Interview with Eleanor McEvoy

Singer - songwriter Eleanor McEvoy talks to Folk and Tumble about her storied career, hard times, and hard subject matter.

Ahead of her return to Derry/Londonderry, Folk and Tumble catches up with Eleanor McEvoy for an in-depth chat about her music and life.

FT:  You’re in the middle of a UK Tour, How’s it been going?

EM:  It’s going brilliantly! I don’t know how many UK tours I’ve done in my life, but this has been my favorite, I really am loving it.

FT: Why so, why this one in particular?

EM:  I don’t know. I think there’s been a really nice reaction to the new album, the crowd knows some of the new songs, which is brilliant. I have my own sound engineer with me on this tour, which makes a huge difference because your sound is so consistent from venue to venue.

FT: Does the crowd in different countries react in different ways to your music?

EM:  Yeah they do, and different songs resonate in different territories too. And you always get different audiences, I mean a Saturday night audience is different from a Tuesday night audience. I mean, I love the Friday night ones, cause people are free from work, tired, and just want to let go, so that’s always good. Actually, the St Augustine’s one in Derry is a Friday night, so that’ll be a good one!

FT: Even better! Can I take you back to the pandemic? Different artists fared vastly differently during that time. You were particularly badly affected by touring.

EM: Yeah I was. I was in Australia. The Australian tour runs five or six weeks, you need to do that to make financial sense of it all. You take all the risks at the beginning, so I had booked all the hotels, hire cars, and internal flights. The first thing that happened was there were massive fires in Australia, so I lost the first three gigs because awfully, the venues were burnt down, simple as that.

I had the flights booked anyway, I couldn’t change them, so I did a few charity gigs for them, and visited the areas, cause I knew a lot of the people in the area, having gone out there for so many years. And then we got into the gigs proper, we did the Port Ferry, we did Melbourne, and there was a lot of talk about this virus. After that gig, I remember, thinking this looks bad, maybe I should get some hand sanitizer for the team, and the CD table, but by the next morning the world had changed. I had a friend who worked in an aid agency overseas and she rang me, she heard I was in Australia and said ‘Eleanor, you better get home, they closing airports, you better get out of there now’! And she was dead right. I got one of the last seats on the plane, just before Abu Dhabi airport closed. It was terrifying. And financially catastrophic. (Laughs) Ah but look sure I got home and opened a bottle of wine! And then I opened another one. And another one, and that went on for three or four weeks, and I realised, ‘Okay so this isn’t ending anytime soon’? I’d wanna be doing something about this or I’ll be going to meetings soon. So I painted the house, did a couple of domestic things, and then I really started thinking about my life, which I think a lot of us did over lockdown. What decisions have I made in my life, that made this happen, and this happen and this happen?

FT:  A lot of the songs were written at this time?

EM:  Yeah. I had gone through an awful, awful break-up the year before, and my dad had died. A lot of stuff happened together. So I started thinking, like I’m a mother, I have a child. I always thought those writers who wrote about their kids were really naff, you know, But then I had a kid, and you get it then. ‘Fragile Wishes’ is about my lovely daughter Sarah Jane. I started thinking about all the traveling I’d been doing. I started thinking about friendships, and the friends who had gotten me thought kind of bad stuff. People always go on about angels from above, that guide you, but honest to god, it was angels here on earth listening, buying me a pint, or a gin and tonic, saying it was gonna be alright. So they’re the real angels, and I wrote ‘Scarlet Angels’ about that. Well actually about Maura O’Connell and Wallis Bird, who did that concert with me, and we were all dressed in red, and they were a great help, in getting through all that.

And I wrote two songs about the post-break-up kind of thing, cause it was very tough. One was called ‘Survival’ and I wrote the other one with Paul Brady actually, a song called ‘Found out by Fate’. We wrote it over zoom! It was mad. And then there’s a song called ‘South Anne Street’, I met my ‘ex’ from 30 years ago in college, you know. And it was really weird, but kind of cool too. We just headed off, had a couple of pints, and then we headed off saying goodbye. Thinking about it over Covid, it was a real ‘Slidin’ Doors’ moment, you know? What if I had gone that way, instead of that way? You know, the road not taken? Course you can never do that cause it will wreck you.

FT: I think ‘South Anne Street’ is much more relatable, maybe because it’s set in Dublin, and I’ve drank in McDaid’s and I know the places you’re singing about, and it hit a real resonance with me, and I’m sure so many others.  I suppose two questions related to that song, Firstly, do you get people coming up to you after the gig and telling you about their ‘Slidin’ Door’ moment?  Secondly, Do you get free drinks in McDaid’s now?

EM: (Laughs) No, I don’t get free drinks in McDaid’s. We even did a photo shoot in there, and I had to pay for my pints! (Laughs)

Good question- A lot of people come up to me after and tell me their take on it. A lot of really interesting stories. One man, I knew, he’s gay and he’s out now, Said ‘I met my ‘ex’, and he’s married now’. He was married and living overseas, and of course, married to a woman. A lot of stuff that gives added poignancy that you never intended when you wrote the song. It’s very interesting, lovely hearing other people’s stories.

The Germans were completely baffled by it! I did a German tour just before Christmas, and they say ‘I’m loving the song, it is very, very nice, but I’m not understanding, They were in the pub, but it was a Tuesday afternoon, why were they not at work’? (Delivered in a German accent that might need a bit of work!) (laughs all around)

FT:  The whole album is your most personal album to date. Was it that unhappy perfect storm of Covid and your own horrible break-up? Is that fair?

EM:  Yeah, I do think it was, and I had to be careful, I didn’t want it to be ‘The break-up album’ where all 12 songs are really dirgey. I said, ‘Eleanor, limit yourself to two’. That’s enough. Now I might have to do two on every album for the rest of my life, but only two on this one.  I write a lot of songs and don’t put them on albums, that’s the other thing, and I never stop writing.

And I wanted to reflect on the whole pandemic thing as well. I wrote a song with Dave Rotheray from the Beautiful South, called ‘The Company of One’ and that was about being alone, but in a quirky kind of way. It came out of a place of contemplation, so yeah, it is kind of autobiographical.

FT:  You mentioned the song you had written with Paul Brady, ‘Found out by Fate’. There’s still a hint, correct me if I’m wrong, of anger in that song?

EM: No! (Laughs) Yeah, I mean it was a really lousy tough breakup, I found out years of my life had been a sham. He had somebody else the whole time he was with me, since before he was with me, so you give up 23 years of your life thinking one thing, It’s a lot! So that is the narrative, and it’s exactly as it says in the song.

FT:  And yet that anger is a much more honest response that you may get in a lot of ‘break-up’ songs which centre around loss and regret and a broken heart, which there is in this song to, but for a writer to say ‘you know what, I’m really pissed off about this, I’m really angry about it’. I think that’s such a visceral, honest response to the situation. You have a great quip about ‘Think twice before you cheat on a songwriter’! Watch what’s coming down the track fella!

EM: As a songwriter, you have a certain amount of power, We often think of ourselves in the music industry as being kind of weak, you know with royalties being eroded, and incomes declining, but you know we do have a certain soft power in you. And I think anger is justified sometimes. If you have been wronged, there are those that say, ‘Oh you should get over it’, NO, you don’t forgive somebody like that. If somebody’s done something wrong, you call it out! ‘You know what, That’s wrong, and I’m really pissed off about it’. And I make no apologies about that.

FT:  Do you ever get bored of it? The album/tour/interview cycle?

EM: To be honest, I don’t. I mean the traveling can be tiring, that can do your head in a bit. But no, I don’t get bored. Because you’re really on your toes when you do what I do, like I’m on stage on my own, with four or five instruments, and you have a full room, and you kind of trying to manage the energy in the room, and it’s incredibly exciting, and it’s all down to you. I love that, trying to tap into –‘What are they feeling, what’s the mood this audience are in right now. ‘And also the songs are changing with every album you bring out. And older songs are requested. I got asked to play ‘Harbour’, that’s back in the set, ‘Sophie’ with the huge rise in eating disorders during Covid, so I get a lot of requests for ‘Sophie’ But you know it means a lot to people, as soon I start the opening chords, you hear so people gasp, And you realise, ‘This means a lot to those people.’Without wanting to be too ‘new agey’, about it, I’m a huge believer in the healing power of music. While the gig is very light-hearted, it’s a fun gig. By the end, they should be going home with joy in their hearts, and if they’re not, then I’ve failed frankly. I still do touch on some dark stuff, because if you have grief within you, it needs to come out, and music is a great way to touch on the grief, stir it up within you, and let it go. Music is so good that way.

FT:  You do touch on some really heavy material. ‘Almost Beautiful’, is a song that will connect with so many people, It’s a song about looking after someone who is affected by mental health, such as dementia. It’s a hard listen, but it is hugely affecting.

EM: Well thank you, actually it’s a co-write with Dave Rotheray again. Lyrically he doesn’t shy away from issues, he really hits lines hard, and sometimes, you catch your breath with him a bit, but you go, ‘Okay, let’s go with this’. I think he had someone close to him who faded away and died, in that awful way that can happen. My mum and dad both had big cognition problems before they died, and you lived with it for a long time. It’s hard. It’s no longer the person you really knew. It’s the shadow of the person.

FT: I suppose, we need to talk about ‘A woman’s Heart’. It’s been perhaps a blessing and a curse? It gave you such a massive launch pad, It’s become a global anthem for women.

EM:  Yeah, for a while, I didn’t play it at gigs, but people wanted to hear it, and I put it back in the set, and now I love it, I love doing it. I’ve changed the arrangement, so the current arrangement is a nice version with electric guitar and a bit of delay, and it just gets the rhythm thing going on in the background. I don’t go out to write a hit record. You look at a ‘Woman’s Heart’, the title looks like it excludes half the population, There are no rhymes in the song, which is not how successful pop songs go. I just wrote it, as I was feeling. I was just feeling low, really down. And it turns out everybody resonated with it. I think the time in Ireland, it was a tough time for women

FT: You’ve written about a myriad of subjects, Mental Health, and dementia as we discussed, Poverty in Uganda, and the poetry of Thomas Moore, and there is something in those issues that have triggered you to write songs about them. I’m sure there are other issues that you think, Oh that’s interesting, but you don’t write about them. So what is the genesis of a song for you? What really triggers you to write about them?

EM: Great question. It’s not that it triggers you to write, it’s that you can’t not write about it.

FT:  That’s a great answer, I love that idea. Eleanor, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, it’s been a real pleasure.

EM:  Thank you, I really enjoyed it.

Eleanor McEvoy plays St Augustines in Derry/Londonderry on Friday 24th March.