Singer- songwriter Niall McCabe told David Hennessy about sharing the stage with everyone from Beoga to Ed Sheeran, supporting Chris Isaak in London and embarking on his first UK headline tour this week.
Niall McCabe begins his first UK tour this week. His only previous UK dates playing his music were the sold out shows that saw him support Wicked Game singer Chris Isaak.
Born on Clare Island, Co. Mayo, McCabe grew up in the family run pub, awash with strong musical influences from traditional Irish and folk to rock and soul. It is here that Niall discovered his musical appetite and developed a style and voice that are unquestionably his own. As well as becoming an accomplished finger-style guitar player, Niall has been lending his unique voice to Irish trad-fusion band Beoga, touring Ireland, Europe and the USA while also playing support for Ed Sheeran, Foy Vance and Johnny Swim.
In September he opened for Sharon Shannon at New York City Winery.
Niall’s debut album Rituals was released earlier this year to critical acclaim and featured as RTE Album of the Week, while the song Rituals topped the RTE Radio airplay charts for five consecutive weeks.
Irish Music Magazine said, ‘The weight of personal experience and reflection makes it a masterpiece, in the true sense of the word’.
Hot Press called it, ‘A Sentimental Soulful Debut’.
We caught up with Niall while he was back home for a couple of nights ‘to recharge the batteries’ in the middle of his recent Irish tour.
Are you looking forward to coming to the UK? “Yeah, absolutely.”
“I’ve always been very keen to play in the UK.
“I’m very excited about getting over there finally.”
This will be your first proper tour of the UK..
“Yeah, and this is my first one in Ireland as well really.
“It’s equal parts terrifying and exciting, because you don’t know if people will come out, starting to build a new audience somewhere is always hair raising.”
It’s not that long ago you were over playing support to Chris Isaak…
“Yeah, that kind of came up last minute as well.
“It was amazing. It was completely unexpected.
“There was no time to even think about it, I just jumped on the ferry with the van and followed the road to London.
“And it was in the Apollo in London which was obviously huge for me, very exciting, and his audiences were amazing.
“I wasn’t sure how they would react because when you’re the support act, you never know if you’re just annoying people or if they’re actually open to being entertained for an extra half hour before the person they came to see comes on.
“But they were amazing, they were so kind.
“And even Chris Isaak was lovely.
“He didn’t have to be.
“When I came off stage, he was beside the stage and had some kind words to say which was obviously very cool.”
You’ve had incredible moments in terms of your live career such as Ed Sheeran.
“Yeah, I’ve been very lucky.
“A lot of that came to me from when I met with Beoga.
“They needed a singer for some live shows. I didn’t know them at the time.
“They had been searching for somebody and then they gave me a call and they said, ‘Would you be up for trying a few songs with us?’
“I said, ‘Sure, no problem’.
“They said, ‘We’ve got a few gigs coming up’.
“They didn’t tell me what the gigs were, of course.
“So I tried a few songs for them. They said, ‘Right, perfect. Can you be in Cork? In Páirc Uí Chaoimh to support Ed Sheeran?’
“’Okay, no problem’.
“It literally is one phone call or one conversation away from doing amazing things for everyone.
“It only takes the slightest step to the side and you can be having a wild adventure whereas if you keep on walking the same path, it can be all happening around you and you’ll never see it.
“I’ve been actually singing with them (Beoga) live ever since.
“We’re very good friends now, we’re good pals.
“It’s been amazing.
“They’ve been a big part of the reason that I’ve kind of got my own stuff together properly.
“I was just playing in pubs and half-heartedly trying to write songs when I met them.
“They all come from Irish music even though they’re trying to do something a bit more progressive always.
“That connection back to that stuff I grew up with, that has been one of the major kind of catalysts in my album.
“I played accordion and bodhran and all that when I was young.
“I grew up in the local pub on Clare Island, population of 150 people.
“It’s very much the centre of the community.
“I remember getting a bodhran that I saw in a shop.
“We got it on the Thursday and by the Saturday, I was playing in the pub in the session in amongst all the old musicians on the island.
“So I really had an opportunity to get straight in there with that kind of stuff.”
Your album has been acclaimed. What inspired it?
“It’s inspired by connecting with my own past and my own tradition and my home as well.
“And I guess in some of the songs it’s connecting with truth about yourself.
“It’s all about getting down to grassroots and very simple emotions.
“That’s how we approached recording the album.
“It was very much something that I never did before and never thought about.
“It was actually during one particular song, it was actually Stonemason and I was saying, ‘We’re not going to put any harmonies on it, I don’t want any backing vocals, it’s just going to be a voice on its own because he would be alone, he would be lonely’.
“We just started thinking about making an album in terms of the emotion of the song which was a completely new thing for me as well really getting down to the nuts and bolts of emotions and feelings and that all comes from reconnecting with home.”
There is no place like Clare Island for you by the sounds of it..
“No there really isn’t and the support that you get also from islanders.
“On Saturday night in Galway there was a full row of people from Clare Island sitting there. Up in Dublin there was loads of Island faces so they really do support you.
“They’ll be coming to Birmingham.”
Niall’s mother was also his school teacher and would teach all the island’s children- all different ages- in one room.
What was it like growing up on the island?
“I get asked that a lot.
“It’s a funny question because you grow up somewhere and you don’t have anything to reflect it off, you just think that’s normal.
“But when everyone’s always asking, ‘Oh, you come from an island? What’s that like?’
“It’s actually a very close knit community but then everyone gives each other space because familiarity breeds contempt and all that.
“But I think also, because you’re from a community that’s so far removed, you tend to be more outward facing, especially in how you see the world.
“It’s not like if you’re from America, for example, you can afford to be very insular and not kind of worry about what goes on in the rest of the world because if you want skiing, you go to Aspen. If you want the beach, you go to California, but when you’re somewhere like Ireland and even more so Clare Island, you have to look out to the world for everything, so I kind of feel like sometimes we have our backs to the wall but also are just very open minded in a lot of ways as well.”
Niall has returned home to the island after many years living in Cork.
“I love Cork.
“I remember the first time that I went down to visit my brother and Cork was the European Capital of Culture that year.
“I was just completely blown away by the city because I’d never actually been down that far.
“I’d been to Galway and Dublin and I flat out declared it the best city in the country there and then, so I went to college there then as well.
“And it was just amazing, especially that time. There was just so much happening. The music scene was kind of kicking off and I found it a really friendly place.
“All the shop people call you ‘love’ and ‘dear’ and all that kind of stuff.
“I couldn’t get over the friendliness and openness of the people of Cork so I was totally taken by it and then stayed there for 15 years nearly in total, but obviously always wanted to come back home.
“I was desperate in the end to come back home and it wasn’t only because of the pandemic.
“I had been talking about it the year leading up to it and as soon as I got that opportunity, I snapped at it and went.”
On his return home, McCabe became heavily involved in reinvigorating his small island community, opening a seasonal cafe-bakery and establishing and running The Clare Island Folk Festival.
“In fact, I was just looking up the council page before your call, because I was looking at when the next deadline for festival funding is.
“Yeah, myself and my partner Alice opened up a little café in an old shipping container behind our shed that was falling apart, rusting to pieces.
“It was literally the only place we could do anything so we did it up: Electricity, plumbing, the whole works.
“I learned to bake bread during the pandemic and we opened up a little café/bakery.
“This was the third summer. Obviously you can only do the summer here because the winter is quite desolate.
“The other thing that we started was a folk festival, Clare Island Folk Festival, and we just did our second year there in September.
“It’s been a huge success.
“Some great, great, great artists and two great weekends.
“I feel like you come home to your small community and you want to give something back.
“You want to do something that only you could do, that’s what we could do.”
In June Niall played Doolin Folk Festival joining a bill that included Christy Moore, Luka Bloom, Lisa O’Neill and many more.
“That was fantastic.
“Some things are personal little bucket list things that other people maybe don’t get or wonder why you’re so excited about it, but playing on the Doolin festival was that.
“I went, ‘Yes, I’ve always wanted to play this festival’.
“To get there was really special and just such a great atmosphere.
“There’s a hotel and then there’s a big courtyard in the middle and then the building all the way round, so it actually feels like a castle- a fortress.
“It feels like you’re under siege and everybody is stuffed into this courtyard in the middle where you can’t get out and you just have to listen to great music for the weekend. It’s very cool.”
What’s been THE highlight of your live performances so far? Is it Ed Sheeran, Chris Isaak, Beoga, all of those or something different?
“No, it’s not those at all as amazing as those are.
“But I think for me, it’s been this tour. It’s been the last year or so, being able to go out and play my songs for people that want to hear them.
“Whelans the last day was just something else.
“To have a few hundred people pay their hard earned money and to take the time out of their weekends, their lives, to come and see me is very humbling but it’s also really exciting.
“This whole adventure now with my own music is getting better and better.
“Each time I think it can’t get any better, it just keeps getting better.”
Miriam O’Callaghan described Niall as ‘an incredibly talented singer-songwriter’ adding ‘his song Stonemason is one of the best I’ve ever heard’.
What has it been to receive such plaudits?
“It is nice.
“Of course I appreciate those things.
“But if I was doing it for plaudits, I would have given up a long time ago.
“But I think the radio has been crucial in getting people to come to the gigs.
“After every gig I cannot even count the number of times somebody has come up to me and said, ‘I was driving down the road and I was listening to Lyric FM or RTE One, heard you song and I bought my ticket’.
“I was on Marty Whelan’s show there in May he’s going out of his way to push my gigs.
“That just makes such a huge difference.
“I mean, they can change everything for you with their kindness.
“I do appreciate that.”
Niall McCabe tours the UK from 2 November.
He plays Kazbar in Yeovil on 2 November, Barbican Theatre in Plymouth on 3 November, The Slaughtered Lamb in London on 4 November, Kitchen Garden in Birmingham on 5 November, The Musician in Leicester on 7 November, The Irish Centre in Liverpool on 10 November, The Old Customs House in Arnside on 12 November.
For more information, click here.