Originally published in The Irish Post, November 2013
IF THERE IS, as they say, something in the water in Cavan, then it has taken one band slightly longer than usual to fully ingest its magical ingredient. Twenty-four years, to be exact. The Strypes may have blazed a trail over the last year, making fans of Elton John, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller and creating Beatlemania-like scenes in the tents of Glastonbury and the airport terminals of Tokyo alike – but they may have inherited the mantle of ‘Cavan’s most famous exports’ from a different band, if things had turned out differently.
The Would Be’s, the band initially formed by brothers Paul, Eamon and Matt Finnegan in Kingscourt, Co. Cavan in 1989, became the could-have-beens when their fairytale story turned sour. A brilliant debut single (‘I’m Hardly Ever Wrong‘) saw the quintet compared to The Sundays and The Smiths; John Peel played it on his radio show and invited them to London to record a session; Morrissey invited them on tour as his support act and they had A&R men from multiple major labels clambering for their signatures. The future looked promising – until a combination of bad decision-making and youthful naivety saw them sign to an independent label, Decoy Records, who failed to nurture their talent. The dream became a nightmare when media interest dwindled at the band’s failure to progress and release an album.
“Obviously you would have some regret when you look back,” admits drummer Paul Finnegan, who was still in his early teens when the buzz was at its loudest. “I guess because we were so young at the time, you sort of get lost in the moment; you think that you’re always gonna be loved by the press and the radio, that you’re sort of unstoppable, in a way. It was definitely a very bad decision to not go with the majors, but we were thinking ‘If we go with a major, we’ll lose our indie ethics, we won’t be allowed to write the songs we want to write, they’ll change how we look…’, all that. In reality, it’s a case of getting your albums and singles into record shops, and at that time, an indie label couldn’t do that for us. It’s definitely interesting to see how it would have went. We obviously would have got a chance to do albums, which we didn’t have with [Decoy]. But hey,” he says, shrugging, “you can’t be bitter. Only in the winter when it’s cold, and I could be tanning my buns in the south of France…”
They may have had to wait over two decades for the chance to make an album, but they eventually got there. After being buoyed by the inclusion of ‘I’m Hardly Ever Wrong’ in the book ‘101 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die’ – and united in person at its launch two years ago – the proverbial fire in the bands’ bellies was rekindled. Their reformation quickly gathered pace and has resulted in the release of their debut album ‘Beautiful Mess‘. proof positive that happy endings do exist in the music biz. But is there a worry that The Would Be’s time has passed? Can they compete with their younger rivals, rather than merely trading off past glories?
“I don’t think that we’re setting out to be a hip, cool, fashionable band that all the kids are going to love straight away; I mean, if teenagers are into it, that’s brilliant,” says Finnegan, shrugging. “I suppose it’s become a sort of artistic endeavour, or a musical experiment, an adventure; the excitement of going back onto the rock n’ roll circuit. We like a bit of a challenge. I think it’s a good time for what we’re doing; the likes of The Strypes, and Arctic Monkeys and Johnny Marr and Queens of the Stone Age are bringing guitar music back into the fray again, which is brilliant to see. We’re passionate about what we’re writing and playing. Obviously we don’t want to be remembered as the band that infamously turned down twenty record companies, but I suppose it’s the story, in a way, and there’s not much getting away from it. But hopefully this album will break new ground for us in another way. We’re hoping to get over to the UK next year, too, because we were almost more popular over there than we were in Ireland. This isn’t just a temporary comeback.”
Most of The Would Be’s members [pictured above] have dispersed outside of Cavan these days, although brothers Paul and Matt are still Kingscourt residents – but Paul is adamant that their upbringing was, and remains beneficial to their sound.
“Basically, we were doing what we were doing because there wasn’t much of a musical hub around Kingscourt, to be honest,” he explains. “So from a writing point of view, it was great that way; it was a relaxed, chilled out environment. Back then, getting to Dublin or getting to play a Dave Fanning session was a big thing – so when John Peel started playing us, that was like a catapult. I think it was good for us to be where we were, though; I think maybe a lot of bands in Dublin at that time had a certain scene going – all of those ’90s bands like Power of Dreams and Something Happens – and they were quite similar, in a way. Maybe we came across differently because of our sound. And look at what’s going on in Cavan now,” he adds, chuckling. “It could be the new Manchester, at this rate!”
That’s a sentiment echoed by another musical Cavan native currently on the rise. “I do be thinking,” jokes Lisa O’Neill [above], “if the Strypes become as big as the Beatles, will Cavan become Liverpool?!”
It remains to be seen whether a venue in the Lakeland County has yet to be designated the legendary status of the Cavern Club, but there may yet be a blue plaque on O’Neill’s home in Ballyhaise. One of the most exciting Irish songwriters in recent, her simple folk songs are given a unique twist by her turn of phrase, her idiosyncratic voice and her ability to mesmerise the most rambunctious of audiences, despite her diminutive stature. Her second album ‘Same Cloth or Not’, beautifully produced by David Kitt and released on the back of a publishing deal with Domino Records, is set to propel her star skywards. But it wasn’t always so.
“I didn’t want to be a performer at all,” she shrugs. “That just wasn’t why I was singing – I was singing for enjoyment, for expression. I didn’t necessarily like the sound that was coming out, but I kept doing it anyway, because it felt good to sing. I wouldn’t even say it was a hobby – it was just something I did. I didn’t think I was good, so I didn’t put myself out there or think that I was different to anyone else, because I didn’t think I was on a level with anyone else. I thought my voice wasn’t gentle, like other girls’… and that’s a good thing now, but I would have seen it as negative when I was younger – like people do with their image, if you’ve got a strange quirk to your face, or a birthmark. When you’re younger, you think ‘I’ll never be happy with this’, and when you get older, you realise that it’s unique, and beautiful, and a part of you. So I kept on singing, anyway.”
Although she began playing guitar at a young age, O’Neill didn’t perform in public until after she had moved to Dublin for college at 18.
“I wasn’t really playing gigs around Cavan, no. I attended a lot of trad sessions, but I wasn’t playing – I was listening. There are some great trad musicians all over Cavan; there’s something special going on there,” she says, nodding. “Some of the musicians don’t even leave the town, but they keep the magic there. I attended those sessions when I was younger; the odd time I’d sing a song, maybe… but still, I was embarrassed.”
O’Neill has her own view on Cavan’s recent cultural revolution.
“What was very good for Cavan was the Fleadh – we got it two years in a row, and it was massive. The first time it was on, it reminded me of when Cavan won the Ulster final,” she recalls. “Everyone came out of their homes, all drinking and celebrating on the street. It was wild. There’s always been great stuff going on, but if it takes something like the Fleadh or The Strypes to make people believe that anything’s possible and to maybe get the finger out because they also enjoy playing music, then that’s good enough, isn’t it? Especially for young people, who don’t necessarily feel that they’re any good in school. To believe that someone from your hometown can make magic happen for themselves, that’s a great incentive.”
Of course, it’s not just the county’s musicians that are creating a stir on the national and international scenes. In recent years, native filmmakers have been using their locales as backdrops to their artistic endeavours, with several features and short films including Padraig Conaty’s ‘No Party for Billy Burns‘, Sean Smith’s ‘The Gloaming‘ and Brian Deane’s ‘Volkswagen Joe‘ utilising local cast, crew and locations. Finn Keenan, [pictured below], who has spent much of this year on the road documenting the aforementioned Strypes’ rise to fame, has also been doing his bit for music community, directing several superbly original videos for songs by Raglans and The Strypes.
“I think there’s always been a good creative scene in Cavan, but it’s just become bigger in the last five years or so,” the young Keenan says. “Between theatre, music and art, I think Cavan, at the moment, has one of the best creative scenes in Ireland. Although I lived in Dublin for six years, I always came back to shoot any music videos in Cavan. There’s an incredible sense of community; people just like to help and support each other. You don’t get that in big cities, and any bands who have come here have been shocked at that. For one video, we asked the Lollipop Man for a lend of his uniform for the day, and he didn’t even ask why – he was just like, ‘Yeah, no worries!’ It’s amazing.”
Philip Doherty and Kevin McGahern have also been on the receiving end of local support in their respective careers. Doherty, a two-time winner of the PJ O’Connor Award for Radio Drama who has written and directed a number of successful plays, was the co-founder of Cavan’s Gonzo Theatre Company in 2009. Borne out of a desire to add a dash of drama to the town’s cultural landscape, the company has gone on to produce numerous sell-out shows and has staged two well-received productions at Dublin’s Fringe Festival in 2012 and 2013.
“In about two and a half years we produced over twenty plays; the Gonzo became a receiving venue for cutting edge musicians, comedians and artists,” he explains. “Before it started, there wasn’t any theatre company in Cavan – now there are seven, which is brilliant for the town.”
Kevin McGahern [above], who is the new host of popular RTE sketch show Republic of Telly, was one of the artists who benefitted from the foundation of Gonzo. Although he has dabbled in serious acting roles over the last few years, the Cavan man has found his niche in comedy. He is now a regular face on Dublin’s stand-up scene as well as making inroads in TV and movie roles, his most well-known to date as the character Sim Card from the Hardy Bucks series.
“I think there were a few factors,” he says of Cavan’s recent cultural boom. “The recession was one – suddenly a load of people found themselves unemployed and bored off their tits, and when Philip set up Gonzo, it gave a lot of frustrated singers, actors and writers a place to perform. It felt like you were part of a gang, which always feels nice.”
McGahern’s material isn’t defined by his roots, but he regularly mentions his hometown while performing.
“I think when I was a teenager, ‘culchie’ felt like a dirty word – but you reach your mid-twenties and you start embracing where you grew up,” he says. “You become proud of it, because it’s unique.”
Philip Doherty agrees that denying your roots is a futile exercise – and why bother, anyway, when there’s so much to be gained from an area that is buzzing with creativity?
“Cavan will always influence you… even if you’re just stopping off for petrol,” he laughs. “I was lucky to grow up in a place full of great characters and wit and you can’t help but be influenced by that.”
“Yeah!” McGahern adds enthusiastically. “Cavan’s class, and we need to tell the world!”
‘Beautiful Mess’ by The Would Be’s is out on Fifa Records now. ‘Same Cloth or Not’ by Lisa O’Neill is out on Song Sung Records now.