Music by the coolest of the cool (and sometimes overlooked) Irish female artists should be the soundtrack to your summer.
You may not have noticed amid all of the brouhaha surrounding national and local radio playlists and their incomprehensible attitude towards playing songs by emerging Irish female artists, but the best music released in recent years hasn’t been by men. What you hear around the collective crown of new Irish female voices isn’t a buzz – it’s a colony of Queen Bees. The differences between the boys and girls aren’t just the obvious pop music tropes of fashion sense or performative expression but in the how and why of what they do. The Irish men you hear all day (and every day) on the radio are of a type: chest-beating, brow-frowning, earnest to a fault, obliged (or so it seems) to share their deepest thoughts across songs that are meaningful, serious, heartfelt and ever so slightly dull. The Irish women, on the other hand, don’t seem obliged to be anything other than uniquely themselves. Featured here are over two handfuls of the best Irish female singers/songwriters/musicians to keep your ears out for this year and into 2023. Some are newly minted, some have been toiling at the coalface for years, and some you may not have heard of. Unlike most of their male counterparts, each one of them is as distinctive and different as the other, with no one genre predominating.
Photograph by Doreen Kilfeather
Since 2014, Irish/Sierra Leone songwriter/singer/actor Sallay Garnett (aka LOAH, a stage name casually acquired from Isabelle Allende’s novel, Island Beneath the Sea) has delivered a heady, sensual blend of soul, jazz and Afro-centric music.
In the interim, she has steered a steady course from gritty limb-shaking rhythms to timeless pop/dance (some recent tunes she has described as “sad bangers”, which is a snappy signifier for pop/dance music laced with melancholic, reflective lyrics and complementary melodies). Now out of the Covid cloud and walking under clear skies, Loah has confidently embraced 2022 with a wonderful new song, “Your World”.
In Irish music terms, there is no one like CMAT (Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson). She sings highly original songs that brim with vitality and melody and employs diverting lyrics that cleverly underpin themes such as social issues, mental health and personal liabilities. Factor in CMAT’s visual/design sensibility (“The hyper-femininity of what I do is a direct result of my personality,” she has said) and we have a singular artist that manages to disturb predictable rules and walks away unharmed. As if further proof is needed, listen to CMAT’s 2022 debut album, If My Wife New I’d Be Dead, and wonder why daytime radio play continues to evade her.
Following recent support slots with Ed Sheeran, it is an unquestionable fact that 2023 is DENISE CHAILA’s for the taking. The Limerick-based Zambian/Irish singer/songwriter hasn’t taken too long (in relative terms) to rise to the top, but it is in the past 18 months in particular that she has tipped over from niche awareness into broader public territory. This is no surprise – Chaila is a once-in-a-generation music industry lucky charm that fuses Wonder Woman-like femininity with a lyrical dexterity that is not only unmatched but is also as pointed as a stiletto heel.
Over the past five years, the rise in quality Irish hip-hop/urban music has been astonishing, so it’s no shock to see cream slowly floating to the top in the shape of Cameroon-born, Drogheda-raised ALICIA RAYE. Two years ago, Raye released her debut mixtape, Alphabet, and has since forged a reputation (raputation, anyone?) for presenting socially-conscious, community-driven music in styles that include ballads, hip-hop, grime, trap, drill, and jazz. The result is a forward-thinking performer here to stay, here to confront, here to inspire.
There are few enough Irish contenders for the crown of Queen of Pop, but Malahide’s SOPHIE DOYLE RYDER is up there. Comparisons with the likes of Dua Lipa, Anne Marie, Rihanna and Ariana Grande aren’t too wide of the mark, but it’s Doyle Ryder’s way of mixing good times with serious ideas (you might say she puts the ‘fun’ in profundity) that sets her apart from the competitors. Songs such as “Little Black Book”, “Too Much”, “Mood”, “Enough”, and “Hunni Hunni” showcase considerable pop music talent that flows without interruption or effort.
Over three years ago, SODA BLONDE formed from the crash landing of Little Green Cars, and over the past 24 months the musicians and songwriters – fronted by the vocal dynamo that is Faye O’Rourke – have distinguished themselves even further. Little Green Cars’ attention to detail in the areas of eminently melodic pop music and astute Americana/folk was evident across two acclaimed albums (2013’s Absolute Zero, 2016’s Ephemera). Soda Blonde’s aesthetic, meanwhile, is just as tuneful but directed more towards artful and cinematic pop/soul that can only work when really smart people are behind it. Last year’s superb debut album, Small Talk, merely confirmed what we already knew: the person who said there are no second chances in showbiz got it wrong.
Belfast songwriter and singer LUCY GAFFNEY has already clocked up something quite unique on her CV – a cheery hello and a press biography quote from no less a rock star than Liam Gallagher. Gaffney’s cover version of the Oasis tune “Songbird” (“celestial”, noted Gallagher) is, however, something of a rogue divergence as her real forte is graceful guitar-laden indie-pop with thoughtful narrative undercurrents. Her most recent song, “Easy Come Easy Go”, is typical of her style: compelling, seriously slinky music that seeps quality from beginning to end.
It’s true the pandemic wasn’t good for everybody, but for Kildare pop songwriter/performer LEA HEART it confirmed that behind every cliché there is more often than not a truism: every cloud has a silver lining. When Ireland went into lockdown in March 2020, Heart, with a family heirloom of a piano in front of her, began to share her music on TikTok. Before she could do a double-take, her following on that social media platform increased from zero to almost 100,000. Cue a series of rock-solid contemporary pop songs released over the past two years (including “Older”, “I’ll Get Over It”, “A Million Goodbyes”, “IDK Why”, “Mood”) that has generated the kind of attention and rise in profile you might be tempted to sell your granny for.
Basing herself between Donegal and London, Anglo-Irish singer-songwriter ROSIE CARNEY is the surprise gift that keeps on giving. She released her debut album, Bare, in 2019, and immediately made us sit up and pay attention to her deceptively subversive folk/pop songs. Carney’s pandemic pastime showcased another side of her creativity: a superb song-by-song cover of Radiohead’s 1995 album, The Bends. As if to top these achievements, her new album, I Wanna Feel Happy, manages to wrap mental health issues in a warm duvet of sound. Reference points are key (Taylor Swift’s softer moments, Olivia Rodrigo’s simplicity), but throughout it’s Carney’s way with songcraft that sweeps comparisons aside.
Galway band NEWDAD are a perfect example of cross-generational pop/rock, with parents and their offspring going to their gigs secure in the knowledge that each will get what they want from the band’s nifty blend of guitars, melodies and song arrangements, fronted by singer, lyricist and guitarist Julie Dawson. Music fans of a certain vintage will know only too well some of NewDad’s influences (My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, Pixies). Their appeal is wide-ranging, which is why you will hear more of their self-assured music on BBC Radio 6 than RTÉ Radio 1, but it is also why they have been tipped as the hot-button Irish band to keep your ears open for in 2022.
Already signed to an established indie record label (Method Records, which is associated with acts such as Disclosure, Sam Smith, and Slowthai), Westmeath’s AMY MICHELLE presents the kind of ambitious bedroom pop music that we hear in the work of Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers, and 1975, albeit twisted into shapes that are very much her own. What Michelle has also achieved, however, is making intensely cool, subtle music out of unsettling moments, with songs such as “The Bottom of the Well”, “Welcome to the Sidelines”, “A Song to Myself”, and “The Way I Make Things Feel Okay” skillfully locating the sweet spot between mellow and meltdown.
In 2017, Dublin’s PILLOW QUEENS were a scrappy band in search of a fully-formed identity. In 2022, they are a force to be reckoned with: two critically acclaimed albums (2020 debut In Waiting, 2022’s Leave the Light On), a brace of guest appearances on the US coast-to-coast Late Late Show with James Corden, and musicians with a reputation for pulling out all the stops at their gigs. Just as important, however, are Pillow Queens’ songs, all of which are underscored with not only tough and thoughtful guitar-driven pop/rock but also with lyrics that explore and explain intimacy, friendship and vulnerability.
London-born, Dublin-based SOULÉ is a fresh voice on the Irish pop scene. Three of her singles were nominated for the Choice Music Awards’ Song of the Year in 2017 and 2018. She has just released her new single “Body”.
Dublin-born, London-based singer-songwriter and producer ORLA GARTLAND released her debut album Woman On The Internet in 2021, which she explains is not laced with lockdown blues. “It feels more like the soundtrack of new time to me; a sunnier time, a more hopeful time”.
FIA MOON, the singer-songwriter whose music is a mix of rhythm and blues and alt-pop (alternative pop), divides her time between Dublin and London. Her songwriting is defined by its emotion and deeply personal nature, as shown in her new single “By Now”, about the pain of seeing “lost lovers move on”.