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Escape Velocity

Clear Waters: An Interview With Aoife Nessa Frances
Jessica Wrigglesworth , October 31st, 2022 10:39

Aoife Nessa Frances speaks to Jessica Wrigglesworth about how early morning ocean swims and the eclectic soundtrack to childhood drives through the Irish countryside inspired her second album Protector

Photos by Cáit Fahey

In September 2021, while they were beginning recordings for Protector in nearby Annascaul, Aoife Nessa Frances and her collaborators Brendan Doherty and Brendan Jenkinson would wake up early and head down to Kerry’s Inch Beach, driving their car to the edge of the water where they would sit, drink coffee and listen to music before running into the ocean to swim. “It was just a really good way to start the day,” she tells tQ on the phone from her home in Dublin. “I think there's something in having a ritual like that when you're creating. When I was in Clare writing the record I got into these sorts of rituals and routines that really supported the creative process. Following that into recording felt important; that we had something that grounded us before we began the work that we were about to do.”

Throughout Protector, Frances’ second album, water – specifically the Atlantic Ocean – holds an important place. “I took a boat to Mayo / Swam out off the island / And waited for the sun to set / And bathe my answers” she sings on the opening of ‘This Still Life’. ‘Emptiness Follows’ finds her submerged again; “The weight of the water / It holds you / And tortures time away from you”. The record as a whole is an ode to the restorative power of nature, written in a time when Frances – like many of us – found herself more isolated than ever before. Arriving from Dublin to her father’s home in County Clare in the West of Ireland in Spring 2020, she initially planned to stay for a week. “My dad was looking after my little sister, and I went down to hang out with them and help out and stuff. I’d been there many times but we'd always kept to the same area and I'd never stayed for longer than a week. But I fell in love with the place, so I decided to stay in Clare, I just couldn't leave. I really appreciated that time.”

It's somewhat surprising, given how pastoral both Protector and its predecessor Land Of No Junction feel, to hear Frances describe herself as a “city kid”. But despite growing up in the Southside of Dublin, her childhood was punctuated by escapes into nature. “We'd always go for adventures in places outside of Dublin. Ireland is so small, you can drive for half an hour, and you're in very rural landscapes.” These drives were soundtracked by her dad’s eclectic taste in music, a mix that spanned jazz, Irish traditional music, rock and techno. “When me and my sister were small, we used to drive around and listen to the radio and he'd call in and get radio DJs to do shout outs to us on techno radio stations” she laughs, “so we definitely had a tradition of listening to music in the car. I think it’s such a great place to listen to music.” It’s a tradition that was revived when the family found themselves back together in Cork, and bonded over the one CD Frances had in her car, Jim Sullivan’s cult 1969 record UFO. “We'd all grown up and kind of drifted in ways… it's not as if we didn't ever see each other. But we got to spend this really beautiful, concentrated moment together and I think that really meant a lot to all of us.”

This time was profound in shaping the songs which would become Protector, both in sound – a rich, psychedelic tinged folk which shares plenty of Sullivan’s warmth and grandeur – and in its lyricism, which marks the beauty in this simpler time spent with loved ones in nature. Recent single ‘Chariot’ is the most explicit reference to the period and, perhaps not coincidentally, her dad’s favourite, although he was privy to a lot of the writing process. “He was like, ‘that one’s very strong’. He would have been hearing these songs from the very beginning, and then all of a sudden he's hearing recordings and, and now there's like a record being released. It must be mad to actually witness that.”

After writing the songs in relative solitude in Clare, Frances invited Doherty and Jenkinson (who she refers to as ‘the two Brendans’) down to Kerry to work on developing them further. The cabin they chose in Annascaul was one of many offered after she put out word that she was looking for a rural spot to work from for a week or so. “This one just looked really special. It was tiny, like really, really small. There were two bedrooms, Brendan Jenkinson slept on a mattress in the kitchen. It was really tight. But I just love working in spaces like that, that aren't formal, where you’re out of place, not like in a studio.”

Initially the trip was intended as a time to write demos, with no particular project in mind. “I was just like, I haven't worked with people in a couple of months, I need to get out and make something solid,” Frances admits, “but Brendan recorded everything so well and I was just instantly like 'Oh this is a record'.” Both Doherty and Jenkinson had worked with her on Land Of No Junction, and they have known each other since they were teenagers, so there was a natural camaraderie, no doubt bolstered by the morning swims. “I definitely have ideas of where I want things to go and can give direction, but I also like to leave things up to chance and improvisation,” she notes, “I really trust both of these musicians, and I think that comes across in the music – a lot of it is quite improvised and fresh. A lot of what you'll hear is the first or second take of songs being played, and I like that; I think when you do things too much you can lose the spontaneity and the magic of it. Even if maybe it's technically better, you lose the essence of what the song was in the first place.”

Having recorded the bulk of the album in Kerry with Jenkinson producing and playing keys, bass, synth and clarinet, and Doherty on drums, Frances then reached out to other collaborators who contributed parts remotely. Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh recorded her strings from Glasgow, and in the same period Conor O’Brien (of Villagers) recorded horns and Méabh McKenna recorded harp, all working from the demos but not in touch with each other. “None of these people heard what the other person was doing, which sounds kind of insane, but actually for me, it ended up working so well. They played loads of stuff and afterwards me and Brendan Jenkinson sat with everything that they'd done and had to kind of sculpt it. But it almost sounded as if they were playing with each other, which was really incredible to hear after.”

When I speak to Frances she has just returned home from a short EU tour supporting Destroyer and has a couple of weeks to recoup before heading on her own headline tour across the UK, Europe and America, or as she puts it “from Leeds to LA.” She’s feeling really excited about playing Protector to an audience, “It's an intense experience releasing music in general, something that you hold so close to you and then have to let other people hear, and you kind of just have to let go a bit, it doesn't feel like that process of creating something is complete until you've let it out there.” she says, “But in terms of presenting the music live it's really exciting, because it means the song doesn't end when you send it off to be mastered, it's got a life and it can be performed in so many different ways. I love to hear how things can develop and how many different versions of things you can do.”

When she returns to Ireland though, it won’t be long until she’s back on the West coast. “I still go back and forth, I feel like my life is very much divided between the two places now.” she confesses “I think you kind of need both things in your life, these cycles where you're coming out into the world and then going back and creating, kind of like the seasons. I guess I'll have to go back again, at some point, whether it's Clare or somewhere else – I definitely feel that need to isolate myself in order to create something.”

Aoife Nessa Frances' new album Protector is out now via Partisan