To brighter days

Northern Irish Music Prize winner Joshua Burnside told David Hennessy about his EP that deals with themes like suicide and working class struggle in the city of Belfast.

Award- winning singer- songwriter Joshua Burnside deals with the theme of suicide in his latest EP, Late Afternoon In The Meadow (1887).

Joshua has been aware of the high rate of suicide in Belfast with many choosing to end things by jumping from either the Divis Street or Clifton Street bridges onto the Westlink motorway. Just this year it was announced the bridges will have suicide prevention barriers to hopefully prevent more doing so in future.

The Westlink is a motorway which has divided the city of Belfast since the 80s and you could say it is as much a barrier to progress and movement for the citizens of Belfast as the peace walls.

While the city used to have direct roads into the city centre, these have been replaced by winding cul-de-sacs and other architecture that only serves to keep people separate and Joshua wonders how this affects the city itself.

Described as an experimental folk songwriter and singer, Joshua Burnside’s musical style has been likened to that of Elliott Smith, Nick Drake and Tom Waits.

Joshua released his debut album, Ephrata, in 2017 quickly gaining support from the likes of Lauren Laverne, Guy Garvey, Cillian Murphy, Mark Radcliffe, Phil Taggart and Tom Ravenscroft and others.

To date, tracks on Ephrata have been streamed over 22 million times, and the album won the ‘Best Album’ award at the 2017 NI Music Prize.

The EP Late Afternoon In The Meadow (1887) tells the story of a life without opportunity, following a character lost in the labyrinth cul-de-sacs of working-class Belfast, caught between mountain and motorway.

It is a story of declining mental health amidst economic strife.

The title track, which has already been released as a single, begins with the startling lines, ‘I saw a man jump off the Clifton Street Bridge, onto the Westlink harder than a cliff edge’.

Joshua says: “Belfast was redesigned for military, social and economic reasons during the late end of the century. It was rebuilt to suit a car-driving suburban middle class, which is why the centre is mostly encircled by car parks, empty buildings, empty land and motorways twisting and rising above or below you. It is sadly apt then, that people wishing to take their own life, often choose the Westlink as the place to do it, jumping from the bridges that cross it. This song is about someone at the end of their tether. And if you are feeling this way, then I dedicate this song to you.”

Joshua told The Irish World: “I sort of wrote it in the spring/ summer time this year, coming back from a trip where I was staying with my dad. He lives in France and I was coming back to Belfast on a particularly dreary wet and windy day.

“The song lyrics- quite on the nose opening lyrics about suicide- I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of stuff recently because I was stuck on the Westlink, the road that goes through Belfast about a year before because someone had jumped off the bridge there.

“I guess that had been rattling around in my subconscious for a wee while without me realising it.

“I think there is something poignantly depressing about the fact that people would use the Westlink because it’s such a bleak sort of landmark and one that divided the city in a very negative way and probably caused a lot of social problems and community problems dividing the north and the West, poor areas of Belfast, from the city centre, cutting them off.

“They replaced straight roads that lead into the city centre with winding cul de sacs to sort of physically separate people from each other.

“I’m quite interested in the whole architecture of Belfast and how that affects our lives living here.”

Is it changing in that regard with more integration? “Yes and no. I think I read somewhere that there’s more peace walls in Belfast since the Good Friday Agreement than before, if you can believe that.

“It still is a very divided city down sectarian lines but the majority of people in Belfast and Northern Ireland just want to get on with their lives and live peacefully with one another.

“I do believe that so it’s kind of yes and no.”

Joshua’s second album Into The Depths Of Hell came in 2020 and was nominated for the Best Album, Best Single (Whiskey Whiskey) and Best Live Act at the 2020 NI Music Prize.

Joshua has performed at Glastonbury, Cambridge Folk Festival, Electric Picnic but will play his biggest show to date when he plays The Ulster Hall, Belfast on 23  December, with support from Lemoncello.

It was around the time he released his sophomore album that Joshua told us that Brexit had shown just how little regard Westminster had for the people of the province of Ulster.

However, he believes there will be no return to the dark days of the past.

“There is a tension in some areas, I think about there being ‘a border in the Irish Sea’.

“I think over time if the situation is not dealt with in a very delicate way by politicians in Westminster and Dublin, it could lead to a lot of resentment from unionist communities that feel like they’ve been sidelined.

“And the fact that unionists are in the minority in the north now for the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland, that shift is also significant psychologically for people of a unionist background so it will be interesting to see how those sort of anxieties play out over the next ten, twenty years.

“But I don’t think there’s a desire on either side of green/ orange politics for violence or disruption in any way, shape or form, a return to the troubles and all that.

“I don’t think they will be returned to.

“I’m quite positive- hopeful and positive about that.

“But until we get past the sort of orange and green politics in the north, everything else is going to suffer because it’s a total distraction from the real problems and things don’t get done.

“You can see people’s frustration from the last vote- That Alliance done so well in the last election- People are sort of fed up with the dichotomy of orange and green politics.

“I think people see it as a way to distract us from the real issues.

“There’s going to be more of that I think, more people will go to the sort of centre ground.

“It’s not all doom and gloom.”

Does Belfast’s dark history cast a shadow now in terms of mental health and suicide? “It’s not just a Belfast problem. It’s a city problem all around the UK and Ireland where capitalism has run riot for the last 20 years for the benefit of the few over the many.

“There’s a mental health crisis because people’s real wages have decreased, and people’s real sort of prospects have decreased and their social mobility has decreased and their access to public services has decreased.

“It’s not just a sectarian issue, it’s not so much to do with that.

“I think it’s being managed by the Tories for so long. That’s the real issue.

“I think it’s sort of a problem everywhere.”

Brexit. Covid. Cost of living: It has been one thing after another in recent years, hasn’t it? “It is, you don’t want to turn on the news these days.

“I do think things come in cycles, and I don’t think things always get better which is one of the lines in the song, ‘We were assured that things could only get better’. The Labour motto back in the  late 90s was, ‘Things can only get better’.

“And that was the whole feeling of the world back then really, ‘Every year we’re gonna get richer and our lives will be better and our children’s lives will be better after ours.

“And then after the 2008 crash, people realised.

“And then 2016 with Donald Trump and Brexit and all that, people started to realise, ‘Oh, things can actually get a whole lot worse and they seem to be’.

“But I do think it comes in those cycles, and I’m optimistic for the future.

“You see Lula getting back in President of Brazil, that’s a good start, Joe Biden in America and hopefully Kier Starmer will be in power in London at some point. So maybe things will come back to some kind of normality. Normality is the wrong word because we’ve been trashing this planet for the last 100 years.

“And we need to completely rethink the way we work as a society and to try and solve these massive issues quickly.

“That’s the main thing that’s scaring me at the minute, the whole environmental problem never mind the political situation.

“There’s sort of bigger fish to fry now.”

But there will be no progress on the climate situation as long as the blinkers are on or that is another political football…

“Yeah, which seems to be what’s happening.

“I totally understand when guys like Just Stop Oil ones and Extinction Rebellion are gluing themselves to roads and doing whatever they can to cause disruption.

“Some people say that’s not going to gain them any favours with the general public, but I think it doesn’t matter anymore. We have to do everything and anything we can to disrupt the current status quo otherwise millions and millions people are gonna die and not in our country first.

“There are places the environmental crisis is already hitting hard and fast.

“We always see all the wildfires in Australia and America and the floods in Pakistan and tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and all this stuff’s just gonna ramp up and up and up.

“There already is an insanely alarming rate. It’s pretty scary stuff.”

Talking of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, everyone always says, ‘I agree with what they’re doing but not the way they’re doing it’. And it’s like..

“What else is there to do? It’s the last resort really.”

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 2020.

Does Joshua feel his presence still? “Absolutely.

“Music was always the only thing I was good at or that I was interested in. It was always going to be that (as a career), but I didn’t really know how to do it or do anything on the management side of things, how to organise myself in a way that could make it work for myself as a viable career.

“He was the one who showed me how to do that.

“Lyndon was there when things started to take off a wee bit.

“I mean, when he passed away, it was before there was all the Coronavirus stuff kicking around.

“It would have been a lot harder if he had stuck around for an extra few months because we wouldn’t have got to really say our goodbyes, and that would have been a lot tougher actually I think in many ways.

“So in a weird way, the timing could have been worse.

“Lyndon is sorely missed and I think about him all the time because he was such a big part of my life for many years.

“I’m sad that he won’t be around to see me headline the Ulster Hall at the end of the year because that would have been one that he would have enjoyed to see me do.”

The EP Late Afternoon In The Meadow (1887) is out on 18 November.

Joshua plays The Ulster Hall, Belfast on 23 December.

For more information, click here.