‘It feels like starting over again’

Julie Feeney on her new album, opera, and playing the Galway Advertiser’s Live Again concert

Julie Feeney.

Julie Feeney.

JULIE FEENEY was not just busy during the lockdowns, she was positively a Renaissance woman, adding actor, playwright, and theatrical music director to her already impressive CV of award winning vocalist and composer.

Indeed, 2022 is set to be quite a year for the Athenry born musician, as she is currently working on a new album; developing her debut opera, Bird; planning for working again with Fíbín sa Taibhdhearc; and performing at the Galway Advertiser’s Live Again concert at the Town Hall Theatre on Wednesday March 16 at 8pm.

“It’ll be my first performance on stage since my show at the Athenry Heritage Centre in 2019,” Julie tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “I’m going to be really nervous as it feels like starting over again. It’s going to be a refamiliarising rather than ‘the brand new album’ type of show, but I’m delighted to have been asked to do this. I think it's going to be a really nice experience, and it’s in Galway and County Galway is home.”

The new album?

Julie Feeney 2

In the years prior to the pandemic, Julie had already taken a step back from performance to become the main carer of her mother who has Alzheimers. “It’s what you have to do,” she says, “but it’s a privilege to be able to care for someone.”

During the last two years, while still being her mother’s carer, Julie was still able to remain active creatively, and has amassed 36 demos of new material for her next album - the long awaited follow-up to Clocks (2012 ), her critically acclaimed third album which went to No 1 in the Independent Irish Album Charts, and which was also shortlisted for the Choice Music Prize (Julie was the inaugural winner of the award in 2006 for her debut album, 13 Songs ).

The album is as yet untitled and there is no release date, but the first taste of it should come in the near future.

“I’m looking at getting at least a single out this year,” she says. “I didn’t want to release anything during the pandemic, and I have assembled a great team to help plan for the release of the album. Musically, it’s the start of a new sound. It’s poppy, it’s not going to go down an obscure route. I touched on it in the one woman show, The Girl Who Believed In Magic, I had material in that which touches on what the new album will sound like. Overall, I think it will be more dynamic.”

‘Deeper into theatre’

Artistically, one of the most significant experiences Julie had during the pandemic, was working with County Galway theatre company, Fibín, on its War of Independence show, Cogadh na Saoirse, an ambitious, outdoor production, which mixed comedy, melodrama, silent movie, newsreels, puppeteering, and music and dance, and which ran as part of the Galway International Arts Festival.

“For Cogadh na Saoirse I was triple jobbing,” she says. “I composed the score, I was the musical director, and I was in the cast. I played Cathleen Ní Houlihan, so I had to knock off one hat and go into that character who was this mad, wild, woman.

“Every night I went into that world and waited for her to come to me. It was my own interpretation, and I realised I’m a very instinctive performer. I loved doing it so much I’ll be working with Fibín on another upcoming project.”

Julie admits working with Fibín has “whetted my appetite” for combining her music with theatre and playwriting, and it is an avenue she very much wants to explore.

“My bookshelves are full of volumes of plays,” she says. “I read a lot of Brian Friel’s plays and find myself thinking about how they are structured, how you take conversations and interactions, and make a plot from them, and give them suspense.”

Wilde inspiration

As well as this, Julie studied acting with the Bow Street Academy in Dublin and completed a third-level course on playwriting. In a sense, it was a fuller exploration of an interest that has been there for some time, as for the last number of years, Julie has been developing an opera, Bird, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s short story, ‘The Happy Prince’.

Excerpts from Bird have already been performed publicly, but the pandemic has seen Julie rewrite the opera entirely.

“I became really interested in long form performance, and started getting into longer writing,” she says. “I’m happy with the new shape Bird is taking. I’ve enjoyed studying playwriting, as I really want the libretto to stand up on its own as much as a play would. It’s a different process to writing a song and I’m keen to continue to develop my skills in that direction and go deeper into theatre.”

‘The Happy Prince’ (1888 ) is one of Wilde’s most famous stories, one so poignant that Stephen Fry has admitted, “It is hard for me to read ‘The Happy Prince’ without crying.” Julie finds the story similarly powerful and unforgettable, “Since I first read it, it’s never left my mind,” she says. “There are so many layers to it and so many parallels to Oscar Wilde’s life”.

Little wonder then it has become the inspiration for Bird. “My daughter doesn’t like ‘The Happy Prince’,” says Julie. “She thinks the Prince is cruel to the swallow. For me, the swallow can represent so many things, and that gives me a lot to work with.

“It’s presented to us as a moral tale, but I’m more interested in what it says about the way people relate to each other, the way it’s about control, the Prince is inanimate and trapped within the statue, yet he can still give orders.”

Julie Feeney garden

Musically, what can we expect from Bird? “It will be accessible, and feature as large an ensemble as I can get away with,” she says. “During the summer I worked with a number of musicians from Galway city. None of them could read music, but they could pick it all up by ear and it was amazing to see how they worked. I like musicians from a non-Classical background meeting Classical musicians. There is an energy there when they collaborate that is very exciting.”

The Galway Advertiser’s Live Again concert will feature Julie Feeney; Padraig Stevens and Leo Moran, Ultan Conlon, and traditional music, song, and dance with Máirín Fahy and friends. The MC will be Matt Keane. Tickets are available via the Town Hall (091 - 569777, www.tht.ie ).


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