Dingle heroes Walking on Cars tell Ed Power how they got past second-album syndrome, and why the band are turning their Cork gig into a sort of homecoming.
A few years ago the exclusive club of Irish bands capable of selling out Dublin’s 3Arena welcomed a new member in the form of Dingle’s Walking On Cars. With tunes that blended folk and pop they were hailed — a bit lazily — as the homegrown Mumford and Sons. They certainly knew their way around an anthemic pop song, and were soon taking their seat at the top table of Irish rock.
It was in many ways an unlikely success story. The group, all from rural Kerry, were childhood friends who’d started playing together as a lark. In 2015, with minimal promotion or industry fanfare, their single ‘Speeding Cars’ became a top 20 hit across Ireland and the continent.
Twelve months later, before they had quite taken it all in, they sold out 3Arena. And then the wheels came off.
“Before we started our second album people were saying ‘oh that’s going to be the tough one,” recalls Patrick Sheehy, who fronts the five-piece alongside Sorcha Durham. “We didn’t know what they meant. And then we dived into it. And we definitely felt the pressure.”
The problem was that while their 2016 debut Everything This Way had been half a decade in the plotting, its follow-up had to be put together in less than 18 months. That was huge change and initially it seemed to the group that they were being asked to become a musical production line.
Knocking out track after track didn’t come naturally. They grew a bit fed up — and then slightly anxious. They’d already scaled the mountain once. Could they do so all over again?
“We went into it with the wrong psychology,” says Sheehy. “We had the wrong aim. Too much time was spent focusing on the sound of the instruments — rather than digging deep and being honest and real and creating something that was authentic.”
After weeks of pained mucking about they sat back and listened to what they had done. It sounded, to them, like a bland facsimile of Everything This Way. So they scrapped it and started over.
“What we realised is that we had to be honest,” says Sheehy. “On the first record we were writing for the sake of writing — for the love of it. So we stepped back and tried to recapture that.”
Sheehy, if anything bares his soul even more on the new LP, Colours. He croons wrenchingly about his difficult relationship with alcohol on the single ‘Coldest Water’.
He’s far from an addict — but came to realise that he was in certain social situations using drinking as a crutch. All his pain, regret, confusion and even shame, he poured into the lyrics, which are immensely powerful.
He’s aware that ‘Coldest Water’ has been doing well. But Sheehy is nonetheless taken aback when the Irish Examiner informs him that it’s headed for half a million streams on Spotify – an indication that it’s poised to become a major hit.
“When you put yourself out there and people accept and appreciate it… that’s a good feeling. The sentiments can apply to a lot of things.
Still, there were moments, he says, when the band feared that they’d said all they had to say and that a second album might never be forthcoming. There is a theory in the music industry that some artists peak to quickly and have nowhere else to go.
What if Walking On Cars had stumbled into that trap?
“There are always those times you are totally uninspired,” say Sheehy. “You think, ‘have I done my best work — is that it?’ But then the following day you go back to the studio and there’s a different energy and it’s all happening. So we just kept showing up and gradually we got there. We’re delighted with the album now and can’t wait for people to hear it.”
One surprise is how well the band are doing on the Continent. Germany, in particular, has embraced Walking On Cars.
On their upcoming tour of the country they will be playing Vicar Street and Dublin Olympia scale venues — a sign of how fast their fanbase has grown there. Even more impressive is the loyalty Germany has shown. In the three years since Everything This Way, the fanbase has patiently waited to hear what else the group has up its sleeves.
“People focus on the UK and American markets. Germany is absolutely huge,” says Sheehy. “Radio there latched on to ‘Speeding Cars’ very quickly. And when you have a hit in Germany it just lingers on the radio for six to nine months. So that song got a crazy amount of action.
“There are acts in Germany who are huge stars but nobody else has heard of them. There’s a guy from Tralee, Rea Garvey, who we’ve toured with. He plays arenas in Germany and is a judge on The Voice there. He’s absolute massive. And he could walk down the street here and nobody would recognise him. It’s mad.”
Walking On Cars return to 3Arena on May 23. However, if there’s a concert that the band are really looking forward to it’s their Musgrave Park show in Cork on June 21. Just up the road from Dingle it’s the closest to a homecoming for Sheehy and company, with more than 12,000 expected to attend.
The day is also mushrooming into a mini-festival. Recent UK chart-topper Tom Walker is on the bill – as is “new Adele” Lewis Capaldi, whose own Ireland and UK tour is a straight sell-out.
“It’s going to be awesome,” says Sheehy. “To get Lewis Capaldi on the bill is ridiculous. The last time we did 3Arena a lot of Kerry people travelled up. I think they’ll go to Cork on this occasion — it will save them a bit of money on the petrol!”
Colours is out now. Walking On Cars play 3Arena, Dublin on May 23; and Musgrave Park in Cork on June 21