When it comes to neurodivergence, representation is increasingly important. As an increasing cohort of childhood, adolescent and adult diagnoses in recent years attest to, we’re long overdue that conversation in cultural circles, too.
Dublin graphic designer and writer Aoife Dooley, Cork rapper and producer Craic Boi Mental, Derry crime writer Claire Allan and Mallow media personality Stefanie Preissner have all been open about their autism diagnoses, and the different experiences they’ve had.
Joining that conversation is Cork singer and songwriter Kevin Walsh. A graduate of MTU Cork School of Music, where he honed his instinct for musical theatre and performance, Walsh’s debut single, ‘Embrace the World’, a fundraiser for autism charity AsIAm, is sonically a result of his experiences in the facility, but carries a much deeper connection to his own musical roots.
“Before I could remember... My mom was saying, I was singing before I could talk, and my earliest memory was really connecting with Disney movies, because every kid has a fascination with Disney, especially during the ’90s, because they are these big sweeping, epic musicals. What attracted me to MTU was, when I get into something, I get really into it, and I really want to study about it. What I really wanted was the musical training and vocal training, because as a teenager, I really got into rock and roll, but it takes quite a bit of training to be able to pull off rock and roll without it hurting (your vocal cords).
“Being this very prestigious school, I had this wonderful, wonderful singing teacher named Rob Craig, who passed away last year, God bless him. Through that world, then that was how I got into musicals, and I really got to explore that during my time in college, because they have a Musical Society, and we put on shows like In the Woods, and the Operatic Society were doing stuff every month. So that was where I really got the attraction and the feel for being on stage.”
The bones of ‘Embrace the World’ lie in a dichotomy of exploring an aspect of Walsh’s own life through song, which, in turn, brings us to his broader influences — prioritising storytelling, and fitting it to the musical genre’s natural pomp and circumstance.
“My youngest niece was about two weeks away from being born, so I was very much in that headspace. My own writing process — I don’t consider writing about my own life like other writers do, but I like to write stories that are based on feelings that I have. In this particular instance, it was from the joy of having a child come into the world, and I took a character of what I would want to say to that child. Things about following your heart and having the courage to stand up for what you believe in and reaching out and embracing the world, and all of its possibilities.
“It is very much that symphonic feel, like the big soundtrack numbers you get at the end of a film. That was the target sonically, and it’s combining having been into rock when I was a kid, and being into musicals as an adult. I’ve gone back and I’ve combined the two, so there is a rock/pop framework within it, with a string section.”
For recording and production, Walsh assembled quite the crew of local and national musicians to his side to help realise his vision, doing so amid the restrictions posed by the Covid-19 crisis —among them Limerick folk hero Emma Langford, Cork rocker Mark Daly, West End singer Molly Lynch, R ‘n’ B specialist Ger O’Hanlon, singer and vocal teacher Lisa Curran, neo-soul artist Rebecca Houlihan, folkster Stephen Gormley, musical singers Caroline Kay, Christopher Hockey, and God Alone’s Jake O’Driscoll.
There’s an all-star lineup at the boards, too, with Kitten Lane Studios’ Aidan O’Connor and MTU Cork MA graduate Emily O’Leary producing, Rik Appleby of Lionheart Productions contributing on the mix, and renowned mastering engineer Fergal Davis delivering the final touches.
Walsh talks about the process of reaching out to people to collaborate on the song, how remote collaboration affected the process, how a wide variety of contributions fit overall into Walsh’s vision for his song, and how that spread of backgrounds and genres represents the ever-expanding understanding of autism and neurodivergent diagnoses.
“The first two people I asked were Mark Daly, who’s from the rock world. I knew him (from gigs), and I knew he had a son with autism, so that was my impetus for asking Mark, and then Molly Lynch in the musical theater world, she was two years up from me in the School of Music, so we go way back. So again, you have the rock side and you have the theater side.
“Emma Langford, I just happened to pop an email asking if she’d do it, and she said yes. I was very happy that she said yes, and to be working with such a name, because, I remember her when she was starting out and I remember seeing one of her very early gigs at Cyprus Avenue. Big, big fan of hers.
“What I was very deliberate about in the beginning, was reflecting autism musically. Like if you put different neurodivergent people in the same room, if you imagine them as musical timbres, you’d get very different, contrasting musical timbres, from the non-verbal, to very chatty, with the whole range of different levels of socialization inbetween. So I really wanted to reflect that sonically.
“Caroline Kay, who’s another West End singer; Rebecca Houlihan, who’s very on her jazz and rhythm ‘n’ blues, Stephen Gormley, very folky, even more so than Emma; up to Ger Hanlon, who’s very smooth, and into his R ‘n’ B.”
The single was launched with a big event at the Firkin Crane last month, and a Dublin launch happened yesterday at the famed Windmill Lane Studios. Walsh talks about how he’s felt about these events, how it’s been to get out there in the post-Covid environment, and seeing his vision for the song realised.
“Oh, it was a lot of fun, a lot of fun. The Cork launch, the tricky part of having such a big process, with so many people and their different commitments, is you don’t necessarily get everyone at the gig. Like the Firkin Crane gig, it was Lisa Curran and myself performing, you had a lot of the key players from the music video too, another very big part of this process. It was a great confidence booster, getting up there the first time, because a lot of family and a lot of friends were there.
“We played the music video to a standing ovation, which felt very surreal, because like you say, I’m from the musical theatre background where, I’ve been in lots of musicals that have gotten a standing ovation, so I know what it feels like to be on stage when that happens. But then, I’m portraying an extended version of myself, I’m not portraying a character in a show that is somebody else’s product, and I don’t think I’ve grasped the full weight of it yet.”
For all the ambition that Walsh has exhibited for his work, and the goodwill he’s generated from many walks of musical and cultural life in recording and releasing his music to date, he’s only just beginning, with more music and new renditions of his signature tune to follow.
“We’re planning to explore ‘Embrace the World’ some more after April, where the plan now is to bring out a multilingual version of it by the end of year, and have that on another EP, with another event around that, and the second single will be on that EP as well — it’s a rocker!”
‘Embrace the World’ is available for download now on Apple iTunes Music Store, Bandcamp and other digital download services. All proceeds go to AsIAm.