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The first rounds of touring in foreign countries are daunting enough, but when an artist like Julie Feeney does it, there is an entirely different set of concerns other than those of the typical four-piece band. As I spoke to Feeney, she was in California, having just played in Los Angeles, and was on her way north. The Galway-born singer/composer told me about the gorgeous view of the marina as well as her many challenges as an up-and-coming musician on the world stage.
During our conversation, two things struck me about Feeney. The first was her humility. “We played Los Angeles last night,” she said, quickly followed by, “I can’t believe I’m actually saying that!” The second was her grace and spontaneity in facing the great challenge of touring with a style of music that requires slightly more than the typical guitar and bass. Feeney tows along with her any combination of harp, trumpet, strings, piano and more on her tours.
“Classically trained” does not even begin to sum up Feeney’s education. A former professional choral singer, she has composed for contemporary dance pieces, taught music at university levels and was recently commissioned to compose an opera. Feeney’s compositions breathe life into concert halls, churches and rock clubs across Ireland and now America.
Incorporating the use of classical instruments, Feeney released her second pop album, pages, in the States in May. Feeney dismisses the description “chamber art pop” and rightly so, as it suggests rigidity or pretension. Nothing could be less true about pages. It is inviting, warm and nails the aura that Feeney strived for it to encapsulate, inspired by a certain change in her attitude, in Feeney's experience of things. “I just felt this thing, I wanted to communicate this comfort, this grace,” she explained. “It sounds strange, it was almost a spiritual feeling... nothing bothered me and things that would annoy me didn’t actually annoy me… I felt very compassionate.” That moment of clarity led her to compose pages with the intention of communicating that feeling of comfort.
Pages is the Andy Warhol of pop albums, the face of old tradition with a smirk of new ideas. Feeney’s eccentric creativity extends to the visual aspect of her videos and shows. A lover of headpieces, Feeney frequently wears a hat resembling a house during live performances. Why? It completes the Wonderland feel of her whimsical album.
“It recreates the kind of magical world that I wanted to create in pages the album. That kind of fairytale thing,” Feeney said. “I like to go into an enchanted place if I can and definitely wearing a headpiece helps me get there. They’re beautiful as well.” Feeney was elated when famed designer Piers Atkinson offered several of his pieces to be featured in the music video for Feeney’s infectious single “Impossibly Beautiful.”
While the headpieces are a fun and fanciful addition to the live performances, anyone who has seen Feeney will tell you the house on her head often takes a backseat to the fascinating instrumentation, which varies tour to tour.
Feeney talked about the challenges of translating the complex and intricate pages into a live touring act. “Every single show I would re-orchestrate the parts and then depending on budget and depending on availability [of the musicians] I would change it.”
Feeney has also experimented with playing these massive orchestral pieces with just herself and harpist Cormac De Bara. “We did a lot of shows in Ireland like that, I wanted to experiment. Now I have lots of different versions of the show. I have one that has three strings, a trumpet and a singer. Or two strings, a harp, a trumpet and a singer…” and the list goes on. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh wow, the amount of work you put into your shows, could you not make it easier?’ But it’s much more fun that way, it’s very challenging. I definitely find that your orchestration and arranging skills get really quick. One of the players might say to me ‘Do you want me to sing that down after?’ and I say, ‘No, no because it’ll mess up the inversion.’ It might seem like a good idea but I’m thinking of the whole harmony.”
Feeney always seems to be thinking of the whole harmony. She has her hands in every aspect of her tours. She enjoys the adventure of being in foreign countries, of finding her way to the show and everyone in her team pitches in. “When we’re all there I might say ‘OK guys, Siobhan couldn’t be here or Lena couldn’t be here so we need to find out where we’re going.’ And that can be great fun because everyone mucks in and helps out. Jenny is off hiring cello and guitar and everybody is really involved in it all. It’s not clinical it’s actually very real and tangible.