Interview | Naoise Roo

Caoimhe Gaskin talks to Naoise Roo about her latest EP, Sick Girlfriend, music as a source of therapy, and the changing face of live music.

Your EP, Sick Girlfriend, is the follow-up to your critically acclaimed 2015 album Lilith. Was the process different for you this time, and did you find there were any significant differences between these two bodies of work?

Yes, definitely. Lilith was my first album, it was a break-up album, and it took like two and a half break-ups to get that album, which is too many break-ups! I was nervous about it, but I also had no expectations, and that was sort of a blessing when I went to record. When it came to the second record, I wasn’t sure if I was going to write another one. I didn’t know if I was going to go back to music at all. I really thought I was done. I’d had a breakdown, and I was depressed and suicidal. I found it difficult to navigate being a musician and what it did to my confidence. It’s a really hard slog being a musician because it affects you on every level. So, I was definitely less confident the first time I made a record, despite being in a very encouraging and supportive creative environment with my producer, Liam Mulvaney, who I’ve worked with on both records.

I think that sometimes when you’re a woman in the music industry, and maybe when you’re a woman in the world, there’s a feeling like you have to make yourself a little smaller, and that doesn’t work when you go into the studio. It’s not really to your advantage to be overly polite and be like, “what do you want to do?” You have to learn as a woman in music to be direct, which can feel unusual at the beginning. So, five years on when I went to make my second record, I had grown my confidence and was at ease with expressing what I wanted to do clearly and confidently.

It sounds like you need a strong sense of self to protect yourself as a woman in music. When I first heard the EP, it struck me that the tracks Ocean and Falling Stars seemed to echo Lilith, while others like Black Hole marked an evolution of your sound. Do you think this is reflective of your growing confidence as an artist?

The exciting thing about making a new record is the opportunity to try something different. You evolve, you want to sound different, you want to change. I still have a style, but I wanted to follow my interests. I listened to other music, and I consumed different art. It was exciting to do a track like Black Hole, which sounded so different from what I had done before, and I want to experiment with more subgenres in the future.

The pandemic has been particularly difficult for creatives and artists. How has COVID impacted the creative process for you?

Yeah, it definitely has! It’s really funny because when we first went into the lockdown, I saw a lot of people who were amazing and were just like, “I’m going to pour myself into something, I’m going to be productive, I’m going to be creative,” because they needed that. But, I was frozen in fear, I couldn’t fucking write a song to save my life. I was like, “We’re all going to die, I don’t feel like writing a song, I’m just going to watch the office for 8 hours a day and just like nap and make banana bread and just wait to die.” That’s literally how I felt. I was like “I can’t write a fucking album!”

That’s not a knock on anyone who was productive during that time — absolutely power to you if you were, I think that’s phenomenal — but there was, unfortunately, a knock-on effect of people feeling worried that they weren’t measuring up and ‘taking advantage of that time.’ Remember that tweet that was going around? It went something like, “if you didn’t take the time to do that thing that you loved during COVID, you’re never going to do it,” it’s just like everyone is terrified, what are you talking about, like what did you think was going to happen? It’s not like everyone got a holiday for three months and they were like, “Now it’s time to write that book!”

So, no, it didn’t make me more creative. I feel more creative now, even though things are still bad. I mean we’re in a kind of acceptance stage now, we’ve adjusted, it’s still really shit, but we’ve adjusted. I feel a bit more creative now, and I don’t feel compelled to write anything about this period. This period of time has not inspired me. It’s just given me time to regenerate a little bit, maybe consume a little bit more art than I would have. It’s like, if you could get through it, I think you were winning during the lockdown. You didn’t need an angle; you didn’t have to have the side-hustle to be valid, just surviving is enough.

I read a quote from you in Totally Dublin, where you spoke about the importance of accessibility to music and how it can be a source of therapy. I was wondering could you elaborate on that a bit more for me? Why do you think it’s important, and what does access to music look like to you?

Oh, that’s a really interesting question! Well, I was talking about my show in The Project Arts Centre, it was a soft EP launch, way before it came out. It was the first time that that stuff was being performed, and it was a night based around mental health, and I wanted to make it free. I talked about my mental health issues, and I read an essay that I did for Self-Made (a platform for DIY musicians in Ireland). I also invited other musicians who had struggled with mental health issues like Danny Carroll, Laura Ann Brady, Participant and Maija Sofia. They’re people I’ve talked to about anxiety and depression and that all factors into their work in some way or another. I wanted to make this night free so people could go. I mean, I’m a broke bitch, being a musician is not lucrative! I don’t know if there is anyone out there who is living under the illusion that it is lucrative, but there have been many times that I’ve been in a place where I would have loved to go to an event that I could really get something out of and felt like I couldn’t afford to go. 

I love First Fortnight for doing so many events. I remember going to a First Fortnight gig a few years ago and just listening to people who were performing talk about the fact that they had struggled, it really meant something to me, it made me feel less alone. I had so much shame around my mental health, and I didn’t even realise it. I’ve no shame about it now, and that’s a transformative place to be, that’s a really powerful place to be. If you can say it out loud and if you can share it with people, you can feel acknowledged and seen. I think that’s really wonderful. I believe access to live events where people are playing music that talks to that, where the music itself speaks to that can be a really powerful thing. It can deeply affect you if you’re in that space.

Yeah, I love First Fortnight gigs, there’s something powerful about being in a crowd and listening to someone speak so openly about their struggles.

Yeah, I remember at that gig, there was a poet who spoke about her sexual assault. I remember I was with a friend, and I just burst out crying. When you acknowledge something like that in yourself, and you speak it out loud, you acknowledge that for every person in the room.

Yeah, there’s this hustle culture that encourages us all to keep pushing, to keep being productive. I think it’s almost rebellious to just stop and feel your feelings. Inevitably you have to address what’s going on inside of you.

You know, one of the most helpful things that anyone said to me came from my mother. When I was really, really depressed, people would tell me to “keep busy” or “keep active,” and my mother said to me, “The only purpose of this life is to live and to be living, so if you can get out bed and that is as much as you can do in your day, you have still served your purpose.”

I had to live like that for quite a while when I was deeply depressed. Sometimes all I could do was get up, maybe make some breakfast, and then maybe have a shower — like if I had a shower, that was a winning day — like the bare minimum is enough when you’re just trying to get through.

I’ve always found music healing; just being in the crowd is good for the soul. A lot of artists have embraced the online stage during the pandemic. Do you feel that it negatively impacts the connection you have with your audience or is the medium irrelevant if the audience is connecting with the music?

I’m very nervous. I don’t feel ready to go back to gigs, that’s my own personal choice. I think if people feel comfortable to go back to gigs that’s great. I have a lot of health issues, so I feel very nervous about the idea of doing this yet. I’m sitting on that for a while. The live stream thing for me, I will do it, but it’s not the same because I think the connection with the audience is an energy exchange, and you’re responding, and they’re responding, it’s a conversation that you’re having. You’re there, and you’re connecting with the audience, you’re acknowledging them, it’s an exciting thing. This is what we have to do, and I don’t think people should stop live streaming at all, it just sucks a little bit because you don’t feel that connection, you don’t hear an audience, and you don’t read an audience. There’s an intuitive part of being a performer which is unfortunately lost in the exchange when you live stream. So for me, I don’t get the same thing out of it, it feels like a completely different beast. That being said though, I did do other types of live streams. I cut my hair, and I baked on Instagram live. The haircutting one gave people a lot anxiety, it’s terrifying for people to watch someone cut their hair apparently–but, I enjoyed it, it was great craic for me! So, I think it’s not the same, but this is what we have to do. I can understand the rush for people to get back because it’s our livelihoods. My job is in live events, and I lost my job. I’m completely broke and I absolutely want live events to come back, but this is unfortunately just part and parcel of what we have to do to survive in this time. I know people are rushing to get back, but I’m scared of what will happen if we all rush to get back to those big events, and then people get hurt in the process. I would be so gutted if I played a gig and people caught COVID, that would weigh on me for my entire life, so I’m not in a rush to get back to it, I can wait.

Naoise Roo performing at Whelan’s Ones to Watch 2019. Photo by Alison Kenny, Yellow Lens Photography.

As much as musicians and artists want to find a way to return to live music because your livelihoods depend on it, the rest of us on the other side are also craving the experience of live music, and it’s such a tonic to be able to access anything that feels like a real gig. Did you see the Lankum show? It was incredible.

Yes, I was going to bring that up, that was amazing. I loved that, and I loved how it was shot; there were so many different elements to it. It made me feel like, “Wow this is great, this is a proper live event,” in a weird way, this is as close as I’m going to get to a live event for a while. It had a wonderful ambience to it, more stuff like that would be great. But that’s it, that stuff is a total tonic. It’s hard when it’s just you and a guitar on Instagram live. It doesn’t replace live events at all.

It was difficult to release a record in the middle of a pandemic. Even though people were at home listening, the trajectory of a lot of peoples’ years and what they were building towards was deeply affected. This year, I was hoping to build something more than what I did. I’m very proud of releasing the work, but unfortunately, in retrospect, it wasn’t the most opportune time to drop the EP, and if I could go back I might have waited, I don’t know, but at the same time I’m happy with how it went.

I think getting to play festivals helps raise your profile, but it’s not even that. There’s a release that comes when you play a launch gig. It feels like the culmination of something, you know? When you make a record it sometimes doesn’t feel real until you’re playing the gig, you’re actually launching it. You’re there with your friends and your family, and you get to share this work. I’m lucky that I got to do The Project Arts show, but I never got to do that show after that, and now it just feels very strange to do it, just because of the circumstances and not because of anything else, yeah, it’s a strange one.

Interview by Caoimhe Gaskin
Featured image by Bob Gallagher

If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this interview you can contact Samaritans, Pieta House and Minding Creative Minds for support.

Listen to Sick Girlfriend


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