Niamh Dunne and Eamon Murray of Beoga told David Hennessy about working with Ed Sheeran and why the politicians need to step up for the arts and culture that they like to hold up as examples of a flourishing Ireland ‘when it suits them’.
Although they have been established names of the traditional world for years, working with Ed Sheeran has changed everything for Beoga.
When they were invited to co-write Galway Girl and Nancy Mulligan for Sheeran’s 2017 album, after being introduced by Bangor’s Foy Vance, it would see them play Glastonbury with Ed during his headline performance that same year.
They have returned with their mini-album Carousel that boasts collaborations with performers such as Ryan McMullan, Lissie and Foy Vance. With their new music blurring the lines between trad, pop and electronic music, the band say this is a new chapter for them.
Bodhrán player Eamon Murray told The Irish World: “We don’t really do the trad thing. I think a lot of people can get offended one way or the other. You can do no right. I think there’s a lot of Irish trad music out there that’s more on the preservation side and we would be more pushing the envelope a bit. We just see ourselves as people who play music.
“We’ve been stuck in the house so it’s hard to know. Usually you can gauge at the gigs how it’s going but we haven’t been able to do that.
“We thought about delaying but seemingly everyone was kind of doing that. We had a load of music that we had just been sitting on so it was just like, ‘Let’s get it out and try and build a bit of momentum for after all this’.
“It was a couple of years in the making so we didn’t want to delay it any more. It’s a segue between where we’re coming from and where we’re heading to. It’s a moment that we wanted to get out into the world.”
Fiddle player Niamh Dunne adds that the band have been delighted with the response.
“It was a long time in the making so it was great to finally get it out in the world,” she says.
“It’s a labour of love. It was kind of a leap of faith for us to go down this route trying something new and kind of investing in a new sound so it is really the realisation of all of that so we’re happy to have it out there for sure.”
Although it’s hard to believe now the band were actually thinking of winding down before a certain Mr Sheeran called.
Niamh explains: “We’re a long time in the game. To my knowledge we would probably be one of the longest running Irish traditional music bands, if you can even call us that anymore, without a line-up change, with the same personnel right from the very beginning.
“We’ve kind of pushed through thick and thin as they say so I suppose we were at a stage where we were kind of, ‘We’ll do one more album…’ And then not give up but get back to normal things, people are starting to have kids and all that sort of thing.
“Then the phone rang and Ed Sheeran called so we thought, ‘Maybe we’ll hang on a few minutes longer and see what happens next’.”
Eamon remembers, “It was kind of, ‘Let’s do less instead of taking on more’. Then we got that call and it all sort of changed really.
“We just didn’t want to be away from home chasing our tail for months and months on end which was kind of the way we had been doing it. You get stuck in the rat race then and get stuck in the loop of playing the same gigs over and over again. We didn’t want to be doing a hundred gigs a year and not really getting anywhere with it. That was a welcome phone call.”
Niamh says that with the music taking priority, it was easy to forget all about his profile and success.
“It was definitely Ed Sheeran walking in the door, he’s so recognisable but, working with him, we’re just musicians in a room trying to make something really good. We all very quickly forgot the fame element and all of that very quickly and it was just about making music.
“It’s actually been great for us. For us as five musicians who are in the game a long time, it’s kind of opened a whole new creative world to us and working with people we never dreamed of working with so it’s kind of got us engaged and excited again.
“Really the greatest part of all of that journey for me is where we’re at now and working with people like Johnny McDaid (Snow Patrol). We’re working a lot with Niall McCabe at the moment who is a great singer. It’s where it’s led to has been the most exciting part.
“To collaborate has opened a lot of doors for us. When you’re musicians, anything that gets you excited or that gets you up in the morning has to be a good thing. I feel really lucky that we’ve found ourselves in this situation, we get to work with these great people that we definitely wouldn’t have had the chance to do otherwise so it’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to the next bit now.
“To crossover into a different world and a different genre, Johnny has been really instrumental in that and it’s just so different. It’s a different approach, it’s a different creative process and all that. It’s really got us engaged. We just want to do more now. We’re going to have to start thinking about the next one.”
Eamon adds, “We wouldn’t have made this record if it hadn’t have been for that collaboration with him (Sheeran). It opened up the door to a lot of other people, new record label and management and publishers and that whole conversation that informs what you do next. It doesn’t dictate it but it helps you see a picture.
“It’s nice for us to see things build and come along from where they were.”
What has been frustrating for the band has been that they haven’t been able to play the new stuff live but this is symbolic of the bigger problem facing the live music and entertainment industry.
Niamh says on this: “We’re not going to be back to work for a while yet. I think a lot of our industry will never recover, it’s the sad fact of the matter. We’re going to end up losing a lot of art as a result of that. That’s the damage that will be done to the industry. All the crew, agents, promoters and that whole section of the industry, it’s a tricky time for them too. We’re going to lose people, it’s a heartbreaking reality really. We’re going to lose a lot of art. It’s a difficult time for the business.
“Richard Boyd Barrett has been pushing for maintaining the payments for people in the arts world because, especially during lockdown, everyone turned to the arts. Everybody threw themselves into Netflix, books or music. Culturally musicians are so very often trotted out and heralded as our greatest exports when it suits them so now is the time for them to look after us. There are no jobs in our industry at the moment.
“We need to make sure when this is all over that we still have our artists, that we still have the people that prop up the industry. We need to mind them and make sure they’re still there and again musicians have done so much for charity and for free, they’ve done a lot over lockdown so now it’s time to look after them.
“It’s not going to be maintainable forever to keep going like this. I just really hope that the government step up. I know there’s so many sectors of society at the moment that are in dire straits. It’s not about, ‘This is more important than any other’. But it’s just something that definitely needs to be acknowledged as of massive cultural importance to this country. It’s important to maintain it, look after it, protect it and protect the people within it.”
Ed Sheeran’s endorsement and Irish music featuring in such a mainstream hit is reported to have breathed new life into Irish traditional music.
Niamh says, “I think anything that is getting the younger generation interested and listening to anything that has to do with Irish culture and Irish music has to be a good thing. It has to be. I think the future of Irish music is definitely in safe hands. There’s so many amazing young musicians coming out of the traps, it has to be a positive thing.”
Eamon adds, “I think the genre is having a bit of a moment at the minute and I think when someone like him or even Taylor Swift with the whole Folklore thing, it comes around and people see that there is currency in it, that it can be cool and it can get its moment again.
“We noticed it last year the numbers of young people at our Irish gigs was definitely noticeable. That was promising, to see it translating that way. You’re looking out into the crowd and it’s a good healthy mix of a lot of young blood.”
The band are scheduled to play some UK dates in November and December but know these may have to be rescheduled with nobody sure when live music can return.
Eamon says, “I think we’re tentatively looking at that and are also braced to move that into 2021 and the closer it gets the more realistic I think it looks that it could be 2021. We would go tomorrow if we thought it was safe to go and do it but once it is we’ll be there with bells on for sure.”
Niamh adds, “There’s always the option to kick it down the road and we’ll do that if we have to. The most important thing is that everybody is safe and that we do everything we can to keep people safe. That’s always going to be the main priority. If it’s not safe to do so, I guess we’ll have to look at 2021.
“That’s where we’re at at the moment. It’s difficult but you have to prioritise people’s health and safety so that’s what we’ll do.”
And what about this Ed Sheeran or whatever his name is, will he make a name for himself?
Niamh laughs: “He’ll go onto big things. I mean we’re here to help him in any way we can. You know yourself, you try and look after the younger musicians coming up the way. We do our best.
“He’s a great lad. He’s been in touch with us a bit over lockdown. He’s just a great guy. Pure sound like.
“He’s great, I won’t have a bad word said about him. We’re a tight-knit gang of musicians and we stick together. He’s great. He really is.”
Carousel is out now.
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