“A classic band failure.”
That’s how Karen Cowley of Irish trio Wyvern Lingo described the overly-long soundcheck that delayed our phoner. It’s the first glimpse of modesty and humor I’d encounter from the frontwoman of this exceedingly busy emerging act. This is just one instance of many in the band’s hectic schedule: after providing backing vocals for and touring with fellow Irish breakout star Hozier, the all-girl group is anticipating the February release of their self-titled debut album, Wyvern Lingo, followed by a European tour and an eventual visit to America.
The trio is comprised of vocalists Karen, Caoimhe Barry, and Saoirse Duane (each with their respective instruments, of course; Karen on synth and bass synth, Caoimhe on drums, and Saoirse on Guitar). The band’s work has been lauded by Ireland’s RTÉ 2fm, which named the group one of their 2018 rising artists, and by Nialler9, one of Ireland’s premier music blogs, which named the group’s single I Love You, Sadie, the number one Irish song of 2017. Yet even with the plaudits piling up, the trio is able to understand the primacy of artistic modesty, regarding their nearly nonexistent egos as no more than an occasional marketing tool. No doubt, this is the mark of a truly genuine group of performers.
Curious to know more about the upcoming tour and other band goings-on I spoke to Karen about Irish influence, early musical experiences, thematic resonance, and working with a small label.
E: I think we should talk about the album first and foremost. That is set to release on February 23rd?
Karen: That’s right.
Elizabeth: How exciting is that?
K: So exciting. It’s actually getting very real now. Because when I think about it, the process was very [long]. We started recording it ten months ago. So it’s been happening for a long time but now it’s [ready] to go. We finally got the copy yesterday in our hands, so that was a nice moment.
Elizabeth: That’s awesome. I’ve probably listened to it three or four times a day for the past four days.
Karen: No way! Cool!
Elizabeth: Yes! I congratulate you on that. It’s brilliant.
Karen: Thank you so much! We’re so happy with it. We’re so so happy with it.
Elizabeth: …So you said it took approximately 10 months, the entire process?
Karen: I mean yeah, we initially went in the studio last February? March?…we just then sort of took a step back from it and redid some vocals and then we went over to London to work with Neil Comber and that was great. It was a great decision. And then the first release was last June, so we’ve just been slowly releasing stuff and doing acoustic sessions… and getting ourselves ready for this wave. We’re so excited to finally be at this stage now where we’re nearly there.
Elizabeth: So what’s happening between now and the release? How are you keeping yourself busy until the big day?
Karen: [laughs] Yeah, just a lot of promo, and we’re actually in London right now, sorry for the soundcheck, we have a gig tonight in the ULU…which is quite cool. So we flew in this morning and just been kind of sound checking and getting stuff ready all day, so yeah, it’s busy. And then a lot of promo…We’ll be doing a big Irish tour and U.K. tour and German and Dutch tour in spring, so we’re really excited about that. Starting the end of February.
Elizabeth: I saw that! You’re going to be all over the U.K and then in Germany and the Netherlands. That’s pretty cool.
Karen: Really cool, yeah! Very excited. And then it looks like we’ll be back out in May again, then. Little break for Easter. We just love touring and love being on the road so that’s kind of the payoff for us, is actually getting out and meeting people and playing and bringing it all to life.
Karen: Just have to get to the states now.
Elizabeth: Yeah! I was just going to say, do you foresee coming to the U.S anytime soon?
Karen: I would really like to think so, but it’s hard to know…it’s always been something we’ve been aspiring to…we think their music’s good and well there. We think that so many of our influences are American R&B or American musicians over the years, so we just think we should definitely go there…but nothing just yet.
Elizabeth: So in terms of influences, specifically on this album, I’m hearing a lot of R&B, I’m hearing lots of jazz standards in rhythm and percussion, but then I’m also hearing your blues and rock, those kind of classic rock influences, and I’ve been referring to you guys as the ‘queens of harmony’ a lot lately because your voices together, it’s remarkable the way it all comes together.
Karen: Thank you!
Elizabeth: No problem. So who would you say were some of your earliest tastes that inform your current material?
Karen: The vocal thing’s interesting because early on, it would have been, you know, the first album I ever bought was Alicia Keys, and then closely followed by ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child, and we were like ten when all that music was popular, and that’s the reason we started singing along to the radio and there was really good pop music, really good R&B [that was] very heavily focused on vocals and harmonies and it was just a natural thing to be able to sing like that and to arrange music like that. And then those tastes kind of grew into more Lauren Hill, D’Angelo, R&B artists like that, while at the same time we were listening to Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy and sort of 60s—70s rock bands and also songwriters. Simon and Garfunkel would also be a huge influence to all of us, I think, who also had that close harmony thing…we’ve gone through so many phases of sound and…it does come out sounding like some of those other influences…but now, looking back, I’d say our influences are very clear. I guess just years of experimentation with different sounds and figuring out where we want our influences to lie in our own music without totally ripping people off at the same time. [laughs]
Elizabeth: Right. You can hear the instrumentation influences, but it’s still something that is uniquely you. It’s still ‘Wyvern Lingo,’ is the best way I can put it.
Karen: Yeah, thank you!
Elizabeth: No problem. I know you realized Caoimhe was also able to harmonize, and that kind of struck you as ‘oh, I didn’t know other people could do that.’
Karen: Yeah totally!
Elizabeth: So how exciting is it to encounter someone that shares the same specific interests and abilities, but simultaneously brings something new to the table?
Karen: That’s the whole band in a nutshell. That feeling of excitement when you click with someone musically, it’s why you’re a band. When we all write and we all sing, we could all be solo acts if we wanted to, but it’s the excitement of clicking with that feeling…it’s just really exciting, and I think at that age, we were 11, 12, and you’re not really aware of the world that much. You don’t know that you could do that. I used to sing a lot with my sister and we used to harmonize, so I knew that I could do it…[Harmonizing] was definitely something I knew was possible, but I just hadn’t met anyone my age with the same [interest]…so it all just came together really nicely. [Caoimhe and I] were the same age, we were going to the same school the following year, it was all very exciting. We just both had the same kind of teenage rock band dream, you know? And then we’d just write songs in our spare time, that was our hobby, it was how we expressed ourselves.
Elizabeth: I’m glad you guys found each other. I guess that’s part of the magic of being in a band—you all have similar interests. So I know some of you are more partial to guitar, some of you come in with lyric idea, someone else, maybe, is preoccupied with drums. So how do you ensure that everyone’s visions and ideas are being explored and valued and everyone has a say? How do you maintain that harmonious studio dynamic?
Karen: Ooh that’s a good question. I think our number one rule, we’ve all decided, that you can’t really have an ego. Or if you do, you can’t really hold onto it…anything new that you write is the best thing you ever wrote. And you’re like ‘This is it. This is it. This is the best song I’ve ever written. Everyone’s gonna love it.’…we’re all just really honest and always wanting to do the best things for the song, so I think we all have that common goal quite clearly, so we just make it work. We all have different strengths and weaknesses as well, which really helps…Saoirse would be really strong on the production side of things…she’d almost have a fully produced track with no lyrics yet, whereas I’d be the total opposite. I’d be very emotional and I’d write lyrics, write a poem and put it to music, and feel every word and every note. [laughs] You have to just kind of get over yourself sometimes, but we’ve all had lots of practice doing that over the last two years with each other. Trusting other people is a scary thing, especially with your art, but it pays off. It totally pays off.
Elizabeth: So taking it back a little bit, I know there’s a pretty significant music scene in Bray, right?
Karen: Yes. When we were teenagers, there was a big underage scene, which was unique actually, and we didn’t know it at the time, but yeah there were always gigs happening so we had lots of opportunities to play even though we were under 18…it was just cool.
Elizabeth: So how did those local performances help with initially exposing yourself as an artist?
Karen: I guess it was just motivation to rehearse, to play, to be good. We were definitely always the only all-female band, and most of the time the rest of the band were like metal bands. It was funny. It was just the trend at the time, I guess. So I guess we got real comfortable very quickly with being different and tested the waters with a lot of things, and it just encouraged us to keep writing and to keep doing it and we did. Then later when we got a lot older, we had, I suppose, stage concerts by the time we got old enough to gig in venues.
Elizabeth: So along with that, I’ve heard others speak about that historically and culturally rich background that [the Irish] come from. Does hailing from Ireland ever inform your songwriting or seep into lyrics?
Karen: Personally, I would say yes. I think in the way that we are always surrounded by people who play music and always have been, it’s just been a very normal thing to do…it’s very normal to play instruments in Ireland. To be into music is a done thing. I think that is definitely part of the culture…personally I would be a big fan of a lot of folk music…so definitely songs on the album like ‘Used’ would be very much informed by Irish folk stuff and lyrically, I do reference a lot of Yeats in that song. And actually, what we released today, Maybe It’s My Nature, that’s actually partly a response to Raglan Road by Patrick Kavanaugh. Not a very positive one, but a response all the same.
Elizabeth: I was actually just going to talk about ‘Maybe It’s My Nature.’ To me, I’m kind of hearing a little bit of self-exploration, identity, kind of like a meditation on your sense of self. Is that more or less the theme?
Karen: Definitely. Yeah a little bit of that…in a way I’m speaking to myself, in a way I’m speaking to a partner, and in a way I’m kind of responding to that poem by Patrick Kavanaugh. It’s definitely about feelings of guilt because of having a wandering eye and feeling guilty about thinking unfaithful things, but then it also being about more than that and being a bit more complex…and then yeah, definitely a kind of self gaze and self critique, I suppose. The choruses are a bit sarcastic.
Elizabeth: I know that you guys have been selling the theme of I Love You Sadie as more or less of what it really is. I know you guys pass it off as dealing with gender stereotypes and how men are restricted to self expression, but if you could describe, to the best of your ability, the true vision behind the track?
Karen: That’s actually a really good question…often in interviews we feel that we don’t hit the nail on the head with explanations or we kind of wish we’d said it better…Caoimhe wrote the lyrics to that, and yeah, that’s exactly it. She said in the podcast that she feels she always gives blanket, kind of bland thoughts about gender stereotypes and really, it’s actually a love song. It’s about her partner and it’s about his own experience and it’s about her not caring about that and how those things apply when you have something special.
Elizabeth: So would you say that first it is about validating and giving affirmations to a partner in a relationship, and then secondly deals with more of a critique on modern ways?
K: I think, incidentally, it’s also a critique on certain gender stereotypes, but definitely born out of…a love song, yeah!
Elizabeth: You’ve performed with Trinity College, you’ve been with Zaska…was that an early introduction to the band dynamic? I feel like those early involvements would help you understand what it means to be a musician, what it means to perform with other people.
Karen: Oh totally. I mean the thing is, Wyvern Lingo was always happening before that and during that, but personally…all performance is good experience, and I was lucky to be in that bubble where it was a really cool thing happening and we got to play the gigs and really challenge ourselves and just get into it…and certainly playing with other people makes you a better member of any band, I think, and definitely helped me with a lot of different aspects of performance and professionalism, and even just inspiring me to write different kinds of music and get into it.
Elizabeth: I’m aware that [Rubyworks] is a small label; is that beneficial in terms of being part of a more tightly-knit group, and how it translates into the production process?
Karen: Oh completely! It’s great that we can just call them or pop in and it’s a very small group of people that we have very good relationships with and it’s a great thing…we can literally just drive over or get a bus very quickly to where they are and chat them…we really appreciate their input and we believe that they have our best interest at heart…I think we’re very lucky. We’re very happy with our label…
Elizabeth: Were you considering any other titles for the album? The debut is one of the most important things in a musician’s life, so did you consider anything else before settling on just ‘Wyvern Lingo,’ self-titled?
Karen: We did consider lots of things, and they were all really crap, or we would think they were cool for a day and then go ‘no, that’s terrible,’ and then we kind of realized ‘Wyvern Lingo’ is a mouthful enough as it is, and as you said before, it describes it perfectly…there’s no massive undercurrent in the album, it’s just about us. It’s our collection of songs and experiences and it was just the best thing, we thought, to put our first one out there.
Elizabeth: I know that you’ve had some pretty significant output on SoundCloud and Spotify, but once you have that complete body of work out in the open, what are you hoping people take away? [thematically]
Karen: …We would just really like people to connect with it and to resonate with them and the biggest for us is when someone comes up to you after a gig or writes you an email…what we strive for is people connecting with it.
Elizabeth: I’m kind of obligated to discuss your relationship with Hozier, because you know him best I suppose, more than anyone else. I know that his success story was a drastic one, definitely more overnight, if you will, than anything we’ve seen in recent years, so how has his claim to fame helped you realize what or what not to do with your career as a band? Is he able to provide you with insight?
Karen: Totally. Andrew, I would call him one of my best friends. He’s just a really wonderful person, one of the nicest, mostly sincerest people you’ll meet and to see him do so well is just amazing. It was just so great to have someone that you respect musically…those songs are just his expression and its just so incredible see him do so well and so quickly and to be able to be a part of it was amazing, from being on the album to touring with him and he is always there for advice. He’s just a good friend. He’s always there to give advice when asked and to support. He’s been hugely supportive to us and given us great opportunities…the more we look back the more we realize how great they were…the whole dynamic of his tour and his crew and everything…when he got a success is when we decided we need to really…go for it.
Elizabeth: Between his and your success, you can look forward to Ireland making even bigger a name for itself in terms of music.
Karen: Yeah completely.
Elizabeth: Alright I just have four super quick questions. If you HAD to pick: classic rock or jazz?
Karen: Ooooh. I can’t pick! Classic rock.
Elizabeth: Perfect harmony or killer chord progression?
Karen: [laughs] Perfect harmony, because you can take it anywhere.
Elizabeth: Zeppelin or Floyd?
Elizabeth: Small venue or big gig?
Karen: [screams] Um, they both have their charms! Um, okay. Big gig. I’m gonna go for big gig.
Elizabeth: Ok. Thank you so much for talking to me, I really appreciate your time. I think, collectively, your command of the album was just brilliant and masterful and I’m really impressed by the diversity.
K: Thank you!
E: I’m really excited for the release and for the rest of the world to be able to hear it, so thank you for taking the time, and best of luck!
Wyvern Lingo’s debut album, Wyvern Lingo, will be released Friday, February 23 by Rubyworks Records, available on vinyl, CD and for download. You can preorder here: http://radi.al/WyvernLingo