Creatives in Trinity: Ellie O’Neill

The singer-songwriter speaks to Suzanne Flynn about creativity, publications and Coronavirus

Interviewing someone in the current climate certainly poses its challenges. Instead of having the luxury to sit and enjoy a quiet coffee, we choose to ring over WhatsApp and discuss her creativity through this medium. Singer-songwriter Ellie O’Neill is a final year English Studies student who has performed with Glasshouse, supported a number of touring artists in Dublin and most recently performed in Martha Wainwright’s new Montréal venue, URSA. She has also found time to create Trinity’s first openly queer-welcoming publication with fellow English student and Trinity News Arts and Culture Editor Grace Farrell. 

“Before coming to Trinity I studied songwriting in BIMM, but I left after the first year because I just felt it wasn’t for me. It made me feel very uncreative”, Ellie explains, filling me in on her life before Trinity. “I think it can feel like an unnatural incarnation of a music scene in a way — it definitely works for some people, of course it does, and I met some amazing people there, kind of by miraculous chance. I also became aware of lots of things I didn’t want, and I’m happy I switched out.” O’Neill switched to English in Trinity after one year at BIMM and hasn’t looked back since. Writing and reading through the study of English has positively contributed to her creative process. “I’ve always really wanted to study English and I’m very happy I did”, she says, speaking positively about the transition from one academic institution to the other. 

“I’ve always known it would be what I wanted to do and that is still the plan…”

I ask her if music has always been something she wanted to pursue, and you can hear her nodding as she answers: “Since I was ten-ish, I was going to do something like this. I was very into musical theatre for a while. I loved the queerness and drama of it all, and the group element of the shows. There was something in the water in Meath, we had a great scene going.” I assure her this is a common ghost of many of our pasts, one which some would rather hide. She laughs but also proudly acknowledges the experience she had as it fostered creativity and allowed her to work towards something. “I started writing songs when I was about 12, maybe a bit younger and I’ve always known it would be what I wanted to do, so that is still the plan.” With the uncertainty of the next few weeks looming, we both remark that spending time away from everything may be ideal for creativity.

With various musical outlets in Trinity such as DU Music and TMT among others, I asked O’Neill how Trinity is as a creative space for musicians. She remarks that she is not as entrenched in college life as others would be, but praises her course in particular for being an especially positive influence on her creativity as an artist. “From the perspective of the course, I suppose being surrounded by people who are driven, and there are so many creative people in Trinity, there is a certain element of ‘you’re really by yourself if you want to be’, so that’s been really good. English can be such a vast course if you want it to be too, which is really inspiring.” It strikes me as especially interesting that O’Neill found somewhere like Trinity to be a more creative environment than BIMM, where she previously studied a course dedicated to songwriting and creativity. 

Upon listening to many of O’Neill’s songs, her style appears to be raw and lyric-focused. “It’s just me”, she says when I ask her about it. She laughs and clarifies, “As in it’s just me at the moment — no other musicians.” Pondering for a minute, she offers further insight into her identity as an artist, saying: “It’s kind of folk-oriented but leaning towards something darker, something heavier, and quite lyric-focused to a point, but I have developed that in trying to level out musicianship and lyricism. I’m looking to meet the right people for a band.” Songs such as Mary Jane, Silent Water and Anna with the Silver Arrow tell stories and create visceral images conjured by O’Neill’s songwriting skills. “The times when I’ve been writing have been when I’ve been honest and not tried to emulate anything and just doing it almost as a necessity…that’s where I would want anything I make to come from”, she elaborates. “Like, I don’t have another choice, and I just want to and feel like I have to. Sometimes I feel my life is a dream and I’m writing from that place.” 

“I started writing when I was about 12, maybe a bit younger, and just have always known it would be what I wanted to do”

Intrigued by her style, I ask O’Neill what particular artists she draws inspiration from: “I actually find that I listen to a lot of female artists, and I have for a very long time. When you’re creating yourself, you do tend to look at points of reference or points of identification with artists you can relate to and, for me, it seems to have been mainly with different women making art. Also, different people I’ve met in my life have really challenged and changed how I approach it all.”

She asks if I’m familiar with Adrianne Lenker and I admittedly say I feel I recognise the name but can’t say I’m sure who that is. O’Neill explains Lenker is the front woman of US band Big Thief. ”I love how they live as musicians”, Ellie says. “They are managing to evade so much crap in how they go about producing their music. They seem to live for it and for each other.” She apologises after talking about Big Thief for a few moments more, but I thank her for the recommendation and make a mental note to listen to them. She also mentions Joni Mitchell, Grouper, Aldous Harding and Judee Sill as other influences.

“I know there are other people that manage it better than I do”, Ellie admits when asked about how she balances songwriting and performance with academic life. “I write pretty much by myself, alone, and you spend a lot of time studying by yourself. I find myself doing both things at once.” Perhaps this is something most of us creatively inclined can relate to. “When I read something beautiful, I immediately want to react and write, and find different ways of saying things, it’s been really informative.” Ellie divulges that she is looking forward to dedicating time in the next year after she has finished her degree to focus on her music.

On mentioning reacting to written works, I ask Ellie about her publication, Moving, created by herself and Grace Farrell. The two met on Erasmus in Paris. “We were both kind of disillusioned with stuff that has been published in Trinity and how the level of material is mostly solely intellectual and not emotional. There was also no openly queer publication in Trinity, so we thought — absolutely, we should do this.” The publication saw its first issue published in late 2019 with mainly female, non-binary or queer contributors, and is now seeking the publication of its second issue. “It was just cool to combine so many different art forms into one thing”, O’Neill explains. “The point was not to adopt that ‘front square intimidation vibe’ because that’s sometimes what I’ve felt from different societies – not coming from the same background as the majority of people in Trinity.” I congratulate her on the work they have done and she mentions upcoming plans, however uncertain the next few weeks may be.  

“The times when I’ve been writing have been when I’ve been honest and not tried to emulate anything and just doing it almost as a necessity…that’s where I would want anything I make to come from”

After spending some time in Paris, O’Neill reflects on how she found the city through a performer’s lens: “It wasn’t the best for me personally, but it takes a while to get into a scene and I wasn’t there too long, or at the best time. I think it made me appreciate Dublin to be honest.” I interrupt her there briefly to express my surprise, as most people can’t wait to get out of Dublin, but O’Neill remarks that “the small venues and possibilities of smaller gigs here, probably the same in any city, seemed more exclusive there, and it made me appreciate the smallness of Dublin accessibility-wise.”

And what is in store for Ellie O’Neill’s future? “I want to be making some kind of record in the next year and a half, and the aim is just to enjoy having time to write and play with people as much as possible, and maybe to try and see what we can do with Moving outside of college.” The success of the publication has given O’Neill the drive to think about expanding beyond the gates of Trinity. “The launch event was essentially a gig with poetry and music, it was a really nice collaborative thing. Dublin can sometimes lack those kinds of events, like house gigs where you can really find your feet”, she explains. “I’m really looking forward to being finished college”, she says, and I agree with her wholeheartedly — we both joke about the fact that we are very much nearly there. “I don’t have anything definite coming up in the next while but definitely on the horizon.” We end the call there and I immediately play her songs, worthy accompaniments to the wandering mind in this period of self-isolation. 

Suzanne Flynn

Suzanne Flynn is the current Deputy Life Editor for Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Law and German student.