FOR THOSE who lived through it, 2020 was a year that will never be forgotten. It was also a year that few, if any, will remember with any trace of positivity. There may, though, be an exception.
For County Galway singer-songwriter Niamh Regan, 2020 was the year which saw the release of her astonishing debut album, Hemet. “Hemet stands on a pedestal of its own as uniquely, unmistakably the work of Niamh Regan,” was the verdict of Hot Press; “One of the finer albums released in Ireland this year,” declared the influential Nialler9: “A memorable debut from the Galway singer,” said Tony Clayton Lea in The Irish Times; while fellow Galway singer-songwriter, Tracy Bruen, nominated it as her favourite album of 2020. The praise was richly deserved.
“I didn’t expect the year, or the album, to go the way they did,” Niamh tells me during our Monday afternoon conversation. “We released the album not knowing how it would go down, we hoped it would get a few listeners, but everything went so much better than expected.
“It means a lot that people took the time to listen, and I’m grateful people are listening, and the messages I’ve got, people saying what a song means to them, or how a song has helped them, I never expected that. It gives me the motivation to keep writing.”
The beginning of 2021 has felt less like a New Year, more a continuation of the previous one, with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging and the State again in Lockdown. For Niamh though, and for all Galway music, there was a bright light in January, when Hemet was nominated for the RTÉ Choice Award for Album of The Year.
“I still haven’t found the right words to describe how this made me feel, shock maybe,” she says. “Some of my friends were saying they wouldn’t be surprised if it got a nomination, but I thought they were just joking, poking fun. Then the announcements were being made on Twitter and I didn’t want to know, even though I knew there was no way I was in the running. Then the last two albums were announced and one of them was mine! I’m still pinching myself.”
Regan's competition for the prize, which will be announced on March 4, includes Denise Chaila's Go Bravely, Pillow Queen's In Waiting, Róisín Murphy's Róisín Machine, and Fontaine D.C.'s A Hero's Death, among others. However, the Choice Awards is one in which Galway has traditionally fared well.
'For trad musicians, music is great, we need it, but it’s not the be all and end all. Having an ego check is good, and you get that in trad'
Athenry’s Julie Feeney won the inaugural Choice Award in 2005 for her debut 13 songs; while Galway-Maltese singer-songwriter, Adrian Crowley, won the award in 2009 for Season Of The Sparks. Galway has also featured among the nominees on numerous occasions (Julie Feeney in 2009 and 2012; Adrian Crowley in 2012; Daithí and Maija Sofia in 2019 ).
“It’s the first big bit of work that I’ve put into my own music, so to get that nod of encouragement is great,” she says. “I don’t have any expectations of winning. For me, being nominated is the win. I am looking forward though to getting back with my band, as we will be recording a segment for the awards show, in line with the regulations and Covid permitting.”
In talking about her success, Niamh, who comes from the east Galway village of Kilrickle, comes is bashful, genuinely surprised, and wary of any kind of conceit. It is a quality, a groundedness, she attributes to her roots in Irish traditional music.
“I have an ego, but growing up in the trad world, it’s really more about community,” she says. “You can write a tune and it can go into the repertoire, but no one will know who wrote it. The music itself is not about ownership, it’s a thing of comfort and beauty. A lot of musicians think they have to be about music all the time, or a songwriter needs to wear their heart on their sleeve, but I don’t do it that way. For trad musicians, music is great, we need it, but it’s not the be all and end all. Having an ego check is good, and you get that in trad. The standard is so good, you can be outplayed by a seven-year-old on a mandolin. When that happens it’s humbling.”
Listen to the voice
Niamh’s music draws on a wide range of influences - blues, singer-songwriter, indie-rock, Irish trad - but it is her voice, part jazz croon, part sean nós depth, part aching blues, one of the most distinctive heard in an Irish singer in years, perhaps since Mary Coughlan, that is the most striking aspect of her sound.
'If we can play any gigs at all this year at some point, that’s the hope'
“I was fortunate that I was brought to flute, piano, and guitar lessons as a kid,” she says, “but I never had singing lessons. Mum was a singer, and I tried to copy her. At home, I’d be listening to Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Dolores Keane, not trying to copy them, just doing my own thing, but really listening. When playing the flute I’d try to get the tune right, trying to copy how other musicians did it, but singing just seemed to come very naturally, it’s something I don’t judge myself too harshly on.”
That voice is heard at its most powerful on the single, ‘How About That Coffee?’ Originally written about how friendships can drift, it has taken on an entirely new meaning in light of lockdown and social distancing.
“I didn’t intend it to have such resonance!” says Niamh. “Having the chance to meet an old friend for coffee, I don’t think we will be taking that for granted again. I wrote it when Covid wasn’t a thing. It’s funny how songs can adapt to different situations.”
With a little help from my friends
Hemet was released via Galway label, Black Gate Records, founded by Peadar King of the Black Gate Cultural Centre on St Francis Street.
“Peadar gave me a massive injection of confidence,” says Niamh. “He had me playing support gigs there, and the more you play the more you get into a flow, and it’s a great scene, we’ve become a little family. All the while Peadar was saying, we have to get an album done. None of this would have been possible without the Black Gate and Peadar King. We’re very fortunate to have a venue like that in Galway.”
2021 has started well for Niamh, and while the year remains fraught with uncertainties, she is choosing to look forward with confidence and hope.
“We have a mini-Irish tour for early winter, but we’re not announcing the dates yet,” she says. “I’m also working on the second album. I feel a real momentum now and I’m going to keep going with it. It’s from getting that validation with Hemet. I can build from that. I’ll keep enjoying it, and if we can play any gigs at all this year at some point, that’s the hope.”
Listen to Niamh's music at https://niamhregan.bandcamp.com.