Singer-songwriter set for new horizons

Having played a part in the Rising commemorations in 2016, with a ballad of her own creation, singer-songwriter Sarah Buckley is readying herself for a year of new material, and taking on new horizons in the process. Mike McGrath-Bryan gets a word in, between rehearsals
Singer-songwriter set for new horizons
Sarah Buckley

Patience is a watchword in the music game. Things don’t fall into place quickly when you are pushing away at the industry, while timing and hitting a nerve with the Irish music community can make all the difference in creating a reputation.

Singer-songwriter Sarah Buckley has been gigging away patiently for the last few years, putting an impressive number of road miles under her belt, including a couple of navigations of the Irish festival scene, such as Electric Picnic, Vantastival, and appearances at Cork’s Jazz Weekend.

Buckley’s debut single, ’You Got Me’, rolled out last month, after she spent two years getting a tranche of debut material ready for release. Following a strong run of gigging and festival appearances, the tune arrived with a premiere stream on Dublin entertainment mag Hot Press’s recently-renovated web presence.

Sarah Buckley, who has played at Electric Picnic, Vantastival and Electric Picnic.
Sarah Buckley, who has played at Electric Picnic, Vantastival and Electric Picnic.

As rehearsals continue for upcoming gigs, Buckley seems relieved that her own tireless DIY efforts in getting material out to press and radio have borne fruit. “I suppose it was a relief. I’d the song written, and after working on music for two years, now was the time to get it out there. I was terrified to be producing my first one, but now that it’s out there, the next one will be less daunting, now that I’ve been through the process once.”

Taking no half-measures, Buckley went to work with material that was hard-mined from her own experiences and influences, heading to studio with engineer/producer, Karl Odlum (Glen Hansard, David Keenan) and mastering engineer John Flynn (Bjork, among many others) to record the single. “Karl is well-respected in the music industry, and when you work with him, it’s easy to see why. He is really great at what he does, and made the process easy. He has a great balance of being able to give input without taking the song over, and, technically, he couldn’t be better. We went through a few iterations of the song, as, by the time I got to the end of a mix, I had learned just a little more and so saw things differently.

“John is based in London and so I worked with him online, (but he’s) another talented man who made the process straightforward.”

The market for music media in Ireland has changed beyond recognition in the past decade or so, and as listeners’ tastes have fragmented and become more diverse, a great range of online publications and specialist print magazines have emerged over the years to give Ireland’s independent music community its due recognition.

With so many options amenable to newer artists, and with Buckley garnering praise from Dublin’s Goldenplec and Belfast’s The Thin Air magazines, it was quite a ‘get’ for a self-released record like ‘You Got Me’ to premiere via Hot Press, whose remit has traditionally been in major-label signings and legacy artists. “I’m working on my own, doing my own PR. There’s a lot you can do nowadays, yourself, until there’s something bigger than yourself to get people involved in, so maybe I didn’t have an enormous strategy (laughs)... I just thought, ‘that’s a great magazine, everyone knows it, it’s well-respected, and it’d be great if they got behind it’. People do seek, I don’t know, a level of verification, that Hot Press and RTÉ can offer by coming behind you. People start to pay more attention.”

Sarah Buckley's new single 'Wedding Bells' hits streaming services on April 15.
Sarah Buckley's new single 'Wedding Bells' hits streaming services on April 15.

Radio airplay and online exposure swiftly followed, much of it off Buckley’s own back. Cork’s RedFM, RTÉ’s online-only 2XM outlet, and regional stations around the country were quick to pick it up for airplay on specialist shows, but with the shifts in both listener habits and overall media consumption, it’s arguable that the radio business has become more risk-averse, with such shows often placed on quieter live slots, or as on-demand online programming. Buckley outlines how she’s tackled the airplay grind, and reaped dividends.

“I emailed people that I thought would be interested in the song, and some people (then) contacted me for it online. It was great that a lot of local stations all over the country were happy to play it, and, obviously, its inclusion on RTÉ Radio One’s playlisting was a huge boost for the song, due to the audience size. As you say, it can be a difficult sector, with a lot of ignored emails, but in this song’s case, there was enough of a response to not pay an enormous amount of attention to those. There will always be different opinions with music.”

Placements of all kinds have, for better or worse, become a big part of widening an artist’s audience. In some markets, they can dominate the industry conversation, with your writer regularly receiving press releases from touring bands, where television and film usage ranks as highly as critical plaudits and road miles.

Buckley’s opportunity came with an appearance on RTÉ’s ‘Reflecting on the Rising’ series of gigs in Dublin, in 2016, with artists performing newly-written responses to the 1916 conflict, which changed the course of Irish history. ‘Wedding Bells’, written as one draft in a Dublin city pub, inverts some prominent narratives around the event. “For the 1916 Easter Rising centenary, RTÉ put on a series of gigs around Dublin. It was a great day, and well-attended. I was on a side stage in Smithfield, and so the pressure wasn’t huge where I was. Just a great day, really. I played a couple of ballads and wrote one for the occasion, (which) was well-received on the day. It could probably be considered the flip side of The Wolfe Tones’ song ‘Grace’. It tells the story of Grace Gifford’s short marriage to Joseph Plunkett, on the night before his execution for his role in the rising, from her point of view.”

We’re at that odd stage for festivals, where we seem to be every few years in the current climate: new events, like Cork Sound Fair, are steadily being announced and work begins on bedding them down into the national music calendar, while others, at the end of that initial period of experimentation, are simply reaching the end of their life expectancies.

Sarah Buckley hits the road in May and June.
Sarah Buckley hits the road in May and June.

For Buckley, for whom upcoming excursions will be nothing new, it’s a matter of staying out there and reaching new people. “One of my highlights was Electric Picnic. It felt like a great achievement to just be accepted onto such an important stage. They’re enjoyable, from a singer-songwriter point of view. I’ve always had positive experiences, so far, with the festivals. I’ve always played to people I haven’t played to before, and they’re always glad to be there!”

‘Wedding Bells’ finally sees a formal release on April 15, via all streaming platforms, two years on from its creation and the opportunities that have resulted. Taking everything that’s happened since for Buckley, she was quick to further a working relationship with Odlum and Flynn, parlaying their collaboration into a more streamlined recording and post-production process, befitting the personal nature of the material.

“That story is very poignant, but all of those stories haven’t been told by the women on the other side. Getting married on the night before the execution, she was obviously very supportive in his story, in what he was able to do, and I wanted to have a woman’s perspective on things. The song didn’t really change; it was written in one draft, and when we brought it to the studio, Karl liked it the way it was. He added a few bits in the background, but it’s one of those ones that came rolling out in the first draft.”

Sarah Buckley’s new single, ‘Wedding Bells’, hits streaming services on April 15, and current single, ‘You Got Me’, is available now. Buckley hits the road in May and June. For more information and announcements, see Downtown, social platforms or sarahbuckleymusic.com.

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