Gareth Dunlop photo by Nicola Claire Photography
Gareth Dunlop Pushes His Own Boundaries For Animal
Northern Irish singer/songwriter Gareth Dunlop released his new album Animal in late spring and headed out on a much-anticipated tour of the USA. Both were milestones in many ways, firstly because Animal had been the first album that Dunlop recorded mainly in his own studio, and also because he had never embarked on a major US tour, though he had certainly spent time stateside previously. But there’s another layer in which Animal feels different, and that’s due to the fact that Dunlop takes on some deeper, or perhaps just less discussed, mental states that drive his lyrics in emotive directions and his song structure into new territory, too.
While Dunlop’s music has attracted many audiences for being so confessional, you get the sense that Animal is more of a reckoning with himself as a songwriter, and that the conversations with himself are taken to a new level. The result is not only relatable but energizing, challenging audiences to engage in greater emotional honesty, too. I spoke with Gareth Dunlop in the midst of his US tour about the adventures and misadventures of heading into new territory for Animal.
Americana Highways: I understand that you’re on a tour now and have spent some time in the US before.
Gareth Dunlop: Yes, I’ve mostly spent time in Nashville before doing co-writing, and in LA, with a little time in New York. This is the first extensive tour that I’ve done getting to see a lot of places. It’s been really fun.
AH: Do you feel that this album is a milestone in that you were able to record it in your own studio?
GD: I’ve had a studio in my home in some form while living there, and I’ve grown with the space. It has its quirks. We live close to an airport, so you have to wait until the planes pass every now and again before you can record. I was glad that I was able to have the record pretty much put together in that space. I felt like I had the album finished before everything kind of went to shit. Probably like a lot of bands and artists, we were ready to go.
Gigs and touring went away, so I put the album on the shelf for a while and I just tried to embrace being at home with my family and with my kids for a prolonged period of time. Then when I revisited the album, some of the songs that I thought were sure things didn’t stand up as strongly. Some of the songs that I had been writing throughout the pandemic found their way onto the project. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing, since it’s a rare opportunity to let a project marinate for that length of time.
AH: I’ve heard of people updating the tone of their albums to go with the times, but that’s really special to be able to add those songs, since I’m sure that whatever you release works better for you if you find it relatable at the time.
GD: That’s exactly it because I think that in some sense you have to inhabit what you’re putting out there into the world. The truth is, there were a few songs on there that were of a time and a place that held real emotions then, but they weren’t that strong when I came back to the project. I had these new songs that felt like what I wanted to say, so I made some room for them.
AH: I see some ideas on Animal that may creates link between some of the songs, for instance, a desire to know oneself, and also reflections on the passage of time. Maybe you were already in that mindset before the pandemic, but it certainly feels universal right now.
GD: When I started this project, I wanted to be as brutally honest with myself as I possibly could. Of course, that’s what every artist tries to do, but I come from a place of co-writing and writing for film and TV. Some of those projects have a strict set of parameters. So for this record, one of the hardest parts was turning off those voices in your head and disconnecting that part of your brain. I had to ask, “How do I get into that place where I’m saying something I want to say?”
A great piece of advice I received, which I love, is “Write like no one is ever going to hear it.” Still, every time I sit down to write, I try to push that to the front of my head. It’s a little trick that enables me to say everything that I want and go to places that I might not normally go to. I think for so many people, during the pandemic, it was a bird’s eye view of what’s important. It was a massive perspective shift for me, with all of that emotion, sadness, and despair happening around the world. It definitely made me feel like I wanted to hone in more about what was truly important to me.
I wrote a song on the record for my son, Wilson, and it was the last song that made it onto the record. I had the record finished and it was off to mastering, and then “Look Back Smiling” fell out and we had to find room for it. That’s one of the positive things that came out of the experience for me, getting that bird’s eye view.
AH: People are responding strongly to “Look Back Smiling.” I know it was prompted by looking at your son’s experiences of missing out on formative experiences, I think it poses these bigger questions about how we live our lives, particularly in the video. Are we going to be okay with our choices later?
GD: Very much so. As much as it was a song for my son, it was a song for me as well. That song was a tough one to write, and it’s not really a conversation that you can have with a young kid. As a parent, you encourage your children and help them build their confidence. I’m woeful on videos, so any time there’s a video that needs to happen, it’s panic station. My wife suggested that Wilson should be in it, and I thought that was really cool. We weren’t sure he’d be comfortable with it, so we decided just to make it a really fun day for him, and if he didn’t like it in the end, it would just be a home video. But he absolutely loved it! We got his sister in on it too. He wanted to share it with all his friends and was standing ten feet tall.
AH: You can tell that he’s actually amused by making the video. Even though, as people say, kids are really resilient, my background in education tells me that the pandemic has indeed been a big deal for kids. So it’s wonderful that you created this positive memory for him.
GD: I couldn’t agree more. There are new emotions that kids have experienced that they’ve struggled to recognize have no way to articulate, particularly worry. They are feeling it from the outside world.
AH: I’ve heard that some of the other music videos that you made didn’t come so easily!
GD: [Laughs] I’m absolutely cursed when it comes to videos. The video that we shot for “Animal” was with a good friend of ours, Jamie [Neish], who has this positivity that’s infectious. He came up with a concept for “Animal” that was creating two worlds in a forest. He wanted to light it a certain way and lean into the colors that we see on the album cover, which my wife actually illustrated. I told him just to tell me what to do. I went and rented a van, and then tore my home apart, grabbing beds, sofas, ornaments, and lamps. Then we drove up a mountain where there was a little forest and clearing.
It was the middle of January and it was so, so cold. Then it started raining. The first shot of the day was of me lying down on the forest floor, and it just got worse from there on out. [Laughs] It was one of those ridiculous situations where you laugh at yourself, so we had a lot of fun. One guy walking his dog looked through and saw all these lights in the middle of the forest in the middle of nowhere, and this double bed and sofa. I would have loved to have known what was going through his head when he saw all that.
AH: He probably thought he was having some kind of breakdown. Was it hard to get the energy going for the “Animal” video in the midst of that, or was that anger and frustration real?
GD: We didn’t have that many props, meaning things from my house, to smash, so we tried it a few times to get the angles right. We had a slow-mo camera set up, and two others. I kind of psyched myself up for it. There was a bit of shouting and I had the music pumping. It was fun. I can’t take any artistic credit for it, since it’s Jamie’s baby, but there was a sense of accomplishment since I haven’t made that many music videos. Usually someone just takes some footage from a live performance. Trying to get into that headspace is always interesting.
AH: Earlier, you were commenting on pushing yourself to be more realistic and direct on these songs. I’ll add that you’re already known for that approach on your previous releases. But I do feel like these new songs go further in that direction and you were pushing that boundary for yourself. “Animal” is the song that really says that the most.
GD: Absolutely. “Animal” was the first song that fell out where I thought, “I can’t let anybody else hear this.” The other thought was, “Do I have more of this in me?” It was a weird song. I had a little bit of the music that was rolling around in my head all morning. I was humming the bassline. Then I sat down at the piano in the afternoon. The first verse just kind of happened, which is rare for me. A lot of time I really pore over what I’m putting on the paper.
But this felt very conversational, complaining about the things that annoy me about myself. The second verse was more of the same. Then the chorus came in, and I was thinking about my wife, because she is the one person who can get me out of my own way. When it was finished, my first thought was, “I’ve never written from this place before. This is strange.” Then I let a few people hear it, and it was immediate that people were digging it. So I thought maybe it would be a couple of singles, then I kept going, and I thought maybe it would be an EP, then it kept going, and it felt more like it might be a record.
AH: I was struck by the fact that the song might give people more permission to acknowledge these kinds of feelings or think about them in a spelled-out way. It’s a really brave song in that way.
GD: That’s wonderful. That’s been the most enjoyable part of this, hearing that folks feel this way about the music, that they can connect this to their lives. The magic of that is never lost on me. That’s why I love music.
AH: I wanted to mention how much I enjoyed “My Kind of Paradise.” It’s fun that the song creates so much imagery that paints a picture of a place while actually negating that. But then I found out that you wrote it in LA, and that seemed even funnier because you were in a place like the one described in the song.
GD: I was just so homesick. I’d been in the States for a long period of time, though I love it here. Nashville, in particular, is a second home. But I was ready to bounce in LA. I had that weird feeling of guilt, wondering, “Why can I not relax here?” I had the palm trees, gorgeous sand, the beach, but I wanted to get home. I felt bad that I couldn’t enjoy it. That’s where it started. On the music side of that, I had this steel drum kind of thing in my head so I thought I’d go along with that. I got a little piece of sponge and stuffed it under the guitar strings.
On the production side of things, the song sort of fights with itself, wanting to head out into a big song, but the vocal never really lets it do that. For me, that was the hardest part of putting that song together. Every time I tried to lean into the drums and play that groove, it became bigger than it needed to be, because the vocal never wanted to get bombastic. It was harder to find the sweet spot on that one.
Thanks to Gareth Dunlop for talking to us! Find more of his music and tour dates here: https://www.garethdunlop.com
Enjoy our earlier coverage of Gareth Dunlop, here: Three Friends, Three Hours: Foy Vance, Lee Rogers and Gareth Dunlop Serenade The Birchmere