Who is Lisa O’Neill?
“Me”, she replies.
It’s a simple answer, evasive yet playful. She’s goading, though not inviting too much. For people who know her it’s easily understood, but as Lisa’s star rapidly rises, and with a much anticipated second album due for release, the Celt asks the question again to benefit those who may not.
“I don’t know, you tell me?”, she jousts again. “She’s the daughter of ‘Bud’ and Carmel O’Neill”.
There’s a pause. We walk a few more steps before Lisa breaks the silence: “She’s a girl from Ballyhaise. She’s a singer... and she’s happy. Very!”
When we meet the singer-songwriter it’s on a chilly but dry morning in her home village. We’re about to embark on a walking-talking tour of the local area in the hope of teasing out some of the things which inform her music.
Almost immediately we’re introduced to the Ballyhaise Community Centre. It’s where Lisa played in public for the first time she tells us.
Her musical education started age seven as a tin whistle player in the Ballyhaise Marching Band. Realising by age 14 she had spent half her life doing that, she abandoned the whistle in favour of guitar lessons with local man David Molloy.
“It wasn’t long after I first began learning, I got up and sang ‘American Pie’, probably sang it with an American accent and all. I just remember coming home and saying to dad, ‘I got my first gig’. He laughed, that was that”.
Lisa nevertheless remembers coming off stage and thinking to herself: “I like this, when can I do it again? I wasn’t nervous.”
We pass the Woodland Estate, an old feature but still referred to as the ‘new houses’; and the ‘Devil’s Bite’, a fork-shape cut into the stone outside the Church of Ireland walls. Lisa explains that young children are warned that if they step on the mark the devil will get them.
“I really enjoyed growing up in Ballyhaise. Then you were allowed to go down to the shops on your own. The world got bigger. From the Antiduff Road to the village without parental guidance, on your bike, acting the muck, climbing trees and building forts. Kissing boys, drinking and smoking fags. Sometimes singing songs. It was a big deal in them days.”
The colour pink was an unwitting but recurring theme for parts of Lisa’s childhood. Her first bike was pink, and first tape recorder too, which coincidentally came with her first cassette - Alanis Morrissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill’. The tape recorder also spawned a bedroom broadcast pirate radio of self recordings with Lisa and her siblings at the helm. “Pink Radio FM...” she chimes from memory, “the sound of Ballyhaise”.
Howbeit, dressed in her blue hat and aqua coloured coat and earrings?
Lisa says blue suits her better: “It’s the colour of truth.”
Lisa has in the meantime also moved on from bedroom recordings, signing a publishing deal with Domino Records earlier this year and leading to the launch of a new album, due out this Friday (October 18).
Truth and character
While truth is a running theme in Lisa’s work, the world might be forgiven in believing Ballyhaise had fallen from the pages of a fairytale, with dog-babies and a ‘Border Fox’, a half-man half-fox stalking the border, among other fascinating characters and places.
She is aware the images she conjures mean some of her audience are left outside of an otherwise inside local joke. It’s not intentional she confesses, and she believes it’s not a hindrance in others accessing her music.
“My first reason for writing a song is to suss something out in my own head. It’s after I’ve written a song that I have to think about what people will think. That’s a challenge now the music is getting more attention.
“Like ‘No Train to Cavan’, I don’t know the politics behind it, I just remember people saying there’s no trains to Cavan. Or about the Border Fox. I’d hear about this man, and in my mind it developed a rare character, a half-man half-fox, and to tell you the truth I wanted to meet him. You’d hear chatting, and my take on a lot of this was very innocent. I know it’s more serious than that, but in my head it’s what these things meant to me.
“There are people who’ll recognise what I mean when I sing about the ‘One Tree’ or ‘The Meadow’ but to everyone else they’re just words and people all over the world can imagine what it is I’m talking about. There’s always going to be the select few who’ll know that little bit more, but people take what they want from my songs
“My songs come from spending a lot of time on my own to the point I’m almost having conversations with myself. There’s me and there’s me! I think if you’re OK with talking to yourself and if that comes with a melody alongside it then you’ve got music in you. Songs come from your own intake of life, your intake of music. Your soakage!”, Lisa muses. “I’ve had a very nice flow going the past few years, it hasn’t stopped. Who knows, it could stop soon, I don’t know, but for the minute it’s going well.”
Aside from the new album, a busy 2013 saw Lisa tour Europe with Glen Hansard, a show soon to be played out across Ireland, earn rave reviews for her performance at Electric Picnic, while she has also been lined-up to participate in RTÉ’s ‘Other Voices’ programme later this year.
On stage she appears at once broodingly confident, while also quite timid and vulnerable.
“There are times I get stressed,” Lisa admits, “but I’m enjoying it. There aren’t a lot of ‘buts’ to it. It’s new, like for anyone who takes a career that starts moving. Things like interviews, there’s more of them and that’s new too. I would’ve been very nervous about them before, but once you’re being honest you can’t regret what you say. It’s definitely the most exciting time in my life.”
Within her new found, and increasing, success Lisa has found time to savour its joys. One of the most memorable occurred just recently, when during RTÉ’s ‘Big Music Week’ in Killarney, she found herself taking part in a session in a hotel lobby session surrounded by fellow folk and trad musicians like John Spillane, Ger Wolfe, Pauline Scanlon and Seamus Begley.
“I was sitting there quietly,” she recalls. “Probably quieter than usual, but I realised listening that the songs they were playing were so beautiful. It was a moment so beautiful I thought I would faint. I never wanted it to end and right there I realised how lucky I was to be in this company. They were tapping into something from a long, long time ago.
“Moments like that inspire me. Being on the road with musicians, car journeys and bus journeys, chatting and playing, I’m very thankful for where I am right now.”
While Ballyhaise may be home in so many ways for Lisa, Dublin where she has lived for the last dozen years, has become the home of her adult life. “A lot of my changes as an adult happened while living in Dublin. Friends, my musical education and career, all that growth happened in Dublin.”
Dublin also saw her introduced to musicians Stina Sandstrom and Mossy Nolan who would become her stalwart band mates, and again shine on ‘Same Cloth Or Not’ where producer David Kitt’s minimalist touch allows Lisa’s distinctive voice to soar as it should.
The songs deemed humorous on her début ‘...has an album’ are less plentiful on her new release; that’s not to say it’s a body of work devoid of her trademark whimsy.
“The songs where I’m telling something about myself I’d be more conscious of. That’s like reading my diary out isn’t it? ‘No Train to Cavan’ is humorous but it doesn’t say a lot about me. ‘Elvis I give you Irish stew’ or songs about working in Bewley’s, they’re fine, they get written quickly and I don’t really mind what people think.”
A line in song number two on the new album, ‘Coward’s Corner’ perhaps sums up her sentiment best - ‘I border on childish lies, scared of the eyes, that crack my heart with something I said’.
“The new album is a lot of the other, it’s very personal. Some might say it’s slow. It’s slower if that’s what they mean. But it’s the most grown up I’ve ever been.”
The tour of Ballyhaise eventually takes us to the ornate surrounds of the ‘Peacock Room’ in the Agricultural College with its high brick-vaulted ceiling, hand-painted wallpaper and marble fireplace.
Asked what will happen to the songs that didn’t make ‘Same Cloth Or Not’ Lisa hopes they’ll find their way onto another album.
“I wouldn’t put so much into uniforming an album. It’s just the ones that went onto this album they won! They wanted to go on this and the rest of the songs that didn’t they’ll still have their chance. I plan to make more than two albums.
“My main goal was never to make music my business. The industry has come to me, but saying that I do want to do well. Music is something over the years I’ve realised I’m good at. I like it and it’s something I want to do a while longer.”
‘Same Cloth Or Not’ by Lisa O’Neill is due for release later this week, Friday, October 18. Lisa will play in support of Glen Hansard as he embarks on his solo tour this October, with a Cavan date at Blessing’s Bar, Main Street, Cavan on Saturday, October 26; tickets priced €20.
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