AFTER A sold-out nationwide tour, The Whileaways play their final gig of 2018 in Galway city, with the high-flying trio set to transform The Black Box, bringing the warmth and intimacy of their unique live show to one of Galway's biggest venues.
The group’s third album, From What We're Made, was released a few months ago and has been hailed by critics as "their most impressive yet...laden with absolutely stunning melodies and harmonies" (Hot Press ). The Whileaways were also shortlisted in the Best Group’ and Best Album’categories in RTÉ’s Folk Awards. Ahead of their upcoming Galway gig, band members Noelie McDonnell, Noriana Kennedy, and Nicola Joyce sat down with me to reflect on an eventful year and look forward to their Black Box finale.
“It’s been a great year, the best for us since we’ve started,” Noelie declares. “This is our third album and we’ve had great reviews and played a lot of gigs around the country and there have been great houses at them all. There seems to be some momentum to the thing so we’re having a great time.”
Everyone talks about 'difficult second album' syndrome, so does that make the third album easier? “Funnily enough it was a lot easier,” Noelie observes. “We’ve all done our own individual projects and over time this has got more comfy as a group. For me a good few of the songs on the album are older songs of mine and Noriana is the same. She played 'Mother Says' for myself and Nicola five or six years ago when we first started hanging around and playing together. Now it’s the first song on our third album which tells something of the story of our progress. We’ve got more comfortable with one another.”
'You think about love when you are writing songs but you also think about the opposite and people close to you who don’t have that. It can be hard to observe as a friend who’s lonely'
Noriana reveals: “I’d never have thought of putting that song on an album. It was only through sharing it with the others that they pulled the song out of me more. That’s important in working as a trio. We’re still finding out ourselves how our dynamic as a group works and after this third album we understand it better, the songs and everything we put forward. We’d been resisting it a while because we were still holding on to our own projects. I think this album has shown us that The Whileaways has become bigger than the solo things. I’ve cast aside my initial idea of having a solo career and I’ve become more comfortable working within the trio. In a way we still have our own songs and contributions; we write separately then show songs to each other.”
“The three voices are like a different instrument and that’s where it really comes into play,” Noelie adds about the group’s working method. “We could start with a song Nicola has written on the baritone ukulele, or Noriana on banjo, and me on guitar, then we’ll all add a bit of instrumentation and work together on the harmonies or vocal part on it. But they are largely fully formed songs when they come.”
“It’s quite democratic,” Nicola notes. “We each have three songs on the album and I’d guide production on my songs so you still get your little solo thing within the group added to the comfort of playing with two people you enjoy working with. The creative process can be stunted if you are only judging things yourself.”
From What We’re Made presents a set of songs that eloquently evoke the things that make us, formative relationships that are either supportive or painful. The latter is vividly recounted in Noelie’s powerful 'What Do You Want Me To Say'.
“That song is about a father, son, alcohol relationship,” he says. “I hope that comes across as a lot of people have had that experience in their life. It’s a song I’ve had for a good while. That was very much brought to life by Eibhin, our drummer, who added that soft military beat and it really made the song flow. Eibhin is married to Noriana and I am married to Nicola so the group is a family affair and we’re talking about family things and that song is describing very real things."
“When we were in rehearsals singing that song and, for me, that was such a personal song and I loved it but I didn’t know if it would work on the album.” Nicola declares. “Then, when we went to record the album in Antrim and Noelie started to play it, it was somehow immediately obvious that it was a huge part of the record.”
Nicola’s 'Loneliest Girl' is another standout track. “It's not autobiographical, but is based in real life, and there are a couple of close people in mind in the character of that song,” she says. “It’s an amalgam of a couple of friends. You think about love when you are writing songs but you also think about the opposite and people close to you who don’t have that. It can be hard to observe as a friend who’s lonely.”
“This will be the biggest gig we have done in Galway,” Noriana points out, looking forward to the Black Box. “It’s a big deal at the end of a great year and is nearly sold out already so it affirms we can play that size venue. It’s a great venue in terms of what you can do there and our aim is to make it intimate and festive so we are going to dress the venue. It will be fully seated so we were out there yesterday seeing what we could do with the stage and the foyer, and all the different touches we can bring to it. We just want to make it a really special night.”
“We’ll do some Christmas songs,” Nicola reveals. “There is a very particular kind of magic that only exists during that week and it is not just about singing a Christmas song. It is an emotional time of year. Whether you’re happy or sad, people are pensive and it is like there is an open pathway to people’s emotions. There is a tangible magic in the room for this gig and it is lovely. The Headford Community Choir are going to join us for the show and there are nearly 40 of them, all women, and we are working on arrangements of some of our songs with them. That will be lovely.”
The Christmas magic of The Whileaways can be savoured on Friday December 21 at 8pm. Tickets are available rom the Town Hall Theatre (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ).