Sometimes, a nudge from someone you trust is all it takes. For singer, multi-instrumentalist and performer Muireann Levis, it was a call from local music head Lisa ‘Lemur’ O’Grady for one of her tunes, quietly released online, to be featured on PLUGD Records’ show on community music station Dublin Digital Radio, that prompted a more ‘formal’ single release, via online platform Bandcamp.
A spectral slice of ambient, looping guitar and reverb-soaked vocal improvisation, ‘Into Time’ is at once immediately recognisable as Levis’ work, and something distinct in a growing body of solo and collaborative songwriting under her own moniker. She’s been treading the lines between folk, ambient and alternative for a while now, but ‘Into Time’ served not only as a piece of self-expression, but as a challenge.
“I uploaded it to Soundcloud a couple of years ago, as a way of starting to create for myself again, around 2018. Putting something recorded on the internet. I find it very hard to have a finished product, it could always be better, so as a way to break that habit, I recorded it, didn’t really listen and put it up. It was a brilliant practice for me in letting go, ‘look, I did it, and it didn’t kill me to put it online’.
The Bandcamp release of ‘Into Time’ is the latest in a series of songs Levis has been releasing via online platforms. Each composition seems to exist in its own small space, distinct from the last, but there are those common threads of exploration and improvising throughout.
“I think I do it with guitar and lyrics because, personally, I feel those are my weaker creative mediums. I use looping a lot with the two of them, so it lends itself to improv. You just find a little groove, and record it, and once you do, it exists in itself.
“It doesn’t always work - a lot of what I make is awful, and that’s good too, it’s a useful process - you’re finding what you’re doing, and eventually something good comes of it. You abandon perfectionism, and go ‘this is what I’ve made’.”
Levis is also part of Magdalena, a concept/performance-art trio which draws heavily on the history and ongoing struggles of women via its imagery and music, alongside Emily O’Flynn and Roisín Kelly. The trio managed a few live appearances in Cork before the Covid crisis, most notably as part of Quarter Block Party’s Radio Mná programming.
Levis discusses the project, and approaching multidisciplinary performance with an overarching commentary, right as the trio are preparing two new songs and a video for International Women’s Day 2021.
“I asked Roisín for lyrics, after Elastic Sleep ended. I was looking for someone to work with, and I love her poetry. At the same time, Diarmait O’Carthaigh (Cork musician) asked Roisín to perform at an event he had going on, and suggested we work together.
“I started writing music for her lyrics, and we started working together. There were structured songs, soundscapes and her words, so we decided to just have fun, and we have Emily to work against in the visual and costuming medium. The release is four years in the making now, so it’ll be good to get it out there.”
Earlier in lockdown, Levis featured on ‘Still Still’, a collaborative effort with Dan Walsh of Fixity that featured on his Fixity 6 album. Making her recorded debut on her theremin, her presence added another element to one of Walsh’s directions in music. Levis discusses the process.
“Dan approached me with the melody he’d written on guitar, and I said, ‘yeah, sure’. I’m a total novice at theremin, which is very apparent on the recording, but I did some improv toward the end as well.
“The thing about Dan’s music and what he creates, is he’s not concerned with everything being pitch-perfect, that’s not what he’s trying to create. It was about taking a risk, and Dan taking a risk. It’s great motivation to improve my skills, and it’s nice to have direction and something to work towards.”
Talk of lockdown has, of course, been all but had in the past year or so. It seems as though we’re running out of things to talk about closer to home, but Levis has been kept busy, moving back to Glasgow to continue pursuing a Master’s degree in performance after a lockdown-mandated jump back to Cork. Levis discusses how she’s managed in the past while, personally and creatively.
“I found it hard for the first while. My mental health wouldn’t have been the best, and a lot of us would have been in that boat. It’s important to say that and acknowledge it. Since going back to Glasgow, it’s been easier, college is back and it’s nice to have structure and direction, but as a person, what I appreciate most is the people in my life. Checking in with everyone, taking that extra time. Summer was amazing, especially those few times where we got to see everyone. A time to value the good people.”
While pursuing a long-term goal and building a body of creative and facilitation work is the aim, the future for many of us in the broad arts sector is still full of post-Covid unknowns, as the economic and infrastructural ramifications of over a year of measures is in the process of leaving its mark. Levis remains optimistic.
“Now that I’ve had more time to get back to creativity, it’s great to appreciate that again. It’s a privilege to be able to create and write, and I’m happy to do so.
“I do want to put out an album. Whether it happens this year is hard to tell right now, and another album of Magdalena stuff. I want to perform Magdalena stuff, and however solo stuff manifests itself, I’ll figure out if I’m a performing artist at the end of it in that regard”.