Dublin singer-songwriter Ailbhe Reddy told David Hennessy about how her new album is about coming into adulthood, how gay people have worried less about being ‘hassled’ since the referendum in 2015 and how joining Irish Women in Harmony showed her that she was not the only one ‘struggling’ to get played on Irish radio.
Four years on from releasing her debut EP Hollowed Out Sea Ailbhe Reddy from Dublin is preparing to release her debut album, Personal History. Ailbhe has built up quite a following in that time. Clash said of the alt-folk rising star, ‘Ailbhe Reddy is a songwriter with enormous promise. Forever changing…a pure poetic voice’. Her stunning voice and song writing mark her out as one to watch. Ailbhe has split her time between Dublin and London in the last two years and was planning to make the complete move to London this summer only for Covid-19 to derail that.
The album was preceded just last month by the single Looking Happy which is about a break-up in the age of social media and how it hurts to see your former partner looking happy while you’re hurting.
Ailbhe told The Irish World: “It’s such a rookie mistake: Just scrolling through and being like, ‘How are you always on holidays? How many parties can you possibly go to?’ I always think break-ups must have been way easier when you broke up with a person and you just didn’t see them again. There was no way that you would know every detail of their life by going onto your phone.
“I don’t really use Facebook anymore but there was a while where everytime I would go on it would be like, ‘This day 4 years ago..’ And it would just show you stuff you didn’t want to see. You’re like, ‘Woah, no no thanks’. It’s like my dead dog being held by my ex-boyfriend or something. Why would I want to see that?” Ailbhe says laughing.
“It’s a real rookie mistake to, a few weeks after a breakup, go, ‘I wonder what they’re up to…’ You never actually want to know, unless their page is going to be full of ‘I miss you’. That’s the only thing you’d actually want to see and it’s not going to be that.”
Looking Happy was accompanied by a video that depicted Ailbhe at a party looking really unenthusiastic while everyone else is having a great time.
“Have you ever gone to a party and everybody is having a great time and you’re pretending to have a really good time but you’re actually sad about something? Imagine if you just went to a party and didn’t put on a brave face?
“I think that it is kind of the fun-est single even though the message maybe isn’t that fun. It’s just kind of my favourite single from the album. It’s one of the songs that I wrote that when I wrote it I was like, ‘That is definitely going to be a single when I put out this album’.”
Many albums have been written all about a break-up but this isn’t the case for Ailbhe’s debut. She describes Personal History as autobiographical and also deals with themes such as independence, loneliness, coming out as gay.
“It is about everything that you go through in your early-mid 20s.
“The first track is called Failing and that’s about feeling like you just keep messing everything up.
“It’s all about the journey of coming into adulthood.”
Ailbhe is sometimes referred to as a ‘queer artist’. Does she mind labels like this? “Not particularly. I don’t really mind. It is each to their own. I’m pretty happy to be labelled within reason. I don’t mind being called queer or gay.
“I don’t know if I go around describing myself as that. It’s not how I introduce myself or anything.”
Ailbhe has seen Ireland become infinitely more accepting of same sex couples in just her lifetime.
“I was born in ’91. There was still a lot of legal ramifications for homosexuality back then in Ireland. The referendum in 2015 obviously made a massive difference.
“Everything happened quite quickly. I mean when I was a teenager it was definitely something that was still a massive struggle for a lot of people.
“Even in my early 20s, still a bit of a struggle for a lot of people, including myself. I think after the referendum it became a lot easier for people to come out.
“I definitely would have been out before the referendum but it definitely felt a lot easier to be out in public with a partner after that. You didn’t feel like you would be hassled.”
Was hassle something that would come Ailbhe’s way before the referendum? “You would just be worried that you might. You have one or two bad experiences, or more, and that’s what you think of. 95% of the time it might be absolutely fine and then, every once in a while, someone might say something to you. That’s what you think when you leave the house. You don’t think about all the times no one bothers you. You think about the few times that somebody does.
“At least post-referendum, it meant that you knew that the majority of people around thought that that person was a jerk.”
Ailbhe released her first single form the album, entitled Time Difference, in June. The only face you see in the video is Ailbhe’s. However, you would be wrong if you thought this video was a creative response to Covid-19 restrictions.
“Loads of people were like, ‘You made a great job of doing what you did during lockdown’. I was like, ‘I recorded that in January’. Covid was a very distant thing that didn’t really exist yet when I recorded that. That was the concept of it, isolation in general. Time difference is all about touring and feeling very much isolated from all my loved ones.
“So many people have commented on that and been like, ‘You can actually see social distancing’. That was a budget decision.
“I’m like, ‘I didn’t write the video and make the video in two weeks’,” she says laughing.
Time Difference was playlisted on BBC Radio 6 before it was followed by Between your Teeth.
It has been such a journey since Ailbhe released her debut EP that it seems much longer ago than just four years.
“It seems like a different person. When I recorded that EP, I was working in an office and I was in college actually. I released that EP kind of expecting nothing much to happen and then one day one of my friends was like, ‘It is getting a lot of traction on Spotify, one of these things has 25,000 streams’. And I was like, ‘Must be a glitch’. Then all of a sudden Distrust was building and building and building crazy streams and I remember being like, ‘This is completely bizarre’.
“From that, things snowballed and I got to do Other Voices and through that I got to meet loads of different people and I ended up getting to do The Great Escape in the UK and signing with my publishing label Beady Eye Music. I got a lot of things from that little EP and I had no idea what I was doing.
“When you don’t know how the industry works and you’re just kind of putting something out there, you have hopes but I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I find more surprising now looking back that I got anything because I had no PR or anything, I didn’t really do anything for it because I didn’t know what I was doing. The whole thing is very confusing when you haven’t released any music. You’re kind of just going on bits of advice and asking people who also don’t know what are doing.”
Ailbhe would get to play Glastonbury in 2017 and describes this as a real highlight.
“Playing Electric Picnic that same year was amazing as well. I played at the Other Voices tent and people were singing along to the songs and I had never experienced that before. You just don’t ever expect it. I’m like, ‘How do you know this?’
“I think I played 25 festivals that summer and had some pretty incredible experiences.”
In the summer Ailbhe was asked to join Irish Women in Harmony for their charity cover of Dreams by the Cranberries with money raised going to Safe Ireland.
“RuthAnne got in touch with me. I obviously knew who she was and was a big fan of her work. She is amazing and she sent me a message out of the blue one day and asked if I would be part of Irish Women in Harmony, this thing she was trying to put together with a few different Irish artists, saying, ‘None of us get played on Irish radio. We should change that. We should do it for a good cause’. I was sold immediately.
“More people became involved and it just became a massive hit.”
Ailbhe has been conscious of how hard it is to get her music on Irish radio as even DJs and producers she would be friendly with have not been able to play her tracks.
“It’s funny because I’ve always done well with spot players here and there. I always know a few people in stations because the Irish music scene is small. I really like all the DJs and stuff and a lot of the producers. They’re all great people.
“For me, the problem is the system is over formatted so they don’t actually have a choice. They’re like, ‘I’d love to play this but I’m sure I can. It needs to be on a playlist’. They don’t have the freedom to just play what they want which would just make it a more diverse thing immediately. DJs and producers and everyone working in radio have a passion for music so they should be able to make those decisions for themselves.”
Ailbhe’s success came her way with no thanks to Irish radio but she was unaware of the full extent of the unconscious bias towards Irish females until Irish Women in Harmony brought her together with other performers in the same boat.
“But I was very much aware of it being an uneven playing field. I was aware of the fact that I was really struggling. No matter how well Spotify and stuff was going for me, which was really well, I just couldn’t seem to break into Irish mainstream radio and it was really only when RuthAnne got us all together that we realised all of us are struggling.
“Even the people that I would have deemed as extremely successful were saying, ‘I’m really struggling’. So you can’t really argue with that. I was like, ‘Great, that’s something everyone else is experiencing. It’s not just me being dramatic. I am not just failing at this one thing. It seems like it’s a struggle for everybody’. It was a pretty enlightening experience.”
Ailbhe says she suddenly felt “sane” to know other women knew the same struggle. Irish Women in Harmony climbed the charts in Ireland and recently just repeated that feat, following an appearance on The Late Late Show. Ailbhe says there are plans for much more from the female collective.
“We’re planning to do an album so that’s pretty cool. We will probably get together for song writing. We have all made great connections with each other.
“It’s kind of changed the whole dynamic of the music community in Ireland that I feel a lot of Irish female musicians in particular are now supporting each other and pushing each other forward for things in a way that maybe wasn’t happening before just because they’re more aware of each other.
“And it shouldn’t just be a case of a few radio stations playing Irish Women in Harmony a bunch and then going, ‘Okay, cool, quota for the year for women done. Back to business’.
“Even if what I’m doing doesn’t suit their stations- You always feel as though you’re talking about yourself in particular. I’m often not. If I’m talking about RTE 2, a more poppy station. Laoise, Aine Cahill, Lyra and people like that definitely fit into that realm. They should be given a shot because people want to hear it. If Irish Women in Harmony has done anything, it’s proven that people want to hear Irish female musicians.
“I think there is a massive misconception that you have to be a popular artist and then you get radio play. That’s not how it works. If you’re getting played on radio, then that is where the snowball effect starts. That is where you actually get fans and people start buying tickets to your shows. Radio is still very much a tastemaker. People still listen to it. I think there’s this misconception that you have to be popular first. Radio is really what breaks a lot of artists and it really does have a massive effect on ticket sales. And for the last ten years selling tickets has been every artist’s bread and butter.
“Obviously at the moment that’s not the case but that’s another conversation entirely.”
Ailbhe was set to play South by Southwest festival as well as tour the states this year before Covid-19 ruined all those plans. Although home entertainment got everyone through lockdown, Ailbhe feels creative people have been forgotten in Ireland as the country recovers from the crisis.
“I think everyone felt quite well looked after at the beginning of this but then artists in particular have expressed a lot of frustration over the last few months just because there’s not been a lot of guidelines from the government for how we get back to work. And also there’s just very little support so venues can actually make gigs work. There are promoters who have been working in the industry for 20+ years who keep trying to put shows on and keep just being pushed back and given no reasons, given no guidelines for how they can make it work.
“I think there is some confidence that there is a way to make it work whether it’s putting people socially distanced in a field, putting people socially distanced in a venue… There needs to be a way for us to get back. I just feel like there’s no guideline for that.”
Minister Heather Humphreys drew the wrath of the creative community when she suggested they re-skill and get other jobs.
“Artists unfortunately do need support. You can’t just tell everybody that they need to retrain.
“You’re living pay cheque to pay cheque. Anything like that is a delicate balance. When you’re knocked out of balance, you’re going to be really left wanting. There’s not been a whole lot of support but I’m hoping that will change.
“Whatever about songwriters like myself not being able to tour, that is really tough but people who are having an even tougher time are sound engineers and promoters. Those people who hold the economy up. They can’t even rely on royalties. They can’t rely on sales of anything. Their job is working in the industry, working at gigs and where is the support system for them?”
The album Personal History by Ailbhe Reddy is out now.
The single Looking Happy is out now.
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