Donal McConnon – Musician & Songwriter
One of the founding members of Galway band, My Fellow Sponges, Donal McConnon writes music, plays guitar, clarinet, the banjo and piano, as well as singing with the band.
Tell us about your background…
I'm from Termonfeckin Co Louth, which is by the seaside. My dad works in construction, my mam's a florist now. There was always music in the house, particularly on my mother's side. I heard that my great grandfather on my dad's side wrote a song that's a local hit called the Turf Man from Ardee. I used to play in the Ardee concert band. I asked people about it, if they'd heard about it and they started glowing, saying it's the song they always sing at weddings and funerals. Apparently, he wrote the song, but even before he died, it was disputed between him and this other guy. I don't really get it - it's from the turn of the Century, a Sean Nós type song.
What did you start off playing?
I started playing the harmonica. On my mother's side there's quite a few people that play music. At get-togethers, music was always an integral part of it. I felt very intrigued by it and wanted to be involved in some way or another. I always wanted to play music or just dance or enjoy music in some shape or form. I was allowed to make a lot of noise and that was important. I took up the clarinet at some point because I got really interested in ragtime jazz. There was a group in Sligo where my mum is from called the Jazz Lads; they're old guys - friends of my grandparents - and they were still playing every Sunday in this little bar. There was one guy who was a clarinetist and I found what he did very interesting. He played sax as well and I decided when I was maybe 11 or 12 that I just wanted to play jazz. It seemed easy, actually, to me. But when I started getting lessons, it was quite formal and I was taught to concentrate on reading music.
Do you think that was a good thing for you at the time?
I don't think so, no. Having done that for so many years, recently I started trying to read music and found it hard. I don't think it's really necessary any more. Obviously, at a certain time, it was very necessary to get it all down and document it to archive. People do use that way for sure and they use it as a way of working and getting inspired, but generally it's not how I've ever really felt music. Shortly after taking up the clarinet, I took up the guitar and the approach is so different. It's all about learning by ear, more or less. You think more harmonically; you think about chords. My brother was very good at picking up songs off the radio or off recordings and he showed me how to do that. It never occurred to me for a long time that I could just do that with the clarinet as well. It took me a very long time; I was always making excuses for myself, and I think a lot of people do that; 'Oh, I don't have the music sheet, so I cant play it,' but that's ridiculous. I left the clarinet when I finished school. I did a gap year in Malawi and I didn't play any instruments for that time. When I came home and went to college in NUIG, there was a huge gap again.
How did you get back into playing?
I suddenly had a lot of free time. I was a teacher in Malawi and my whole day was so busy and tense for a solid year; everything just took a very long time. It was a wonderful thing to do because when I came back to university, there was a lot of grumbling and complaining from other students, but because I had just come out of this year where I was very confined in what I could do to then have all this time on my hands, I really started to enjoy being given information and getting it all. So I got involved 100 per cent in everything in my first year. I started writing songs again, I started learning Spanish, I started learning songs in Spanish - everything was brilliant for that year. I developed this initiative to go for things and it was at that time that I got into drama, started acting and directed a play. I was involved in the Galway Theatre Society and that's where I met Anna (Mullarkey). We did a play together, then formed the band after we finished our degrees in 2009.
When we started out, all we really knew was that we were a bit shell shocked coming out of university, out of this place that had a lot of structure. I intentionally didn't make big plans for anything; I just left a big wide open space after university. So we just went into the abyss with this idea in mind, almost with this process of elimination of other things. I had done the acting thing and that really intrigued me, and I'm still very interested in theatre and drama, but I came back to music - it just made more sense. When I heard Anna sing first, I knew that she had a really, really good talent and I knew I wanted to be a part of that. So, it just made sense for us to do form a band. We had a different line-up for a while, then Dave and Sam joined about two or three years ago. Dave was with us before that too. We also had Tracy Bruen and John O'Dwyer, who's a bassist.
I'm very interested in looking at things, and trying to predict things, even patterns in people. In some ways, I'm kind of brave. I don't mind being embarrassed. I don't really get embarrassed, I guess. I like to see people responding positively to things that I do. I concern myself a lot with that and I think it's a good thing, because it means that I'm engaging. In a sense, I don't mind getting my hands dirty with people. I concern myself with thinking about how people could do better, or be better and do what they do in a better way. I think I've become very sensitive to identifying what is holding people back and what is holding myself back. I'm very aware of the things that are holding me back and the fact that sometimes I doing anything about it, but I enjoy being reminded of that.
What's your ambition for your band, your music?
Both myself and Anna really want to play music and part of the ambition is getting to a place where we can survive, play music and it's not too stressful. Ultimately, we want to have space to be creative and continue with that. It's like a therapy and it's a wonderful way to spend your time. I couldn't imagine really spending my time anywhere else. Sharing music, hearing what people have to say about it and engaging with the world in that way is a really exciting thing. Part of the ambition is to get to a point where we have even more space to do that. Part of it also involves figuring out how to collaborate with other people in the band and other artists. I'm very interested in learning how people work in groups and getting the most out of these things to make it exciting for everybody while still being productive. I'm still learning how to do it for sure.
What do you do within the band?
I play guitar and clarinet mainly, banjo, harmonica and a bit of piano. I sing as well. I write half the music, Anna writes the rest. I'll come along with a skeleton of a song; there might be a few things missing, but it's my song, and the rest of them will put a bit of flesh on it. Sometimes, it's like if I have a drawing - there's no colour; I give it to you to do the colouring in. Sometimes, it's a bit more like interpretation. It's just a couple of lines and I want you to continue them to make something. I think with just a little bit of musical technique - very little - you can really add something. It's the same thing with drawing; you need to have a little bit of respect for the other person and what they're doing and try to incorporate your idea with their idea in a complementary way. Something about the band that people comment on is that we're quite different. Anna and I are quite different styles, but I think I'd be very bored if I was the head of my band only - I really like the cross pollination. Also, it's a wonderful challenge in a way as well because it's a great way of reflecting on your own snobbery because effectively that's what it is, if you're snobby about someone else's tastes in music and so what better way to get comfortable with it than by letting it in, playing with it and enjoying it. That's a wonderful thing.
You use drawings in your performances…
The drawings are just another way of capturing a thought and communicating it to other people. Because I lack a lot of very basic skill with drawing, they tend to be quick and stabby; maybe too much so for some people. I like showing new drawings to my friends. If they laugh or nod solemnly, I can be sure that I've gotten something across to them. It can be harder with music to be totally sure of the sincerity of the feedback.
We often use them in our shows alongside the music. Sometimes, just watching some people onstage play instruments is not a the most suitable visual accompaniment for all the complex emotions that they are trying to convey. And even though I'm a person who loves voices and sounds more than faces and pictures, I'm aware that most of the world seems to be using cameras rather than Dictaphones to capture thoughts and memories.
Humans are much more visual creatures than they were a few generations ago and it can be fun to try to cover that area too.In the drawings, as with music and performance, I like to give people something to think about. Ideally, I'd like to romance people into wondering a bit about what they should make of what they've experienced.
What is it about music that draws you in?
I like talking, but I'm not a big fan of small talk. For a lot of people, it feels right for them when there's a bit of that; it breaks the nervousness and it keeps them going. That's like a game almost, a social game and with music, it's more or less the same thing with people. It's a communication. It's just as valid as talking and in some ways, it's more effective for doing certain things. Language is good for maybe fixing a car and music is really good for maybe helping someone understand how they feel, so it's something that I think we all have a very natural ability to understand, pick up on and give out. It's just that we don't get a lot of practice with it. I was thinking about this a lot - we have the trad session, which is a wonderful tradition. For people who aren't very sociable, it's a great way for them to also be included so that they're not off on their own driving themselves crazy, that they can go out to a space where people are relaxed and they can also be relaxed and share music.
I think there should be more of it and I would love to see that model being used in other respects because trad music isn't for everybody and it does tend to get a little closed off. For instance, certain instruments might not be very welcome in that circle and it does require a certain level of technical skill. I think that you can also create those kinds of spaces in a social space where people with all different levels of technical skill can pick up a whatever and start tuning their ears to what the other person is doing and have a conversation with each other. We've done that with the band and outside the band and it's amazing how people would have never considered themselves musicians are interested in it, then they'll watch and very slowly, if they're coaxed enough, they'll get involved and they show a real talent for it. You'll find a lot of people who have no technical skill, no practice and wouldn't have considered themselves musicians are actually better at it than a lot of musicians because technical skill is just a part of it. It's like having a big vocabulary - does that make you a better communicator? Not necessarily; it's more about being sensitive to the other person and responding to them, giving feedback and taking feedback. It's amazing .
It's something that doesn't happen so much around the city in pubs and cafes - if you sat down with your buddies and started banging out a few tunes, what would be the reaction?
It'd be fine, it's just knowing the parameters. With folk music and traditional music, which is part of it, it's a shared knowledge. You have a standard tune that everybody knows, so it's graded, in a nice way, and that helps them and people feel comfortable, in every respect. Like with language again, if there's rules or parameters and there's a sense that it's a bit of a game, we all have a role to play, we do it and it's fun. I think we should not worry about the perfection of it, we should get our hands dirty and dirty the thing itself and do it because it is a social setting and everyone is relaxed and doesn't care.
How you do you see your prospects in Galway from a musical perspective?
For Galway? There is a lot of talent here - there's enough to keep us going for a long time. There always has been, I think, but particularly now, I've been told by people who've been here longer than me that it seems to be a lot more vibrant from the original music side of things.
How does being here lend itself to the kind of scene that you would like to see happen with it?
It's a great place to be involved in a band. On one hand, there's no pressure, but on the other hand, there's no pressure. It's quite easy to convince people to play with you, while I'd imagine in other places, it's a bit harder where there's more ambition, maybe a bigger city where people are working harder to make ends meet. There's a lot of optimism - people just really enjoying what they're doing and not being overly ambitious about it and that's great, but it's also harder then to just capture that and put it into something that you can present to other people outside. So with all of the talent that's happening here - you have Stephen Sharpe, the bands Field Trip, New Pope and Rural Savage - all these really, really wonderful people doing great things. All these people are doing what is demanded of them and some of them are doing a little bit more than that and are taking on the role of promoters - we do that as well. I guess that's the way music's going. It's a lot easier to be your own manager now and it's necessary. But at the same time, it does eat into the part of yourself that is the creator and you maybe get a bit panicked that you're not giving enough attention to the art itself. You're wearing different hats and sometimes it feels that you're switching hats too much. But there are some great musicians that have come in the past ten years or so that have been all those things, and they've done very well out of it. One great example for me is Jeffrey Lewis, the musician; he's a massive inspiration. not just because of his music and his drawings, but because of the way he manages himself. I think he's a very good model for people, even if they really don't like his music in that he does wear those hats very well. He plans all his gigs, he's become extremely successful - a big cult following, and he's got plenty of money, but he still plans his own tours, still sleeps on the floors of student dorms just because he's used to that now. But he works incredibly hard and he's still managed to find a wonderful place where they complement each other, rather than being at war with one another. Maybe that's part of it as well, is that you get worried about that and it's the worry that actually kills it. You get panicky, thinking 'I can't be this promoter person' and you back away from it and you don't produce any good art because you've got this negativity.
Are you planning on staying in Galway?
It wouldn't make sense to stay here as a band and we want to and we'd like to use it as a way to travel. Galway is a great base for any project you're doing. There's enough space to do it - there's plenty of people around who have different skills you can draw on and people are very friendly and very willing to offer up their talent. There's great talented musicians. It's not very competitive. If it was competitive, it could potentially be an ugly thing, but it could also be a great motivator. People can do with a push every now and again - I would appreciate that, actually. I love to see people around me doing well because ultimately, that would also push me in a really positive way too. On the music side of things, what's needed is a sense of direction. You have to be really smart about it and understand how creativity works and creativity versus efficiency, and that they can somehow agree with each other.
How would you see creativity and efficiency working well together?
You want to strike a really nice balance; you don't want to be just this type of creative messy kid who's in fits of ecstasy, high on their own creation. Obviously, you want to feed that side too but you also don't just want to be a really cynical ultimately square and stiff marketer promoter type person. Just knowing how to capture that and put it in a place that people can hopefully gravitate towards it. As artists, the only thing that should be demanded of us is to make something really good that people can connect to and as artists, that should be our ambition. All this stuff about touring, it shouldn't be the end goal, it should be making a song or album that really speaks to people and really helps people in wonderful ways to overcome personal problems or whatever it is.
I see it at Open Mic on a Sunday in Roisins. There's really something amazing going on; you can feel it in the room that everyone's at one with what's happening on the stage. I've been to gigs where it feels like that's the case and it's an amazing thing. We should really concern ourselves with being really interested in that and discovering what the ingredients are and figuring out how to apply that to what we're doing. A lot of the conversations are about the politics of things; we don't talk about, 'You really nailed it with that line, how does that happen?'. I think maybe people are just a bit embarrassed to talk or enquire about that, but we should talk about why something worked really well and how to reproduce that somehow.