Cork guitarist is 'Pretty Happy' to be in a punk band

ELLIE O’BYRNE meets Abbey Blake, an emerging force as guitarist in Cork punk band Pretty Happy, who says plenty of people are still offended by the sight of a woman who isn’t willing to sit back and look pretty wielding a guitar
Cork guitarist is 'Pretty Happy' to be in a punk band
Abbey Blake. Picture: Nicholas O'Donnell

CORK’S musical community is pretty tight, and if someone gets their gear stolen, everyone will rally round and help out.

So when punky trio Pretty Happy posted on social media that guitarist Abbey Blake’s pedal-board had gone missing after a gig in December, plenty of Cork-based musicians and music fans shared the post, and perhaps jumped to conclusions.

“Yeah, we had people thinking it had been stolen and writing comments like ‘the b*****ds,’ but then it was handed into Mayfield Garda Station and it turned out it was my dad,” Abbey says with a grin.

“He had been getting in a taxi to go home after the gig and he saw someone trying to put my pedalboard back in the venue, so he decided to take it home, but he ended up leaving it in the taxi. So then we were like, ‘Sorry, lads. It was our dad’.”

Abbey’s dad, Fionn Blake, is no stranger to Cork’s music scene himself; during the ’80s, he was drummer with bands Idol Joy and The Pakt. And not only is Abbey’s dad a drummer, but her brother is bassist and fellow Pretty Happy band member Arann Blake.

Pretty Happy, who formed in 2017 and whose sound has evolved from guitar rock to a raw punk and noise-infused style that relies heavily on Abbey’s ever-deepening guitar skills and confidence, are set to release a new single, Schmuck, this Friday, January 31.

These are exciting times, Abbey says: “We’re only properly finding our sound and our style now, I think. it’s not just Arann on vocals any more, it’s really the three of us, taking turns with whatever chaos we’re making.”

Abbey, 20, and Arann, 23, grew up in Mayfield. Having been brought up by music-loving parents, at 10, Abbey was bought a drum kit by her father. When she was younger, her mother had unsuccessfully arranged guitar lessons for her.

“I did two or three lessons and I hated it,” Abbey recalls.

“I learned nothing. I remember coming home and telling my mom, ‘I’ll never be Rory Gallagher’.”

Abbey Blake.
Abbey Blake.

However, the musical urge persisted and during Abbey’s time in secondary school in Glanmire Community College, she took up ukulele and started playing with “a girlband” in Transition Year.

“We played on the back of a lorry in the GAA Club in Glanmire for the parish priest, the school principal and our parents,” she says, smiling and shaking her head.

Taking up the guitar to play in Pretty Happy, Abbey has spent the past couple of years developing a style that’s uniquely her own — a pedal-based electric sound that is raw and powerful.

“I’m very noisy,” she says. “I don’t like following a formula, I just like experimenting. It’s like, ‘What weirdness can I get out of this guitar?’

“I have loads of influences. I got into playing first through listening to Lisa Hannigan, who’s very classically trained, very folky, but I think her tempos and chord changes can be very unexpected so I think that’s where I really learned that you don’t have to follow a formula. St Vincent would be a big influence and I love Sonic Youth too.”

Despite an increasing awareness of sexism in music, Abbey’s own experiences make her feel there’s still a ‘lads’ mentality in gigging circles in Cork, especially if you’re not willing to play the ‘pretty girl in band’ game.

On top of the male-dominated expectations of guitar-wielding in particular, she says the results can make life difficult.

“Men are shocked when I’m not just trying to look pretty on stage,” she says.

“Our drummer, Andy, and Arann have the utmost respect for me as a musician, so it was a bit of a shock when we got out and started gigging and I saw other lads’ reactions. It was so weird.”

Condescending sound engineers and venue staff are a semi-regular hazard on the obstacle course, Abbey explains.

“They’ll presume you’re either the front-woman or the bassist,” she says.

“I always have sound engineers send me to the bass amp. I think it’s hilarious; it’s completely offensive to some people to see a woman playing guitar and I kind of get a kick out of it. People will say ridiculous stuff like, ‘Jesus, she can actually play’.”

Abbey, centre, of Pretty Happy who release 'Schmuck' on January 31.
Abbey, centre, of Pretty Happy who release 'Schmuck' on January 31.

Following one run-in with a bouncer, who presumed she was a girlfriend rather than a band member and wouldn’t let her back in to a venue to collect her guitar until her brother intervened, Abbey founded Angry Mom Collective with a couple of like-minded young women. The group put on showcase gigs and offer support to female and LGBTQ performers.

“We want to make the Cork scene more inclusive by making a nicer community,” she says.

“We put on gigs to showcase Cork musicians, but if you need me to go to a soundcheck with you because the sound guy’s an a****le, I can do that. It’s for anyone who feels under-represented or intimidated.”

Abbey studies Film in St John’s College of Further Education. In future, she hopes to combine making music videos with continuing to gig with Pretty Happy. Having released two previous singles and an EP, the band are eagerly anticipating a response to Schmuck. But more importantly for a band developing a reputation for the frenetic energy of their live performances, having played support slots for bands like Bitch Falcon and Otherkin, they are looking forward to more headline gigs of their own.

“You can’t beat the feeling of a good gig,” Abbey says.

“I think it’s very hard to capture what we do live because we’re very performative: we really freak out a lot on stage.

“Last year, we headlined gigs in Plug’d and Winthrop Avenue, and it’s really nice when people show up to see you. They were packed, just sweaty madness.

“I remember looking at Andy and Arann and thinking, I love you both so much and I wouldn’t want to do this without you. I think we all want to take that further.”

Pretty Happy appear as part of Cork’s Quarter Block Party on a triple bill with God Alone and MELTS on Saturday, February 8, in the Spailpín Fánach on South Main Street, Cork city. See www.quarterblockpartycork.com

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