INNER SELF: Michael J. Sheehy [interview included]
A journey into the world of singer/songwriters past and present.
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After the first installment of this feature took us on a journey through the past, going over a little bit of the fascinating and often overlooked legacy of Blaze Foley, let’s fast forward into the present this time, and focus on a musician that is very much alive and kicking, having just released a brand new album with one of his bands, and who was also kind enough to chat a bit with us.
MICHAEL J. SHEEHY
Maybe it’s an age thing, but I still like taking a chance on music that don’t know much about because of how the way an album artwork appeals to me in that hallowed ground of a record store. Sure, unlike when I was a kid, now I could just whip out the phone and have a dozen reviews in front of me before my hand reached into the crate to fish out the record, but call me a hopeless music romantic, I like some things to have a little mystery still. Anyway, that’s what happened a few years ago - roughly fifteen years, now that I’m doing the math, which is much more than I would have guessed - when I spotted this little record called ‘Ghost On The Motorway’ at a store. Just like it had happened with some of my current favourite singer/songwriters of this century, like for instance William Elliott Whitmore with his ‘Hymns For The Hopeless’ debut or Ray LaMontagne also with his debut ‘Trouble’, there was something about that album cover that felt unmistakable, it was impossible that this person wasn’t doing amazing music if the album looked like that from the “outside”.
So yes, bless that Albert Pinkham Ryder painting and the North London-born Sheehy for picking it, because that particular album became one of the major highlights in this style for me. Funnily enough, even after a few listens, I wasn’t immediately aware this wasn’t the first album by this musician that I had bought - Michael had been the founder of the fantastic Dream City Film Club, a criminally underrated rock band from the 90s which, despite its meteoric existence (1995-99), left two faultless albums plus a little bunch of great EPs, releases split between Beggars Banquet and ORG Records, during their time. Stuff that still feels timeless today. Just check out this mindblowing - and heartblowing too - track from their self-titled debut:
Looking back now, it should have been obvious - what fascinated me the most about ‘Ghost On The Motorway’ was precisely that sombre vibe that was such an integral part of Dream City Film Club, a much darker than usual ambiance for a singer/songwriter that even lyrically will hit the bullseye often if your music-listening heart is also a cold and dead slab of hard black rock like mine. Not only are some sort of junkyard dog Tom Waits-isms like ‘New Orleans‘ a delight to unfold, but the sheer malicious glee of that the line “I curse the day I heard her name” is delivered with on ‘Curse The Day’ or the oh-so-relatable mantra of “but a life without trouble really ain’t no life at all” on ‘Bloody Nose’ are but two examples of how Sheehy can infuse some bleakness into compositions that are often outrageously beautiful, nearly spiritual in places, both figuratively and literally for the gospel-like characteristics that some of these songs offer. Once a punk, always a punk, right? It’s no surprise he has cited The Stooges or Nick Cave as early inspirations - especially if you’re a traveller through the dark side of music, you will instantly recognise this kindred spirit.
I’m focusing a lot on that one album from 2007 and on Michael’s first band simply because they were my first contact with his music, but after the journey of discovery they encouraged me to go on, I have to say that if you’re hearing about him now, you’re really spoilt for choice. His six albums (plus two as Michael J. Sheehy and the Hired Mourners which have more of a band approach) are all individual little universes and all offer unique charms, yet they’re all safe bets if you’ve ever liked a song by him, his personality is stamped all over every note.
Despite his remarkable solo career, Michael is still in bands, too. Aside from those Hired Mourners years, he has (re-)joined efforts with Dream City’s Alex Vald on the hard to pin down United Sounds Of Joy, whose only self-titled album from 2016 will cast a huge shadow on your day - pop-noir, as many have called it, or better yet, take these descriptions they’ve put on their Bandcamp accompanying a new song from a forthcoming album: "Like Joe Meek and Goldfrapp entangled in some ancient machinery," "The Human League gone crooning on the moon," "If David Lynch directed a spaghetti western," and "Lounge music for a dystopian future." Trust me, they’re all accurate. Or, hey, just trust yourself. Here:
Last but by no means least, there’s also Miraculous Mule - a more straightforward vehicle for Michael to let out some bluesy, hard rocking jams in the company of Alex Louise Petty and Patrick McCarthy (who both sing also, with Patrick handling bass as well) and drummer Ian Burns. They have just released their new album ‘Old Bones, New Fire’, a game of two halves, as it were, as part of it was recorded in 2011 and the other part during the pandemic. However, it all flows like one single piece of very inspired… erm, well, as Michael himself describes it, “...a group of Anglo-Irish honkies who dig African-American Gospel, prison/work songs and Hillbilly music." A fantastic tribute to early blues, gospel and folk music - if you’re at all into the raw, timeless power of these traditional songs, this is the album for you.
Since Michael has announced on his Facebook page that he is already working on his next solo album, you’d better get on this one fast, because the man’s inspiration isn’t waiting for us to catch up. He’s even shared a new song he’s considering including on that new album. I vote yes:
Speaking of inspiration, I hope Michael won’t mind me saying that it is a great delight to be his friend on social media - the amount of other people’s music he shares (his “tonight’s medicine” posts) has given me more than a bunch of new favourites, or made me hear some artist I might haven’t paid proper attention to with a fresh set of ears. I owe him many discoveries, aside from the huge emotional debt the importance of his own music has created.
And you know what, he’s also a very cool and available dude, which is why he granted this shitty website the honour of a little interview. Here we go!
You’re appearing on a feature about singer/songwriters, of course, but that doesn’t define all of you musically. Apart from the “two of three careers” that you’ve “pissed away”, according to your Bandcamp, you’ve also been and are a part of bands, like Miraculous Mule which has a new album out. What kind of musician do you see yourself as, I suppose is the question here? A solo artist who’s in a few bands, a “proper” singer/songwriter, a guy who’s good at coming up with a tune… Who is this Michael J. Sheehy, musician, for you?
Michael J. Sheehy: One of the advantages of being an unsuccessful musician is that no-one ever expects you to replicate your past glories and I never have that inner-pressure to maintain some kind of magic formula. I walk with ease from one commercial failure straight into another and in many ways that suits me just fine. Ideally, I'd like to make enough money from music to call it a career again while continuing to be fairly anonymous, to keep slipping from one thing into another, I've tried my hand at stripped to the bone acoustic music, ambient electronica and full pelt garage rock. I think if there's a thread that ties it all together, it's probably my voice and my way with a lyric.
The first album I got from you was Ghost On The Motorway, and it kinda still has that effect of the favourite being the record you discovered someone with, but fortunately there’s plenty of riches to be found on all your records. Do you have a favourite yourself, for any reason?
Michael J. Sheehy: I only listen to my old records when I'm relearning an old song and I can't help but wince. It's hard to hear the old me without thinking "Well, I could have done that better." Sometimes I struggle to recognise myself on the old records. If I was pushed I'd probably say 'With These Hands - The Rise and Fall of Francis Delaney' is the one I'd take the most pride in, perhaps just for its ambition. I don't think it 100% works but some of it does. Another album I have a real soft spot for is United Sounds of Joy, which is an ongoing project created with my former Dream City Film Club band member Alex Vald. We've only made this one album and it's quite unlike anything else in my back catalogue.
I saw a post of yours on facebook recently where you showed a few of your guitars and said you’re writing an album in your bedroom. How is usually your method of writing, and how constant is it for you? Do you need to be in a certain kind of mood, are you one of those songwriters who’s always labouring away in some area of your brain, do you sit down with a guitar, are lyrics already involved in that part or do they come later, how is it normally? And does it change substantially when it comes to a band with more people involved?
Michael J. Sheehy: My writing process has probably become a little more disciplined over the years. Back in my days of drinking and drugging, I would lay around waiting for inspiration to strike and honestly believed that the drink and drugs fuelled my work. Another reason why I marvel at the previously mentioned 'With These Hands' is that most of it was written while I was quite drunk or hungover. Sometimes I would wake after a heavy night's drinking with the lyric more or less complete, scrawled on a piece of paper but I'd have no recollection of having written it. When I quit drinking around eleven years ago I was unable to write anything at all and I genuinely believed that perhaps I wasn't really a songwriter if it took alcohol for me to write. It took me around two years to start writing again and then when my daughter was born I suddenly became prolific for the first time in my life.
Nowadays, in common with many a former hell-raising aging songwriter, I treat it more like a craft. I realise that songs are often born of the tiniest musical or lyrical phrase and a songwriter needs to pull the idea out. Sometimes it's as easy as picking a daisy, other times it's like extracting teeth. After 30 odd years of resisting any knowledge of music theory, I've relented recently and started to take a little of that stuff on board. I continue to write in various ways, alone with a guitar or piano, in a rehearsal room with a band or using somebody else's musical or lyrical ideas as a springboard to complete a song. I'm naturally a lazy person and I need to battle that part of my make up to knuckle down and do the work.
I like how on that same aforementioned post you put more or less the same value on the two major parts of being a musician, and a singer/songwriter specifically – one, a good song being born our of an idea you had, and the other, playing a really great gig. Can you pinpoint some of your best moments ever throughout the course of your path as a musician, in either of these two categories?
Michael J. Sheehy: As far as writing goes, I distinctly remember a song called 'No One Recognised Him' from my album ‘Ill-Gotten Gains’, written over twenty years ago. I wrote it on my friend Fiona Brice's piano when she was a flat mate with my then girlfriend. Back then, when I'd write on a piano, I tended to use chords I'd avoid on a guitar. I was quite elated when I wrote that one and I believe it was one of the first great songs I ever wrote, I still play it at most of my solo shows. As far as live shows go, the album launch for the latest Miraculous Mule album was pretty special. We played at a small chapel in London and the atmosphere was electric. It's so easy to sing in such inspiring buildings.
You’re also a great music recommender, your regular “tonight’s medicine” posts have given me quite a few new favourites and made me go back and listen with fresh ears to some stuff I hadn’t paid proper attention to. I like that your music taste is very diverse. Are there any genres or artists that you just won’t touch, and that seem beyond hope for you? And on the other hand, what might be some of your favourites that you think might surprise even people who follow you?
Michael J. Sheehy: I am pretty much open to anything but I must admit there are genres I struggle with. I find a lot EDM ball-achingly dull and I can't wrap my head around most metal and its sub-genres but that's not to say I haven't found great records and artists within both those genres. By and large I find the vocals in a lot of metal highly irritating, musically I'll be enjoying something then, BOOM! the singer starts and I have to turn it off. Metallica are a good example of this phenomena, musically, I don't find them offensive at all but then Hetfield starts with all his histrionic bollocks, I'm done. I love a lot of heavy/hard rock and proto-metal and I'm sure there are currents acts out there that I'd like.
There are a couple of artists I just cannot listen to: Steely Dan brings me out in a rash. Frank Zappa doesn't do much for me either. I think he was an amazing musician but he used his talent to sneer and punch down at people. I'm generally not a fan of anyone too arch in that "oh aren't we clever and isn't life just one big absurd joke!" way. As for stuff that may surprise people given the type of music I make, I guess hip-hop, jazz and reggae are types of music I really love but don't really figure in my own music. Yet...
Tell us a little more about the new Miraculous Mule album! It seems like a great new take on these traditional songs, how did this idea come about, and how did you finally get it done (since some of the album comes from a 2011 session already, right?)?
Michael J. Sheehy: Well, I've always had a deep love for gospel and blues music which all started with my love of Elvis Presley when I was a kid. The beginnings of the band go back to 2010, at the time I was already struggling to write and I was still a year away from quitting alcohol. My brother Patrick - who sings and plays bass, banjo and guitar in the band had started a club night on Denmark Street in London and we booked a band for the first night but they pulled out a few weeks before the gig. We decided to play ourselves, but we had no songs as such so instead we played a lot of the old gospel songs we knew. From there we asked our old friend Ian Burns to play drums and Alex Louise Petty to join us on vocals and percussion. Most of our first two albums were made up of these songs, then for our third album we made more of full-on Rock record. This time we've gone back to the beginning after finding some unused songs from the sessions for the first album. We decided to try and record some more stuff in that style and went into a studio when restrictions eased in the UK. The choice of songs was very much informed by everything that was going on in the world. We're very pleased with how it turned out and the way it has connected with people.
After this record, what’s up for you? Is a solo album forthcoming (in case you didn’t mention it already with that “bedroom album” you’re writing), what can we expect for the near future?
Michael J. Sheehy: I'm always writing or recording something. I'm never sure whether I'm making demos or a record. Ideally, I'd like to get into a studio with a couple of other musicians to record my next solo aMichael J. Sheehy: lbum but it really depends on financing. Everything is so precarious right now for independent artists and labels but I remain hopeful because we have to be, things can't be this shitty forever, right?!?
Find Michael J. Sheehy on Bandcamp, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.