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Going it alone

Robert John Ardiff tells David Hennessy how he was able to work from home for his new EP, how he recorded an album after his baby’s bedtime and why it was so surreal to see Anne Hathaway crying into her breakfast.

“Within the first week or two of lockdown, I wrote that,” singer-songwriter Robert John Ardiff tells The Irish World of his new EP A Whistle in the Dark.

“I’m fortunate enough to have a space in my house where I can go and create. I’ve just got a tiny little box room with basically my piano, amps and gear. I borrowed a few instruments from different people before the lockdown happened because I knew they wouldn’t be using them and was able to take full advantage.”

Known for being part of the Choice Music Prize nominees Come On Live Long, Robert released his critically acclaimed solo debut album Between the Bed and Room in 2018 with his sophomore collection due to land later this year before Covid-19 put a spanner in those works.

Having done his parts, Robert sent the new music to friends to add harmonica, bass and fiddle and then to another friend for mixing. The EP’s lead single is aptly named Quarantine.

“Then I had this single ready to go. I took a picture of a bird in a cage in my back garden and that was the cover art.

“But at the same time I had planned to go in to the studio during the summer to finish an album that I had planned to release in October. I had half the album recorded so I just decided, ‘I’ll do a load of new tracks’. When the lockdown happened, I just started writing again.”

All of the tracks on the EP were written and recorded during the current crisis except for one.

“One of the tracks is called the Spook of the Thirteenth lock. Everybody knows The Auld Triangle is about the Royal Canal but this is a song about the Grand Canal and I’ve never heard anybody else singing it.

“I just thought, ‘This is a great song so I started performing it myself and one night close to Christmas I was down in a friend of mine’s house who lived quite coincidentally right beside the Grand Canal and we just decided to record the song. We just recorded it all in two hours.

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“Working remotely was interesting. It’s good and it’s bad. It’s good in that you don’t have to be in the same room. It’s bad in that you don’t have a lot of feedback at the time. When you’re in a band and you’re jamming in a room, you can kind of see what works and what doesn’t work. When you’re doing it remotely it’s like, ‘I’ve written this song and this is the way it’s going to be and it isn’t going to change’. You don’t have the same flexibility. You have to be very sure: This is what I’m doing.”

Robert’s first album came about while Robert was still new to fatherhood so playing music had to be balanced with parenting duties.

“That’s where the name for the album comes from. I recorded the first album in a box room in my house. Myself and Louise, my partner, would put Alice down to bed and then I’d run up to the room and maybe record for two hours. I did that consistently for six months and then at the end of it, I had an album.

“A friend of mine kind of said to me, ‘If you write a page of a book every day, at the end of the year you’ll have a book’. I kind of said, ‘If I put in a couple of hours every day in six months or so I’ll have a record together’, and that’s kind of what happened.

“I was doing everything on my own so I would record the guitar, the drums, the bass, the piano, the vocals, I would do everything myself and then mix it myself as well and then I’d get another friend to help with certain bits in the mixing process.”

Robert has also been writing for television since John Carney (formerly of The Frames and director of films such as Once and Sing Street) asked him to write some songs for Amazon Prime’s Modern Love which stars Anne Hathaway, Tina Fey, Andy Garcia and more.

“John Carney got in touch with me and he had heard my music and asked me to write some songs for the show so initially he sent me a load of scripts and then I wrote songs in response to the scripts. Then he ended up choosing one of those songs and then he took two off Between the Bed and Room. One of those tracks, People Talking, is actually going to be on the soundtrack which is out on 14 February.”

Was it surreal to hear his music on such a star-studded show? “Big time, there was a scene with Anne Hathaway crying into a bowl of porridge and then one of my songs came on. That was weird.”

The lockdown has been frustrating for an artist who likes to grow his audience by getting out there and playing: “We often go to this place called Callan in Kilkenny. There’s a small little cafe there called Fennelly’s. The first time we went, we were playing to 20 people and then you go back again and there’s 100 there and you go, ‘Okay, what’s happening here?’ Once you keep returning to places, people start coming to see you.

“People sometimes get lost in the social media end of things. They think, ‘I’m promoting it on my instagram, I’m promoting it on my Facebook’. You have to get out there and play. You have to stick up the posters and you have to play to actual real people that you can see in front of you blinking and breathing.”

Robert played Kilburn’s Fiddler in February but of course that feels like a very long time ago now that travelling anywhere and playing in front of an audience are both out of the question.

“It does feel like another lifetime ago. That was a brilliant night, we got a brilliant crowd down for it. We got really great feedback from it.

“They have a Kilburn Street Festival that is organised by Vince Power and he was going to bring me back over in August to play that but obviously now that’s all up in the air.

“I can’t see live gigs happening until at least October/ November and then what’s going to happen at that stage? What musicians are going to want to travel to the UK based on the sh*t show the conservatives have made of it?”

The single Quarantine and EP A Whistle in the Dark are out now.

For more information, click here.

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