By Florrie McCarthy
For this week’s music column, I’ve got an interview with the one and only AJ Whelan.
Okay – maybe that name doesn’t mean much to you. AJ is a good friend of mine and has recently written, recorded and released an album himself. With a light folk-rock tone and songwriting style, AJ spent the summer of 2021 churning out the tracks and has put them together all by himself, creating “Unexpected Camaraderie”. I had my own fly-on-the-wall access to little snippets of the creative process as it happened, in the form of the odd text with a link saying, “listen to this”, or a cosy rendition of his latest I wanted to ask him how that happened for him, starting from the very start.
After a day of lectures, in study room 3.04 on Q+3 of the Boole Library, looking over the path up by the O’ Rahilly building up to college road, I get a chance to sit down with AJ.
So you’re from Cork City?
Donoughmore. A suburb about 20 minutes away. I started spending time in the city a lot when I went to Pres in first year but I much prefer the quiet of Donoughmore.
Did your parents have a lot of music playing around the house when you were younger? What are your influences?
Mom’s not really into music, she likes anything she can dance to. Dad is, thankfully. He’s the eldest of six. He recorded songs off the TV and radio on a tape recorder. David Bowie, Rory Gallagher, Michael Jackson, Stevie Ray Vaughan. He showed me and my brother this growing up. I have early memories of watching a Stevie Ray Vaughan tribute concert. Also lots of Star Wars. Dad has a massive CD collection as well, which I’ve been adding to. Then he put it all on his mac, from where I put them on my phone. One of these happened to be Abbey Road by the Beatles.
I played this and was instantly hooked. They became my favourite band in 2014/15. All the solo music is good as well(wouldn’t be the biggest Ringo fan though). Other musical influences would be Led Zeppelin and John Blek.
I’ve got loads of vinyl as well. There’s something magical about them that just doesn’t come with listening to music online. The sound of the needle dropping. and the crackles on the record are so special.
I agree that Spotify or other platforms can ruin music, with the sheer amount of choice. Did you know then that you wanted to make your own music?
No. I was a bit of a dancer as a kid. I remember my aunt’s wedding. I danced for two and a half hours on stage for myself, and whoever was watching. The first musical urge I ever got was actually to drum. I was sitting at the back of a class tapping on the table – I always have some beat in my head – and said to a friend “I bet I could drum”. I bought a €100 kit and sent it back when I realised I didn’t like it at all.
It was on June 26th 2020 (not too long ago, you’ll notice) that I bought my first guitar with €150 of my own money. Best money I ever spent. It was a while before I could play properly but I annoyed my family with Paul McCartney songs for weeks then. I had about 3 chords and couldn’t even transition between them quickly.
Of course, you got very sick after a while, around Christmas of 2020?
Yeah, it was really bad. If it wasn’t caught earlier it could have been fatal. After a while doctors caught it as bad appendicitis. I didn’t touch the guitar, listen to music, watch TV or anything for 28 days. I felt terrible for ages but I had youtube videos of my favourite comedians to keep me going. In my last week of hospital, my mom got me a ukulele. They put a lot of drugs in me, but I learned a few songs and found that my creative juices spilled out all over the place as I started to heal. After I got out I was able to sing and play at the same time, something I wasn’t able to do before. “Whatever way they put me back together – something clicked in me”. Life went on, and when I came back to UCC in semester 2 I made more friends in my course. I’m actually still healing, but it’s happening slowly and surely.
Then you were able to write your own songs somehow?
I came close then anyway. It was around March when I was still down after being sick when I was listening to a favourite song and said a lyric to myself in my head that I realised wasn’t actually in the song. I fleshed it out and couldn’t believe I’d written a whole song. After this, loads came on – These Days, the Long Long Road and more. Aisling came then as well. All in the space of about two days.
You did write a lot of songs in a short space of time alright – a whole album of them, in fact. How do you do this?
I don’t know, I can’t stop writing music. I always have something in my head and they just fall out of me, I don’t have to work for it. I have five on the go right now.
Can you describe your songwriting processes?
I don’t really know, they just happen. Some I work out fast, in about a day. Some I’ve taken back out and reworked until they get better. One day I was at a friend, Chris Morris’s house, while he made dinner, and the smells caused me to pick up his guitar and write Windows Down. There was another which I couldn’t finish at all, but one day at Taek Won-do training I was on the floor doing pushups and the ending came to me. It’s always different. These are the Morris sessions, where I’ve had a few friends over at Chris’s recording originals and covers with my friends singing. Some of them are shocking( Viva la Vida sticks out) but there is no price on the memories.
One track from the album, On The Four, is such a cherished soundbite, as it holds so much memory. At the end, you can hear my friend Caoimhe’s phone going off. I hated it then, but I love it now, like Chris laughing at his own joke in another recording. It never fails to make me laugh. Recording the guys singing was always so much fun. So much of the recording I have of my friend Dara was meant to be scripted but ended up just her laughing and saying what she wanted.
Because the album is really about friendship isn’t it?
The album is about the unexpected bonds you make in college and in life in general. The transition from secondary to college is hard already without all the covid obstacles in place. Thankfully, the people that I have met in UCC have been amazing and really helped me with motivation for the album and have helped me with life. I can’t stress the love I have for these people, and that’s what this album is about: friendships from nothing that mean everything – however tacky that may sound (special thanks to Chris, Sam, Dara, Caoimhe, Mael, Kiely, Keelan and Dugzo).
Do you have any ideas/plans for your music going forward, or do you like to focus on the present so as not to get intimidated by the choices?
I have another single coming out on October 22nd, which is a remix of Daddy’s Child.
I went to Kinsale with some friends the day after the album came out and wrote another song. I’ll be busking over December, and there will be an album out next summer. I have to push myself to do all that.
Unexpected Comradery is available on all music platforms. Earphones recommended.