Big Hassle Media
“I love you baby ’till the parking ticket runs out,” sings Ciaran Lavery. “Until the lights in the street are as bright as the stars…”
The award-winning singer-songwriter from Aghagallon in County Antrim, Ireland may be decorated at home by the Northern Ireland Music Prize (for his 2016 album ‘Let Bad In’) and might have totted up over 80 million streams on Spotify during his five-year solo career, but it’s the unrivalled knack he has for a poetic heart-stopping lyric that’s set to earn him wider recognition as a treasured singer-songwriter.
‘To Chicago’ is one of the singles from his forthcoming third album ‘Sweet Decay’; a collection of strummed acoustic fragility that’s as comforting as it is at times devastating. Beyond the classic melodies, however, it’s the storytelling that sets him apart, one that can be as brutal as Angel Olsen and as delicate as Neil Young.
Whether exposing his most vulnerable mental health battles on ‘Beast At My Door’ (“There’s a beast at my door, better not let in/Though it cuts a fine figure of someone I could put my trust in…”) or carving a romance novella into a mere few verses on ‘Two Days In Savannah’ (“Two days in Savannah with your name in my gut/On a bed full of crossed out line and cigarette butts”), Lavery explores the human condition across a myriad of escapist themes on ‘Sweet Decay’. Not just for Lavery but for listeners too, it’s a means of coping with the pressures of our modern world. Fall down the rabbit hole with him and find yourself caught up in another universe, even if for a few moments. That’s what Lavery was intending.
The title track itself is a paean to romantic love, exploring the hope and desire to make it last a lifetime despite that voice in the back of your head that tells you it might not be forever. When Lavery first set out to make ‘Sweet Decay’ it was the lyrics that were his main focus. He’s spent the past five years developing his earthen, folk-y sound, but in terms of words it was important that he didn’t limit or curtail his creativity by trying to force one particular narrative.
“I didn’t wanna have any weaknesses lyrically,” he explains. “It had to be more mature. This album had to be a step up, but not a leap. Everything had to be foolproof.” For Lavery, this is a body of work representing the point he’s currently at in his life. It was a long recording process – over a year – spliced between tours. Although arduous, the drawn-out nature of the work contributed to the songwriting itself, particularly when Lavery found himself inspired by his on-the-road bedside book collection.
“One of the best things I had for provision of sanity were short stories, different kinds of manuscripts that I could dip in and out of. I always find it difficult to write on the road so I tend to collect ideas and these gave me a different focus. I discovered the joy in them.” Lavery was pouring through Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver, JD Salinger, Castle Freeman Jr and many more. “They were my almanac,” he laughs. “I’d constantly lift those books.” The admiration for the detail, emotional heft and pace these writers could fit into such a short space gave Lavery pause to think about what he could achieve in individual songs. “I thought about trying to create a space for people to find a connection.”
In the themes of religion, sin, Heaven and Hell, Lavery found himself in an intriguing mode of self-reflection. Brought up in a small church village, he’s permanently fascinated by concepts of shame and forgiveness. “The older I get I become sceptical and question beliefs instilled in me about life and love and all of that.”
After getting off the road, he’d head into Camden Studios in Dublin and put down his ideas. The songs are full of questions, but don’t often offer many answers. It’s open-ended. You can hear a man struggling with personal growth. “I acknowledge the darkness inside of me, one that has the potential to let people down and make the wrong decisions,” he says.
In the studio, Lavery was able to invite a whole host of session players and musicians in to build out those little worlds to gorgeous effect. “There were some great players coming in and adding their parts,” he recalls. “Saint Sister provided vocals, Rory Doyle drums (drummer for Hozier, Bell X1), Joe Furlong bass (bass player for James Vincent McMorrow) … I got to work with some fantastic Irish musicians.” The results make for an even more luscious and transportative listening experience. For Lavery, it’s the sound of pure catharsis. “I’ve become braver over the years,” he says. “There’s been a darkness all of my fucking life, and I was trying to openly deal with my mental health issues; the doubt and the way it’s affected me growing up.”
With ‘Sweet Decay’, Lavery will be heading out on his biggest tour to date, across Europe, the UK, US, Ireland and Canada. Probably with a fine collection of short story books in tow.