From Hi-Fi World - December 2010 issue
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David Price talks to the highly acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter Eleanor McEvoy about matters music, recording and life...
DP: Rumour has it that you’re a vinyl fan...?
EM: Oh yes, I love vinyl! I’ve just got the new album vinyl in my hands – it’s a bit of a thrill. We’ve done it from the fourth album onwards; we did ‘Yola’ on vinyl... and it’s fun to sign! Also when you get the album you get a code and you can download the album for free, digitally. I do love vinyl, but sadly you can’t go jogging with it!
I really like good sound, to the point where I now find it hard to listen to bad sound. My dad was into good speakers, so I think that’s where the rot set in. I am shocked that musicians go along with the bad quality that is MP3, it is horrible... perhaps it’s an element of not being exposed to good sound. You don’t know what you’re missing. I’m thrilled to have albums coming out on vinyl, because it does mean a lot to me.
DP: Are you familiar with the technical side of the recordings you make?
EM: For years I only used two inch analogue tape, but I had to disband it because trying to find studios that had two inch tape machines, and that actually maintained them, well you couldn’t get them! We went to Metropolis in London for mixing the last album, and we said “two inch” and they went “oh” and they asked around their tape ops and there was one guy who knows how to work a two inch machine there. And there were whizzes in Protools, these nineteen year olds, and they don’t know how to spool a reel of tape. And I asked the tape guy, “when did you last do a two inch session?”, and he said “the last time you were in”!
DP: How do you go about recording a song?
EM: I’ve always tried to do everything at the same time; where we have a band, we always try to play together. On ‘Yola’, we didn’t do any drop-ins at all. ‘Out There’, because I was doing it all myself, we had to. I’d never intended to make an album myself, I’d made demos to show what I was going to ask other people to do. This new album, I wanted to get a live feel across; I got a bass player and a drummer and then I went back in and layered things on top. The violin plays a very important part of this album, so I layered many tracks on top. You can hear it on ‘I’d Rather Go Blonde’, which has a huge string sound. There’s very little processing; I had a beautiful old antique ship’s bell on ‘Take You Home’ that was just a little off-pitch so we slowed it down to tune it to the track – apart from that there’s very little in the way of effects.
DP: How did you start off in the music business?
EM: Well, my aim was to write songs for somebody else to sing. The singing is a means to an end; not that I don’t love it because I do love it, but the writing is my thing. When I was a violinist in the RTE National Symphony Orchestra a very sad thing happened one day; there was a man in my section who was moved back. There’s a kind of hierarchy in violin sections; people at the top are the best and it goes down to the dregs down at the back. And he got moved back because his hands were going, as he got old. You look at these fantastic players and they get moved back the older they get. And so I thought, if I want to do the songwriting, now’s the time to do it; I thought I’m going to have to go for it so I quit my job! I was gigging at the same time I was in the orchestra, then things kicked off.
‘Only a Woman’s Heart’ came out the week I signed to Geffen. Geffen was the only company with the A&R guys at the top; they were in charge. Normally the sales guys are on top; they were the hippest, coolest label on the planet. The second album was very different to the first album; it comes to keeping your spirit alive. I think you have to follow your heart; in the second album I had a Telecaster Electric, a Vox AC30 amplifier and a nose ring; I was so in to that! I was touring with the Fugees on the Columbia roadshow and listening to how they told their stories using rhyme really had a big effect on me.
So on the third album I went off with Rupert Hine and we made ‘Snapshots’, which I loved - it’s one of my favourite albums. He was a fantastic guy to work with; with ‘Sophie’ another producer would have said put strings on it and make it a big production number, but he said “piano and voice”, and he was right! When we delivered that album, I think Columbia Records nearly died; they had had this Telecaster wearing woman in mind and they got sequences and loops, a very different direction. They released it and didn’t really do much with it. And that for me was the end of the major labels, I was broken hearted after that. In hindsight I have more sympathy for them now; they didn’t get me – an artist like me shouldn’t be on a major label.
DP: When you left the major label, did you start ‘self publishing’?
EM: Yeah – the first one we set up on our own was Market Square. When ‘Yola’ got such a good reception, we started really going for it, so my partner set up Moscodisc and we got distribution worldwide. It was a slow, organic thing. The great thing about doing it this way is that I don’t have to think, “oh I can’t put this on an album”. We did a really contentious song about religion, the hierarchy of the Catholic church, I really am having a go at them. You’ll never get airplay with it, certainly not in Ireland, but at least you’re getting out there to some degree. I have another song where I’m having a go at the establishment in Ireland; the banks, the government, and I’m having a go at them. So there are no chains on an indie label!
DP: Given that there’s no one else to say no to you now, do you find yourself doing it?
EM: Yeah – you do have to be ruthless with yourself. For example one of the big challenges I set myself with this album was to keep the tracks really short. There’s one that comes in at two minutes ten seconds, which is very difficult to do. But you can do it!
DP: In the eighties, that’s one of the things I really loved about The Smiths; ‘This Charming Man’ was two minutes fifty five seconds...
EM: Oh yes... they were great. Fantastic! But I did still have some moments on this album when things began to get out of hand. Before we started this album I sat down with Ruadhri Cushnan and said on this song I wanted a church organ, and a mandolin, and then I said I want a banjo, and then I said I want a choir singing a Gregorian chant in Latin. And at that point he just burst out laughing, and said, “I really can’t see it working”. But we did it – without so much of the Gregorian chant!
DP: So where does your creative ‘essence’ come from?
EM: For me, the real gems come when you’re drifting off to sleep in the middle of the night. It’s caused a lot of disharmony in my relationship. Now I have a notebook next to the bed!
DP: Is it possible to be Irish and not write about the Catholic church?
EM: The amount of power that the Catholic church had was very oppressive to me. They were bigger than the police. This is getting less personal to me now; one day I’d love to be ambivalent. But yeah, if you look at Irish people we’re all slightly obsessed by it. I have a go at lawyers a little bit on this album, and I also have a go at the fashion industry with a song called ‘Look Like Me’. I’m talking about people being dictated to what they should wear; being told that “ooh, brown is in this season”. I was at an awards ceremony in Dublin and all the women were all wearing the same type of high heels, the same colour of fake tan, the same blow dried hair; I thought they’ve all spent thousands of pounds trying to look like the same person next to them. I take great pleasure when people come up to me and say “I saw you in that dress in 1996”!
DP: With music there’s also the impetus to present your music in a way that’s fashionable too...
EM: I do make some quick references to what’s going on, but not so much that it’s going to date it. I always hope that I’m ahead of the game. I’m using pizzicato strings, which I think is going to be one of the things that people focus on. So in the next couple of years... you heard it here first! I do love pure pop acts, and the rap thing did – and still continues to – have a big influence. I still preserve quite a bit of my Irishness in my melody constructions, I think of a lot of my songs are intrinsically Irish. But yeah, I’m very influenced by what’s on the radio today. In terms of over the last thirty years? Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, Louden Wainwright, Elton John here in Britain, his early stuff was absolutely incredible, in terms of bands, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, The Smiths were great! Jimi Somerville’s voice was great, Alison Moyet had an interesting voice, Kate Bush as a voice and a songwriter. And I’d come home from the orchestra and put on Nirvana!
DP: Where do you think the future will take you?
EM: I’d love to write music for the theatre, and sound design. And writing with surround sound in mind. I’ve got a lot of dates coming up next year and while I’m on the road I’ll be writing the next album.
DP: Great. I’ll be listening out for banjos and
EM: [laughs] ...and the pizzicato string thing might still be around!
Eleanor McEvoy is a 43 year old singer/songwriter, born in Cabra, Ireland. Her career spans two decades, having recorded for variously Geffen Records, Columbia, Market Square and Moscodisc where she currently resides. One of Ireland’s most accomplished recording artists, she’s most famous for composing the song ‘Only A Woman’s Heart’, which was the title track of ‘A Woman’s Heart’, the best-selling Irish album in Irish
history. She began music at the age of four playing piano, then took up violin aged eight, then later attended Trinity College, Dublin where she studied music by day and worked in pit orchestras and music clubs by night. After graduating with an Honours Degree in music, she spent four months
busking in New York and was later accepted into the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra where she spent four years before leaving to concentrate on songwriting. During a solo gig in July 1992, she performed ‘Only a Woman’s Heart’ in front of Mary Black who invited her to add the track to an album of Irish female artists. The album was subsequently titled ‘A Woman’s Heart’ and the track was released as the lead single. This got her signed to Geffen Records and started her long and illustrious career which has seen her win many awards and accolades. Eleanor is famous for the care she takes over the sound of her recordings, and is an avowed vinyl and analogue music fan. Her new album is out now, ‘I’d Rather Go Blonde’ is on Moscodisc (MOSCD408); it is produced by Mick O’Gorman, Eleanor McEvoy, and Peter Beckett; recorded by Ciaran Byrne; mixed by Ruadhri Cushnan and mastered by Ian Cooper.