Interview: Carol Keogh

City Fathers leader takes us on a tour of Mongrel City...

The following interview was published in the 19th February edition of Cork's Evening Echo

It’s a cold and calm Monday evening when I catch up with Carol Keogh ahead of her Sirius Arts Centre show, with an armful of new reading under her arm and a whole lot of sense to make. “I’m feeling bookish,” admits the former Plague Monkeys singer upon leaving the local library. Given the lyrical imagery conjured throughout Mongrel City, it’s no surprise to discover her literary penchant. Still, fifteen years on from Plague Monkeys’ Surface Tension, it is remarkable that this is only Keogh’s first solo release.

“It was a long haul,” reflects the north Dublin native, “so I’m mostly proud to have just finished it. Raptors is a song that took a long time to finish. Sometimes I get a piece of a song and I need to wait for it to tell me what it’s about so when I did finish it I could say to myself, ‘that’s it, now I know’. The performances of that and The Wind Sailors were quite raw as they hadn’t been rehearsed like the other songs on the album so there is an energy and an emotional truth on both which you can’t always capture in reiterating a song over and over again. I liked that.”

The borrowed books of Kurt Vonnegut and David Mitchell having now disappeared back into her bag, Keogh continues, discussing the twists and turns taken during the album’s conception.
“Paying by the clock, most of the material we’d rehearsed to the point where the songs had a firm shape because I didn’t want to waste studio-time. However, I’d written The Wind Sailors as a poem first and then had to figure out a way to sing it but I trust [pianist] Romy implicitly. I am not really a piano player but I can work out the root and have a little motif for the lead line. We hit record and just went for it. Romy had never played the song before so there was a real magic to it. I would love to record more that way.”

Speaking of method, all previous studio trips have been as a single spoke in a band-propelled wheel, the sonic direction having been agreed upon democratically. To cycle forth and free with full artistic control must have been an unfamiliar experience. “I don’t think I’m ever in complete creative control!”, Carol laughs. “Having said that, it was interesting for me to be at the helm, from putting a band together [The City Fathers] to going in with producer Karl Odlum to edit when the band was gone. Having to trust my own ears and being pleasantly surprised at how I can trust my own ears and knowing the final sound - with no disrespect to anyone else - is because of decisions made by me alone. I think if a project isn’t a huge learning curve you would have to question the value of it rather than just repeat yourself. I want this record to do well. I want it to travel - and to go with it! Although my brain is already moving on to the next thing. There are always songs. There are loads of things percolating. Anything can trigger a song. Many years ago when I worked as a chamber maid in the Shelbourne hotel, whole songs would pop into my head when I used to be cleaning a bath or changing a bed.”

One such idea on Forty Foot, includes the dropping of multiple ‘f-bombs’. “Sometimes it’s the only word to express what you mean. It’s got power. People were surprised to hear it sung so softly. It wouldn’t convey anger just because I might scream it. Sometimes it’s more powerful to hold back.”

Seeing as the subject of ire has been broached, at a time when general political awareness has never been so intense the absence of protest songwriting in contemporary Irish music is raised. “It’s not fashionable that’s for sure and if it isn’t fashionable you are running the risk of ridicule or being sidelined,” she says discernibly. “Damien Dempsey’s not afraid to shout it from the rooftops - good on him - and Sinead O’Connor too. We could use a lot more of it.”

Having pursued the crowdfunding route to finance Mongrel City, it’s apparent that years spent honing music as a craft in Ireland is still not considered a true trade with minimum if any state-support available to artists. Yet the decision to make music and release albums is not a choice, more an intrinsic pull toward creating art and leaving a legacy of her own.
“I do feel that way,” she says gently of the latter. “There is a strong feeling that I have to do this. Someone can turn around to you and say ‘no one asked you to make this record’ to which I am always tempted to say ‘you have your children, well these songs are my babies.”

For more on Carol Keogh visit: 

- Carol Keogh & The City Fathers play Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh on 21st February 2015
- Tickets are priced at €15 and available online here
- Mongrel City is available from all good record shops

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