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Julie Feeney

Biography

Julie's third album Clocks went straight into the Independent Irish Album Charts at No. 1 and was voted ‘Best Album' 2012 in The Irish Times ‘Album of the Year' category for The Ticket Awards as voted by The Irish Times readers. It was also shortlisted for the Meteor Choice Music Prize 2013 for ‘Irish Album of the Year'.

Over six years ago, it was a genuine case of “Julie who?”

Back in the mid-Noughties, Galway’s Julie Feeney was positioned very much on the outer fringes of the Irish music scene. In fact, despite her background as someone with so many strings to her bow she could have been mistaken for an orchestra of harps, she was virtually anonymous, a position that, ironically, stood to her advantage.

Her 2005 debut album, 13 Songs, arrived out of a place that people often feared to tread, yet this curve-ball of a record went on to win the inaugural Choice Music Prize in 2006. Its success took her completely by surpri

se. “I’d no idea what would happen,” Julie recalls. “I finished making the record, and then I put the CD into envelopes and posted them off to people.

13 Songs, though, sent Julie travelling on a path that she has yet to step off from. Almost four years later, she released the lowercase follow-up album, pages. Once again, it beckoned the listener into a world that wasn’t visited by the usual stock-in-trade formats. If 13 Songs was little more than a loose collection of wonderful, non-formulaic tunes, then pages proved more cohesive, with Julie reviewing her creative stimuli and branching out into what could safely be termed orchestrated pop music.

Yet there was something else about pages that triggered the right responses from the listener: its inherent spirit of generosity. Created in the calm of the renowned artists retreat at Annamakerrig, Co Monaghan, the warmth and joy of pages married Julie’s instinctive creativity with her notions of wanting to, as she says, “comfort people, to give them something. I certainly didn’t want the record to be indulgent, or for anyone to feel as if they were left out from the experience.” She constructed a subtly complex masterpiece in her second album pages, a genre-spanning symphony. After composing the entire album, Julie recorded the album in one six-hour session by conducting an orchestra of clarinets, flutes, oboes, bassoons, trombones, French horns, trumpets, strings, sticks, harp and percussion from the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and subsequently singing over what she had conducted. A true perfectionist in the vein of Bobby McFerrin, Julie’s supreme talent in composition and arrangement is matched only by her gorgeous, soaring voice. The pages album artwork that she designed herself incorporated her unique hand-stitched ‘pages' dress sculpted from the actual pages of the album's orchestral score; and a tree house, which she had painted in specific colours reflecting the tone of the album. Her video for ‘Impossibly Beautiful' features 18 different head dresses designed by Piers Atkinson, and is one of 3 videos she made for pages.

And so, three years later, to Julie’s new album, Clocks. If pages is, effectively and efficiently, a pop album using an orchestra with the songs, then Clocks is something else altogether.

pages took on a whole other life of its own,” says Julie, remarking that the success of the live shows came as a pleasant shock to her, “but through all of that I was letting things develop in my head. I always let songs come to me, in that once they arrive I feel they want to be here.”

As these early thoughts filtered through, it became clear to Julie that a loose theme was emerging – one of close family, generations past, the value of personal roots, all of which are referenced on Clocks. “I’m not into the notion of a concept album – you’d have to contrive something, which is not really what I’m into – but I knew I wanted to write songs and make a record about some amazing people in my family tree.”

When Julie wasn't wowing audiences and critics in America (“Ms. Feeney's songs don't shout,” wrote New York Times Chief Pop Music critic, Jon Pareles, following her sold-out run of ten nights at the Irish Arts Center. “They tease, ponder, reminisce, philosophize and invent parables”), she was visiting her family in Galway, asking questions about the Feeney and Murphy elders, both present and departed. It was, she says, a profound experience to hear stories of those she only knew through meandering family conversations, vivid hearsay and monochrome images.

“You think that your own life is busy and complex, but these people that lived before me felt exactly the same emotions – heartbreak and loss don’t change – whilst living in a less hectic time period. History tells us they had a much harder time – more simple, perhaps, but certainly harder. Once that clicked with me, I felt like I was sitting on time in history – a history very much based in Galway.”

To root herself and her thoughts even further – as well as wanting to experience an authentic sense of location – Julie undertook songwriting spells in Ballynahinch Castle and Lough Inagh Cottages, and recorded all the album’s vocals (over eight nights in the freezing Irish winter of 2012) at the inspirational Kylemore Abbey Gothic Church. She sensed, she says, “as if I was being minded by my ancestors… I felt very comfortable in places, not scared. And it was a natural, often intense connection with these people…”

The songs on Clocks range from Dear John (“that’s about my grandfather and grandmother, and how they would wait for a moonlit night to go cycling on the road”), Julia (“about my grandmother, as if sung by my grandfather, who once said that he had nothing to sing about after his wife passed on”) and Galway Boy (“about tricky men and staunch women”), while musically it’s a perfect blend of radio-friendly, intelligent pop music and effortlessly smart curve-ball melodies that reference both the traditional (If I Lose You Tonight) and the contemporary (Moment Out Of The BlueHappy Ever After).

As a whole, says Julie, the mood, feel, sound and creative sensibilities of Clocks hints at her rockier debut album rather than its chamber-pop follow-up. “It has a new direction for me. It’s much more vibey and far more assured. It’s fair to say that I’m going out on a limb a little bit, creatively.”  Feeney is also moving further out on a limb as she composes the libretto and score for her first opera BIRD, which will premiere later this year.

Not that Julie is overly concerned about what people may say about that. “My job as an artist is to create something that is true, to grow and develop – and the music has to reflect that.”

Onwards and upwards, then, while at the same time not necessarily providing what people might expect? “I could easily make another album like pages,” says Julie, quite reasonably, “but, really, what’s the point?”