Folk alchemist Seamus Fogarty plays Levis’ for the first time

Alt-folk musician Seamus Fogarty is set to tour Ireland next month, passing through West Cork on March 2 to perform tracks from his wide-ranging catalogue. Raised in County Mayo but living in London for over a decade, Seamus spent much of 2023 touring Ireland and the UK with renowned folk musician Lisa O’Neill.

‘They Recognised Him’, the first single from his latest EP ‘Hee Haw’ released last October is garnering high praise from DJs and personalities across the airwaves, with several plays from presenters John Kelly on RTÉ, Gideon Coe and Cillian Murphy on BBC 6 Music. Getting regular airplay is helping raise the Mayo musician’s profile and introduce him to new audiences. “I think people are in a different frame of mind when they listen to the radio as opposed to streaming,” he says. “Not that it’s better or worse in terms of the music within, but I guess people have this idea that DJs are gatekeepers and that what they play is worth checking out. Cillian Murphy’s been great to me and lots of Irish artists, hats off and fair play to Cork!” he exclaims.

Fogarty grew up listening to trad and folk music and learned to play the fiddle, the banjo, and the tin whistle from a young age. It wasn’t until his teenage years that he picked up the guitar after his older brother John introduced him to lo-fi American music. His influences were as far-ranging as Johnny Cash, Pavement and Aphex Twin back then, but Fogarty discovered Steve Reich and John Cale in later years which vastly broadened his horizon. 

He studied engineering in Dublin’s DCU, writing songs mostly on his acoustic guitar around that time, and then he moved to Limerick to do a Masters in Music Technology. “I was always into this kind of songwriter stuff,” he says, “but I also had this notion that I wanted to inject some weird electronic stuff into it.” In 2005, he found a foot pedal and was given a cracked version of the Ableton Live software. “I never really looked back after that in terms of how you could play and perform music using the guitar or the banjo, and control accompaniment on a laptop.”

Though his songs are embedded in folk music, they are slightly off-kilter – a strange and hearty stew of traditional structures warped and distorted with layers of electronic dissonance and interference. “Some of the tunes might come across melancholic so I always try and balance stuff out with a bit of zany – balance the heavy with lighter elements just to keep everyone feeling good,” he explains.

From his very first album ‘God Damn You Mountain’ released on Scottish independent label Fence Records in 2012, Seamus was encouraged by label director Johnny Lynch to do his best to make it a full package, especially if he was to release music under his own name. “Fife was an amazing learning experience and place, with all different kinds of people involved, and there was really a DIY ethic and aesthetic.” He drew and painted the cover art for that album and maintained this principle for most of his later releases, designing a T-shirt to sell at gigs and putting out a calendar with his drawings the last two years. 

The only release that doesn’t feature his own artwork is his latest album ‘Bag of Eyes’, released in November 2020 on British label Domino Records. It features a doodle by Billy Steinberg, the American songwriter behind ‘Like A Virgin’ and ‘Eternal Flame’. Seamus explains that he came across the doodle in Margate where he was recording. “I thought it was some random band that had stayed there that had done it – it kind of reminded me of something I might try and do myself.” Contacts were made in the US to ask for permission to use the artwork. “Billy was just delighted that anyone actually wanted to use some of his artwork for something!” he declares.

Because of the pandemic Fogarty never got around to touring his last album, but supporting Lisa O’Neill was a great boost for his career. “It was exactly what I needed – to knuckle down again, and on the back of those shows I wrote and recorded a new EP. And that was purely to have something else to sell at those shows.”

And so the five track EP ‘Hee Haw’ came out – an assortment of playful tunes dreamed up during the pandemic and his first release in three years. Once again, Fogarty embraced the weird and never strayed far from his Irish heritage, turning an old sean-nós tune into his very own, a seemingly slowed-down version of Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’. “My Irish isn’t perfect,” he admits “but I love how it allows you to communicate from somewhere completely different”.

With three albums and three EPs under his belt – all extremely well-received, things are already afoot for another release. The time frame for the next album is for a release within the next year. So far, 80 per cent of the album is done and Fogarty has been testing his new songs at his recent live shows. “It’s a total pleasure to be able to play the tunes live and I’m still working on them a little bit,” he says. As usually happens for Seamus, recording has been taking place in various locations. “I recorded some of it in Margate with Mike Lindsay, some of it at home, and some with Leo Abrahams, who’s an amazing producer and engineer,” he explains. “I recorded some of it in Hastings, where my drummer has a studio. What takes time then as well as finishing the songs, is trying to make them fit together into one glorious body of work.’ 

Fogarty enjoys the challenge of figuring out how to get gigs and making them work. Though he loves going out on the road, he admits that it can be a gruelling experience driving all over the place, especially when playing solo. He moved to London to join his partner Emma, who he met at a music festival in Scotland. A musician in her own right, Emma Smith plays the guitar and violin with British acts Pulp and Jarvis Cocker, and the bass with post-punk trio Bas Jan. With Nora, their five year old daughter and no other family over in England, touring and a busy life schedule can be difficult. “It’s definitely tricky, and there’s been a few overlaps,” he confesses “but Nora has started coming to shows”.

The tour will take Seamus Fogarty through some of Ireland’s loveliest venues, starting in West Cork and passing through Galway, Waterford, Belfast and Dublin. “I just can’t believe it,” he exclaims. “I’m just so looking forward to going back and doing such a lovely run of shows. I’ll be playing tunes off the EP and then just tunes off the other albums and then some off the next album, whenever that’s going to come out.” Improvising is a big element in Fogarty’s live shows, and he embraces the fact that he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen in the performance. “I used to feel like such a failure when stuff went wrong, but now it’s part of the show. Not that it goes wrong all the time, but I like to not be afraid to see where stuff can go.”

For his gig in Levis’, Fogarty will play as a three-piece. “We’re bringing the laptop, a couple of synths, and drum machines,” he reveals. “It’ll be me on the guitar and electronics, my amazing drummer Aram Zarikian, and John, my brother, who sings and plays the accordion. John’s got a beautiful instrument so he can add these lovely deep textures,” he continues. “I’ll do a few songs of my own, and it can get quite noisy but there’s nice quiet bits in there as well.”

Seamus Fogarty plays Levis’ Corner House, Ballydehob on March 2.

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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