Central And Remote: Adrian Crowley
Interview with Adrian Crowley.
“There are always words to be written.”
Words: Mark Carry, Photographs: Steve Gullick
“Some blue morning soon,
We will rise and step into the glowing.
Where once were tears there shall be gladness,
Where once were splinters hope shall rise.”
—‘Some Blue Morning’
‘Some Blue Morning’ is the highly anticipated seventh studio album from Irish singer-songwriter, Adrian Crowley, which reveals (yet again) a song-writing master-class whose poetic prose and interwoven rich sonic canvas captivates the heart. Recorded in Dublin with long-term collaborator Steve Shannon, ‘Some Blue Morning’ features members of the London string ensemble Geese, Ireland’s Seti The First and Waterford singer-songwriter Katie Kim duets on several songs.
The album’s glorious title-track –and sublime opener – unfolds a blissful sense of euphoria as the guiding light of Crowley’s achingly beautiful vocal casts a glowing light over the horizon. ‘Some Blue Morning’ is a song of hope: where rapture replaces tears. The immaculate instrumentation of drums and strings awakens the timeless sound of Jean-Claude Vannier and Serge Gainsbourg as fleeting moments of rare beauty flickers like the embers of a glowing summer sun.
‘Hungry Grass’ follows next; its warmth, immediacy and delicacy astounds each and every heart pore. The transformative work contains soaring strings that shares the illuminating spark of U.S. group Rachel’s such is its mesmerizing brilliance. A skyline at dusk. The impending arrival of darkness. The comfort in solace. Dancing flames of “cyan, silver, crimson and gold”. ‘Hungry Grass’ is a distillation of a seamless array of transient moments; snapshots or artefacts of life. As Crowley sings “the embers wink before they die”, I feel the hurt of loss but also, the treasure trove of entrusted memories we share and hold onto.
“Lay me down on the hungry grass
Among the seedlings and the winter bark.”
Some weeks before the eagerly awaited arrival of ‘Some Blue Morning’, I was fortunate to witness Adrian’s enthralling live performance. The special setting was Cork’s L’Attitude 51 wine-bar/sometime-live venue – formerly the near-mythical Lobby bar, a venue the Irish troubadour visited many times in the past. A small space, steeped in history, and so fitting that the prized songwriter would return last October. As part of the East Cork Early Music festival, Crowley was joined by the gifted talents of cellist Ilse DeZiah and violinist Justin Grounds. As the trio weaved their spell-binding magic, the audience was invited to soak in the splendour of the artist’s world of song. The power of words: its alluring charm, infinite radiance and raw emotional depth. The night offered a vivid snapshot into the intricate arrangements of Crowley’s sonic creations; from ‘The Beekeeper’s Wife’ to ‘Juliet I’m In Flames’ (the latter which featured the sole use of the Irish singer’s guitar – the reverb hanging beautifully in the air) and all points in between (not least the majority of ‘Some Blue Morning’s illuminating batch of songs).
One song that immediately comes to mind is the hypnotic ‘The Angel’ with its cinematic, eerie strings and Crowley’s lingering baritone floating beneath. The utterly transcendent tour-de-force contains such shape-shifting sounds, mood and rhythm that (larger) groups such as Balanescu Quartet or Kronos Quartet could only summon to create. Elsewhere, the achingly beautiful ‘Trouble’ – one of the many gorgeous duets with divine Irish songstress Katie Kim – centres on starting anew with the dream of a quieter life.
‘The Hatchet Song’ comprises ethereal strings and the similarly dream-like baritone voice that melts effortlessly into the sonic palette like pockets of ice on a woodland path. The deeply affecting ballad is reminiscent of Robert Wyatt and Lambchop whose poetic prose details an engraver with “a blade so eager”. The folk opus ‘Magpie Song’ flickers between the surreal and the visceral, where Crowley sings of “the ways of chance” that results in the magpie taking flight (after several encounters with the revered bird).
The Leonard Cohen-esque ballad ‘Follow If You Must’ is yet another remarkable achievement. The stunningly beautiful ballad (again featuring Katie Kim’s awakening voice) feels as though it’s forged from a “forgotten dream”: the melded voices of Adrian and Katie gracefully rises like the “morning dew”. The sheer beauty and utter transcendence unleashed by their momentous duets is nothing short of staggering. In fact, I’d like to think of this rare thing of beauty being kindred to the fireflies that light up the dark (sung by the pair on a later verse).
The cinematic spoken-word opus, ‘The Wild Boar’ – conjuring up the sound of a Cormac McCarthy travelogue – serves one of the album’s defining moments as “miles of pines” become entrenched in your memory. The striking narrative centres on a driver’s encounter with a mystical creature amidst a drive through a forest at dusk. A meditative and deeply contemplative experience is masterfully created in the opening verse: “He thought about his life and as his mind drifted/He was almost finding some kind of peace/All his frustrations of his troubled days seemed to fall away”. Crowley’s baritone evokes the richest of colours and detail, from the “distant hum of an engine”, the “clicking of a blinking indicator” along with the “scent of pine” and the “recent rain that infused the air.” The enraptured listener becomes hypnotized by the rhythm of Crowley’s poetic prose wherein a spellbinding magic takes hold of the mind’s imagination. Similarly, a sprawling canvas of mesmerizing sounds – beguiling soundscapes of meandering guitar tones, warm percussion and gentle ripples of acoustic guitar notes – floats majestically beneath Crowley’s soothing baritone. The words and music somehow evokes the vast expanses of the forest of trees; the sheer beauty of the wilderness and the further reaches of one’s mind where what once was unreachable has become attainable.
‘Some Blue Morning’ sees Adrian Crowley’s cherished songbook continuing to push the sonic envelope with enlightening tower of songs. I feel the opening verse of ‘Follow If You Must’ serves the perfect embodiment of Crowley’s superlative, sprawling canvas: “And the bonfire’s still burning bright/Throwing sparks up into the night/To linger there with the stars.”
‘Some Blue Morning’ is available now on Chemikal Underground.
Interview with Adrian Crowley.
Congratulations Adrian on the incredible new album, ‘Some Blue Morning’. It’s a real pleasure to ask you some questions about this truly beautiful work. Firstly, I’d love to gain an insight into the world that surrounds ‘Some Blue Morning’ and in what way you approached this record differently to its predecessor, ‘I See Three Birds Flying’.
Adrian Crowley: The pleasure is mine. Thank you, you are very kind! I will try to offer an answer! Well, I wrote the songs for ‘I See Three Birds Flying’ all in the same room and I wrote the songs for ‘Some Blue Morning’ in a different room… but both rooms are in the same house. I think that is an accurate description of my approach in more ways than one.
I also love the ode to Lee Hazelwood in the album-title. Furthermore, I feel the gorgeous duets between you and Katie Kim share that similarly magical spell cast by the timeless recordings of Nancy & Lee. Can you talk me through these particular duets, Adrian. Did you envision Katie would be part of these songs during the time of writing them?
AC: The similarity in the title isn’t necessarily a coincidence but neither is it an ode in that way at all. The title, the phrases, the words I use resonate and have purpose in the songs I write, so I don’t try to mirror a song by someone else. But I often say, subconscious plays a part in how I work and I am always surprised when I wake up and see what I’ve written.
Gosh, I adore the duets of Nancy & Lee. They are gold to me. One of the decisions I’m proudest of in the making of this record was asking Katie to be involved. When I wrote the songs that she ended up singing on, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of duets. At first I heard wordless distant notes sung by a woman. It was very clear to me. For instance in the ‘The Magpie Song’ I heard a kind of haunting and dispossessed voice in the wilderness. And in ‘Follow If You Must’, I had already started recording the song and soon I imagined another voice there as part of the narrative and in a way to bring a different meaning to some of the passages.
It was uncharted territory for me, though, to invite someone in and give them my songs to sing. Sometimes the answer is with us all the time. I had spoken to Katie about the idea of making a record together. But it was a case of “when my record is done and when your record is done…and when we’re finished all the things that go with making a record…” Then I thought, that could take years… So I thought, why not get cracking now? And we can always do more later.
So I gave Katie a couple of songs and she came back with magnificent parts. So I gave her a couple of more songs and then I said, “here have more songs”. And then I said, “stop me if it’s all too much”. And she said, “keep them coming, Adrian, sure it’s grand”. And that was that. It was clear it had been a good idea.
In terms of contributions, the wonderful London-based string ensemble of Geese and Seti The First’s Kevin Murphy further heighten the rich sonic canvas of immense beauty. I would love to gain an insight into the arrangements of these new songs and the collaborative process that exists between you and these cast of musicians.
AC: Well it’s more the case that Emma from Geese played on two songs: ‘The Magpie Song’ and ‘The Hatchet Song’ . Vince from Geese played viola on the latter. Emma, Vince and I had played ‘The Hatchet Song’ live before a few times, like in St Pancras Old Church in London and on a short tour in The Netherlands. We had developed that cascading, overlapping motif that grew and grew. Then in a bar in London I told Emma about a song I’d written about being incessantly assailed by a bird. I told her it had loads of verses and that I imagined her helping the narrative with her violin. She seemed intrigued. Then she played like a woman possessed.
Yes, Kevin Murphy plays cello on several of the songs. We have been working on live shows together too for quite a few years now and I like to think we have a special rapport. Mary Barnecutt who is also a member of Seti The First plays some cello on the record too. Both Kevin and Mary are part of my live show now. We just work intensely and quickly and then we arrive at the treatment that feels right. Many of the parts we developed further with Steve (Shannon) in the studio. Steve is very gifted, I’ve said that before and I’ll say it again. It really is an exciting thing to have the string parts grow and grow. The song kind of tells you what it wants sometimes. It could be either sparse and skeletal or lush and resplendent.
There are an infinite array of moments distilled in each and every song on ‘Some Blue Morning’, like movements contained in a concerto. I wonder were there any happy accidents, so to speak that happened by chance during the making of the record? I can only imagine there must be quite a few stories behind each of these special songs.
AC: One thing I must say is that the vocal takes were far from laboured. I would say 80 or 90% of the vocals on the record are the first take. I am always aware that even if you are planning to put a vocal down as just a guide, it’s worth keeping in mind that it may be a keeper. I remember on one of the first days of the recording sessions Steve asked me to sit down in the live room and run through some guide vocals to just get a handle on how it all wad sounding . Then a short few moments later we had what turned out to be the final vocal takes of about seven songs of the album. I think there is probably some kind of character in each song and what Steve calls artefacts in each song that have their own idiosyncrasies that probably would be impossible to replicate or repeat.
And speaking of happy accidents…I accidentally discovered I could play clarinet during the making of the album. I’m happy about that! I was browsing in my local charity shop one day and saw a black box on a glass shelf. I looked inside and there was a clarinet. I got the feeling that it should be mine. I bought it there and then and later that afternoon I started getting a sound out if it. Then I showed up in Steve’s studio with the black box tucked under my arm. Steve said “what have you got there?” Then we set about laying down clarinet parts. All as a result of walking into that charity shop by chance that day.
One of the album’s (many) defining moments arrives in part B with the cinematic spoken-word opus, ‘The Wild Boar’, conjuring up the sound of a Cormac McCarthy travelogue and the likes of ‘My Sister’ or ‘Chocolate’ by Tindersticks. I particularly love the lyric “He felt like a hunter for the first time in his life”. I would love to gain an insight into the narrative of ‘The Wild Boar’ and your memories of writing this poetic work? In some ways (in reference to the “miles of pines”), the song feels a distant companion to ‘Alice Among The Pines’.
AC: It was exciting and revealing to me how ‘The Wild Boar’ came about. (And I love those two pieces by Tindersticks, especially ‘My Sister’). I spend a bit if time in France and once I had heard about something happening to a guy driving down a lonely road along the pine forests. The story became embellished in my mind and I told it a few times to different people. Then on tour I was telling a friend of a friend this story… we were in a venue in Berlin just sitting at a table before the show started. Then during my set the same person shouted out to me to tell the story about The Wild Boar. So I did and it went on and on.
Then a couple of weeks later I told it again during a show in Brighton. Eventually I wrote it all down in the form of a short story. It just seemed right to me to record it and in some strange way it fits on the album, I think. It’s interesting what you say about ‘Alice Among The Pines’. I like the idea of some things coming from the same landscape… a bit like aspects of a story that is told over time.
I fondly recall the central lyric to ‘Trouble’ originated from your European travels in which a local told you, “the only trouble you get around here is when the leaves stick to the rail-road tracks.” Please recount for me your memories of this particular song and indeed, the influence the act of travelling must have on your song-writing?
AC: Yes, I fondly recall the event that sparked off this song. I was on tour in Europe and this particular day I was playing in a small town in The Netherlands. When I arrived in town for the show, I looked at my map and saw the venue was in walking distance from the station, so I set off on foot carrying my two guitars and dragging along this big suitcase. I crossed the road and there was a guy on a bike facing me, waiting at the traffic lights. He was watching me as I trudged and shuffled along. Then he smiled and nodded to me, and said something in Dutch. I said “Pardon?” and this time he spoke in English… “Are you okay?” He was looking at all these things I was carrying. “Yes, I’m fine, thanks”. I answered. The lights turned green and he cycled off.
Then I continued down the road and a woman with a child and a dog were coming towards me. They were all looking at me curiously. Then as I approached them, the woman asked me something. “Are you okay?” I nodded and continued along my way. Then a couple of minutes later, I heard a car slowing down behind me. I looked over my shoulder and there was a police car. I stopped and the window rolled down. Two cops were looking at me. One cop leaned out the window and nodded at me. He said something in a low voice. I looked quizzical. He repeated “Are you okay?” I said “Yes, I’m just on my way to play a show”. And I pointed at the venue at the end of the street. The cop nodded and looked a bit disappointed, then rolled the window up again and they drove off.
Then after the show, I told the story to three chaps who had come over to talk to me. They nodded knowingly as I was telling the story. When I finished, one of them said… “Yeah, we don’t get much trouble around here”. Then he said, “The only trouble you get around here is when wet leaves stick to the railway tracks”. I thought it was sweet and funny and sadly beautiful. A song emerged over the next few weeks about someone moving to another town, a small town to lead a simple life and not get into any more trouble.
In terms of writing, would you find yourself writing words on a page before the music is ever thought of or considered? The lyrics to your songs are sheer poetry and the poetic prose contained on ‘Some Blue Morning’ offers everlasting inspiration. Are there certain writers/literature/song-writers that hold a particular resonance for you, Adrian?
AC: Thank you, that’s a very nice thing to say. I don’t know if I really settle on any one songwriter. I just love words. I love it when you hear a song somewhere for the first time and it has a kind of spark that gives it a kind of transcendence. In terms of literature, I love the writing of Richard Brautigan, Raymond Carver, John Mc Gahern… There are others of course but I find these deeply inspiring. Charles Bukowski and Henry Miller were/are longtime favourites of mine too. In terms of contemporary Irish writers. Kevin Barry, I think is brilliant. Songwriters…there are so many great ones.
I was really interested to hear how you spent time over the past year devoted entirely to writing. How has this technique of yours developed or changed during the course of this time period? Can you discuss the mind-set and transformative process that must occur during writing? How has this affected the song-writing process of yours, Adrian?
AC: I did decide at one point, when I could see that I had no trips planned for a while, that I was going to set a few hours a day writing words and stories. I had finished recording the new album and I felt I needed to get something more out. It’s still coming out. I am very happy with the discovery. It’s funny, sometimes I touch on something that clearly needs my further attention, then I think… “okay, I’ve just set myself a goal, I better do justice to the idea and see it through”. So in that way I’ve been building something just on paper…words on paper. I see sometimes songs growing out of those pieces, sort of like a parallel counterpart. And that has influenced how I write songs, I think. Almost approaching from a new direction. There are always words to be written.
‘Some Blue Morning’ is available now on Chemikal Underground.