It’s the twist in the lyric that makes many songs worth your attention and time; the songs may deliver the same message, but it’s the sharp detour away from the middle of the road that sets them apart from the standard and the static.
Singer, occasional songwriter and mother of four Carmel McCreagh knows all about twists and turns. Life, she says as someone who knows only too well about such things, is not a linear journey. Just when you think that the path is smooth and clean, something jagged comes along to trip you up and rip the skin. Just when you think life is a glass half-full of Brandy Alexander, someone or something comes along and spikes it. She has, as the television ads would say, lived a life less ordinary.
Carmel recalls a time when the ordinariness of life as a child in Nenagh, County Tipperary, was all she had. She remembers the freedom of playing in the streets and the greyness of domesticity positioned next to the explosions of colour in the local cinema, where American musicals mixed gaudiness with great songs. She recalls, in particular, how her love of music was developed through an older brother’s love of poetry, literature, opera, jazz and blues. “Opera, jazz, musicals – they’re the things that sustained me,” she remarks.
Carmel moved to London when she was ten – to say that Camden Town in the 1960s was quite a change from Nenagh is something of a culture-clash understatement. School at Kentish Town, however, slipped by and before you could say ‘London swings’ Carmel had left secondary education and immersed herself in music: gigs at the city’s famed Marquee Club, attending the Rolling Stones Hyde Park concert, engaging with the sights and the sounds of the international capital of rock’n’roll. If it sounds like a life lived amid the whiff of patchouli oil, long-haired musicians and the strums of electric guitars, then that’s exactly what it was, but Carmel never entirely bought into the hippie lifestyle. “My background made me less likely to go with the flow,” she asserts. “I just loved the music.”
Fads and trends pass by too quickly, but love of music remains. Come the early-mid 70s, London’s long hair brigade was usurped by the back-to-basics pub rock scene. Patchouli oil was traded in for beer stains, Hyde Park for spit-and-sawdust venues such as The Nashville and Hope & Anchor. Carmel – sucker-punched by life’s twists yet again - once more discovered music she loved: Ian Dury, Bees Make Honey, Brinsley Schwarz, Dr Feelgood. It was around this time – post-hippie, pre-punk – that she fell in romantic and personal cahoots with noted composer/arranger Fiachra Trench. Cue a protracted period of time having children and raising them, being a mother (and having “no issues with that”) and a return to Ireland in the early 90s.
As the children developed so did Carmel’s slowly-unfolding side career as a singer. Initially, it was singing and performing (with Fiachra and friends) conducted in the confines of family get-togethers, small, unofficial and casual affairs that gradually became part and parcel of their lives. But something serious was bubbling underneath, a grain of an idea that Carmel could do something more than entertain people around the dinner table. The notion developed into a reality, which was in turn substantiated even further by discussions on making a record. “We were doing very much more jazz oriented music at that point, because my voice suits it. But I didn't want another standards album – I didn’t want another record with Summertime on it. I wanted the music to gel, of course, but I also wanted something that had a mix, something that was different.”
Carmel also didn’t want to make a record just for the sake of it. Her own songs take a while to write, she says, because she wants them to be good. “I don’t find it easy to write songs. I love songs with a twist.”
That word again. Certainly, it can be used to genuine effect in relation to her debut album Nice Girl, and to Skylark, her new album of songs with lyrics by Johnny Mercer. The songs on the albums – each placed strategically against the next, allowing a narrative flow of sorts – represent a journey. The unifying thread is someone’s life. “Relationships are never linear and love is a crazy thing. It makes no sense that we all keep doing it!”
Carmel’s inspiration as a singer comes from the love of it, the joy of it. “Maybe it’s because I’m doing it at this stage in my life that it’s absolute out-and-out fun. The one thing you must not forget is that it’s entertainment – if you forget that then you’re lost.”
She describes herself as an interpretative singer who occasionally writes songs. “I think I'm a good performer, an entertainer. I know how to interpret a song, I think I’m good at that, and interpreting lyrics – the intonation, the expression. Because I think I’m good at it I can be brave enough to take a particular song and make it different. I can’t sing like Billie Holiday, but I can sing like me and I can interpret a song for me. Essentially, it’s about performing the song as if I’m acting a character.”
Does she have a sense of purpose? “I’m like a limpet – I cling on! Once I do something and enjoy it then I just want to keep going on with it. I’ve done a lot of things in my life, chopped and changed, and I’m glad for that.”
Yet it comes back, as always, to the song. Nice Girl and Skylark – late night records for all hours of the day – are full of them, very good ones, too. “Songs don't have to have a deep meaningful message for me,” says Carmel, “but they have to have humour, tongue in cheek.”
And – we’re just guessing here – a twist? “Oh, yes, always that.”
Watch interview with Carmel here.