“People in Cork really know their music,” says award-winning singer-composer Julie Feeney. “Cork audiences are steeped in culture and it’s always a privilege playing to them.” This month she returns to Cork to perform her first full show in the Cork Opera House.
Two years ago, in the sort of rave review more established acts might kill for, The New York Times said “A brainy, adventurous Irish songwriter lives within the flamboyant theatricality of Julie Feeney… Ms. Feeney’s songs don’t shout. They tease, ponder, reminisce, philosophize and invent parables, and she sings them in a plush, changeable mezzo-soprano that usually holds a kindly twinkle.”
Feeney’s 2005 self-produced debut album, the eerily beautiful “13 Songs”, deservedly won the inaugural Choice Music Prize. Since then, her career has blossomed in the intervening years, with hits like “Love Is A Tricky Thing” and “Impossibly Beautiful“, from 2009’s “pages” propelling the Galway native to ever-greater heights. 2012’s crowd-funded “Clocks” went straight to Number One on the Independent Irish Album Charts and was voted the Irish Times Album of the Year.
I spoke with Feeney last week and she expressed her excitement at the upcoming concert in Cork Opera House. “I’ve performed there twice before, two small slots, one for UCC’s FUAIM and the other for the opening of the Opera House season launch. This time, I’m going to have the Cork Youth Chamber Orchestra with me to perform some of my songs.
“It’s a beautiful room, a very intimate room, and while it feels like it’s a very big space, it’s not at all when you’re on stage. There’s a feeling of history there, too, a feeling that you’re standing in a significant place.”
I first heard Julie Feeney almost a decade ago on John Kelly’s late and still-lamented RTÉ Radio show “The Mystery Train”. Before interviewing Feeney, I asked Kelly for a comment.
“Julie’s a seriously talented innovator. She’s also a performer of the highest order. In other words, she’s a real artist.”
– John Kelly
A special part of a Julie Feeney performance involves her moving through the audience and singing to individual people. “I take doing that for granted,” she says. “It feels natural, it feels instinctive for me to do that.” Someone obviously impressed by one such performance last year was no less a Hollywood light than Steven Spielberg.
“It was an Oscar Party (in L.A.). Actually, I was wearing a dress from The Dress Bar in Cork and the Clocks headpiece that Mary Ginnifer designed for me. I was the headline act for JJ Abrams’ party so I was on at the end of the night. As I was singing “Impossibly Beautiful”, I just saw this guy with a baseball cap and he had this black iPhone. Next thing there was a whoosh! of photographers who all went over to that side of the room and I thought ‘No, he couldn’t be, he couldn’t be. That couldn’t be Steven Spielberg filming me on his iPhone. Could it?’
“And we got a photograph as well. Because there were so many photographers, there was actually a photograph. You can see him with his iPhone and me in it. So we have proof!”
Feeney has played venues in Cork city and county “a disproportionate number of times because I keep getting invited back” and has made three of her videos here. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with the über-talented Cork based Epic Productions, where a whole team of inspired people make some outstanding videos. I also composed the music and included my own songs for their film ‘Stolen’. That film is actually one of the things I have done that I’m most proud of.”
Three years ago, Feeney raised €23,000 on the crowd-funding site FundIt for the production of her album ‘Clocks’. It remains FundIt’s most successful project. (“I’ve worked out that it takes exactly three years to get over a FundIt!”)
I ask her about the current state of the Irish music industry and she hesitantly expresses disquiet at U2’s controversial decision to sell their new album to Apple for a reported $100 million dollars with subsequent free release to iTunes subscribers. “I love U2 and I’m a huge, huge fan, but to me this is just a little hard to take. It really feels like ‘We can do whatever we want – and we just did’.”
She goes on to talk about meeting a fan who told her that she loved Feeney’s music and listened to it all the time – for free on MySpace. “I think that just reflects an attitude toward paying for music.”
On media reports that U2 and Apple are working on a revolutionary new “non-piratable, interactive digital concept”, Feeney says “I am intrigued by how you can go from selling your album for a hundred million to iTunes and then you go the complete opposite and design something that’s going to save the music industry. How do the two fit together? Maybe give (U2) the benefit of the doubt, but something about this makes me very uncomfortable.
“It feels like ‘To hell with everyone else’. And to talk about a new model? It better be amazing. It better be mind-blowing.”
I ask after her next album. “Album Four is floating in the ether. It’s very different again. I think I’m informed this time by performing live, the way that I feel when I’m performing live. It’s going to be more music-based, it’s going to be about the music. When I perform live, the music is arranged in a different way every time and that playing around has influenced the sound of the next album. In terms of concepts, it’s not like “Clocks” which was all about Galway and family history, this next one is purely coming from musical ideas and the words are coming from there too.
“It comes from inside. It definitely comes from silence. All I do is I just feel it, and hear it and then I just follow and I put that down. I don’t even know why it is or why the next thing comes. I just hear it.”
Is it a phrase of music or a phrase of words? “Both. Sometimes together, sometimes separately. And sometimes a phrase might marry an existing piece of music in your head.”
I tell her that I recently interviewed Cork broadcaster John Creedon for the Evening Echo and he spoke of reading Mozart’s claim that, if only he could avoid distraction, “the music will come to me, not one note at a time, not even one movement at a time, but in its entirety. Finished.”
Feeney seems taken aback when I tell her that Creedon told me “I get that from artists like Julie Feeney. Same with Van Morrison.” She laughs. “Wow! I’ve a lot to do before I’m in that sort of company! John has always been very supportive of me and I played a session for his show once, so that’s very much appreciated.”
Julie Feeney is warm, personable and enthusiastic. She exudes positivity but there’s steel there too and, not for the first time, I find myself pitying the problem that would dare to get in her way.
I ask if she’s looking forward to playing in Cork Opera House. “Cannot wait,” she says. “Can. Not. Wait.”
First published in the Evening Echo 16/10/14