As Walking On Cars gear up for their fundraising gig in aid of CUH children’s unit, lead singer Pa Sheehy talks to Marjorie Brennan about the importance of giving back and how music — and football — keep him on an even keel.
Becoming a father was something of a wake-up call for Pa Sheehy. The lead singer of top Irish rock band Walking on Cars says that impending parenthood led him to reassess his life, and especially his relationship with alcohol. It is a subject the band tackles in the song ‘Coldest Water’, from their second album, Colours, released earlier this year.
“It’s about a time, going back to my college days, of realising that I couldn’t live a normal life with it. So I went through a process of trying to not drink. It took a couple of years of slipping and sliding.
"I suppose the penny dropped then once I was going to be a dad. I thought: ‘Right, that’s me done’, and that has been it since.”
That was more than six years ago and Sheehy has never looked back, with Walking on Cars achieving huge success at home and abroad.
Next month, the band are playing a special fundraising concert for Cork University Hospital’s new €40m children’s unit, which is still facing huge challenges in terms of funding and resources. More than 10,000 children from across the Munster region are seen in the unit every year, across in-patient and outpatient services.
Don’t miss your chance to see the fantastic @WalkingOnCars, @stephanierainey and @BraveGiantBand who will be playing Cork City Hall on Saturday November 16th in support of the Children’s Unit at CUH. Tickets are available at https://t.co/e7Mv0AvC6L pic.twitter.com/ZWsJvurjwz— CUH Charity (@CUHCharity) November 1, 2019
Even though the band will be in the middle of a tour, Sheehy says they didn’t hesitate when asked to support the initiative. He says that having his two daughters, aged six and almost two respectively, has made him realise just how important such services are.
“I have two kids, and Paul [Flannery, the band’s guitarist] has a kid, and we know how vital these services are. We are privileged to be where we are, so it is nice to give something back. When kids get sick, you’re absolutely helpless and the services they provide in CUH are amazing. It is something we feel strongly about.”
When I speak to Sheehy, he is mid-rehearsal with the band in an old schoolhouse just outside the Kerry town of Dingle, where the four members — Sheehy, Flannery, Sorcha Durham and Evan Hadnett — are still based. They are heading off on tour in a few weeks, taking in Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Dubai, and Russia. Sheehy is looking forward to heading Down Under in particular.
“It’s exciting, it’s our first time down in that part of the world for all of us. There will be lots of Irish people down there and I have a brother in Melbourne, so I’m gonna go hang with him for a few days.”
However, he says one of the downsides to touring is being away from his two daughters.
“That’s the most challenging part of what we do. But we have a system in place now where we’re never gone for too long. The most we have ever been away for is one month, and that is loads to be away from the smallies.”
While acting as a grounding base as the band’s success has grown, Dingle and its scenic setting has also exerted its influence in terms of their music, says Sheehy.
“I don’t think that consciously I say to myself: ‘I’m going to write a song about the sea and the mountains’, but subconsciously when you look back at the lyrics and the music, you can really match them with what’s going on around here. It’s just so picturesque, and it can be very dramatic. And it’s an amazing place for creative people.”
Those strong ties with home also extend to the band, who all met while at school. How have those relationships withstood the challenges of success and fame?
“We’ve all known each other for a long time. Being in a band together, it’s pretty intense, you see each other every day. So it definitely puts pressure on relationships, but at the same time, it makes you stronger as a unit and as a band. We are two albums in, and on the brink of our third, and we are still friends, still working, and we still have big goals and dreams. It’s all good.”
Growing up, Sheehy had two great loves, music and football — but then he began having doubts about pursuing his passions as a career.
“When I was in secondary school, I was either going to be a musician or a soccer player. That’s all I wanted to do, I couldn’t fathom the idea of going to do anything else. And then coming up to fifth year, I realised I wasn’t in a place to be a professional soccer player. I was decent, but I wasn’t going to be on the United team, do you know what I mean?
“So that penny dropped and then I believed I wasn’t skilled enough to go straight out of school and be a musician. I repeated fifth year with the idea that I was going to go to college and be a normal person.”
Sheehy went on to study at UCC, where he realised that the academic life wasn’t for him and that being happy was more important.
“I did arts — classic move for anyone who didn’t know what they wanted to do,” he laughs.
“It was just a big party below in Cork, to be honest. About a year and a half in, I cut my losses and —how do you say it — re-examined my approach to life. I realised I wasn’t going to be happy until I was doing the music or the soccer. So I kind of got my shit together, got a normal job for a while, that gave me a few bob to buy a piano, sure I was happy out making tunes. Then a year later, the band came along and it all worked out. There was a bit of fun along the way, but we got there.”
Sheehy has become a strong advocate for openness around mental health issues, and says performing music has been an invaluable way of keeping his own head straight.
Making a profound connection with their fans is also important to Sheehy and the rest of the band.
“The best thing is when you are really honest in a tune and you release it, that’s when other people can find healing as well. Lots of people come up to us at gigs and they would be crying about a certain song. It is amazing what you can do with words and melody.
“I don’t think you can write a song without feeling and if you do, it’s kind of going nowhere. Our job is to feel, and put that into music to make others feel. In this day and age, everybody is so busy, they are doing a hundred things, nobody has a chance to sit down and actually listen. Now, more than ever, music is really important for people.”
Walking With Cars have also become known for their distinctive videos, which they see as a valuable medium in terms of sharing their music.
"We got most of our success in the beginning through YouTube and people sharing our videos on social media. We put a lot of effort into our videos. It’s trying to grab the same emotion from the song, but in a different context"
"Not to put the exact same story on to the video, but a different story with the same feeling and then people get something else from it. A lot of our videos tend to be quite sad and melancholic. Grief and loss in general is what we do here,” he laughs.
One of the highlights of the band’s career so far was their gig at Musgrave Park in Cork this summer.
“That was amazing, it was the first year of those shows so we weren’t sure of how it was going to go. But it was the best day we had as a band in a long time, especially being in Cork, as it’s a little bit closer to home than Dublin. This was the first time we did a gig in front of that many people, 12,000, down south, and a lot of our home crowd were there, so it was a nice way to top off the summer.”
The band has also just been announced as the headline act for this year’s New Year’s Eve Festival in Dublin.
“That will be really cool, it looked incredible last year,” says Sheehy.
And while the football fell by the wayside as his music career took off, Sheehy still takes an interest as a spectator.
“I’m a Chelsea fan. We’re going through a transition period, let’s say.
“I haven’t played in a while because I have dodgy ankles. I’m in the midst of strengthening both of them so I can go playing after Christmas. That’s the plan.”
Walking on Cars, with support acts Brave Giant and Stephanie Rainey, play Cork City Hall on Saturday, Nov 16, in aid of the Children’s Unit at Cork University Hospital. Tickets, €75 from www.cuh.clearbookings.com
See cuhcharity.ie for more details.