Photo: Eoin Wright

As Irish singer-songwriter Julie Feeney takes some time from touring to create her fourth album, Patrick Kelleher talks to the singer about her performances, influences, and what the future has in store.

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As a singer, songwriter, orchestrator, producer, multi-instrumentalist and composer, it is safe to say that Irish musician Julie Feeney is something of an enigma. She has been surfing on the wave of the music industry now since her debut album, 13 Songs, was released in 2005. Highly individualistic since her beginnings, 13 Songs was self-financed through bank loans. Her latest album, Clocks, released in 2012, was funded through the funding website Fundit. Why is she so individualistic, insisting on doing everything on her albums from start to finish?

“I think it’s because I hear the whole thing in my head, and I just want to realise that basically,” she explains. “I never really consider collaborating with someone to make an album, although now that I’ve made three albums there could be a time when I’d do something like that.”

This stance makes a lot of sense when looking at Feeney’s musical influences. Her music is an anomaly, and is impossible to fit into one genre. Mixing elements of orchestral, traditional and choral music, amongst many other influences, there is something awe-inspiring about just how varied it is.

“I would definitely say that my influences go right back, it would probably come from a lot of the exposure I’ve had as a professional choral singer. I’ve sung in a lot of churches, here and abroad,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to plain chant, medieval music, renaissance anyway, in terms of vocal music, but then of course working as a professional choral singer, performing that music, there’s definitely an influence. Traditional music in terms of phrasing, in terms of how a line works. The melody in traditional music is quite sophisticated I think. Irish musicians have a kind of innate way of phrasing things. I’m not really a traditional Irish musician, but definitely in my blood I feel it, it’s innately there.”

These influences are apparent in most of her live performances, which are an exciting look into the mind of a creative wonder. She has been wowing critics now for years in her live shows, and explaining the process of how she makes these performances happen is something of a challenge for the singer.

“I think when I… discovered that I loved performing, which was around 2009/2010, I had already released my first album and I was well into it at that stage. And once I realised how much I loved it, I become not another person, but I definitely kind of transcend things, and I go to another place, completely different place, and I love being there. And I think that seems to have… illuminated stories more for people… Before that I was very shy… you know, not wanting to stand out, and being like an orchestral singer almost, even though my first few shows would have been like that. I would have just stood there, really, I didn’t really do anything… I was very self conscious, and a lot of people still are self conscious… but I’ve crossed over that, and I’ve gone to the stage where I like to experiment with modes of performance. You push the boundary to go somewhere else.”

 “I’ve gone to the stage where I like to experiment with modes of performance. You push the boundary to go somewhere else.”

This self-consciousness of performing was not worn away overnight, but rather was a long process. A major part of this was in her elaborate and unusual costumes that she wears onstage that enable her to change her persona.

“When I’m going somewhere else in my performance, being in a costume enables me to do that… I feel that I kind of have license to do it…I find it kind of funny that Lady Gaga will walk down the road in a turnip or an apricot or something, and she’ll just be walking down to get milk! I would never be like that… I completely retreat, I’m extremely private… like if I go to the doctor I almost feel self-conscious talking about what I do for a living… so I like to be that character when I’m onstage…I think what I like to do is to have a little bit of that license created by that costume.”

While performing in costume can enable her to distance herself from the music, Feeney agrees that much of her music is quite personal, and sometimes in ways that you wouldn’t expect. “I think it has to be a combination of a number of things, because you could end up with an abstract song that wasn’t really terribly personal, but somehow makes this musical globule of bits that are made up with syllables and notes of different seniorities that just work,” she explains. “You could end up with something that is extremely personal, but you sometimes move away then from what it was originally about… You’re finding new layers in things, you know, life is so wonderfully complex and multi-layered.”

The line between the personal and the impersonal is a fine one for Feeney, who finds that music can be personal without it having necessarily been based on her experience. “There were a few songs – in ‘Julia’, I do find that quite emotional when I do play it… I have a song called ‘Grace’ that could be about any particular state of mind that I’m in at the time, same with ‘Aching’. I couldn’t do the same with my song ‘Julia’, because it’s about my grandparents, so that’s really definitely my grandparents’ song in a way. I can kind of see the tree where they used to meet. And it’s very emotive, so that is one song that is very personal actually, and I do have to really concentrate and not think about them when I’m singing. It’s like if you’ve ever sung at a funeral, it’s very hard. It’s one of the hardest things to do.”

When performing songs like ‘Julia’, it is important for her to separate herself from the songs in some ways. “Your job isn’t really to get up there and get really emotional and have like a therapy kind of thing on stage. While it might be therapeutic to do it, you’re actually there – the reason you’re there – is to move other people and something in what you’re expressing – they can hopefully be made to – and you’re sharing something with them, and it can mirror something in them that they find very satisfactory hopefully, and bring them to a new place. So you do have to be very careful with that emotion.”

The live performances she has come to love won’t be coming to an end anytime soon, as Feeney confirms that her new album will be out next year. While she is taking a break from touring, it is for the creation of her fourth album. “Writing is where I’m focusing on now… I’ve been trying to keep a low enough profile so I can concentrate on writing,” she says. Besides this, she is also continuing work on her opera, Bird, based in part on Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Happy Prince’. Whatever happens with her next album, it is likely is that she will continue to astonish critics and fans alike with her bizarre and eclectic mix of musical influences.