Junior Brother brings his off-kilter alt folk sound to Cork festival

Picture: Sarah Ryan

Ronan Kealy aka Junior Brother has drawn plenty plaudits in the past year with his off-kilter alternative folk music.

From the sumptuous recent single ‘The Back Of Her’ to the near-slapstick ‘Hungover at Mass’, he’s winning a host of new fans, including Cillian Murphy and Blindboy Boatclub.

Ahead of a slot at Cork City arts festival Quarter Block Party next weekend, he talks about his journey to date.

How would you describe your music to someone yet to press play? It's kind of off-kilter minor-anthem folk?

I suppose I'd describe it as alternative Irish folk with my own personal spin put on it.

Lots of other things go into the pot from other genres as well though, and it's also quite experimental in nature.

I'd prefer to leave a description of my music simple and let the listener then come up with their own take, as it is kind of complex music when you dive into it.

But I don't think the dive feels too deep.

You're based in Dublin but born in Kerry. What was life like growing up?

I had a great upbringing, surrounded by a lot of love and encouragement.

I lived inside a cardboard box in the back garden for a week drawing pictures all over it when I was 10, so you could say I was given free rein to indulge my creativity alright.

I was definitely not surrounded by music though, that was always a very personal thing I pursued.

When I'd go up to Offaly to visit my mom's family there would be a few ballads sung now and then, some of which I still sing, and my uncle Jim put me onto some music which helped to shape my style today.

I was in a rock band for a while in secondary school, and played piano in some groups in Killarney bars, but music was always very much a solitary activity for me to pursue in happy isolation in my house.

When I first started leaving home at about 17, I fell in love with my rural surroundings in my out-of-home subconscious, and from there made a point to try and capture the spirit of this rural environment in my music.

When/why did you move to Dublin? Was it just a case of, 'if I want to make a proper crack at this I have to be there'?

Yeah that was exactly what it was. I was in Cork for a bit, studying English and learning how to drink.

I decided to move to Dublin then in 2014 so that I could focus on getting the ball rolling with my own stuff as it were.

All the gigs seemed to be up there, so I went and followed them.

It was without question the right move for me, Dublin has been very kind to me and my music, so I'm happy here.

If they win the All Ireland again however, I may consider moving back home.

Have you been surprised at the overwhelmingly positive reaction over the past year or two?

Well, I suppose I very much believe in what I'm doing, and I always have, even when my music was not getting any sort of a reaction.

I am a bit surprised at the variety of people with different tastes who seem to be into it - but I suppose genres don't matter too much if you find an artist doing stuff you like enough.

The main thing I want to do with my music is to bring the atmosphere and essence of my home environment to as many people as I can.

If people can feel that deep rural atmosphere and connect with it, then I'm happy out indeed.

Cillian Murphy played your music on BBC 6 Music over Christmas. How did that come about and did you get much of a reaction?

Blindboy Boatclub from the Rubberbandits informed me that he showed him my stuff, and that led to him airing my music on his show.

That was as surreal as it gets for me, the 'Bandits have long been a huge influence and inspiration to me as a person and artist.

And seasoned veterans in the arts being into your own art is humbling and encouraging to a very high degree.

It definitely drew a good few people into my world and spiked a few numbers up.

So I'm very thankful to both Mr Murphy and Mr Club for such great exposure.

How true to life are the lyrics to 'Hungover at Mass'? What was your parents' reaction to it?

I had never been hungover at mass prior to writing the tune, but I since have been, and I am happy to report that the experience was actually fine.

The song itself is a kind of metaphor for the relationship between the head and the body, and how uneasily they tend to sit with each other.

This is particularly so in the context of religious ritual, which is meant to transcend those primal instincts which all people have.

A hangover in mass is the shame of following the body and not the mind - we thus follow the narrator in 'Hungover at Mass' as he truly experiences the fear of God.

I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who devotes any part of their lives to religion or spirituality, and that's why I have such an interest in how these two seemingly opposing sides of the human mind sit with each other - the animal and the man.

I've never asked my parents what they think of it, but I would imagine they're okay with it - in my opinion, the only offensive thing about the song is its general irreverence, and a bit of that from a place of love is okay now and then I think.

Do you enjoy that fine balancing act, of comedic songs in an earnest manner? Or is it even a balancing act?

You could call it that yeah. Most of my songs aren't as overtly comical as Mass, but songs with humour are much more difficult to pull off than those without.

I would listen to a lot of Richie Kavanagh, and he totally makes it work, thanks to a dogged commitment to his own voice as well as a beautiful rural innocence which always comes through so naturally in his music.

I think the Irish accent also lends itself so beautifully to humour, and our spirit as a people I think shines very brightly when channelled through a comedic lens.

But there's also lots of pain in the Irish spirit too, and these two sides have sat side by side in our songs for generations.

That's indeed a balancing act which I enjoy pursuing in my own art.

You worked with Myles O'Reilly on the video for your new single, 'The Back of Her'. How was that?

It was a mighty experience surely. I was honoured to collaborate with him, he is a singular genius who gave me the space to achieve my vision, and brought to the fore his own unique hand to create something I think we're both extremely proud of.

Again, receiving encouragement from someone you really look up to as an artist makes you push yourself to achieve results you mightn't reach without that boost in self-esteem they give you.

Shooting the video was like painting a jigsaw puzzle, with each shot being a piece - it wasn't until the final edit that the true strength of the whole could be ascertained.

It was a great moment to then see it all pieced together as a whole, the abstract imagery and symbolism referencing itself in a visual language of its own logic.

Myles and I first worked together for an episode of This Ain't No Disco, where he filmed me singing "Hungover at Mass" outside actual mass in the middle of Dublin city centre.

It was a terrifying experience. Thus, I knew immediately I had to work with him again.

Myles O'Reilly

Your rise has coincided with playing in David Keenan's band, who are on the rise and show no sign of stopping. Is it nice having this other side? How did that come about?

David, LemonCello and Gareth Quinn Redmond are very dear friends, and we very much enjoy hanging out together whenever we can - and we are able to do just that under the joyous wing of David's very fine music, which is taking him to magnificent places.

Myself and David met in Dublin, as we both moved to the city full time at around the same time.

We became mutual fans and then naturally great friends, ploughing similar furrows but with very different ploughs.

I then met the rest through gigging around the city, and we all were then drawn together due to having similar like minds.

Do you feel like you're part of a 'new-folk revival' in Ireland or do you pay attention to such things?

I suppose that's something which might be easier to judge in hindsight or from a removed vantage point, but there is definitely a growing sense of interest in being Irish which I see alive and well in this country now, particularly with musicians.

Not a nationalist pride, which can of course be toxic, but a potent interest.

Whether I'm part of a sort of revival I'm not sure, as I've always felt outside of things in general - all I can say is that there's some incredible music being created in the country today that is not afraid to embrace what we define as an "Irishness", first-hand examples being Lankum, LemonCello, Lisa O'Neill, David Keenan, The Mary Wallopers, Alfi, but acts outside of "folk" too like Post Punk Podge and the Technohippies, TPM and Kojaque exhibit a deep sense of Irish interest also.

I'm happy to be creating music in such an environment, where I can feel encouraged to be myself to a pleasant extreme.

What's in store for Junior Brother in 2019?

The debut album is the big one coming up the hill, more details will be divulged from that end very soon.

Apart from that, the festival gigs are beginning to line up for the summer, as well as more appearances around the country.

I'm very excited to take the album arrangements on the road with accompanying musicians too.

In short, if things keep progressing at this pace, I'll be very happy, as it's not too disorienting of a ride upward.

Junior Brother performs at An Spailpín Fánach at Quarter Block Party festival, 9pm, Friday, February 8, as part of a triple bill alongside Shookrah and Yenkee. Tickets €10, or admission with festival Super Bundle Pass (6 shows for €50) or Bundle Pass (3 shows for €25).

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