Voyage of discovery continues for Cork singer

Having built a deep and profound presence in Cork City’s music scene over the past decade with The Altered Hours, Crevice and other outfits, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Elaine Howley has put the pieces together on her own body of solo work, and taken on a mentoring role for young creatives in West Cork. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with Howley in Downtown, about her work, and her hopes for music, post-crisis.
Voyage of discovery continues for Cork singer
Elaine Howley. Picture: Cathal MacGabhann

Whether as the silver-jacketed, talismanic frontwoman of psychedelic rockers The Altered Hours, or exploring sounds and textures with collaborations like Crevice, HEX and Howlbux, Elaine Howley has carved out a defined and unique body of work from within Cork city’s music community over the course of the past decade, and had begun to make headway under her own name, performing at last year’s Jazz Festival at the Kino, among other events.

Lockdown has changed matters for everyone, but it hasn’t stopped people from ploughing their own creative furrows, and recently we saw Howley perform a live set from home as part of Declan Synnott’s BOX MOON streaming programme, following a series of lockdown DJ sets, and homemade programmes for Dublin Digital Radio. 

Speaking from home, Howley discusses creativity, writing and curation during lockdown.

“I’ve been happy to have those things to focus on, it keeps me feeling some bit normal. I feel that I could be entertaining or occupying someone else for a little while, taking their mind off things, and in the process taking my mind off things too.

Elaine Howley.
Elaine Howley.

“It’s been good to have more time to spend listening to music, and generally delving into whatever is happening.

“Radio has been a big part of this quarantine for me, making radio for Cosmosis (the radio show/podcast Howley co-hosts), with the young people I work with at the YMCA, and listening to shows on DDR and (digital radio station) NTS a lot.

“There is a feeling of context being something to consider at the same time, and there are days when I am exhausted for no apparent reason.

“The lockdown and virus is the lens that we are all seeing things through at the moment, and I think about what that might mean for the music I make now in comparison to ‘usual’ music I make. This pandemic sees the important things come into focus but there is also an air of total confusion.

“It feels like this is the biggest collective experience we’ve had in a long time, and it’s mad how it changes how we think about everything, or how we might see everything as a response. I find myself making different types of things or trying new approaches because I’m trying to generally manage and the usual landscape has changed so quickly. It’s nice to have the time.”

Part of Howley’s lockdown has been the release of her most recent song, ‘Ignite’, as part of The 343 Volume 1; the latest of her solo songs to emerge via appearances on different compilations of Irish artists. Ahead of a potential collection of tunes down the line, Howley discusses the staggered release of her tunes to date.

“I’ve been making music for the past few years that didn’t necessarily fit into any of the bands I play in, it was more for myself to keep trying things out, and so I’d a store of songs recorded. I had been recording with my tape machine. Kind of an audio journal I was making over time.

“Last March I shared an hour of extracts from those recordings on Dublin Digital Radio, as part of their International Women’s Day broadcast.

“A while after that, I got a mail about the Touch Sensitive label’s compilation, and sent on a few songs to Mark who runs the label and we chose ‘Song For Mary Black’ for the compilation.

“Being part of other compilations happened in a similar way. For The Unscene (Limerick-based collective) and More Womxn (Resonance FM, proceeds to Sisters Uncut) compilations, I hadn’t planned releases specifically, but dipped into recordings I’d made and was delighted to be involved in both of those releases.

Elaine Howley. Picture: Cathal MacGabhann
Elaine Howley. Picture: Cathal MacGabhann

“The same goes for The 343 compilation. It’s a great artist-focused, feminist-led, Queer arts space in Belfast. and they especially need funding at the moment to pay rent so they can keep going.

“I played a gig there last year and it made a strong impression on me, it’s a really welcoming venue and run by brilliant people so I was delighted to be able to make a song for it.”

The feedback for these sonic excursions has been largely positive, with gig-goers and critics remarking on their dream-like qualities in particular, informed by Howley’s creative background. For Howley, the process of creating music has taken on differing forms, and is an ongoing journey of self-discovery.

“The songwriting process has varied, depending what I’ve been working on. Some songs are classic structures, and can arrive quickly, they are clear in mood, and others are more soundscapes or atmospheres. I like working with spoken word too.

“Often I’m using the music as a way just to try some new sound, or instrument, and the songs are experiments that are either a building block towards something else, or are something in and of themselves.

“I’ve gotten into sampling music too and that is another way I’ve been building songs up. I feel that I am still discovering what the solo work means to me, so I’m trying to let that emerge and remaining open to how it could be.”

Aside from her ongoing musical ventures, Howley also works with young people at Skibbereen’s Hive and Clonakilty’s Shack spaces, under the auspices of YMCA Cork, including social media art displays, and helping teenagers build a weekly podcast. Exploring what goes into mentoring work in a creative context, Howley outlines the experience from her perspective, especially in terms of connecting with her charges across social media and other online platforms.

“In The Hive and The Shack groups, we run a quiz every Thursday evening, a book and movie club on Friday afternoons and a radio show that comes out every Saturday featuring music choices and introductions by the young people, on ‘THE HIVE/SHACK

Elaine Howley. Picture: Irene Buckley
Elaine Howley. Picture: Irene Buckley

Radio’ on The groups are also working on a life-stories project, where they speak with an elderly neighbour or grandparent over the phone and document stories from their lives.

“The engagement from the young people in these projects has been beyond my expectation and seeing their creative work, hearing their opinions about a book or movie, putting together radio shows and joining in the quizzes has been rewarding. I’ve been learning more about what they are interested in, and finding it’s really eclectic and it introduces me to a lot of new ideas and music.”

Times remain uncertain for people in an array of creative and media occupations, and anyone’s conjecture on what happens next is as good as the next person’s. Howley discusses her hopes for the future, both for her own music and the processes behind it, and for the Leeside cultural community in which it’s been steeped.

“I hope that my music remains interesting to me, and that I have the will to keep exploring and learning about the world by playing music and singing. If not, I suppose I will stop. I’d like to be brave about sharing it, and also protect what I do as a personal process. I’d like to feel as though I have shown as many sides of myself as I can. To make a tapestry of work through my solo project and with The Altered Hours, Morning Veils, Crevice and Howlbux that is a document of my life in some way or a part of it and the people I care about and love making music with.

“At the moment I’m thinking about venues when restrictions are lifted, and am hoping they will return, PLUGD, The Kino, The Crane Lane, Charlie’s, Live at St. Luke’s, Dali... This pandemic effects live music so much - if we are going to reduce the numbers going into venues then bands, DJ’s sound engineers, security, bar people... a lot of costs need to be be covered so it is a very tough spot for everyone involved to make it work and for everyone to be able to survive. Maybe ticket prices will need to rise and more clear supports put in place by the government to support culture and music venues through subsidies, venues that really cater for local scenes too.

“I have faith in the relentlessness of promoters and artists, they have always had to survive on a shoestring and they will find a way to keep going and navigate the challenges. I think people generally have a fresh appreciation for music and its makers and promoters and will keep supporting the sharing of music however and wherever it is happening when they can.”

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