CILLIAN McSweeney doesn’t get stage fright. “I just get a few butterflies and once the lights go up, the nerves go and I enjoy it every time,” the 27-year-old Cork musician says, via email.
McSweeney, who is about to release his debut EP, Unique, is conducting an interview by email because he can’t communicate using speech. Nor can he walk, or control most of the muscle spasms that rack his body: He was born with severe cerebral palsy. Yet with the aid of assistive technologies, he writes lyrics, composes, and performs his own songs, a window into his inner world that would otherwise have little outlet.
“Unlock these doors, smash down these walls, break down these fences, let me be free,” he writes in ‘Locked In’, one of three tracks from his EP.
“‘Locked In’ is a perfect way to describe how I feel inside,” McSweeney says. “I can see that my way out is through music; it’s my escape.”
But how does someone in McSweeney’s physical situation play and perform? In the past decade, huge advances have been made in the field of assistive technologies: Specialised musical instruments and software that allow people whose movements are restricted by a disability to learn and play music. The concept of accessible musical instruments took one step further towards mainstream awareness last year, with Apple’s release of the Skoog 2.0, a wireless cube that responds to pressure to produce notes. “I don’t exactly have an instrument,” explains McSweeney. “My Eyegaze, which I use to access a program called E-Scape, and my laptop are my instruments. I make melodies through picking cords from E-Scape and playing them to lyrics that I write.”
Hooked up to his laptop, Eyegaze technology scans and interprets his eye movements and he uses it to type his lyrics. He has limited control of his head movements, and in conversation he uses a swift upward glance for “yes” and a nod of the head for “no”, allowing those close to him to him communicate more freely than relying on painstaking typed responses.
Performing poses a whole new set of challenges, but for McSweeney it’s a part of his drive as a musician, not to be overlooked. He controls switches with his head to trigger pre-programmed notes. “Physically, it’s very challenging for me,” he says. “I have involuntary movements that I try to keep under control while using my switch in time to the melodies. I feel like an equal musician when I write and perform alongside other band members.”
“It’s important for me to perform, as I want people like me who may have a physical disability to know that there is a life outside of the wheelchair. It is a long and hard road to get this far, but it’s worth it when you’re lucky enough to be able to put it all together in an EP.”
The path to recording his EP has been a long one, he says, although it’s not his first recording project. As a teenager, McSweeney got involved with the Knocknaheeney Youth Music Initiative, a project backed by U2-funded philanthropic organisation Music Generation. The group recorded McSweeney’s song ‘Equal’ as a single, and played for President Mary McAleese in Áras an Uachtaráin.
McSweeney was bitten by the music bug way back in primary school. When he was in his teens, Dr Gráinne MacHale, who directs a ground-breaking accessible music programme called SoundOUT based in the Lavanagh Centre in Cork, introduced McSweeney to devices like Soundbeam. This operates like a theremin to translate movement into notes, as well as switches he can control with his head. It was also through Dr MacHale that McSweeney met his tutor, collaborator, and fellow band member Graham McCarthy. “Myself and Graham work great together,” he says. “I nod and he knows exactly what I mean; he just gets me.”
IT’S McCarthy, an MA graduate of CIT School of Music, who gives voice to the lyrics that McSweeney writes, as well as playing the guitar. Together, the duo form the core of a loose ensemble of musicians called Circles, an inclusive band that began in Togher Music Project, where McCarthy was working as a tutor when he met McSweeney.
“I love creating original songs, and so does Cillian; our fundamental commonality is in that,” says McCarthy. “He might give me a couple of lines of lyrics and I might put music to it, so we’ve had that collaborative relationship from the get-go and that’s been really rewarding.”
Circles have performed live, but McCarthy felt a recording project would be a great learning experience. “For any musician, recording is great practice,” he says. “It’s like a spotlight is put on your instrument and everything is magnified; it hones your technique and time-keeping, so I thought it would be good for Cillian.”
However, when they recorded Unique, McSweeney’s catchy number about a girl, which he admits is inspired by UK pop queen Jessie J, McCarthy could see the song’s potential and he arranged to rerecord the track at Wood Street studios with sound engineer Laurence White, who sadly passed away last year shortly after Unique was recorded.
McCarthy says that working with McSweeney is “humbling”.
“To see him being challenged and rising to the occasion every time is amazing,” says McCarthy. “We practised today, and he was there for a four-hour rehearsal and I understand how tiring it can be for him to play the switches the way he plays. He’s amazingly inspiring to work with because he has incredible dedication. It brings my feet back down to the ground to work with him and puts everything in perspective.”
“It’s been an eye-opener in so many ways,” says McCarthy. He’s now a firm advocate for more access both for McSweeney and other musicians with a disability to “everyday things that we take for granted we can do, like making music”.
Access to venues for performers would be a good first step. “People with disabilities may be able to get into a venue as audience members, but accessibility to the stage is practically non-existent in a lot of places. It’s just not thought of: Why would someone with a disability need to be able to access the stage?
“I always found that an eye-opener. Cillian really feels strongly about advocating for that; he’s a musician, not a disabled person who makes music. End of story.”
- Unique, the debut EP by Cillian McSweeney and Circles is out now. Unique will be available for purchase on iTunes and CD in select music outlets