If there’s one man whose 2020 might just sum up the wider feel of this year, it might be Donegal singer-songwriter Rory Gallagher (no, not that one).
Known by his stage name ‘Rory and the Island’, Gallagher has fashioned a career as an alternative, self-propelled artist whose music touches on folk, occasional balearic beats, pop, cover songs, and even popular off-the-wall Donegal GAA anthem ‘Jimmy’s Winning Matches’.
Rory and the Island are named for the singer’s big adventure: he upped sticks and established himself running a bar, ‘The Island’ on Lanzarote, where he performed nightly for years, established a following spread across Europe, made up of his bar’s holiday guests.
There were five albums in amongst it all. Before that fronted popular Dublin indie-punks The Revs.
In 2018, though, he packed that up as unsustainable with a young child. This year, he looked to set up a music bar in Edinburgh, his partner’s hometown. All set to move in, the coronavirus hit. The rent became unsustainable, and Gallagher ended up back in Donegal, a little lost.
“Lanzarote had run its course,” Gallagher recalled. “It gets a bit groundhog day after a while on the Canary Islands, and it starts to grate on you. You accidentally drink quite a bit of alcohol. We were done, so we moved back to Donegal in 2018.”
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“I had a bit of a cult following, so I did gigs to 100-150 people in places like Manchester, Limerick, and so on. It was a lot of travelling, so we decided to do something more stable, and that was where Edinburgh came in, with a place called The Wildcat.”
“We’d signed a five year lease, and moved over at the start of this year. It was all set up, with PA, lights, and so on, and then covid hit before the official opening. After a couple of months we had to let it go.
“We’d have been in a hole by 60 or 70 grand. It was a communal disaster, I felt, lots of people handed their keys back. It was a weird year, and we’ll have to deal with it all later. At least we didn’t buy the place.”
“Being a musician with a family in the bar trade, there was a lot of fear,” Gallagher continues. “We’re just hanging in there, writing music.”
That music is very much shaped by Gallagher’s route from Dublin punk via a far more laid-back environment in Lanzarote.
“Lanzarote helped me realise how much your surroundings as an artist affect you,” he continues.
“The revs were quite a political band, influenced by things like the Golf War. Rory and the Island are something totally different. I started to sound a little bit Australian, kind of surfy, a kind of Beach Boys, Crowded House thing.”
“When you’re gigging six nights a week, and writing for holidayers, you write for escapism really. It’s very much about keeping the spirits up, songs about the ocean and the beach. My new single is a bit of a change. ‘When The Lights Go Down (Valhalla)’s about handing back
the keys to The Wildcat, and it’s got a light feel, but the words are quite dark. That’s a change for me these days.”
“There’s no record company, no management, nothing to lose anymore, so I can do dance tracks and stuff like that, which gives me a freedom. Now it’s about that escapism. These days that means playing to large number of people over Facebook.
“The whole thing feels unbelievably random, I play to Revs fans and people in their 60s who’ve been on holiday, and then the GAA fans from Jimmy’s Winning Matches. It’s so incredibly varied, but it keeps things interesting!”