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Only the brave

Killarney singer-songwriter Karrie told David Hennessy about how her lockdown album of covers made her ready to perform again, being Mick Flannery’s auntie and why she is not comfortable being called ‘the Irish Joni Mitchell’.

“It feels like it took the entire country to go quiet before I could start,” Killarney singer-songwriter Karrie says of her new album of covers with Grammy nominated guitarist/ producer Jimmy Smyth, Home Thoughts.

Featuring the music of David Bowie, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Dire Straits, Home Thoughts grew from the enthusiasm for Karrie and Jimmy’s covers online. Not a full-time singer, Karrie spends her days working with horses and other animals but while most singers were distraught to not be able to perform in front of audiences during lockdown, Karrie found it liberating to sing in an empty room.

“It was a great opportunity for me to sing to people from home rather than having to gig because I was never a fan of gigging.

“It was easily done from home. You can create a kind of mind block imagining that nobody’s watching but what I’ve noticed now is there’s no real anxiety forming like I used to have at the idea of doing gigs. That might be partially due to just being older and also due to the fact that the songs are all tried and tested. They’re not mine.

“It gave me confidence as a singer because I didn’t gig. It’s two years since I gigged and I just felt like suddenly everybody was in my boat.

“I’ve got a tonne of songs that I’ve written myself and I can sing. I know I’m just as good as anybody else who is performing out there but I don’t have an audience. I’ve always held live performers in the greatest esteem, I just thought the bravery that it takes is something else coming from somebody who breaks horses.

“All of a sudden I just felt like I knew how to use what I could do and singing to an audience from home just opened the door for me. I don’t feel like I’ll have problems anymore performing. Lockdown was very important to me for that reason. I don’t think it would have happened otherwise. I think I would have probably remained quiet when it came to music.”

The idea of the album was to record and perform established tunes by their favourite artists with minimal instrumentation to highlight Karrie’s remarkable voice.

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Rod Stewart’s You Wear It Well was the start, slowed down into an almost unrecognisable gentle folk song.

“We had done one of the songs before the lockdown and it got a lot of attention so we just thought we would keep going. Normally what people do is try and string out as much value as they can out of one recording but we were putting out a song every two days. People were entertained and it was for minimum effort. We were getting a lot of attention when a lot of musicians couldn’t even get a gig. We suddenly got a record deal out of it which is bizarre. I actually feel guilty in a way.”

Were the songs chosen for their messages being relevant to the times we are living in?

“One of them was. I chose Life on Mars after hearing about the assault in America by the police man who knelt on the black man’s neck and killed him. I chose the David Bowie song for the lyrical content, suddenly all eyes were on that.

“Other than that, I thought Home thoughts (from Abroad) was a nice message as well for its lyrical content: People dreaming of home, people that couldn’t visit their families.

“The rest of them then we just kept on that vein of music from an era where music was undeniably brilliant.

“It’s not always a very popular thing to say but I think music lately is not of the same calibre it was from the era those songs were chosen from.

“I can pick out a few (modern acts I like): I like Bruno Mars, I think the guy is just Prince reincarnated. I think he’s fantastic and he’s going to get better.

“Who else do I like? I like Post Malone and… erm… You see? I’m having to think whereas if you look at the era of those songs that I chose, you would need a pen and paper for the massive lists that I would come up with.

“I think the lyrical content has fallen, it’s as if they’re trying to provide for shorter attention span.

“They say everything comes back around again so surely we’re at the peak and it’s going to come back around again. I hope.”

Karrie laughs when we make her imagine an old person in the future getting nostalgic for the music of Justin Bieber or One Direction.

“The thought of it, awful. That’s an awful idea but you might be right,” she laughs. “It will all probably just be one word and 2,000 bpm, the faster the better.”

Karrie released her debut album Jelly Legged in 2014. Two of her early singles had such heavy rotation on RTE that she was invited to tour with the likes of Declan O’Rourke, Mick Flannery and Mary Coughlan.

Her second album, Perpetual Motion brought further acclaim and an invitation to tour with Rumer.

Mary Coughlan has just recorded Karrie’s song Elbow Deep for her current album.

However, it was then that she formed a musical partnership with Jimmy Smyth that has yielded three Top 5 singles in Ireland with the tracks I Don’t Hear You, I Love You The Most and So Long Ago.

“We’ve been friends for about five years since Mary Coughlan introduced us so we work well.”

Karrie and Jimmy had very different experiences of lockdown and Karrie believes having the project helped Jimmy.

“I think we ended up appreciating our circumstances (in Kerry) more than we ever have before. Living out in the countryside we had no doubts whatsoever that we were at a big advantage and I think Jimmy’s experience was different because he lived in Malahide in Dublin.

“I consider Jimmy to be one of my best friends and I know he was suffering through lockdown because he’s a working musician and his work got wiped out immediatley and it was upsetting him. He was missing performing and I know that this got him through lockdown. It kept him from any sadness creeping in.”

As the project grew with ever larger numbers watching online, Karrie and Jimmy started to get some overwhelming messages from their audience.

“You couldn’t but be affected, some of them were so heartfelt and personal that they almost seemed to not measure up, it felt to me like people were exaggerating but nobody else can know what another’s lockdown experience was.

“Some people were so missing music that they were looking forward to whichever new song was coming like it was a huge event for them.

“I also got a message from a lady in America. I had never spoken to her before. She sent me a message thanking me. Her best friend had been a huge fan of David Bowie’s and before she died she had heard our version of Life on Mars and she asked for it to be played at her funeral. She asked if that would be okay and of course I told her it would be our pleasure. Isn’t that incredible? So touching.

“I’d like to thank everybody who hit like and shared and sent me really really encouraging messages because they made me feel great. We won’t forget that.”

Karrie has a family connection to Blarney singer-songwriter Mick Flannery.

“Mick is my nephew. My late sister was Mick’s mam. Elaine was my sister and my other sister Yvonne is Mick’s backing singer.

“There’s eight years between Mick and myself. He went to college in Cork studying music and when he told me, I was amazed. It’s because of Mick really that I showed my writing to anybody. I showed my writing first to Elaine, my sister who then sent it to Mick’s lecturer, a guy by the name of Chris Ahern. He was my writing partner for my two albums.

“Because I was always extremely busy with horses, I hadn’t even been to a gig. Mick’s was the first gig I went to. The only music I ever listened to was on the radio with the horses.

“Mick was the first gig I ever went to and I remember thinking it was absolutely astounding and I think that to this day. He’s my favourite Irish performer. Even if I wasn’t his auntie, I would think he was incredible.”

Sharon Shannon once said, ‘Karrie is the Irish Joni Mitchell’ but this is a tag Karrie herself is less than comfortable with.

“I refused to sing any Joni song for this album because if I have to hear once more that I sound like Joni Mitchell, I’ll actually scream.

“One of the compliments that I don’t understand people giving is, ‘That’s even better than the original’. And that happens all the time and it makes me want to squirm.

“These songs can’t be bettered so you just try not to do them any harm. Because I sing in the same tone and same range as Joni Mitchell, if I sing one of her songs, I don’t sound terribly unlike her and people immediately say this to me, ‘You sound just like her’.

“I think what I wouldn’t be able to cope with would be anybody saying that I was imitating her. I’m not big enough yet for that not to upset me greatly because I would never attempt it. I’m not even on the first rung of the ladder that lady’s at the top of.

“If I remind people of her, that’s fine but I don’t want people to think that my own songs are robbed from her idea because I don’t want to be put off writing what I write naturally because I’m not brave enough yet to be told that I’m borrowing from her.”

Will Karrie do another album of her own material? “I think I will do another. I hope to do another one at least.”

Home Thoughts by Karrie with Jimmy Smyth is out now.

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