Niall Connolly. Photo: Anthony
Niall Connolly is a modern
troubadour. Over the last 15 years, he has toured extensively
throughout Europe and the USA, playing hundreds of concerts in a
wide variety of venues. He has played house concerts in Holland,
folk festivals in Germany and cafes in rural Belgium. He has also
taken the stage at prestigious events and venues such as CMJ in New
York, the Olympia theatre in Dublin and Glastonbury. He has played
support to some of Ireland’s most successful modern music acts,
including Mick Flannery, John Spillane and Declan O’Rourke. His
admirers include Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner (“I cannot remember when I
heard such a moving collection of songs”) and Glen Hansard of The
Frames/Swell Season fame, who recently tweeted
his support. He has performed for movie stars (Gabriel Byrne
and Daniel Day Lewis at The New York Irish Arts Centre Gala) and
heads of state (including
recently as a ‘warm up’ act for Bill Clinton). His recent tour
blog offers a witty
insight into some of these adventures.
After beginning his career in his hometown of Cork, Niall moved
to Brooklyn, New York, in 2006. There he formed the
Big City Folk Collective, providing a forum for a
community of songwriters and musicians to perform and to
hone their craft. During his time in New York, he has been
instrumental in maintaining a live folk music scene throughout the
city’s boroughs. The respect his fellow musicians and songwriters
have for him is evident in their recording of a tribute album
of his songs released in 2012.
Niall’s impassioned, vibrant and humour-laden performances have
received wide critical acclaim,
including from the Chicago Tribune and ‘No Depression’ magazine. He
is also a respected recording artist. In 2001, his impressive
debut album received warm praise from Hot Press magazine. Over time,
his musical style evolved from the folk-infused lyrical songwriting
of his 2003 album ‘As Tomorrow
Creeps from the East’ to incorporate a fuller indie-rock sound,
demonstrated on recordings such as 2010’s ‘Brother
the Fight is Fixed’ and 2013’s ‘Sound’. A great
admirer of Leonard Cohen, Niall’s songs exhibit a similar
fluency and emotional
honesty. They also demonstrate a political
awareness which calls to mind Billy Bragg and Steve Earle, a
short story writer’s gift for condensed
narrative, and a taste for spikey
social commentary in the vein of Loudon Wainwright. While his
songs are skilfully written and intelligent, they, like his live
performances, are also warm and inclusive. His latest release,
Have Become’ (2015) is perhaps his most well-rounded album to
date, incorporating songs from across his range of styles.
Niall is also a good friend of mine. I know him to be a robust
and resourceful person who has carved out a career in a very
competitive environment. I was interested in what he would have to
tell us about the strains that life as a touring musician place on
his mental health, and his experience in coping with the demands of
such a lifestyle. Following his recent tour of the UK and Ireland,
Niall took some time out to speak to me about his life on the road,
and in music.
Niall on stage in Coughlan’s,
Cork, April 2016. Photo: Anthony Mulcahy.
JT: You have toured widely in many countries over 15
years. One of your early songs was called ‘Kindness of a Stranger’,
about one of the encounters you had. How important has it been to
you that strangers or relative strangers have lent a helping hand
on your many journeys? Aside from practical help, how does this
make a difference for you?
NC: I’d forgotten about that song! Touring for me is something
of a tightrope walk. The safety net appears when I get on the rope.
People are generally very open and kind to musicians. I wonder if
it stems from people's respect for the gamble of a life less
ordinary. It is such an unlikely way to live and in my experience
of touring, people often connect with that and want to help.
People often tell me I am lucky or I am brave. I think it isn’t
solely either of those things. Though the kindness of strangers
certainly makes me braver and I know I am lucky. Still, it does
take a lot of work to stay lucky.
Touring and consistently finding the kindness of strangers does
give me a great lust for life. I so frequently get to see people at
their best. In these dark times, I keep my eyes open to the
everyday, random acts of kindness that people offer each
You have also spoken to me about the many stresses and
strains of touring. A recent
Guardian article made reference to this (though I felt somewhat
conflated mental health problems with career
dissatisfaction/existential angst!). What in your experience are
the main problems that arise from being on the road? What are the
best ways to deal with them? And the not so good ones?
The problems of touring are similar to those present in everyday
life for everyone. But they are exacerbated by the nomadic aspects
of life on tour. Poor diet, lack of exercise and sleep, too much
drinking, loneliness, and financial stress can easily join forces
and cause issues on tour. And the adrenaline of performance and the
comedown that comes with it are additional factors. Any
combination of these can cause mental discomfort, if not mental
I try to be aware of all of these aspects. I try to be as
prepared and as well researched as I can for tours, though of
course there are aspects of tour, as with life, that are out of my
control. A key issue is that I need to be ‘on’ when I am on stage.
So much effort has gone into getting myself to the gig on time in
any given city, that I do try to make sure that my mind is sharp
while on stage. I plan my tours in as much detail as possible
before I leave. I try to drink less than I want to. I walk as much
as I can. I spend money on accommodation- sleep is not a luxury! I
also pack (and sometimes use) a pair of running shoes- running
serves the double purpose of providing exercise and also an
opportunity for some time alone to reflect during the tour.
Does it get harder or easier over time?
I’ve gotten better at recognising where problems arise for me.
For example, hangovers and travel are a horrible mix. I try to make
reasonably healthy choices along the way. So physically, touring
has actually become easier as I have gotten older, as I have become
a bit more organized and developed a small bit more "sense".
A small bit! The hardest aspect of touring for me is being away
from my wife. I hate being away for prolonged spells.
You have met many accomplished musicians from many
different backgrounds. Have you noticed any common personality
traits? What do you think are the characteristics that make it more
likely a musician, particularly a touring musician, will endure or
Nearly all of the very successful people I have met are
genuinely very nice people. They are shielded by confidence and
belief in their work. This is not to be confused with arrogance-
the belief is more in creating music rather than in themselves.
Many of them seem very aware, and wary, of the more tenuous aspects
of success. They tend to be very interested and invested in
their creativity. Most also chose their battles wisely. They are
not afraid to say no to inappropriate gigs. Learning to know when
to say ‘no’ is an ongoing lesson for
Niall oversees his kingdom of New York. Photo:
What about the life of a full-time musician in
Brooklyn/New York? What are the main changes that have happened in
the last 10 years do you think? Have any of them been for the
better? We would be interested in the role you feel the internet
Venues are closing and changing hands with alarming frequency.
Despite its reputation as a centre for creativity- or perhaps
alongside this- the city seems to also have an endless appetite for
banks, coffee chains and chemists. For example, Greenwich Village
in Manhattan is now littered with chain stores.
The internet has certainly made booking and promoting gigs
easier, but it has made the gigs themselves harder. We live in the
age of distraction. In Brooklyn, like in any big city, people have
so many options to choose from in every aspect of their lives. Even
when people do choose to go out, and come to a gig, so many appear
chained to their devices. In my experience, this is markedly worse
in the US than in Ireland or Germany, for example. While video
never quite killed the radio star, the smartphone seems intent on
killing or at least maiming live performance.
The internet has also made it easier for people to record and
distribute music, but it has also devalued it immensely. At one
point, I had stern words with a friend for giving away CDs on tour.
I used the argument that if it is not with $10 or $15 to you, the
artist, why would anyone listen to it? We, the musicians, have to
put a value on our work.
The internet has changed all industries. The music industry has
changed and continues to change, so I need to be industrious, and
become my own industry.
Many of our readers are interested in the link between
mental health and inspiration/creativity. The cliché of the
perpetually tortured artist doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny when
examined closely: Will Oldham, who I featured some time
back, made some interesting points on this,
and Van Morrison has said he rarely feels inspired to create unless
he has peace of mind. I know you are a big admirer of Tom Waits,
who made arguably his best work when his personal life was most
stable. Can you give us your perspective on this topic? What are
the ideal conditions in which to write or compose, or is it
different for each song?
I think it is certainly true that our experience of the world is
different when we are at our wit's end, even exhausted, and it is
certainly possible to create something different in that frame of
mind. However, I don't ever seek that out, for it is equally true
that I will experience the world differently when I am fully
rested! Or after reading a great book, seeing a great film, or
having a great conversation with an old friend.
As for writing- I gather ideas constantly. I eavesdrop. I keep
my eyes open. I take notes. I write a lot on trains. The
songwriting itself, the music part, well for that I need privacy or
the illusion of privacy. Even my best songs are awful till they are
good. My wife and I rent a railroad apartment in Brooklyn- it is
long and narrow, so I can go to one end of it and pretend she can't
really hear me strangling a song into shape.
I know you listen to an impressively broad range of
music. How did your own tastes develop?
I started deliberately seeking out and listening to music at
about 13. I liked REM, Nirvana, James, the Frank and Walters, the
Sultans of Ping, indie pop, grunge and some of the more melodic
punk stuff. My sister had some Dylan, Cohen, Waits, and I started
delving into that too. Later, I worked in the music library in Cork
for a spell. I broadened my listening somewhat there but I was, and
still am, essentially drawn in by melody and words.
Can you select a few songs, ideally from different
genres, which have been inspirational to you over the
Ahhhh... where to start? This is an almost impossible
task. So I won't overthink it and will just type what comes to
Gillian Welch- Everything is
King Creosote and Jon Hopkins- Bubble
PJ Harvey - Sheela Na Gig
The Frank And Walters - Landslide
Ger Wolfe - the Curra Road/ She
Scattered Crumbs/ One Star Left in the Window
Avro Pärt - Spiegel im Spiegel
We/Or/Me - The Dusty
Will Oldham - I see a Darkness
Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Rain Coat/ Alexandra Leaving
Roesy - Take It
With Me (Tom Waits Cover)
The Straight Story - Soundtrack
The Pixies - Where is My Mind?
Hawksley Workman - Safe and
John Spillane- Who Will Burn
E.W. Harris - Only Wind Up
What do you listen to most on the road?
I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. Those are great
for solo travel. As I can switch off and still learn something. I
actually listened to my first Audiobook in its entirely on the last
"Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean
Mine". That was good for perspective!