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Jumping into Cold water

Oisín Leech, well known from The Lost Brothers, told David Hennessy about his new album, upcoming UK dates that include opening for Gaz Coombes of Supergrass and playing with everyone from Arctic Monkeys, The Coral and The Strokes, and being on the same bill as Bob Dylan.

Oisín Leech, one half of musical duoe The Lost Brothers, releases his anticipated debut album Cold Sea on 8 March.

Produced by acclaimed songwriter and musician Steve Gunn, the record features contributions from a number of celebrated artists such as Tony Garnier (Bob Dylan), Dónal Lunny and M Ward.

The release comes with a string of tour dates that include some UK shows with Gaz Coombes the lead singer of Supergrass.

Leech’s debut single October Sun was released in October and receiving widespread radio airplay from the likes of Cerys Matthews, Guy Garvey, and Craig Charles at BBC 6 Music, BBC Scotland, John Kelly’s Mystery Train on Lyric FM and was awarded ‘Tune Of The Week’ at RTE Radio 1. He has since followed this with Colour of the Rain which maps Leech’s life as an artist to date.

Leech will be in London for St Patrick’s Day for the Cerys Matthews Show and then an in store performance at Rough Trade Westoff, Portabello Road.

For Cold Sea, Leech joined forces with Brooklyn-based musician Steve Gunn but it was Donegal that provided the inspiration.

Oisín told The Irish World: “I kind of lived in Buncrana when I was a child.

“I just love it up there and it feels like home.

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“Recently then, I found myself going up there with my wife and kids and in the evening time, I would just have the notebook out and I just started writing a lot of songs very, very quickly, and that doesn’t always happen so I tried to grab them.

“I wrote about 20, 30 songs at least.

“I found the place just so inspiring.

“The songs that made the album came very quickly.

“I remember writing Trawbreaga Bay one evening and the song Colour of The Rain, The melody came very quickly.

“When I finished all the songs I said, ‘Right, who am I gonna get to produce this?’

“And Steve Gunn was top of my list, he’s a fantastic artist with his work with Kurt Vile, The War on Drugs and Cass McCombs.

“I sent Steve a song called October Sun and he wrote straight back saying ‘I’m in’.

“I suggested, ‘Why don’t we go to Donegal? Rent a little cottage, hire gear, swim every day, make it more of a road trip?

“And Steve wrote back saying, ‘I didn’t tell you this but my great grandmother was from Downings in Donegal’.

“He had always wanted to go to Donegal so that was kind of the first of many serendipities.

“It kind of just flowed and he loved it up there.

“I find being beside the ocean hugely inspiring.

“I think I could only have made this album and written these songs at this point in my life.

“So to be by the ocean, these songs just came from somewhere and I just grabbed them.

“And when I’m by the ocean and when I hear the sound of the wind and the waves and the sea, it’s like music to me.

“The songs are inspired by the sea but they’re deeply personal songs too.

“I was reading a book called The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin who travelled to Australia and lived with Aboriginal people.

“He studied their history. They have this amazing ancient way of mapping their land with songs so a certain territory is mapped by, almost like sean-nós singing, a certain song.

“I was reading that book when I was in Donegal, so One Hill Further is kind of my imaginary line from south to north, from the south of Ireland to the north of Ireland and the journey that that brings me on.

“Malin Gales is a love song, like Trawbreaga Bay, deeply connected to emigration and Irish people leaving.

“I wrote about 40 verses for Trawbreaga Bay. I decided I’d get cabbages thrown at me if I put them all down!”

You were also joined by people like M Ward, Tony Garnier and Dónal Lunny.

“We went and set up a studio and in four days made the record.

“So 90% of that record is me singing and playing live into a mic and then when I would put the song down, Steve and I would jam on synths and sounds and take out the electric guitar.

“That’s where things like Maritime Radio came from and even the soundscapes on One Hill Further, that was all Steve and I layering things and then once that was done, we said, ‘Right, it actually would be nice to have a little bass on this’.

“I met up with Tony and we put the bass down.

“I can’t remember how M Ward heard October Sun, I think I sent it to him and he really loved it.

“He sent this beautiful part from Portland and we put that in.

“Dónal Lunny was super encouraging with the songs.

“He was like a mentor in a way.

“I’m a massive fan of Dónal’s.

“Dónal came and played my folk club in Navan.

“Usually Donal is known as a collaborator, on stage with other people but he did a solo set at my folk club and it was like seeing the Clash.

“You know, the energy.

“He was like a one man Clash.

“He’s just fantastic.

“I’m obviously a huge Planxty fan, Bothy Band- Anything Donal has done.

“He’s like a musical shaman.

“Dónal loved Trawbreaga Bay, Colour of The Rain and Malin Gales and a few others and he sent these beautiful bouzouki parts over to London when I was there (mixing the album).

“I have this lovely memory of walking through Hyde Park, my phone buzzes and it’s a message from Dónal saying, ‘How’s this?’

“He had added this beautiful bouzouki, line to Trawbreaga Bay.

“It was 8am at a cafe in Hyde Park that looks out over the lake.

“It was a lovely memory.”

What is it like to work with Tony Garnier, Bob Dylan’s bass player?

“Tony is a great, great friend.

“I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan.

“Tony has a magic about him, he’s kind of as much a magician as a musician.

“I was mad into punk music until the age of 15, until somebody played me a cassette of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.

“That’s what changed everything, even led me back to Liam Clancy and Irish folk, The Waterboys, Steve Wickham.

“Dylan kind of opened doors, it was kind of more than inspiring. It was life changing hearing Dylan.

“I saw Dylan play at Finsbury park a few years back, Lost Brothers were on the same bill.

“It was the Fèis.

“We were on the bill and Mike Scott and Steve Wickham jumped up with us. We did a Hank Williams song.

“It was fantastic.

“I lived in Naples from 1998 maybe to 2000/ 2001.

“I was teaching English and then I discovered that I could make more money busking, so I ditched the teaching and just busked every day in Naples.

“It was fantastic time in my life, we would travel down to Sicily and we went to see Bob Dylan play at Taormina that summer.

“Mount Etna was erupting behind the stage about five miles away behind Dylan.

“Of course, Tony Garnier was up on stage.

“I didn’t know that 20 years later I’d be making a record with him.”

Uncut Magazine Playlist called Cold Sea a, ‘Stunning album’. Shindig Magazine said: ‘Serene Beauty’.

How does it feel to see the album going down so well? “It’s amazing.

“Music has always been a lifeline to me my whole life, for better or for worse.

“I wake up in the morning, and I’ve got music playing in every room from every stereo.

“What happened with these songs was I played them to a friend and my friend said, ‘You know, these don’t sound like Lost Brothers, you could use them at your folk club, why don’t you make a vinyl and have a vinyl at the folk club?’

“That’s how that started.

“And then getting messages from people like Steve Gunn whom I admire.

“He was like, ‘Oisin, these are great songs so let’s really get this right’.

“We were conscious of leaving as much space in the music as possible.

“We could have added so much like drums and orchestras, but we kept it so spacious.

“You can never tell how people are going to react to the music but it’s a nice thing. It is a nice thing.”

Does it feel different being your solo debut?
“It’s very different, very different.

“I did my first ever solo show in Brighton in October opening for M Ward.

“There was half a second gap after I finished the first song and then applause.

“Then I was like, ‘Right, we’re up and going, there’s no turning back now’.

“And then the next night, we played Bush Hall in London.

“I was really humbled by the reaction.

“And after the gig, people were coming up saying ‘I was moved by those songs’, and that’s what it’s all about because when you sing a song in a room, it doesn’t belong to the singer anymore.

“It goes up into the ether. It belongs to the listener.

“That’s the magic of music for me, it’s where does the song bring the listener?

“So to meet people at that London gig, and for them to come up and say, ‘I liked that song. I like Malin Gales. “That’s what I’m really looking forward to on the tour: Singing these songs in rooms to people.

“I can’t wait.”

As he mentions, Oisín also runs Procida’s folk club.

“It’s in Navan every few months.

“When I get time, I invite four or five acts and a local poet and I play some vinyl records.

“It starts at eight o’clock, it’s a tiny room, holds about 80 people.

“We’ve had Lisa Hannigan, Villagers, Steve Gunn, Donal Lunny, Andy Irvine, Lisa O’Neill.

“We’ve had loads of people, done about 10 of them.

“People love it, and I love it too.

“There’ll be another one coming soon.”

Are you looking forward to supporting Gaz Coombes? 

“Can’t wait.

“I’m a huge Supergrass fan.

“That was one of the most random messages I’ve ever gotten.

“I turned to my wife and said, ‘You won’t believe this one. Gaz Coombes has asked me to open in England’.

“It’s gonna be great fun, fascinating to see how my songs go down in those rooms with his fans, you know?”

Before The Lost Brothers were established, Oisín featured on Arctic Monkeys’ Baby I’m Yours in 2006.

“Obviously going to Japan with Arctic Monkeys and recording Baby, I’m Yours was great fun.

“I still go and see the guys, still in touch with some of them.”

Oisín formed The Lost Brothers with Mark McCausland in 2008 and the band were initially based in Liverpool before moving down to London.

“I have this memory of arriving into Liverpool maybe 2004 or 2005 and the band The Coral were all lined up against the wall beside their tour bus.

“The Coral are an amazing band and they had just played Glastonbury.”

Of course you have recorded with Bill Ryder- Jones of The Coral.

What are the other highlights of the incredible stuff you have done?

“Glen (Hansard) brought us all the way across America.

“It was amazing.

“For six weeks, we went from Boston all the way across the states to San Francisco. We played the Fillmore in San Fran.

“And the Lost Brothers came back ourselves across America again. That was incredible.

“Seeing the states like that was incredible.

“And then Richard Hawley, we’ve worked with him in Sheffield, opened for him in the Crucible.

“I did a gig with The Strokes at Hammersmith.

“I remember we watched The Strokes and then we jumped on a train down to Brixton Academy.

“Arctic Monkeys were playing the same night.

“London was just buzzing with music, you know?

“I love London. I lived in Dalston Kingsland for two or three years and I used to rehearse with my old band on Holloway Road.

“We ended up writing a lot of the early Lost Brothers albums in London and did some really fun shows with M Ward, Billy Bragg and people like that.

“I was always fascinated by Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy and the folk clubs in and around Soho.

“There’s an atmosphere around Soho, London that I love and I find it really inspiring.

“I love all those narrow staircases that go down to rooms that probably at one stage might have been folk clubs.

“And obviously you’ve still get Ronnie Scott’s, but as time goes on I’m coming back to Irish traditional music like Sean O Riada.

“There’s an amazing album of his called Port na bPúcaí and it’s just these very spacious arrangements of these melodies are probably hundreds of years old.

“The feeling I get when I hear that music is the same feeling I get when I stand in Buncrana or Culdaff by the ocean feeling, ‘This is where I belong’.”

Oisín was still a teenager when he first came to London following his musical ambitions.

“When I was 17 I went over to London and worked in Bloomsbury cleaning hotels and my ambition was to meet a drummer for my punk band.

“I couldn’t find a drummer in Navan for my punk band and I spent the whole summer working in hotels and book shops.

“I saw this sign for Holidays in the Sun in Morecambe so I jumped on the bus by myself and went and saw the UK Subs and all those old school punk bands.

“I was the youngest there by about 20 years and all these punks were like, ‘What the hell are you doing here, kid?’

“That was my first introduction to those great punk bands.”

After his summer ended, returned home to Ireland, got his leaving cert and went to Trinity to study Theatre studies film and English literature.

“I spent four years in Trinity studying and every day after lectures, I went to Grafton Street and busked.

“That’s how I learned, that was my first experience of performing and that took me all around the world: Lived in Naples, Liverpool, London.

“That song Colour of The Rain is about everything we’ve spoken about, all the places I’ve been across my life. Each verse is a different era.”

You’re doing a solo endeavour but we will see The Lost Brothers again, right?

“We’ll make another record.

“We’re 15 years on the road.

“I think it’s really healthy to do other projects.

“I’ve been doing Caravan Radio, a radio show on RTE for a couple of years and I’ve been running my folk club now for five/ six years so this is my first solo record and I think when we come back to Lost Brothers it’ll be fresher, it’ll be reenergized.”

Cold Sea is Out on 8 March 2024 on Outside Music and Tremone Records.

Oisín plays Rough Trade West 3.30pm on Sunday 17 March.

He also plays Hebden Bridge Trades Club on 21 March, The Rockin’ Chair in Wrexham on 22 March, Norwich Arts Centre on 23 March, Band on the Wall in Manchester on 24 March supporting Gaz Coombes.

For more information, click here.

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