Interview: Lisa O’Neill

Lisa  “I’m owning it more, and I really value that,” says Cavan singer-songwriter, Lisa O’Neill, who is reflecting on the difference a few years can make in terms of confidence and self-assurance. “I’m not in disbelief anymore that this is happening. When I was speaking about my previous album, I would have felt that maybe some people were wondering if I was going to admit to winging it, that what I had were just notions. There was a time when I’d be working with people, musically, and saying that I wasn’t certain what I could do with what I had. Whereas now I feel surer about my songs, and my feelings as to what the songs mean. I really don’t want to say that the song is finished unless it’s as good as it can get.”



Perched on a chair, dressed in clothes that fashionably place her somewhere between Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhuru and Alexa Chung, Lisa O’Neill is the odd one out that is finally starting to fit. A barely recalled debut album (2009’s Lisa O’Neill Has An Album) was succeeded in 2013 by the Choice Music Prize-nominated Same Cloth Or Not. Her new album is Pothole In The Sky, and if the template is familiar – sparse singer-songwriter material subtly enhanced by added instrumentation – the songs are not. “Some of the things I’m writing about on the new album are questions that have been going through and around me from a very young age. But now I know that the songs are genuine messages, that these are things I have figured out. I find that I’m getting to a point where I know how to see things as they really are.”



O’Neill’s rising profile over the past three years has contributed to her increased level of self-possession. She now regards her music as something that merits not only attention but also deserving of a wider audience. She has a point. As a former support act on David Gray’s US tour two years ago (as well as being a member of his touring band), O’Neill faced a completely different appreciation society. Since coming off the tour about 18 months ago, she has divided her time between writing new material and accepting invitations onto event and festival line-ups that she previously wouldn’t have been considered for. “When I’m writing I’m somewhere else, but then I step out from that; the more I get invited into the real world with the work I created the more that becomes natural. Ultimately, I really want to be understood. I want to go on stage, and go into interviews, prepared. I’m not saying that I don’t understand what it is I do, but in truth a part of me doesn’t. I write songs to understand, and I edit them to be understood.”



Pothole In The Sky captures a sense of O’Neill’s realisation that she is the architect of her career and her future. She is a multifaceted, complicated character – the rural Cavan woman who has come to terms with urban living yet who doesn’t own a television because she knows it would be “a very unhealthy thing for me. If I had one, I’d be glued to it…” She prefers the spoken word (“radio, podcasts”) to the visual blitz; even reading is something she doesn’t engage with naturally (“I lose concentration very easily – the page is boring for me to look at…”). She views her music in terms of tenor and colour. “Pothole in the Sky is a different colour, a different shape,” she says, adding that the album is about heavy-duty subjects such as “what is life, what is possible, and what can happen to little old me when I’m here.”



She recalls her teenage years in Ballyhaise with a perceptive uneasiness, and admits that the girl she was then and the woman she is now are “never completely” different. By pure coincidence, she reveals that a few days previously she found a diary of hers, dated 1997. “I was 13 year of age. It was a real find to be able to read how my mind was back then, and to see how different my language was.” She pauses for a few seconds. “I was speaking the language of my environment at the time – I didn’t write ‘dear diary’, I wrote ‘well, diary, Lisa here…’ I’m treating the diary like it’s a friend that I can trust. I didn’t like school, but I liked the people there. I felt invisible. I needed to be seen…”



As a young teenager, she says she wanted to write, but daydreamed too much. “I felt very guilty about it, because you get told that it’s wrong, but I’m glad I didn’t wake up.” She remembers that she wasn’t really learning music then, so found it difficult to channel her emotions. As for any notions of being a songwriter, let alone a successful one, she says that, like most if not all teenagers, she had no idea of what might happen to her. “All I wanted was to be in love – and all of that would have started to bleed into the music. In a way, that hasn’t changed, although I want more for myself than just that. I’ve come a long way…”



When she glances back at her 13-year-old self, what does she see? Someone, she answers immediately, that was “absolutely lost… like a rabbit in the headlights. It’s a tough time, being a teenager. There’s that beautiful innocence of being eight, nine, 10 years old, and then all of a sudden there’s too much information. Eyes are on you, or at least you feel as if they are. The playfulness leaves you, and the world becomes scary. Except I didn’t know I was scared.”



Almost 20 years later, Lisa O’Neill is no more spooked than the rest of us that have seen decades disappear. Rather, she is at a point in her life where possibilities are lining up, where the potential for bigger-better-brighter is present. She admits she is present, also, in the writing of her new songs – more so, indeed, than at any other time of her life. “Yes, totally. I’m learning how valuable it is when they start to flow, and I do what I need to do to stay present. The surge might last only 30 minutes – maybe less, maybe more – so you grab it when you can.”

(This article was originally published in The Irish Times, April 19, 2016.)