In my reading I couldn’t find your origin story, for lack of a better term – how you all came together.
Myself and Paul [Butler], the pianist, we went to college together a few years ago and we were playing in a few college bands. So when college finished after two years we decided to get something together of our own, because both of us were writing music all the time. Then Tony [McLoughlin], the bass player and mandolin player, he came about two or three years later. I was working with Tony in Dublin. And then Tony was playing with another guy, Alex [Borwick], who’s from New Zealand – don’t hold that against him, though. We needed something different. We were writing a lot of folkish music and wanted to change the style a small bit. Alex played banjo first of all in the band and then he started to introduce trombone, so that was a perfect turn for us.
Trombone is not a common interest in many bands these days.
He uses it well, I must say. We didn’t know that it was going to suit what we were doing, but we tried it out and we stuck with it, and it’s perfect.
And I suppose now you can write for it, or write to include it.
Yes, we’ll include a melody or a line to suit that instrument. But he also plays a lot of other instruments, so that was handy for us too.
You mentioned those college bands – what sort of music were you playing in them?
We were playing from instrumental to heavy rock to folk music. We were playing anything we could. Any band that we could get into, we were in, no matter what the style was. There was a band we were wearing wigs – like long-haired wigs for it [laughs]. That was pretty cool. And that band was called Jesus and His Dog.
Those bands were obviously your musical apprenticeship as well.
Yes. Well, I was playing music about two or three years before going to college and I got accepted into a really good music college in Dublin. I did two years and then I got asked if I wanted to go over to Holland to study. So I went over and I could have finished – I could have got my masters at a very young age. I decided against it. For me to have my masters and try to become a teacher of music, I was too young for younger musicians to respect on what I hadn’t gone through yet so I decided that I needed to be at the highest of the highs that I could get and at the lowest of the lows, because with music it’s kind of like that. Playing live, it is like that. You’re playing to a massive crowd and then the next day you can be playing to two people. You’re only as good as your last show, so no matter if it’s to two people or a thousand people, it should always be the same.
It’s hard to sustain energy when it’s a small number of people, depending on your personality as a performer. But I think there’s some kind of energetic return in performance whereby two people aren’t necessarily giving a lot back for you to work with, but it’s all good experience.
My mum always said that to me – it’s one of the hardest professions you can get into. You can be as high as you can be and then as low as you can be in a matter of twenty-four hours. She said you just have to stick with it. All of our parents have pushed us towards what we’re doing now.
And reading your individual biographies, you do all come from very impressive and exceptional musical lineages – how do those influence the music that you create together.
I’m sure at the very start of our career they influenced us a lot. Then we started to find our own sound and started to travel around instead of hearing our parents’ stories and what they’d done and started to learn our own way of doing it. It would have been very easy for us to continue on how they left off but we didn’t want to do that we wanted to try something else. And I think what we’re trying now might be a lot more of a reward at the very end of it, or in the middle hopefully.
Certainly in a short space of time you’ve found international audiences. But I think it also takes a bit of focus and determination to do that – it doesn’t happen by accident, you don’t just suddenly wake up and play in the Netherlands, or in Australia, for that matter. Was it always an intention – you understood how your audience might be in Ireland but you were always looking more broadly?
Exactly. As an Irish band you have to concentrate on your home country first of all and then just hope that you get a break. We were actually very lucky to get a break in Holland. We were asked by our old publicist to go onto a Dutch show, like a reality show. It’s like the Ant and Dec [of Holland] and it’s called Nick and Simon. It’s absolutely massive in Holland, they’re huge, but we did not know who these guys were. And they asked us to come on just to play a song. At the very start we refused because we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into – we thought it was like this X Factor reality thing, and they assured us that it wasn’t. We went on, met the guys, played one of the songs. It got aired six months later. Two days later our album went to number two in the Dutch charts. It was just luck. Complete luck. But also, not to be big headed, I think we had the talent to make sure we got what we came to do.
Luck does often come up in conversations I’ve had like this, and in every single case I’m convinced that, yes, there is luck but it’s knowing when to take advantage of it and, as you said, having the talent. It is being at a point of maturity and talent to know what to do with it if the luck comes off.
Completely. You should know your own ability. If you know you’re getting yourself into a situation where you can know you can deal with and do it, and even if it’s a tiny bit out of your comfort zone, still do it. You never know what rewards you’re going to get out of it.
So you’re now in Australia and this is not the most logical destination for a lot of bands in the northern hemisphere to come to, just from a logistical point of view. How long has this trip been in the planning?
And you wanted to come or was it suggested that you come?
We talked about it last year. We were doing a few shows in America and with Alex being in the band, he was talking about festivals in New Zealand and Australia that we should try to apply for. We didn’t get around to doing it because we were closer to being in Holland and that just took off. We decided to concentrate on Europe. Then we were in America and on the plane on the way back to Dublin we just brought up it up again. Alex said, ‘I will send off an email to the Port Fairy Folk Festival just to see if they’re interested.’ So Alex got in touch with them and straightaway they got back saying to Alex, ‘We were actually trying to get in touch with you guys.’ And we were, like, ‘What? That’s crazy!’ They said, ‘We’ll put you up and do this for you and do that.’ It was just perfect timing. That’s one of the last shows of the tour now, so they were going to sort out pretty much everything that we needed to come over just to play that one festival. We got a woman on board, an American who’s helping us out with bookings over here. She’s extended it to a month-long tour. So how could we refuse? It’s a pretty amazing experience. I know a lot of people would love to come to Australia to play, or even for a holiday, from Ireland and they wouldn’t get a chance to and we’ve been given a chance to. So make or break, it will definitely have to be an experience and maybe we’ll get a couple of songs out of it.
Are you going to New Zealand as well?
No, unfortunately. Just with visas it was too tight for it. But we’re going to do it definitely next year.
You mentioned that you might get a couple of songs out of the trip, so obviously that balance of being on the road, writing recording, is a really hard one once you’re at a certain point in your career, but it sounds like you’re alive to those songwriting opportunities when they come up.
Yes. It’s a twenty-four job. We treat it as a job, which is great – not many musicians would think that. A lot of musicians out there would play a gig and have a few beers and wake up with a massive hangover the next day and have to try to play another gig. We treat it as a twenty-four-hour thing. You pick your battles to hang out with people and socialise. It’s like a normal job. You put yourself in a room for three or four hours if you have any ideas to write songs. Throw them out. Myself, Tony and Paul, we write in the band – to have three songwriters in the band is great because it takes the pressure off each other. But it also puts on more pressure to outdo each other, in a friendly way, but also be competitive.
Obviously that is healthy competition because in some bands the egos might intrude. Was that balance there from the start?
At the very start I was writing a lot more than the other guys. Then Paul started to write. He was writing already but his songs started to come into The Young Folk. Then Tony’s songs started to come into The Young Folk. It was kind of perfect timing in a way, because you can wear yourself out doing it all the time and I think I wore myself out for a few months where I was writing, writing, writing and then all of a sudden nothing. But I wasn’t worried that there was nothing – I was kind of relaxed. Have a break. Come back to it. You need that with every job, with everything you do in life. When I was done having a break, Paul and Tony stepped up.
I’m interested in your statement that you weren’t worried that there was nothing coming, because of course for some people that’s when the panic sets in about writers block.
Ah, there’s no such thing. Just rest your mind and if you feel like that a good thing to do is try to read a book or read a book that you would never, ever think of – get a recommendation that maybe you know or maybe you don’t know. Go into a bookstore and say, ‘What would you recommend for me?’ and when they ask you what you read, say, ‘I read this but I don’t want to read that’, and they’ll point you in a different direction. It’s another uncomfortable situation you can get yourself into that can come out with a lot of benefits and rewards.
I’ve not heard that exact advice before – but it’s that idea of changing how your brain works.
Yes, that’s it. Your brain was in a place for those few months and then for the following few months it wasn’t – you should never, ever worry about it. You just embrace it and then move on. What is it – refresh and revive. We’ve seen those signs on the road here as we’re travelling in Australia.
Just going back to something you said about seeing this as a job – most people would go into music out of passion, very few would go into it cynically. And, of course, once it becomes your job there’s that risk that the passion doesn’t necessarily die but is dimmed a little bit. Are you able to maintain that passion for what you do?
Oh yes, definitely, the passion is always there. The nerves are always there five minutes before you’re going on, you’ve always have those nerves, not knowing what’s going on.
And in terms of not knowing what’s going on, Australia is a new destination for you so did you have any expectations before you arrived?
No, we’re keeping a completely open mind. I don’t know what to think about it yet. We’ve only been here for three or four days so I’ll probably have more of an answer in the next week or two.
Well, we do love a festival here and you are going to three – there’s Cobargo at the moment then Port Fairy and Blue Mountains, so we’ll certainly get a good idea of what our festivals are like.
I hear that the small festival here are like massive festivals in Ireland, because Ireland’s only small.
Wednesday 1st March 2017
Polish White Eagle Club, CANBERRA ACT
Thursday 2nd March 2017
Petersham Bowling Club, SYDNEY NSW
Friday 3rd March 2017
Trinity Sessions, ADELAIDE SA
Saturday 4th March 2017
Bendigo Bank Theatre, The Capital, BENDIGO VIC
Thursday 9th March 2017
13th Beach Golf Clubhouse, BARWON HEADS VIC
Friday 10th – Monday 13th March 2017
Port Fairy Folk Festival, PORT FAIRY VIC
Thursday 16th March 2017
Memo Music Hall, ST KILDA VIC
Friday 17th March 2017
Blue Mountains Folk & Roots Festival, KATOOMBA NSW
For more information, please visit www.theyoungfolk.com
The latest album from The Young Folk is First Sign of Morning.