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(Photo by Keri Leigh Kearney)

IT’S A DRY, SUNNY AND CRISP DAY in Dublin but Lisa O’Neill is not enjoying it. She’s husky voiced and clogged up, sick enough to have put off her morning run and delayed her trip to the west coast of Ireland.

“If my voice breaks, we’ll take it from there,” the folk singer says stoically, like one of the frill-free characters of her songs. The type who work on the docks or a factory, in the fields or below decks, in very modern Ireland or at any point in that country’s history. The type whose only good fortune is to have their stories told by someone described by countryman Cillian Murphy, without exaggeration, asan extraordinary singer songwriter”.

And he’d know having heard O’Neill’s version of Bob Dylan’s All The Tired Horses play out the ending of his award-winning TV series, Peaky Blinders.

Lurgy notwithstanding O’Neill will soon make that trip to “the most beautiful place in the world” overlooking the Iveragh peninsula in Kerry (Star Wars fans, it’s where they filmed Luke Skywalker’s home in The Last Jedi), and then an extend time in Australia and New Zealand. But she admits that chief among the frustrations of this cold is missing the running.

Though she is at pains to explain that “I am not an athletic person: I jog/run … I don’t know that I qualify as a runner”, those street excursions “get me into my body and I just feel awake and steadier in the world. I say hello to my body and I’m stronger in that body as the day goes on”. And best of all it’s “a good break from thinking”.

Now, for the rest of us, given she is a deeper and sharper thinker than most, a reader of poetry and history and someone who has built parts of her most recent album on inspiration from the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, being in Lisa O’Neill’s head would not be the worst place to be. But maybe not all day, every day.

“My brain doesn’t stop so I need that,” she insists. “Though sometimes I will be thinking and the thoughts can be progressive, so it’s not all bad.”

Despite her protestations of non-athleticism, O’Neill also rows a currach, an old style Irish boat, “and that’s very meditive and the thinking stops, and you’re in this other place of action”. There seems to be a pattern here of disconnecting.

“It’s a bit like singing: you’re not thinking when you are singing. I definitely see that is a good break from thinking,” says O’Neill. “Surely you don’t think it’s positive to be thinking all the time?”

No, not at all. I’m one of those who can’t shut that mind down, even if a lot of what is being thought is silly or stupid or wasteful, and would welcome the break. Though a currach has not been tried. Nor enough time on the west coast of Ireland. Happy to do both if someone is offering.

Anyway, some artists need to switch off and let the body – the hands or feet or senses – operate “independently” to have their work emerge naturally, unencumbered. Is that how she works?

“I think that there are different stages. The mathematical side to music, that’s important too, but I naturally gravitate to the feel. I do need to be in a certain state of mind for the feel to nudge something within me, and it’s spilling out before I know it. Maybe then I need to get my tools out to collect it,” O’Neill says. “But it’s getting into that state that is almost like a higher consciousness. It’s a bit like dreaming, and it’s within us – we all have it if we can switch off. Switch off and follow, and watch the feeling rather than set up and wait for it to come.”

Without it art won’t emerge?

“Tom Waits talks about it like fishing: you sit there, and sit still, and nothing might come but you are ready to catch it if it does. It’s not that clever,” she says. “It really chooses itself.”

The cleverness then is in the shaping of those things that come?

“I’m just trying to picture your words there,” she says after a pause. “Yeah, maybe it’s good to admit to ourselves that we don’t know how it’s going to be shaped yet: it’s process. When there’s a song coming through you, based on a feeling that you’ve had, something that really moves you, we can’t have too many boxes that we want ticked on how we want that song to come out; we just want it to come out in its true form.

“I would love to be able to sing to people how that incident made me feel, because I think it’s a universal feeling, that kind of thing. So, we let it be.”

Which reminds O’Neill of another side-effect – you wouldn’t call it a downside, as you’ll see – of this cold.

“The past three or four nights I couldn’t sing because I’ve got this cough and this cold, but I really felt creative so I was drawing shapes instead about how I’d love to sing right now. Shapes and colours. And that’s been an interesting way of looking at it,” she says. “Sometimes when you don’t have your regular medium at hand, this feeling still wants to express so you pull it down and bring it somewhere else, outside of yourself.”

There’s a connection here with some questions around her most recent album, which debates the notion of chance and control, and whether it is true that “all of this is chance”, as the album title has it. Could you apply that and Waits’ fishing theory to all creating of art?

“Yeah,” she draws out slowly, a bit sceptically even. “How much control do we actually have in life? If you want to live the life of somebody who creates works of art in any medium, I think the main thing is the type of life that you live. To be an observer, all the time. That’s when the catch comes in. It’s noticing things, very everyday things. Is that not what realism is about?

"Maybe I’m wrong; I’m learning about this at the moment. I never had the language for the way people talk about art, music even; I don’t even read music in the typical sense, in the modern sense. But I feel I observe the world in a way that’s like reading. And to be alright with that, to be alright with being a little bit odd …

"Like, I might be in the middle of doing one job and it doesn't get finished because a magpie just landed on the balcony, and that has taken all my attention. I don’t think I’m odd for that because I know this encounter with this live creature is like a gift from the sky. As far as I’m concerned, he comes to say hello to me. I don’t know, is that odd?”


Lisa O’Neill plays:

Woodford Folk Festival – December 27, 2023-January 1

City Recital Hall, Sydney – January 19

Meeniyan Town Hall – February 3

The Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne – February 7

Bendigo Bank Theatre – February 9

Cobargo Folk Festival – March 2-3

WOMADelaide – March 9-10

WOMAD NEW ZEALAND, New Plymouth – March 16- 17


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