23-year-old Irish singer-songwriter Emma O’Reilly is well on her way to establishing a thriving career in the music business. She read English Literature and Music at Trinity College Dublin. Since 2006, the Galway native has gigged in countless venues in the Irish capital. Last year, her passion for singing led her to set up and conduct her own choir called ‘Cogar’, whose début performance in the Kevin Barry Room in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, sold out.
She has performed with a variety of acts throughout Ireland and the UK, such as New Dublin Voices and The Mornington Sisters, and has graced the stage at both Electric Picnic with Trinity Orchestra and the Grand Canal Theatre with the National Youth Music Theatre.
O’Reilly is currently hard at work planning her first album, studying for her associate exams with the Royal Irish Academy of Music, and travelling all over Ireland doing songwriting workshops as well as vocal coaching, teaching piano and providing music education at Songschool. She is one busy lady!
O’Reilly has spent many years writing songs and composing melodies. She believes that her family is her foremost inspiration when it comes to her love of music: “My sister once said, ‘Singing makes everything better’, and I agree. I love, love, love to sing, and I always have.”
Emma has been inseparable from music and the act of songwriting since a young age. “My earliest memory of making up my own song is when I’m about seven, wandering around in my back garden when no-one could hear me,” she remembers. “It was something I always did. They weren’t even songs back then: they were just melodies that went on for as long as I felt they should, or until someone might be within earshot. I never really thought of them as ‘songs’. They were almost like an extension of my thinking and playing. I owe that to my mother [who is the principal of a school]: when I see her working with the kids, she always has a song for everything, and if a song doesn’t exist, she takes an existing tune and puts new words to it. So performance and expression through music [became] very natural to me.”
(Hear O’Reilly’s song Little Boy Blue.)
O’Reilly began to consciously write songs only as part of childhood performances – “it was recreating my favourite pop acts, it was trying to capture a sense of that glamour for myself, it was rubbish!” – but as she entered her teens and second level education, a radical change came over her. She was introduced to rock music. “I’d never experienced anything like it. It was kind of an explosion. Of course, it got me playing the guitar (I already played the piano, but the guitar was the first instrument I wrote with). I can’t remember deciding I was going to write a song, but it happened. I feel like it was at that point that messing or play became more polished and structured, and I was making music that actually reflected me.”
O’Reilly believes that writers are driven by what “matters to them: what makes them feel, what hurts them, and what they love”. Whatever age a writer is, O’Reilly thinks that you will always feel passionate about the particular themes you choose to create a song with. “The driving force behind your songs never changes, even though the subjects might. When you’re 15, your lyrics could be about the boy who kissed you at that party but never spoke to you afterwards. [Then] it could be falling in love for the first time – or falling out of love. [After that,] it could be holding your firstborn child. In that way, you could say the themes never really change too much. I think that’s true for me, definitely. I like to write what I see – which is always going to be subjective and based on feeling – so I doubt that the core themes of my music have changed all that much, but I do feel I’m better at expressing them.”
(Listen to O’Reilly’s The Spider Song here.)
Like many other writers, O’Reilly recoils at the idea of crafting words in public. She feels it is like exposing her inner self. “I’m very private about my songs when they’re in the writing process,” she declares. “I won’t write if I know someone can hear me, unless an idea is burning me inside, trying to get out. Creativity is an extremely vulnerable process, especially when your voice and your words are at the centre of that, and I just can’t bear the thought of someone else hearing it while it’s in the process of being born. It’s too raw… it’s too fresh.”
O’Reilly prefers to work on songs before showing them to anyone or playing them out loud. “[Drafts of my writing are] not in the form I want people to hear yet. Most songs will not just come to me. [They] need work; you need to keep checking up on them. That kind of work requires mental space.”
In her younger years, she was more focused on the melody and would “mull words around until something fitted”. Lyrically, she was inspired by singer-songwriter Anthony Kiedis, of Red Hot Chili Peppers. “I liked the idea that a song could be a series of different images, or sentences that create a sort of collage, and I think my early stuff reflects that.”
Now, she concentrates on merging both sound and word together during the songwriting process. “Firstly, they happen at the same time (although one or both elements might need to be tweaked); secondly, my lyrical style has developed. It’s marked by that earlier style, but I pay a lot more attention to making everything fit the feel of the song.”
Usually a solo artist, O’Reilly’s first experience of co-writing was in her teens, when a friend gave her some music to set lyrics to. “That was difficult – trying to disengage yourself from your own rhythm and connect with someone else’s – though I did use one of her lyrics in a song on my début EP,” she smiles. “I also worked with Reuben Teskey, Seán O’Gorman and Patrick Dexter on [writing] ‘The Tour Song’, which we created (unsurprisingly) while we were on tour in 2007 [as part of Reuben's band, then called Exit Evangeline]. I remember Reuben and I getting a chorus together, and most of the first verse, in Brighton at some ungodly hour of the morning. He had this really lovely chord progression and I sang over it and we thought: yes, we’ll come back to that. We finished it with Seán and Patrick in about 15 minutes in a car park in Dundee, and performed it approximately five minutes later. Ha! That was a much easier process though; I think it was because we were all so used to each other musically.”
The hardest aspect of writing something, for O’Reilly, is when you’ve produced an amazing piece of work…“Then you realise someone already wrote it first. Gotta hate that feeling.” She edits constantly, she says, depending on the song. “One or two songs I haven’t changed at all from their original form. With others, I’ve changed sentences, or sections of the song, stuff like that. I don’t revise obsessively, though. I tend to put more energy into new songs.”
Creative inspiration can strike anywhere, especially “somewhere crazy and inappropriate.” Original brainwaves are not something that any writer can put on hold and it’s better to record your ideas than to forget them hours later. Though it’s not always about an eloquently-put phrase. O’Reilly remarks, “Sometimes, the reason a lyric is so amazing is because of the way it blends with the music.” She cites her favourite songwriters, ranging from Tiger Cooke to Bjork to Rufus Wainwright. “Oh god, don’t get me started,” she laughs. “I could go on for years. I love good lyrics.” Her musical influences reach across all spectrums of genre, from Amanda Palmer to Britney Spears to The Cast of Cheers, including composers such as Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and Danny Elfman.
She credits her university for introducing her to a host of wonderful performers. “I met amazing people in the Trinity College Music Department, both through the Kódaly Society Ireland [a Hungarian music education approach] and through various choirs in the college, Trinity Campanile Consort [which she has conducted] and Trinity College Chapel Choir [which she has been on two tours with]. Those musicians are a constant source of inspiration to me.”
She advises potential songwriters to “read a lot”. Her years of writing experience have taught her: “Having something to say is useless if you don’t have the words for it.”
O’Reilly has a lot in store for her in the future: an album is in the works. She’s “just doing up some demos to get a feel for what I want to do when I get to a studio. I’m hoping to work in Storm Studios in Dublin, as the guys there are fantastic. I’m in the planning stages of a choral concert with Cogar [seen here performing 'We Behold Once Again The Stars'], and also a much larger show with a non-choral choir for October or November 2012. I’m also heading to a summer course in the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in July: three whole weeks of acting and Shakespeare. Can’t wait. Maybe I’ll do a gig while I’m there!”