Karen Cowley of Wyvern Lingo told David Hennessy about the band’s new album, returning to Ireland for a flying visit when they were forced to remain there to see out the pandemic and first meeting Hozier in a school debating society.
The female three-piece from Bray Wyvern Lingo have been making waves on the Irish music scene since their debut EP, The Widow Knows, came out in 2014.
Singles like Subside and I Love You Sadie, which was nominated for the RTÉ Choice Music Prize Song of the Year 2017, made their self-titled debut alblum one of the most anticipated albums of the 2018. It was warmly received with a Choice Music Prize nomination.
Made up of childhood friends Caoimhe Barry (vocals, drums, guitar), Karen Cowley (vocals, synth, bass) and Saoirse Duane (vocals, guitar), the band return this week with their sophomore collection Awake You Lie. Excited fans have already had a taste of it in singles like Rapture and Only Love Only Light.
The trio made Berlin their home in early 2020, renting apartments and establishing themselves on the live music scene. It was in the German capital that the band recorded the bulk of their new album. When they found themselves stranded back in Ireland due to the pandemic it gave them the time and freedom to finish the album the way they wanted it to sound.
Vocalist and bass player Karen Cowley told The Irish World how the trio were playing gigs and even taking flights one day to then be stuck indoors at home but in a country that was no longer home.
“We were doing a gig in Cologne with Wallis Bird the night that all the schools closed down in Ireland. We were kind of watching all this on the news freaking out because we had flights back to Ireland the next day for a gig, then we were supposed to be in Berlin the week after.
“But then we came home for the gig and it got cancelled and we were then home for three months because of the pandemic. It was mad, it was crazy,” she remembers laughing.
“It was strange flying into Dublin. It felt like a sort of zombie film where everything’s closed and it was really bizarre. We were really concerned. We were really worried about our families particularly at the start, and I suppose we still are, but we’ve gotten used to it now.
“But it certainly was weird was because at the time when it kicked off, certainly in Cologne where we were, it didn’t seem to be a thing at all. We were in the airport and there was a couple of hand sanitisers but there was nothing really, people weren’t wearing masks. We were the only people with scarves over our faces and it was weird, that was really strange but I think it all changed very quickly.
“But we were lucky, we got to go back to Berlin in July when things sort of opened up again and then we got a good six months in Berlin and then we came back to Ireland in December and then round two, lockdown number two.”
It’s been said countless times during these pandemic that some of the countries on the continent have showed less panic in the face of the Covid crisis. Karen admits this may be the case but it may have come back to ‘bite’ them.
“They certainly were less panicky at the start. Well, it’s hard to say. At the start they seemed to be more in control and less panicked. Last summer for sure when we were back in Berlin it seemed way more relaxed but then that kind of came to bite them because in November things started getting really bad again and it got to the stage where we were better off coming home to be honest.
“The approaches were maybe a little bit different but I don’t think either one was better or worse. I think it’s kind of been much of a muchness, ya know. No one can stop this thing.”
Awake You Lie covers themes such as uncertainty and isolation. While these came from the girls approaching the milestones of their 30th birthdays, they seem to lyrically resonate more universally now.
“Yeah, it’s funny because obviously we wrote those songs long before we even thought about a global pandemic. We were writing those things that were just how we were feeling in that strange late 20s. You’re coming up to the 30, ‘What are you doing with your life?’ kind of pressure and then other feelings of anxiety.
“The album totally resonates thematically in these times even though lyrically it was written long before that. It’s funny how it has taken on new meanings with the things that have gone on in the world.
“We were so lucky. We had recorded most of it in December and January before all that happened and we had done the bones of all the instrumentation and then we had taken a month off in February to go travelling. It was as if we knew.
“Saoirse wanted to see her twin brother who lives in Sydney. She hadn’t seen him in four years so we earmarked that month, that February of 2020, to go somewhere because we don’t ever really do that so we all got some serious travelling in the month before a global pandemic.
“Then we were so lucky because when the pandemic hit what we had left to do was more overdubs and layers we could do from home. The majority of the vocals we did at home ourselves and it was great actually because it gave us this control we hadn’t had before.
“It kind of gave us time to self-produce it so we worked on a lot of the production and vocals and mixing during lockdown and it was just what we needed to be honest. It gave us time to finish it the way we wanted to finish it and do a hundred vocal takes if that’s what it took.”
A journey of self-discovery, the album sees the band look themselves in the mirror and ponder if they have made the right decisions up to now. Do they feel they have?
“Well I guess the nice end to that story is that we all upped and moved to Berlin together to do the album. I think that really ironed out a lot of doubts and insecurities that we all had with our personal lives and everything.
“I think making that kind of bold decision, even thought it was totally uprooted by Covid, it’s still been an amazing experience to just be in another city together and live somewhere and experience a different music scene.
“We were totally welcomed into the music community in Berlin and it’s just been such a wonderful, mind-opening experience and it’s been so positive for us every step of the way.
“I feel like before the album was even finished, I know for me personally, a lot of those things have come full circle and also the whole process was very cathartic for us so by the time we had completed working on a song the problems are long over if that makes sense. I guess a nice ending to it is that we massively stuck together again.
“The cost of living was a huge plus for us to make the move because in Ireland, well Dublin in particular, it’s so impossible to pay rent and be in a profession that in itself is essentially freelance. I honestly don’t know how people do it. We were paying rent that was making some of my friends here cry because it was so cheap.
“I know lots of musicians living in London who have three jobs and they’re all constantly burning themselves out.
“Dublin is certainly going that way. It was a new lease of life to be able to do what you’re doing and still have money for groceries and be able to not worry about it. It’s also so normalised there. Every second person you meet is working in the arts. It’s such an accepted choice of career and there’s a lot of support there for artists.
“To be fair now I have to say Ireland the last six months has done some great schemes for musicians because of Covid. We’ve been really lucky. We’ve gotten a couple of grants and awards and stuff that we would not have gotten before so it’s just been really really great.
“We’re glad to be home at the moment and doing what we’re doing.”
Karen, Caoimhe and Saoirse have been playing music together since they were children.
“We were about eleven when we all became friends. Saoirse and I were in primary school together but we didn’t actually become close friends until eleven or twelve because we just all actually started playing instruments and started listening to music.
“I think when you’re at that age, you start kind of developing your own taste in music a little bit more so we started listening to music and that’s exactly how we became friends. It’s mad. We’ve known each other for a really long time, over half our lives.”
Their moniker even dates back to a school days gig. When they had yet to come up with a band name, a teacher insisted on them calling themselves something which is when they came up with Wyvern Lingo.
“I keep threatening to make up a better version of this because it’s a really bad story. We were just listening to classic rock bands at the time that had really bogus names like Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin, things that didn’t really mean anything and when we were booked in to do the Christmas performance and we had done a couple before our teacher said to us, ‘You can’t just be Karen, Caoimhe and Saoirse. You have to pick a name. I’m printing the programmes tomorrow so have a name by tomorrow’.
“We just panicked and found Wyvern in a dictionary and we thought it was really epic and cool. It’s a dragon so we picked it and it stuck. That’s the incredibly boring story of our name but it stuck. It’s very googleable if you spell it right.”
Was that cliche of the second album ever an issue on this, even in their thinking? “Not really because for us it was more of a case of we were so eager to do an album in more of a classic way.
“Our first album, we love it. We’re absolutely so proud of that and we put an incredible amount of work into it but the songs were like a mixture of songs that had been written at different times and we felt that a lot of our identity was relying on that album.
“I think with this one all that pressure that was off so we were able to just create a cohesive piece that moved together as one thing and we really feel that we’ve accomplished that which is really exciting. I sort of feel like it’s so different to the first one that that kind of second album pressure just wasn’t really in my head.
“I think that’s a thing that critics and journalists see more of a pattern in. It doesn’t really bother me. When I’m listening to music, I wouldn’t really think about that.”
The girls joined RuthAnne and the Irish Women in Harmony collective for their charity Dreams cover that raised money for Safe Ireland while also highlighting the issue of gender disparity in Irish radio. Sadly, Karen feels this is still an issue and one where she can see Ireland far behind Germany.
“I think it is more true unfortunately in Ireland. How much they’re playing Irish women as opposed to Irish men- It’s shocking. It’s so ridiculous. I do think it’s a conversation that is of the 90s and the noughties, I think it’s ridiculous that we’re still having this chat in 2021 but unfortunately Irish radio is making it very difficult for Irish female artists to survive.
“I say that knowing that our music is not for every station and all times by any means but there are a lot of really deserving Irish acts out there who should be on daytime radio and aren’t.
“I think often we’re a little harder to pigeon hole if people are wanting to compare us to bands that we have nothing in common with other than our gender. It’s just telling but having said that, I think that’s way less of an issue in Germany from what we’ve encountered. It just seems to be so much less of a thing. There’s a lot more openness towards gender ideas. I think unfortunately Ireland is still quite conservative in its nature. I think we’ve come a long way but it’s hard for people to see women playing instruments without having assumptions. People might disagree with me but they can come at me,” she says with a laugh.
Karen says she is ‘very proud’ to be from Bray and there are many reasons to be with Katie Taylor and Hozier both conquering the world in recent years.
The band and Karen in particular have performed a lot with Hozier as she dueted with him on the haunting In a Week which featured on his lauded debut album. The band have toured Ireland and the UK with the Grammy winner but Karen was performing with him long before either he or their band were well known.
“When I started college, I had a friend Max. He’s a great musician. He’s got a band called Zaska. He and I had been playing music together since I was about 14 or 15 and when I started college he said, ‘Look, I really want to start this funk band. We’re going to get gigs and do some really cool stuff. I’ve got this other singer. He’s great’. s
“So I went to this first band rehearsal and it was Andrew (Hozier-Byrne), his other singer and we actually found out that we did know each other. This is really nerdy and you’re getting the nerdy exclusive but we both did this thing in school called The Model European Parliament. It was a debating thing and we met on that but forgot. That’s how we met.
“We started playing in that band together and played for years around Dublin playing in bars a couple of nights a week having so much fun. We played a couple of festivals as well so that was really, really exciting.
“I was always playing with the girls, it was always my first thing but at that time in Dublin there was such a great live music scene. It was so normal for people to play in a couple of bands. It was great. It was experience. It was how we all learned how to be musicians. It was such an exciting time and it was amazing to see Andrew take off and we started to do our own thing.”
Of course there are no live gigs taking place in Dublin at the moment. What is it like to be putting an album out without even the possibility of that live experience? “It’s really hard. We’re getting into the streaming thing and that’s great but you miss the interaction and you really miss actually talking to people after shows and gauging how they react to songs. That’s something really special that we will never take for granted- Not that we took it for granted before but my God, we’ll never take it for granted in the years to come and I really hope we get to experience that before the year’s out but we’ll see.”
Awake You Lie is out now.
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