Ríona Sally Hartman, 'Frida Kahlo's Delight'
Info: Ríona Sally Hartman is a gifted Dublin songwriter and singer who released her first solo work in 2009 with the E.P. Sealegs and is currently running a Fund:it campaign (details below) to launch her upcoming album, Big Starving Thing. In conjunction with a set of accomplished musicians in Cormac O'Brien, Julien Colarossi, Ailbhe Ní Oireachtaigh and Bonnie Stuart, Big Starving Thing will be the medium through which she tells us her many intriguing stories. Here we have a poet, singer, thinker all rolled into one and I really feel Hartman is currently one of our most unique and interesting artists. It's a cliché I always avoid using, but sometimes there is no other way of saying that we'll all be hearing a lot more about Ríona Sally Hartman in the very near future. I'm very happy to have interviewed Ríona and grateful to her for her thoughtful answers, without further ado....!
Remy: I watched your Vlogs which are part of your Fund:it campaign to get your upcoming album, Big Starving Thing, released and it’s clear we can expect a very character-driven set of songs, where did this concept come from?
Ríona: I never really made a conscious decision to write songs about characters I just got less and less interested in writing songs about myself or situations that were specific to me. I wanted to write about ideas that are true to everyone so the characters are each like little crystallisations of a concept, they let me write about something without making it about a specific person or place, it's just about the idea. Like with the character Tom Peeping I wanted to write about things that I think are universal to all romantic relationships like: can you ever really know someone or is getting to know someone just an act of projection, or about how you can lose your identity in a relationship and whether that's a good or bad thing.
But when you think about it isn't it odd that fictional, or character driven music is the exception rather than the norm? I mean in other art forms like literature or film I think fiction is usually the norm, if you told someone you were an author I don't think they'd assume you only wrote biographies! I'm not saying one is better or worse: biographical or fictional, it's just interesting to see how different mediums approach the same ideas so differently.
Remy: I can tell from some of your song descriptions that you have an interest in observing human behaviour, and quite a lot of the characters such as those mentioned in 'The Screamer' and 'Same But Better' seem to be quite vulnerable or socially inept, how close are the subjects of these songs to real life people?
Ríona: Ha, I never realised how socially inept they all are until you pointed it out! You're right: Tom is a voyeur, Sally is a suicidal introvert and 'The Screamer'...well I mean she just screams! The telepathic mother and newborn son are probably the only well adjusted characters but again they don't talk (mostly because they don't need to to be fair) and are quite vulnerable. Screamer is the only character based on a real person but I didn't really know that person very well so I'm not sure if it's really an accurate depiction of her personality. Really I fictionalised her situation for the purpose of the song rather than really telling her story. None of the others are based on real life people but we've all got a Tom Peeping and a Suicidal Sally in us. Half my family are, or have been, psychologist and psychiatrists so an interest in human behaviour is just in my blood I guess.
Remy: You mention Lauryn Hill’s music a part-inspiration for one of your tracks in one of your Vlogs, which other female artists have you found most influential on your song-writing over the years?
Ríona: I love how Imogen Heap documents her process and is so completely open about sharing it. Sometimes her process is more interesting to me than the final product but still watching how she works and builds a song, which songs work and which don't, has been a huge influence. I'm also a huge Becca Stevens fan. Her arrangements and song forms are really interesting and her band is unreal! I'm looking forward to hearing what she does with Tillery (Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato and Rebecca Martin). When it comes to performance and lyrical delivery Betty Carter's later work is what I look to, although it's stylistically completely different from my own music. Her interpretation of jazz standards is so masterful that it just transcends genre.
And of course there are a million incredible female singer songwriters making some absolutely beautiful music in Ireland. One of the millions, off the top of my head is Miriam Ingram. Trampoline is such an incredible, dark, twisty album.
Remy: I have to say you’re quite the story-teller and I really enjoyed your reading of Tove Jansson’s Tales from Moominvalley (I remember the cartoon well from my childhood!), it’s very philosophical for a children’s book, who were your favourite authors as a child?
Ríona: I only discovered the Moomins really recently, I wish I'd known about them when I was younger I would've eaten that up! For me it was Maurice Sendak all the way. I recently sorted through all my childhood books and found one that I'd forgotten about called Really Rosie by Maurice Sendak about a girl who wanted to be a singer with songs (music notation and lyrics) included as part of the story by Carol King. My parents had good taste!
Remy: Listening to the first track from Big Starving Thing ‘Frida Kahlo’s Delight’ I’m reminded of 50’s jazz singers like Julie London, did you grow up in a household with old music or was it something you came across later in life?
Ríona: Yep I grew up with lots of jazz and I've got a degree in jazz performance so I'm pretty saturated with the stuff. Ella and Sarah singing standards was pretty much the default soundtrack in my house growing up along with the great american songwriters like Paul Simon and Carole King, a splash of Prokofiev from my Dad's side and two older siblings who I'd steal Radiohead albums from. I couldn't really ask for a better songwriting education than that.
Remy: Last month I featured the other music project you’ve been working on with guitarist Mick Stuart, Monster Monster, musically it’s very different to your solo work, do you find working on projects like this that you feel less self-inflicted pressure than when writing your own music?
Ríona: I don't know if I ever really feel pressure self-inflicted or otherwise from song-writing, I just really enjoy it, but Mick does by far the lion's share of the song-writing in Monster Monster. I have more of a consultant / interpreter role there than a song-writing role. With the Ríona Sally Hartman group I do all the song-writing myself.
The two projects are so completely different and it's just so satisfying to be singing these big hot pop songs with Monster Monster one day and then a creepy acoustic song about Frankenstein the next. And even though my own music and Monster Monster's music are stylistically completely different, myself and Mick share a lot of common ground on what makes a good lyric. We've had lots of great big conversations about things like the minutest detail of a Paul Simon lyric, and it's just so enjoyable to have someone to bounce those ideas off from time to time. We have epic arguments (or 'debates'!) over wether we should leave the word 'and' or 'but' in a lyric or not which is maybe more fun than it sounds.
Remy: Where does Ríona Sally Hartman see herself in 10 years time?!
Ríona: I've had this ambition for years that I want to write a pop Opera for shadow puppets and tour with it with a live band. It just kills me staying up late at night thinking about how it would look and sound and work. I mean I don't really have a clue where I'll be in ten years but I just hope I'll have found a way to make my shadow puppet Opera a reality.
Remy: No doubt you’ll reach the funding target required for the album release, tell us a bit about what happens after that, i.e. launch night, future releases?
Ríona: Well, fingers crossed, first there'll be the listening party for the top funders so they'll be the first to hear the album. Then a Dublin launch in the new year followed by, I hope an Irish tour. Dates and venues are to be confirmed but if anyone wants to keep up to date they can sign up for the mailing list at www.rionasallyhartman.com or find me on Facebook or Twitter @RionaSally.
Note: Be sure to pop along to the album's Fund:it page here and help Ríona reach her goal!