Laurie Shelly talks to singer-songwriter Rosie Carney about her debut album, growing up in Donegal, overcoming difficulties and working with her idols ahead of her gig at Cork’s Sounds from a Safe Harbour festival.
Rosie Carney wrote her debut album’s opening track when she was 14. Most people would probably like for their 14-year-old self’s writings to stay in diaries and boxes under the bed but Carney, now 22, knew “What You’ve Been Looking For” would work excellently on her LP Bare, which was released this past January. Its lyrics are chant-like and affirmative (“I will find what I’ve been looking for, it won’t hide, it won’t hide anymore, I will find what I’ve been looking for”) and it’s a testament to her skill as a songwriter that the song sounds as if was written by someone a good few years older. Bare received glowing reviews and is being called one of the best Irish albums of the year. Comparisons to Joni Mitchell abound.
It’s late summer when I catch up with Carney. She is back home in London after a few months of touring. Putting “What You’ve Been Looking For” on Bare was a way of honouring her 14-year-old self, she says, as well as a way of telling a cohesive story and accurately charting the personal experiences that had led up to the album’s release. “I feel like I had to include that younger self to really get an honest message across,” she explains.
When she was 15, Carney found herself performing in St. James’ Church at the fabled Other Voices festival in Dingle. It was the stuff of daydreams— the church had seen performances from the likes of Amy Winehouse and The National at previous iterations of the festival. Carney soon landed a record deal with Polydor, a label owned by the Universal Music Group, but was unexpectedly dropped from the label a couple of years later. It was a setback that likely would have deterred most aspiring musicians from continuing to pursue music.
“It really shattered my confidence for a little while,” she says, “and then I started writing music for the wrong reasons.” A slew of co-writing sessions with Polydor had gotten her into a bad routine of trying to engineer a “hit” every time she sat down at the piano, “trying to create the perfect track.” Carney has been open about the depression and eating disorder she struggled with in her teenage years; she hit a low in the months after she was let go from Polydor and says she felt hopeless and lost. She took a short break from writing, and distanced from it, remembered it was so important to her. “I thought, well, instead of trying to focus on writing music for other people, why don’t I just try to write for myself?”
The result is the wonderful Bare, a collection of confessional songs she wrote without any co-writers, released via the independent London label Akira Records. The album doesn’t feel like it’s trying to win over or impress the listener at any point and it’s all the more captivating for it. Carney says she wanted it to be a cathartic listen that would let people “go into themselves and find the parts that were hurting and slowly heal them.” She listens to a lot of ambient music and drones, and in her own music she layers muted, meditative sounds under moments that feel epiphanic. Her writing is delicate and stark and shot through with a quiet strength. “Zoey” sketches a sleepless night with painterly details, “Your Love is Holy” documents something precious and impermanent and “7” sees her learn to be okay on her own, and it’s all understatedly sophisticated and immensely beautiful. I tell her I really like that line about the trees growing upside down in “Awake Me.” “Yeah, I wanted that kind of distorted imagery,” she laughs.
Carney was born in Hampshire to Irish parents. Her family moved to Donegal, where her grandfather had grown up, when she was 10, and her writing is very much informed by the music and art she became immersed in there. “Every second person where I lived was a poet or a songwriter or artist, and it was really hard to not be inspired and influenced by that,” she says. “My parents would bring Irish traditional musicians back to our house and they’d have a session and I would just sit there and listen.” She was quite taken with sean-nós and describes being completely enchanted by “An Mhaighdean Mhara” when she first heard it.
She’s still getting used to the weirdness that comes along with putting your art out there for consumption and being a person in the public eye. “Blogs can really twist certain things,” she says somewhat darkly. “I hate being made out to be a victim and I found that some blogs really did do that.” What she has been most struck by, however, are the countless messages she has received from people saying her music helps them to calm down and breathe when they are anxious or going through difficult things. Has she felt any sense of pressure, knowing people are looking to her music for solace? “I definitely did, and, you know, it’s very important that I protect myself because I’m a really sensitive person and I absorb energy like a sponge; if somebody’s sad, I become sad.” But she says it doesn’t nearly outweigh the “incredible feeling” of knowing that songs she wrote have made their way into people’s hearts and playlists.
When we speak, Carney is eagerly looking forward to playing Coughlan’s in Cork as part of the biennial Sounds from a Safe Harbour festival. She also played SFSH in 2017 and declares it her “favourite festival for sure.” The Leeside festival, the first incarnation of which was held in 2015, is curated by The National’s Bryce and Aaron Dessner, former Cork Opera House CEO Mary Hickson, Cillian Murphy and Enda Walsh. Every second September, it takes over venues all over Cork, from Dali and the Kino to the Opera House, with the 2019 programme including performances from Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett of The Gloaming, Damien Rice and Canadian pop artist Feist. It is a festival of secret shows, surprise appearances, hidden gems, never-before-heard music and spontaneous collaborations, tied together with the charm that only the unassuming haven that is Cork city could provide.
Emblazoned across the festival’s programme and social media pages is a line Bon Iver uttered during his SFSH 2017 show: “this is not entertainment, this is a spiritual f**king thing.” According to Carney, the festival really is the unique, almost otherworldly experience it bills itself as. It doesn’t have the kind of “hierarchy” other festivals have, she says. “As soon as I got there, I felt like I was on the same level as everyone else… I did this amazing gig where me and a few other artists sat around these sofas and it went around in a circle and we all played a song each. It had such a homely feeling, the entire weekend.”
True to its collaborative spirit, Sounds from a Safe Harbour is actually what led to her working with one of the most eminent figures in Irish music, Lisa Hannigan. They were staying in the same hotel during the 2017 festival. She was back at the hotel after seeing Hannigan’s headline show in the Opera House when the singer-songwriter walked in and came over to say hi— Carney was stunned. “She came up to me and said ‘I love your music, let me know if you ever need backing vocals or anything!’”
Carney followed up on that. She had written “Thousand,” an affecting song about her grandmother’s battle with dementia, and liked the idea of featuring a female artist she really looked up to on the track. “I messaged her on Twitter and sent her the song and she replied saying ‘I love it, let’s do it, I’d love to be a part of it!’” Carney then had the surreal experience of listening to vocal takes that had been sent to her by one of her favourite musicians to put on her debut album.
We are chatting away about artists and writers she admires (Lizzo, W. B. Yeats and Billie Eilish are named) and other music she likes when she brings up the new projects she is working on. “With my new music now,” she says, “I’ve completely made a transition to a different genre.” I had been planning to try to work her future plans into our conversation but she’s a few steps ahead of me. “I want to experiment more and I want to push my sound as much as I can,” she says. “When I first started writing songs, I was really limited; I didn’t know how to create a demo or a drum beat or anything like that. It was really just me and the guitar, and I guess that’s why this album Bare is very minimal.” She has been teaching herself how to fully produce her own tracks and she is so excited to see what shapes her songs will take as she evolves as a person.
This comes in tandem with a growing confidence about performing live. Carney tells me she dealt with terrible stage fright at the beginning of her career and used to “hyperventilate” before going on stage, but she finds it much easier these days. “I’ve kind of put the acoustic guitar down… [the songs on Bare] are such honest, vulnerable songs and I’ve always hidden behind my guitar. But with my new sound, I feel like there’s a whole new part of me that I’m about to show everyone.” “What You’ve Been Looking For” was prophetic— this is just the beginning for Rosie Carney.
Rosie Carney plays Coughlan’s Bar in Cork on the 15th of September as part of the Sounds from a Safe Harbour festival. Her debut album Bare is out now.
Photograph credits: Daniel Alexander Harris