Interview with NI Music Prize 2019 Album of The Year nominee – Cormac Neeson (The Answer)

We were very conscious that it wasn't going to be everybody's cup of tea and it would turn a few heads, but I suppose that shock factor element was...

Interview by Adrian Hextall \ MindHex Media

Cormac Neeson’s new ‘White Feather’ album, released earlier this year, has propelled Neeson into the life affirming world of the singer / songwriter with a series of beautifully crafted, introspective songs that draw on a recent past that has served up its fair share of challenges and heartache.

White Feather’ was recorded in 2018 at the legendary Nashville Studio 19, now the Sound Kitchen. Neeson worked with some of the finest Nashville musicians including Steve Grossman on drums (Gibson Miller band, India Arie), Doug Kahan on bass (Cody Johnson) and John Heinrich on Pedal Steel (Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Tammy Wynette).

The end result is a powerful blend of two diverse and rich musical cultures, a Celtic-Nashville concoction connected by Neeson’s unique vocal tones and song writing prowess, performing songs co-written with leading USA and Nashville country writers including 2016 Tennessee songwriter of the year Corey Lee Barker; Steve O Brien, Blue Miller, Chase Akers, Blake Densmore and Allen McKendree Palmer who between them have sold in excess of 30 million songs.

We spoke to Cormac in the West End of London on a short promo tour to discuss the powerful lyrical content on what’s clearly a very personal album. In 2014, his son Dabhóg was born three months prematurely and with Down’s Syndrome. The impact of that life changing experience had such a lasting and profound effect that Neeson sought solace in penning an autobiographical and emotional account of his inner thoughts and what it’s like to bring up a child with disability.

AH: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything that felt quite so personal, from the writer’s perspective. Reading the press information behind it all, very clear, why you put this album out, after your son was born. Was it a release mechanism for you or is it that you felt more people need to know and understand about this subject so I ought to write about it?

CN: Much more of the former than the latter, I think.

The record begun as just sitting in a room and writing a few songs. I did realize at a very early point whenever I was putting the songs together that was definitely healing to be extracted from writing these kinds of songs about the subject matter that I was veering towards.

I mean it’s as much a testimony to the friends that I was writing with that they took a step back from the direction that the song was going to take and kind of let me follow the heartache at a time whenever I really needed to do that, you know? So, I mean the healing and the release, to be gained from the creation of songs was kind of enough. 

But once I had three or four of these deeply personal songs kind of wanted to write more than, you know? Because it did feel good. It felt good to get to be able to just unashamedly talk about these big events today that themselves in the family been through. This was as much about celebrating and coming out the other side and on the other hand, it was kind of letting go of the bitter pain and the bitter pent up frustrations.

AH: Yes. You want to be able to come out of the other end and almost know that this is going to be okay?

CN: Well, honestly, I cannot– I kind of felt right around about the time of writing this songs of I had kind of– that we all had come through the worst of it. I really did have a feeling at that point in time, I still persist to this day, that if you can come through that, you’ll be honest about it.

Which I think in turn probably led to suppose having the courage to create a full solo record and to kind of go ahead and do something like that on my own for the very first time in my life really because it always been with the guys.

AH: It’s a very bold step to do, isn’t it? Not only do you need the backing of your band-mates [in The Answer], you don’t see it as a competitive thing. But you’ve also got them behind you, watching your back.

CN: Yes, yes. 100% I mean, as far as the back end of the band it does. I knew from the get-go that this was not anything, untoward or I wasn’t an attempt it to kind of—to get on us and out of the music business. It wasn’t a case of them not understanding or not being there for me throughout the whole process. I realized it was just something that I needed to do. I was so far removed from The Answer, that it wouldn’t be conflicted in that realm. But still yes, a very, very scary step to take because I’m still learning to be honest, and try to carry it all on my shoulders because I’ve got nobody else to blame if it doesn’t work out! [laughter]

If a gig doesn’t sell life, or a song doesn’t make it in the radio, you know? You can’t just be blaming the other three. So yes, it’s still very much a learning curve for me, but it’s quite an exhilarating experience as well, you know?

AH: As far as the personal approach is concerned and the track that meant the most to you, it feels like Broken Wing is probably up there? 

CN: It actually took me awhile in the process to get to a place where I felt confident enough in my own skin as a writer to address head on what I talk about in that song. I remember clearly the afternoon I wrote it with a friend of mine, Blue Miller, who has since passed actually. But we had a writing session that morning. I just met this guy six months previous, I didn’t know he’s in Nashville, like an old school Nashville guy, you know? I just hit it off with him as soon as we met. I felt that we had a connection in the room that just kind of fed into a really positive recording sessions and then we’d written a song that morning.

I explained the whole story of him being born at 27 weeks. He was just a pound 12 (1 lb 12 oz) and was in hospital for four months from the day of his birth. I also explained that he’s got downs syndrome and we get into a conversation about what it’s– how you deal with that different journey that you weren’t expecting, because it turned out Blue himself was born this spinal condition that really kind of a meant that he had a very different upbringing to the rest of the kids in this class.

SO we talked for about three hours before we picked up the guitar, but once we did the song it just came out it.

AH: These connections are really important aren’t they? If you can work with somebody you feel at ease with, the idea is going to flow easily.

CN: Yes, I mean, I’ve written with probably hundreds of different writers at this point. Generally in a writing session, you’re always going to come at it from your side with something of worth because everybody’s in the same room to create. But there’s a select few that I will keep going back to that I just know it’s going to be easy and we’re going to get something powerful out of it. Blue was one of those guys.

Even though he’s now gone he’s done so much, but there is a small, tiny iota of his legacy in this record that I also maybe tried to do my best by him, you know?

AH: I can understand that. Looking at the lyrics and the way they’ve been pieced together. There are tracks on the album that are what you would want to say more radio friendly, more commercial than Broken Wings for example, but I presume Broken Wings was the starting point for you?

CN: Yes, I think if you get me, if you get Broken Wings you’re going to get the record in the first place and if you don’t, that’s fine. But yes, I wanted to put it out there. I think it’s a good opportunity to celebrate my little boy, as well. He’s like it sounds like a complete cliché but he’s my hero. He’s come through when I ever been through me in his four years in the planet.

We weren’t allowed to touch him for the first kind of 10 days since he was born, you know? Kind of talked him through the glass of the incubator. He was in the incubator for two and a half to three months. We spent his first Christmas Day looking at him in the incubator with his presents. It’s sad, completely heartbreaking and it was really tough day but again, you get through it and you gain strength from the fact that they get through it. But yes, Broken Wings celebrates Dabhóg and it’s also a good opportunity I suppose to talk a little bit about down syndrome because if you’re not directly involved with someone, some amazing person who has down syndrome you potentially don’t have a clue what it involves.

I think, you know for me, the massive thing is just normalizing and everything about it basically like whenever I look at the album, he’s just my amazing little boy, you know? Like that is all he is to me and all he ever will be until he gets big and then he’ll be my amazing big lad. He’s probably causing mischief around Belfast, you know?

AH: You wouldn’t have any other way though?

CN: No, no. A 100%.

AH: In terms of the musical style, there’s a resurgence in what you would call Americana, the country sound. There’s an awful lot of artists like yourself going over to Nashville to record. Why now? What’s the trigger at the moment that’s bringing it back? I mean, I never went away in the States obviously but for us.

CN: Yes, yes. I honestly have no idea. [laughs] I mean for me, again, it was just a personal decision to record the songs and produce them and then as organic away as possible because the songs they lend themselves to that kind of style. Speaking from personal experience in Belfast, there’s an ever growing connection between Belfast and Nashville and Northern Ireland and Nashville, I suppose it’s as much to do with the people that you meet them, the networks that are built up between musicians and writers coming over here and I’m just going back there, you know? But then, you know, the fact that– I suppose, that between the folk and the traditional Irish music and the rich with bluegrass and what eventually developed in the country with Americana.

AH: That must have been interesting as far as the reviews were concerned because some just didn’t know what to make of it…. “What do I do with this?”

CN: Yes. We were very conscious that it wasn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea and it would turn a few heads, but I suppose that shock factor element was partly intentional. Very much so but you know, with regards to kind of expose, right and the kind of music that I’m writing at the moment and then stepping into the room with the guys, creatively, I don’t have a problem with that.

Anybody whose music fan I think has got to be open minded with regards to what way music presents itself, you know? Like good quality songs are good for me I’m just again talking and talking on my own behalf. Like, I don’t care if the song is progressive jazz to kind of or death metal. If there’s quality to it I will appreciate the quality that’s there.

AH: You know it’s a good song regardless what song and music it is?

CN: Absolutely is. Yes, yes. So yes, I mean hopefully people can open up their minds and get that concept to you know?

AH: When are we likely to get you playing live?

CN: So we’re currently shaken our agents around Dublin piecing together a UK run for early spring of next year. There was an Irish run that we did and then I did a UK run back in May I think. So I’m due a headline tour basically and ideally, I’d like to set something up for, kind of March, April time.

AH: Second push on the album as well then, it seems like?

CN: Yes, yes, so with that, obviously, with the social family coming on board and I were we are very much gearing towards a reissue on a vinyl release of the record and May I think it is. So hopefully the momentum will continue to roll and obviously touring is a big part of that and if we can get into festival season with the album getting out there to a few more ears. I’ll be pretty happy with it at that point.

I’m really enjoying playing the songs live as well. It’s a very different on stage dynamic to The Answer as you can imagine, and a different challenge which I’m really just embracing that the minute and I’ve got a great grip a piece band. Big three and four part harmonies and it’s a lot of fun. I get to tell a few stories on stage by where some of the songs came from.

AH: That’s nice because you involve the crowd and it just brings them into the show doesn’t it?

CN: Yes, yes, sometimes and the raucousness of a rock show you don’t have the opportunity to that level of intimacy, but this record has it, obviously has a different tone to it and then, it’s a good place to be up on that stage at the minute.

To hear more about the evolution behind the song and the album check out the Broken Wings Documentary below:

Cormac’s  album White Feather’ has been nominated & is on the short list for the prestigious NI Music Prize 2019 Album of The Year.

The NI music Prize, now in it’s sixth year, celebrates the pinnacle of Northern Irish music and nominees are shortlisted by people from across all areas of the music industry – media, live music, retail, promoters & others from elsewhere in the arts.

See link below –
The award takes place in Belfast Ulster Hall on Nov 7th  and will be a panel vote.

Upcoming live shows:
Warrenpoint Skylite Room: Saturday 28th September
Newcastle Anchor: Saturday 23rd November
Ballymena Diamond: Saturday 7th December


Broken Wing

My little boys got a broken wing
Needs a little help with most everything
But When he grows up he’ll be a king
And won’t need to worry at all
His mom and me we’re his family
normal to us was never gonna be
Tell me what’s normal anyway
If you’ve got the answer
Feel free to call
He don’t need to fly
That’s alright neither do I
Perfectly beautiful
Beautifully perfect
And I wouldn’t change a thing
Bout my baby’s broken wing
I’ll carry him
If he needs me to
Guard him from vultures
Won’t let them get through
Sing him a song to help him sleep
And I’ll never let him fall
He don’t need to fly
That’s alright neither do I
Perfectly beautiful
Beautifully perfect
And I wouldn’t change a thing
Bout my baby’s broken wing
Perfectly beautiful
Beautifully perfect
And I wouldn’t change a thing
No I wouldn’t change a thing
Bout my baby’s broken wing

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Photo Credit: Adrian Hextall

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