‘Lenin spoke English with an Irish accent…not many people know that.’
Tess Callaghan is a singer-songwriter originally from Wicklow, now living in Hackney who has just released a new album, her fifth, of Irish, US and Russian roots music inspired by a journey she took on the Trans Siberian Railway to China, writes Michael McDonagh.
I grew up in Cabinteely in South Dublin just on the outskirts near Bray. I went to an Ursuline convent there for a couple of years and then my dad got a job in Farnborough in Hampshire, so that involved us moving and being there for probably seven out of the twelve months. I was encouraged to study at University, so I went to Trinity to read Law, which was very interesting, but some of it was very dry.
“Initially I did not want to do law but stumbled out of Trinity and thought ‘OK, I’ve got this degree’. I knew I was creative but was not encouraged to do anything creative or musical. At the time I was doing backing singing for some Dublin bands and had one or two very funny auditions.
“At that stage I was just singing and did not pick up the guitar until about 10 years ago. I then went to Italy to teach English to Italian businessmen on industrial estates but that was not going anywhere, so I came back to Dublin.
“I then got offered a traineeship in a private practice in London, so I thought maybe I should do this and get qualified and then think about what I should do.
“I came over to work and had two years in Clerkenwell but it was not firing up my enthusiasm. My instinct was right, I wanted to do something more creative.
“I decided to go part time and took up a number of jobs, from working for a charity to working for Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London in his legal team, and was then able to earn some money so I could fund my own recordings.
So how’d you finally get started?
“By this stage I was writing songs and could reach out to work with musicians. I met a guy on the Underground actually, who played electric and we recorded a few songs in a studio in Old Street.
“I experimented a bit more with recording and did some more demos but it was really when I got in touch with a studio in North London called The Cow Shed that it started to come together. The Cow Shed is gone now, as it was hard for small studios to compete. I really got lucky when I got involved with The Cow Shed, as there were such great musicians linked in with them.
“Barry Cadogan, the lead guitar, had seen some chord sheets and lyrics and had heard a very basic acoustic demo but we all met in the studio, these really good musicians and we worked hard pushing out these songs and it went really well. That was ‘Rules of the Road’, the first album in 2016. “I have now done five albums. It is a hell of a lot but pretty early on I realised how good the musicians really were and if you go in with really well prepared chord sheets and a strong idea for the style of the song they could pretty much do each song in one or two takes.
“I would not go in unless the song was fully formed. I am a decent musician but would not compare with their standard and expertise, so I let them basically play and they also vibe with the music.
How would you describe your music?
Its Joni Mitchell meets Velvet Underground. The Trans Siberian Album is very much acoustic guitars that make the sound but for tracks like ‘Mongolian Melody’ you can hear the jazzy skills of the musicians. Mongolia loves music and they have monuments to musicians. After the big Genghis Khan Square in the capital the second biggest square is called Beatles Square with a big Apple monument to the Beatles with the Beatles crossing the Abbey Road Zebra Crossing. It’s amazing.
What made you want to go all that way on a train and did it inspire you to write songs.
“Well I’d always wanted to go on the train and my last job in London was on a project when they came in one day and said everybody down tools and stop. I thought ‘ok where would I like to kill three or four weeks?’ and as I have always wanted to go on the Tran Siberian express, I got my visas lined up, Chinese, Mongolian and Russian and went through an agent and booked a ticket through to China.
“I had no idea that I was going to write songs from it I just thought it would be a great adventure but as I was travelling there were so many inspiring sights and experiences I started to take some notes.
“For example I saw my first ever woodpecker. I had never seen a woodpecker ever but I was in a graveyard in Siberia. We all had to get off the train as they were doing a check just before the border into Mongolia. It was Sunday and everything was shut so we walked up to this old graveyard and were looking at the headstones and I hung around still looking when the s had gone back and suddenly I heard knocking and I thought ‘My God! Somebody is trying to get out.’
“I followed the sound and as it got louder and louder I saw this wonderful yellow and black woodpecker and I thought it was so lovely. I took some pictures of it, then created the ‘Woodpecker’ song on the album.
You’re on your own without a label, is that hard?
“They are all self released. Right now I’ve stopped the office job because it comes to the point when this is a lot of work trying to get the music out and to network and get people to hear it and be interested. You can just about write songs and record whilst holding down a job but you can’t do your own networking and PR, not if you are serious about it, which I am.
“In real terms in actually getting a professional basis going and supporting yourself to do music it may have got harder because you are competing against the labels that can throw all their money at the PR machines and it is really hard to penetrate that.
“On the hand as an independent musician you do get more direct contact now and if I have a down moment I go to my Sound Cloud and I look at some really nice personal responses. That does encourage you and keeps the morale up. The thing is that there is a very valuable silver lining in that in obscurity the pressure is off and you can really explore and do what you like. I actually think that in a mad moment it is good if I stay where I am for a bit longer, as right now by being obscure I am actually in the playground and can enjoy that. If there was a label it would probably change that. Now I am actually planning some new material. There is also an awful lot of luck that comes with this.”
Do your Irish roots influence your music?
“Oh for sure, like I have a song ‘I Will Arise And Go Now’ based on the Yeats poem, played by these great musicians on The Cow Shed sessions but I wrote a second verse myself as the original poem was too short for a music track.
“As for my influences I grew up hearing The Clancy Br s with those exquisite three-minute pop songs they performed with a love of melody that comes through in my music, as melody is so important as is my vocal tone and the way that I sing.
I was at a party and ended up singing with John Lydon from The Sex Pistols and I sang ‘Arise And Go Now’ with my melody and he said ‘Oh you have a lilt in your voice which you don’t often hear now,’ but that natural Irish way is there.
“That’s the music I grew up around, my grandfather’s Clancy records and I also grew up on American rock ’n roll and soul with people like Chuck Berry, so I was crossing those two worlds from the Clancy Br s to Chuck Berry.
“You have to come out of that with a sense of rhythm and melody as well as songs with a story. My song ‘Siberia’ is about the whole train journey and at one point I was joined by the Russian Army.
“Did you know there is an Irish link? Vladimir Lenin spoke English with an Irish accent but that’s not in the song.”
’s ‘The Trans Siberian Album’ has just been released. Bon Voyage.