Mark Loughrey – “We will look back fondly in decades to come on this Golden Age for Irish songwriting”

Hi Mark, thanks for taking the time to chat to us. Tell us a bit about yourself, and when did you start playing and getting into your own music?

Sure, my name is Mark Loughrey and I’m an Experimental Folk Singer-Songwriter from the North of Ireland, currently based in Berlin.  Originally I’m from a small village called Sion Mills, which is basically part of Strabane, a border town right on the line between Tyrone and Donegal.  Coincidentally the home of Paul Brady and Flann O’Brien.

I first starting playing guitar around 11 or so, had the classic ‘angsty teenager garage band’ experience, wrote loads of terrible songs before deciding to pursue music seriously and move to Belfast, where I still continued writing terrible songs actually, haha. It was there though that I really felt like I cut my teeth with music and found the passion for songwriting. Meeting and befriending like-minded, supportive souls who were writing amazing songs of their own was a really inspirational, life-affirming time and gave me the spine to take writing seriously as a craft.

Mark playing at Bookfinders in Belfast

Were the reasons musical that brought you over to Berlin?

Yeah, I first came here in 2015 at the end of a trip around Europe and fell in love with the atmosphere of the place. I had this really nice moment near the Lustgarten fountain in Mitte listening to some buskers play Smile by Charlie Chaplin where I was touched by how vibrant Berlin felt, and I thought about how I could actually move here someday.

With a lot of my songwriting heroes like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell too, they travelled and documented their lives through song when and as they changed.  I also had these fantasies of living somewhere new and writing about the characters I would meet along the way, from the lens with which I saw the world as it too changed.

First album Treppenwitz was released when you were living in Belfast, so you had some knowledge of German given its title? Had Berlin then as such always been calling you?

Yeah, weirdly enough my high school did German classes and even now I can still hear my old German teacher screaming in my mind’s ear when I get a bit confused about the order that I should place multiple verbs in. Which is certainly helpful but definitely a bit of a double-edged sword.

The word ‘Treppenwitz’ itself evokes the feelings of fantasising about what should have been said long after you’ve missed the moment. It felt quite appropriate at the time as I knew whilst recording the album in mid-2017 that I would be leaving for Berlin once it was done , even though I found a really nice musical home in Belfast and wonderful friends.

Pining for something after leaving the moment itself felt kind of fitting. I remember releasing the album on a Friday and moving the next Monday, which was incredibly intense.  It took a while to be able to listen to that record again but I’m super glad I have the timestamp of this momentous time.

Loughrey released his debut album, Treppenwitz, back in 2017. In German, Treppenwitz translates as ‘stair joke’ and refers to that moment when you’re coming down the stairs and the perfect and oh so clever retort comes to you – for a moment long since lost.

Opening track Aufmerksamkeit on the new EP, On Through The Veil, brings back the German – it’s somewhat of a light-hearted way to start a record that deals with a lot of darker themes. Has this been the influence of 2020 or were these stories you were compelled to tell? 

It’s quite interesting that you saw that, as this wasn’t intentional at all but makes a kind of sense as this year did begin with a lot of promise before it morphed into the weird, sticky space-time jelly it became.

I’ve always lived in Neukolln and never too far from the regular Maybachufer Markt. Living alongside all of these new cultures is still quite exciting and I love to stroll through the market, especially in the brighter parts of the year.  I always thought that the street vendors had a real musicality to the way they scream out to passers-by, ‘Zwei für ein Euro!’ and wanted to record it, which I did.  All the noises underneath the surface is the world of the market.

A German friend recently taught me too the word for attention which is ‘Aufmerksamkeit’, although it was described as an awareness or coming into a state of perception where you notice more things around you. Which just seemed too fitting not to use and a perfect place to start.  Walking around this market year round at the edges of the seasons always felt like waking up to change in a way, taking note of the shifting world around me and preparing for what was to come.

I wanted to capture this feeling too musically by introducing a lot of the instrumentation and colours that the listener could expect as the EP progressed.  I felt like it was a nice, light way to introduce the sound world to come but the songs just ended up just getting darker anyway because I am the buzzkill that I am, haha.

Was the record conceived in lockdown? Or had it been growing in you over a longer period?

This whole EP was born from the fact that I had grown quite overwhelmed by the process of the ‘recording that difficult second album’ cliché. The recording process was quite torn between here and home and was quite draining and frustrating as I had no idea what I was doing. I had these grand notions of a concept album but my ambition was definitely grander than my actual skillset at the time.

(Lead single) Nothing on a Truth was maybe 75% percent done by the time I decided to crack into the EP, and was intended for the album but I just didn’t think it fit as it was more of a story song.  So I actually decided to procrastinate and make an EP for it to fit within.

With EPs there’s really a beauty in the fact that they don’t even have to be in the same sound world, they can be perfect as four or five disparate ideas.  Of course, I’m a natural over thinker and it ended up becoming conceptual anyway in how all the tracks address change and its many faces.

Over the course of the lockdown, I recorded pretty much everything apart from drums in a small little nook room in my apartment.  Of course some friends from home lent their talents remotely as well. It was my first real go at trying to produce stuff mostly myself, as I always rely on my long term collaborator and dear friend, producer Carl Small, who ended up mixing and co-producing the record and who did a wonderful job.

In a way the process of being a hermit at home, getting into a state of flow and forgetting to eat and sleep was surprisingly super healthy, as it gave me a purpose to get through the overabundance of time we all faced. 

Not so different, 

You and I. 

Seems all it took was a lie, 

One that shook your whole life 

And left you there.

Broken lovelorn, 

On the rocks, 

While the Siren was with the Fox 

How can blood remain thicker than water? 

When your daughter’s not your daughter. 

Excerpt of lyrics from Nothing on a Truth. Image © Brinkley Capriola

Nothing on a Truth is heart-rending and evocative. A truly great catchy folk number – can you talk us through the inspiration for the rather sombre subject matter?

Thank you! Well, it’s a bit of a long mad story but I’ll try to keep it concise. This song is actually the oldest on the EP and I think I wrote it in 2017, a short while after I had this really cathartic road trip up and down the USA’s West Coast. It came from the memory of the last night of incredibly strange, yet wonderful, lone wanderings around San Francisco’s Castro District. It was there that I came across the central character of the song, Gendry, an incredibly kind and resilient soul who had his whole life uprooted by a lie from someone he trusted the most. 

I’ve only had this experience once before where I met a complete stranger and the two of us exchanged our entire life stories, including stuff never told to anybody else, and with Gendry this was the case also.  He was a wonderful fella and had a beautiful voice, which I found out while we exchanged songs.  

The mad parts of the story come in with the cast of characters that would swirl around us as we had this three hour conversation.  It was around Halloween I remember and there were a lot of free-spirits nearby who were residing in the area taking lots of mushrooms. They would come up at random intervals, say loads of far-out things then disappear for a bit. Also, people were walking around the streets bar-hopping dressed in costumes as well and there was one creep in particular dressed as a Dracula Elvis, armed with an orange-cape, who insisted on playing an Elvis song (full impression and everything) that really, really freaked me out haha.  He was the unfortunate mix of forward and persistent too so it took a little bit to shake him off before we could actually relax and enjoy the conversation again.

Anyway, towards the end of the encounter, we wished each other well and gave each other some words of encouragement before parting ways.  I have no idea what he’s up to or where he is now, but it was one of those amazing occasions where you just find a wealth of humanity in a conversation with a stranger.

It was such a crazy experience and I never forgot meeting him and find myself often wondering about what he’s up to from time to time, so I wanted to document our meeting.  All of the ingredients to the story took ages to simplify, and it seemed impossible to condense into a three and a half minute song but I got there eventually. Essentially, the point of the song is that it is a curious and terrible thing that our lives can forever change over the course of one bad day & perhaps not even by our own hand. The song itself deals with this change in the form an open letter posted to Gendry ‘from half a world away’. It’s filled with questions that may in fact never be answered by him but nonetheless offer a glimmer of hope and love to him, wherever he is.

How was that for concise?

© Brinkley Capriola

You’ve previously mentioned you have drawn influences from Irish folk traditions – talk us through some of those on the new EP.

Over the past couple of years in general I’ve always had at least one eye and ear cast back home to what’s been developing over there.  I think right now we’re in a new Golden age of songwriting coming from Ireland and it’ll be looked back fondly on in decades to come, it makes me immensely proud to be from there and eager to contribute in whatever way I can to the tapestry.

With this EP I was aiming for songs that would disguise heavier subjects under some cheerful, lilting melodies, a common cloaking device for a lot of older country songs but also a huge part of the Irish folk ballad tradition too.  Musically, I was attracted in particular to some elements of Irish folk instrumentations during the writing of this EP, especially ethereal, droning, dreamy textures as championed by the likes of Lankum and Lemoncello, alongside this powerful, brooding thing we’ve got going on in the Northern folk scene at the moment.

Thematically, folklore had a bit more of an influence this time. For example, birds being messengers between people crops up at the end, as I was quite homesick.  Particularly, the folklore image of the veil was something that struck me quite powerfully too, and helped tie all of these thoughts that were swimming around my head together. Commonly thought of in folklore as a barrier between this world and next, the idea of ‘slipping on through the veil anew’ was a beautiful thought that brought a comfort in a writing process that was otherwise quite difficult.

Your lyrics could stand alone as poetry – do you write these first? 

Sometimes, though it really depends song to song.  I used to do this a lot when I was starting out, I’d have a weird little story in my head and I’d try to map it out in a weird folk song but more often than not I was finding it a little bit restrictive and the songs were piling up in the graveyard – where the unfinished ones all end up.

A year or so ago, I started using more of a collage method to write which I’ve found not only frees up the possibilities and combinations of the language you can use, but also allows you to give the listener just enough breadcrumbs to fill in the gaps themselves between the stories and the more abstract or seemingly off-kilter lyrics.  Usually this involves combing through notebooks and rearranging them in a new way.

Though I still antagonize a lot about the words and they often take much longer than the music ever does. With ‘Pink Elephants’ for instance, the only lyric I had for ages was ‘and so it seems, we’re at the end my friend / when pink elephants are on the march again’, which I found in a really old notebook.  Like what the hell does that even mean?  It took a while to paint a world that not only made this lyric make a kind of sense but also one in which it could sum up the EP’s themes.

Focusing on how the words will look if they’re presented naked on the page without music and if still they hold up is important. Then and only then can I breathe a little and give the music a proper chance.

Mark playing at Herr Lindemann, Neukölln © Brinkley Capriola

In a time where live shows are sadly not happening have you anything else on the horizon to mark the launch? 

Alas, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the live thing might not be normal again until late next year. However, I really recently recorded a couple of live performances of some EP tracks with the beautiful group of friends that I’ve started playing with here, lovingly referred to by ourselves over Whatsapp as The Padre Pio Players, haha. They’ll feature the incredible musicians Conor Cunningham and Eamon Travers from the band Hatchlings (also from the motherland) and the wonderful violinist Denise Dombrowski, all amazing session musicians from the Berlin songwriter scene and dear compadres.  

During this lockdown also, I’m having a go too at making some videos will be hopefully put out over the next month or so too.  They’ll be a bit DIY but who cares?  I’m going home for the holidays as well to decompress where I’m planning to keep working on a lyric book/zine type thing for the EP, filled with drawings and poems, which I’m hoping also to put out in the New Year as well.  So yeah, there’s a lot still in the pipeline despite no gigs!

We loved getting our hands recently on the EP in cassette form. Brought us way back!

Yes actually, I’ve made a limited run of cassettes for the EP featuring the actual EP itself on one side, and four B-Sides on the other.  I decided to go with cassettes partly due to a few lessons learnt from my time busking in Berlin.  Most people who bought CDs didn’t have a CD player but still wanted to give a symbol of appreciation and patronage.

If no-one has CD players and no-one has cassette players, then what’s really the difference?  They’re kind of just mementos and, dare I say, tokens, given to someone who likes your music anyway. Plus, with cassettes I really enjoy the DIY approach to making them and their quirky artworks.  Several other Irish artists in Berlin also seem to be championing tapes too.

They’re available on my Bandcamp if anyone fancies one and I like to feed into my fantasies of being a postman so I’ve even cycled a few across the city already. Hit me up if you want one!

Finally, Boyzone or Westlife?

Haha, I’m not too sure what to say here, John! I’d maybe go with Boyzone purely because of the size of their cajones in doing their Late Late debut in front of such a dead audience haha. Just kidding, someone sent me that video again the other day and I still laugh at it from time to time. Thanks for taking the time!  All the best!

For anyone unfamiliar, you’ll not regret it.

For more on Mark, check him out @markloughreymusic and support him over on Bandcamp.

Cover Picture by
© Madeline Manning

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