Niall Connolly: A New Album, Experiences with Kindness on the Road, and the Infinite Well
All We Have Become is what you’d expect from a new Niall Connolly album — a wide variety of international musicians, a combination of traditional folk and indie rock that translates well to acoustic solo performances, and songs that take snapshots and tell short stories about Connolly’s life on either side of the ocean. Its charm creeps up on you. You find yourself playing the songs back in your head or humming the chorus to “The Four Faced Liar” as it digs its way into that part of your brain that clings to pleasant sounds.
This album, the fourth since he’s moved to New York and his seventh studio album, is a tribute to the development of his band and the musicians that have both orbited and influenced Connolly over the years – and “all” they have become.
“My albums all have a very strong sense of place,” Connolly says. “All We Have Become is an album mostly made in New York, but full of gratitude and respect for home, the friends, family and experiences that shaped me.”
Niall Connolly moved to New York City eight years ago. Since then, he’s been the creative force behind many music projects and bands coming out of the Brooklyn folk scene. He once hosted the Wednesday night song club at Ceol. Through the song club — a breeding ground for new folk music — and his extensive and prolific songwriting and creative partnerships, Connolly developed long-lasting relationships with musicians who collaborate and support one another.
The band on this record is the same group of musicians who collaborated on Sound — produced by Brandon Wilde, who also played bass and provided vocals, Len Monachello on drums and vocals, Chris Foley and Warren Malone on guitar, and Dennis Cronin on trumpet, vibraphonette, piano and tambourine.
After spending most of the past year touring Sound in Europe and the across the U.S., Connolly had written 25 new songs. The band selected the best 12 of those songs for this album, culling then crafting each song into a polished blend of multi-instrumental skill, with a backbone of intertwined Irish and American folk influences.
“I love this band, personally and musically,” says Connolly. “They are very intuitive in their arrangements. They really care about music, every note is considered and every song is treated with great respect. They are also very accepting of my songs’ frequent odd bars. And semi tolerant of my awful puns.”
The record also includes “some transantlantic wizardry,” with long distance recordings from his old friends and musical partners, Karl Nesbitt and Michael John McCarthy, who recorded in both Cork and Glasgow. “Ryan Drickey even sent in one of his violin tracks from a closet in Beverly Hills,” says Connolly.
After reading the press release, I asked Connolly to comment about the creation of this album, during his most well received years following Sound, from a more personal perspective.
“I’ve been on the road a lot this year in U.S. and Europe and I am grateful for the doors that music continues to open for me. It is a strange existence. Like, I need to step onto the tight rope for the safety net to appear. A friend on tour once asked why I wouldn’t go to the casino with him. I said, ‘Can’t you see this whole existence is a gamble?’”
He admits it can be hard sometimes. “I miss my wife, I get lost, I don’t get enough sleep, some gigs are not worth repeating. But I continue to encounter so much kindness at every bend in the road. Most people are mostly good given the chance. Another analogy I return to is that of the cartoon character who has run off the edge of the cliff. Everything is fine. Once he keeps running.
“This year I toured the Pacific North West for the first time and I felt like I was part of some social experiment on the impact of random kindness on society. I loved it. I also had a great tour in Europe. Germany has been really good to me for a number of years but especially the last couple of years. Other highlights included being invited to open for my friend Mick Flannery for a series of theatre gigs in Ireland including a sold out show at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin. Back stage there are pictures of Johnny Cash and David Bowie on the stage you are about to play.”
Five years ago, I first met Niall Connolly at Ceol (something I think many people can say), the Irish pub in Brooklyn where he hosted a Wednesday night song club that was known to be highly selective for their line up; musicians were given a chair and a Martin D1 acoustic guitar and a one hour slot.
I was blogging for the indie now-defunct VZ Magazine, working on a column about Brooklyn musicians. I had fallen into a rabbit hole of young performers in that borough. People younger than me — with baby fat still in their cheeks and long hair and bad posture – were playing blues, roots, Americana, and folk, or all of those things interacting within the larger genre of alternative rock, with a charming and authentic grit to it. They slammed back whiskeys and played banjos fiercely and schlepped stand up basses around the city sidewalks. I hadn’t expected the sheer quality of the music these young performers were recreating – real Robert Johnson covers and chord shapes, diatonic harmonicas, perfectly timed vocal harmonies.
I asked every musician I met to recommend another musician. It was how I discovered new stuff. And most of all, I wanted to know which musicians these kids looked up to and whom they drew their inspiration from. Niall Connolly’s name was dropped a few times, with a certain reverence, part of the mythology shared in conversations at the bar after a long show. The Third Wheel Band credited Connolly with having been central to their band’s formation, and it was their guitarist who really pushed me to go home and look him up right away.
The article I wrote in 2010 about the song club no longer exists, so I’ll summarize – I sat for four hours listening to 11 musicians, each of whom had to focus intensely on playing the acoustic guitar. The acoustics in the small wooden room forced the projection of the natural human voice. It was clear that this was a musician’s workshop of sorts rather than a traditional concert, but even as a non-musician, I was entranced by the variety of skill and raw talent that poured out of that single guitar. I just listened. Sat there until midnight, when my pint of beer was warm and flat.
I interviewed a few of the other musicians, talking about what we referred to as “this thing Niall has going on here.”
Niall Connolly holding out the “magic tambourine” at Ceol songclub (2010)
The regular performers all shared that same reverence for Connolly’s music. E.W. Harris told me Connolly had intimidated him at first. Not because of anything he’d said or done, but because of his music – upon hearing Connolly play “Be There if I Have to Swim,” Harris decided to start playing the acoustic guitar again.
After hours, while guitars were being packed up, I ended up singing Nirvana songs with E.W. Harris as he played with the Martin D1 before putting it away for the night. Moley O’Sullabhain beatboxed in the background, and Connolly at one point joins in, with purposeful vocal breaks: “Let me clip your dirty wings!”
Their relationships, as both creative partners and friends, warmed up the room, and instead of feeling like I was watching from a distance (after all, I was sitting close enough to slap the guitar from the performer’s hands if I wanted to) I felt a distinct sense of being welcomed by decent people who know that they’re creating good music, and yet aren’t at all pretentious about it.
It’s this group of musicians and friends, among many others, that Connolly is honoring in this record. The album begins with the delicate and nostalgic song “Down to the Sea,” where the title is taken from the lyrics, “And I’m proud of you and all we have become.” The sincerity and supportiveness in this song is really touching, though not unexpected from Connolly, who has been both an organizer and cheerleader of the indie music scene. While I doubt Connolly planned for his album to begin with a song that makes people cry, I’m certain that’s what he’s done.
I don’t think everyone expected to become all that they are. The first two years spent as a working musician in New York are “very, very hard,” Connolly once told me. It appears he’d taken on the position of trying to make those two years easier.
I stopped writing about folk-based music last year. After Mumford & Sons won the 2013 Grammy for Best Album, I was interviewing Connolly for No Depression and mentioned Mumford, and the more folksy kind of rock being played on alternative rock radio stations more often than ever before. He replied, “Good for them. But folk is appreciated in ebbs and flows, always has been, coming and going.” He was right; by 2014, I found fewer musicians willing to even own up to writing songs in the folk genre.
Folk was an inspiration, sure. It held a special place in every hard working New York musician’s heart, and I’ve never interviewed a singer/songwriter who didn’t refer to Bob Dylan a few times. But quite a few musicians discovered it to be a difficult genre for anyone who truly wants to become famous or make a full-time living as a songwriter. Pop sensibilities were business-savvy alterations to transform the former DIY-style acoustic recordings of young Brooklyn artists into something designed for mainstream consumption. Julia Weldon referred to it as “folkphobia,” in that marketing oneself to clubs and venues as a folk musician wasn’t wise, and it was unfortunate that you had to take into consideration the misconceptions of the whole genre as one that is consistently of lesser value, for many reasons. An attitude develops that the genre is either too hard, too easy, or overcrowded by musicians who struggle with writing anything simple and structured enough to appeal to your average listener on their commute to work who wants to sing along to Adele.
Connolly turns this all upside-down. He’s made a living writing and performing exactly the kind of music he wants to make, not really worrying about genre (he points out that in the days of the record store, folk-pop records would be mixed in with alt rock anyway). A musician’s limitations are real only insomuch as one believes them to be.
“Some people may think of folk music in the Lomax tradition of scratchy field recordings chronicling times gone by, and certainly that is a huge part of the tradition of folk,” says Connolly. “I am grateful to have that rich heritage of folk music to explore. However, I think of folk music in broader, more contemporary sense. A fluid form.” He adds that he was surprised when he was first asked to perform at the American Folk Art Museum, where he’s now regularly invited to play.
“Roots music has roots and many branches. So, I never feel restricted by any genre. I feel enriched by traditions and what has come before, I feel inspired to endeavor to create something worthwhile. Something sincere. They say there is nothing new under the sun, that there are only seven stories. But there are countless variations, infinite characters and struggles to populate our world. And so, the well, for folk music, for storytelling, for me, is not finite.”
On genre and marketing, he says, “I don’t ever set out to make a folk record or an indie rock record, I set out to make good record.”
Years ago I interviewed John Sebastian, the lead vocalist and singer/songwriter from The Lovin’ Spoonful who still performs prolifically in his 70s, and he’d said the exact same thing (although he said “rock record” rather than “indie rock record”). He’d told me that he never set out to be a recognized singer/songwriter, though he had to face that fact when he started winning awards. He just wanted to be a good guitarist, and create the kind of music he’d grown up admiring.
Connolly talks about his influences with similar admiration and gratitude. “I am fortunate, by virtue birthplace. to have absorbed Irish folk and through curiosity and exploration American folk. In my early twenties I opened for great Irish songwriters John Spillane and Ger Wolfe and Scottish singer Dick Gaughan. They were steeped in folk tradition and I was mesmerized by what they could achieve with solo performance … I also grew up as a huge Nirvana fan playing bass in punky, grunge bands. As a teenager I borrowed a lot of my sister’s Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits records. So, I had them in one ear and Sonic Youth, Pavement, Nirvana, the Pixies, R.EM. in the other. It was a natural progression for me to really become interested in Americana/ alt country/ alt rock or whatever they call it now.”
How does he work in that folk tradition to his own music?
“It is something that could be performed solo, that makes sense on the page that has a message or a story,” he says. “What is added in studio doesn’t change the core of the songs. I certainly reject the notion that there isn’t any room for anything new in folk music. Back to it being a fluid thing, all forms of music come from somewhere and all move and bend, meander, move forward and back. From Irish folk, to gospel, blues, jazz, rock and roll, rap, electronic music, all have foundations and history, connected and continuous.”
And finally, he gently reminds me that my impressions about how genre may limit a musician’s options are probably wrong. While he says “that attitude exists,” (toward folk music) it’s not his problem. Really, I’d just stopped looking at the great examples of how music can bring people together.
“Your question about feeling restricted by genre doesn’t really come into it while making a record,” says Connolly. “The performance, however, will be different if I am doing it with the band at a club or solo in a folk club or house concert. So, I would say that I while I love playing with the band, and recording with them and creating records with them, I try to write songs that can stand alone, that work at a solo performance. I was thinking about that a lot while doing a house concert tour this year — house concerts being the closest thing in contemporary touring to the old idea of troubadour and the place of music in society. They are great example of how music can literally bring people together [to] have a shared collective experience. In a sense, [it’s] a great metaphor for the power of music in society. All cultures have wedding songs, funeral songs, work songs, love songs, songs of struggle. Struggle, love, work, weddings and funerals are likely sticking around as sources.”
It’s likely Connolly will go on to create more brilliant records as he remains forever moving forward and gathering his muses from the human experience.
Connolly assures us: “As long as there are new stories and new struggles, there will be new music.”
Listen to All We Have Become here.
For concert info and more: www.niallconnolly.com