Playing it by ear

Trinity musicians speak out about how to keep the Dublin music scene alive in the midst of a global pandemic

There is nothing quite like a live music experience. Proving its potency time and time again across extraordinary epochs, music has behaved as a contrivance of peace, functioning as a binding force for communities divided by hardship and acting as a shared comfort for all those that have embraced it. Yet never has it been faced with such a threat as now. Gone seem to be the days of darkened sweat-filled rooms, of teeming arenas or of swarmed fields thronged with eager fans all awaiting the intoxicating phantasmagoria that is a live music experience. 

In the absence of live performance, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated a trend that previously lay dormant amongst modern musicians. Through necessity, artists have been driven to digital platforms in an attempt to plug the gaping hole left by the virus’s prevention of live performance. With events such as One World: Together at Home, mainstream music has become panoptic, inclusive and more accessible when freed from financial constraints. And yet, an unshakeable thought continues to linger amongst creatives: can technology really continue to compensate for live music? 

In the throes of a late February storm, shielded in the warmth of drummer Michael Nagle’s sitting room in Connemara, Trinity’s own pioneering alt-rock four-piece, Banríon, recorded their 11-minute debut EP. While the band themselves will concede that their release of Airport Dads in the midst of a global pandemic was indeed “weird timing”, there is an ironic poignance to be found in the parallels of the ethereal lethargy of Banríon’s candid lyricism and the inertia of a national lockdown that forced us all into what felt like an incessant reverie. 

The new year brought with it newfound momentum for Banríon, gaining traction beyond the music community within Trinity 

For Róisín Ní Hacéid, Banríon’s stellar frontwoman, the conditions of their release “were good and bad because people had time to listen to it but also we didn’t get to do an EP launch or anything”. The new year brought with it newfound momentum for Banríon, gaining traction beyond the music community within Trinity. Ní Hacéid discusses how the band’s premier EP “was supposed to be partly a stepping stone to getting more gigs.” There seems to be very little despondency, however, as she goes on to recount the opportunities that arose for Banríon during the course of the pandemic. “It turned out to open things up for collaborations with other Dublin artists and boosted the old confidence in my songwriting.” 

When asked how Banríon intends to forge ahead in the wake of government restrictions, Ní Hacéid unveiled the band’s blueprints for a pre-recorded gig that will be streamed as part of Dublin City Culture Night. “It was supposed to be a socially distanced gig but the organisers thought with the new restrictions that it would be safer online.” Prompted by my further inquiry into her opinions on the viability of socially-distanced gigs, Ní Hacéid goes on to clarify that “outdoor gigs could be great — Dublin’s got loads of parks with bandstands that could be gorgeous spots for a little socially-distanced gig.” 

“For those who have been grappling for consolation over the past few months, O’Neill’s work might just offer you a portion of that much sought-after solace.”

Similarly, Trinity’s very own Joni Mitchell, singer-songwriter Ellie O’Neill bears a repertoire of intricately-crafted tracks available to stream via Soundcloud that enchant, beguile and bewitch. For those who have been grappling for consolation over the past few months, O’Neill’s work might just offer you a portion of that much sought-after solace. While pondering the effects of the lockdown, O’Neill remarks: “Before, my life was so busy that I wasn’t actually able to see the separate parts of the work that I needed to do, so when everything just stopped, I had to say ‘Okay, there’s elements of my music practice that I can do alone’. In a way, it’s a little bit of a clean slate, to build up the things that you want to do before the time comes that you can get back up on stage.” 

Touching on social media as a satisfactory medium for artists attempting to compensate for the effects of the pandemic, O’Neill recounts how “during the height of the lockdown, a live stream was a big relief. To have 45 minutes where people were with you — but as soon as you log off, you’re back by yourself. There’s not that sense of community that you’d get after a live show, there’s no space for true interaction and spontaneity. In a time in which people are trying not to be online as well, you wouldn’t want to be spending all of your Saturday nights stuck to a screen”. O’Neill goes on to contemplate the ambiguous future of live music as she guides me through her thoughtful musings on our current climate: “I don’t want to believe that we won’t get back to where we were because for a lot of people and definitely for me, live shows are the reason we play music. I really do think that that is the heart of music for me; being together in that moment is not something you can replicate online.” 

The newfangled three-piece, whose sound is unique in its merging of soul, funk, folk and jazz, offers a different perspective on the future of live music.”

Furthermore, Ronan Friel, a fourth-year Engineering with Management student, speaks on behalf of Blueberry Rogue. A breath of fresh air on the Trinity music scene, it is somewhat ironic that Blueberry Rogue have found their feet in the midst of great uncertainty. The newfangled three-piece, whose sound is unique in its merging of soul, funk, folk and jazz, offers a different perspective on the future of live music. After all, the new normal is all they’ve ever known. “Honestly we think there’s something really nice about it all. From our experience of watching live streams in particular we find that there’s a really strong feeling of intimacy with the artist when you’re tuning in. It’s a great chance to get up close without being jostled around in the front row.” 

Friel goes on to acknowledge, however, that both live streams and socially-distanced gigs tend to “sacrifice a lot of the atmosphere of a performance by their nature, but sometimes that can work for them and let you connect with the music in a much more effective way”. He came to the conclusion that the efficacy of both mediums depends on what kind of performance it is that’s taking place. “I think the best way to approach each type of performance is to treat them as separate entities”, he stated. Friel notes that “From what we’ve seen so far it looks like socially-distanced and outdoor shows are the best way to get a taste of that buzz, so if we’re playing a show I think that’s the way to go!” Blueberry Rogue have wielded the effects of the pandemic to their advantage — quietly determining their innovative sound, they have worked diligently on an EP to be released this October. 

Eloise Powell, a second-year English Studies student and resident DJ for the Midnight Disco who is just as groovy as the event she spearheads, sheds light on the future of one of Dublin’s most adored nights out. “Like many others, all plans of in-person events have been put on hold for us. We pride ourselves on running intimate parties, whatever the size of the space, and the current pandemic has made this virtually impossible. We are using this time to educate ourselves and live in hope that when venues reopen their doors, we see interesting parties, with inclusive and diverse representation. We’re looking at outdoor events and for spaces large enough to enable social distancing. Right now, we’re dancing in our rooms but we’ll see you real soon.” 

With student musicians working to carve their own way forward, Trinity’s conscious efforts to support its creatives are welcomed with open arms. With the announcement of Trinity Ents’ digital charity concert came a relief that such supports are beginning to manifest. Student musicians and organisations alike are beginning to adjust to the devastating impacts that the pandemic has had on live music. It seemed to me fitting that Friel ended our conversation with the assertion that “We have so many talented voices in Trinity, who absolutely deserve to be heard”.