There is life outside the wheelchair, says Cillian

Ahead of his debut EP launch, ELLIE O’BYRNE talks to Cillian McSweeney about writing, performing and recording music
There is life outside the wheelchair, says Cillian
Cillian McSweeney. Picture: Clare Keogh

“UNLOCK these doors, smash down these walls, break down these fences, let me be free,” musician Cillian McSweeney writes in Locked In, one of three tracks from his debut EP, Unique.

Locked In is a perfect way to describe how I feel inside,” says Cillian, 27, from Wilton.

“I can see that my way out is through music; it’s my escape.”

Tracks from Cillian’s EP have already received airplay on both RedFM and 96FM, and the launch will feature a guest appearance from one of his influences, Cork singer-songwriter Mick Flannery.

Cillian is reaching for the stars, and like many young musicians, faces a battle in a notoriously tough industry. But the tough road taken by most musicians pales into insignificance compared to the challenges Cillian faces on a daily basis.

Cillian has had cerebral palsy since birth, and is profoundly affected. He can’t communicate verbally and suffers severe muscle spasms that affect his entire body. A bright, ambitious and talented man, he’s determined to get recognition first and foremost as a songwriter and performer.

To Cillian, music is all about expressing his inner world to a wider audience, no matter what he must overcome to do it.

He relies on eyegaze technology to communicate; hooked up to his laptop, the technology interprets eye movements and he uses it to type his lyrics. He also has software that allows him to use the eyegaze device to compose music.

Cillian has limited control of his head movements, and in conversation he uses a swift upward glance for “yes” and a nod of the head for “no,” allowing those close to him, like mum Angela McSweeney, who is his full-time carer, to communicate more freely than relying on painstaking typed responses.

For the purposes of this interview, Cillian communicated via email.

The path to recording his EP has been a long one, he says, although it’s not his first recording project. As a teen, Cillian got involved with the Knocknaheeney Youth Music Initiative, a project backed by U2-funded philanthropic organisation Music Generation. The group recorded Cillian’s song Equal as a single, and even played in Áras an Uachtarán.

He may use songs like Locked In to express frustration at times, but the tracks on his debut EP are also uplifting, full of the power of positivity and hope.

Writing and performing music is Cillian’s driving force, he says: “It helps me to express that I am just the same as anyone else inside. I want people like me who have a physical disability to know that there is a life outside of the wheelchair.

“It’s a long and hard road to get this far, but it’s worth it when you’re lucky enough to be able to put it all together on an EP. I feel like an equal musician when I write and perform alongside other band members.”

Cillian was bitten by the music bug way back in primary school.

“I started playing pre-recorded chords along to music, with a switch,” he says. “We performed on stage at City Hall, with pupils from The Lavanagh Centre and students from CIT. I think I got the bug then.”

But how does someone in Cillian’s physical situation play notes and perform? In the past decade, huge advances have been made in the field of assistive technologies: specialised musical instruments and software that allow people whose movements are restricted by a disability to learn and play music.

“I don’t exactly have an instrument,” Cillian explains. “My eyegaze, which I use to access a programme called E-Scape, and my laptop are my instruments. I make melodies through picking chords from E-scape and playing them to lyrics that I write. Physically, it’s very challenging for me to perform, as I have involuntary movements that I try to keep under control while using my switch in time to the melodies.”

Cork’s Dr Gráinne McHale, the director of inclusive technology project SoundOut, has been a dedicated advocate of inclusive musical education, and introduced Cillian to devices like Soundbeam, which translates movement into notes, as well as switches he can control with his head to perform pre-selected notes.

It was also through Dr MacHale that Cillian met his tutor, collaborator and fellow band member Graham McCarthy.

“Myself and Graham work great together,” Cillian says. “I nod and he knows exactly what I mean; he just gets me.”

It’s Graham, an MA graduate of CIT School of Music, who sings the lyrics that Cillian pens, as well as playing guitar. Together, the duo form the core of a loose ensemble of musicians called Circles, a band that began in Togher Music Project, where Graham was working as a tutor when he met Cillian.

“I just love creating original songs, and so does Cillian; our fundamental commonality is in that,” Graham says.

“He might give me a couple of lines of lyrics and I might put music to it, so we’ve had that collaborative relationship from the get-go and that’s been really rewarding.”

Circles have performed in the Opera House, Crane Lane and the Curtis Auditorium, and Graham felt that a recording project would be a great learning experience for Cillian.

“For any musician, recording is really good practice,” Graham says. “It’s like a spotlight is put on your instrument and everything is magnified; it hones your technique and time-keeping, so I thought it would be good for Cillian.”

However, when they recorded Unique, Cillian’s catchy number about a girl that he admits is inspired by raven-haired pop sensation Jessie J, Graham could see the song’s potential and he asked Cillian to re-record the track under more professional conditions, at Wood Street studios with sound engineer Laurence White, who sadly passed away last year shortly after Unique was recorded.

The finished three-track EP comprises of title track Unique, Locked In and a track called Moving Further. Graham’s work with Cillian has, he says, been “humbling”.

“It’s been an eye-opener in so many ways,” Graham says.

He’s now a firm advocate for more access both for Cillian and other musicians with a disability to “everyday things that we take for granted we can do, like making music”.

Access to venues for performers would be a good first step.

“People with disabilities may be able to get into a venue as audience members, but accessibility to the stage is practically non-existent in a lot of places. It’s just not thought of: why would someone with a disability need to be able to access the stage? I always found that an eye-opener. Cillian really feels strongly about advocating for that; he’s a musician, not a disabled person who makes music. End of story.”

Cillian McSweeney and Circles release Unique, their debut EP, with a launch at the Crane Lane Theatre and a special guest appearance by Mick Flannery on March 4.

Doors open 7.30pm and it is a free over 18s event. Support on the night are Jim McCarthy and Kenneth Speight.

ABOUT SOUNDOUT

SoundOUT is a Cork-based initiative which runs ongoing music education programmes in schools and community settings in partnership with Music Generation Cork City.

Building on the work of Cork Music Works (directed by Dr. Evelyn Grant) , SoundOUT was established by Dr Gráinne McHale in 2011. SoundOUT’s vision is that adults, children and young people with and without disabilities have access to inclusive and progressive music-making and learning opportunities.

Assistive music technology is used within all SoundOUT activities to ensure access for all abilities to meaningful music making.

In partnership with Music Generation Cork City, SoundOUT currently runs inclusive music education programmes in Sundays Well Boys’ N.S., School of the Divine Child, Lavanagh Centre, Terence MacSwiney Community College and Togher Music Project.

An informal approach to music making and learning, which prioritises creative expression, is adopted within all classes and ensembles.

ABOUT MUSIC GENERATION

Music Generation Cork City (MGCC) is a music education programme that works in partnership with community-based musicians and music organisations to bring music education to children and young people across Cork City.

Using the Community Education process, socially-inclusive performance music education programmes are made available in the places where children live, play, and go to school, bringing opportunities for music-making into the heart of Cork’s communities.

There are currently more than 2000 children and teenagers accessing Music Generation Cork City partner programmes. See http://www.musicgeneration.ie/ for more

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