Interview with Una Clarkin
After a successful performance during the recent Ards International Guitar Festival, I caught up with Belfast songwriter Una Clarkin for a chat about her current work, self-promotion and future plans.
You’ve been involved in the Northern Ireland music scene for a while; tell me a little about those early years and beginnings?
I suppose you could put it that way! When you refer to “the scene”, my involvement in playing live has probably been quite minimal until recent times. I started out when I was around 16.
I played Irish traditional music with some friends and I sang very little. We busked a bit too with Ernie McMillen of Lowden/Avalon guitar fame actually.
I was always incredibly shy about it. I played and sang in the church folk group, which I feel was crucial to developing my confidence and skills.
Years later, I happened to run into Sean McAuley who was looking for some female vocalists for his original music band (Sean and Brendan Donnelly being the main songwriters). That started my involvement and friendship with The Long Stay.
Eventually, I admitted to the lads that I had been writing songs, which I think they had suspected all along. It was their encouragement that spurred me on. In 2014, I tried the open mic scene and that gave me the final push to do something before it really would be too late. The reaction and encouragement from my peers was so encouraging and remains so. That’s when I knew I was ready to embrace the performance and recording end.
You released your first EP in 2015. How did it feel to get that body of work out there and were you happy with the response?
The release of the EP was a great achievement and was a long time coming. Singer-songwriters can all affirm that it is something pretty special to hear your songs recorded.
For me, it was about reaching a place where I was finally comfortable to allow my songs to be heard and to be able to listen to my own work and voice objectively.
I still find that part difficult though. I was, and still am, absolutely delighted with the response. I’ve been lucky enough to have been offered gigs as a result and to have the songs picked up by Ralph McLean and Cherrie McIlwaine on Radio Ulster and other stations.
Also, the smaller local radio stations such as Belfast 89FM are very supportive. I was curious and nervous about how people would react to the EP but it was great to know that the reviewers actually listened and took in what I was trying to achieve. I am always looking to perfect on what I do though.
I assume as an independent artist do you have to fund your own recording. Is there support out there to help artists in your position?
My recording was self-funded and I was fine with that. It meant I wasn’t under any pressure to please anyone other than myself. A lot of artists, including very “famous” singers, are going down the pledge route to fund their albums.
I’m not at that stage yet as you need a fairly hefty fan base but it is certainly something I hope to become involved with in the future. As for local financial support, I am aware that there are ways of seeking funding.
Again, I feel I probably need to be more proactive about that and certainly need some more live appearances behind me first. From what I have observed, if you gain support on the live arena first and make some useful contacts, then you are in a better position to apply for support. For me, it’s about working on my “Music CV”.
The ‘Little Bird’ EP showcased different styles of music. Was that deliberate choice?
It was a deliberate choice and probably a bit risky. As you’ll appreciate, the music industry is exceptionally competitive and these days, you are very much pigeon-holed into a genre depending on your style and age. I’m still not sure what my genre is exactly.
There are so many subcategories now, from Indie Folk, to Americana, to singer-songwriter, etc, etc. I am influenced by so many types of music and artists. For my voice and guitar style, I would say I am “folk” in the original sense of acoustic instruments, traditional sounding voice, story-telling songs.
For example, ‘Little Bird’ was inspired by my love of the ‘Great American Songbook’ and in particular, Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings.
Whilst the songs can be classed as folk, you can still find other influences in there, if you listen closely, from Motown to Springsteen.
I had so many songs sitting around it was very hard to pick four or five for an EP. I went with the ones I liked most at that time and which would showcase the various writing styles that I had developed. Plus I really wanted to hear drums and other instruments – I always dreamed of being in a band!
I didn’t want it to appear too over-produced though. I felt like there was something for everyone on that recording. I wanted to gauge the reaction and decide which way I should go forward next time. Rightly or wrongly, I wasn’t recording to showcase myself as an artist, rather someone who sings and writes songs.
I remember Nanci Griffith saying once that a song had “flown by” and she had “caught it”, almost like she was the vehicle. I love that idea. Just catch the songs as they come to you and let then let them go. I just catch whatever flies by.
What were your earliest musical memories growing up and do you remember one specific time, song or genre of music that caught your attention and made you think I want to do that?
Well, Elvis was my first love!
I was always musical I suppose. I think I was folk right away. After the first 3 chords at age 14, I got bored with the covers and wrote my own song. There was always Irish country music playing somewhere when I was growing up, so the roots influence was strong.
Mary Black was a big influence. I always appreciated her choice of songs and now appreciate that she obviously had a great ear for songwriters.
That’s how I got into Nanci Griffith. I used to sit with the cassette tape and learn the songs, trying to emulate her guitar style. After that, there was a lot of retrospective listening to all the great folk artists and singer-songwriters.
I was always singing and playing at home. I was completely in love with music. Deep inside I knew I wanted to sing for people but I was just too shy. That’s all changed now though.
Well, I’m still shy actually but I’ve finally reached a stage where I want to enjoy the performance end of things. That’s how it should be.
Do you still get nervous about performing?
I don’t know that I’ll ever truly get over the nerves. I actually “enjoyed” my last performance though. That’s new for me.
I’ve heard people say they are nervous about performing. I would question what the nerves are about. Is it the worry that you might not perform to the best of your ability, or is it that you are worried how people will react to your voice/songs? It’s a fine line.
Promotion is more important than ever now for the independent artist. Do you find Twitter, Facebook, Streaming sites etc useful marketing tools?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure there is an easy answer. I’m as skeptical as the next person about social media. I used to despise it but now I have no fear of it. If even one follower buys your EP due to social media though, then for me it has done its job.
Marketing is more important now than ever. It’s all about learning the tricks the trade and I’m still working on that. We talked about funding earlier. In many ways, that was the easier side of things. It’s getting your recording out there that is the real challenge. There is a LOT of admin involved and I had to learn on my feet. There wasn’t really a body I could go to for guidance on registering songs, getting codes, artwork format, getting your songs mastered, etc, etc.
Airplay is the key but also the most difficult to attain. The local commercial radio stations are not really in a position to play original music and I can see where they are coming from. Their audience is very specific. They say streaming is the future and artists will have to embrace it, so it is something I’m working on.
I personally follow a lot of artists on social media. It’s how I learn about new music releases and concerts. There is no doubt that being able to instantly connect with someone you admire can be a great buzz for fans.
In The Long Stay, we always said our real ambition would be to have other people pick up the songs and off the back of that, do some nice wee gigs in the background – much like the artists who play the Real Music Club.
You’re playing at the Dunfanagy Bay Songwriters Festival in Donegal later this month. Is that a first for you?
I’m always thrilled to be invited to play anywhere. I believe this is the first year of the songwriters festival and it’s terrific to be on the same poster as people like Mick Hanly.
It’s another opportunity to get some new material out there. Putting on events like this for original music is very difficult, so all credit to the organisers.
When not writing or performing what do you do to unwind and switch off?
I got into running again recently. It’s a great destresser, especially when you can blast your favourite music in your ears while you are pushing yourself to the limit.
I quite like listening to audio books as well. I’m definitely a multi-tasker so the idea of being able to do other things while listening is a bonus.
When will we see a follow up to the ‘Little Bird’ EP
I hoping to get into the studio before the summer is out!
Thanks for your time and enjoy Dunfanaghy.
Thank you very much and thanks to Folk and Tumble for all your support. It’s appreciated.