Exciting times ahead for Oisín Leech

Having just released his debut album ‘Cold Sea’ last month, Navan folk musician Oisín Leech is set to tour the month of April with a rake of gigs that will see him perform across the island – north and south, followed by some UK dates and a highly anticipated Paris gig. He chats to Lauren Guillery.

Oisin Leech Pic:Ellius Grac

Currently supporting Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes in England, Oisín Leech is no stranger to the music scene, having toured extensively as one half of Irish folk duo The Lost Brothers, a collaboration with Tyrone songwriter Mark Causland. Together, The Lost Brothers have released seven albums to date, recording with Brendan Benson (The Raconteurs) wearing the producer hat, and opening for the likes of Billy Bragg, Elvis Costello, and even the Arctic Monkeys in Japan.

But after 15 years together, Oisín explains that it feels quite healthy to take a hiatus from The Lost Brothers and focus on his own career. His first solo offering ‘Cold Sea’ was recorded last autumn and came about rather unexpectedly. For a few years now, Leech has been running a folk club – the Joey Procida’s Folk Club in The Lantern pub in Navan. International musicians Willy Mason, Steve Gunn, and Irish musicians Declan O’Rourke and Lisa Hannigan among many others have all left their mark there over the years, with Oisín playing a tune or two before welcoming the first act and spinning vinyl between performances. “I thought it would be nice to start singing original material to introduce the folk club,” he explains. During the pandemic, Leech spent a lot of time in Donegal writing and studying poetry from Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh and learning to play with open-tuning on his guitar. Inspired by the Donegal landscape and the sound of the ocean, the body of work that he developed for the folk club didn’t feel quite like The Lost Brothers. A friend got hold of his demo material and sent it to a record label in Canada, which promptly responded that they wanted to put a record out. 

And so, the quest for a music producer began, with Leech making a list of people he would love to collaborate with. First on the list was Steve Gunn, the versatile guitarist from Brooklyn who over the years has collaborated with the likes of Bill Nace, David Moore, and Kim Gordon to name a few. Enthusiastic about the idea of producing Oisín, Gunn responded with a resounding ‘yes’. The two musicians had previously met in New York when Oisín recorded in the same studio as Steve for a Lost Brothers album. “I love Steve Gunn’s albums and the way he embraces a certain kind of strangeness,” Leech remarks. A few emails back and forth and it was agreed that they would rent out a house in Donegal for a few days and set up their own recording studio. While scrolling through Airbnb, Oisín’s wife came across an old schoolhouse up for rent near Malin and the deal was done – Steve would fly over from the States and they would hire or borrow the equipment to record there.

Over the course of four days, the tiny schoolhouse became a working studio and the birthplace of ‘Cold Sea’. Gunn and Leech spent most of the first day setting up the equipment in the front room overlooking the ocean, Steve meticulously moving microphones around to catch the perfect sound. The kitchen was aptly renamed ‘Mission Control’, and it is at this large table that Gunn would sit, headphones on, recording on his laptop.

Like a lot of records that they both love, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’, early Joni Mitchell, or Van Morrison’s ‘Veedon Fleece’, it was decided that Gunn’s main creative as the producer was to let the songs breathe. “It was a case of capturing a moment and not overthinking it”, Oisín Leech shares. “Steve is such a brilliant artist that he kind of approached the album like a painter, and he knew what colours we were going to use. He brought a great subtlety to the album.” The minimalist nature and warm tone of the album evokes Nick Drake a lot of the time, and with contributions from both Steve Gunn and M. Ward on the guitar, and stellar musicians Dónal Lunny on bouzouki, Róisín McGrory on the violin, and Tony Garnier on the bass, it is no wonder that ‘Cold Sea’ is a beautiful debut, bringing Oisín Leech the recognition he deserves.

Fresh from playing a gig at Rough Trade and a BBC 6 Music live session with Cerys Matthews at the famous Maida Vale studios in London, Leech was invited to open for Supergrass superstar Gaz Coombes at the end of March. “It’s a big mystery how he booked me,” Oisín confesses. “I think he may have heard a song on the radio and then somebody got in touch. I went to see Supergrass when I lived in Liverpool, and my wife and I went to see Gaz play in Belfast and Dublin. He has a big band and I love his solo records so I can’t wait to hang out and meet them”.

Positive reviews for ‘Cold Sea’ are pouring in since its release in March, but the most surprising of all is the reception the album is getting from French publications. “I’m delighted because I love France, so I could be big in France”, he says jokingly. With one date so far booked in Paris in early May, a support to psychedelic folk English songwriter Vashti Bunyan in London, and a main stage appearance at the Another Love Story festival in his native Meath this summer, one can expect big things shaping up for Oisín Leech over the next year.

A self-taught guitarist, Leech is an avid music geek and will happily talk about music all day long. In fact, he hosts a show on RTÉ Radio 1 called ‘Caravan Radio’ inspired by his childhood holiday trips in a camper van from Navan to Buncrana with his family. Growing up he was surrounded by music: both his parents sang, his grandmother from Donegal played the piano, and his father the violin, so it’s no wonder he himself turned his focus to music. He studied theatre and film at Trinity and spent a lot of time busking as a young man. “I was learning about all these great playwrights like Sean O’Casey and Arthur Miller in the morning, and in the afternoon I’d go sing Waterboys songs on Grafton Street,” he shares. “So, I was kind of learning my performance and my theory at the same time.” 

And busking did take him all over the world. With his four-piece band The Fluid Druids and a generator through which the boys powered their amp, he spent a lot of time playing the streets of Naples and Liverpool where he lived for some time. They even got invited to back up Neville Staples of The Specials around Europe, playing ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Too Hot’, and ‘Message To You Ruddy’ in packed up bull rings in Spain. “We rehearsed at Barleycove beach in West Cork for that tour, actually,” he recalls. “We rehearsed in the sand dunes through that generator in the middle of the grass. People thought we were nuts!” 

Thankfully, things are a little more composed these days. Oisín plays his songs accompanied live by Graham Healy, and this is who he will be joined by at Levis’ on April 19. “Graham is a great double bass player who also plays with Saint Sister and Fionn Regan,” he says. “The songs work really well with voice, guitar and double bass. It kind of has that Fred Neil feel to it, which I love.”

Ten dates are booked for Oisín Leech’s upcoming Irish tour, his ‘Maiden Voyage Concert Series’, and for three special dates in Dublin, Galway, and Letterkenny, Leech will be backed up by his album collaborators Steve Gunn, Dónal Lunny, Róisín McGrory, and Tony Garnier. The artwork for the album, an oil painting by Inishowen-based Donegal artist Sinéad Smyth will be projected on the stage in Letterkenny. “I loved her painting instantly when I saw it”, Oisin shares. “It captures the darkness of the majestic beauty of the landscape up there where my mother is from. Her beautiful charcoal drawing is at the back of the vinyl too”. There’s no doubt Oisín Leech’s ‘Maiden Voyage’ across Ireland, the UK and beyond this summer will bring a bit of Donegal wherever it stops. Make sure to not miss it.

Oisín Leech plays Levis Corner House on April 19

Lauren Guillery

Lauren Guillery is a rock musician and music lover. Her album ‘Disaster in La La Land’ is available on all music platforms.

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