As the ceremony for annual Choice Music Prize approaches, Kate Rothwell and Paul Fennessy speak with some of the events key figures.

SINCE THE FIRST Choice Music Prize was awarded in 2005 to Julie Feeney for her album 13 Songs, the prize has become a stalwart in the Irish music industry, indicating every year the great and the good of our domestic musical output. But whose chooses the Choice?

As co-director and founder of the prize, music journalist Jim Carroll explains how the panel is as different each year as the nominees themselves. “We pick twelve different media judges, people who write or talk about music for a living, and every year that judging panel changes.” The panel submit their top ten Irish albums of the year by Christmas, and these nominations are combined to make the eventual shortlist.

Even in the few years of its existence, the Choice Music Prize has enjoyed great success, but has also endured its fair share of criticism. When The Divine Comedy won the top spot in 2006, many journalists grumbled that younger acts would have been more ‘deserving’ of the recognition.

But as Carroll explains, the aim of the prize is not to break ‘the next big thing’. “It’s not a competition to find the best debut album, it’s not a competition to break a band, and it’s not to reward some old bollocks who has been going for years. It’s simply about highlighting the best Irish albums from a calendar year.”

Winners of the prize obviously enjoy the recognition of this “hallmark of quality” that can bring international attention to previously little known acts. Yet Carroll points out that there are some downsides to being labelled as a ‘Choice Music Prize Winner’. “There are times when they [the winners] are fed up talking about it… it sort of negates everything else that they’ve done, and they’re acts in their own right as well.”

But the prize-giving itself, is already proving that the acts selected are successful in their own right, as a number are too tied up with their tours to make it to the ceremony.

Lisa Hannigan and Oppenheimer will be touring America, while The Script are visiting their Spanish fans. This might take away from the night itself, but for Jim it only enforces the strength of the nominations. “In a way that validates things from our point of view too, the acts are really doing well.”

‘Doing well’ they may be, but in just another few weeks one of these acts will find themselves declared as the winner of the Choice Music Prize 2008, and about to do better than ever before.

“If you look at so many big bands of 2005 or 2006, you just ask: ‘Where did they go?” Messiah J

However, this one lucky act will not be Messiah J and The Expert, or at least not according to Messiah J, who dismisses the hip hop duo’s prospects of collecting the prize.

“Ten grand is pretty nice and the recognition is great, but it’s not really crossed my mind that it is actually gonna happen,” he claims. “It will be deadly to perform on the night (but) I don’t think we’re gonna win. It’s just great to be there.”

Messiah J is a firm believer in the strength of the current Irish music scene, asserting that this year’s competition represents “arguably the strongest line-up ever”. Nonetheless, there is one band on the shortlist which the rapper is not particularly impressed with.

“What I’ve heard of The Script is not amazing, so I wouldn’t be mad on them winning.” He continues by carefully attempting to evade potential accusations of bitchiness on his part. He diplomatically remarks that “it’s not my type of music, but at the end of the day it’s other people’s decision.”

Yet despite his distaste for this particular overtly commercial act, Messiah J neglects to take offence when bands who are already hugely popular are nominated over less famous acts that are evidently more desperate for such vital exposure.

“I don’t understand why people would be shocked that there’s a mixture of different profile bands. It’s based on music. If U2 bring out a brilliant album next year, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be nominated.” Although Messiah J then slyly adds: “I know that’s very unlikely.”

Indeed, as a band whose sound has been described as a fusion of hip hop, funk, indie and psychedelica, MJEX are very much the antithesis to U2 and the legions of other Irish groups who are often perceived to be lacking in imagination.

“I think if I may be so bold to suggest, that it’s unlikely you’ll find a more eclectic album (on the short list). We don’t make music like anyone else in this country and our music is about stuff that isn’t just ‘I wanna hold your hand’ or ‘I love you.’”

And with this in mind, is there any genre which the pair would refuse to attempt? “I don’t think my opera voice is up to scratch,” he demurely replies. “If my brain understood it maybe I would try it. Having said that though, we’ve actually snuck a few opera samples onto our records, so I don’t think there’s any genre that I’m against.”

“It’s not a competition to find the best debut album, it’s not a competition to break a band, and it’s not to reward some old bollocks who’s been going for years. It’s simply about highlighting the best Irish albums from a calendar year”

However, their quirky sampling sensibilities aside, the duo maintain a sober perspective on music and its business orientated nature. Messiah J concludes: “Even if tomorrow we’re shifting hundreds of thousands of copies and we’re flavour of the month – who is to say in 2,000 years we’re not just another forgotten band? If you look at so many big bands of 2005 or 2006, you just ask: ‘Where did they go?’”

In contrast with the rapper, fellow nominee Lisa Hannigan proves to be a slightly more optimistic interviewee and this discovery is hardly a great surprise. Her solo career is going exceptionally well with her debut album, Sea Sew, being nominated for a Choice Music Prize, as well as being the reason behind her two Meteor Music Award nominations for Best Irish Female and Best Irish Album.

But when Otwo talks to Lisa, she has much more immediate reason to feel satisfied. “I just had a chocolate brownie for my lunch.” A woman with her priorities in the right place, she is flattered by her Choice nomination.

Nonetheless, in a similar manner to Messiah J, she doesn’t concern herself too greatly with the prospect of winning. “It’s decided by people comparing things that are very different to each other… It’s great to be nominated but I wouldn’t hold out much hope to be given it.”

So laid-back is Miss Hannigan that she finds it difficult to consider herself as being in competition with her fellow nominees. “I wouldn’t call them competitors,” she laughs, “like we’re in some kind of musical Olympics. I love some of the records on the list, I really like Jape’s record, and Mick Flannery’s, and I was listening to Halfset this morning – it’s fab.”

Lisa has often taken part in performances and recordings (or in the case of Make Trade Fair, a photo shoot where she was covered in melted chocolate) for the sake of a good cause, but she plays down her contribution. “You wouldn’t want to do one every night because it’d probably lose its impact. But [with] Make Trade Fair, the Cake Sale record, there were great people involved in it for a great cause so why not?”

Another performer known for his ethical efforts is Lisa’s ex-musical partner, Damien Rice. While many people still associate her name with his, she hopes that in time this will change.

“There are times when they [the winners] are fed up talking about it… it sort of negates everything else that they’ve done, and they’re acts in their own right as well”

“Obviously that’s how a lot of people would know me but I would imagine – I would hope – that in a few years that won’t be the case.” Successful as her work with Rice was, it is not something that she misses. “Myself and the band are having a lot of fun and just really enjoying playing, recording and writing. So no, I’m very happy to be where I am.”

Since her solo career kicked off, Lisa has come to be recognised not just as a voice in the background, but as a musician in her own right. She plays a number of instruments, but states that she probably doesn’t “play any instrument well”. She is however, aware that her status has altered. “I think people will see me as a little bit more of a songwriter than they would have had done before.”

Another indication of Lisa’s success was the use of ‘Ocean and a Rock’ on Grey’s Anatomy. Having wondered whether or not it would be used to kill off a character, the song turned out to be the soundtrack to “a touching life lessons that one of the doctors imparted to a small boy” – a scene that Lisa admits the track fitted “more musically than lyrically.”

Still, it’s a further boost as she and her band face the States, although ‘cracking America’ isn’t on Lisa’s to-do list. “If you play gigs and they go well and people come and maybe get a record and pass it around to their friends, you couldn’t really want more than that.”

Her humble modesty has been a great asset to Lisa Hannigan thus far; and given her status as favourite to attain The Choice Music Prize, there is little doubt that she will go further still.

The Choice Music Prize takes place on 4th March in Vicar St

Messiah J and The Expert play the UCD Student Bar on 26th February