A Life On Tour: Niall Connolly
18 April, 2016
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 ('Songs from a corner') 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 poetic 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, ‘All We 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.
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 other.
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 health problems.
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 succeed?
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 me.
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 has played.
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 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 years?
Ahhhh... where to start? This is an almost impossible task. So I won't overthink it and will just type what comes to mind.
- Gillian Welch- Everything is Free Now
- 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 Roads
- Will Oldham - I see a Darkness
- Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Rain Coat/ Alexandra Leaving
- The Straight Story - Soundtrack
- The Pixies - Where is My Mind?
- Hawksley Workman - Safe and Sound
- John Spillane- Who Will Burn Brightly?
- E.W. Harris - Only Wind Up Dead
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 tour. "Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine". That was good for perspective!