Over the past year or so, this parish has examined nearly every aspect of life for musicians and the wider music scene amid the Covid-19 crisis. For music scribes like your writer, the wait for something on the other side of the ongoing circumstances has become part of the furniture, so to speak - what things will look like, what stands to change, how everyone will be affected. It’s unusual in our lifetimes as a universal issue, affecting everyone, reaching into every aspect of our lives and communities.
It’s a little reminder of a world before Covid, then, to see the belated single release of ‘Without Me’, a song originally released in 2019 as part of Míde Houlihan’s ‘Shifting Gears’ EP. Speaking from her home in West Cork via Zoom, she talks about the decision to redux the song as a standalone entity in the current circumstances.
“The song has always meant a lot to me, but it’s never been more appropriate than now. For the first time ever, absolutely everyone is missing somebody. No-one’s immune to it, because we all have been exposed to not being able to see people - people who live down the road, grandparents - without putting them at risk. So, for once, universally, somebody is missing someone.”
The closer of an extended-player about changes in life, relationships and perceptions in key points in one’s life, ‘Without Me’ hits home hard, touching on feeling left behind, and dealing with friends moving on in life, in a way never intended when it was written.
Houlihan discusses the song’s writing process, and her thoughts on it now, given what’s happened, and the ever-present absence that many of us feel while living away from friends and family.
“I went to a festival with some really close friends, one of whom went to Australia quite soon after, so it was my first time having someone live so far away. Not, like, in England, or Europe, but in Australia, you can’t hop on a plane and visit. Suddenly, it was like ‘oh, I can’t visit you whenever I want’. So, just getting used to not having this person around, it became very real then.
“Now, suddenly none of us knows the next time they can see someone that we’re used to seeing everyday, or are comfortable being around.”
Revisiting the extended-player is also a good excuse for Houlihan to recall the raison d’etre behind the record, made and how she feels about the record as a finished product - a document of melancholy from a time just before the massive changes of the current cultural moment, suddenly given new poignance.
“It still kind-of takes me on a journey, where it’s about being afraid of being left behind, and even where some songs are about being part of a relationship with someone, being healthy and comfortable around them, it still ends with that possibility that you can still be left behind, the risk of people leaving, or that nothing lasts forever.”
This new single release for ‘Without Me’ follows the success of 2020 single ‘Idle Words’, which came in for rich praise from press, and received significant support from specialist radio. A product of remote collaboration in lockdown, it represented the fulfilment of a longstanding ambition for Houlihan - co-writing with Leeside folk legend Mick Flannery.
“Before it happened, I didn’t see myself doing any releases or anything during lockdown, so when the opportunity came along, you think ‘everyone’s at home, they’re waiting for something they can relate to or resonate with.
“It was my first co-write, building from the ground-up with someone, and it happened online, during lockdown, when everyone was wondering about when gigs could return. It came about at a good time - it was proof that the show could go on, and you can still do great things together with other people.
“Writing with Mick was obviously insane. That’s something I never saw myself doing, but I really enjoyed the process of it. That phone-call was the first time in ages I’d picked up a guitar, or written words down on a page.”
Houlihan has been part of the crew at Cork label and booking house Unemployable Promotions, who, aside from handling plugging and distribution for local folk artists, also regularly ran gigs at Coughlan’s on Douglas Street.
Houlihan finished out her 2020 with a streaming gig at the venue for Liverpool Irish Festival arranged by the Unemployable crew - she talks about getting back on a stage in some small capacity, and going through the motions of a night again.
“It was a nice ease back into gigging, because I get the feeling we’re all going to be anxious about crowds again. I am definitely a little bit nervous about things like crowds and soundchecks, because we’re so out of practice, I think, that it’s all going to be a little bit intimidating again, for sure.”
Lockdown looks set to continue well into the year. While there’s been some good news for Cork music in the form of revised licensing laws, and confirmation that city-centre staple The Roundy will be staying in business, there’s also now a lot of concern for other venues in the wake of closures like The Kino, as well as concerns for the amount of people that can hang around the city as the next economic crisis begins. Houlihan’s hopes for Cork music in this climate are straightforward.
“To get back to gigs, as soon as we can. We can’t expect too much right away, but hopefully it’ll be drips and drabs, just slowly building things back up again.
“I’d love things to go back to the way they were, but we’ll still be living with procedures, hand sanitiser, etc., and we’ll have to do the best we can until things can go back to how they were.”
While there’s no great certainty on what’s next for any of us in the Cork scene, lockdown has been a fruitful time for Houlihan, regarding the follow-up to ‘Shifting Gears’.
“One-hundred percent - new songs. If there’s one good thing to have emerged from lockdown, it’s that it’s afforded me time to write and create, so it’ll be a matter of getting those done, recorded, and out there, and when we’re able to go back, gigging whenever I can!”
‘Without Me’, from Míde Houlihan’s ‘Shifting Gears’ EP, is available now across all streaming services, and for download and adding to your Bandcamp collection here