Cavan songstress Lisa O’Neill tells David Hennessy Fairytale of New York is fine the way it is, major label backing has put her on the map as a performer in the UK and about the Dublin woman who tried to assassinate Mussolini
It was just before Christmas that Lisa O’Neill was one of a number of guests invited on the Late Late Show for their special tribute to Shane MacGowan. Lisa and Glen Hansard performed A Rainy Night in Soho in honour of the famous Pogues singer.
Shane himself addressed the issue of his famous Christmas song, A Fairytale of New York. Even the Gavin and Stacey Christmas special has been dragged into the controversy over the use of the word ‘faggot’.
Lisa O’Neill, who has sung the Kirsty MacColl parts (again with Glen Hansard), told The Irish World the song is a classic and is not offensive: “I don’t think it’s controversial. I think there’s nothing wrong with it at all.
“Journalists and DJs going for that, I just think they’re very lazy. They’re using it to get their own name out there. The song’s the song. It’s written, it’s out and like I said on The Late Late Show: When Shane finishes a song, it’s finished. That’s decided. He’s the writer and it’s great.
“I know he didn’t mean anything sinister in it and sometimes we have to read a little bit deeper and harder to understand that something is not picking on anyone.
“It’s a boring conversation. I can’t believe it’s still going on. I can’t believe it came around again this Christmas. There’s loads to be talking about, there’s important stuff to be talking about.
“We can’t delete the past. If we did that, we would have no decent literature.”
It was in 2009 that Lisa released her debut collection, Has An Album but 2013’s Same Cloth or Not was her breakthrough record and brought her the recognition of a Meteor Choice Music Prize nomination. 2016’s Pothole in the Sky would follow before her latest, Heard a Long Gone Song saw her nominated for a second time for the prize.
Lisa’s latest record owes its title to Shane as Lisa took the name from his song, Lullaby of London: “I got to give it to him on the night actually.
“I needed to remind him which song it was in but I won’t criticise him for that because I’m the same myself. Somebody might throw a lyric at me and I’ve written it myself but I can’t get into the middle of a song. I need to go from the beginning and that’s the only way it makes any sense at all.
“He was happy to see it. Shane’s so cool, nothing fazes him.
“It’s always lovely to be around Shane and to be on The Late Late Show. It was an experience I won’t forget for a long time, delighted to be included.”
2019 was a big year for Lisa when her latest album saw her nominated for four gongs at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Does she feel Heard a Long Gone Song has put her on another level over here? “I wouldn’t even say another level, I would just say a level.
“It’s just so hard. You’re like a grain of sand over there (UK), the population is so big and there’s so many of us trying to get our work out there.
“I’ve been over and back to the UK for the last ten years and it definitely was a jump in numbers coming to the shows and people generally being aware of my music.
“Being signed to River Lea Records as well has definitely made a difference. On the business side of things, it helps us get out there. You make records and they can fall through the cracks but going into business with these people helps.
“All these things help. You really don’t know what’s bringing any individual to a gig but it’s all moving all the time and that recognition was lovely to get, very exciting.”
The subjects of Lisa’s songs can vary. They can have themes of loss and emigration like England Has My Man or be inspired by the lack of a train line to her home county like No Train to Cavan.
She tells us that different songs resonate with different people but also how one story she got in reaction to a track on her latest album might inspire a new song: “That’s the wonderful thing about travelling with your music. I might come out with a story onstage that opens up someone’s imagination and they might come up to me afterwards and they’ve got a story that is ten times more interesting.
“I wrote a song about this Dublin woman Violet Gibson who in 1926 went to Italy and attempted to assassinate Mussolini and I was speaking to the audience about this ballad earlier in the summer and I was telling them that she sadly spent the rest of her life in a psychiatric hospital in Northampton and I named the hospital.
“Afterwards a woman came up to me and told me the story of her mother’s whole life in that hospital, how she was treated and the whole time she didn’t know her mother was alive.
“People come and they tell you things and then you’re walking away going, ‘Is that another song now? Is that another thing that I’ll have to investigate and study?’ That happens all the time. One thing leads onto the other. You say something and someone in the audience knows. They tell ya bizarre things.”
Originally from Ballyhaise and based in Dublin, Lisa told The Irish World a few years ago that she wasn’t sure London would give her enough space to wonder or be right for her creativity: “I’ve changed my opinion as I get to know London a little bit better. It is a very wonderful and very exciting place.
“I guess on a personal level I feel like I’m on a bit of a wheel when I go there. I wouldn’t live there, it’s just too big and too fast. I have a feeling of confusion when it comes to London, it’s just so fast and it’s not the right pace of life for me so I am someone who would love London from afar.”
Lisa says her next album is more than halfway written and she will be going into the studio in March to start work on album number five.
Lisa said earlier that there were more important things to talk about than the ‘controversy’ over Fairytale of New York. The conversation stumbles onto an important issue when, talking about Ireland’s improving economy, she says she has observed a lot of cranes going up: “Hopefully these crane will build some houses for the homeless. That’s the big issue in the country at the moment, this huge homeless problem. There’s a lot of talk about it. I don’t see much change.
“It’s winter, it’s cold and there are more and more people in sleeping bags. It’s not right. If the country is thriving and starting to do well again, this really can’t be justified, can it?
“We’re all made of the same stuff. We all deserve a roof over our heads.”
Lisa O’Neill tours the UK in February, playing Union Chapel in London on Thursday 6 February. Her website.