NI Music Prize winner ferna told David Hennessy about her debut album and the need to repair her ego after the honest opinion her producer gave her at the start of their working relationship.
After winning the NI Music Prize single of the year last ferna has released her debut album, understudy.
Under her own name of Hannah McPhillimy, Coleraine singer- songwriter ferna emerged several years ago singing alongside acts such as The Gloaming, Foy Vance and Soak, as well as performing at the Other Voices and SXSW festivals.
She returned to Ireland in 2019 after completing a master’s degree in music composition at the University of Michigan, to see out the pandemic while simultaneously restructuring her music, and unveiled herself as ferna about 18 months ago.
Her debut track Wasting nabbed the NI Music Prize for best single of 2022.
“It is a big relief to be honest,” she tells The Irish World when we ask how it feels to be getting the music out there.
“That’s probably the biggest emotion because I’ve been working on it since 2017 which is wild.
“But kinda had a move to the US in the middle of it, and then came back and then there was the pandemic and then various things kept getting in the way.
“So I’m just so, so glad that it’s actually become a thing and isn’t just living in my head anymore.
“I’m really excited.
“When I started this project, I was still Hannah McPhillimy but I think just the direction the songs are taking, they were less folk, they were more of a mixture of electronic and pop and everything in between really so it just felt like enough of a change of direction that I also wanted to change the name.
“I think it was 2021 I sort of rebranded as ferna but that was before I put out the first single from this album.
“Wasting was the first time I appeared in public as ferna but the project’s been going on a bit longer than that.”
Based in Belfast, ferna describes understudy as a “labour of love” for both her and producer, Stu Reid (Duran Duran, Killa Kela) with a mission to amplify hidden characters and quiet sentiments.
The album actually grew from a chance meeting with the producer Stuart Reid in 2018.
ferna says, “I was feeling stuck in a musical rut when I met Stu. We met to discuss recording a video, but he proceeded to provide an extremely honest assessment of my song writing so far. I then approached him about working together, after taking a few days to repair my ego.”
This was a big moment in ferna’s- and the album’s- development.
“He’s from London and had been producing and working in studios there and then he moved over to Northern Ireland.
“I had kind of been kicking around the Belfast scene for a wee while, but it’s quite a small music community and I think it’s fair to say you wouldn’t get a whole load of criticism necessarily because it’s quite tight knit and everything.
“So when I met Stu and we started talking about my music, and he started giving me quite an honest opinion, I suppose it was a bit of a double edged sword because on the one hand, he was critiquing something but on the other hand, I suppose it opened up a lot of possibilities: This idea of using the studio as an instrument, and not necessarily feeling confined to just the instruments I could play.
“And so he played a big part in the music I’m writing now and I’d say it’s kind of the music I probably wanted to write all along but didn’t feel I had skills.
“I think before I hadn’t really thought about the recording process as contributing to the music, as silly as that sounds now.
“But with Stu I was really able to get into the nitty gritty of all that side of things and basically just make tonnes of decisions about every little aspect.”
The resulting album is one that asks questions about what exactly lies beneath the surface, what is not being said, and how we live our true lives without being overly influenced by negativity.
She may have had a stint in America and had to see out a pandemic since the project started but understudy was never likely to be a fast process as the songs demanded a great deal of attention.
“understudy is all about what’s going on beneath the surface. Who is not speaking? What nuances are we not picking up on? Stu and I were already obsessed with every tiny detail, but this became hyper important due to the theme running through the album. I can honestly say that every single note, effect and instrument has been handpicked and agonized over at some point.”
The first track open up asks a question that the album attempts to answer: what happens when we become spectators, rather than players, in our own lives?
“I think sometimes I’ll just be writing and then it’ll be later on that I realise what I’m writing about so it’s probably just gradually been revealed as we have pieced together the album.
“But I think something that I probably find difficult just moving through life is being someone who’s maybe quite assertive or like a loud voice in the room, I feel like I’m definitely more of a sit back kind of person.
“And then that can have lots of consequences in your life where you feel like maybe decisions are being made for you instead of by you.
“I suppose that’s a common theme I feel in my life.
“And then there are a couple other things that sort of intrigued me along the way that I wrote about too.
“I got really into the novel Milkman by Anna Burns.
“It’s kind of set in Belfast and I was struck by the lead character because she’s basically in this community where she doesn’t really have a say in what happens to her.
“They’re kind of controlled by the paramilitaries so that was something I was interested by and wrote the song Wasting and then when I was in America, I started hearing about Coretta Scott King while I was there and, and she was someone who actually was amazingly talented and had an amazing voice but maybe now is someone we think of as someone who was just kind of a wife and an add on to Martin Luther King.
“So there’s kind of my story and then threaded in are these other stories that I think are somewhat parallel to that.”
ferna mentions paramilitaries there. What has her experience of growing up in Northern Ireland post- The Good Friday Agreement been?
“I feel like growing up I was pretty sheltered from a lot of it, where I came from and the family I was in and everything.
“So yeah, thankfully, it’s not something I feel has really had to shape my life in the way it has for other people.
“But more recently, if you read the news at all, there’s kind of hints and undertones and there’s definitely stuff happening that’s a bit sinister in the background.
“I think we don’t know how lucky we really were or maybe I didn’t know how lucky I was with the Good Friday Agreement and everything.
“It’s important we don’t become complacent because something like Brexit can really drag all this stuff back up.
“But my experience has probably been not being that aware of it and then as I’ve gotten older, and things are kind of popping up in the news realising that it’s not something that’s just gone away.”
ferna was honoured with the NI Music Prize single of the year for her debut track Wasting.
“That was so nice.
“Like I said, I’ve been working on this album and the ferna project for a long time.
“So a long time, it’s just been sitting with me and Stu and then Wasting was the first single we put out.
“And that’s the one that went on to win the NI Music Prize so it’s just a really nice moment when you feel like, ‘Oh, outside of this little bubble, there’s people who think it’s decent’.
“The night was so good in itself, I think because of the pandemic the NI Music Prize probably hadn’t really been in person for a while.
“So when everybody was in the room, just delighted for everybody else and to be rubbing shoulders with a lot of musicians that I love as well.
“Yeah, I think it’s definitely a memory I’m going to store.
“I just feel very, very grateful to have that kind of tangible thing to mark with my music too.”
How would you categorise the sound, you say it’s a mix? “It comes up all the time and I never know what to say.
“I generally go for indie pop because that’s a big enough bracket and people have heard of that before.
“I suppose there’s pop and folk in there with a bit of an indie sensibility across it all.”
Was it always going to be music? Did you grow up in a musical house?
“I grew up in a house where music was definitely encouraged.
“I was sent along to lots of music lessons and my school was actually really good for music and it was my favourite subject.
“But in terms of writing music, that wasn’t really something I really saw people doing.
“When I was really young- very embarrassing- Well, I don’t know if it’s embarrassing- I heard that CD, A Woman’s Heart and there was lots of Irish women singing on it.
“But when I heard that, I decided I wanted to be a songwriter, I think I was like six.
“But I didn’t tell anyone until I went to uni.
“And then at uni I did a performance class and you had to write your own songs and perform them so when I was forced into it through that , that’s how I actually started gigging around Belfast and then things just grew from there.
“It was something I always loved and didn’t really start to do properly or take seriously until my 20s, I think.”
The Irish World caught up with ferna as she was literally about to leave for a holiday in Taiwan, surely a well earned break after the last few years.
ferna says: “It was slightly spontaneous.
“I’ve a friend there basically and wasn’t able to visit her over the pandemic and thought if we didn’t go now, we may never.
“It’s probably not the greatest timing two weeks before my album comes out but should be fun.”
Surely it’s the best timing to relax ahead of the big launch show…
“Yeah, I think it’s either really great timing or really terrible timing. I’ll find out.”
ferna will launch the album with a gig at The Empire, Belfast on 4 May in collaboration with The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
“I can’t wait for that too just to kind of feel like we can do justice to the studio version.
“We’re playing in the Empire as well which is one of my favourite venues too.
“I’m really scared but I’m sure it will be really fun as well.”
Understudy is out now.
Ferna launches the album at The Empire, Belfast on 4 May in collaboration with The Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.
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