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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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”

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