Culture desk

The Band That Vanished

In October 2008, Dublin band One Day International released their album Blackbird, a weave of gentle melodies delivered in soft vocals, subtle piano hooks, mellow brass, and rich orchestral flourishes. It was ambitious, particularly for a debut.

They launched it at a gig in Whelan’s on Wexford Street, backed up by singer-songwriter Cathy Davey and Conor O’Brien of indie-folk group Villagers.

The five-piece band consisted of talented songwriters, composers, and session musicians, some of whom were already touring with established acts across different genres. Together, though, they blended into a different sound in style and texture.

With the help of talented producer Brian Crosby, formerly of Bell X1, it had taken more than a year for the band to make this elegant and poignant record. But just a few months after the release of the album, and following a handful of gigs in Ireland and United States, the band separated.

There has not been a second album.

A Discovery

I was introduced to One Day International a couple of years ago by a friend, the singer in my own band. I wasn’t the most engaged of music fans in my early 20s, and the vibrant Irish music scene – acts like The Frames, Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, The Coronas – largely passed me by. As did One Day International.

When he recommended the band to me, my friend described how he took a date to see them perform in the Button Factory in late 2008, how he was blown away by the songs, the music, and the performance. His date wasn’t as impressed.

The relationship didn’t endure. His love of One Day International did.

Sure, I was intrigued, but our musical tastes don’t often overlap, so my expectations were tempered. Nevertheless I was surprised, given its relative obscurity and the interval since its release, to find the album Blackbird on Google Play Music, my streaming platform of choice.

I listened in the car on my way home from our own band practice and was captivated. From the first listen, I fell in love. The tender vocals, the fragile lyrics, the rich cello, the sparse piano.

I listened more or less on repeat for the months that followed – in my headphones on the commute to work, throughout the day in the office, blaring with the windows down any time I was in the car.

I became a bit of an evangelist for the band, spamming my friends and Twitter followers. It was the soundtrack to my life, and a significant influence on me musically as my own band was forming.

One day in August last year, Blackbird disappeared from Google Play. I sent a panic-stricken message in my band’s WhatsApp group: “Is One Day International gone from the internet?!”

It was gone from Spotify too, they confirmed. And I was left to wonder how this album, which so clearly to me should have been greeted with international acclaim, had instead vanished.

A Search for Answers

There are just a handful of videos of One Day International online. At least, that’s all I have been able to find: a few poor quality clips from live performances, recorded before the proliferation of HD-camera-equipped smartphones.

There are also a couple of well-produced videos recorded in RTÉ when the band played on broadcaster Dan Hegarty’s radio show. Even today, Hegarty remembers the band.

“The first impression I had of them was that the standard of the songs and production was very, very high. These guys really had it sussed – you knew that they knew what they were doing,” he says. “The music had a real broad appeal; people just seemed to be really impressed by [their quality], as I was and a lot of my colleagues.”

The reception was enthusiastic too among music reviewers and the thriving blogger scene.

“The maturity and agility of these compositions are perhaps most comparable to Sufjan Stevens,” wrote Bobby Aherne in State Magazine, “as orchestral flourishes, swish choral harmonies and aptly positioned beats elegantly wrap themselves around skeletal piano.”

Lauren Murphy, on entertainment.ie, described it as “a collection of rich, finely tuned and melodic pop songs, taking in lush string arrangements and quietly extravagant orchestral climaxes.” Though balancing her review with some criticism, she concluded that “the potential for greatness within the One Day International camp is marked”.

In the Evening Herald, journalist Eamon Carr wrote that “debut albums seldom come as accomplished as [Blackbird]”.

A Statement of Ability

As it happened, I was able to make contact with lead singer Matt Lunson, who is originally from Tasmania, but settled in Dublin many years ago.

Over the phone, he described how One Day International came into being when, through mutual friend singer-songwriter Gavin Glass, Lunson was introduced to piano player Cormac Curran, who was playing with Glass at the time.

Enamoured with Curran’s musical style, Lunson and he had a conversation and the pair began writing together. It was a casual partnership to begin with, with the tentative goal of writing three songs.

“I think probably the first or second song we wrote, we knew that there was something quite special about it, and a little bit rare, and we became quite protective of them,” he said.

To fill out the songs, they recruited a few of Curran’s friends from the close-knit Irish music scene: Danny Snow on bass, Eimear O’Grady on cello, and Ross Turner on drums.

“It all happened really quickly; they heard the songs and everybody gelled immediately. So from myself and Cormac [Curran] on our own to a five-piece probably happened in the space of a few weeks or a month,” said Lunson.

Not long after, they approached producer Brian Crosby, who Lunson had known through the pair’s involvement in The Cake Sale (2006) charity album, and they began to record Blackbird.

The album title came first, a suggestion from Ross the drummer.

“His initial thinking was a single, solitary, dark icon. We started reading about birds and the history in all different cultures. There’s been a lot of myth and legend around birds carrying the souls away when a person dies. We wanted something really simple, straightforward, singular, solitary,” said Lunson.

Around the same time, Lunson’s mother-in-law died.

“One of the ladies in the room opened the window, and I wondered why. [It was] to let the soul escape the room. Seemingly there are lots of different myths – that souls inhabit birds, and after humans die, birds will appear in the family’s life. That was all happening around that time,” he said.

After initial sessions in Westland and Cauldron studios in Dublin, Crosby managed to arrange access to the more spacious Exchequer Studios in the south inner city.

This liberated the band, allowing them to take their time and let the songs evolve, test out different arrangements and build up layers of strings and brass. Lunson remembers the period fondly.

“It was a joy – they’re just lovely people to be around. It was a great part of town, we were right opposite Fallon & Byrne. It was just a really lovely time.”

The band signed with the now-defunct Irish label Independent Records for licensing, manufacturing, and promotion of the album. Owner Dave O’Grady remembers being impressed with the finished product.

“Brian [Crosby, the producer] seemed determined that they were going to land with a very complete debut album; not a record with potential, but a debut album that was complete, fully formed, and a clear statement of the band’s abilities. I think he succeeded,” O’Grady said.

An Abrupt End

After just over a year of recording, the final mix was finished and mastered and they began to promote it, touring with the likes of Lisa Hannigan, Villagers, and Cathy Davey, and supporting Crowded House, Elbow, and Lykke Li.

They played in the United States too, at CMJ in New York and South by Southwest, but shortly after coming back from the States, Lunson brought it all to a shuddering halt.

“I thought the reservoir was a little bit empty, if I’m honest, from a creative perspective,” he says. “I was struggling a little bit in terms of writing; I didn’t feel like I had anything worthwhile to say.”

He picked up his phone and texted the band to say that he was out. It was a shock to the other band members, but also to the record label.

“Oh, it was ridiculous. I remember getting a phone call and trying to pull Matt back to it being a break rather than a breakup. I don’t think anyone else was involved in the decision except for Matt,” says O’Grady.

It’s clear that Lunson has not spoken very much about the breakup of the band, and that he’s not entirely comfortable doing so. At one point in our conversation he jokes that it’s like a therapy session.

“I definitely didn’t manage that situation very well. I literally just told them by text one night, ‘That’s it, I’m done.’ It was quite abrupt and a little bit painful and upsetting for everyone. I take full responsibility for that,” he said.

On top of his own creative struggles, the other members’ day jobs were becoming more of an issue for Lunson. While One Day International was his main focus, the rest of the band were touring with their other projects.

“They’re amazing musicians; they were in demand. So it was hard for them, trying to balance the commitments of gigs that are paying them a wage, and our stuff, which was our great love. And I saw that becoming more of an issue I suppose. I didn’t really see any compromise.”

Weighing up the time investment and the potential outcomes of a second album – being away from home a lot if it were a success, or more frustration if it flopped – Lunson decided to take a step back.

After the band ended, he worked for several years as a cricket coach. These days, he’s a professional trainer for a major tech company.

Overlooked

Still today, it’s hard to pinpoint why Blackbird failed to capture, fully, the imagination of Irish music fans.

It received critical acclaim. It generated some buzz among music insiders. But that did not translate into sales. Only a couple of hundred CDs were sold.

It was bad timing, suggests Lunson.

“We probably released it at a time when the Irish music scene was moving away from the singer-songwriting kind of scene. [Blackbird] was a bit sensitive, overwrought maybe. At that time, garage rock and electronic was becoming popular. Maybe it didn’t fit,” he said.

O’Grady agrees that timing was a factor.

“Radio was going through one of its troughs for Irish music then. Phantom [FM] had only just come back on air and the only support [the album] got was from Alison Curtis and Dan Hegarty. They were definitely unlucky in that regard,” he said.

But it wasn’t given much of a chance to succeed either.

“They only existed for a very, very short time – I’d be surprised if they played more than 20 gigs. Good bands can take a long time to get to a decent-sized audience. I think they were closest to a band like Elbow, who took three or four albums and a run of labels before they took off,” O’Grady said.

“Bands very rarely made an impact on their debut album without early live momentum, a radio hit or a large budget and label behind them.”

Dan Hegarty agrees that not having the resources for promotion would have been a factor, although he has a more philosophical take on things.

“Being on a major label doesn’t matter as much now to a certain extent, but certainly back in 2008 it would have made a bit of a difference,” he said.

“Just because something is very good doesn’t necessarily translate to it being very successful; it just doesn’t work like that. It would be brilliant if it did, but it doesn’t.”

Industry Dynamics

The music industry, domestically and globally, has been undergoing significant changes over the last few years.

Streaming from digital platforms is fast becoming the standard over CD sales and downloads, while social media and provocative music videos are arguably more important than gigging as a means of developing a local and wider following.

For the period that they were active, One Day International were unusually attentive to their online community, regularly updating a blog and maintaining their Facebook page. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to say whether the band would have gone on to international success if they had remained active.

It is clear, however, from the success of artists like Hozier, that there is an appetite now for articulate, literate songs – the kind of tracks that One Day International had once produced.

As for the mystery of why Blackbird was removed from digital platforms?

The penultimate song on the album, “Big Surprise”, a haunting lament on the subject of environmental degradation and deforestation, opens with a sombre interpretation of the opening lines from well-known children’s song “Teddy Bears’ Picnic”: “If you go down to the woods today, you’re in for a big surprise/They’ve taken all of the trees away right before our eyes.”

It was assumed at the time that the nursery rhyme was public domain, but as it happens, in 2010, the publishing company that owns the rights sent a “polite but firm” email to Independent Records seeking royalties for its use on Blackbird.

As the band was calling it a day at that stage, owner Dave O’Grady decided that it was easier to remove the album and stop selling it. It’s still unclear, however, including to O’Grady, why it only came offline last year.

Proud

Though looking back on the whole experience with a huge amount of fondness, Lunson believes that doing it all over again, he would probably make the same decision to pull out of the band. But was it a missed opportunity?

“Maybe. Maybe, yeah.”

He still plays Blackbird in the car on occasion.

“I’m still kind of amazed – I think emotionally, you listen to the album from start to finish, and about half way through it starts to grab you, and you get tight in the chest, and it doesn’t then let you go until the very end,” he said.

“I still believe we produced something quite special, if I’m honest. I think it’s kind of timeless. I’m really, really proud of it, and I always will be.”

Dave McGinn portrait
Dave McGinn

Dave McGinn is a writer and musician from Tallaght. He tweets from @davemcginn_ie and plays keys with Lavelle.

 

Comments

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  2. austin
    25 May at 09:30

    Great piece. It’s quite depressing how transient streaming music is – one minute it’s there… the next the lawyers get involved and its gone 🙁

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