Interview: Galway Singer, Songwriter, and Podcaster Ultan Conlon

Interview: Galway Singer, Songwriter, and Podcaster Ultan Conlon

Ultan Conlon is enjoying life and gigging around rural Ireland after the release of his 5th record The Starlight Ballroom in September. Taking the time to chat with us, we got to learn all about his unique sound, how his album came to exist and his future life plans ahead of his upcoming gig in Galway - read it here…

After returning from Los Angeles where he produced his album The Starlight Ballroom with Grammy Award winner David Garza, Ultan tells us how the old Starlight Ballroom in Westport was an inspiration for his 5th record. Before its closure in 1981, the Starlight Ballroom was once filled with romance, dance, and was home to the performances of many musical stars. Ultan's nostalgia for what the old Starlight Ballroom used to be lies at the core of his new record, Ultan reminisces; “ I first wanted to write the song [The Starlight Ballroom] and then secondly, I ended up expanding it from a song to calling the album after the song and even tailoring some of the other songs to fit that mood. I heard that Roy Orbison played in rural Ireland, he toured near Claregalway and near where I’m from - Loughrea, not just Westport. There’s a place here in Kiltormer, which is the tiniest desolate little village and I know some other big names like Jim Reeves, a big star back in the 60’s, played there. So the main reason I was inspired by all of this was just the notion that these guys came through and played in rural Ireland back in the day, I just have a great affiliation with rural Ireland. I live, like I said, out here in the sticks and you’re not going to see any major stars of today coming through here." Ultan continued; “For me it brought up this kind of nostalgia that I never was a part of and it allowed me to fantasise about how wonderful it was to go to see Roy Orbison play in a big hall in the middle of nowhere in rural Ireland. It allowed me to just be really imaginative and creative with that and no barriers at all. So, that is what was really appealing to me to write the album.”

The Starlight Ballroom was a ballroom filled with romance and dance in Westport, Co. Mayo which closed in 1981. Of course, Ultan had to pay tribute to the building that started it all with a visit of his own; “I know it’s just a warehouse now but it is the original building, and if I’m honest I sat outside in my car and I played the song and I looked in and I just thought ‘ah you know this feels kind of special’."

Album cover of The Starlight Ballroom

With an album launch tour on the way in October and November, Ultan was nothing but excited for his new tour, especially for the Galway performance; “I am a Galway boy so it’s the hometown gig. I love playing the Taibhdhearc, it’s a fabulous, fabulous theatre. I made the album in Los Angeles and out there you’re a long long way from home. I was writing about home when I was out there and recording about home. So, I am looking forward to taking the album to all of these places in Ireland because it’s a very Irish album even though it was made abroad.”

Ultan continued; "the songs that came out of The Starlight Ballroom, there’s one called The Old Songs and it [has a] very Irish kind of a ballad feel to it. That was written out there, I don’t think I would have written that here because I don’t know, maybe when you’re that far away from home and even if it’s just for a month or two, you become quite proud of where you're from.”

Listening to the album you can imagine the characters mentioned when Ultan is singing his songs on The Starlight Ballroom. There is an undoubtedly Irish portrayal of the characters that are prominent in every town or village in the country. Speaking more on this Ultan said; “When I was writing, myself and the producer were putting the album together we spoke a lot about that. We said The Starlight Ballroom could be this big ballroom where you have 3,000 people, or the Starlight could be a little pub where you have 8 people sitting around in a little session. We wanted to give it a real human feel and try inject all these characters into it and make them all belong in the one space.”

A lot of precision and care goes into making a record and asking Ultan about his and David’s process of songwriting for The Starlight Ballroom he said; “we started writing from scratch and two of them came together really quick, because I only had a week or two to write them. Sussie Gossip was one of them that was written from scratch, maybe one week from when we recorded it, and also The Old Songs. Hurts like Heaven as well, was written maybe two or three weeks before it. We did labour over that a little bit and edited it more, and really chiselled it for want of a better word, we really crafted that song. The Old Songs, I think came in like an hour or two, I wrote it in my friend's apartment. David came up with the chorus, that’s all [the lyrics] I had with me, and then the verses just started to roll off and that was a lot of fun to write too. I started to inject all the titles of old songs into the actual song and that became a challenge to see ‘oh how many songs can I squeeze into this three and a half minute song’. For the kind of song it is, it came together very quickly and rolled off so that was lovely."

Thinking back to when he was recording The Starlight Ballroom Ultan talked about the process fondly; “it was all done in such a closed set time, it felt more like just doing a great gig you know. It felt like doing these three days where there was no stress about it, there was no nerves. It’s because you’re playing in the room together, and you’re catching everything really quick, you don’t allow any of the highs of making the record to lull. I think that’s an issue people can have when making records. You can labour over it for months and you can iron bits out that don’t need to be ironed out and next thing you can’t see the wood from the trees. Instead of having fun, which you should be [when] making a record, you are pulling your hair out.”

Ultan hopes his album will continue to gather new fans throughout the future; “I think people might discover that album in three years' time, and it’s not going to have dated. The instrumentation and the production on it is just very natural and I think it is going to sit well in time, that’s my hope anyway.”

Photo courtesy of Pawel Bebenca

Speaking on his music journey so far and his future plans for live events Ultan reminisced on past gigs and is hopeful for the upcoming ones; “I’ve done all these little gigs around rural Ireland. I’ve played in a post office and a bakery in East Cork to at least 20-25 people. I played in a woollen craft shop, where there were 30 ladies knitting and crocheting at the gig, and I’ve really enjoyed bringing my music to these places. What I’m really looking forward to in the next year and a half is playing a lot more in Ireland. I’m happy to play in their local cafe, or bookshop or something. [To] get that album to as many people as possible because already the people who have heard it, it resonated with a lot of them."

Continuing on his artistic endeavours Ultan has started a podcast with Galway artist Mary Coughlan called You’re Not Listening; “We will be doing gigs, but we will also be taking the podcast on the road a bit as well. I’m looking forward to it. That’s another thing I’m really enjoying, the creativity of doing the weekly podcasts off the cuff." Laughing he said; “It’s such nonsense. We totally go with the flow. Mary is such a character and has so many stories from over the years, and we do a couple of funny little segments in it. We had a little segment where I’d ask Mary did she watch anything this week on Netflix or on TV, and instead of giving a full blown review of it we just go - ‘Mary, watch it or don’t watch it?’ and she’ll go ‘uh… watch it!’ or if it’s rubbish she’ll go ‘don’t watch it’, and that was it! We didn’t expand on it at all, we cut to the chase. So we do silly little things like that. It is quite funny. Mary is a wonderful woman, she is a great artist. A real character and I think she’s very lovable. She’s very much herself, you know not everybody is able to be that [themselves], and she’s very good at being that. I think it’s very refreshing.”

Ultan Conlon has a little bit of everything going on at the moment so make sure you check out his upcoming gigs, which you can access tickets to here. Visit An Taibhdhearc’s website for tickets to the upcoming Galway gig on November 4th here. If you’d like to hear his creations, the newly released album The Starlight Ballroom and his weekly podcast You’re Not Listening, they are both available to listen to on Spotify.

Feature photo courtesy of Pawel Bebenca

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