Photo by Claire Leadbitter
No, Lisa O’Neill is not plugged in. And she’s not kidding.
The folk singer, originally from Cavan in Ireland’s north, but now in Dublin, does not have a smart phone, wouldn’t really know what to do on the Internet, is definitely not on social media, and while she has “a little computer” in her possession, “I try not to turn it on that much”.
“I’m not drawn to it,” O’Neill says. “I like slow life.”
Don’t worry, it’s not as if she is sending her music out on shellac discs sent through snail mail. Or hauling it around the world in her rucksack – though she is in New Zealand this week if you’re knocking about the place.
There is a small team around her, including a new label, River Lea whose first release is O’Neill’s austerely compelling album, Heard A Long Gone Song. A team who, she is confident “know these things”. Not that O’Neill could necessarily tell you what “these things” are. But you know, she is okay with that.
“There’s a lot to be said for mystery,” she says mischievously. “Who wants to know what I’m thinking every day? Nobody. Not even me.”
Recenty, I was reading a 2011 interview where her first album was described as “charming”, this while I was listening to her sing an old murder ballad, Along The North Strand, from the new album. It’s fair to say that charming is not the word for Heard A Long Gone Song (reviewed here), a collection of songs mixing traditional and newly written pieces about ordinary, working lives without the embellishment of happy endings or pop flourishes.
“No, it wouldn’t be charming,” O’Neill chuckles. “It’s a little bit dreadful. Topically, and the general feeling in the album would certainly bring someone down if they weren’t already right down. But that’s how I wanted to make it. I wanted to record these songs and there was no point in dressing them up.”
And with spare arrangements featuring fiddle, concertinas, bouzouki, banjo and sometimes only voice, dressing up she avoids. The toughness of the lives, the almost inevitable failure of the loves, the bleakness of futures entirely dependent on organisations and structures which couldn’t care less about the small, insignificant people she chronicles, precludes that.
Even The Galway Shawl, which seems not to have given up completely on love, is a track O’Neill describes as predicated on the fact the man has had his heart stolen by woman who will not be his, and that’s no fun.
Fair enough. As O’Neill knows, if you going to tell the stories of dockworkers shunted off by new technology (as in her song Rock The Machine) or the exploitation and abuse of young women within a business (Factory Girl, which may seem a modern story but in fact is a traditional song) you are just going to have to face the hard truths.
Photo by Claire Leadbitter
“Or get as close to [the hard truths] as possible,” she says. “I can’t always get the information I want [into a song] but I think it’s only right to try and tell the truth as much is possible. Of course if you’re not going to tell the truth it is an exploitation of those people isn’t it? So it’s important to me to try and get it right.”
River Lea’s co-founder, Geoff Travis – whose commitment to O’Neill is such that he offers that “she is one of the greatest artists on the planet”, and the role of his label must be “to help those voices be heard” - connects folk then and now to a base of protest music.
“Absolutely. It’s always protest music isn’t it, folk music? It’s always the voice of the underclass, chronicling what’s going on in social strata and inequities, chronicling, without romanticising, the beauty of the proletariat,” Travis says. (Read more about River Lea and its search for meaningful music in this interview.)
“Lisa’s Rock The Machine, one of the best songs on the record, sounds already like an all-time classic … you can’t deny its force and it stirs people when she sings it. That’s what we need in these times.”
The times and the truths include stories about women long gone, such as Violet Gibson, someone whose real story almost beggars belief. She was a middle-age Irish woman with no history of activist action who went to Rome and attempted the assassination of the not yet established fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1926.
Gibson was confined to a psychiatric hospital until she died 29 years later, but in O’Neill’s original song, where she sings in Gibson’s voice, “But I moved in silence, for the love of truth not violence”, there is more than a question about whether this daughter of the first Baron of Ashbourne was mad, bad or prescient.
“It’s an incredible story and it could have moved things [in the 20th century], what she tried,” says O’Neill. “I definitely didn’t see her as bad, though I see her as a little bit mad, different. But we all are a little bit.
“I have to tap into myself when I’m trying to feel the truth in these things, trying to understand how isolated this woman must have felt. Even if I don’t feel it like that, I have to dig into my own memories to remember how I feel when I’m misunderstood and isolated.”
There’s value beyond her grasp of the story in this search for an inner truth. A truth a bit deeper than a status update or a fiery tweet.
“Maybe it helps the audience believe my song because there is truth in there: I’m feeling my own stuff too.”
Lisa O’Neill’s Heard A Long Gone Song is out now through River Lea/Rough Trade.