Citizens is the gorgeous new album from Owensie, erstwhile Puget Sound and Terrordactyl guitar wizard and vocalist, and companion piece to last year’s equally impressive Aliens. Both records (available on Limerick’s Out On A Limb Records) are filled with beguiling acoustic tunes running the gamut from Elliott Smith-esque up-tempo rockers to flamenco influenced fingerpicking workouts, all permeated by a unifying sense of unease at the direction the world is taking. The music and lyrics seem to function both as part of a process of catharsis for the artist, but also to communicate – to engage the listener on a deeper level than ‘Oh, that sounds nice’. Touching on subjects such as migration, grief, and what it means to be entangled in a corrupt government, these are heavy tunes for heavy times, but delivered in a way that thankfully never crosses the threshold into sermonising. He talks new band, new audience and old influences with Ivan Deasy.
The new album has much more of a band feel to it than the first one, were the songs written with that in mind?
Yeah the album was kinda half written with that mind, after the first album and touring around solo with that, it was a bit of a struggle at times in terms of where I was playing, playing in bars and pubs and stuff like that, it was difficult at times to be able to engage with a drinking audience. Based on that experience, I thought that, at least in Ireland, it would be a good thing to have a live band. I wasn’t too worried about adding lots of extra dynamic to the songs or anything like that. I just thought it had a bit more presence in a live setting, it would go down a bit better, and it would come across even in a bar situation, where there’s a lot of background noise and stuff like that.
More broadly, what were the differences and similarities between writing the first album and the second album?
Well, the first album was sort of … becoming a solo artist/singer songwriter type thing was accidental, so the first album was a real … it was kinda written without being an album as such, it was just a collection of songs. I had started to do this new thing, wrote a bunch of songs, recorded a bunch of songs and committed the best ones to the album. This time around, with the second album, I had become a lot more conscious of the songwriting process and the importance of lyrical structure. I always thought lyrics were important, but I was trying to give more structure to the songs, lyrically trying to be less obscure, trying to be storytelling at times, without wanting to embrace any particular style of lyricism or anything like that. Yeah, then being conscious of having the band as well, there was a lot more scope to think in terms of writing slightly heavier songs and just being able to use things like changing the drum-beat halfway through a song, I guess playing with the instruments a little bit more. But I must have written about twenty songs and recorded a lot of them as well, like when I set out to record the album, it was completely different to what it turned out to be. Like after the first recording session I dropped the opening track, what I assumed was going to be the opening song of the album, and that was just gone, and that was scary then, because all of a sudden the introduction was just gone from the whole thing. So I felt a bit lost then. Then I think on the second or third recording, I think I dropped the end song which was supposed to be the end of the album, so once that happened it just completely opened up. So I just carried on in that vein, without thinking too much about the first album, and not feeling like I had to stay in some way committed to the sound of that. And even at times, there were some songs that I felt sounded almost kinda poppy or something like that, which would sort of be against my nature, I still liked what it was, so I just went and did it. I just said ‘OK, there’s influences from a younger period in my life coming through here and I’m just gonna be happy to go with that’.
Do you think of the new album as a continuation of the themes that Aliens revolved around?
Yeah it ended up that way, that lyrically a lot of the songs are still dealing with stuff from the first album, like migration and undocumented workers and that type of stuff. Actually, in the opening song of this album, and the closing song, that weren’t supposed to be the opening and closing songs, but they both sort of encapsulate that theme of Citizens. It kinda worked out well that way, given the nature of life in Europe and Ireland, definitely over the last 4 or 5 years, what it means to be a citizen in a country that’s changed a lot, especially in this place, in terms of what people’s rights are, and entitlements are, and sort of what their responsibilities are in terms of bringing the government to account for it’s actions and stuff like that. So, for me, it worked out well that way that the first album was about the alien as the outsider and how they exist in that kind of context. So in Citizens, it’s kind of like the citizen is almost becoming the outsider to the interests of the people above them. They’re becoming the excluded, you could say.
All I wrote for this question was the word ‘politics’. I don’t really consider myself informed enough to formulate a good question about it, but I guess in a general sense, a lot of your lyrics are informed by…
Political stuff, yeah. Well I mean from the age of about fifteen I was playing in punk bands. So politics was very much what you were expected to sing and write about when you’re in a punk band and that’s still with me to this day I think. In my youth, I would have become involved a lot in radical left wing politics and stuff like that. I’m a full time single parent now, so I don’t really get out much during the week. So yeah, just my upbringing in that scene is still very much with me now, in terms of, I think it’s useful to write political songs in this day and age. Before the start of this year I was quite worried about it, I was quite worried in regards to Ireland, that it had this very big music scene, spoken of so much, and celebrated so much, yet no bands seemed to be addressing the current situation at all. This year, obviously, The Spook of the Thirteenth Lock have brought out an album that’s quite… I was very relieved when that album came out, I was like ‘OK, it’s happening, it’s starting to happen now’. Maybe it was just a bit slow to take off or whatever. I think music, as a ‘vector of dissent’, as I heard it described once in some sort of academic way, is very important.
Would you think that you’re writing songs for the same reasons as say, with Puget Sound or something?
Yeah, yeah absolutely.
Trying to communicate the same thing to people?
Yeah. Absolutely. One of the big things, one of the hang ups I developed over the years was that you can be in a punk band, in a punk scene, and write political songs and sing them to your punk friends at a gig, or on tour, in a squat or wherever, and it becomes quite dogmatic after a while. To the point that it’s difficult to express political opinions that aren’t necessarily radical left wing and that basically you’re just regurgitating the same message to a bunch of people who agree with you already. So that just becomes sort of self-serving after a while. Actually, when I was in Puget Sound, another thing with us was that we were trying to break out from, we were trying to be a bit more experimental in the music, and trying to break away out of that scene a little bit or trying to bring in extra influences, or just to diversify in some kind of way. We weren’t really too successful with that I don’t think. But I was always interested in trying to bring those ideas outside of that sphere as well, into a more popular sphere.
So your audience has short of shifted now.
Yeah, I have a different audience now. Mainly in the 25 to 32 year old category, according to my Facebook statistics anyway (laughs). But yeah I suppose, because of the nature of the music that it is, more ‘normal’ people listen to it or something like that. For want of a better term (laughs).
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