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Below the surface

Northern Irish Music Prize winner Joshua Burnside told David Hennessy about his new album, how the brutal Miami Showband killings inspired one track and why Brexit shows the disregard Westminster has for the people of Northern Ireland.

Northern Irish indie folk artist Joshua Burnside can find one consolation in live music being cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Not a big fan of plane travel, he doesn’t mind not having to get on any planes.

Joshua told The Irish World: “I haven’t missed that at all actually. I’ve missed going to places and meeting people and going to different towns, cities and venues. I love that aspect of it.

“If I could get a boat everywhere, I would definitely. I wish there was still a boat direct to New York, not like the old death ships or anything. I mean like a ferry. As long as the ship wasn’t built in Belfast!”

Joshua’s debut album Ephrata became a critical and commercial success in 2017 and the unique mix of Irish traditional, European folk and Americana music earned him the Best Album award at the Northern Irish Music Prize.

After touring with that material, he returned home to his native Belfast to try and capture some of the sounds he had encountered on his new album.

“I managed to incorporate bits and pieces of the things I hear on my travels and I think it naturally seeps in there as well. I don’t normally make a very conscious effort to do that, it just sort of happens.

“I think this album takes inspiration more from the music of Ireland, north and south, than any music I’ve done before which has been interesting. I’ve been listening to more Irish music, playing more Irish music.

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“For a few years now I’ve been playing the accordion. Under lockdown, I’ve been pracctising the fiddle so I’ve been learning jigs and reels on the fiddle which has been pretty fun.”

However, listeners shouldn’t expect an album called Into the Depths of Hell to have a light-hearted message or have too many songs about cakes or kittens.

“Suffering,” he laughs when asked if the album has a theme. “The pain and anguish human beings inflict on themselves and everyone around them. It’s pretty grim stuff lyrically but you have to take it as it is.

“It was a pretty cathartic experience for me, writing the album. I had a lot on my mind. I had had a pretty rough year. My manager passing away and with all this carry on with coronavirus, it hasn’t been an easy year for anyone. It was a cathartic experience writing it and I’m hoping it will be a cathartic thing for people to listen to and process some of the stuff going on in the world that we battered over the head with in the news every day.

“There’s a bit of doom and gloom on there for sure.”

It was his late manager Lyndon Stephens, who also ran Quiet Arch Records, that convinced Joshua he should pursue music on a full-time basis when he saw him at a festival in 2016.

Lyndon passed away in January.

“Before him, it was a past-time, a hobby and he was the first person to say, ‘You need to really do this as a living’.

“I was working in bars. I did music in university and then after that, there wasn’t much in the way of jobs so, like everyone else with this degree, I started working in hospitality.

“He saw me play at Stendhal Festival and he really liked the show. That’s where everything started off for us.

“I had written the album and I was ready to release it when I met him. He said, ‘Hold onto it, I’ll put a proper PR plan, proper budget and we’ll go do this properly’.

“I’m really glad I listened to him and he took me on board.

“I’ve got a lot to thank Lyndon for. He was such a great guy and he’ll be sorely missed.”

The Sunday Times said, ‘There’s an indefinable quality and charm to Joshua Burnside’ while Folk Radio UK say, ‘Joshua Burnside may not be typical Irish Folk, but he is everything it should stand for’.

Historical events and stories often inspire Joshua’s material and the Down musician took inspiration from a brutal and tragic event in Irish history for one of the new tracks.

“I wrote the first track on the album after seeing the Miami Showband musical. My brother was playing drums. I didn’t actually know an awful lot about the details of the story and I found it really disturbing and traumatising and that kind of inspired the first track of the album actually.”

These are uncertain times for musicians but Joshua says he welcomed the chance lockdown provided to slow down.

“I think once the great anxiety of the uncertainty of paying bills passed, I found it quite a good time for reflection. The whole rat race of our lives, to be constantly producing and constantly consuming, that all slowed down. I found that gave me the space to breathe and take stock of what’s important and try something new, try different things. I wasn’t spending a lot of money at the pub either which was good.

“I’m hoping that people will keep that on board now that we’re easing things. I think people forget that it’s okay to do nothing now and again. It’s okay to sit and breathe and exist.”

Joshua points out the pandemic did give the dreaded B-word a break.

“Everyone was worried about Brexit and then when coronavirus came along, it was almost a relief. You couldn’t go a day without hearing the word Brexit. It was nearly, ‘Thank God we don’t have to talk about Brexit anymore, we’ve got a bigger crisis to worry about now’.

“Because coronavirus is a bit of a distraction, I do worry about the government getting away with pushing things through on the sly when people have completely taken their eye off the Brexit situation.

“I still think the consequences for Northern Ireland and the peace process could be dire. I can’t see things going back to the way they were but it certainly puts a lot of pressure on communities and the politics in Northern Ireland. It can only be a bad thing.

“To mess with the status quo right now is worrying. It shows the disregard Westminster has for the people of Northern Ireland. That’s what it feels like. That’s the message it sends, I think that they would happily get rid of us to get their precious Brexit.”

Joshua studied music production at Salford University in Manchester. He has also lived in Glasgow. He got into music for the most noble of reasons, to outdo his brother and prove his dad wrong as his father, who played guitar, said his fingers were too soft for the six string while his brother’s weren’t.

“That’s exactly why I started playing guitar, brotherly competition set in. I said, ‘I’ll show him soft fingers. I’ll show them all’. I’m still not a very good guitarist but it’s pretty useful for a singer-songwriter.

Into the Depths of Hell by Joshua Burnside is out now.

For more information, click here

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