Ed Sheeran’s hero opens up on success, regrets, and the purpose of art
Luke Concannon, cited by Ed Sheeran as a childhood hero, is an English singer-songwriter with deep Irish roots. Since finding success at an early age with cult duo Nizlopi, Concannon has gone on a journey of self-discovery that has been heavily influenced by his cross-cultural upbringing.
In a revealing new interview with social campaigner Ruairí McKiernan on his Love and Courage podcast, Concannon, talks openly of searching for newfound meaning after early success, and shares his views on the importance of art as a political platform.
“Entertainment has to also serve a purpose. At first John Lennon was singing about girls, and working hard, and wanting to be the biggest thing in the world.”
“But at some point, if you want to have longevity, you have to raise consciousness – you have to serve something bigger than just fame, sex, drugs, rock and roll. It doesn’t have to be totally political, but you need to raise the consciousness of the people that you’re singing for.”
Concannon, who has grandparents from Counties Kerry and Roscommon, attributes his political consciousness to growing up in middle England in an Irish-English family that straddled the class divide.
“Both my grandparents lived a hard, working-class life, and I remember that soaking into me. Why is it hard? Why do people have to work this hard, and be so stressed?”
“I think having a foot in both worlds – in England and in Irish culture, in a working-class world and a middle-class world – created some tension that had to be resolved.”
In particular, his recently deceased Kerry-born grandmother had a profound influence on him.
“There was this peace and grace about her. She grew up in County Kerry, just outside of Dingle, speaking Gaelic, barefoot, eating the fish that her dad caught and the cabbage that her mum grew.”
“There was this sense of from-the-heart-ness and gentleness, and wildness – and craic. There was fun, and music. It gave me a sense of belonging that was so refreshing whilst growing up in the middle of England, where the land is very tamed, and it’s literally TV nation.”
“I think it saved my sense of self, my sense of what was possible.”
Growing up with Irish music and song, in particular, helped him start singing at an early age, and led him to form Nizlopi with friend John Parker at the age of just 13. In general, Concannon points to the influence Irish culture has had on generations of British artists, from Lennon and McCartney to the likes of Ed Sheeran more recently.
“There’s something about taking those wild risks that I think is there in Irish culture. People talk about the Irish being mad. But nature is wild, and does do unpredictable things – and I think that’s where a lot of the possibilities in art come from.”
Having a strong sense of Irish history, too, has helped to shape his worldview.
“Ireland’s been good at holding a mirror up to the imperial nature of Europe. I think a lot of people have romantic notions about and love Ireland because it wasn’t an imperial and colonial power.”
“It’s a place in Europe that can, maybe, understand what it’s like to be oppressed. Maybe it’s dangerous territory, because I don’t want to appropriate anybody’s story. But a critique of colonialism can come out of these places, which is essential for us to recover our humanity.”
And it’s not just a political consciousness and a love of music that he got from his family. Nizlopi’s success was also boosted by the band’s DIY, family business approach; County Clare-based musician Kieron Concannon was their manager, his mum worked on finances, his cousin was their social media manager, and his girlfriend also worked with them.
“It was like a cottage industry – and somehow we outcompeted the major record labels. And it was like your local grocery shop selling more vegetables than all the Tesco’s in the country one week. It was mad, what we managed to do.”
“We inspired the young Ed Sheeran, Daniel Day Lewis was a fan, Tony Benn wrote me a letter wishing me luck with the politics of the songwriting. We did amazing things from this little independent community. But then we burnt out, as happens with a lot of folk who go out on a limb that.”
His one major regret from that period came in 2005, when Nizlopi performed live on Top of the Pops to four million viewers – Concannon found himself torn between the desire to make a statement about the Iraq War, and paralysing fear of the consequences.
“My soul, my heart, was saying: ‘There’s something bigger than your little career here. You’ve got to say something about the fact that we’re in this racist, imperial war in Iraq that has since led to the Syrian refugee crisis, to ISIS, to a lot of the crises that we see now in the world.”
“But I was too scared to do it. There was this fear that came up. Everyone around me had worked so hard to get us there – had broken their back, risked their health, money, livelihood – to get us there. And if I go on some political rant we could get shut down, and never allowed on any radio or TV stations, because this is the guy you can’t trust. Sinead O’Connor was shut out from a lot of things, because she was “too dangerous.” And so I didn’t do it – and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
After Nizlopi disbanded in 2010, Concannon found himself on a “dark path,” searching for new meaning and new inspiration. It brought him on what he calls a hitchhiking vision quest to Palestine where he volunteered as a peace worker.
“In the middle of the journey there are shadows that we have to confront, and I think I’ve needed to get help to navigate through the dangers that are in the middle of life –we haven’t got the same natural energy as we did in the beginning, and yet we know that we’re trying to get somewhere.”
Now 39, living in Boston with his partner and still writing, performing and touring, Concannon shows no signs of slowing down his creative output and he recently recorded a duet with Ed Sheeran for his forthcoming album called Streets of Boston, which is about the Irish emigrant experience more reflective about the things that matter for him. Concannon is preparing for another big push out into the world but is much more reflective about what it all means to him.
“The mainstream vision of success is often super flawed, because when you look behind closed doors, there’s relationships that are really suffering, or there’s addictions, or burn-out, or sellout.
“The main thing is that, unless we do what our soul wants us to do, what we really feel in our heart, then sometimes life can really – literally – become not worth living.”
“I think a lot of depression, a lot of suicide, happens when people aren’t doing what they feel they should with their lives. And if you’re not using your life for what you believe it’s called to be about, then a lot of the joy and the purpose runs out of it. And we can do a lot of damage to ourselves and other people.”
With Nizlopi behind him now, Concannon’s solo career continues to flourish in different guises –and while he seems very much at peace with himself, he also gives the impression of a man who will always be restless, exploring and creating.
“I’ve always had a vision of where I’m called to go. I have to keep in touch with it. But yes, there’s certainly been this middle stage of my life, where I’ve been in the wilderness, trying to find that new home. The new land, the new world.”
Luke Concannon embarks upon a solo tour of the UK and Ireland in June, July and August where he will do a number of house concerts for fans and he will also host a song-writing workshop. You can listen to Luke’s interview with Ruairí McKiernan on the Love and Courage podcast, available on our podcast app, itunes, Spotify, or soundcloud.
More info www.loveandcourage.org