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Central And Remote: Sorcha Richardson

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Interview with Sorcha Richardson.

“An urgency for living
Has taken over me
I’m urgent to accomplish
To be all I want to be

Well I always believed trees to talk
With strong souls, kind true hearts
They call it philosophy
I recognize it as I breathe

These terms dance upon my brain
Flow throughout my veins
These thoughts dance upon my brain
Flow throughout my veins”

—”Nicki”, Sorcha Richardson

Words & Illustration: Craig Carry

sorcharichardson_craigcarry

It’s a rare thing when music can genuinely move you, hit you, leave an everlasting impact on you. This is exactly what happened to me when first hearing “Nicki”, a piano-led ballad by the Dublin-born and New York-based Sorcha Richardson. The song in question has a deeply personal backstory involving the strong bond of friendship, a time of sharing both life’s joys and sorrows, the moving account of a fateful illness taking hold and, ultimately, the tragic passing of a life much too young.

“Nicki” is Nicki Ray Muller.

Sorcha Richardson left her Dublin home for New York in the summer of 2009 to begin her studies. Sorcha would befriend Nikki whilst there. It’s clear both valued their friendship deeply. Both young aspiring artists – Nicki, in the field of visual arts, while Sorcha would pursue her own musical path – encouraged each other and learned much from each other as a consequence. Prior to crossing paths for the first time, Nicki’s art was familiar to Sorcha as her paintings featured in numerous exhibitions across the city, and during the following year Nicki asked Sorcha to perform music for the opening of an exhibition that she had curated in the East Village, effectively providing Sorcha with her first taste of live performance in New York.

However, Nicki would not make the show that evening as doctors had discovered a tumor in her brain and diagnosed her with stage 4 brain cancer. Six months previously, Richardson had been diagnosed herself with thyroid cancer, so the two would confide and talk with each other about the progress of their illness and treatments over the next year and a half. While Richardson’s condition gradually improved, Muller’s deteriorated. While still receiving treatment, Nicki would write vigorously about her condition and its treatment, her progress and the condition’s status, and her innermost thoughts and feelings. Some of these very words penned by the hand of Nicki Muller in her journal entries would provide the lyrics for Sorcha Richardson’s song “Nicki”, which can now be heard as a loving and moving tribute to her close friend and a source of much inspiration, Nicki Muller.  The song itself is a piano-led composition sung from the very heart of Richardson, its sparsity and direct vocal delivery reminiscent of such songwriters as Lisa Germano or Cat Power, while the spirit of Nicki Muller’s everlasting memory on Richardson is beautifully frozen in time and distilled in the song’s three and a half minutes.

Such honesty is similarly experienced elsewhere in Sorcha Richardson’s songbook, from the tender folk songs found on “Sleep Will Set Me Free” EP to the fragile and bare piano based arrangements such as “Midnight Whistle” or “Nicki”. From a writing point of view, much inspiration is drawn from the sprawling streets of New York itself, where, (like such photographers as Winogrand, Frank, Klein or Meyerowitz over the second half of the last century when they compulsively captured their beloved subject of “the street”), Richardson similarly channels the dramas and stories provided by the street into her own art. Recurring imagery (the fading dusk over the city skyline and the last embers of flickering daylight, or a new dawn over the city skyline) and themes (self-discovery, loss, love, desire) serve to create the impression of a vast, sprawling city enveloping its inhabitants. Like the paintings of Edward Hopper, the individual and its environment is a recurring theme and a sense of loneliness, isolation and contemplation can be felt by the environment’s anonymous individuals whose own private feelings and desires are played out amidst the city backdrop.

The magnitude of the city environment’s sheer size and scale can be seen in Paul Auster’s classic “The New York Trilogy”, where Auster effortlessly re-imagined the classic detective story. Whilst the characters – Quinn, Stillman, Auster himself – meander the maze and walk the tight rope that Auster has written, the main character is New York City itself:

“New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well.” (—Paul Auster, “City Of Glass”, “The New York Trilogy”)

This strange, compelling landscape revealing a labyrinth of myriad half-truths and lies, hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares, can also be felt in Richardson’s songwriting. “Last Train” sounds akin to Peter Broderick’s acoustic-based album “Home” (“Not Home”, for instance) where Richardson sings: “I took the last train home / I really need to be alone / the concrete gets so cold / right before it breaks your bones”. There is a similarly beautifully direct honesty in the song’s words (recalling Nicki Muller’s journal entries) when singing: “I’ve got things I want to do” over an acoustic guitar strum. A wonderful use of imagery serve to create an array of fleeting impressions and feelings. These images are sometimes drawn specifically from Richardson’s experience of illness (morphine, healing wounds, open stitches), elsewhere, subjects feature the edges of day and night (first signs of morning, last embers of dusk, the glowing moon) and the city itself (the subway, and the city streets, its inhabitants).

There is a brooding darkness thinly veiled beneath Richardson’s songs. For example, the imagery of “Birds Of Summer” (shotgun, gates of hell, prison walls) which serve to convey a sense of suffering and near-foreboding where innermost demons are laid bare. This near-unnerving quality can be sensed even more acutely in “Alone” where Richardson sings: “If there is one thing that you should learn / It’s maybe you should be concerned / about me, about me” before she sings: “I’m better off alone / I’m better when I’m holding onto nothing / When I’ve got room to roam”. “High Hopes”, features the lyric “Always across an ocean lies a heart I want to hold”, it seems to best describe the songwriting world of Richardson, where central characters are left suspended in a state of flux. Sorcha Richardson puts it best herself when she says: “That feeling of my life being split down the middle with each side planted on either side of the Atlantic Ocean”. This outlook and perspective has certainly sparked much of her impressive creative output to date where this sense of distance is paramount. As Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy wrote, on “Radio Cure”: “distance has no way of making love understandable”.

“Midnight Whistle” highlights the raw power of Richardson’s talents. Lyrically the song lays bare Richardson’s own illness:

“Across my neck hurts a little my heart
Embrace your pain, create your art
It’s almost over now, It’s almost over now”

The device of double-tracking vocals is put to wonderful effect (reminiscent of vintage Cat Power material while the sound of bells at “it’s almost over now” is reminiscent of “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds) and takes a magical hold of the listener. The song could be left arranged with simply piano and voice due to the power of the song’s honesty. Like such fragile songs by the likes of Nico or Sandy Denny; all that matters is the voice. Once the song is written from a deep place, it’s depths will be sure to find a connection to the listener on hearing those vocals. The likes of James Blake, Antony & The Johnsons and Perfume Genius also come to mind such is the tangible quality inherent in the emotion of Richardson’s voice, but also due to her impressive versatility.
Even in the more accessible songs by Richardson, there is a wonderful sense of musical sensibility and maturity where a sense for melody, timing and phrasing all seem naturally inherent to her. Take, for example, the brief two-minute “I Heart NYC”, it’s lyrics lingers on the listener long after its irresistible melody has filled the air:

“You had on a t-shirt saying “I Heart NYC”, New York City just how much do you love me?”

Elsewhere, darkness seeps into the songs. On “December Cigarettes” Richardson’s vocals are a little more hidden in the recording, creating a sense of quiet distance. Again, a heightened sense of atmosphere is created in this darkness: “And in the darkness / When they come for me / Well are you even gonna hear me shout?”

“When The Sun Sinks Below” has a slightly more blues feel to it, recalling early Iron & Wine recordings (“Our Endless Numbered Days” or “Woman King” EP) and nicely combines both blues and folk traditions. The chorus features the lyric: “You don’t know where I go / When the sun sinks below” over the backing of a more guitar-orientated arrangement.

Listening to Sorcha Richardson proves a truly enriching experience and paves the way for such a very bright future indeed.

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sorcharichardson_2_craigcarry

Interview with Sorcha Richardson.

Firstly, I’d love to ask you about your move to New York from Dublin (which is so beautifully rendered in “Early Morning Rising” from your “Sleep Will Set Me Free” EP). What were your initial feelings and thoughts for New York itself? What’s so evocative in your music is a very tangible sense of longing experienced in the characters of your songs. I imagine moving to New York would have been both exciting and difficult?

At the time, it felt like such a huge decision. I toyed with the idea of moving to New York for about ten months before I made up my mind. I had accepted my place in a college but still wasn’t sure that I wanted to go. Then a teacher in school made me realise that I really had nothing to lose by going. If I didn’t like it, I could just come home. I flew to New York in June 2009, just after my leaving cert, to see the college, and knew straight away that I wanted to move there. And once I’d made that decision, I wasn’t nervous about it anymore. I was just really excited. When I arrived in New York in the middle of August, I moved straight into a dorm in the East Village with about 700 other 18-year-olds.  Most of us were miles away from home and other than the kids who had grown up in New York or come from a feeder high-school in LA, most of us had no friends in New York. I had some Irish friends living in the city, but they weren’t arriving for three weeks.  So initially New York felt very new and exciting and I felt extremely free to do what I wanted. The fact that I had spent hardly any time in New York, maybe a total of two weeks, really made it feel like there was an infinite number of things for me to see and do. The whole experience occupies a big part of my writing though. That feeling of my life being split down the middle with each side planted on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

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Listening to your music is such an enriching experience. I love how many different music traditions and sounds come to mind when listening to your songs (folk balladry, country music, and even blues and pop traditions). Growing up, can you remember at what stage you felt that music was the path for you? What are the specific albums or artists that inspired you as a songwriter?

When I was really young I used to listen to that song Joe Le Taxi by Vanessa Paradis on repeat. It was on a tape somewhere in the house. I didn’t realize that it was in French though, so I would sing English words that sounded like the French words in the song, thinking that I knew all the words. The first concert I went to was All Saints in the Point when I was eight. When I was eleven I decided I wanted to be a drummer in a band so I ended up taking drum lessons for the next seven years. Growing up I listened to lots of things. Everything from Britney Spears to The Beatles to No Doubt.  My listening habits were all over the place.  Since I started writing music with more of a focus over the past few years I’d say the likes of Bon Iver and Lykke Li and more recently Daughter and Patrick Watson have had a more obvious and direct influence on my songwriting, but I still listen to lots of music that is very far away from the music I write.

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“I Heart NYC” is such a special song. It reminds me of early, vintage Cat Power. The lyrics: “You had on a t shirt saying I Heart NYC / New York City, just how much do you love me?” are amazing. I would love to know the backdrop to this song and if you could describe the song’s beginnings and when you wrote it?

I began writing that song very quickly, but it took me ages to complete. I had the whole song written with a different chorus for about a year but it felt like it was falling short of the song I thought it could be.  I became so familiar with the original version that I found it really hard to scrap it and approach it with a fresh mind. I don’t even remember where that lyric came from. “You had on a t-shirt saying I Heart NYC, New York City just how much do you love me?” but I got it in my head one day and immediately knew that it was what the song had been missing.

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“Last Train” is another spellbinding song. It brings to mind, for me, Peter Broderick’s “Home” LP where direct and personal songs are sung over sparse acoustic arrangements. The lyrics, again, are so special. I love how honest and direct the words are (“I’ve got things I wanna do”, for example). What does the song represent for you? 

I wrote “Last Train” at a time when I had fallen a bit out of love with New York. For me, New York is almost addictive. I think when people love living there, they really love it. It’s impossible to describe but it’s almost like being in love with the city.  I think because it’s a bit gritty and there’s such a work hard / play hard mentality too, things can feel a little desperate, but in a really exciting way.  Everyone is on their last dollar but still managing to have the best night out of their lives. I wrote Last Train during a very brief moment when I felt like New York wasn’t a good fit and my life there wasn’t what I wanted it to be.

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As well as having such a wonderfully distinctive voice, your approach to songwriting is also very distinctive. There is so much evocative images in your songs (sunsets, overlooked edges of the city, nocturnal city life) and the deceptively simple style to songwriting create such a raw, honest and real impact for the listener. Which writers would you admire yourself? 

Writers of literature or lyrics? I’m very influenced by both. I studied fiction writing in college. Joan Didion is a huge inspiration for my songwriting. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is probably the only book that I’ve ever felt compelled to read more than once. Her writing is very compact. She manages to evoke so much in very few words. That’s what writing lyrics is often about I think. Using a limited number of words to create a story that has depth to it.

I find it a little harder to pinpoint one songwriter that I admire to the same extent. Lyrics are very important to me and it’s the one aspect of my music that people comment on the most. I think Alex Turner is great songwriter. Especially on Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. I also really like rappers who rap about things with substance. Irish rapper Lethal Dialect is probably as good an example as anyone for that.

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In terms of the songwriting process, is it a daily activity or will you designate certain times to solely focus on writing?

I don’t designate certain times to focus on writing. It’s something that love to do so I find myself doing it on an almost daily basis anyway. That might be very kind of scattered process that involves just jotting a few things in a notebook before going to bed or saving stuff in my phone if an idea comes to mind.  Some of my songs I’ve written in twenty minutes, some I’ve spent months working on, very slowly, bit by bit.  Those ones end up being a process of assembling bits and pieces of lyrics and chords that I’ve written over a period of time, kind of like a jigsaw.

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I love the double-tracking of your vocals which is occasionally used to such wonderful effect (for example on “Midnight Whistle”). The effect brings to mind recordings by Nick Cave and Cat Power. In terms of your vocals how do you prefer to record them? 

I used to double track all of my vocals. When I started recording I had no idea what I was doing and just thought it sounded nicer like that.  But since then I’ve worked with a few different producers and engineers. There’s less of that on the new EP, but it still there in parts.  Two of the songs on the new EP are thematically quite dark and honest so it made sense to have a rawer, more intimate vocal.

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Your song “Nicki” is one of those rare and truly “life-affirming” and one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It’s rare that music can communicate so powerfully. The lines: “an urgency for living has taken over me / an urge to accomplish all I want to be” by Nicki Muller are so touching. I realize this is a difficult question, but I would love if you could talk about Nicki, your friendship, and how this song came about? 

I met Nicki in college. Before I got to know her personally, I was aware of her as an artist.  Her paintings were hanging in all of these really cool locations in New York and she was always having exhibitions. She seemed very immersed in the creative, artistic world of  New York and I really admired that.  Then in my second year of college, Nicki emailed to say that she was curating an art exhibition in a bar in the East Village and asked if I would play at it.  She effectively gave me my first New York gig. Nicki ended up not being able to make the event as doctors had found a tumor in her brain and diagnosed her with stage 4 brain cancer. Six months before this, doctors had found a tumor in my neck, and two months after Nicki’s diagnosis, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Over the next year and a half myself and Nicki spoke a lot about our cancer and our treatment.

Even during her sickness and treatment, she still was so creative and proactive with her art. She had an exhibition in November 2011 which featured artwork that she had made while she was unknowingly living with a brain cancer. I interviewed Nicki for a journalism class about her exhibition a few days later and it turned out to be one of the most eye-opening conversations I’ve ever had with anyone. (http://sorchasauce.tumblr.com/post/34145523724/nicki-muller).

Nicki continued updating her website with entries about her experience with brain cancer. I read those a lot. I told her that I thought they were very poetic and lyrical, and she asked if I would consider using some of her writing for a song. So she sent me some writing that she hadn’t published and we planned for me to set it to music and for her to then make some sort of visuals to accompany the track. But after that conversation with Nicki in November, I was so inspired to set my sights higher and start working harder with my music. I had taken on so many projects and filled my schedule with gigs and live sessions. I was interning at a record label and playing catch up in college after taking a very light course load the semester after my diagnosis.  So all of a sudden I was overwhelmingly busy.  As a result, work on the project with Nicki was slow. Both of us were still going through treatment as well. I had a very easy ride compared to Nicki, though. My cancer wasn’t life threatening.

Things calmed down for me, and I wrote the piano piece and Nicki loved it. Nicki’s writing that she had sent was so beautiful and I must have read it hundreds of times, but I felt a lot of pressure to make the song perfect. There was so much meaning behind it, so I wanted it to be incredible. But as I got better, Nicki grew sicker and she passed away in October.  That week, I finished the song, and with a friend, created the video using projections of some of Nicki’s artwork. I’m glad that the song has been able to bring Nicki’s work to new people. She is just the most remarkable person with the best attitude and she’s made such a lasting impression on so many of us. I’d highly recommend checking out her writing and her artwork: www.nickimuller.com.

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I love your collaborative work with New York-based Colossal Mantis. It must be quite a departure and also exciting for you to be “adding” vocals to someone else’s music. Both “Waves” and “Phases” are fantastic and remind me of Bonobo’s “Black Sands” LP. Were the lyrics written beforehand or were they done with the music in mind? Could you please tell me how this collaboration came about?

That collaboration came about because we started following each other on soundcloud, realized we both lived in New York, and decided to meet up to make some music! My own music was very new too so it didn’t feel weird to be working in such a different style of music.  Then with Waves and Phases, the boys sent me the tracks and I wrote to them. Working with them has been such a great experience. They’re very open-minded when it comes to making music.  And it’s fun too. They’re part of a bigger music collective in New York called the Mantis Family, which also includes some local rappers.  There’s a very strong collaborative vibe with them.

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So many impressions are bestowed upon the listener on listening to your songs. A lasting impression, for me, is one of a large, sprawling city where song’s characters’ hopes and dreams are played against the city backdrop. A sense of alienation is felt where characters try to make their own mark in an (at times) unforgiving environment. What inspires your songwriting and where do you get the inspiration for your music?

Everything inspires my songwriting. New York. Dublin. My friends. Long car journeys or train journeys. I often have very intense, scary dreams. Sometimes they’re recurring dreams.  They feature quite a bit in my writing.  Certain pieces of literature are very inspiring. Sometimes I’ll watch a film or see a photograph and that will inspire me to write more than any song has ever done. And then sometimes I’ll hear a lyric or a melody or some piece of production that I wish I had written and that sends me on a writing spree.

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You are currently on a short trip to Dublin. What are your future plans, Sorcha? 

I’m playing some festivals in Ireland – Knockanstockan, Castlepalooza, Indiependence – before going back to New York in August. My new EP will be out before the end of the summer. I had been shooting for July but I’ve had some interest from a label, so that has delayed things.   I’ve also embarked on a completely new project with some producers and rappers from Brooklyn and New Jersey. We have a full EP recorded and a music video made. Again, it’s a big departure from my solo work, but I’m really excited for people to hear it. I’ll go back to New York in August and I’ll probably get a job at a small label or magazine for the year. Other than that I’ll just continue writing, working towards my next release.

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sorcharichardson_iheartnyc

http://sorchasauce.tumblr.com
https://soundcloud.com/sorcharichardson
http://sorcharichardson.bandcamp.com

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Written by admin

August 9, 2013 at 11:22 am

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