The lights went down and the screams went up. It was September 21, 2007, and Kieran McFeely was on stage at the 3000-capacity Tower Theatre in Philadelphia, singing to thousands of shrieking teenagers. True, they weren’t actually shrieking for him: he was the opening act on a bill that also included Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Kings of Leon. Nonetheless it was a surreal evening. McFeely talk out it now as though it were a dream.
“I was supporting Kings of Leon and they were just exploding with Sex On Fire. The first five or six rows on that tour were young girls who had got there early to see them,” he recalls. “I was particularly bearded and unkempt when I came on with my harmonica and banjo. All these American girls were going, ‘oh my god?’
McFeely, from Douglas in Cork city, was touring under his alias of Simple Kid. The name is a misnomer: McFeely’s blend of blues, electronica, folk and hip-hop is grippingly complex and ambitious.
“I remember meeting a friend from Cork on that tour,” he says from his home in Hastings in East Sussex on England’s southern coast. “He was saying, ‘what’s gone wrong with the second album? The press isn’t half as much as one the first one’. The truth is I was possibly having a better time, as the promotion was less intense.”
Simple Kid’s second record, Simple Kid 2 (sometimes referred to as SK2), had came out that October in the US and the previous August in the rest of the world. And it was well enough received. Yet, as his friend from Cork had pointed out, the real buzz had been around his debut 2003 debut Simple Kid 1 (SK1).
SK1 was a phenomenon. Uncut magazine hailed it “exciting, sassy and funny”; the Guardian, heralding the Corkman’s “prodigious imagination”, compared McFeely to Beck and Badly Drawn Boy. After a career full of setbacks, he finally seemed to be going places. But that bright future never quite arrived. The Kings of Leon tour did not, for instance, prove a jumping off point to bigger things. Instead it was something of a swan song. Not long afterwards he stepped back from songwriting.
Today, married with three kids, he lives quietly in Hastings and teaches music at Bexhill College. This is the story of SK1, the heartache that preceded it and the unlikely – and low stakes – comeback on which this unheralded Cork songwriter has now embarked.
McFeely grew up in Douglas on the southside of Cork, attending Douglas Community School. When McFeely was 13 his older brother Alan moved to London with his band Sultans of Ping FC and became a rock star. The Sultans' success – documented in a previous B-Side the Leeside – opened the eyes of Kieran (who then went as 'Ciarán'). A music career was something to which he could legitimately aspire.
“It had a huge influence,” he says. “Unconsciously I suddenly realised it was possible. Before that, people playing music on TV were on a different planet. Suddenly my brother was coming home at Christmas and telling us stories. I would visit him in London. There would be people around. Journalists and what have you. I mean, up to that how would I ever get to speak to a journalist? That fired me up.”
By 1997, McFeely was playing with his own band The V-Necks. He started off as the drummer but his natural charisma made him an obvious choice for frontman. Cork music was at the time in a bit of a lull. Excitement around the ‘Corkchester” scene had died down: everyone was waiting for the next big thing. The V-Necks had come around at exactly the right time. Buzz around the group soon spread outside Cork.
One of the industry figures paying attention David Balfe, head of A&R with Columbia Records (a division of Sony Records). Balfe wasn’t just another label executive however. From Merseyside, he started out playing keyboards with the Teardrop Explodes. In the 1984 he established Food Records and in 1990 signed four Colchester ragamuffins named Blur.
Blur would later return the compliment by writing Country House about Balfe (he’d made a mint from Food and, as the song recounts, bought a property outside London). After selling Food to EMI in 1994, Balfe went on to have success with Columbia, where his major signing was Kula Shaker. He saw The V-Necks as potentially as big. To this day he sometimes wonders why it didn’t happen for them.
“We were really excited about them [The V-Necks],” says Balfe, today a British Labour Party councillor in West Sussex. “I did fairly well in the music business. But even saying that, only about a third of my groups had hits. And that’s a good strike rate. People don’t really realise the heartache that comes from the bands that don’t make it.”
The one sticking about was the name. Balfe and Columbia weren’t keen on “The V-Necks”. So one of the conditions of their deal was that McFeely and his bandmates pick another alias. This wasn’t unique to them. He’d likewise persuaded Blur to drop their original moniker of Seymour. So Balfe will have reasonably felt that he knew what he was talking about.
“We did want them to change it. That was one of the conditions of being signed. They had a song called The Young Offenders. I suggested it, based one of their song titles.”
The Young Offenders released their first single, That’s Why We Lose Control, in 1998, with glammy production by Nick Coler (later a member of the Xenomania pop collective that produced hits for Sugababes and Girls Aloud). That’s Why We Lose Control did reasonably well. However, tensions arose over the choice of follow-up. The Young Offenders wanted to go with Science Fiction – which they felt communicated the sci-fi glam qualities of their music. Balfe was less keen. Nonetheless, the band had their way. It flopped and all that early momentum disappeared.
“With The V-Necks, it was about ambition,’ says McFeely. “I was absolutely obsessively going for it. There were a couple of singles, one of which they were happy with. It was one of those things where the label had pumped in a lot of money. They moved us to London a year or two before we’d even recorded the album. It was that classic major label thing. They needed a hit straight away. They didn’t have time for it to build and build. We’d record songs again and again and again. And we’d go to meetings where they would decide if the song hit the market trends of the moment.”
The Young Offenders recorded an album but Columbia decided not to release it. McFeely says that he admires Balfe for telling him the bad news to his face. “There was a feeling that Britpop had reached its high tide,” says Balfe. “There seemed to be a lot of bands. Maybe that was a factor.”
McFeely’s next musical incarnation, Simple Kid, could not have been more different from the Young Offenders. The glam flourishes were dialled down. Instead, the new songs – if still hugely catchy – radiated a rootsy, almost indolent charm. Both Simple Kid albums are worth rediscovering. But there’s a sweetness to SK1 that makes it particularly special. “I recorded it in my manager’s office,” says McFeely.
“It was in Farringdon, the jeweller’s district in London. Right by the meat markets. I’d do it through the night. He’d give me the keys and I’d be arrive at eight o’clock at night as everyone else was going home. I’d work through until the morning. Eventually my sleep patterns became completely opposite to those of the rest of the world.”
After this bare-boned recording process, SK1 was mixed at the Astoria houseboat studio at Richmond, owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. McFeely’s memories of the time are warm. “I’d been through the major label thing with Sony and it hadn’t worked out. At that point I was slightly stubborn. I was around 26. I was determined to do it the way I wanted. In the past [with The Young Offenders] we’d been produced by people and the record we made, none of us ended up liking.
“It was that classic thing that bands have where they think the demos sound great and the album sucked. With Simple Kid, I had this thing where if the demo in my bedroom had something about it that I liked I was going to fight for it. I wanted an album on my shelf that sounded the way I wanted it to sound.”
SK1 was well reviewed and seem to position McFeely for a successful career. And yet, much of the praise baffled the Corkman. He was likened to Beck, which was fair enough. But then came the Dylan comparisons.
“It was a bit silly really. Someone writes it – and then the record label, rightly or wrongly, thinks we should stick it on the cover. I remember when the first album came out, there was a sticker with it that said something about Bob Dylan. “It was like, ‘aargh… in the short term, this probably seems like a good idea’.
"And then of course, for the next three years, I had to answer ludicrous questions about Bob Dylan. In America, it got quite tense. They were a bit protective of Dylan. Journalists were going, ‘so you think you’re Bob Dylan?’
He stepped away from music after SK2. The phone had stopped ringing. And he was now in his 30s. Most of his friends had settled down and were starting families. Did he really want to spend the next ten years living out of a tour bus? He moved on, sold all his equipment and didn’t play a note for a decade.
Then, a few years ago, he got back into writing and now has assembled a new body of Simple Kid tracks which he has posted to YouTube. He sees it as a hobby rather than a comeback. Still, if an indie label was interested in putting out a record – they could even call it SK3 – then that’s a call he’d be prepared to take.
“I loved that first Simple Kid album,” says David Balfe. “Both Kieran and Damon [Albarn from Blur] had that similar glam aesthetic. There's an awful of Bowie in Damon. And there was an awful lot of Bowie in what Kieran was doing.”
Fans of Simple Kid will be hoping that a grown up incarnation might yet bear more fruit.