Aoife McCarthy left the progressive south Dublin school, Newpark Comprehensive, more than 10 years ago, but she had a teacher there whose guidance towards a career in music she has never forgotten.
“Miss Glancy was the most encouraging music teacher,” she says. “Without her, I don’t know what I’d be doing now.”
Ethel Glancy also helped fuel the creative fires of another Newpark past pupil, Cian Nugent, and Nugent – a revered songwriter in his own right – has played a big part in the sound of McCarthy’s solo debut album.
She says they sometimes think back to their school days (they were in different years) and their good fortune to have a teacher who helped to open their ears and sow the seeds that made them realise a career in music was possible.
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The singer – whose stage-name includes her middle names Nessa Frances – releases Land of No Junction on Friday and it has already garnered the sort of ecstatic advance acclaim that all artists dream of.
It is Uncut magazine’s album of the month and the comprehensive review is so glowing it practically frogmarches the reader to their local record shop to pick it up on vinyl.
McCarthy is not a newcomer in Irish music circles – she cut her teeth in a number of bands and earned positive notices during her membership of the well-respected, but little known, Princess. But the 28-year-old’s fledgling solo career is a different matter entirely. She’s among the most hotly tipped acts of 2020, Irish or otherwise, and she has earned comparisons with such luminaries as Angel Olsen and Cate Le Bon.
And she’s still trying to get used to the acclaim. “It’s a dream. It’s almost hard to believe. Even getting to make this album with such incredible musicians is thrilling.”
Besides Nugent, the album also features contributions from Brendan Jenkinson, Brendan Doherty and Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh. It’s the latter that’s responsible for the strings that weave a spell throughout.
Her album will come out on Basin Rock in Ireland and the UK, and on the esteemed Ba Da Bing in the US. The latter, McCarthy says with pride, is where the likes of Sharon Van Etten and Beirut released early work. There was quite a lot of record label interest in her when her album – which she completed early last year – was sent out and about.
“Tim Burgess [The Charlatans’ frontman] wanted to put the album out. He loves the music. He has a label called O Genesis and Daniel O’Sullivan, who’s on his label, sent my album to him. But by then I was talking to Basin Rock and it just seemed like the best thing to do [to sign with that label].
“But Tim has been so supportive and we’ve been in touch regularly. Maybe, we’ll do something in the future.”
She didn’t countenance the idea of going with a major label. “It seems like people get too much involved in the creative process in major labels,” she notes, “and then, sometimes, your album can be lost among all the others during the promotion stage.”
Land of No Junction makes for a wonderfully seductive listen. The care with which McCarthy has crafted her songs is evident within the first minute. The arrangements – many of them devised with Cian Nugent – help elevate the material above the ordinary. And there’s an impressionistic mood created by her lyrics.
The songs have been in gestation for a long time. “I hate being contrived,” she says. “I don’t want to sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a song about love’, or whatever. I can’t do that. Instead, I write down thoughts and ideas in my notebook or laptop and then revise them.
“It feels, then, as though I didn’t write them and there’s something incredible about being able to step away from your intention and let your subconscious take over.”
A highlight, ‘Blow Up’ was inspired by the 1960s movie of the same name and by the plight of women in this country before the legalisation of abortion. The striking video was made by her sister, Anna.
She is as much influenced by the world of literature as music. “I love the poetry of [Spanish poet] Lorca and people like Samuel Beckett and Gabriel García Márquez. There’s something surreal about all of them and they touch on magic realism and that’s something that really appeals to me.”
Trish Keenan, the late singer of British avant garde band Broadcast is an important touchstone for McCarthy, too. “She died on the day my little sister was born.”
Aoife McCarthy grew up in south Dublin in a family that were steeped in the arts. Her mother is the actress and alternative health therapist Brenda McSweeney. Her aunt is the singer and actress Flo McSweeney. Her father, Brian McCarthy, is a renowned fiddle-maker.
“I always felt that artistic pull,” she says, “and while my father introduced me to so much music, it was older friends who turned me on to Nirvana and the early White Stripes.”
She studied Spanish and Film Studies at Trinity College – her enthusiasm for the language and the flamenco guitar partly inspired by her Barcelona-raised stepmother. But she found it difficult to settle into life in the country’s most prestigious university.
“I grew up in a council estate and I think Trinity feels posh and doesn’t feel like me. I was broke. I was kind of shy. I found it tough. I thought about dropping out so many times and going to art school. My dad had gone to Trinity to do ancient history and archaeology and then he dropped out after a year to do art school.”
But despite a somewhat erratic attendance record, McCarthy completed her degree. “Nobody knows what they want to do when they’re 18. Well, I certainly didn’t.
“It’s a shame, because I would really enjoy film studies now, but back then I was all over the place.”
She was reminded of her sense of dislocation at Trinity when reading Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People. “She was a year ahead of me at Trinity. I don’t know her personally, but she really captured a sense of place and time.”
Rooney, to McCarthy, represents a spectacular period of creativity among young Irish people. She talks about the high number of exceptional homegrown albums that have been released in the past 12 months and she’s excited about the promise of young London-based Irish writer Megan Nolan. “She’s going to be a huge writer!” Nolan’s debut novel, Acts of Desperation, will be published next year.
Quite how ‘huge’ McCarthy will become is anyone’s guess. Her music is accessible, but it was not hardly honed with radio playlisting or Spotify tastemakers in mind. The songs are all the better for that, but her rise will likely be of the word-of-mouth variety.
Right now, she’s paying the bills by working part-time in the second-hand record shop, Freebird – now something of a Dublin institution. “It’s so nice to get to listen to music all day,” she says, “and to hear albums from start to finish. That’s the great thing about vinyl. You want to hear the music from beginning to end. Streaming can be too overwhelming – there’s literally too much choice – whereas before, as a teenager, I’d take CDs with me on the bus. One to listen to on the way in and one to listen to on the way home. When you have everything, you just don’t pay as much attention.”
Her album, naturally, will be coming out on vinyl, but she’s not hostile towards streaming. After all, it’s how she listens to a lot of music and she argues that the Spotifys of this world allow a great democracy of listening. “You don’t have to have lots of money to hear whatever you want.”
‘Land of No Junction’ is released on Friday. Aoife Nessa Frances plays the Grand Social, Dublin, on February 21
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