Kitchen blues

Leitrim singer- songwriter Étáin told David Hennessy about her new EP, making the move to Glasgow where her grandparents met and how Moya Brennan’s advice continues to help her in her career.

Glasgow-based Leitrim indie-folk singer-songwriter Étáin has just released her sophomore EP, In the Kitchen.

The EP represents a new chapter for Étáin’s career and reflects her growth as an artist since the release of the acclaimed Sacred Renditions EP back in 2017.

While the previous EP was made up of songs written in her teenage years, In the Kitchen draws on her experiences of growing up into a young adult.

Étáin told The Irish World: “It really is a personal record.

“I kind of feel like it captures my internal dialogue.

“And I think that’s probably what I do with my songwriting a lot, and definitely a lot more now, as I’ve kind of become confident being more vulnerable.

“I kind of sort of let the listener in.

“I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write an EP, and this is kind of the concept behind it’. But it kind of happened naturally.

“Now, when I look at those songs, and when I listen to them- Obviously I know what they were written about- I can kind of see my own growing up,

“I suppose my own process of maturing and the experiences that have been really formative for me over the last few years, and obviously that will continue to happen as I mature as an artist.

“But I think these have been really formative years. And I’m glad that I’ve kind of been able to capture that and condense it into the EP.”

The EP is accompanied by lead single As You Lay. Like others on the record, it is about the bitter romantic break ups that leave a mark.

“I suppose it was me being reluctant after one relationship to trust myself to get into another relationship and also to trust another person not to hurt me. To let go of that relationship and move forward.

“I think I was probably afraid of maybe hurting somebody else in the way that I have been hurt, or them hurting me.

“I was trying to convince myself that I could trust myself again.

“I think the chorus of that really sums it up because it’s understanding that to love someone, to love anything is to also make mistakes, and it’s kind of an imperfect process. It is saying, ‘Not to be afraid of making mistakes, because it’s worth the risk’.”

The title track also means a lot to Étáin as the kitchen has been a place where she has worked a lot of things out musically.

“The reason I was drawn to In the Kitchen was because I had that sort of song and that memory, and how that song made me feel, but I also had all the memories of growing up writing songs sitting in my kitchen at home.

“I used to get the guitar and pace around the kitchen in circles, sort of practicing and writing and trying out new lyrics.

“It was kind of always a creative place for me.”

It has often been said, by documentary makers and so forth, that the kitchen is the best place to get an interview subject as it is a place where people are more likely to be themselves.

Does Étáin agree with this sentiment? “I definitely do. It’s where you have family get togethers. It’s a place where arguments happen, it’s a place where celebrations happen.

“It’s also a place where people are probably a little more vulnerable, and they’re not worried because they don’t need to worry about presenting themselves to guests.

“They can let their guard down a little bit.

“It’s where they kind of do that preparation and stuff behind the scenes, and that’s probably why they can be their true selves there.”

Her debut EP Sacred Renditions included the song Take it Again which won her the Young Songwriter’s Award.

The EP also saw Étáin win the Sea Sessions Unsigned Competition and the Bluestacks Songwriting Competition. She was also nominated for Pure M’s Best Female (Solo Artist) 2017.

“It does seem a long time ago now,” she says.

“It’s been four years but those years seem like very important years to me.

“After I released that EP, I toured for a little bit and then I made a conscious effort to kind of step back and decide what type of music I wanted to make and start making decisions about how I wanted to express myself rather than just kind of doing it and not thinking about that.

“I think it’s really benefited this EP to have that time to sort of process, ‘Okay, what do I want to do? What is the purpose of me creating music, you know? And do I need to have a purpose?’

“And to sort all that out in my head so that now when I’m kind of releasing this EP, I’m really comfortable with it and I’m happy with it.

“And I feel like I’m putting forward something that represents me.”

Étáin began writing at an early age, inspired by her childhood spent by the Lake Isle of Innisfree and her musician parents.

“My parents actually played in a band.

“When she was pregnant with me, my mam would actually be performing. She played bass, and she’d been performing while she was carrying me.

“I think I remember them telling me they had to get kind of special light that they put on the bass so that she could actually see what she was playing over this kind of baby bump.”

They have said before that it is healthy to play music during pregnancy but I don’t think many have taken it so literally..

“Yeah, I think maybe they mean sort of gentle classical music as opposed to Irish rock you’re supposed to play,” she laughs.

“I had quite a musical upbringing.

“I started playing piano when I was around six, and started writing a little bit when I was around nine, but then it kind of took its full form and I was putting whole songs together and that as I got to like 12, 13.

“So it was a really musical upbringing. My family were always playing music, and we always had musicians about the house, records everywhere that I would just go through like it was a treasure trove.”

Étáin discovered some promotional materials from her parents band Diesel Heart on a recent trip back to Ireland.

“It was actually interesting. I was home back in Ireland last weekend and it was really funny because we were clearing out the attic and found loads of old Diesel Heart t-shirts and their press shots and everything.

“Now that I’m releasing my EP it’s kind of interesting to look back at what they were doing to prepare for releases back when they were performing.”

Étáin’s style combines ethereal vocal melodies with mystical guitar sounds.

She has played Electric Picnic, Sea Sessions, The National Concert Hall in Dublin, the famous venue Whelan’s and  Liverpool’s famed Cavern Club.

Étáin has previously opened for Áine Cahill, R.S.A.G., Naoise Roo, The Coronas, Daithí, Wyvern Lingo, and Moya Brennan of Clannad.

She takes something from all of these experiences but has especially learned from Moya.

“I used to play at the open mic up in Leo’s Tavern, which was her father’s place.

“U2 and everybody in search of Irish music history would flock up to play in Leo’s Tavern.

“That’s where I met her and she was a really great guiding force for me.

“Whenever I got up and played, she always had advice and tips and constructive criticism that really helped me out.

“Even today, I think back to the advice that she gave me, whether it’s about playing live or song writing.

“I still think back on those moments and apply them.

“I kind of think, ‘Oh, but remember Moya said…”

Although she is based in Glasgow, where she works with the charity Help Musicians, Étáin also spends much time in London and at home.

Glasgow has an important place in her family’s history.

“It’s actually a funny story, and it’s funny that I find myself in Glasgow because my grandfather emigrated here when he was 14.

“He didn’t speak any English at all, only Irish. My granddad was from Gortnahork in Donegal and he actually spoke fluent Irish until he was 17 and didn’t learn English until then.”

The Irish language is important to Étáin who has worked with Mabel Chah on a bilingual project.

“He (my grandfather) worked as a farm labourer for a while, then moved into the city and was a construction worker and met my grandmother here who also emigrated from Donegal.

“But even when he moved back to Ireland after sort of learning English and living through English For a few years, he still sort of was a little bit nervous about speaking in public in English, and would kind of mix up the languages.

“So it was always kind of close to his heart, the Irish language.

“I think that’s kind of passed on to me. I never met him.

“But my dad has always had a great appreciation for the Irish language.

“My mum, though she can’t speak it, has too.

“I think it’s a huge part of my identity and my sense of belonging, and being able to speak the Irish language, even if it’s just a few words, really makes you feel at home.”

It was at the start of the pandemic that Étáin made the move to Glasgow.

It may have been a lonely time but she found working on the EP got her through.

“It was definitely strange. It was emotional emigrating knowing I’m going to Glasgow, where my grandparents had met and following that path.

“But, amid the pandemic, it was definitely a strange experience, a little bit isolating.

“Obviously, you couldn’t meet anybody.

“Especially this time of year when it’s dark outside by the time you finish work, you’re in a new city, and you want to discover it but you don’t know where is safe to walk at night, you don’t know the lay of the land.

“So I think it was definitely isolating but having this EP to work on and having the songs for me to write and to produce, I think got me through that more than I realized at the time.

“I really love Glasgow.

“I think it’s a beautiful city and I’m really lucky to be able to call it home now.”

While the issue of gender disparity has become a big talking point in Irish music in recent years, Étáin was talking about it long ago when she was the only female artist to reach the final of Trinity’s Battle of the Bands 2019, a competition which secures the winner a sought-after Trinity Ball slot.

“I actually dedicated my set at the final to all of the women who didn’t get to the final.

“It was always something that I was very conscious of when you see a line- up and know you’re the only woman or one of three women on the line- up.

“You’re just very aware that there are some amazing women who play music in Ireland who probably should be there but aren’t.

“In the industry, I think I was always very conscious of the disparity, and kind of the barriers that were there to me and had to kind of find inventive ways to break them down, I suppose.”

And she says the bias can come not just from the men in suits but also from the boys in the band and not always intentionally.

“Even when it comes to networking, which is so important for musicians, I think women consistently get left out of those networking circles.

“And sometimes I don’t even think it’s intentional.

“I think it’s just that maybe men in bands hang out with the other men, and then they don’t invite anyone else to sort of join the group who get together after a gig.

“But that’s where those important informal networks are formed and it’s such an important part of the industry.”

“I feel it’s getting a lot better. Now, there’s still a lot of work to do.

“And there’s some great campaigns in Ireland at the minute. Irish Women in Harmony are doing great work on this, but I think for me, it’s all about female collaboration and working with other women, even if it’s not within music, creating those networks and sharing your art so that you have this sort of collaborative effect within the sector that really promotes equality.”

In The Kitchen and single As You Lay are out now.

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