Emotional advocacy

As You Lay

“I don't think this is a heartache you'll recover from” remarks Étáin in the opening verse of As You Lay.

You'd be forgiven if one of the first things to capture your attention is her remarkable vocal range. But the next thing you'll probably notice is how strikingly honest the lyrics are. With a delivery that's bursting with sincerity, it's hard to not become entangled within her rich tapestry of gorgeous imagery and the minutiae of her life.

In The Kitchen is a remarkable sophomore EP by the songwriter and producer, after a four year gap since her debut record. It's a sea change in her storytelling, with every song on the record infinitely more personal – no longer tales of fiction, but moments of her life we are given a glimpse into.

It's been a busy week for Étáin, between her full time job at Help Musicians and self-releasing In The Kitchen. In a room decorated with scattered prints and instruments neatly nestled against a wall, Étáin reflects upon her latest EP, the Irish language, and what home means to her.

How did the tracks on the EP come about?

Something More is the first track on the EP, and it was also the first track I recorded for the EP. I kind of started tracking it without the idea that I was going to make an EP: I was just in lockdown and decided to record these songs, and that was the song I started with. So once I got that finished I was like oh, maybe I should make this an EP because it sounds good!

The meaning behind the song is that its about codependency and detangling your identity from another person. Building your identity from scratch essentially after coming out of codependency.

Was this in reference to a particular experience you had?

It's very personal, it was my own experience: All of the songs are my own experience and are very much what was going on through my head at that time. Like even In The Kitchen is about person I literally cried in front of in a kitchen at a party!

Did you go home and write about it that night?
In The Kitchen

No I wrote it like a year later. So it was kind of like a reflection. I had a friend where there was something there, but we kind of danced around it for about twelve months. And then I was sort of moving on and trying to figure out what my feelings were towards them and whether that mattered or if it was relevant anymore.

I came to the decision that I wanted to let that time and space weather whatever was there. The chorus of that song is sort of me being caught between not wanting to let that go, and being afraid that if I didn't do something about it, that I would regret it and find myself missing that person. And being caught on the other side between that and wanting to let it go and moving on with my life.

I wanted to let that time and space weather whatever was there.

It's the title track of the EP, but I didn't want the EP to be called after that track. I wanted it to be called In The Kitchen, really because growing up and throughout everything, no matter where I've been, no matter what happened to me, I always found myself late at night, in the kitchen, writing songs or playing music. And that's kind of where I feel all of my artistic development happened.

Would you describe yourself as an introverted or extroverted person?

I was really shy as a kid, like cripplingly shy. I was just not at all able to interact with other people. But I became an extrovert basically because I wanted to make friends (laughs). So I basically had to force myself. Now I would say I'm an extrovert, but I still have introverted tendencies. And I suppose as with everybody, I still have my own secret personal life that I occasionally let people into through my songs.

The record is extremely vulnerable. Did you find yourself actively trying to open up more, or is it something that came through the songwriting?

I think when I write the songs, I'm not trying to be vulnerable, but as a songwriter I've worked on being comfortable with being vulnerable more generally.

All of these songs kind of came pouring out of me. I wrote As You Lay in less than thirty minutes because it just came out of me. It was just my internal dialogue: It was what was going through my head at the time.

I had been in a really bad, difficult relationship a few months prior to writing it, and I was starting to see someone new. And I was afraid to hurt someone in the way that I had been hurt. I said in an EP launch livestream that fifty percent of that was me being afraid that I would be hurt again. But also fifty percent was being afraid that I might be capable of doing that to somebody. So in the writing of that, I made a decision about my life. That was my decision making process – it was to write that song.

So in the writing of that, I made a decision about my life. That was my decision making process – it was to write that song.
Is this introspection by way of songwriting something that you do regularly?

Yeah, I guess I do. Even in the kitchen was about making a decision about moving on. Something More is about coming to terms with something as well. And then the same about Something About These Waters. That was written in lockdown, when I was back in Leitrim for the first time and trying to come to terms with being back there.

Is there a feeling of dissociation about home in Something About These Waters?

Yeah definitely. I think the concept of home is a really strange one for me. Before I went back to Leitrim for lockdown, I hadn't stayed more than two nights really for over two years. I had been living in Dublin in Sandymount in this room at my Aunt's house, and that had given me a sense of home living there. And then coming back to Leitrim was really weird.

It was this familiarity, this idea of what we would think of as home, being back where you were brought up. But I was also homesick for Sandymount, and it's just kind of being caught between those two places and not feeling like anywhere was really home.

It's interesting that the home motif in the EP is twofold. The sense of home in places, and the sense of home in people and relationships

It's difficult for me to say where my home is because I'm sort of based across lots of different places. And being an only child, I suppose I don't have a massive home setting or a huge family. So I find home in the people around me and that has given me a sense of security in the way that attributing the word home to a place could give me security. I find that it's easier to see that in relationships and with people.

I find home in the people around me and that has given me a sense of security in the way that attributing the word home to a place could give me security.
So it's like the Glasgow motto, "People make Glasgow"

Laughs Yeah that's true! I'm based in Glasgow, but I go down to London nearly every month, and across to Ireland as well, both to Leitrim and Dublin. I'm travelling a lot and so I feel based across a lot of different areas.

Do you think all this travelling affected your relationships with people?

Yeah, I think it was a learning experience for me, especially when I emigrated to Glasgow. There are certain friendships that can withstand long distance and some that can't. You just naturally drift apart from people. And obviously if you're something like me that places your sense of home in people that can be really difficult as well.

Something About These Waters

But then I suppose the beauty of that is that people come in and out of your life at different points. And I like to think that happens for a reason: That they come in and out of the times that you need them the most, or that they need you the most.

Speaking of home, there seems to be a strong connection on the record with your Irish traditional roots

I didn't really get into Irish traditional music until I started learning the harp when I was around twelve. And like a lot of my influences, I wasn't conscious of it when it was influencing me. But then when I was making this record it just seemed like a perfect fit: Especially with the whole concept of home to work in the Irish traditional music. And I really like the idea of bringing that into the contemporary and indie folk genre, and utilising that and making it more accessible for people who don't listen to straight trad.

So you'll hear the harp used a lot throughout some of the songs. And I started learning mandolin as I was writing it. And it's funny, if didn't love Thin Lizzy way they layered their guitar harmonies and the way that they're influenced by traditional music, I would have never layered mandolin harmonies on As You Lay! So it's sort of like a sea of Irish trad that I've tried to bring into a contemporary genre.

Being a part of the Irish diaspora, does this form a part of your identity that you're searching for on some of these songs?

Yeah definitely. It's funny because I wasn't brought up with Irish traditional music, but Irish culture in terms of the language is really important to me. I was always brought up listening to Irish contemporary music, and not necessarily even folk music. But then I obviously delved into it more as I got older.

Even when I moved over to Glasgow, I found that a huge part of my Irish-ness is that my grandparents met in Glasgow: they emigrated here. My grandmother came when she was sixteen from a hiring fair in Antrim, and my grandad came when he was fourteen and he was from Gort a' Choirce which is a Gaeltacht in Donegal. And he came over only speaking Irish. He didn't speak English until he was like seventeen.

They eventually moved back here to Leitrim, but in terms of my identity that Irish language element has always been really important, and I suppose thats what connected me to Irish trad, and the importance of music and art and language for those who are members of the Irish diaspora around the world. And the way that can be really grounding for you.

How do you view In The Kitchen in comparison to your previous EP, Sacred Renditions?

I think this is definitely a more vulnerable, more personal EP. It's just because I didn't have to make up the stories, because I was a teenager when I wrote the other EP!

So it is very personal: I won't but I could tell you every persons' name who the songs are about! But it definitely feels like this sort of came together very naturally. These were just songs that I had written over two years, that stood out to me as songs that I wanted to release. And then once they were all together I was kind of looking at it thinking this is very much feels like this has encapsulated my early twenties, especially my time in Dublin. And that transition from Leitrim to Dublin and back again. I definitely feel like it's sort of managed to capture all those emotions and experiences in one EP.

And your new EP has a much wider array of sounds in it

I think thats reflective of my growing interest in music production. I suppose with this EP I felt more freedom to be experimental. I think with my first EP when I was in the process of producing it, I was thinking about the output and how that would be received. Whereas with this one I wanted to be able to say that I had expressed myself with vulnerability and that I had freely experimented within my genre.

So that's what I've tried to do with this EP. The whole time I was thinking about what the song called for, what it needed in terms of production, and what I felt was just right. I had a lot of fun making it, in As You Lay, theres claps in the second verse. Thats just me hitting my leg and pitch shifting it to get that sound that I wanted.

With this one I wanted to be able to say that I had expressed myself with vulnerability and that I had freely experimented within my genre.
There are some field recordings too, right? In Something About These Waters.

Yeah, so that was when I was down in Leitrim. I wrote in Leitrim, went back to Dublin to record it, then went back to Leitrim and continued recording. So it's very reflective of the song now that I think about it!

When I came back to Leitrim, the River Bonet which flows through Dromahair into Lough Gill, that was in flood. The river's current was literally running in the fields. I went down to the Creevelea Abbey walk, which is just a walk along the riverside, and I just recorded it on my phone. I just wanted to feature it in Something About These Waters, because something about it just worked: It's one of those funny things that just happens to work out.

So I had that. You can hear a Glasgow city bus braking at the end of As You Lay if you listen carefully. When I was recording the vocals for As You Lay, I was here at this desk. Just outside there's a set of traffic lights, so I'd always be watching for the traffic lights to start recording when they were red and try to get it done before they turn green! The bus braking was an unintentional one that I decided to keep in. I went to the mastering engineer, Paul Savage, and I was like, “Do you think this is okay or should I take this out?” and he said 'No I think you're fine, I think this works.’

It's interesting though, I was listening to a lot of Caroline Polachek and Maggie Rogers and artists that have electronic elements or are electronic-pop. I don't know a lot about that area of production, but I wanted to do something like that. So I looked at the skills I did have to create similar sort of soundscapes within my songs. Even in Something More, I used vocals a lot and just messed with EQs and reverbs and pitches to try and create something more atmospheric.

Speaking of other artists, who were you listening to around the time of writing?
Something More

I made a playlist of 45 songs I was listening to as I was making this, and even then it was hard to keep it to just 45. When I was producing it I was listening to a lot of Big Country, they're a Scottish band. I love their album The Crossing, it's produced by Steve Lillywhite and they use guitars and make them sound like bagpipes. It's very cool.

Also Saint Sister, I love Saint Sister, they're fantastic. Maggie Rogers as well. I used Saint Sister and Maggie Rogers as my reference tracks when I was getting the mastering done. Then there's Phoebe Bridgers, Joan Armatrading and Ricky Lee Jones. So a whole host of artists.

They definitely influence my work, especially during the production stage. I was listening to every song so closely to hear absolutely everything that was happening, because I wanted to take it all in and understand how production could make a song and build it.

True. It's impossible to not be influenced by definition. But despite that, everything you have recorded is very distinctly Étáin. What's the journey been like trying to refine your own sound?

I remember after my first EP feeling that I wasn't where I wanted to be, musically. I actually read that Haim, when they first formed, were told to take time off and figure that out. So that's what I did, to figure out my sound and hone my craft a little bit. And that was a thing I kept thinking about when I was making the EP. I obviously wanted it to sound on par with other artists, but I also wanted it to be something that sounded totally different and that you couldn't get anywhere else. I know that I have quite a unique voice, both in songwriting and sonically, so I know that I've got those as identifiers. But I wanted to make sure that ran through into my production as well.

It's obviously a very personal EP. Who did you make it for?

Realistically, I probably made it for me laughs. I think that was the difference between the first EP and the second, this is one that I made for me. I tried to not think about how it would be received because I would probably go to the worst-case scenario and think everyone would have hated it anyway!

And it's a really intense process to make the entire EP by yourself, so there were times where I was like... this is total shit. But yeah, I think I made it for me, and I released it in the hope that other people would find comfort in it.

Actually, there's a guy who wrote basically all of The Carpenters' songs, he's an incredible songwriter, and I went to an IMRO talk with him about 3 years ago. He said that songwriting is emotional advocacy. And that is what I've centred my creative practice around, this idea that it's like human rights advocacy, but for the emotional side of an individual. So being able to help people through difficult times, being able to have that direct connection to people wherever they're listening to something and make them feel less alone. I guess my experience of music has been that, and I'd like to create something that would give people that same experience.

I think it's about finding the universal in the personal. Finding those common emotions and trying to find ways to connect with people through what might be incredibly personal experiences.
Yet the experiences told in the EP seem universal to the human experience: the need for a home and security, maintaining relationships, the search for identity

We obviously all have different experiences, but I think that deep down we all can relate to each other based on our emotions. So I think it's about finding the universal in the personal. Finding those common emotions and trying to find ways to connect with people through what might be incredibly personal experiences. Emotions are shared across the whole human condition.

Most of the songs on there, if they're about somebody in particular, I haven't told them about it or said what's in the song to their face. Maybe that's kind of the privilege of being a songwriter, that you can feel like you've said it to them even if you haven’t!

I definitely do talk to people about these experiences and emotions, but I suppose there's always the things that you keep to yourself and you don't talk to your friends about. Even if you talk about an experience you're going through, there's always those thoughts or those feelings that you feel like you can't share with anybody else. I feel like in songs, they come out a little bit more because you're being more vulnerable. It's kind of by accident, because you can't write a song and have a barrier or shield up.

Do you think the people you're singing about will listen to your songs and think, “Hey, that sounds kind of familiar!”

I hope not! Otherwise I'd just tell them “No, it's a different person” laughs

Photography by Aisling Clark

In The Kitchen
  1. Something More 3:11
  2. In The Kitchen 4:17
  3. Something About These Waters 4:37
  4. As You Lay 4:01