“International folk hero” Niall Connolly is hosting the Big City Folk concerts on Wednesday nights at the Irish pub, Ceol, in Brooklyn. An Irish traditional folk circle is created within this homestyle pub's back room, up to 14 musicians performing a stunning acoustic concert with a line of indie/folk greats—including Casey Black, Justin Storer, EW Harris, Warren Malone, Don Paris Schlotman, Chris Mills, and recently, Moley O' Suilleabhain of the pop group size2shoes. Connolly himself performs early in the evening.
It's not just an ordinary concert, nor does it lend itself to an ordinary interview—this is a movement, an original and carefully organized exhibition of the best hole-in-the-wall indie and folk in New York City. Connolly, well respected as both a politically engaged songwriter and talent facilitator, stands in the audience cheering for each musician as if this is his first night on the job.
What Connolly describes as a “filtered open mic” has been filling clubs with talent for 5 years, averaging 20 concerts a month through Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, and it doesn't appear as if this will ever grow old or become routine.
Each musician plays two songs, and two featured musicians play slightly longer sets. Those who get the “stage” (a chair in the corner of the room) have to at least impress Connolly, or come with high recommendation.
Connolly explains, "When the Wednesday night song club began, I would spend hours on end trawling through MySpace and various dive bars looking for new acts. Nowadays, we have well over 100 performers on our contact sheet. The filtered open mic idea works quite well. It is intended to be an attractive night out for the non-musician too, hence the filter. Basically, the performers have to be of a very high standard to be invited to perform. Once they have been invited, they too are invited to bring down additional performers that they feel are good enough. I hope you'll agree this alarmingly simple plan works amazingly well?"
The musicians and audience gather tightly around wooden tables grasping pints of Guinness and watch one another perform. They listen to the music carefully, not passively; it never really falls into the background. I hardly noticed that three full hours, a wonderful collision of country, roots, folk, and various indie rock, had passed without a break.
From 8 pm to about midnight, Connolly passes his Martin D1 acoustic guitar around to the musicians in “The Circle.” The Martin D1 belongs to Connolly, given to him by a friend in the circle (who prefers to remain unnamed) after Connolly's guitar, costing him 2,000 Euros, was stolen shortly before a gig at the Living Room a few years ago. Well, it's New York City. Sometimes guitars get lifted.
With only a chair, a microphone, and Connolly's prolific guitar, this “collective” of musicians are proving that new acoustic music is still intriguing—and interactive. The old wooden floors of the pub literally bounce, like a bass drum, as the audience pounds their feet to the rhythm. ”Foot solo!” declared one performer, and the floor-thumping commenced with more energy.
I asked Connolly, who is originally from Cork (“I'm not going to tell you why I moved to New York”) to expand on how the song club idea started.
Connolly: “This guy named Dan Donnolly from Belfast suggested that I start this Wednesday night song club thing at a venue in the city. I started that and it became a way to develop a community. When I moved here---everyone says the first year in New York is incredibly hard, and it absolutely is. And if you're trying to do it as a musician, it's even harder. Especially when you're between genres, which I think I am, between it's not-really-folk and not-really-indie . . . I left the community I was from. So what was I going to do now?”
The circle is supportive and interactive, and more importantly, it works as a music collective. For Connolly's birthday, the Big City Folk artists put together a compilation album with 11 cover versions of Connolly's songs, titled, “aNIALLated.” As I spoke to Connolly's friends and fellow musicians, the people who produced his albums or accompanied in his band, it appears that the chatter one hears about Connolly is true—he really is carving out a beloved niche of New York City, both for his own prolific political folk songs and what some musicians have described as his ability to “discover” new talent.
Niall Connolly is foremost a songwriter, and doesn't feel that he's discovered any talent so much as he's just been “aware, looking” carefully at the music scene. “I wouldn't say I fell into, but I embraced the idea of having like in Ireland, where you have the 'house party' and you'd have people sit around, you'd pass the guitar and sing songs. That's frequent, and that's what we've tried to recreate here. And we've done that, I think we've done that and made something special. A lot of bands have come out of here—the Sky Captains of Industry, or the Third Wheel Band, or several others we've had, that's been a great adventure, but it's not a calculated thing. What it is, it's about community and looking out for each other. And making music.”
It seems that it would be difficult for a song club to continue to offer fresh and energetic music every single week, but Connolly pulls it off with ease. I ask, somewhat perplexed by the vibrancy, “You're here every Wednesday night with these awesome musicians. Are there performers, songs, that still blow your hair back?”
“Absolutely, because we're all writing new things all the time,” answers Connolly.
Connolly then embraces one of the night's featured musicians, Rory O'Brien. “This guy I know from Ireland,” Connolly says. “We took the same music course together ten years ago, and he just walked in. He's just in New York for the first time today. So you ask how it remains fresh, and I'd say now that we have this thing established, then it just goes like this.”
Connolly's album, “Brother, The Fight is Fixed,” was recorded with assistance from some of the acts that perform regularly within the Big City Folk Collective, produced by EW Harris. They recorded the album, according to Connolly, "In a tiny studio under a train in Williamsburg in 2010." He added, "We toured Europe as far as Budapest with that one."
A choir in the album's song “Skin and Bones” consists of musicians such as Casey Black, Warren Malone, and EW Harris. Justin Storer provided percussion and production assistance. The album is to some degree political, sometimes sarcastic, other times profound (song titles include “Don't Go to Canada,” “Jesus is Coming and I Can't Pay the Rent,” “America”) and currently available on Amazon, iTunes and CDBaby.
During “Don't Go to Canada” Connolly plays the Speak n' Spell, which utters in its robotic voice, “Say it,” and recites random words (“rodent”) throughout the song, with possibly humorous lyrics of taxes and five year plans and lost love. “America” is one of the album's gems; a great reminder of the soulful introspection possible with acoustic songwriting, with an addictive old-timey guitar approaching a blues riff and semi-radical political lyrics, ending each chorus with, “America, I love you/ Won't you tell me the truth?”
Connolly is a prolific songwriter. "Last year, I put out another album, the mostly acoustic 'Super Cool Fantastic.' I'm working on another one right now with Brandon Wilde. I've been writing an awful lot recently."
We discuss the case of a young man from Texas who learned to play blues harmonica in Ireland with Connolly. Which leads me to ask, “Is it common in Ireland for people to be this supportive of blues and country and Americana roots?”
“Americana is hugely popular in Ireland,” says Connolly. “Because a lot of Americana music has traditional Irish roots, and Scottish roots, and it sort of went over [to America] and then came back again. It's Irish music influencing the American music, and then American music returning to Ireland in its current form. Including me.”
RC: Was there a reason to come to Brooklyn? The reputation of the music here, well, some people have said it's a new birthplace of great music, and others not so much. So I often ask everyone in Brooklyn, is this the borough where things are really happening?
NC: No, I don't buy into that so much. I think . . . it's happening, yes. I do half of my work in Manhattan, you know? Brooklyn is where we can afford to live, and Queen, Astoria, where we can afford to live.
RC: Certainly Manhattan is prohibitively expensive. So is it that you just ended up here, and you found each other, by some luck, in this town?
NC: It's not that we ended up here either—we knew there was music here, definitely. Everyone knew there was music here. But I was told that Williamsburg was the center of music, and Williamsburg is not the center of music. Williamsburg is the center of something else . . . which I don't really believe in. They do something, but I don't believe in it. What I hope we have here is something more. Something more!
These discussions about the Brooklyn music scene are telling of a massively stupid error by the mainstream press (with New York Magazine and Time among the main offenders) when knee-jerk detached reporters informed the world that Williamsburg, Brooklyn was the origin of new alternative music in 2009. After several interviews with musicians in Brooklyn over the course of the past three years, I have found no good performer that thinks Williamsburg is in any way the center of indie music culture. Williamsburg is, as Connolly says quite profoundly, “the center of something else.” Something he can't throw his belief behind, and earning Niall Connolly's belief is a vital step for serious musicians in New York City.
EW Harris, The Future of Folk (Robots and Nuclear Wasteland)
EW Harris, solo artist and band member of The Sky Captains of Industry, also producer of several albums by folk musicians including Niall Connolly, Casey Black, Don Paris Schlotman and Ryan Morgan, performed early in the night, setting a high standard. Harris has the sort of crooning southern voice, powerful and sometimes delicate, with brassy country affect. Harris's songs span from rock n' roll to soft indie folk, his lyrics as interesting and strange as his concepts.
When finished with his two song rations, Connolly took the microphone and addressed the hollering and whistling audience: “For the three people in Brooklyn who don't know, that was EW Harris. His album is 'A Waste of Water and Time,' and no, I'm not being an asshole, that's really the title of the album.”
Harris invites the crowd to his next concert with his full band, The Sky Captains of Industry. “There will be robots and jumpsuits and everything,” he promises.
The affable redheaded Harris stepped aside to talk to me about what exactly is going on at Ceol on Wednesday nights. He has a terrific southern Georgia drawl.
RC: So how did Niall suck you into this awesome little community here?
EWH: It's actually a crazy story. After much ado, living in the closet of my buddy, Metalhead Bob of Covington, Georgia--
RC: Wait. In the closet of Metalhead Bob of Covington, Georgia?
EWH: Yes, Metalhead Bob of Covington, Georgia. What happened was, I got on a Greyhound bus to New York with really nothing—I didn't have anything—just my guitar. Yes, that dumb cliché story. Ended up blindly renting a painting space in the south part of Williamsburg. I didn't know how to get gigs in New York City. This was about two years ago. Went to this open mike at Spike Hill, it was on Wednesdays. And this cat Justin Storer was like, “Hey, you gotta come to this other thing I go to on Wednesdays.” I was drunk and didn't know anybody, so I went with him.
That evening, Harris met Connolly for the first time. “Niall was very intimidating when I met him,” Harris says. “Because of his performance. One of his tunes that I really love is called 'Be There If I Have to Swim.' [From “Brother, The Fight is Fixed”]. And I still love it. Because I was actually doing experimental music before I got here. Totally glitch kind of beats and pops and things. I started out doing songwriter-y stuff way back when I was like 14, 15, 16. And then I got completely out of it and into art jazz and glitch pop. And really, that was the tune--'Be There If I Had to Swim'--that song sold me that songwriting can still do something. I was like, 'Hey, wait a second.' People are actually writing new songs that say interesting things, that push some kind of boundaries without you knowing it. So I got back into that.”
RC: Are you back to singer/songwriter permanently now? Because what I've just witnessed, with your set, is that it is amazing what someone can do with just a voice and a piece of wood—the acoustic guitar, I mean.
EWH: Well, thank you. What we're doing right now, I've been working with a couple of the other songwriters in there, all co-writing. And we've got essentially a concept record. We're doing folk music, but it's what we envision folk music to be like 250 years into the future.
I ask for more information, and Harris recites an involved, bizarre plot line for his next conceptual album. 250 years into the future of New York City's music scene. Like a Vonnegut novel with folk musicians as the main characters.
EWH: It's a road trip. It's some guys who learned to play—rather than from records and old people—they learned to play from a time capsule music robot. So it's very rootsy in some ways, there's lots of 50s rock n' roll stuff going on. Our whole premise is that we're kids who are traveling across the United States in a hover car that we jacked. There's like, mutants and a radiated nuclear wasteland, you know?
It's okay to laugh, apparently. Harris laughs along with me.
EWH: It gives us the ability to write folky-style songs and rock n' roll in the most early sense. And it gives us tons of storytelling ability. In the plot, the original song is really, really juke-jointy and like--(Harris plays air guitar and sings) “Rock! Rocket City gonna rock! Rock! Rock!” And the whole idea is they're trying to get to New York City, but all the major buildings have been leveled, and replaced by rockets.
EWH: But the deal is, the rockets never took off.
RC: This is way more interesting that I thought it would be.
EWH: They eventually get jobs. They find a pamphlet and they're like, “We're going across the United States! And we're gonna get to Rocket City and we're going to be rock stars!” And they get there and it doesn't turn out that way. There's all kinds of social commentary in that. There's a particle barrier from the radiation around Manhattan island, and nowhere else in the surrounding area. There's a sub-mutant class that services the people on the island.
RC: So you're recreating the social experiment that New York City really is?
EWH: Right, but just in a more fictionalized context. We've actually left very little to exposition. Really, we're trying to do slices of personal perspectives on this random fictional shit that happens. As the exhibition is happening, we'll have a bunch of artists—for what will hopefully become the graphic novel that accompanies the whole thing.
RC: Did anyone have to drop acid to do this project?
EWH: No. Came out of us straight. I mean, we got a lot of problems, you know?
Moley Ó Suilleabhain of size2shoes: “Inspirational Pop from Ireland.”
The intriguing, unique, and upbeat brothers of the Irish indie pop band, size2shoes, Moley and Owen (who prefer to be referred to by their first names in print), are officially “unsigned,” but not due to a lack of appreciation, talent, and funding. Russell Crowe, JJ Abrams, and Stephen Spielberg are all admitted fans of size2shoes, with Crowe having financed the brother's self-titled debut record. Said Crowe, “I’m a huge fan of size2shoes. From the inspired mastery of their harmonies, to the streetwise intellect of their humours. Unique, unaffected, awesome.”
Moley's appearance at the Big City Folk song club is a recent development—he's been hanging around every Wednesday (“legally, not as a tourist”) since he came to New York six weeks ago on a P1 visa. His relationship with Niall Connolly goes far back to their childhood in Ireland. His brother, Owen, had been friends with Connolly when they were about 6 years old.
Though Moley usually does not play the guitar in size2shoes, that night at Ceol he plays the Martin D1 and legally marries his vocals to shockingly realistic beat boxing. The result is a stick-in-you-head acoustic pop-rap-folk melange called “My To-Do List.”
After the performance, Moley stepped aside in Ceol's small outdoor garden to speak to me about his recent adventures with celebrities in California and his intriguing vocal influences.
RC: You do beat boxing. Is that an insulting thing to call it? What would you call that?
MO: No, that's good, because that's where I got the skills. Bobby McFerrin was a huge influence. And then of course, I started as a sort of classical singer. I was classically trained, and then I got into rap and hip hop. There you go.
RC: So I'm not denigrating your music with terms like “beat boxing.”
MO: No. That song that I just played, “My To-Do List,” was one of the first I wrote—it's on the [debut] album—it tries to be happy, really. You know, I try to write happy songs. I believe in the trans-formative power of performance.
RC: For an evening in which there were a lot of deep folk songs, these sad, sad songs, to have your kind of music at the end of the show seemed to really light up the room. People were laughing. In a good way, though.
MO: Yes, thanks, I do think a lot of the old tricks of the trade have been lost in the modern guitar-toting era. Really. For a lot of reasons, I actually put down my guitar in the last two years myself, and focused more on solo voice. Acts at open mics like this, it's just different, and it demands something more of your audience, you know?
RC: Is it the acoustics of a small venue like this that make us remember how important vocals really are? Because if you were just listening to rock music on the radio, it doesn't appear so much in the foreground, does it?
MO: Yes, I agree . . . I have a lot of confidence, because unaccompanied song is very important in Ireland. I have a confidence there because I can sing a few traditional songs. I can sing a few classical songs, and I've done acapella. Acapella work is very important for just about everybody—even bands, if they can break it down into something that's all vocal, it shows something to the audience. It's much more emotional, you know? But you leave yourself vulnerable, too, by just doing solo voice. If you end up repeating a phrase, the audience repeats that phrase in their heads for the rest of the night. So if you just have more confidence . . . there's no need to layer anything, either. I don't want to work with pedals. I just want to jam. Playing with words, it's what I love.
He's right about how the vocals are hardwired into your brain. I do have the words, “My To Do My To Do My To Do My To Do My To Do My To Do List . . .” stuck in my head.
MO: We had the financial backing to come here [the US] in the summer and record the album. Russell Crowe was the executive producer, so we had the funding to back us, just for technical costs. So that encouraged us to stay. We were in LA two weeks ago meeting with a person [Crowe] set us up with. It's going all right. We're not doing many indie bars. We're not that type of act necessarily? We're focused on family-type events, private groups . . . house concerts, we love. Because there's just two of us—one guitar, and I beat box. We both sing. But it's achingly happy music. What we do is the “inspirational pop” music, but it's not with any synthesizers or anything. It's very Paul Simon/Van Morrison/Bobby McFerrin. That's what we do. It's just full of joy.
RC: How much am I allowed to know about the release of the album?
MO: Oh, it's finished, it's in the can, it's available. We just haven't had the right platform to launch it fully yet. While we're in talks with managers, we remain completely unsigned. We just bumped into Russell Crowe when he was on the West Coast of Ireland, and he paid for the album . . . but yeah, we have a lot of interesting fans. We work with this other poet, David Whyte, we do a lot of processional chant with him, sacred song, as well as our own pop stuff. So we met [Whyte] in Ireland and did some tours with him, and I've met some incredible people through that.
Interesting people such as? Moley answers, “We were lucky enough to play last week in LA. We played a few tunes at this dinner party. And JJ Abrams [television and film producer] and his lovely wife Katie [McGrath] were there. We were only going to stay until Sunday, but JJ says, 'You've got to stay around until Thursday and play at this Irish networking party that we're having at the Bad Robot building.'”
Bad Robot, an Emmy-winning production company owned by Abrams, which produced series such asLost, Alias, Fringe, Alcatraz, What About Brian, and Six Degrees, and the movies Star Trek, Cloverfield, Mission Impossible III and Super 8, turned out to be an unexpected pivotal venue for size2shoes.
Moley explains, “We wanted to accept that offer right away, but we had already set our flights . . . and so [Abrams] agreed to cover our flights and we agreed. They said they were organizing this gig with a woman named Trina Vargo of the US-Ireland Alliance. She organizes this pre-Oscars Irish event. And we were like, 'Wait a second, we know Trina Vargo really well!' She is the woman who introduced my brother to his fiancee, in our home, in Ireland, two years ago. So we were like right on the summit of Mount Olympus and then got struck by synchronicity. So we high-fived her, and played the gig.”
RC: How did the pre-Oscars gig go?
MO: It was great! JJ and his wife were there, and Stephen Spielberg and his wife were right there—we got to meet them as well, on the West Coast of Ireland, when they were there 3 years ago.
RC: Does any of this ever make you even a little bit arrogant, when you realize there's real momentum behind what you're doing musically?
MO: Not really, because I don't think we have “real” momentum. It's amazing to get compliments from people who are at the top of their game. Like, we were hanging with Russell Crow a few times, before he funded the album, and we just kept in touch. He was doing a drama workshop in northern England. He invited me and my brother over to that drama workshop and asked us to sing for the [acting] group, just for maybe 24 students before he walked in.
Size2shoes will be performing in Los Angeles through April 16th, and will return to New York on April 21rst. More gig info at ww.size2shoes.com.
Moley ends the interview with a shrug. “So we do pop and we do sacred song. We're just looking for a fucking manager, to tell you the truth.”
Pass The Magic Tambourine
Every so often, Connolly passes “the magic tambourine” around the room to take up collections from the audience. “I know it makes a cool sound when you put change in it, but try to give us bills,” said Jacob Miller, one of the evening's performers (pictured with Connolly, who holds and shakes the magic tambourine at the crowd).
The night has ended and the last few musicians are packing guitars into cases, a bit punchy, joking with one another. The crowd has dispersed; the empty Guinness glasses clink together in the background as the bartender cleans up.
Moley, who has remained behind with Harris, asks Connolly every now and then what he thinks of a new beat box tune he's thinking of--”It goes like this--” (Chhh-chh-oonts-chh--chh-tiss-oonts) “And you could have a solo like this--” (air guitar and nasal solo sounds).
Two bucks are left in the magic tambourine and Connolly gives it to Moley. EW Harris plays pop songs on the Martin D1. The D1 is known for its powerful bass enhancement, great for blues and rock, but also crisp energy suitable for bluegrass and country. This beautiful guitar lives up to its reputation, even with pop music.
When Harris begins playing “Never Going to Give You Up” by Rick Astley, Moley sits back in a nearby chair, folds his hands behind his head and demands, “Why don't you play us a medley?”
“Okay.” Harris responds by starting some basic chord progression that sounded somewhat like a Nirvana song, and I asked, jokingly, whether Harris was going to play some Nirvana.
Which is how I ended up singing “Polly” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with two notable international folk musicians (while Moley beat boxed, of course) with guitar by the endlessly talented EW Harris, who announced, “I can't believe I remember these chords!” just before diving enthusiastically into the chorus with a serious bellow: “When the lights out, it's less dangerous! Here we are now, entertainers!”
I follow Connolly as he leaves the bar with the guitar on his back, and I remark, “This was amazing, Niall. Thank you so much for inviting me out here. I'm changed.”
Connolly quips, “You're going to give us a good write-up, then?”
Yes. If you're in New York City, you love discovering new indie artists, and you have the discerning taste to appreciate when acoustic music is performed masterfully, then you really have no excuse not to visit the Big City Folk concerts and witness this awesome new folk movement with your own ears. Connolly's website has the current gig list at www.niallconnolly.com. Pass the magic tambourine.