ARTS AND FEATURES — 25 July 2013

SInger/songwriter Jennifer Byrne. Photo: Charlie Mitchell Photography

By David Hennessy

Singer Jennifer Byrne has certainly enjoyed a nomadic existence. Born in Dublin, she has lived in Wicklow while she now calls Wexford home. Jennifer studied in Cork where she began a love affair with African music before coming to University of London where she spent five years and took every opportunity to travel and play.

After spending so long embracing different places and new cultures, it should come as no surprise that Jennifer’s debut album has a strong theme of emigration with the title Suitcase referring to the young Irish immigrant men who used to carry their humble belongings to the UK during the 1950s and 60s only to become something of a lost generation.

“I didn’t set out for it to be like that and it was only afterwards that friends were listening to it and they were saying: ‘You know this has a theme has running through it’,” the singer-songwriter explains. “I’ve never lived in one place, my family moved a lot when we were kids and I’ve continued that myself. I find it very hard to stay in one place for any length of time.

“There would be a lot of emigration in the family for generations so it’s not something I was conscious of but the more I think of it, I guess it’s like an underlying current in my life that I wasn’t aware of but now am. The idea of that generation of men, the older Irish men who were in London and their story: That’s a topic I want to return to in the future. The story of how they went over and they were just young boys and within years, there was so much alcoholism and depression and how that happened and why that happened. It’s not that young Irish men were born to be alcoholics or anything, it was their circumstances. Learning about that really affected me I have to say. I know there are a lot of charities working on it and doing great work. As a student, I lived in North London so it was quite close to me. It was just something that moved me.”

Jennifer spent five years in London living in King’s Cross, Cricklewood, Willesden and Neasden. She still has a love of London and plans to return as soon as possible to play some gigs in her erstwhile home city.

Among the other musicians featured on the album are Kris Denver, John McCusker, Alan Kelly and Brooks Williams. Suitcase is eleven tracks, both old and new, with some written by Jennifer herself while others are donated by accomplished songwriter Boo Hewerdine. Although, she started writing material in earnest in 2009, Jennifer has been involved with the process of collecting the songs for much longer as this really is a labour of love: “You know the way you soak songs up and you don’t realise they’re there in the back of your head somewhere. There’s a song on there by Robert Burns, Thou Long’ring Star and actually, the first time I ever sang that was at my grandfather’s funeral back in 2004 and I hadn’t sang it again until I recorded it for the album so a song like that has been with me for a lot longer. You’re always on the lookout for something. It could literally be a turn of phrase that someone would say at the end of a drunken night and you’re trying to remember it in the morning, write it down, stick it in your phone or whatever. It’s those kind of things. I think most songwriters are the same. The brain’s constantly active in that way.”

If the song collecting was a lengthy process, the actual recording was the complete opposite with the bulk of the work taking place over a matter of days: “We worked like Trojans. The first three days, we got so much done. It just took shape there and then. I think we knew we had an album pretty much straight away because it’s very often you’ll go in with x number of songs and you think there’s the bones of something there but you’re not sure how they are going to gel, how they are going to flow and all of that but I think we knew pretty quickly which was good and quite a relief.”

Suitcase By Jennifer Byrne is released on August 5. For more information, go to: jenniferbyrne.co.uk/.

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