A royal rumble for Cobh songwriter Sean Murphy 

Having gone from writing his first song in his thirties, to winning international song contests and playing the Jazz festival, it’s been a whirlwind few years for Cóbh man Seán Murphy, aka All The Queen’s Horses. Mike McGrath-Bryan finds out more.
A royal rumble for Cobh songwriter Sean Murphy 

The era of Covid proved a fruitful time for Cobh man Seán Murphy, who started writing music in his 30s, wining international song contests and fronting All The Queen’s Horses.

REGULAR readers will no doubt immediately go blue in the face from more mention of the Covid crisis in these pages, but the fact remains that there hasn’t been another set of circumstances like it in our lifetime. For many, society slowed down, as jobs came home or went away entirely, and lockdown provided people with time to think about what it was they really wanted, and how to do the things they’d always dreamt of.

One such case is Cobh singer-songwriter Seán Murphy, now plying his trade as the frontman of indie/folk outfit All The Queen’s Horses. Alternating between home and time spent living in London over the course of the Covid-19 crisis, the imperative of that historic social and cultural moment moved him to finally pen his own tunes — starting in his early thirties, after a lifetime around music.

“I was very lucky that I’ve always played music since I was very, very young, and it came naturally to me. So I would have played piano, and I would have felt very, very confident with it. In addition to that, I would have listened to a lot of music, a lot of music, and I think the combo of those two, probably put me in a situation later in life where I was able to put together something that I considered as half decent.

I mean, there was a record deal, and I hadn’t seen anything like that in my life... it's been a blast

“Covid obviously expedited that a bit, and I just said that I would try something just for the craic, really not expecting a whole pile. But I put a lot of time into it, and it was just very random, how it played out. I mean, there was a record deal, and I hadn’t seen anything like that in my life. I haven’t come through it a big success, or anything, but it’s been a blast.” 

Having found his niche and a zeal for his new craft, he quickly went about getting his name out there as best as circumstances allowed, releasing music online and submitting for events like the International Songwriting Competition. The result was debut album The Dark Below & The Isle of Dogs, released in 2021.

“If I look at it objectively, I think it is very good quality. I look at it now, as I have moved on from two years ago, and I think, I can make so much better than that. But I listen to it, and I can tell that there is definitely quality there. I’m just very, very happy with it, but I look at the music now when I play it, and I feel I can write something far, far stronger.

“Interestingly enough, that album was me when I hadn’t a clue, feeling very, very green. And I just look at it now, and like I feel that what I can do now will be very, very strong, once I have the time.”

All The Queen's Horses performing.
All The Queen's Horses performing.

This year marked Murphy’s second tilt at ISC contention, and he brought home the once-off ISC Founder’s Award, established for the contest’s 20th anniversary, with The Troubled Tears of Drury Road — a song, oddly enough, written as much as a meditation on circumstance as any profound inspiration.

“I moved to London, and I was on the Tube. I had nothing to do, and for the majority of it, I had no internet and I think it was a two-hour train journey. We were passing underground and overground, and I just remember the weather kept changing. I was just typing on my phone, the lyrics of the song, where it looks back with the benefit of retrospect and how the seasons change, nothing stays the same. A season will rise and another will fall, and we go into a tunnel and it gets really dark, and then you come out, it’s really bright, then it was like lashing rain again.

“It was a very productive train ride. I put it on a piano, I had a rough idea in my mind, but I put it together with a piano later. I recorded it, sent it off, then submitted it into the Nashville International Songwriting Competition and it won, so I was over the moon. But that’s literally what it boils down to, a train journey, seasons changing, and things getting better. Just look outside.”

The song not only won, but impressed a huge jury of musicians — including Tom Waits, Linkin Park and Hozier — and industry professionals in the process, netting a $10,000 prize that will, no doubt, help the live band’s petty cash. But songwriting contests haven’t really been part of Irish pop-music culture, bar maybe Eurovision — at least compared to other European countries.

Is it not weird, reframing your self-expression in a competitive context?

“I would be fairly confident with the standard of it. I don’t intend, or necessarily expect to win, or anything like that. I threw it in because I think it tells a good story. Is it something we do in Ireland? No. But what Ireland has is a lot of really, really good songwriters.

“And actually, incidentally, y’know, music like mine is not a million miles from a Mick Flannery, or a David Keenan, to an extent, at least lyrically. And they won, in their category, and they represented Ireland. I remember when I was younger, and I was like, sixteen, seventeen I remember Mick Flannery was interviewed about (the ISC). And Tom Waits adjudicated the winner for lyrics only category, and Flannery won it. I always remembered that, like, I want to enter that.”

Murphy has hit the ground running since the reopening of restrictions closer to home — his very first gig as a musician — full-stop — was on the main stage of Whelan’s, while that momentum also carried him to appearances at last year’s Cork Jazz Weekend.

It’s one thing to get over the hump and start writing and making music — and quite another to debut on a stage at what some people would call a ‘late’ stage. Murphy discusses the experience.

“It was my first day on the job. I listened back to it, and there’s so much learning in it, but if I were to give it a go, I’d be far better. My first gig was in Whelan’s, it was tough!

I’m always fine tuning, and it’s getting better, and I’m learning now

“We played the first night of the Jazz as well, and there’s a lot to come up on when you’re playing gigs — you’ve got to manage the finances, the logistics, the coordination of the songs. I’m always fine tuning that, and it’s getting better, and I’m learning now.”

Having come through everything the Covid crisis has had to throw at musicians and creatives, and emerged in good stead, the future is busy for Murphy and live collaborators — but it all starts with an intimate show at a beloved Cork venue.

“I will be playing Coughlan’s, date TBD. It will be stripped back. It will be violins, cellos, voices, pianos, very old school, Damien Rice, Bright Eyes, Mick Flannery, it will be a very cool gig and the venue is amazing. In addition to that, I’ll probably put together a few more songs, and maybe have some release over the coming 12 months, hopefully.

“In addition to that, I’ll probably start gigging again. We have had a child, who’s like 15 months, so that absorbs a lot of your time, but I’m going hell-for-leather into it!”

Follow All The Queen’s Horses on Twitter: https://twitter.com/allthequeensho1target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> . Find all of the band’s streaming music at https://orcd.co/raisedbywolves.

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