David Hennessy spoke to Cahir McLaughlin and Pearse Donaghy of Northern Irish alt- rock six- piece Polar Bolero about their new single The Rain and their forthcoming album that deals with the Troubles.
Northern Irish alt-folk six-piece Polar Bolero have just released their new single, The Rain.
Led by the multi-instrumentalists Cahir McLaughlin and Pearse Donaghy, Polar Bolero were nominated for Live Act Of The Year at the NI Music Prize 2023.
Since their formation in early 2022, Polar Bolero has embarked on an ambitious journey, recording their debut album, A Conversation, although they tell us its release may not be this year as planned.
The Rain is a significant milestone in Polar Bolero’s musical journey and it is also the first song the two lads wrote together.
Cahir told The Irish World: “This one’s been a long time coming, this one was the first one we ever wrote together as a genuine co-write.”
Pearse adds: “It was the first one we recorded as well.
“The first time we went into the studio, we started experimenting with The Rain and it’s the same recording that we released.
“It really has been a long time coming so it’s such a relief to have it out there now.”
The self-producing duo have described the new track as ‘a song that lyrically walks the line between hopeful romance and settling for other intoxications – alcohol, humor, despair’.
Pearse says: “Our friend messaged us today and said he listened to it and it made absolutely no sense.
“So there you go.”
Cahir adds: “It’s a bar scene, it’s a woman that you see.
“There’s a metaphor about not having the confidence to go and speak to that woman, those classic themes there.”
Pearse continues: “I feel like it’s something we’ve all been through.
“You’re in a bar and you see a girl but you just think, ‘I might just have a drink tonight and not bother’ because you think the worst is going to happen.
“So you end up kind of taking that long walk home, and it might be in the rain but there’s always something kind of funny in laughing at yourself.”
“Very self-deprecating song,” Cahir says.
“It’s stopping the interaction before it starts because even if something does happen you’re scared of that moment as well.
“Quite a cheerful start (to our songwriting).”
Did other songs like Passerby and Portrait come together with more ease in that case hence The Rain only landing now?
“Portrait came together very, very quickly,” Pearse says.
“And it just seemed very natural.
“We knew what we were doing.
“But The Rain I felt like we were very much in the studio using the space and experimenting a lot.
“That was kind of half the fun with The Rain.”
Cahir adds: “We feel like it’s kind of a departure in sound for us as well because Portrait is quite grandiose rock. That’s a side of our music as well.
“But this sort of acoustic-y, stripped back sound, that’s what we feel we do best.”
Pearse says: “I think Portrait was one that I had on the backburner for a long time.
“It’s kind of all about your heritage and who you are.
“There’s a picture of my great grandmother, a portrait, that sits on my piano.
“I kind of thought about her and I thought about who I’m trying to be at the moment and who I’m trying to represent.
“And I kind of thought about how important it was to keep myself grounded.
“My granny always tells me that she always wanted to go to Australia but her father died and as soon as he was buried, she felt tethered to Ireland. She felt like this was where she needed to be, this is the land she needs to walk on.
“And I just love that imagery as well.
“It’s all about your heritage and your legacy and who you are.”
Cahir adds: “Portrait was a great one musically for us.
“There were a lot of songs that inspired that one sonically.
“It was more of a songwriting experiment.
“The song, as Pearse had it originally, was kind of a groovy piano thing.
“We built it up to one where it’s not a heavy but well produced rock song.
“That’s my background. My dad would be a heavy metal fan. My first concert was a Metallica concert.
“You wouldn’t hear that in the music but we love rock music as well.”
How would you describe your sound?
“Our recorded sound is different to our live sound,” Cahir says.
Pearse adds: “I don’t know it, I find it quite hard to describe our recorded sound as well.
“Almost everyone finds it quite hard to describe.
“Maybe we haven’t found it yet but we’re very interested in telling stories and writing songs.
“I feel like whatever serves the song best and whatever direction we seem to go in in the studio is always quite exciting.
“It can always be something different and fresh, but it’s mostly about serving the story and serving the song.
“That is what we find interesting at the moment.
“Maybe we’ll settle into something and people will be able to define us.”
Cahir adds: “These songs are all self-recorded and self-produced, so there’s no adult figure in there.”
I was actually surprised to see how young you actually were after hearing the mature sound..
Cahir says: “I think we look younger than we actually are. I’m 45 years old!”
Cahir is joking, both he and Pearse are 24. Other member of the band are the same or a little younger. It was in school the two lads met.
Cahir says: “Me and Pearse didn’t start it at school. We both studied music in Loreto college, Coleraine.
“I was writing my own songs at that time.”
Pearse adds: “I was more into musical theatre and stuff.
“Yeah, it was a very small class and we became very good friends.
“But the idea of creating music together didn’t come together until about COVID time.
“We started saying, ‘Maybe we should do some stuff together’.
“I kind of asked Cahir to give me a hand with some of the stuff I was doing and he asked me for some input on his songs.
“Then we just decided, ‘Let’s maybe record some music together’.
“And the idea of making a band came from not playing live but recording music, which I feel is maybe a bit of a COVID-y way to start a band, ‘Let’s actually just record music, let’s not play gigs’, and the gigging only started maybe a year after that.”
Cahir continues: “But as soon as we stopped recording full-time, we played live full-time.
“And that did go really well for us.
“We were lucky enough we got shortlisted for the live act of the year in the NI Music Prize.
“That was a public vote as well so that was a real privilege.”
Pease says: “People seem to really love the live stuff we do, so we’re hopefully going to do a lot more of that 2024.”
I was going to bring up the NI Music Prize nomination, you must have been stoked…
“It was such a mad shock and it was a great night for us to go and meet some of the people we admire in the industry,” Pearse says.
Has there been a particular highlight of your live stuff so far?
Pearse says: “I think generally the crowd that we’ve been starting to attract in Derry, they’re really endeared to us now.
“And every gig we play in Derry where we see the crowd that have started to come to our gigs is really heartwarming and nice.
“It would be nice to get that elsewhere.
“Maybe if we start playing in Belfast. We haven’t really played in Belfast yet so it’d be great to start getting the crowd down there as well.”
Cahir adds: “All the venues in Derry, you’ll have a similar sort of crowd.
“There was one gig in Bennigans we played which was actually a battle of the bands gig, and the crowd were all singing along at the end.
“That was a real highlight for me.
“Stendhal was also a big highlight and we’re hoping to play that again this year.
“That was our first time ever playing as a six piece and it was brilliant.”
Tell us about the music scene in Derry. With bands like yourselves and Cherym, it seems like something exciting is happening…
Cahir says: “The scene’s very important.
“A lot of Derry bands have a potent political voice as well which is great to hear, you know, bands like TRAMP and Cherym and TOMCAT: They all represent the city very well.”
Pearse adds: “It’s a city you might have to do a bit of scratching on the surface but once you get underneath and tap into that sort of indie underground band scene, there’s so many acts around Derry that you could be a massive fan of easily.
“There’s gigs going on all the time and it’s just a really cool, young scene in Derry, which I haven’t seen reflected anywhere else. I think it’s just really special.”
What other influences are in there?
Cahir says: “I think directly with our music you would say you know your Glen Hansards, Damien Rice, Bon Iver, more indirectly would be Tom Waits and Pink Floyd and bands like that.”
Pearse adds: “I definitely feel like Tom Waits is one of our band’s influences.
“We would all love Glen Hansard and Damien Rice privately but Tom Waits was one we kind of discovered as we were forming Polar Bolero and we’re always referencing Tom Waits and Radiohead.
“We get really excited when we kind of mirror those artists.”
The band’s debut album A Conversation conceptually addresses issues of disillusionment and melancholy while living in post-pandemic, post-Troubles Northern Ireland.
The band weaves their original songs together with candid interviews with members of the Northern Irish public, providing a necessary reality and diverse perspective on this subject matter.
Cahir explains: “We embarked on recording an album and it just seemed like every single song we put into the album process brought up these themes of disillusionment.
“We’re past that (the Troubles), our age group. We’re too young for it but there’s still the remnants of the problems.”
Pearse adds: “The troubles is over but what is left behind in its wake is potent and you notice it.
“It’s a fantastic place to live but I think we’re indirectly kind of traumatised by it and it kind of comes out in our music.”
Cahir continues: “We also took a journalistic approach to the songs.
“We did candid interviews mostly around Derry of members of the public, to see if their opinion sort of matched ours- A few public figures and a few average Joes, we interviewed them about their time growing up and that informed our writing a lot for the album.”
Pearse adds: “We’re not very good journalists, it turns out.
“I think we relied on our ignorance to make it a bit.”
What do you mean? I’m sure you got great stuff. Can I ask who you spoke to if you say some were public figures?
Cahir says: “They’re all anonymous.
“There’s one fella, he sort of blew our minds.
“We sat with him and it was a real odyssey just to let him speak and hear his stories.
“The account of Bloody Sunday and his friends dying in front of him.”
Pearse adds: “He was so able to draw you into his story of his time in Derry during the troubles.
“We interviewed some great musicians that told us about their time getting into the music industry, especially around the 90s and 80s and it’s just so different but they were all great storytellers.
“Now the hard part comes where we have to pick out the most interesting bits to put in an album.
“But yeah, can’t wait for that.”
So what is the plan, is it to overlay those conversations with music?
“That was the plan,” Cahir says. “Yes, that was the plan in a very Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon style, but it’s become hard work and also we’ve lost our studio space.
“The whole thing has been put on the back burner.
“We’ve put out this single now and the plan for a while now is to just do live shows and hopefully build more of a following.
“Because this album seems like it’s an important work to represent our area so we’d want to put that out to an audience.
“At this stage, we’re still building that audience.”
Pearse continues: “From an academic point of view, we think it’s kind of important to listen to the stories of these people which delves into where we live.
“We want to release it maybe when we’ve got a bit more of a following, so we’ll have to see how that goes.”
The band is named after Pearse’s favorite childhood book, with the blessing of the author Debi Gliori.
What made you want to call the band Polar Bolero?
Cahir says: “We went through a long process of coming up with bad names and we couldn’t sign off any of those names.
“And then it must have been laying around your (Pearse’s) house, was it?”
Pearse continues: “Yeah, the book was laying around in my house.
“My dad used to read this book by a fantastic author called Debi Gliori.
“She’s from Scotland and she writes a lot of kids books.
“It was just my favourite book growing up.
“There’s a lot of instruments in the book. I remember my dad did the impressions of the instruments when I was going to sleep. It’s probably one of my first musical memories.
“I can still remember the tunes.
“He just made up the tune that the trumpet played.
“I still remember the one he did with the saxophone- I think he actually did EastEnders with the saxophone.
“It was just a very fun, happy part of my life growing up, so I thought it had a nice ring to it and it kind of ties in with the music.
“We messaged the author and she was more than happy to lend us her name for our band.”
What was she like? Was she, ‘Cool, go for it, lads?’
Cahir answers: “Yeah, and she comments on our Instagram posts and stuff like that so it’s nice to have a wee bit of a rapport.”
Pearse adds: “I’d love to meet her one day.
“I do think her work’s brilliant.”
You mentioned ignorance earlier. I read a quote by you in another interview: ‘Ignorance, there’s no authority in the world like it’.
Cahir explains: Late one night, I was watching an old clip of the Dick Cavett Show and Orson Welles was on there from Citizen Kane fame and he was telling about how he came to that production.
“He was a very young director.
“He was 24 so he was facing a lot of scrutiny but he just trusted his instinct and his ignorance because he had no experience, but he had a vision.
“So he was like, ‘Ignorance, there’s no authority in the world like it’.
“So he was able to, by breaking the rules, he was able to make new rules.
“He kind of used that as an ethos.”
Pearse adds: “If someone who has a lot of experience is telling you, ‘That’s not how it’s done’, you’re probably onto something. You’re probably onto something good.”
The Rain is out now.
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