MOJO Rising: Lisa O’Neill

Welcoming the Irish folk seer taking the unlikely walk of life

Lisa O'Neill

by Jim Wirth |

Cavan metaphysicist Lisa O’Neill is telling MOJO how Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms qualifies as a great modern folk song. “There’s so many different worlds, so many different suns, and we have just one world, but we live in different ones,’” she recites lovingly, sipping green tea on a couch in her record label’s London office. “I think that’s still reflected today. I found that music when I was in my teens and that song could still inspire a whole album for me.”

A broad-minded take on what constitutes folk continues to bring results for O’Neill, whose eerie version of Bob Dylan’s All The Tired Horses featured in TV’s Peaky Blinders. Her dizzying fifth LP, All Of This Is Chance, fuses poetic magic realism and down-home traditional sounds as it scrabbles to reconcile a sense of Incredible String Band-style cosmic wonder with the slate-grey realities of the iPhone age. “I’ve been very reluctant to let myself be pigeonholed,” she explains. “But I think all music is folk, and if anything has a story in it and mirrors society, then it’s folk music.”

If anything has a story in it and mirrors society, it’s folk music.

Lisa O'Neill

O’Neill’s free-flowing songs are rooted in very modern issues of advancing technology and retreating nature, but the mirror they hold to the world is a uniquely distorted one. Crass by way of Astral WeeksAll Of This Is Chance (the sleeve featuring dandelion seeds scattered by a dog’s sneeze) presents a dense sound world which is daunting, bewitching and powerfully strange.

“I’m abstract in my thinking,” O’Neill says apologetically as she tries to explain her creative process. “It’s like painting and I often feel like the instruments are like colours. I play just for relaxation with watercolours. I love it when one spills into the other and makes another colour. It’s a good way to describe the making of music. You let go a little bit and let it flow and see what it does.”

At 18, O’Neill left Ballyhaise to study songwriting at Dublin’s Ballyfermot College, and found herself drawn into a revival of traditional music, eventually linking up with the members of Lankum, who she credits with introducing her to her new label, Rough Trade. “I was quite overwhelmed about leaving home but before I knew it I was surrounded by other musicians who were as excited by making new music as me,” she says. “I always thought I would come back home because I’m a very family person, but Dublin held me and it’s been 23 years.”

Busy schedules mean she no longer runs into the Lankum crowd quite so often at the kind of informal pub sessions where they first honed their craft. Everyone is moving on to bigger things, and a recent date at London’s Barbican is further evidence of O’Neill’s willingness to put herself out there and invite larger audiences to spark off her rapturous visions. “I feel a lot – there’s a vibration, a hum in everything that inspires me,” she says. “Songs are amazing vehicles. Just a line or a word can pull you into a whole rabbit hole.”

All Of This Is Chance is out now via Rough Trade


●  For fans of: Joanna Newsom, Bill Callahan, Kate Bush, Nick Cave.

●  A methodical worker, O’Neill might play a song alone 500 times before her accompanists are invited to “let their imagination in”. “It’s like they come and dance with me,” 
she explains.

●  It is no accident that the lyrics of All Of This Is Chance feature lots of birds. “They are so impressive in ways that maybe we fall short,” O’Neill says. “We’re so concerned about ourselves – they’ve seen more and they need less. And they can sing.”

●  O’Neill’s pet hates include fans videoing her shows on their phones. “You’re creating an energy wall between you and I,” she says. “I hold the live gig so high and I think it’s really worth protecting.”


Old Note

If I Was A Painter

All Of This Is Chance


Introducing Kara Jackson, Southern folk’s emerging poet laureate.

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