Category Archives: what I’m up to

Saturday 7 January 2023

I’ve started listening to Jeremy Denk’s memoir, ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine’. He writes beautifully about music and it’s fascinating to hear his reminiscences about his musical education and his life’s journey.

We’re also back to school! Students were a bit thin on the ground as, it being just a two day week at the end of the Christmas holidays, many of them were still away with families in exotic locations. It was good to see the half dozen or so that I did. Elongated breaks meant I could chat with fellow teachers without the usual feeling of rushing off to collect a child from their classroom to bring them down to the music block for their lesson. (Something I’m going to try this year is asking each student to go and tell the next one to come down to me. They’ll hopefully enjoy the responsibility and it’ll give me a valuable few minutes to make notes and get ready for the next lesson.)

I’m excited by the prospect of teaching more pieces by Robert Schumann this term. The ‘Little Study’ from his Album for the Young is on the Royal Irish Academy of Music Grade 3 syllabus this year. I’ve been applying the Whole Beat Metronome Practice to Schumann’s music with very satisfying results (namely, it renders the pieces actually playable). I’m also working on his second Op. 28 Romance with a Grade 8 student and both pieces require a sustained melody be foregrounded against an undulating texture. I’ve been studying Penelope Roskell’s authoritative book ‘The Complete Pianist’ and gleaning some helpful insights that I will be able to use with my students.

David Rooney, whose album I’ve been recording piano and vocals for, and his striking portraits of 1916

Arminta Wallace interviewed David the other week and her article appeared in this weekend’s edition of The Irish Times — this weekend was the actual anniversary of the 1916 rising. 

Here, from David’s forthcoming album, and with me on piano, is ‘The Rising’:

1916 as you’ve never seen it before

Arminta Wallace, The Irish Times — Saturday, 23 April, 2016

By his own account David Rooney was an unlikely person to be asked to illustrate a book about the men and women of 1916. “For me growing up, everything associated with 1916 was coloured by the Troubles,” he says.

“My dad grew up near Enniskillen, and came down here to join the guards, getting away from the poisoned land, as he saw it, of sectarianism in the North. And I wouldn’t be alone in this: many people of my generation would have a real repugnance about the continuation of violence.”

But when Rooney got into the nitty-gritty of his research for the project he was fascinated by what he discovered.

“I’ve been reading the 1916 stories for more than a year, and there are so many instances where everything changed in people’s lives – and the lives of everyone around them. They fragmented, altered, spun off in all sorts of directions. Maybe the anvil of an event like this produces really extraordinary arcs of story – or maybe the stories always happen, and we just don’t register it. But when war happens, when conflict happens, the natural trajectory of things is altered. Like the refugee situation now. And we’re still living in the broken mirror of 1916.”

Rooney’s 42 thoughtful black-and-white drawings give the book 1916 Portraits and Lives, a collection of biographical essays published by the Royal Irish Academy and based on the academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography, a visual – and, indeed, emotional – heft that helps it stand out from this year’s 1916 publications.

Originally the plan was to use photographs of the characters concerned, but in some cases the available imagery was of poor quality or simply nonexistent. So the academy’s graphic designer, Fidelma Slattery, had the idea of using original artwork. Its managing editor, Ruth Hegarty, ran with the idea, and Jackie Moore of the Office of Public Works – “the third part of that triumvirate of powerful women”, as Rooney puts it – came on board to support the project by buying the originals for the State.

How did Rooney get so up close and personal with his subjects?

“A friend of mine told me to read James Stephens’s The Insurrection in Dublin. That had a huge impact on the colour of it, because Stephens’s account is really what a journalist would do now. “It’s moment by moment. ‘Here I am on the corner of Abbey Street . . .’ It’s amazing – and an amazingly neglected document.”

The 1916 Portraits and Lives project has taken off to such an extent that it now has a life of its own. The book won a design award and was shortlisted for the 2015 Bord Gáis Energy Book of the Year. The ebook was made available for free download, and such was the uptake – more than 65,000 copies downloaded worldwide – that the offer has been extended until the end of April.

Limited-edition prints of the portraits are available to buy from the Royal Irish Academy’s website, and the originals will be on display at an exhibition in Kilmainham Gaol from May 12th.

As for Rooney himself, after 30 years as a visual artist, the illustrator with the highly distinctive visual “voice” is now developing another voice – as a singer-songwriter.

“There have always been guitars around, and I liked the idea of writing songs but didn’t know where to go to find them.”

A chance meeting with Glen Hansard changed all that. “I went over to his house, and I saw him working on the songs that became his Grammy-nominated album [Didn’t He Ramble]. To see them as pencil sketches – well, I recognised something in that. I thought, I know where to find my songs. They’re in the same well as the drawings, but much further down – and much harder to get at.”

Hansard has become a close friend and a constant source of musical inspiration. And with Declan O’Rourke producing and a band that includes the jazz drummer Conor Guilfoyle and the pianist Jay Wilson, who plays with James Vincent McMorrow, Rooney has now recorded 10 songs for an album due to be released this autumn. “It has been an absolutely incredible journey. With the drawings the best ones come if I get out of the way and let it flow. With music I have to be totally present at all stages of it.”

As for recording and performing, that’s a collaborative process that is a shock to a perfectionist who is used to working at home alone. “I’m in total control of the images. With the music I have to let go. Take that de Valera image. If that was music, okay, I get to do de Valera, but I’ve to get you to do the swan, because you’re the person who can do swans. While we’re rehearsing, the swan is exactly like it’s going to be here. And then comes the day of recording, and you’re thinking more of a goose. ‘Why does it have to be a swan,’ you say. ‘Can’t it be a cormorant or . . . a shag, maybe’?” He laughs. “Yeah. And you have just to say, ‘Okay. Let’s try that’.”

Listen | Check out ‘Objects of Desire’ by Flecks

The Last Mixed Tape


Dublin based ambient synth-pop outfit Flecks have unveiled a new track entitled ‘Objects of Desire’. 

A darkly brooding effort from Flecks, ‘Objects of Desire’ is bathed in deep rhythms and atmospheric texture. Containing a built-in patience the song takes its time before suddenly, and effectively, bursting forth with large-scale jumps of distorted noise.

Working as an interesting juxtaposition in sound, the dynamic structure of ‘Objects of Desire’ feels earned. As the vocals move with hushed malaise the song’s background waits patiently to step into the spotlight during the aforementioned overdriven passages.

An interesting and sonically pleasing listen, Flecks music is one of dramatic tension and power. Glistening on top but with a turbulent undercurrent, their sound is one of great movement. It’ll be interesting to hear how far the group can expand this already expansive production.

Click below to listen to the latest track from Flecks, ‘Objects of Desire’. 

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The seatbelt light is on


We’ve been travelling all day and are making our final approach now to Edmonton. It’s been a long day but, because of the time difference, it’s only early evening. Our show, as part of the Edmonton Folk Festival, is apparently going to be at the equivalent of 5.30am. So I’m trying not to think about that — it’s not until the day after tomorrow, anyway.

I’m really looking forward to this festival (and the Squamish Festival, outside Vancouver, that we’re playing at the following day). We’re fresh from a successful week in France, Spain, and Switzerland and have been playing well together. It was especially gratifying in Spain — a territory James hasn’t visited often — to see the beachfront arena fill steadily as we went through our set until there were people as far as the eye could see! It’ll be brilliant to do some full shows there on our European tour in October.

The various changes and tweaks I’ve been making to my setup have been working out well. We switched out the clarinet and the lapsteel and put those parts onto synths, which makes things a lot simpler for festivals. I got my Nord Stage to communicate better with the Mainstage program on my laptop (it runs the soft synths), halving the time it takes me to change patches between songs. Lots of little things which have made a big difference.

We were in Edmonton before, back in March. It was a very memorable gig for many reasons. To recap: Our tour bus broke down outside Seattle on my birthday; with the help of the support band’s van we got to Vancouver and played our show that night; after much solution-searching, James and our tour manager drove across the Rockies in a U-Haul with all our gear while the rest of us flew to Edmonton; we put on the show of our lives (it was also the first time we’d been in a venue that could accommodate the full lighting setup). It was a beautiful venue, the MacDougall Uniting Church, and the crowd were fabulous. As was the hospitality shown to us by the local organisers, especially Steve Derpack of JCL Productions. I also recall a delicious local grapefruit ale that I’ll be seeking out…!

Two inches below the heart

Yesterday we played on the radio — Ray D’Arcy’s show on Today FM. It was a really good experience. We haven’t done a lot of ‘pure’ radio as a band, i.e. without any video/webcast element. Not having a camera there made for a more relaxing atmosphere. Just as we were setting up, Eamonn Dunphy was being interviewed about the previous night’s Twitter-igniting football match between Brazil (1) and Germany (7!) in the World Cup. At one point — I didn’t catch the context — he got up out of his seat and held up a pink dress against himself. Radio allows odd things to happen. When we’d finished, a cool-looking Australian man swallowed a sword and then a lady called in and let us all listen to her enjoying a custard slice. A rich tapestry 🙂

Here’s the Australian man, Aerial Manx, swallowing the sword:

Ray asked him how far down the sword goes into his body — the tip ends up two inches below his heart…

We played James’s latest single from Post Tropical, Glacier. You can hear it here, four minutes in:–live-session

James also played his brilliant cover version of ‘Higher Love’, which you can hear just past the ten minute mark.

Finally, a video of an acoustic version of the last single from Post Tropical, ‘Gold’, that James and I performed back in April at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on the afternoon of our show there. I’m wearing a ‘Post Tropical’-themed t-shirt that I found in Hamburg earlier this year.

Moving house is a pain in the bum…

Jenny Wilson

“Oh my god, I LOVE moving house!” Said no-one ever.

In the (almost) nine years Jay and I have been married we have moved eleven times.

Eleven times sorting through books, CDs, DVDs, clothes, cutlery, pictures, paperwork.

Eleven times asking friends and family and a man-with-a-van to pack their cars full of photo albums, vacuum cleaners and bags of ribbons (?!) and move us across the city.

Eleven times living amongst unpacked boxes, suitcases and furniture dumped in the middle of the room.

Eleven times feeling that sweet, sweet relief of having everything in its place, sitting down to a takeaway from your new local Chinese and sipping on a glass of wine to try to relax.

Eleven times.

When we moved into our current residence in Howth three years ago, we knew that the landlord was intending to sell the house one day and now that day has come…

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The Reappearing Saxophone

I’m not really sure how to begin this tale. It’s a heartwarming tale, make no mistake, the likes of which you don’t hear every day. Best to start at the start which, in this case, requires us to go back to the heady days of 2001…

I had just moved to Dublin after having worked at the Ulster Orchestra for seven months. During that time I had acquired a lovely new Yamaha Bb clarinet and an even lovelier Yamaha Bb soprano saxophone, to replace the matched pair of Yamaha clarinets that had been stolen from the instrument room at Edinburgh University the summer before. I had fancied a soprano saxophone ever since hearing John Coltrane’s ‘My Favourite Things’ album and had borrowed one from my university friend Nina Wilson for a while. Now, thanks to having had my expensive instruments insured, I had my very own. Happy was I. And off I went to Dublin.

My sister lived there — she attended Trinity College — and I put all my things in her flat near the Phoenix Park on the night I arrived. I can’t remember why, exactly. The house I was moving into maybe still had a tenant in it. Anna (my sister) was home alone, I think, it being early September and her flatmates were yet to return after the summer. At any rate, an opportunity was seized by some enterprising burglars and our things were rifled through while we were out for the evening. I reported the theft to the local Gardaí the next day and, while they dusted for fingerprints, we forlornly listed the items that had been taken. Among them my beautiful saxophone.

I visited a few pawn shops over the next few weeks but the hope of recovering the items quickly faded. A couple of years later I thought I saw someone carrying a case very similar to the one that had housed my sax, but what could be done? A very generous friend, Corrie, gave me an alto sax at one stage but by then my woodwind playing had dwindled and it lay under the bed with my clarinet.

Years passed (imagine this in Cate Blanchett’s Lord-Of-The-Rings-prologue voice) and the memory of my golden ring of power saxophone faded. We pick up the story again in the present day, our hero now very much playing woodwind again (and, dare I say, looking splendidly well for the intervening thirteen years).

Last week a post circulated on social media concerning some items that had been found by Gardaí, their photographs posted online. Lots of bikes, picture frames, and…some saxophones. One of them a soprano saxophone. With a crooked mouthpiece (mine had had both types — crooked and straight). I looked at the photo and thought the etching on the instrument looked familiar (most instruments don’t have etching at all). I called the number and asked was it a Yamaha saxophone. It was. Oh.

If I could only prove it was mine. I called the UK-based insurer and was told they didn’t have records older than ten years. I knew I would’ve registered the serial number with them. I called the Garda station who had dealt with the theft in 2001. The incident was pre-computer but they found it quickly, although there was no note of the serial number. I searched for the original receipt, which I thought I might have kept since my clarinet was on the same docket, but to no avail. It dawned on me then that the receipt would almost certainly not have had the serial number on it, anyway. The shop where I’d bought the instruments — Marcus Music in Belfast — had closed, too.

My only hope was the insurer, I realised. Maybe the record was in a box file somewhere? I called back, on the off chance. Sure enough, they’d been talking about this strange Irish person looking for ancient records and it transpired that they, being the *agents*, wouldn’t have the full records: it would be the actual insurer. So I called them, my last hope. After just a few short lines of dialogue, in the blink of the proverbial eye, I had my serial number.

Fast forward through bank holiday weekend, the emailing of documentary evidence and excited calls to the Garda in charge of the property store, my wife, my sister, and my mum…and I’m on the way home with my saxophone!

It’s wrapped in bags, since its interim owner carried it in his tenor sax case, and it’s without a mouthpiece, but those few bits of TLC will help us get reacquainted. I’m imagining a montage scene, the sax at first shy and unsure how to be around me; we’ll go and get its new case and mouthpiece (we’ll try on different ones, I’ll hilariously stick one on my nose and look quizzical as the instrument’s standoffishness finally crumbles and we laugh, the shopkeeper shaking his head in bemusement); we ride home on the DART, pointing out flocks of birds taking off in the sunset to each other.

Or something.

Thirteen years, though…!

North American tour

We’re travelling today — from San Francisco to Seattle.

We met early at Dublin airport on the morning of the 14th and spent a full day travelling against the tide of the sun, arriving late in the evening to our hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
The next day (and the day after that!) we had breakfast at a great place called the Dialog Café. There was some gear to be bought in the afternoon and I went along to the giant Sam Ash music shop that the guys had been talking about. I didn’t have anything to get except a piano bench, so I happily played with the Prophet 12 synthesizer while the guys got the bits and pieces (and, the main item of business: a drum kit for Paul).
After a swim in the hotel pool, we made the pilgrimage up Runyon Canyon (impatiently eschewing the boring old path and making a beeline for the top) to see the Hollywood sign and take some epic band photos. I tagged along with James and Emma, then, to an amazing sushi place they’d been to before and we walked back past the Chinese Theatre, the panoply of stars on the Walk of Fame under our feet.

We finished our day with a sundae at Mel’s Diner 🙂

Sunday was show day and we loaded into The Roxy in the afternoon. I had been feeling a bit nervous about getting back into the swing of things again after our few weeks off, but once we started sound checking it all came back. The few tweaks I’d made to sounds worked well, too. It was amazing to play to such an enthusiastic, sold out crowd in such a historic venue 🙂

We got a few tales about the place from the production manager, most memorably the image of David Lee Roth running out into LA traffic, topless with red sequinned Lycra trousers, calling after his dog which had escaped!
The following morning, St Patrick’s Day, after waking up to an earthquake, we played a ‘Morning Becomes Eclectic’ session at KCRW.

Their studios are on the campus of Santa Monica College and the walls are adorned with portraits, large B&W prints and one entire wall of small Polaroids of everyone from Ian McEwan to Ellen Page to a three-years-ago James.
That night we played another show at The Roxy. James was having trouble beforehand with his voice and pushed through the show, the three of us supporting him with a heartfelt, albeit unmathematical, 110%. Again the crowd were brilliant (as were the supporting act, Aiden Knight and his band, who I’m looking forward to hearing more of along the road) — they responded really positively to the new material and were treated to James singing ‘Higher Love’ at the end, something he doesn’t normally do.
A problem with our bus meant that we were standing around in the parking lot for an hour after our pickup time. My clarinet was sitting on top of my suitcase and all of a sudden one of the venue staff pulled out of their parking space and knocked it over, crushing the case. A quick examination assured me it was okay, although a few keys had been bent and I knew it would have to be repaired properly. Shaken and annoyed, I went to bed as soon as we loaded the gear onto the bus. Next morning I found the name of a woodwind repairer in San Francisco, Daniel Deitch, and called him up when we got to the venue. He responded graciously to my plea for help (I learned later that he has a really big workload at the moment) and I brought the instrument to his workshop as the guys set up the stage. Daniel was brilliant, quickly working over the clarinet and ultimately leaving it in better condition than it’s ever been in. Every cloud has a silver lining and all that! I also joked with him about ‘the luck of the Irish’ as we contemplated the tonne of steel that my Yamaha case had withstood valiantly.

We chatted while he worked and listened to a brilliant Thelonius Monk album, ‘Live At Town Hall’.
When I arrived back a couple of hours later, the decision had just been made to cancel the Great American Music Hall show that night. James had an infection and a specialist had just prescribed penicillin and total rest. Hopefully the show can be rescheduled. On we go…


Reading Room


I’m writing this surrounded by cherubs and scholars in the reading room of the National Library. I have always meant to get a Reader’s Ticket and today finally got around to it. I was in town, at the sumptuous 37 Dawson Street, filming with James and the band for the RTÉ arts show ‘The Works’, which airs this Friday (7 March) at 8.30pm.

We finished our European tour with a really brilliant show in Paris (at La Gaité Lyrique) just over a week ago, having blazed a post tropical trail through Germany, Holland and Belgium. We played in quite a range of venues, from a small 200-seater (Brotfabrik in Frankfurt — dear knows what the venue guys thought as we ferried our entire lighting rig up the narrow, metal fire escape stairs that lead up from the courtyard below), to the unexpectedly brilliant venue in the old botanic gardens in Brussels, to the classy, professional venues that seemed to be everywhere in Holland, to what was for me a real highlight: the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

It won’t be long now before we’re back on the road again for five weeks in the US and Canada. I’m really looking forward to it: it’ll be my first time visiting most of the places we’re going to. My sister and I took a trip to Philadelphia / Virginia (& Washington DC) / Long Island (& New York) / Toronto (& London, ON) in the summer of 2000. We crammed all that into one month, staying with family and friends along the way (and enjoying the hospitality of the Salvation Army in Toronto!).

This time out it’ll be a tour bus bunk all the way. That was probably the hardest thing to get used to, and there was much discussion as to the merits of top, middle, or bottom bunks. I only tried the top bunk last time, so I must experiment with the other options on this run.

I got through two books: ‘Stoner’ by John Williams and ‘A Visit From The Goon Squad’ by Jennifer Egan. Both were brilliant and weren’t a million miles apart in terms of subject matter and tone (although Jennifer Egan pulls off some beautiful chapters in voices ‘other’ than that of her primary style). I was also introduced to the delight that is ‘East Bound and Down’. It had been my intention to try and get through the last few seasons of ‘Breaking Bad’, but that would’ve meant isolating myself from the group and well, gosh darnit, if they weren’t just too good to be around! I really must try and get to it on our jaunt around America, though. The others have all seen it (and there’s more than one of them has some item of clothing related to the show), so I’d say they’re champing at the bit to talk about it sometimes!