Dublin musician and composer Rachael Lavelle released her debut album ‘Big Dreams’ on November 10, and has just embarked on a tour of Ireland that will see her perform her ethereal soundscape in Leap and Kinsale this December. With shows already sold out in Dublin’s Project Arts Centre and Cork city’s Coughlan’s, and two UK dates so far confirmed for next February, her performances at Connolly’s and Prim’s Bookshop are sure to entice a savvy audience.
At only 30 years of age, Rachael Lavelle started her music career relatively late. Though she went to piano lessons as a child, it was her grandfather who had the most influence on her. A pianist and the composer behind Ireland’s 1967 Eurovision entry ‘If I Could Choose’, Michael Coffey wrote the musical comedy ‘Carrie’ which was quite popular in Ireland. A reserved child, Lavelle loved singing along to Disney movies, and so her parents sent her to dance and drama classes. She became obsessed with the Italian language, and so studied for a degree in Sociology and Italian at Trinity College Dublin. Although music would have been a big part of her life, it wasn’t until a stay in Italy as part of an Erasmus programme that she realised she wanted to write her own songs. And write she did, putting a band together and recording her four-track EP ‘Superman’ at her cousin Damian Moloney’s house. The result was a self-released debut that gathered interest on the Irish music scene and landed her high profile gigs around Dublin.
Interested in film music and electronic music, Rachael enrolled in a Masters in Music and Media Technology the same year, and studying with Kinsale composer Linda Buckley became a revelation. “She’s incredible and completely changed my life,” Lavelle reveals. ‘I wanted to use my voice in a different way with technology, and the composition classes kind of fed into my songwriting and more into the technology, so I was blending composition, technology and my voice in that way.”
Rachael’s voice is indeed quite unique. Her friend once remarked that she “spoke in the same register as people yawn”, a dusky vocal tone that is delivered sparsely in song, and with a haunting quality. This is perhaps why she feels at home singing for funerals, which she gets through word of mouth or via undertakers. “It sounds depressing, but it’s actually very life-affirming,” she explains. “I like listening to eulogies and hearing a lot of people’s emotions.”
In 2017, an impulsive trip to Lisbon following a break-up started the process of what would become her debut album. Serendipity brought her to an artist residency which she would end up travelling to every day on a boat. “It was a really peaceful place overlooking the river,” she says. “There wasn’t really anyone around and this is where I wrote a lot of the melodies and made a lot of drum samples.”
Several years in the making, ‘Big Dreams’ is a musical landscape that takes you on a journey into Rachael Lavelle’s psyche. The album was recorded mostly on the computer in her bedroom except for the vocals which were recorded with Alex Barwick in his Dublin studio. Her observations on life are conveyed with a dry sense of humour and achieved through the manipulation of her voice, enveloped with rich synthesisers and a cinematic sound design. She admits not really enjoying spending time in the studio, preferring the experiment at home where she can try things out and not feel under any pressure. Multi-instrumentalist and long-time collaborator Ryan Hargadon, who also performs with Wicklow folk singer-songwriter Anna Mieke and Dublin rapper Kojaque, played saxophone and clarinet on the album. “Ryan has been in my band since the beginning. Me and Ryan will have very similar tastes in synths, and he really understood the sound world that I was trying to make. His collaboration was very big.”
Rachael reveals that she was inspired by the familiar things but that she tried to make them dream-like or confusing in some weird way. “Whether that’s being on Instagram, or hearing someone talk, or reading something, I’m always looking for things that are very familiar in my life, and I love trying to reinterpret them in a really dramatic musical context’, she explains. ‘A lot of the lyrics on the album are inspired by YouTube videos or something my friend said. Simple things that are very ordinary, but I like re-contextualising them.’
There’s an inner monologue that runs through the album. If you’ve ever travelled by tram in Dublin, you may recognise the voice of broadcaster Doireann Ní Bhriain – the Luas lady that announces all the stops. Rachael approached Ní Bhriain to become the narrator of that inner voice. “I loved the idea of her being a familiar voice that’s telling you where you’re going during the day, but I liked imagining that she was telling us something else, and that she was getting into our heads.”
Since the release of ‘Perpetual Party’ in 2019 – the song that would become the title track for the album, Lavelle has participated in many collaborative projects. During Covid, she presented her repertoire of songs as part of a collaboration with Glasshouse, a contemporary music ensemble that presents collaborative interpretations of contemporary albums. She also performed with Dulciana Vocal Ensemble, a chamber choir committed to promoting the music of female composers. Last year, she appeared on Villagers’ Connor O’Brien album ‘Fever Dreams’ as well as Crash Ensemble’s latest album, and she took part in Cumasc, a music programme on TG4 that paired her up with American composer Peter Broderick for the day. Rachael has also composed music for film, notably she wrote the soundtrack for Laura Quirke’s short film ‘Devotion’. She also played the voice of Mother Nature in Laragh McCann’s film ‘Where Is She?’. “It’s a really beautiful film about the environment and being a woman,” she remarks.
Rachael Lavelle’s album artwork and accompanying music videos are very compelling. Award-winning film director Bob Gallagher, under Sarah Flanagan’s art direction, produced the videos for ‘Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential’ and ‘Big Dreams’. Inspired by the 1980 performance art piece ‘Rest Energy’ by artistic duo Marina Abramović and Ulay, the video for ‘Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential’ sees Lavelle transformed into William Tell’s wife, reclaiming the power she once held. In the video for ‘Travel Size’, film director Anna Heisterkamp turns Lavelle into an air hostess. “I’ve worked with really amazing people for this album release,” Rachael says. “They’re just all legends, and it’s been so fun to do the visual things because it’s not really a world I’m in at all, so it’s just been fun to work with people on that aspect of things.” For the album artwork, art director Sarah Flanagan came up with the idea of a giant pillow. “Originally there was meant to be press shots of me on the pillow,” Rachael explains. “We tried a few different things, but then it felt like the album was either in the air or in water, something between the two. It made sense that I’d be sleeping or lazying around on a pillow in an imaginary sea.”
Reports of Lavelle’s performances at festivals such as Other Voices in Dingle and Another Love Story in Co. Meath include words such as ‘spellbinding’ and ‘captivating’. A quick online search of her name will confirm that this is indeed the case. For her show at Connolly’s, Rachael Lavelle will be accompanied by Ryan Hargadon on saxophone and clarinet, and Hannah Hiemstra on bass and drums. “I’m super excited to play in Leap,” she exclaims. “I played there opening for Saint Sister in 2019 and I just love the energy there, Sam and everyone, they’re so welcoming and it’s such a special place, and I’m so excited to return!” No doubt everyone in the audience will witness something very special that night.
Rachael Lavelle with support from Ellie O’Neill plays Prim’s Bookshop in Kinsale on December 6, and Connolly’s of Leap on December 8.