Clare singer-songwriter Susan O’Neill aka SON told David Hennessy about the shock of touring Australia when the crisis hit and she had to return home, the album of duets she is recording with Mick Flannery and what her appearance on You’re a Star taught her.
Susan O’Neill was set for such a big year of being on the road that she gave up her house in Lahinch. The multi-instrumentalist was on tour in Australia when the panic about Covid-19 really bit hard. There was nothing else for it but to call off the tour and get herself home. Of course, that meant her parents’ home although she did think briefly about running away.
Susan told The Irish World: “I was two weeks into a two month tour and didn’t expect it to become apparent, ‘I’m not going to see the end of this tour’.
“At first, I had this mad notion which was the idea to just run away in Australia. This was before I knew the severity of the situation. I had friends who lived out by the coast who had said, ‘Come and stay with us. We’ll be fine. You can stay as long as you want’.
“I went, ‘Great, I’m going to run away. I’m going to live off the berries in the bush and I’m going to write a book about it.’ I’m glad I didn’t do that. It wasn’t until I was home that I realised how quickly the novelty of my ridiculous plan would have worn off. I was just so glad to be close to family.”
Susan describes getting home at such a scary time as tense, traumatic and exhausting.
“Flying home while the news was being updated and it was all new, it was the tensest two flights I’ve ever, ever been on because they were full and the fear was palpable.
“People were just afraid to breathe, it was a very tiring 24 hours of flying. That was quite traumatic. It was just constantly on edge, it was like the body was just in fight or flight constantly for those couple of days.
“I was exhausted. My Dad had to come and collect me from the airport.
“I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out, I’ll get a bus’. ‘Susan, there are no buses, you can’t walk home from Dublin…’ So I got home and my Dad was waiting in the car and he had a mask and he said, ‘I won’t hug ya. I’m glad to see you, I won’t hug you’.
“I was so glad to see him but in that instant I realised, ‘The world I left is not the same’. Then as I was quarantining, my family would leave food for me and stuff like that at the door. Before I even had a chance to go to the shop, there was just an awareness that everything I had ever known was gone and that was quite a shock to try and digest it all while being a captive in your own room.
“I actually had a house in Lahinch but I had finished my lease because I had so many gigs this year all over the place there was no point in me renting. It was unusual to find I had gone from this lovely home by the coast in Clare and then I’m back in my teenage bedroom with my parents. I couldn’t go out and I felt like this walking bag of grossness that I had to stay away from them for their own protection. You feel like a child who is being rejected in some sense or maybe that was just me.
“That’s a weird thing thinking, ‘Don’t come near me’. Even when you say that, you kind of hope they will and they don’t and that’s also weird.
“I think we’re all getting used to it now. It’s not about us anymore and that’s the thing that I feel is rising to the top is that we’re aware, it’s not about you. We don’t wear masks for ourselves, we wear it for other people.”
Of course, it was not long before Susan would see her subsequent tours also called off due to the virus.
“At the very start everyone was kind of wondering, ‘What is this? A month? Are we all going to have a four week holiday’. But then slowly but surely: Canadian tour cancelled, an Irish tour cancelled, US tour cancelled. There was the initial disappointment.
“I just started to write again. I have reacquainted myself with why I like writing music and I have written more songs and musical ideas down in the last couple of months than I had in the last couple of years.”
In February Susan combined with Mick Flannery on the ballad Baby Talk and she is currently working on an album of duets with the Cork troubadour.
“What started as one co-write just kind of evolved. There are tender and vulnerable songs and then there’s really angry, shouty songs that are literally based on a fight and that’s a really interesting thing to do in the studio because you’re trying to summon all of your guttural anger and throw it at someone who’s been nothing but lovely to you.
“That’s the fun thing, we go from being very venomous to singing these tender words of affection and sadness and loss all encompassed in this story. That’s what’s very enjoyable.
“He’s a song writing machine. It’s amazing. I’ve spent days Frankensteining words together and then I’ll say, ‘What do you think of this?’ And he’ll just jot down a whole other verse that’s perfect in the space of ten seconds.”
Susan released her debut album Found Myself Lost in 2017 and her husky vocals have been compared to Amy Winehouse, Adele and Janis Joplin.
Susan would have released a follow-up by now if the virus hadn’t ruined those plans. The new album was ready to go but she explains she didn’t think it was right to press ahead with the release when the whole world had changed.
“Since coming home it feels like there’s this post and pre-life. I know that’s being very dramatic about it. It feels like it’s not as relevant as it was when I was embarking on this new tour so I decided to not release it.
“I’m just going to hold off and make sure that I’ve thought of it all within a new kind of surroundings before putting it out to the world.
“I’m listening to some of the songs and as much as I enjoy them I don’t hear my voice in the same way. Maybe there’s something new to be tapped into since the experience of all this that I would like to hear shine through on a body of work that I put out now.”
Susan credits her strict parents with starting her career as it was when she was not allowed to roam the mean streets of Ennis that she threw herself into music. She found that although her mother wouldn’t let her out at night, music could take her somewhere else.
“In my mam’s day hanging out around the shops was like you’re up to no good. She was like, ‘You can’t be just hanging around the place, what’s your reason? If you’re in the shop, you should be buying something. Otherwise you have no business in there’. I was like, ‘No, you hang out in shops, that’s what you do’.
“It’s funny, I never really remember deciding to do music. It just kind of happened. I think it was the only thing I was half decent at.
“Music was just transporting and I didn’t know anything else that could do that for you at that age. I could listen to a record and be somewhere else. You can just let the music take you on a brilliant friggin’ journey. That was a great thing to discover because I guess it helps you stay away from other mind-altering substances but it also just caught me and I was in it before I even knew what I was in.”
Susan began playing trumpet in the town’s brass band around the age of nine before picking up the guitar and joining the Ennis Gospel Choir in her early teens. It was the choir director who suggested she audition for You’re A Star.
In 2006 and at the age of 16 Susan was one of the series’ finalists which saw her singing live to the nation. This was also the same year that Kodaline, then known as 21 Demands, were on the show.
How does she look back on the experience? “I look back on it with red cheeks and a twisting gut saying, ‘Try to cringe less’. It was a bit frustrating for me because I suffered very badly from nerves and I never represented myself well. I used to get offstage and go, ‘I know I can sing better than this’.
“That was very infuriating but again a really good life lesson: The show is not always quite like the rehearsal and you have to learn those things. One minute you’re singing a song that sounds great and then next thing it’s lights, camera, action with lights making you sweat out of places you didn’t know exist.
“Then the pressure of three people to the side of the stage who are going to tear you to shreds seconds after it’s done.
“I was 16 so I was still subject to wanting to be really cool in school but that could destroy the little bit of street cred I had in fell swoop.”
Susan would exit the competition when she sang an original song rather than a cover.
“I got to the last ten and then said, ‘I can’t not represent myself properly anymore’. I sung my own song and apparently people don’t really vote for original music, or at least that’s what they told me. I got knocked out. As soon as that happened, I said, ‘Right, I’m going to college to learn music to figure out exactly how you do do this so that I will be able to handle anything that’s thrown my way in this field again’. That’s what I started to do and I’m still learning.”
And from school, Susan moved to Waterford to study music at WIT. She has also been known to sing backing vocals for Waterford act Propellor Palms and King Kong Company in addition to her own material.
How will Ireland’s live music bounce back from this unprecedented crisis? “There’s a lot of musicians in Ireland. There’s a song in the air everywhere you go. We’re so used to it, we almost take it for granted sometimes. You just assume there’s going to be tunes on in the pub when you go down. For that to be gone overnight is really devastating. It is sad.
“It’s upsetting and I think we have to get really smart about how we can reintroduce this to our lives because we need music. It’s not me as a musician being biased- It is, absolutely it is, I’m biased and I’m a musician- but we are music. It’s in us more than we can realise sometimes, it’s innate. We turn to music and we need it there. We’re going to need to find a way to bring it to people whether it’s outdoors, whether we need more outdoor gardens. It has to happen, I think.”
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