativity comes down to logistics – the entire process is taken up with those. The way I am now is I’m actually at a stage where I’m quick at realizing the ideas I have in my head, and then executing them.” According to Feeney, a surefire method of getting things done and dusted is to fuse strife with practicality. “That way, you don’t dilly-dally as much as you once did.” Already, she reveals, she has much of the next album swirling around in her head. And, lest we forget, the opera she is currently developing.
“I’m a little bit more liberated in the fear of the work than I used to be,” she admits. “Now, I just get it done. I’m much more there, if you know what I mean, and that’s a good place. I just need to liberate myself more from the business side of things.” If she did that (or, more to the point, when she does), Feeney says she’d simply whack out even more work. “I’ve discovered I can write very quickly, the ideas come really fast, and execution time is much shorter.”
Julie Feeney. Billy Whizz. You go, girl – you go!
(This first appeared in The Irish Times/Ticket, November 9, 2012.)