The Arts Interview: Donnacha Toomey

Limerick-born songwriter and winner of EVA International's Nice Screams-A Citizen's Anthem

John Rainsford

Reporter:

John Rainsford

The Arts Interview: Donnacha Toomey

Donnacha Toomey

From Castletroy, after attending secondary school at Árdscoil Rís, I graduated with a B.Sc. and M.Sc. from UL.

I currently work as a Media Lecturer, within the Creative Media Department at the Institute of Technology, in Tralee. As a child I was drawn to the sound patterns of my immediate environment. This included birdsong, and the chugging sound of trains in the far distance. Fortunately, live music was a significant presence in our household and I vividly recall purchasing my first albums at only seven years of age. Early attempts at song writing emerged shortly afterwards using an old guitar discovered in my grandparent’s front room. While appreciative of indigenous musical roots I could feel the strong influence of other traditions largely informed by the medium of radio. National programmes by P.J. Curtis profoundly captured my attention, featuring as they did the music of African-American culture.

I got my first electric guitar while attending secondary school.

In my late teens, I played with several local musicians, and joined a number of Limerick bands, including The Hitchers and The Charming. My first exposure to the recording environment was, like many others of that period, at Limerick’s Xeric Studios. Its history is well known and many fine songwriters passed through there including the inspirational Townes Van Zandt.

Following graduation, I left Ireland to work in Italy for several years as a researcher.

In the absence of language, music became the perfect mediator. Collaborating with local musicians led to the formation of two bands, a meticulously rehearsed five-piece touring act and an improvised acoustic trio, both very enjoyable to work with. The Italian language and its musicality made a lasting impression, altering my song writing practice significantly. On reflection, its broad vowel sounds also rekindled my interest in the Irish language.

After being involved in several collaborations it seemed appropriate to explore my own voice.

Returning from Italy, I gravitated toward acoustic composition and began working mostly as a solo artist. My guitar technique changed considerably during this time, because in the absence of a band, you find yourself carrying parts previously taken care of by others. The main songs written during this time were released as EPs entitled; Pedalboat (2002) and Reasons (2005). Following the release of the latter, I was fortunate enough to open for vocalist Sheila Chandra. I greatly admired her work especially following the Spirit of Voice Festival in Galway.

Carnival of Colours (2009) was my first full length solo album. The album is illustrative of my interest in various types of music, and broadly speaking, is a celebration of diverse colour tones.

Although, I did several solo shows at this time, the studio recording became a communal effort between musicians from Limerick, Kerry and Cork. As a song, Emilia is a direct reference to the Italian town of Reggio Emilia, and one of a number of compositions, written with an expansive brass section in mind. The album was launched at Dolans.

Level Crossing, my second album, was released in 2012.

Collectively, Level Crossing is representative of the ambient sounds mentioned earlier, colliding with fresher sentiments as expressed in the first single, Duty Free. I was privileged to follow the release of Level Crossing with concerts at The Electric Picnic, and the 12 Bar Club, in London’s former Tin Pan Alley. Presently, I am working on new material for release later this year. So far, my approach has been a minimalist one, centred on narrative song with vocals, guitar and piano.

For me music goes way beyond anything that language can say.

My song writing practice essentially follows where the song wants to go. Very often the most promising songs strike when least expected, so in a sense you are always on standby. Thankfully, at present, there are many song fragments lying around for consideration. The late Lou Reed once described his inspiration for song writing as a; “permanent radio in my head”. While it is a great feeling when the words and melody arrive together, (gift-packed), they often involve some level of conscious decoding. Trying a new song in front of an audience is still the best way of evaluating that song for me.

I was delighted when my citizen’s anthem won the public vote for EVA International’s Nice Screams sound art project.

Nice Screams-A Citizen’s Anthem is a socially engaged collaborative project by artists, Deirdre Power, and art-science collaboration, ‘Softday’, (Sean Taylor, and Mikael Fernström). They invited the public, this commemorative year, to create an anthem for Ireland that contributes to the debate surrounding Easter 1916. My winning anthem is essentially a macaronic song (part in English and part in Irish) representative of our historic presence between two cultures. Entitled A Dhaoine Uaisle Uachtair Reoite (Better World in Mind) it is a song of hope told through the eyes of a child in twenty-first century Ireland. The anthem was converted into a flavoursome ice cream chime by Softday and Deirdre Power. It will be played at various locations around Limerick by two Shannon Ices Vans, culminating with a public singing/performance of the 'new' anthem, (on Sunday 24 April), in the People’s Park. Hope to see you there for an ice cream!

For more information about Donnacha Toomey and his music see: www.donnachatoomey.com. To read about Nice Screams-A Citizen’s Anthem please access: www.facebook.com/nicescreams and www.softday/nicescreams