The Irish chamber-pop princess talks with Tara Dougherty about her recent world tour, her second album and her innovative sound, which is breathing life into the contemporary Irish music scene.
The first rounds of touring in foreign countries are daunting enough, but when an artist like Julie Feeney does it, there is an entirely different set of concerns other than those of the typical four-piece band. As I spoke to Feeney, she was in California, having just played in Los Angeles, and was on her way north. The Galway-born singer/composer told me about the gorgeous view of the marina as well as her many challenges as an up-and-coming musician on the world stage.
During our conversation, two things struck me about Feeney. The first was her humility. “We played Los Angeles last night,” she said, quickly followed by, “I can’t believe I’m actually saying that!” The second was her grace and spontaneity in facing the great challenge of touring with a style of music that requires slightly more than the typical guitar and bass. Feeney tows along with her any combination of harp, trumpet, strings, piano and more on her tours.
“Classically trained” does not even begin to sum up Feeney’s education. A former professional choral singer, she has composed for contemporary dance pieces, taught music at university levels and was recently commissioned to compose an opera. Feeney’s compositions breathe life into concert halls, churches and rock clubs across Ireland and now America.
Incorporating the use of classical instruments, Feeney released her second pop album, pages, in the States in May. Feeney dismisses the description “chamber art pop” and rightly so, as it suggests rigidity or pretension. Nothing could be less true about pages. It is inviting, warm and nails the aura that Feeney strived for it to encapsulate, inspired by a certain change in her attitude, in Feeney’s experience of things. “I just felt this thing, I wanted to communicate this comfort, this grace,” she explained. “It sounds strange, it was almost a spiritual feeling… nothing bothered me and things that would annoy me didn’t actually annoy me… I felt very compassionate.” That moment of clarity led her to compose pages with the intention of communicating that feeling of comfort.
Pages is the Andy Warhol of pop albums, the face of old tradition with a smirk of new ideas. Feeney’s eccentric creativity extends to the visual aspect of her videos and shows. A lover of headpieces, Feeney frequently wears a hat resembling a house during live performances. Why? It completes the Wonderland feel of her whimsical album.
“It recreates the kind of magical world that I wanted to create in pages the album. That kind of fairytale thing,” Feeney said. “I like to go into an enchanted place if I can and definitely wearing a headpiece helps me get there. They’re beautiful as well.” Feeney was elated when famed designer Piers Atkinson offered several of his pieces to be featured in the music video for Feeney’s infectious single “Impossibly Beautiful.”
While the headpieces are a fun and fanciful addition to the live performances, anyone who has seen Feeney will tell you the house on her head often takes a backseat to the fascinating instrumentation, which varies tour to tour.
Feeney talked about the challenges of translating the complex and intricate pages into a live touring act. “Every single show I would re-orchestrate the parts and then depending on budget and depending on availability [of the musicians] I would change it.”
Feeney has also experimented with playing these massive orchestral pieces with just herself and harpist Cormac De Bara. “We did a lot of shows in Ireland like that, I wanted to experiment. Now I have lots of different versions of the show. I have one that has three strings, a trumpet and a singer. Or two strings, a harp, a trumpet and a singer…” and the list goes on. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh wow, the amount of work you put into your shows, could you not make it easier?’ But it’s much more fun that way, it’s very challenging. I definitely find that your orchestration and arranging skills get really quick. One of the players might say to me ‘Do you want me to sing that down after?’ and I say, ‘No, no because it’ll mess up the inversion.’ It might seem like a good idea but I’m thinking of the whole harmony.”
Feeney always seems to be thinking of the whole harmony. She has her hands in every aspect of her tours. She enjoys the adventure of being in foreign countries, of finding her way to the show and everyone in her team pitches in. “When we’re all there I might say ‘OK guys, Siobhan couldn’t be here or Lena couldn’t be here so we need to find out where we’re going.’ And that can be great fun because everyone mucks in and helps out. Jenny is off hiring cello and guitar and everybody is really involved in it all. It’s not clinical it’s actually very real and tangible.
“It’s not like when you’re touring with some group and you’re completely like a robot and you know it’s a big organization and you’re just slotting in. That’s not the most fulfilling existence, I much prefer when it’s a bit hard.” Feeney also remarked on her excitement in touring America and its similarities to Ireland. “Irish audiences have that spark – there’s an energy there and that’s the same with the Americans.”
From an early age, attending boarding schools in rural Galway, Feeney was enthralled by music. When the decision came to record her debut album, 13 songs, she decided to do so without the help or wallets of record labels. When I ask her about the daunting task of creating her first and second albums totally independently, her response was immediate: “Scary as hell but I loved the exhilaration.” Among her most intimidating moments was during the recording of pages. ”I had the Irish chamber orchestra who are one of Europe’s top orchestras, absolutely an amazing orchestra, the strings are just fantastic. I knew that I was going to be presenting my music that nobody else had ever heard but me to the Irish Chamber Orchestra and I was going to be conducting them. And that was absolutely, totally scary. I had one person come over and I just looked over at him and I just said, ‘Can you just please tell me that I’m not deluding myself? Is this presentable?’ And he’s an experienced orchestrator and he said ‘Oh course, you’re absolutely fine.’ But when you’re working on your own, you don’t know if it’s any good.”
Even with the clout Feeney had with her musical background, any artist facing the task of writing and recording independently faces a huge risk both financially and creatively. “The first [album] was completely self-funded, I took out loans and all kinds of things. For both albums I have borrowed lots and lots of money. I’ve never taken out a mortgage; I’ve never bought a car. Anytime I’ve ever taken a loan out it’s been for my music, which is kind of phenomenal actually. I’ve gone into debt for both albums… If you really love it, you will put your neck on the line. There’s always a huge element of fear. It’s not that I like to torture myself but something erupts inside you and you will do whatever, you’ll put your neck on the line for it to happen. You can get caught up in what other people are doing and what other people got that you didn’t get but I think if you can put your neck on the line then you’ll know. You won’t even be looking around at anyone else. I’ve had that on both albums.”
Despite her ever-busy schedule, Feeney’s mind was already on her third album. She knows the title of the album and she knows the vibe she wants to express – neither of which she would share. “One of my best friends was like ‘Can you please tell me?’” she laughed, “and I said, ‘No I actually can’t tell anybody…It’s not a superstitious thing but it has to form in my head first. But I actually do, I know exactly what it’s going to be.”
For her albums, 13 songs and pages, and for tour dates, visit www.juliefeeney.com.