My Fellow Sponges - folk, prog, and science fiction sounds

AMONG THE more beguiling music releases this summer is Bonne Nuit, the debut offering from Galway ensemble My Fellow Sponges which was officially launched a few weeks ago at the Róisín Dubh.

The album has a distinctive sonic palette, with the array of instruments on show including ukulele, glockenspiel, harmonium, banjo, flute, and clarinet and song titles such as ‘Chill The Beans’ and ‘Frozen Duck’. It all adds up to a left-field pop-folky sound not dissimilar to 1960s troubadours The Incredible String Band.

The core members of My Fellow Sponges are songwriters Anna Mullarkey and Donal McConnon, along with drummer David Shaughnessy. The band’s current line-up also features Sam Wright, Elva Carroll and Hazel Collins.

“Donal and myself first met through a play, Making Babies, written by Maeve Haicead for Fregoli Theatre Company six years ago,” Mullarkey tells me when we meet up for an afternoon chat in the House Hotel. “Then we both went away on our Erasmuses and I started writing songs and when I came back Donal already had his own album out.

“Then there was a house party one night and I went up and we started singing together and it just worked really well so we said ‘Let’s practise’. We did the music for Fregoli’s play The Secret Life Of Me then we said, ‘Let’s continue this’, though it took a while to reach the point where we could say ‘We’re in a band’”

Mullarkey describes the group’s distinctive sound.

“The sound just evolved organically,” he says. “For me on this album, the piano is my instrument yet I only back one song with piano. That was partly because we didn’t have a car and taking a piano to gigs wasn’t feasible! So I wrote songs suitable to going to gigs, bringing light instruments, the glockenspiel cost €50 so that was sound.

“The harmonium is really special, it’s Donal’s instrument, he really wanted to get it one day and he bought it and then once he brought it I was ‘can I have it?’ and I took it and wrote songs on it, we share our instruments around.”

Bonne Nuit certainly projects the relaxed image of band-members on the back porch trading instruments and licks and making captivating, mellow sounds. Mullarkey pens five of the songs on the album and McConnon four, with the title track being a joint effort.

“We’re like two individuals who work together,” Mullarkey states. “We hope that we will do more songs together because they are very effective when we do but generally the two of us like to go write songs on our own.”

I ask her how she would describe the My Fellow Sponges’ sound.

“Personally, I like to call it prog-folk,” Anna replies. “Donal would call it alt-folk because he associates prog with prog-rock. I would call the album prog-folk in the sense that it takes folk themes and then kind of goes around them. That said I think our new stuff is changing a lot, I think it’s getting more science-fictiony!”

Whatever about science fiction, there are a couple of tracks on Bonne Nuit that delve into theology, with McConnon’s ‘A Foggy Ode’ and Mullarkey’s ‘Til Kingdom Come’ both lobbing darts in the direction of religion.

“‘Til Kingdom Come’ is very much like ‘I hate you Christianity’,” Mullarkey admits. “Basically I took the Hail Mary, it was the idea that vanity is a sin but I was working on how vanity can be a natural feeling. It starts with the lines ‘Devil be thy name/Only Christ to blame/that my ignorant soul will be saved’. It’s like it’s saying screw all that it’s all right to feel vanity. We’re pretty much anti-Christianity so I don’t suppose we’ll ever get played on Spirit radio!”

One of the loveliest tracks on the album is Mullarkey’s ‘Hush the Waves’.

“I wrote ‘Hush the Waves’ for my father Jim,” she tells me. “The song was written for his book of short stories, And, I played it at the launch of the book last year.”

A couple of My Fellow Sponges’ songs have been made into eye-catching videos on YouTube, such as ‘Dream Song’ and ‘Bonne Nuit’. The ‘Dream Song’ video, made by Mullarkey’s sister Mia, was shot in her family home and sees her parents and siblings and the band combine in a surreal gathering like something out of Jean Cocteau.

“The ‘Dream Song’ video is us acting the maggot but taking it very seriously, that’s what I like to do!” she says with a laugh. “The album artwork was a team effort between ourselves and Marta Barcikowska and our new video on Youtube of ‘Bonne Nuit’ features that artwork as an animation.”

My Fellow Sponges play the Townhouse Bar on Thursday August 15th, at 9pm. Support acts are James OD and Rivers and Crows. Admission is €5.

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