Singer Liam is still seeing clearly

Balancing a busy solo career, creative satisfaction in trad, and one of the biggest Irish bands of a generation in the Hothouse Flowers, singer and songwriter Liam O’Maonlaí has a big swing of gigs ahead of him this month, including trips to Mallow and Leap. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks to him
Singer Liam is still seeing clearly
Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí. Picture: Valerie O’Sullivan/

A renaissance man, equally renowned for his embrace of Irish language and culture as for his energetic performances with the Hothouse Flowers, Liam O’Maonlaí has pursued a rich solo career, including collaborations with dance company Fabulous Beast, for a stage show based on 2005 long-player, Rian, and with trad outfit Ré.

Meanwhile, the Hothouse Flowers continue on, packing houses three decades into their run, with their most recent album, Let’s Do This Thing, being a digital-first release, a rarity for a band of their generation. The last we saw of the Flowers in Cork city was New Year’s Eve, at Cork Opera House, in the company of musician Clare Sands and RedFM disc-jockey Colm O’Sullivan. Cork is a city with deep familial connections for O’Maonlaí. “I love the Opera House, I love the design of the place, and I felt it was great, y’know? Gig after gig, it’s nice to be working New Year’s Eve, a lot of family around. I came to the Opera House with Rian, we made a piece of dance theatre from it (with Fabulous Beast), it travelled the world, and the Opera House was one of those stops.”

With ‘legacy’ artists prioritising their vinyl runs, and young artists going straight to the streaming services, O’Maonlaí has placed his two solo efforts on direct-sales site, Bandcamp, following the digital release for the most recent Flowers effort. It’s O’Maonlaí’s desire to avoid the trappings of the industry. “If a band or artist is willing to do the research, and do the work, then it’s great. They can actually bring the ball far more into their court than they could with a label. Obviously, there isn’t as much money in it, but you are being heard, and, for many, that’s quite a thing.

“For us, the Flowers, we didn’t make money off our records; we filled venues because our records were out there and they were selling well. It got us attention, but bands rarely make money from records. The business is designed in such a way that you don’t make money until you recoup your advance, and they make it so you never recoup: they keep investing in projects. (London Records) have been talking about a (reissue campaign), and we’ve come to the final furlong a few times. They keep investing money in these projects, but that’s our money. You get offered something like that, it’s hard to say no, because it’s something for your agent to work with.”

Speaking of all things digital, it stands to reason that, in a climate where television/film placements factor as highly on press releases for bands as the charts, the Hothouse Flowers would top the Apple iTunes singles rankings last year, after their rendition of ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ appeared on streaming service Amazon Prime’s Jeremy Clarkson vehicle, Grand Tour.

While it spoke to the band’s enduring appeal, it was something that O’Maonlaí was in two minds about. “Y’know, I didn’t want to do that, but I had to go away and think about it, because, my reasoning was, it’s a whole load of new work, and there we are exposing ourselves to a world that knows us, and a world that doesn’t know us, as a band. I get the exposure, but people die of exposure (chuckles).

“It weighed heavily, and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be better to wait for something more representative of what we’re doing now?’ I opened up a book, a philosophical book, called The Prophet. I don’t pay too much credence to books, but it happened to be there. It said: ‘do you choose where to give your gift?’ And the answer was no, you give your gift where you can, and you let it do its work. That was enough for me to go, ‘okay, I’m in, let’s go with it’. I snapped out of my introversion and we did it. It got us back on the map, and reminded people that we’re still up and at it.”

There is no greater endorsement of this appeal than the band’s appearance at last year’s Féile Classic, an attempt by promoters CWB to replicate the atmosphere of Semple Stadium’s 1990s Trip to Tipp. The festival was something of a class reunion for the Irish indie generation of the late eighties. O’Maonlaí says: “The arranging was done for us, and they left flexibility for us to expand the songs here and there, according to the live impulses. There wasn’t much need for adjusting, and that was a treat.

“Also, the fact that there was an orchestra acting as a continuum for the whole night made it a very interesting gig. It’s always nice to be rubbing shoulders with your peers. We only get to see each other every few years, and we always have a good time catching up, y’know? Many of us come from a similar generation, having had different experiences. Bringing them to the bar counter after the gig is a nice thing. Like, with the 4 of Us, we said we’d had warm hellos over the past thirty years, but it wasn’t until last year that I sat down with them for a night of chats, banters and laughter. Pints were involved, I have to say.”

The month ahead is a long run of gigs, not only in his capacity as a member of the Hothouse Flowers, including a stop at Cork Racecourse, in Mallow, on Friday, June 14, but with a succession of intimate solo gigs in West Cork and Galway. For O’Maonlaí, it’s a chance to get out and connect with people. “Sure, it’s work. I love doing it. I count myself very lucky, now, that I’m not just working solo, or with the Flowers. I go off, I have a few solo shows, and then a Flowers gig comes, and I’m delighted to have the weight of the band around me, and my chops are stronger, ‘cause I’ve been playing alone.

“And then, a couple of gigs with the band, it’s lovely to go out alone, have that space and that silence, to create. It’s very nourishing, (because) my main creative impulses happen on stage.”

Sunday, June 16 also sees O’Maonlaí head out West for a trip under the hammers of Connolly’s of Leap, a folk outpost currently being overseen by second-generation promoter, Sam McNicholl. It’s the continuation of a long and fruitful relationship. “Always good, always good. When the Flowers took a two-year break, and Paddy (McNicholl) was at a dinner that Fiachna (Ó Braonáin, vocals/guitar) was at, and he said, ‘if you guys are coming back, why don’t you come down to Leap for a week?’ And we did two gigs at the end of that week. It was great; it started a relationship with Connolly’s, which is continuing, and I like that Sam, the next generation, is taking up the reins and seeing broader possibilities.”

Not one to simply chip in on the summer circuit and call it a year, O’Maonlaí’s touring plans are ambitious, with one big festival booking yielding massive creative possibilities. “Oh, more shows? I’m going to Japan in July, as a solo artist, playing the Fuji Rock Festival. There’s an engineer in Japan who’s invited me to record in his studio for a few days. There’s a blank canvas there; no idea what I’m going to do, but I’m crafting raw material experientially. The plan is a few shows there, and this huge festival, the Japanese Glastonbury, then spend three days in a hot spring, and offload some music. Living the dream.”

The Hothouse Flowers play Cork Racecourse on Friday, June 14; with more info and tickets at corkracecourse.ie. Liam O’Maonlaí plays a solo set at Connolly’s of Leap on Sunday, June 16, with tickets available at dice.fm.

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