By Fergal Smiddy, Byline Editor
One of the many unexpected consequences of working in retail is the intimate workplace relationship that develops between you and whatever soundtrack – if any – which serves as your on-the-clock companion. The bone-chilling melodies of royalty-free Christmas songs, for example, still haunt my dreams from past holiday seasons spent working in a certain Irish grocery chain. Some workers are lucky enough to be given free-reign over what plays in the background as they go about their workday. The baristas and kilo shop attendants of the world earn their wages to the tune of self-curated playlists and personalised radios, while others suffer under the immeasurable torment of the corporate CD – forever-looping; never-ending.
Radio is the chosen medium where I work, and RedFM is the in-house station. The strength of radio as a workplace soundtrack exists in its variety. In the early hours of the day, admittedly, I am exposed to the likes of Dermot Kennedy, Little Mix and your one who has the habit of driving ‘alone past your street’ sobbingly (or… sinisterly?); however, like many of the best things in life, radio comes alive in the nighttime, and my weekend evenings are never left wanting for a vibey tune or two.
On Sunday evenings at 7pm – the time at which the sun currently and serendipitously tends to set – the soundtrack to my own working life takes an exciting turn. Conor Halpin, Waterford expat and self-professed longtime “lover of Irish music” dons the mic and headset to close out another week of radio for RedFM. Green on Red, which airs from 7-10pm, immerses listeners in a landscape of music made uniform solely by virtue of being Irish. Having just recently taken the reigns from former show-runner Alan Donovan, Conor’s stepping into the role was a decision which first required some self-appraisal.
“I did think to myself is [Green on Red] a very niche show? Do you really need to know every inner working of Irish music in order to present that show effectively? In every station there’s the ‘Irish music’ guy or girl; they’re very up to date with all Irish music […] There was a little bit of consideration for me to say ‘am I that?’”.
Imposter syndrome is something which any sane person is bound to have experienced on the advent of any minor life success. For Conor, and in the context of Green on Red, this manifested in the fear that his knowledge of the local scene might not have been as expansive as it needed to be. However, for a show like Green on Red – whose mission statement of celebrating and broadcasting local art aligns intimately with that of this year’s Byline – it’s arguable that a generalised melophilic approach outdoes that of the scene-savvy exclusionist. For Conor, the show is more about breaking ground than building fences.
“I suppose what I’d like to reflect on the show is a little bit of discovering together. Me, along with the listener, are hearing this [music] for potentially the first time. There’s a little bit of sharing information there. I’ll put my hands up and say I’m not an expert. I’m not a specialist; I’m working my way towards it, I’ve always had an interest there, but I couldn’t rattle off every album that any individual Irish star has had, you know? I want to try and keep that attitude – that I’m discovering this music as well as the listener”.
Steering clear of “eclectic sonic waveforms that aren’t in any way melodic or musical” that might comprise a more niche-oriented show, Conor has no qualms about affording some of Green on Red’s airtime to some of the better known and battle-proven sounds from the Irish canon. From Bressie-led juggernauts The Blizzards to “even U2!”, the tracks played each Sunday range far beyond – while still including – the more lo-fi and obscure sounds of the Irish bedroom studio.
As for the output of smaller and indie artists, Conor sees himself as being too new to his post to make a determination on whether lockdown life has resulted in any sort of independent production boom; “But the impression I get from the other guys around me […] is that there is a much higher volume [of production]. There’s opportunity in a crisis, really, and those that try to look at it as such, and knuckle down and say ‘this is what I’m going to do, I’m just going to go away and write, and I’m going to market it’ – I think they’ve found ways to get their music out. […] It’s a new world for everyone, and it’s trying to find the opportunities in that, really. As I say, I think there are some [opportunities] but I don’t think it’s uniform; I don’t think [they’re] there for everyone, and definitely there are musicians, I’m sure, who are struggling”.
Recalling a recent interview with Saoirse Duane of Wicklow-based three-piece Wyvern Lingo, Conor shares the extent to which current circumstances have resulted in Irish musicians experiencing a painful and self-questioning disillusionment. “Saoirse was very candid, she was very genuine, she was very honest. She did say that there was a lot of, you know, ‘Am I in the right career?’ That sort of questioning was happening in the height of the pandemic, because she was wondering, well, when are we getting back to live gigs? Is there a roadmap in place? Is it even going to happen? You know, that thing of ‘oh, we’ll get back to normal, we’ll get back to normal’ – we could be kind of codding ourselves in that regard”.
Anything but a stark acknowledgement of our current situation at this stage feels like dishonesty, so it’s almost morbidly refreshing to learn that some of the nation’s brightest talents are feeling a desperation akin to our own. As Conor sees it, there are two sides to the way the pandemic is being felt by musicians across the country. “It was interesting to hear the perspective of someone who’s been working in the industry to actually have [had] doubts and to be very honest and open about those doubts, because I think that’s something that is being felt by people as well as ‘here’s an opportunity to write good music and produce it myself and put it out there’, do you know?”
Having only come into his role at Green on Red at a time when the pandemic was already in full swing, a pure Cork experience is something which Conor Halpin is yet to be acquainted with. “One of the things that I was really excited about coming to Cork [for] was music; to see gigs. Even just the likes of getting into a bar where there’s a trad band on a Sunday afternoon in the corner. I was really looking forward to that”. Yet, despite Cork’s current form, which undeniably pales in comparison to how the city looks and feels when it is at its best, Conor is convinced by “an attitude of ‘let’s support our own’” which might just be the thing that pulls us through our toughest hour. “Certainly around music I think there’s a good culture of [support] here. I think that’s something that’s been blossoming throughout this last year; to support our own musicians where we can, because we can’t get to see them the same as we would like – in a live venue”.
With only a few months having gone by since the closure of the Kino earlier this year, the wounds inflicted upon Cork’s live music scene at the hands of the pandemic are still raw, and seem only to be splitting further with each passing week. “At the same time, [live music] is something that we realise is vital. One night, I was cycling through the city. I was coming down Oliver Plunkett Street, and there were these two buskers, and there was a crowd of about twenty people around them. It was just one of those moments where people forgot about social distancing. People were wearing masks and all the rest of it, but they were just so enthralled – captivated – by live music. So, I don’t think it is one of these things where we can kind of say ‘oh yeah, it’ll be great now when it comes back’ […] I firmly believe that [live music] is something that is a vital part of the human experience – music; that resonation; that experience of [having] other people around you; that energy that comes with it”.
From the tiny sliver of Cork that Conor Halpin has seen so far, he seems utterly convinced – by our people, by our music, and by our spirit – that we will rise again.
Tune into Green on Red on RedFM every Sunday from 7-10pm