In this guest post, Cormac Ó Caoimh, a singer/songwriter from Cork, explains the delicate art of writing songs and reveals how his latest single, ‘Didn’t We’, co-written with Lindy Morrison of The Go-Betweens, came about.
I have been playing the song writing game a long time now, although most people reading this might not be aware of that fact. I have five albums out under my own name and one with a band, The Citadels.
I started writing songs well before I ever performed live. I loved it. I loved writing songs that were never going to be heard. And I still do. It’s funny how goals and aspirations change over the years: I remember that an early goal – after I’d written some songs I liked – was just to play a gig. And when I did that, all I wanted to do was play at The Lobby bar in Cork. Luckily, I was able to do that 30 or 40 times, maybe. I don’t think I ever dreamed big, I was always dreaming of a little step ahead of where I was. Or where I am now.
The band I was in, The Citadels, recorded some demo tapes purely to get gigs. We handed out demo tapes to venues and pubs around Cork city and were able to get a lot of gigs, paid gigs. Doing all original music. I was playing more gigs then, twenty-five years ago, than I’ve been able to do over the past ten years or so.
And we hadn’t released anything.
The idea of recording came later. The Citadels eventually recorded one album, ‘Letting Go, Holding On’, the first that yielded comparisons with Prefab Sprout. All of my solo albums that followed it were compared to the Sprouts too, even though they are all very different. I take that comparison as a huge compliment, and I can see how it might be made for some of my songs. But I was never as massive a fan of Prefab Sprout as I was of The Go-Betweens, Nick Drake, Martin Stephenson and a bunch of others. Today was the first time a song of mine was compared to the GBs. I got a play from Ronan Collins on RTÉ Radio 1. A Ronan Collins play is like no other: texts, phone calls, WhatsApp messages, Facebook tags and messages come flying in after you get a play on his show. And someone on Twitter said the song, ‘Didn’t We’, was like The Go-Betweens. It isn’t, mind you, but because Lindy Morrison from the band and I wrote it together, its probably too easy to say that.
I remember the first time I heard The Go-betweens. I was in Dublin, maybe 30 years ago, and there was a massive sale on at Tower Records and I bought a bunch of stuff. At the counter there was a tape of a Go-Betweens album, ‘1978 to 1990’. I had never heard of them. I just liked the cover. And it was £1.50. I listened to it constantly. What a strange album for my young ears, and what an intriguingly unique band. Admittedly it was the pop songs of Grant McLennan that got me first: ‘Bachelor Kisses’, ‘Right Here’, ‘Bye Bye Pride’, ‘Streets Of Your Town’ … instantly adorable. The Robert Forster songs weren’t my favourites initially, but I couldn’t stop listening to them either. They were so uniquely Robert: the type of songs that I grew into and now the songs I admire the most. As a songwriter you sometimes hear a song and think: ‘I wish I wrote that’. But no one can, or should try, to write a Robert Forster song or a Doctor Millar song or a Paul Buchanan song. They all have such unique styles, and vocals, that that they are best left loved and not copied.
After The Citadels released our first and only album, we were asked to record a session for Radio 2FM. The goal at the time wasn’t radio play, of course. The main goal was just to record an album, nothing else. Ian Wilson, a producer in RTÉ radio, rang me. On a landline. No emails. No texts. No answering machines [or maybe there was, but I didn’t have one].
After the band broke up, my next goal was to record a solo album as quickly as possible. My first album was very much all down to Jason O’Driscoll, who recorded, mixed, produced and played every instrument on it [except my strummed guitar]. It got some nice reviews but I don’t think it got any radio play. It was hard to tell back then because there was no way to track the number of plays. IMRO – the Irish Music Rights Organisation – was, I think, taking an average or sample, so a lot of spins for independent acts slipped through the cracks.
At this point in my life I already felt like an old man. I was in my mid-30s but I still had the drive. I still had a goal: I wanted to make a quiet, fingerpicking album. Pretty much all The Citadels songs, and all of my first solo album, were strumming songs. During that period I was lashing out the songs: my most productive spell of song-writing in terms of quantity. I had a ratio of roughly one-in-ten songs that were worth playing or recording. But I had been writing that way for over ten years at this point and I needed a change.
At this point I was married, had one child and another was on the way. If things didn’t change, there was no way I’d have been able to justify doing this over and over again. At this point I did have, and maybe for the first time, a wish for more exposure: I felt I needed airplay and more press. And that came too, luckily, despite ‘ A New Season For Love’ being my least radio-friendly album and one with no real singles on it. I used a PR agent for the first time and Linda Coogan Byrne did a great job generating publicity. I was given my first session on the ‘Arena’ programme on RTÉ Radio 1, which was a real thrill: I played two songs, ‘A New Season For Love’ and ‘Counting the Raindrops’.
After that session I met Aidan Butler, who was then a radio producer at RTÉ. He was very complimentary and this provided me with encouragement that lasted for several years. He explained to me that the songs didn’t really suit the Radio 1 playlist [he was right] but said that they’d get plays on some shows. And they did. I barely spoke to him: I was very shy and awkward but, inside, I wanted to hug him and thank him [I’m not a hugger and I don’t think I thanked him either]. But that exchange set me on a path where I could record and release music and, between airplay and sales, could finance the making of more records. I wasn’t making money but I wasn’t losing money either. Another goal achieved! I was on a roll!!
Spurred on, I wanted to get cracking on a new album. The goal this time was to continue writing fingerpicking songs, but faster ones. At this point my song writing method was completely different than it had been on my first three albums. Everything started with a guitar. A riff or a chord sequence. And I was ridiculously patient with the lyrics. The one in ten ratio was out the window and I was only working on – and finishing – songs that were going to be recorded.
‘The Moon Loses Its Memory’, recorded and produced by Cormac O’Connor, had fourteen songs. And it even had some singles on it. The first, ‘Maze Of Your Heart’, came out in 2014 and was well-backed by RTE Radio 1. It reached No.2 in their monthly charts. Incidentally, I think I may have been the first to post that airplay chart, but don’t blame me.
A great review in Mojo magazine followed and, to capitalise on the doors that would surely open for me, I released two more singles, ‘Yellow Crumbs’ and ‘Man Of Sand’. They totally tanked. I still think that ‘Yellow Crumbs’ is a great song but I released it by e-mail, and that was a mistake. At the time people were still printing up hard copies of singles and posting them. But I didn’t have the money for that: I would have blown the money made by this album, money that was intended for the recording of a follow-up.
But I did manage to secure two TV appearances [another goal!] and, even more significantly, I started playing, and later recording, with Martin Leahy. An honour and a privilege.
Despite these two singles failing so dismally, I still felt motivated. Mojo magazine helped to get my name out there and the TV appearances and the radio chart success of ‘Maze of Your Heart’ certainly helped with the album sales. It was enough to make me want to record again. After two fingerpicking records, I now wanted to make an old school album, a mixture of styles. Some fast. Some slow. Some singles. Some album tracks. I didn’t make the same mistake again. The first single, ‘Second Hand Clothes‘, was printed up and hard copies were posted off. It is still my most played song on radio. In older times it might even have been a hit.
Three more singles followed and all of them did well. Money from airplay was very significant and essential for me to justify continuing to release music. All contributed to the financing of my latest album, ‘Swim Crawl Walk Run’, which I released in 2020.
This one is my most successful ever. And I maintain my best ever. I’m not sure I will make another one as good. It was recorded, mixed and produced by Martin Leahy, who also played every instrument, except my guitar parts. The album spawned seven singles, all of them playlisted. All the goals I had – as usual, I just always wanted to be ahead of where I was – were achieved. The album was Number One in the IRMA indie charts, Number Seven in the All-Act chart and among the Top Twenty biggest-selling Irish albums for that year. Sales were up and plays were up.
The album was released during lockdown and I was so appreciative of the support. But things changed for me after its release. For the first time in my life I felt goal-less. I felt there was no little step ahead of where I was. Or realistic step anyway. I could maybe try for more airplay on other stations, more coverage or press. But if that didn’t happen for this album I couldn’t see it happening at all. I was thinking: is this it ? Other things compounded this sense of negativity in me. [I should just clarify that, in general, I am probably a very pessimistic person. Personality wise, maybe, not musically]. Musically I had been very driven, very enthusiastic, very motivated and very positive. But I didn’t know where to go from where I was.
On top of that, something wasn’t right with the finances. As I said, one of the most important goals I had in releasing music was not to lose money. Sales were up for this album. Seven songs all released and playlisted. But the airplay money coming back was way less than I expected. It turns out that radio airplay payments were pretty much down by half. Payments for radio airplay in
Ireland are based on the advertising revenue generated by various stations. That was down so IMRO payments were down too. [They still are]. This had a massive impact and I had to consider whether or not it was still feasible to continue. I made some social media posts about this fact but I have since stopped. I think it gave the impression that I was giving out about radio folk, which was never my intention. I felt it important that other musicians, who rely on this income, know this and budget
accordingly. So a combination of these two things [no realistic goals and less income from releasing music] led me down a dark path musically. For the first time in my life I had no desire to write songs. I had no goal and I privately retired.
For six months I played only classical guitar. After that I started a weird concept album of one chord songs. Just guitar and vocals. Stacks of guitars, playing the one chord in different ways, with overlapping vocals, singing different melodies. Every song trying to represent a nervous breakdown of sorts [this being fuelled by my very own ‘musical’ nervous breakdown]. I did five tunes like that and [thankfully] shelved the idea. But I did use one of those songs as a Bandcamp B-side.
I eventually resurrected myself from the musical madness and felt refreshed and invigorated, desperate again to write some ‘normal songs’. Proper songs. And I had a new goal. These one chord songs did serve some purpose: I’d learned how to record myself. Fresh with the knowledge that I will never be a classical guitarist or an experimental recording artist, I knew I was a songwriter. An indie-poppy-jazzy-folk one, as some reviewer once said. And my new goal was the same as an arlier goal: to record and release songs without losing money.
A lot of things had to go. There was no way I would be able to use PR or get professional videos made or record an album with someone else. But the possibility of recording myself presented itself and I was eager and excited to do it. But … I had no songs.
I started writing songs: like the old days, lashing them out. A song a day. None of these will ever see the light of day but I had the bug back. I was going through old books and just enjoying the process of writing songs quickly. In one of the books I saw a scribble: ‘Lindy Morrison’s Facebook post’.
I’d been a Go-Betweens fan for over 30 years and had joined a Facebook group, ‘Right Here: The Go-Betweens Appreciation Society’, maybe five or six years previously. And Lindy is active on it. Like many of the fans on the site I sent her a Facebook friend request: it wasn’t accepted. I’m sure she gets thousands of requests from members of that group and fans worldwide and she can’t accept them all. And I was embarrassed immediately after sending the request.
A long time passed, maybe a year or two. Lindy posted a link to Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’ and got a lot of fans replying how wonderful it is. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dylan, but I posted [a joke] saying that if he cut fourteen minutes out, added a catchy chorus and got someone else to sing it, it could be decent. I got a hard time from a few other members of the group.
But shortly afterwards, Lindy accepted the friend request I had sent years before. I was delighted.
After that I saw a post she made where she mentioned Jimmy Webb’s ‘Didn’t We’ and said that it was one of her favourite songs of all time. In that post the words she used were so rhythmic and
well written that I felt it was crying out to be a song. The scribble in my notebook was a reminder to me to tell her this. And I did. I said she should write a song about it: great theme and there is a great chorus there already. She said she was a drummer and not a songwriter and we interacted a bit but that was it. I wasn’t suggesting anything else. I was just letting her know she should write a song about it.
Fast forward six months to a year and I’m looking at the scribble again, but in song writing mode now. I felt a song had to be written. I messaged Lindy with the idea of a co-write and I was thrilled when she said yes. This was nearly a year-and-a-half ago. I had planned to record the song for over a year but, between one thing and another, it never happened. Until now.
This is my third single this year. I did one as a test, ‘There Must Be A Catch’, in May, the first that I recorded and produced myself. Two of my old bandmates from The Citadels, Aoife Regan and Fergal O’Leary, helped me out and Adam Whitaker, who mixed the song, worked miracles. It was a tentative foot in the water. Would I be able to record a song ? It was like starting again for me. The buzz of radio play was back and it ended up at Number Seven in the All-Station Irish charts and Number Two in RTÉ Radio One’s monthly airplay chart. And yes, I posted that too, eight years after doing it the first time and with just as much delight. With less outgoings and a lot of sales on Bandcamp, it actually made money. Another new goal: make money. What a ludicrous idea.
For ‘Catch’, I chose what I thought would be the easiest song I could do to record. The next one I chose was what I thought would be the hardest, ‘Aliens’. Too long for radio, or maybe too slow ?
But I was very happy with it. Maybe it was never meant to be a single, but I was happy with the results and again money was made purely from sales on Bandcamp. More importantly, I now knew I could tackle ‘Didn’t We’.
Co-writing can be a funny business. I wouldn’t have considered it if I hadn’t only recently, completed a few collaborations with other people. I co-wrote three songs with Mary Greene of
Greenshine. I also did one with Sean Millar which, incidentally, is the Bandcamp B-side of ‘Didn’t We’. And I did another one with Martin: that was a lovely and fitting way to finish off the last album. I’ve got to admit that before I did any of these co-writes I assumed I was a fairly easy-going songwriter. I only ever had myself to deal with. But it turns out I’m not.
I can get very particular and obsessive about certain words or phrases. I didn’t realise this when I wrote on my own because I just worked on things without much thought throughout the days I was writing. Trying to fix that one word that was annoying me, but in a co-write you have to verbalise this. You have to express your madness to the other person[s]. I remember suggesting to Mary
that that we should switch around two lines she wrote but I couldn’t even verbalise why I wanted to do that. ‘You be you’, says she, and graciously let it be so. Sean had an even harder time but went with it famously. There was one line in our song that just ‘didn’t fit’ for me: ‘take the book from off the shelf and become someone else ’.
I messaged Sean about it and explained that something wasn’t right. The rhythm of it. And that day we both ended up sending various versions back and forth before eventually settling on one. Looking at them now, they all seem fairly similar. But it was my favourite moment of the process.
‘Take the book from off the shelf and become someone else’
‘Every book I read I become someone else’
‘Every book I read I guess I become someone else’
‘Every book I read, possess, I become someone else’
‘Every book that I possess lets me become someone else’
‘Every book that I possess makes me someone else’
‘Every book I read just makes me feel like someone else’
‘Every book I read just makes me someone else’
‘Every book I read just makes me feel like someone else’
‘Every book I read just turns me into someone else’
‘Every book I read I let myself be someone else’
‘Every book I read just lets me become someone else’
‘Didn’t We’ had no such moments of madness. There was no need to discuss what the song was about or the theme or the mood. All of that was apparent in Lindy’s post. And the best lyrics of the song were all there too. She explains the song way better than I can.
Lindy: “I’ve loved Jimmy Webb’s songs forever. “Didn’t we” is just one of his many great tunes. It is poignant and lovely and as one spending a life sliding, slipping and watching, it means a lot. I was thrilled when Cormac contacted me about my FB post, that came about after listening to many versions of the song and comparing those to Jimmy’s. This Cormac/ Lindy song was only finished in September this year, and I was reflecting on how idiotic, funny, dramatic it is, that a small inexplicable event can occur that destroys a moment. Cormac helped to capture that in this song.”
And what a pleasure and thrill it was.
CODA: And if it wasn’t thrilling enough already, I’ve just got news that the official Jimmy Webb page has posted about the song: