Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter launches debut EP at George IV

Images above: Caolan McCarthy EP launch at George IV; record cover

Musician, actor and resident of Chiswick Caolan McCarthy talks to Effie Webb

Chiswick resident Caolan McCarthy is launching his debut EP Paper and Stone with his five piece band The Pines at George IV on Wednesday 1 November.

The singer-songwriter has already picked up a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Musical Theater Album’ for the music from Amélie, the West End production based on the 2001 romantic comedy film of the same name.

He is a musician, (multi-instrumentalist), composer, arranger, and music coach for theatre and film as well as being a trained actor.  Caolan graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2015, and has appeared in theatre productions in the West End and the National Theatre. He played the role of Uncle Sammie in Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-nominated film, Belfast.

This is the first time he’s published his own music and, he says:

“It is such a joy finally to release my own original songs and launch my debut EP at one of my favourite venues in the UK.”

Caolan talked to Effie Webb about the launch and about his music career to date.

Image above: Caolan McCarthy collage from Instagram – caolanmccarthymusic

 “I’ve always written loads of half songs, quarter songs, ideas”

Caolan McCarthy, from Omagh, County Tyrone, is not one to hide away in a garret wondering why he hasn’t been discovered. He is out there, recording, performing, teaching – wearing various musical hats while also making his mark in the world of acting.

“I’m convinced that there are the Elvises and Arethas of the world, these brilliant talents, that no one will ever discover because they’re just sat in their bedrooms singing songs and writing music. And that’s a real sin to me.”

Growing up in a family where his father was a preacher, Caolan has been performing in front of audiences – church-goers – since he was eight years old.

This unique environment allowed him to perform with a band in a setting where making mistakes was not just acceptable but embraced. It was in these formative years that Caolan learned to improvise and gained confidence in his musical abilities.

Transitioning from church performances, Caolan entered the world of cover bands, starting with a Beatles tribute group at the age of 15. Under the moniker “Sergeant Pepper’s Only Smart Pub Band,” he performed at various venues, including the Waterfront in Belfast. These early experiences honed his stage presence and solidified his love for performing live.

Caolan often finds inspiration for melodies and lyrics when on the move, capturing them in voice notes:

“I’ve always written loads of half songs, quarter songs, ideas.”

His musical influences include iconic artists such as Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, The Beatles, Elton John, The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, and an early obsession with Ray Charles at the age of 14.

Image above: Caolan performing with the band

Why has it taken so long? Inspiration put on pause by the pandemic

Caolan, like many artists, faced a significant obstacle in his creative journey – the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think there’s a great book to be written, a sort of ‘Sliding Doors’ thing of 2020 – what everyone expected they were going to do and how their lives might have been.

“For me it was ‘in 2020, I’m going to record an original EP’. Lockdown put the creative process on pause, and routine took over: Every day we had a plan: we’d get up; we did our HIIT workout sessions; we’d learn Italian on Duolingo; we had our state-sponsored walk; we’d make dinner and we’d have a jam session.

“We did a couple of Instagram live gigs from the living room… It wasn’t a creative time; it was more a time we just got through. Crisis isn’t conducive to creativity.

“I remember seeing some self-righteous post on Instagram that read ‘Writers, if you’re not writing now then what are you doing?’ I thought, this person didn’t understand the creative process, which is about being inspired. And to be inspired, you have to be out in the world experiencing things, and that wasn’t happening.”

Image above: Copies of paper and Stone; Caolan

‘Paper and Stone’

His debut EP, Paper and Stone, features hard-hitting, melancholic lyrics juxtaposed with cheery, upbeat melodies. The inspiration behind the songs is broad ranging. The natural world as a metaphor features heavily in the album.

In lead track Oregon: ‘When the sun comes into frame and the songbird finds its fame, how you’ve put this precious choice to shame.’

“That’s kind of my goal, to sing about something in nature and tie that in with something personal”.

Selma Magnolia was inspired by a woman who would sit smoking on the opposing balcony to Caolan’s:

“She would come out on the balcony every day and I would look at her, thinking, what’s this woman’s life like?’. “

Asked about the extent his music draws on lived experience, Caolan says:

“There’s an autobiographical element to some of the songs. I think there has to be, because that’s what you know.”

Image above: Caolan in the recording studio

I asked whether there’s something scary about the exposure of singing about personal struggles, laying your soul bare.

“You can say things through a song you might never say in person. There’s definitely a catharsis to it.”

The majority of songs, Caolan says, are about love and loss:

“People who have had someone they love and they don’t anymore; someone they’ve broken up with and don’t believe the reasons why they’ve broken up.” One-dimensional love songs without any pain or grief aren’t as compelling, Caolan asserts:

“It’s not nearly as interesting to have a song that says ‘You’re really great, I love you so much, and we’re very happy together’.  Listening to a song that resonates with something you’re going through makes you realize ‘Oh that’s just a human emotion. And humans are complex. I’m not as alone as I thought.’

“How else would we know that how we feel is in any way legitimate?’ I’m really grateful to those who have done that. But doing it yourself, you really can’t think too much about it, you’ve just got to do it.”

He reflects on advice he heard from another writer:

“To finish things and show them to people. And that sounds like a really simple thing. But actually, that’s the hardest part about being creative, because when it’s finished, it’s done. You can’t touch it anymore. It’s there to be criticized and it’s a personal thing.”

Caolan acknowledges that nerves are part and parcel of live performances, but he firmly believes in controlling the controllable aspects, such as preparation, to mitigate them. He emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between the performer and the audience. His upcoming gig at the George IV on November 1st, featuring his five-piece band The Pines, is a culmination of his musical journey – the songs on Paper and Stone are ten years in the making.

Tickets to the launch of Paper and Stone on Wedensday 1 November are £12, available from Eventbrite here: Paper and Stone launch / Eventbrite

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