Spending a sunny Sunday afternoon (over Zoom) sipping tea is the picturesque setting for a conversation with Ailbhe Reddy. There’s the ease of conversation and intimacy that the Irish singer-songwriter’s debut album Personal History captures set against the reality of a pandemic that influences how Reddy develops her craft. Overblown chatted with Reddy about how the ongoing global situation has affected her music, a bit of her own personal history, and the ways psychotherapy intertwines with her art.
How did being stuck in Dublin affect Personal History?
The album was finished last September so the writing wasn’t affected. It was supposed to be released by an indie label though and I was meant to play South by Southwest. That all fell through at the beginning of COVID. I’ve been sitting on this album for so long, I didn’t want to wait until 2021 to release it.
I’m used to doing live shows around releases. They’ve been my bread-and-butter for the past few years. Last time I released an EP three years ago I was playing lots of live shows. There you can see what works because everyone is singing along. Online it doesn’t feel as tangible. It’s not what I’m used to. It’s hard to tell how a song is when you’re playing alone in your room. If you get into a gig you can tell how a song is based on the reactions. Sometimes you play a song you’re not too sure of and people give it amazing reactions. They take to it right away. I really miss gigs because that’s my social avenue as well.
Compared to the first EP (Hollowed Out Sea) there’s more full band tracks. What brought about that change?
All I had when I wrote the first EP was an acoustic guitar. It was the only thing I could work with. I grew up listening to a lot of indie rock so Personal History naturally veered that way. I don’t think the first EP and the album are that different. Some people think they are but I feel that those two offerings are quite similar. It’s everything in between that’s different.
What was what was going on in between the release of Hollowed Out Sea and Personal History?
I released another EP called Attached to Memory that I don’t like. I’ll be taking it down as soon as I’m allowed. There’s one or two songs on there that I like and I would want to re-record because I don’t like their arrangements or I don’t think I sound confident. I released a few stand-alone singles as well.
Recording an album is really expensive so I was mainly trying to save up. I went through a phase in 2018 where I doubted myself because I was broke. It’s great being a solo artist because you feel like you’re in control but it can also be lonely. At the end of that year I toured the UK for a month and that saved me. Afterwards I spent a good few months recording demos to get the album ready for summer. I felt a bit confused about what the next steps were. The industry is hard to navigate if you’re not getting the support. Figuring it out by yourself can be quite difficult, and in Ireland it’s hard to get funding. Modern music brings so much interest to Ireland; it’s kind of sad when it’s being touted as such but it’s not really that way in terms of how you’re paid. There’s great people who are working behind the scenes to get people funding, it’s just trying to find money that’s there.
You have a song on Personal History exploring time differences in relationships – is that because of touring?
If you’re in Ireland as a musician you do such weird hours compared to everyone else. You feel so out of time with everyone else. It can be very exhilarating and also, depending on how you feel with yourself, very lonely. You’re never in line with anyone other than the people who are on the tour with you. I’ve experienced time differences with relationships in my twenties and it can be hard because one person’s waking up for work while one person is going to bed.
Having studied psychotherapy in university how does that knowledge come into your songwriting?
At the time of writing Personal History I was really obsessed with certain aspects of psychotherapy and attachment theory, specifically why we are compelled to act certain ways. I didn’t think about it all that much of the time. One day in the studio Cooper (one of the co-producers) said, “You use loads of those terminologies in your songs.” You might be writing about blue skies and going to the beach if you lived in California. People who live in Dublin write about the sea because the city is right by the sea there. So you write about whatever you’re around. It’s all part of your subconscious.
Is there an aspect of self care to your music?
I think a lot of songwriters find it very helpful to write songs. It’s hard to go to another person and say I’m upset about this or I’m worried about this thing that happened. When you sit down with just your piano or guitar those things naturally come out. It takes something negative and turns it into something positive, or turns it into something, which is always cathartic. It’s happened to me where I play a song and write the whole thing in ten minutes and think, “Shit I didn’t realize that was something I was upset about.”
You’ve said before on the Born Optimistic podcast that the most embarrassing songs usually turn into the best ones. Do you find that’s still the case?
I have songs I feel vulnerable releasing. I take that as meaning that it’s true, as in the song is true, cause it’s a bit scary. Sometimes you have things in your songs that are quite obviously about certain topics. But if you hear a song I wrote you might not think about my experience. You may think about your experience and how it’s impacting your worldview. That’s the magic of writing songs. People think, “I’ve been dumped in a car before too.” Songs that I love give me that feeling; you and the audience connect in that little moment.
Where would you like to take your music in the future?
I’m trying to get better at production. I’ll be co-producing the next album and planning on throwing more brass in there. We kept Personal History very sparse. I would never want to put out a song that doesn’t stand alone as just piano and vocals or guitar and vocals. I always want to feel like it’s built from that foundation upwards. It’s so easy to get into a new studio and try to add every single thing you can into a song. I’ve already made that mistake. If it sounds good with just guitar and vocals that’s great. Then I add a little something here and a little something there. I want to keep making stuff where the sounds don’t get in the way of the song.