Classic Irish meets classic American is what comes to mind when listening to the music of Eoin (pronounced Owen) Harrington. Add a modern pop element, and you’ll get a sense of his sophomore album titled CONFESS. Drawing together influences from ‘70s rock, blues, classical and his native Irish, Harrington has developed a style all his own.
Vocally, he has the ability to fly a falsetto high over the top of a tall heartbreak story or rhythmically deliver a pocket vocal groove. Voice aside, it is the songwriting that sets him apart, evidenced by his multiple Songwriter awards. His structure and compositions are both unique and yet familiar, all at once.
CONFESS represents a progression for Harrington from his 2008 debut recording, the well-received STORY, of which Music Connection Magazine wrote: “His debut shines with stellar song craft and a distinctive, audience-pleasing artistry.”
The multi-talented Harrington, is known for his high-energy live performances both here on the West Coast and back in his home country. He has opened for artists such as Alanis Morrisette, Counting Crows, The Fray, Natasha Beddingfield, Brandi Carlile and Zach Brown.
“Eoin is a master storyteller,” wrote Independent Musician Magazine, “a magician when it comes to putting words and music together in such a way that you find yourself singing his songs for weeks after hearing them.” Harrington’s passionate vocal style, energetic stage presence and infectiously catchy songs make him one of the most intriguing performers to emerge from the San Francisco music scene in many years.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview Eoin. When I was told about you I was curious as to what I would find. I guess there was a high expectation given that I heard you were an ‘Irish Tenor’ and one burner of a lyricist. My expectations were certainly met and exceeded. Would you give us a little of your life’s journey?
Jaysus, Ken, you really know how to make a guy blush. Thank you! I’m flattered. Well, I grew up in Ireland, and as a kid we would have family functions and get–togethers where everybody had to gather round and sing a couple of songs. There was no ducking out or claims of shyness. Everybody had to jump in with both feet. To be perfectly honest, I was incredibly shy back then.. but after a couple of years I got over it …….slightly.
My mother also had me take up the piano (do you take up piano??.. you can take up the mandolin or the harmonica.. but the piano..) Sorry I digress.. So I did 10 years of classical piano learning pieces from Bach to Mozart. I started playing by ear then – Just listening to what was on the radio.. trying to play along.. I was intrigued by songs that had chord progressions that were unique or a little bit puzzling. Especially those ones that sounded initially like they were simple, but on further analysis ended up being quite complex. I find that to be an amazing skill.
My God, this is already quite long winded. Anyway, I then went to college and studied Chemical Engineering and Mathematics…Obviously. Music was something that I loved to bits, but it remained a pastime, a thing of enjoyment that my friends and family shared. Nights out with the guys would often involve a good two-hour sing song. Football games required the whole stand of school supporters to sing their way through defeat after crushing defeat. A great way to maintain positive spirits.
I then got a job offer from a bio-tech company in California. It sounded nice so I left. I took up guitar at the same time and decided to play a gig at a local bar in town called Ireland’s 32 at some point in the not so distant future. I played all covers and really enjoyed doing it. Getting the whole bar singing along with you is a great feeling.
Then I started writing songs. A very fun process. I thoroughly support anyone in trying it. It’s massively therapeutic, and a great exercise for the mind and soul.
Open mikes led to the first original show with my own band that I formed. (Jheesh… I better press fast forward.) Eventually got a recording done with a producer who approached me. Not long after that we were asked by the local major radio station to play at one of their big events. Five months after that, I was on stage opening up at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco for Alanis Morissette—someone who I had listened to back in Ireland and had great respect for. I was having an incredible time. I’ve toured with Brandi Carlile and played the stadium here in SF with The Counting Crows and The Fray.
I’ve recorded two albums since then and have another 40 songs waiting to go. I quit the day job a while back. I prefer dogs to cats and love nice long walks on the beach. (Actually scratch that—I hate sand in my shoes. )
I watched your cover video of Al Green’s Memphis Sound -‘Let’s stayTogether’ – a beautiful rendition – I have read the phrase ‘Irish Soul’ spoken about you – what is that for you?
I think it refers to some of the old Irish songs and singing style. The Island has a dark history of invasion after invasion, war and death, which fueled so many of the heart wrenching songs in the Traditional Irish playbook. I learned them all when I was a kid from my Mom. The sad ones have a lot of minor chords in them and are full of emotion. I think the depth of expression that is often in soul music comes from a place of pain, and there was enough going around Ireland for centuries.
What is the current music scene in Dublin? How did that shape your music?
The scene is savage right now. A lot of great bands that you can check out all over the city. I didn’t get out to shows much when I was in Ireland though. I was more exposed to all the sessions that would go on in people’s houses and parties.
How has living in San Francisco affected you and your music?
I’ve been exposed to a lot more musical styles over here, which have crept into my songwriting. The place is so beautiful and inspiring it would be hard for it not to affect me. Everything about the city is incredibly diverse and eclectic. The perfect fodder for a writer.
In your album you wrote the 14 songs and played most of the instruments. Impressive and done incredibly well! Do you prefer working alone?
That must be the first album you’re referring to (STORY). The 2nd album is Confess with 11 tracks. The older I get the more I like to work with more people. I still do love my alone time, but collaboration can bring about discoveries that I would have never stumbled across strolling along by myself.
Your live performance with a band ‘Don’t Get Me Wrong’ is very intimate and has a good old rock and roll feel, which happens a lot from a produced CD to a live rendition. Did you find putting together a live performance of the album difficult? Is getting it exactly note for note important?
I have a tremendous band of players now that I love to death.. When we play the album, now we don’t have to work too hard at it. I’m not one for playing note for note. I just love it when something new emerges in the performance that wasn’t there before.
What impressed me, live and on the CD, was the ease and vitality of your playing and in your singing. There is nothing between you and the audience– a gift and a joy to the listener. How and where did that develop in you?
I would have to put that back to the days of singing in Ireland where it wasn’t a job or a show or a chore. It was something that we all did where everyone was involved. I try to bring the same connection to the shows now.
Another thing that struck me is your CD arrangements – I never heard a glitch. Wonderful movements and engaging riffs working with vocal breaks were smile invoking – a singer/songwriter myself I am a sucker for great song structure. How do you go about putting a song together? Do you have an idea of what will be the finished product when you sit to write, or do you just let it come?
I just go with the flow of it. Sometimes I will challenge myself if I feel I’ve been here before or if something is not really making me jump out of my seat. I like to start with a chord and a tune first of all, then build that out to some kind of a structure. Then I look at how the song is making me feel and choose the appropriate story and try to fit it in. It’s like a little puzzle.
I have to say that I enjoyed your solo stuff as well as I did the produced band material. A performer that can do that well is rare. Which do you enjoy more?
Because my band is amazing fun to hang out with I would have to say the group right now. Solo is a very close second.
Do you write differently if your writing for a band song as opposed to a solo performance?
I have never sat down with the intention of writing any kind of song. I just let them take shape and put them in the appropriate camp.
I wondered if you ‘tried’ out your new songs on folks with just your guitar.
Absolutely!!! All the time. Close friends will get phone calls asking them to sit tight and listen to some garbled performance through my iPhone speaker in search of an opinion. I actually am starting up a website where I will post all my ideas and get people to vote on which ones they really like.
For me, you invoke the great singers of the 50s and 60s with a contemporary take, it’s no wonder you are getting well-deserved attention. Tell me about your style?
Wow.. thank you. I love that era. Honestly I haven’t really thought about the style that much or how it has come about. I just love the great writers who had something to say, could craft songs well and sang it with a passion.
‘Something about the way she was dressed it made me confess.’
‘Confess’ rocked me – powerful vocal, great lyrics, fantastic string arrangement. The backout backup vocals on the end – very cool! How about a little workshop on this song from writing it – to the finished CD?
This was a pretty quick one to write..it kind of flowed naturally. I sat down at the piano and played the C to F chord with the right hand staying somewhat stationery (apart from the walk down). I was humming the melody right away, the words: ‘Something about the way she was dressed it made me confess.’ Over the Am and Fm, came out immediately. The song is a strange shape. The bridge section comes in twice, but it feels right to me. The hook for me is the last line of the main section. The bridge is a nice lift over the top.
I wanted to tell a story painting a scene that plays out over the course of 10 minutes or so. Quite simply: Girl walks in.. makes her presence felt.. boy reacts… there is a reference to their history and relationship.. she exerts her power over him and then just leaves.. There are clues in there as to what went on between them.. It wasn’t exactly the way she was dressed that got the words out of him.
The production was fun to do. The strings were arranged by Alex Newburgh. He did an amazing job on them. We wanted a big choral affect at the very end as a surprise. I enjoyed recording that song.
‘Maybe’ memorable string riff and great hook. You seem to write for strong lyric hooks as well as catchy musical movements in the arrangements. Did I get that right? What has to be in a good song for you?
Yes, you are right. I do have other songs that meander lyrically. They will be on the next album. For this one in particular I wanted a strong chanting chorus line. A good song needs a great melody. It doesn’t need a million chords, but the chords it does have need to be used wisely with respect to the message in the lyrics. The lyrics have to tell a good story. Or at least shape enough of a coherent message that the listener can dress their own tale up around it.
‘Now or Never’ My favorite. R&B a little funky feel. Again those inspired strings and that surprising rock lift in the bridge – very cool. Nice song construction. Did the lyrics come first on this one or did the music and arrangement come first?
It was music first with this one. (most of mine are) The strings are the genius strokes of Mr. Dick Bright. He heard the tune and knew… “this needs Philly Strings” The arrangement is kind of interesting. This song has gone through a MAJOR (no pun intended) overhaul. The chorus used to be a major lift in G. It gave the song a kinda happy vibe when juxtaposed against the verses. At one stage, right before the album was recorded, I tried something new and kept in the Minor form through the chorus. We all liked the outcome. It keeps the song in a dark, moody, smoky club as opposed to opening the blinds and bringing smiles to everyone’s faces.
‘Take the time to see
that every day can be
a New Years Day.’
‘New Years Day’ I had mentioned that there is no distance between the audience and your song – here is one. This song is about the lyrics as much it is about the dynamics in the performance. Do you write with those dynamics in mind?
I love those kinds of dynamics naturally. Lately, I’ve been trying to write some of those dynamics out. Just to see what its like. I want to see what its like to have a low key approach to some stories. Someone who nails that is Jack Johnson. The guy is so bloody chill. I love it.
The obvious follow up question – you have a great voice – huge range and ease – do you write with your range in mind?
Yes, I have started to lately. I’ll always find myself pushing up into the high register, and I don’t use the bottom third at all (well hardly ever). What I have to remind myself is that things don’t have to be high to be cool.
I had a thought about your music- it struck me that I was listening to a movie – that is the sign of a true storyteller. All your songs are accessible – there is no figuring out the lyric- it is a lyrical and musical conversation with the listener. What has you sit down and write a song? Where do the stories come from?
I generally always let the music dictate a mood, and it brings something out in me that I either wanted or needed to talk about. I don’t control it exactly. Some of the stories are little analogies of something else that I wanted to keep in the shade.
I have asked this of other songwriters – it’s an odd question but I think an interesting one. It’s about what we as songwriters do when we write. What are we seeking to convey? Eoin, is there a philosophy that weaves through your songs?
If there was one philosophy, it would probably be summed up in two words: To feel. I want to write music that adjusts the mood I’m in, that moves me. I want to play music for people to make them feel something different. Ideally, I would love it to be so pervasive that it almost feels like the song can feel. If that makes sense. Thanks for indulging me.
What do you want your fans, and future fans, to know about Eoin Harrington that isn’t in your press release?
I will be writing and recording a new album very shortly and I’d love to see you all at a show sometime soon. Cause that’s where I started from and it’s still what I love the most.
What is coming up for you?
I just signed a major publishing deal so the songs will be reaching further afield. This new album will be a fun experience that I’m massively excited about. There are some big shows coming up, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with some great artists.
Dave and I wish you all the success you most assuredly deserve. Thank you for your generosity.
Eoin Harrington “CONFESS”
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