We caught up with Niall McNamee in advance of the release of his first EP - Step By Step. The Irish Singer-Songwriter describes himself as ‘a romantic football fan who writes songs’. This is typical of his down to earth and humble attitude; he never conformed to the musical genres popular in his youth, but instead loved the music of Christy Moore, The Dubliners and even Fran Sinatra. This, coupled with his Irish roots make him a powerful songwriter and storyteller, creating narratives that resonate at a very personal level with his audience… and he can act a bit too!
Ellie Capocci: Hey Niall, let's begin with where you grew up?
Niall McNamee: My first house was really close to Leicester City centre! But I was back and forth so often to Dundalk it felt like I had two homes. My Mum and Dad first met in London and moved there. I probably know Loughborough better than Leicester now as that’s where I went to secondary school.
EC: What was your household like growing up?
NM: It was pretty normal, it was happy. It was quite football-centric because of my Dad. A lot of my memories of growing up are being collected from football and going back to the house or on the weekends, being taken to training and over to Elland Road. There was a lot of music as well, but football stands out more at a young age. I feel very lucky to have had the family and household that I had growing up, it was the middle of nowhere really in hindsight.
EC: Did you ever think of pursuing football?
NM: [laughs] I would have loved to have been a footballer and for a certain amount of time, when I was really little I would have said ‘I’m going to be a footballer when I grow up’ but I think it was kind of unanimously known from quite early on that I was just nowhere near good enough! I’ve got mates of mine who wanted to be footballers and would have had trials for teams and stuff, I never had any of that. But I think always made up for natural skill with my determination and passion for it. I started being good at football when my Dad became the manager and started putting me up front and I started scoring goals. I’m still getting better at football even now, which is quite an old age!
EC: Was there a lot of music involved in your house?
NM: Yeah, there was a lot of singing. I guess I never really thought of music as something unusual. My Dad sings - when I say sings, I mean he would get up on the karaoke and would be seen as ‘oh he’s pretty good isn’t he’ and my Mum was really good. I learnt to harmonise by singing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and ‘Molly Malone’ in the car with my mum. My grandad had the most wonderful classic singing voice. I once said to him he could be like Dean Martin and he replied ‘I know! Dead!’ My brother Aidan sang as well and was always really good but the difference between him and me was how brainy he always was. He has a talent for so many things and I think music was always a hobby because of that. But yeh, no one in the family had done it as a job other than my grandads brothers family in Dublin, it was always just a hobby. There was a great love for music. Not really dynamic views on music, I don’t think my Mum and Dad were ever punk rockers or anything, so it was down to the classics really. I have definitely found the way I think about music on my own. My first favourite artist was Frank Sinatra and my first ever favourite song was ‘It’s Not Unusual’ by Tom Jones! I feel like I’m more going through my teenage years now. I don’t know, I guess I just liked what I liked. I don’t know where anyone hears music.
EC: What do you mean?
NM: There’s loads of bands and artists and stuff who are new and up and coming and they’ll be at all the festivals and stuff. I look at the line ups of festivals my mates suggest to go to and I genuinely don’t know any of them! Unless they’re from the '90s or early 2000s and I’m left looking at those lists thinking where the fuck does everyone hear them [laughs]. How do people know?
I was convinced for ages, I came up with this concept… well I told my mates this concept I called ‘The Blargan’, I made up a word. It was this place on a Tuesday afternoon at like 2 o’clock, every Tuesday (almost like church) and everyone in the world would go to their local Blargan and someone would stand at the front and say “this week, there’s this new guy Kanye West and he’s really cool so you have to like him and also you don’t wear socks any more with suit trousers…” [laughs] and everyone would go “alright, cool” and know what’s happening and I would never know. They would tell you what’s cool. And one day I would be in the house one Tuesday afternoon and the lads would all be leaving and I would ask where they’re going and they would say The Blargan and I would ask what it is and they would be like”oh come on, everyone knows The Blargan” and then they would realise no one in my family knew what it was! [laughs]. People say the radio but that’s not really true, no one listens to the radio any more, unless you drive.
EC: Yeah, I guess the new radio is like curated playlists on Spotify or whatever. I very much do research, going through linked artists on Spotify and things like that. But that’s quite a lot I think, not many do that.
NM: It’s unusual but it’s the way it should be. Not to bring it back to football but if people followed music like they do football, then that would be exactly how you would do it. I don’t know how people keep up to date with it. Because of the way I listen to music, I’m listening to a new playlist I’ve made for myself of songs I like and they’re just tracks from Paul Brady and Christy Moore that I haven’t heard yet, and they’re from the '70s. So if I’m in the '70s now, when am I going to end up in 2021?! It’s the same with gigs though, I very rarely would go to a gig because it would never jump into my mind to get a ticket. Same with theatre, and I’m an actor. It’s always if someone has a spare ticket.
EC: I’ll take you to some gigs! I go to at least one a week usually…
NM: I feel a bit like an alien in that sense. I always did. I feel like the majority of the public are somewhere between you and me, but they’re closer to you. Outside of going to my mate’s gigs, I think I can name all of the gigs I went to. When I was younger, the bands and artists I would be taken to see or went to see would be far from ‘cool’. Flyte are probably the only band I’ve ever found myself and then bought a ticket to go see them, and they’re really good! I remember thinking this is really weird, I’ve seen an advert on Facebook, listened to them and thought yeah I’ll buy a ticket and see them. And then I was speaking to a couple of friends of mine who also loved Flyte and they’ve known about them for a couple of years so I was like… oh this is how it happens. I saw Billy Joel at Wembley, that was fucking amazing!! But it doesn’t paint me very well [laughs] but why is that! Billy Joel IS CLASS. I can’t even think of a list of bands that are cool and around now, the funny thing would be that you’d say they’re not new at all [laughs]. I find it quite daunting and quite worrying, I should know people but I’m too far behind!
It’s interesting because I wasn’t into the new bands when I was growing up like Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines, even the Kaiser Chiefs, it makes you realise how good an era of music we had growing up. I was only kept up to date with that stuff by my mate Ben Lucas who was on the same school bus as me. Those teenage years though, You don’t really think of the pop, it’s the indies! I don’t know if every kid goes through this but when kids start saying they like indie music, I used to think they liked Indian music and thought that was really interesting! But then when someone told me I was like well I’m more indie than you then… but it’s more indie as independent, not just not liking the popular stuff. They all listened to it together because it’s cool, I listen to Sinatra because I can’t help it! If I could have helped myself and listen to more cool music I would, I just couldn’t sit through it. I do love those bands, but can’t get my head around pop music really!
EC: So who inspires you most in life? Either in music or generally.
NM: My Mum and Dad, I find them quite inspiring, I know it sounds boring but they really are. They are good people and I see that the way they live and the people in the area that they live in, they are respected as nice people which I think I always kind of took for granted growing up but then you get to being an adult in the world yourself and you realise there’s loads of fucking assholes! But also they have worked hard and they are in a better situation than they were growing up, which I suppose if I could end up in the same situation I grew up in, I would be delighted. They care, they care about people, I know I’m bring it back to football again but my Dad, I remember good things about him. He spent a fortune on three football tickets to go see Ireland in the Euros in France and they are gold dust, so expensive. I remember if he has that ticket and someone wants to buy it, then he will get his money back but if there’s some young bloke, someone like me who is out there in France looking for a ticket, whose dream it would be to be in there, and you can see they’ve not got loads of money and stuff, he found this fella like that and he just gave him the ticket. I can’t explain to you that ticket, it’s gold dust, to get that at all, let alone from some stranger for free. I just always thought that’s cool. My Mum would be very similar in that sense too. It’s quite an easy way to get around life thinking what would Mum and Dad do. I trust their judgement on things.
Music wise Brian Wilson from the beach boys. Jesus. He fascinated me. And Paul Brady. Could listen to them both all day.
EC: So how would you class yourself musically?
NM: That’s a hard one, that is. I would probably class myself as an acoustic singer-songwriter. That’s where it’s starting anyway, but a songwriter more than anything. I don’t know, I know I keep coming back to the same things, but I don’t know what you would class Billy Joel as, but I know that it didn’t matter! I think it’s harder now but what would you even class Taylor Swift as?
EC: I mean everything! She’s got an album for every genre!
NM: Yeah and I respect that, as long as you assume it just happened that way and wasn’t part of a plan! But why should you not respect it if it was a plan too. She’s done well, fair play to her! Why do I know who she is? That’s a weird one! I know the Taylor Swift’s and the Ed Sheeran’s of this world because they are just so big that you can’t not, it would be mental, but it takes a while. I once asked my mates ‘who’s this Dr Drake guy’ and I never heard the end of it! I can’t just say singer-songwriter, can I?!
EC: If that’s what it is, that’s what it is
NM: I like to think I’m quite passionate, I know that’s not a classification. I’m very specific for someone who doesn’t have loads of views on music! Ok, here is what I would describe myself as: a football fan who is romantic and plays guitar, piano and sings. Roughly speaking. Because there’s definitely a side of things I shudder at, when people refer to me as an “artist”, or say “It’s art”, it doesn’t really feel like art to me, it just feels like… isn’t it funny how when you’re trying to explaining how unarty you are, you just sound like the wankiest artiest fucker ever! [laughs] Obviously I’m aware it’s art, but it has always felt like football to me. Separate from a genre of ANYTHING.
EC: Do you not hold your songs close to you?
NM: Oh God I do hold my songs close to me, but I don’t think of them as songs in the same way, I don’t listen to them in the same way. It’s weird, it’s different having your own songs to listening to ones in the charts. You can always hear that you’ve made them, whereas a great song, you can’t hear that they’re made at all, they just are.
EC: How would you describe your personal taste in music and is it similar to what you create yourself?
NM: I would describe my personal taste in music as… I’m going to try and answer this just as the answer and then explain it. It’s boringly varied, as I think it is with most people. I do think that I have a tendency to enjoy past music more than present, I feel like the most modern song I like will have often been out for two years! Although saying that, Declan O’Rourke I’m listening to now is the first musician in a while… his album came out this morning and it was the first time I have ever waited for an album and knew when it was out, was excited for it and was like I’m going to get in the car and play it top to bottom, that’s the first time I’ve ever done that!
NM: Ever! I’ve never known when an album is coming out! I would like this interview to be done by him and I would like to read through his answers and I would decide that that’s how I would like to think about stuff, because I fucking love what he does. I love singer songwriter, storyteller songs. My musical taste I suppose is quite linked to Ireland, in many ways, they are the songs that mean the most to me and kinda get me for whatever reason. I think most Irish songs are about missing home, and they are from the point of view of someone who has left; I’m missing home from the point of view of living in Leicester [laughs] so I really miss it! I miss it more than anyone else! [laughs] But I think I am similar in some ways but I could never have predicted actually how different I am, to the music I would consider… if I had to put together a list of the songs I listen to the most there are definitely similarities to it, and there are… but I wouldn’t necessarily be certain that the people I love would love what I do. They might do, there’s no reason inherently why they wouldn’t I don’t think, but it could not be their thing. I think that’s a good thing though, I think I used to pander more to that, I think I used to try and sound more like the people I loved and then realised that it wasn’t quite my voice really, it was me trying to be someone else. Maybe that comes from loving Frank Sinatra first, because that whole culture of crooners; Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, was that they all sang each others’ songs, so there’s five different versions of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, whereas that’s not really a thing now. Covers are coming back but they were never called covers, they were called standards. I would like to think I am similar in some ways but actually I am probably more different than I would have expected to be at the start.
EC: You do story telling so beautifully, where do you tend to take your inspiration from? Do you observe what’s going on around you, do you write from a fictional point of view or do you write from your own?
NM: Well I started off writing totally from my point of view because that’s a good place to start, and obviously I didn’t think of it at the time as ‘this is how I’ll start…’ it was just ‘this is how I have…’ and then you realise after time that you can’t just do that because you’ll have to live a very fucking interesting life for everything to be writeable! But it helped, when I started out, I was totally in love with this girl which was such a long shot and so ridiculously juvenile really, that it allowed me to pour my heart and soul out, I think I feel a little embarrassed by it now! ‘Step By Step’ was about a girl I met on holiday when I was 18 and then I think about 4 years later we finally kissed or something! It was insane! After time you start thinking, there’s other people who have stories. I remember listening to ‘Rainy Night in Soho’ and Pair of Brown Eyes’ by the Pogues, and then ‘Piano Man’ by Billy Joel and then ‘Why Why Why Delilah’ by Tom Jones and I remember thinking I loved the stories. In ‘Piano Man’ all the characters made my imagination burst, so I started writing about these people in a bar and then they went off to war, in my head, and that’s where ‘All I Need’ came from. Then listening to Tom Jones, and I was thinking ‘he never killed his wife’ [laughs] “I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more” and I was like alright, that’s just a story song, in its truest form. I can’t speak for all singer-songwriters, because I don’t know many, or any, I know a few but we don’t really talk about it. But I assume you can only carry on writing if your understanding of what you can write about gets bigger. And I suppose there’s now a point, you get to a certain age and you feel a bit selfish to write just about your own love life. It’s always important, always somewhere there is someone broken hearted and needs to hear it from someone else about how their heart was broken. But the fact I’m in a loving relationship now kinda fucks that up so unless I want to write about every argument I’ve ever had, over not washing something in the sink or something, I’m going to have to think about writing about something else. So inspiration from all walks of life, wherever I can find it. Also, the worst thing about it is there’s such a lack of control over it. You could hear a great story but not be able to write a song about it, sometimes the story is too short or too long for a song and you don’t want to write it without including all of the details, so you’d have to write a play instead!
EC: I saw your socially distanced show in December
NM: Did you?
EC: I did! And you are definitely a master of your craft
NM: Wow! Fucking hell!
EC: Are you excited for normal shows to come back as your crowd is so fun? What is your favourite song to perform live?
NM: First of all, fucking delighted at that. I never realised how much I wanted to be called a master of my craft before! And ultimately for it to even be called my craft. I think I would be quite pleased if the statement was ‘you’re alright at your craft’, I would thank that! I suppose it is my craft! It’s not the same, I can’t wait to get back to shows as they were because to me I couldn’t possibly be at a masterful stage of it when everyone is like that at tables. I used to always think that I would always love to do a gig with people sat down around tables like it was at Powerhaus, maybe because of Frank Sinatra, I always saw cool casino style things. If people did gigs with table service, that’s where I would spend my evenings. And they do Guinness at Powerhaus too! I would be at gigs all the time. That’s how it is in Belfast.
EC: You don’t like everyone being stood up?
NM: No, I get claustrophobic. I don’t like the lack of control of that.
EC: Can you not just stand at the back?
NM: Well then I can’t see and that’s pointless! I need to know where I am, if I’m stood up I’m just wandering more, is this going to end soon? Which I don’t want to be listening to music with that in my head. I get antsy! I do get nervous in crowds
EC: That’s why you belong on stage…
NM: To a certain extent, it’s why I smoke so I can leave. I went to a gig at the Powerhaus two weeks before mine to see Van Morrison and I sat down and I had a pint of Guinness in my hand and I know for a fact that I enjoyed it a million percent more. Gosh, saying a million percent really makes you sound thick doesn’t it! It’s a stupid percentage, not that I’m not willing to go over a hundred but a million is just ridiculous, it’s too much! I can’t have enjoyed it that much more! [laughs] No one can, I’d be dead from the joy! [laughs]
EC What's your favourite song to perform at a gig?
NM That’s a hard one, it depends on the gig really. You know which ones are going to do well for you once you are in there! Funnily enough it’s never the ones at the end, those are the ones you get for free! By the end it’s like ‘oh here is the big song I have that everyone knows and that’s really great’. I really like doing ‘Rose of Marlybone’, I really do. I like it because it sounds good on the guitar and I feel like it’s a song I have to do the least work to engage people. For some reason, people are just like ‘oh fuck, I’m listening to this and I understand what’s going on and it’s made me smile’. I love the story of that song. It’s also known by a lot of people who come to my gigs so it’s not a stranger for people to listen to. I’ve never really thought about that and if I had to answer it quickly I probably wouldn’t have said that one. On other days, ‘Comes and Goes’ is a fucking mad, I love it because it’s so different and I can really let go!
EC: So your Step By Step EP is coming out May 14th, is there a main message that you want to convey through it?
NM: That’s a good question. I don’t know! I suppose generally speaking, it is from a lot of different angles of loving relationships. It’s a reminder that life has lots of different sections and that nothing stays the same for very long, so you shouldn’t think about that if you’re happy but you should think about it if you’re sad! I’m not sure if that’s a message. Just a reminder that things change fast and that can be a good thing; it can always be a good thing, and to embrace change.
EC: The music video that accompanies Step By Step features rising stars Lauren Lyle and Sope Dirisu. How did it feel to have them bring the story to life visually?
NM: Oh it was fucking amazing! It was brilliant. But not necessarily because they were bringing the story to life as in ‘now I can see my song brought to life in front of me’, it was more just that it felt incredible to know that two friends of mine were giving up their day to come into the middle of nowhere to help me out with something I loved because they loved it. I just felt so emotional all day that they were even there! Fucking hell, Lauren and Sope are flying, they’re busy, they don’t need to do anything, I’m sure they need a rest more than anything else! And instead, they decided to have a long day outside in the cold and committed to it, far more than I could ever commit to anything that wasn’t my own! Or even my own! I looked at them doing it, they took it so seriously, and I was like if they had turned up and even done a half hearted job it would have meant a lot to me so that’s more what it meant for me! Lee Malone the director is an inspiration. His energy and support drove the whole thing forward the way he working with Jay and Phil was inspiring. He’s going to fly! Everyone there had such a positive attitude, everyone had the right idea, they believed in it and wanted to make it and I couldn’t believe that! It really made me realise what it’s like to be doing it!
EC: You seem to already have accumulated a very loyal and high profile fanbase who know every lyric at your shows. What does it feel like to have people connecting with your music like this?
NM: It’s amazing! It’s fucking brilliant! It means a lot. As I said before, it means a lot that people even come to shows, because I find gigs difficult places to be! I don’t know how you can make that sound like I’m not a miserable old fucker but that’s a massive part of why… like if I had to go to a gig and stand up, it would be a chore for anyone, even…that’s not true. I’m changing, maybe my attention span is getting better. The first thing is is that they are just there, they have given up their time. And then for the lyrics to mean so much to them, it’s a very strange thing actually.
EC: Do you get people coming up to you and talking about specific songs? Does it ever get overwhelming?
NM: Yeah. There’s one song in particular where the song is about a girl that my now mate also happened to have dated and it also didn’t go very well and he’s like ‘you have no idea how much this song means to me’! [laughs] which is such a weird thing! But it must be right because he understood the specific, unique situation, if you want to call it that! Do I find it quite overwhelming, did you say?
EC: Yeah, if lots of people come up to you and share their stories that they have attached to the songs.
NM: No, not really. I like that more. What’s overwhelming is, it’s a bit more overwhelming than your own birthday party when lots of people come up to you. Everyone is there for you so you feel like you owe them your time, and you do, but you can’t give everyone that time. At the stage we are at now, I know lots of the people at my shows, they are loyal and I’ve got to know them over time.
EC: Then also with social media there’s messaging between shows too
NM: Yeah, it’s amazing to have that support. I kinda wish I could… I always feel like I wake up the next morning after a gig feeling quite bad that I didn’t get the chance to see someone before they left. But I suppose at the end of the day, you have to live in the world that they are just there to see me play music and that’s why they’re there and they saw it and it was good! I still can’t quite get it out of my head that I need to give people more. But no, the answer to your question is no, I don’t find it overwhelming musically, I find it amazing and I suppose I can only recognise myself if I was seeing a musician I loved in them.
EC: With ‘China In A Box’, that one particularly pulled at my heartstrings and I saw a few tears in the audience at your show. Can you give me the story on that song?
NM: Yeah, I didn’t know that! With ‘China In A Box’, the story of how it started and where it’s ended up is very different. It’s going to be the main song for the feature film ‘Love Without Walls’, in which I am playing a singer-songwriter who is married and they fall on hard times. It was probably the first song I wrote in a happy relationship. Wait no, ‘Rose of Marylebone’ was but we broke up afterwards so now it’s sad [laughs]. ‘China In A Box’ was the first song in a relationship that I was like ‘I think this is going to go the whole way’ so I need to start being able to write songs about being in love. And then of course, it’s a song about supporting each other and what you should expect from a relationship. Everyone has had their own relationship history and you put a rule in your head of what you should expect and I feel like the minimum, the least you should be waiting for, as the lyrics say. And it’s the line “we’re wrapped up together like china in a box” that we are so tightly together and hanging out but it is fragile. If the box is rocks then both of you are broken.
EC: Your music has a very wise and soulful feel to it, so I want to ask what’s the best piece of advice that you have ever been given?
NM: “Don’t have that last one now” [laughs] didn’t take it! No, best piece of advice… was by a man called John Hollingworth who is an actor and kind of mentored me when I was starting out and he said something along the lines of… this might be so unhelpful to some people but I remember him saying "you should know when you should go home and keep on working, and you should know when you should go and have a few pints". I don’t know if it’s helped me! [laughs] It was when I was starting out acting in National Youth Theatre and it’s so much work to do. We were doing three plays in the West End at the same time. So on a Tuesday it was ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and then Tuesday afternoon would be something else and then Wednesday was ‘Tory Boys’ and my second biggest part was Romeo so it was busy! And I remember we had six weeks to learn all three plays, two weeks for each. I was so stressed and I remember him saying that. It’s not always good to carry on like that, realise that you can chill and make up for it tomorrow. I think in general he is right about that!
EC: You have such a unique sound, I was wondering if you feel pressure in the industry to create in a certain way or if you are able to keep control of your art?
NM: I do feel pressure, I do and I think it’ll only get worse! I feel pressure because there is the majority of music that is popular and liked is something I don’t understand. I don’t mean that I don’t like it, but I don’t get it. Some people think of pop music and think it’s easy, no part of me thinks that at all, but why? But what will always probably stop that pressure is that I know I wouldn’t be very good at changing my sound. I feel like I have found a sound, or at least a process that is very authentic to myself, because I am rubbish at being anyone else really. Maybe if I was starting out younger I would have fallen into something else but I feel like something I’ve really had to concentrate on in the past few years is being myself and I feel quite happy with it now. It’s like anything, the pressure of stopping music or acting when it’s not going well to go get a real job, what keeps me going in many ways is that I would make fuck all money doing something else because I am thick [laughs] so this is my best shot!
EC: You could do another job!
NM: I don’t know, I don’t think I could do it happily. And when I say that I don’t mean getting up every morning and go oh shit not this again, I think I would have a crisis! I’ve spent a lot of time working on building sites and all sorts of other jobs since I moved to London and it was okay because I always had a hope that it wasn't forever but if I ever felt like that was it, I’d find it difficult to motivate myself into work. Maybe that’s because I’ve been doing this long enough now to not know any different.
EC: What would you like people to take away from your music?
NM: I would like them to take away the songs, to cherish. I know that sounds daft but I would like them to take away something that really means something to them. Something that they listen to when they are really happy or really sad. Some of these songs with the lads I used to live with would know them so well, sort of became the house National Anthem. I think lots of families and groups have that, that when something happens, that’s the song you play. I call it ‘people National Anthem’. I would love it to be something like that. You know you can go through phases of listening to things but ultimately there’s some songs that you just never really stop listening to. I just want them to mean something to people, they can take help from them because there’s a lot of heartbreak in there, it’s not important heartbreak to the world, they’re no more different than anyone else’s heartbreak but that’s why I feel like it might help. Maybe also take away a slightly different style of music than what they might be used to because I get the feeling that a lot of the people who come to my gigs might not actually go to gigs of people who are similar to me, so it can introduce them to something.
EC: What is your favourite F Word?