When visiting Portland at the beginning of March, I saw the Galway-based indiepop band Dott play at Holocene. I was quickly impressed with their songwriting; that singer/guitarist Anna McCarthy made reference to a visit to Powell’s on an earlier tour didn’t hurt, either. Soon afterwards, I picked up their recent album Swoon, which features a dozen harmony-rich pop songs, neatly crafted and winningly played. I caught up with McCarthy via email to discuss bookstores, pop songs, and more.
At the Portland show, you mentioned that you visited Powell’s on your last time in the city. Do you generally check out bookstores in the cities that you play?
Absolutely. I could spend hours just wandering around a book shop, but on this tour we unfortunately didn’t have a lot of spare time to do that. Mostly it was “wake up, drive to the next city, find the venue in time for soundcheck, play the show, have fun, go to sleep and repeat.” For me, the thought of spending an afternoon in a book shop is the ultimate luxury as it means I am carefree without the pressure to be elsewhere. I went on a round the world trip a couple years back and left with just two, maybe three books and was really lucky to do some great trades in bookshops along the way to keep me going. I actually found a second hand copy of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy in a very haphazard bookshop in the middle of nowhere in Thailand. I flipped it open and found a stamp from my local independent bookshop in Galway, Ireland; Charlie Byrnes! That was a really fun find for me.
Where did the concept for the cover art for Swoon come from?
The cover art is by a fantastic artist called Cecilia Danell. She’s Swedish born, but living in Galway. We’ve done a lot of work together over the past few years. She was in an art show I curated and she was in an art festival I was organising. Then she created some visuals to project for our first ever gig and she starred in our first music video (“Let’s Do It”) so it just made sense that she should do the cover art for the album. Oh, and besides the point, she’s incredibly talented too. The concept is actually taken from some of her earlier work that I had really liked and thought it was really relevant to the content of the album. I won’t go any further into what the concept is as I prefer to hear someone’s personal interpretation of things instead of being told what something “should mean.” I really love that painting though and was delighted when I got to keep it. It now sits proudly on display in my living room here in Galway.
Listening to Swoon, one of the things that struck me most, musically speaking, was your use of harmonies; how do these generally evolve over the course of writing a song?
I really really love experimenting with harmonies. It’s probably my favourite part of writing a song. The hard part is deciding on the lyrics and melody so I always look forward to recording demos on Garageband and adding in all the harmonies that spring to mind. I’ve been asked about this a couple times and I think my love for harmonies might have something to do with my incompetence as a guitar player. I am a very basic guitarist so instead of thinking of interesting guitar harmonies or solos I instantly sing harmonies instead. Sometimes I have to restrain myself from getting too carried away with adding harmonies. It’s all well and good when it’s for a recording, but sometimes I need to remember that these songs will have to translate to the live setting with only two voices (myself and Laura on bass). Sometimes I dream of being a backing singer for a band just so I could sing harmonies all of the time.
Do you usually begin with music or with lyrics? (Or is it a combination of the two?)
It’s definitely a combination of the two. Sometimes an entire song will start with one line and a melody that pops into my head and the rest will form around that. Sometimes a melody will suggest a mood or tone for the song and the lyrics will be based on that. Or else I might decide a theme lyrically and start from there. As you can probably tell, I don’t have a set way of doing things or a formula for writing songs. When writing, I’m not thinking about following a certain structure which I think helps to keep the songs more interesting.
Your tour diary recently appeared on Noise; have you been working on any other writing?
Not recently. I studied English at University and took creative writing modules, but since writing my thesis for my Masters, song writing has been the main focus of writing for me. Just last week I appeared at the Cúirt Festival of Literature to teach groups of children and teenagers about the process of song writing. It was really interesting for me to stand back from my own work and think about how I could explain my process to young people. Being part of the festival was very fun though, as I got to meet some very exciting writers like Patrick DeWitt and Craig Davidson who were appearing there too. I would love to think that someday I would find the time to write more prose, but for now I’ll stick with writing songs.
How did this most recent tour compare with previous tours of the US?
Before this, we had only played New York before so I can’t really compare it to another tour, but it was an amazing experience for us. Tours just don’t work the same way in Ireland as there are only a handful of cities to visit, so touring continuously for a few weeks was a completely new experience for us. We were very lucky in so many ways. Ryan from Graveface did all of the hard work while we got to do all of the fun stuff. The Stargazer Lilies were so kind to let us share all of their backline, and we were given some amazing support from an Irish organisation called Culture Ireland. They provide financial support for Irish musicians and artists to travel abroad and showcase their work, a bit like a Cultural Ambassador. We genuinely had a blast in every city (except for one – here’s looking at you shoddy promoter in San Diego) and met so many great people. We would return and tour again in a heartbeat. Next time we would love to tour the East Coast. Hopefully this will happen in the not too distant future.