If at first you don’t succeed...
How do musicians make the leap from to mediocrity to brilliance? Two of the nominees for this year’s Choice Music Prize – Adrian Crowley and Cathy Davey – have produced minimasterpieces that put their previous work in the shade. Tony Clayton-Lea asks them
HOW’S this for a laugh – the creator of one of the best Irish albums of 2007 doesn’t have a manager. It makes you think of the many Irish bands and solo acts that employ the services of someone they might not need. But then Adrian Crowley – the man behind the subtle, elegiac sweep of Long Distance Swimmer, which has been nominated for the Choice Music Prize (see panel) – doesn’t seem to have any notions beyond writing songs and performing them in front of small, highly appreciative audiences.
Crowley’s demeanour befits his music: outwardly serious, inwardly reflective, with a sharp intellect and wit just waiting to be ignited, he is the quiet one who is finally making a big noise. From Galway, with an academic background in architecture and a creative background in illustration, Crowley isn’t the youngest of this year’s Choice pack (he’s in his late 30s), but he is probably the most accomplished.
And yet we can safely bet that when the nominees for the Choice Music Award were announced, some people wondered who Crowley was, where he had come from and how he had sneaked his way onto the nomination list.
Even those familiar with his name – if not his music – might have asked themselves how in the name of Louis Walsh he had managed to release four albums and still be within a hair’s breadth of a chance to win.
Clearly, Crowley was taking the tortoise and the hare approach.
“It’s really only in the last three to four years that I have been consistently busy,” he tells The Ticket. “I was touring all over the place, the US and the UK, hardly ever playing in Ireland. Friends and acquaintances would say to me that I hadn’t played a gig in a while, yet I’d played about 80 since I last saw them. In the past three years, I’ve been playing so much that I’ve hardly noticed the time go by.”
Deliberate and careful about his recorded output, Crowley isn’t the most prolific of songwriters; he says he writes quickly but has a tendency to mull over the resulting work. In the past, if a record didn’t turn out as envisaged, it would, more than likely, have been abandoned. But the past few years have seen him loosen up.
Crowley’s first reaction on hearing that his album had been shortlisted for the prize was to think of the question he presumed was being asked by all and sundry. “I’m sure it was, ‘who is Adrian Crowley’?” he says. “I was almost under the assumption that I would continue being totally unknown in Dublin and Ireland, and that all the interest from promoters, festivals and labels would continue to come from the UK. I had almost resigned myself to that.
“When the nominations came out I was touched, genuinely. December isn’t, perhaps, the best time of the year to release anything, so as per usual I just put it out of my mind.”
What are the differences between Long Distance Swimmer and his previous albums?
“Well, the situation is totally different from before. I think I can look back on what I’ve done and say that the new record is more accessible. I wasn’t trying to do that, though. Yet it certainly has more colours to it – flashes of turquoise, sepia and splashes of red. The other records were exercises in mood, I suppose.”
As for being more than a blip on the radar, “I’m not uncomfortable with it. I’m pretty awestruck but also able to keep perspective. All I was expecting for this year was a chance to continue playing gigs in the places I have gotten to love. I wasn’t considering winning over new ears at all. I feel like I’m arriving, I guess. It’s like a band releasing their debut album and making a bit of a splash.”
Splash or not, Crowley has joined the ranks of music acts who labour away for years releasing albums that most people ignore, only to be feted for a new record. (These ranks include David Bowie, kd
lang, Rufus Wainwright, Lucinda Williams, Frank Zappa and Thin Lizzy).
A similar scenario unfolded for Crowley’s fellow Choice nominee, Cathy Davey; her debut, Something Ilk, was released in 2004 to a muted response.
Last year, her follow-up, Tales of Silversleeve, blew jaded listeners out of the water with its barrage of perky tunes and sense of confidence. According to Davey, writing happy music made all the difference.
“It has opened up a lot of good things for me, playing upbeat songs, uplifting music. It all comes down to doing something that makes you feel good. It was a growing up process really, and discovering that you didn’t have to play minor chords in order to write a song.”
Another difference for Davey was that at the time of her first album, she simply wasn’t ready for the sudden increase in profile, which temporarily stunted her creative processes.
“It more or less came from nowhere,” she recalls. “Also, I had no idea what to do business-wise, and had little idea how to connect with music industry people or what it was like being part of a record company. And money – it was never a part of my life, but then it became so.
“There was nothing about the experience that was pleasurable, but in retrospect that was only because I wasn’t ready for it. Now, it has become pleasurable because I had everything ready to go – songs, recordings, mindset. Thank God the buzz around Something Ilk backfired, because now I get to do it the right way.”
In Crowley’s case, does he have any idea what made the difference between the small ripple of previous records and the sizeable wave of Long Distance Swimmer?
“Maybe it was made for a broader spectrum of people. But it’s also a wider confluence of things – promotion, distribution, publishing deals, and so on. They won’t work if the record doesn’t work. There was a sensation of a lot of things suddenly coming together; a gig in Scotland some time back, where I just knew it was the best gig I’d ever done.
“From that point onwards, I felt I was a better performer, more focused, with more control over what I do, in terms of performing. It felt like progress, and once that happened other things fell into place . . . Ultimately, I was always under the assumption that my music would fall on the right ears. Eventually.”
Adrian Crowley: “I had a gig in Scotland some time back – the best gig I’d ever done. From that point on, I was a better performer”