David Halpin is excited about the future of the Circle Sessions.
In the past, the collective was mainly focused on providing a night and space for artists to perform.
The future, as he sees it, lies in helping those artists take it to the next level.
“We want to be able to say to people, ‘Come in on a Monday night and stick with it and you’d never know, you could be playing in Vicar Street in a year’,” he says.
Last Friday night, in the Academy on Middle Abbey Street, the Circle Sessions held their second showcase event, an Evening with the Circle Sessions, with an audience of about 100 people.
“For some of them it’s their first shot at a mid-sized venue,” says Halpin.
The best performers are chosen based on talent and attendance at the sessions, but the process is also non-critical, he says. “There is no wrong way to express yourself … that is art and we try to have a diverse portfolio on stage.”
The Academy 2 is a dark nightclub, with benches and chairs on the dance floor in front of the stage, and seating around the edges.
The line-up included The BedBuggz, a four-piece trad-rock band not unlike the Saw Doctors, with raw energy, great song-writing and mad humour. Funny takes on serious themes in stories of life in their country town that everyone can relate to.
“They are four lads from Wexford and they’re just mad. They are off the wall and are definitely the most exciting act in a physical sense,” said Halpin.
The McCallen Medley, a mad musical comedy duo, made up their songs on the spot. Which included their take on what happens in Supermacs in Eyre Square in Galway at the end of a night out. (It involved the IRA using potatoes to fight pigeons.)
There was also rap, acoustic guitar, and spoken word. As well as poetry about mental health from Maryanne Doyle, who battled back against the thumping dance music coming from the teenage event upstairs.
Many of the acts at Circle Sessions start out with little or no experience in performance. The Monday-night gigs are open-mic and anybody can join just by turning up.
Other acts are regular contributors booked in for feature performances, which usually means three pieces.
But that approach is now evolving, with showcase events like the one at the Academy, which Halpin plans to roll out every three months from now on. The next one will be in Whelan’s.
“The idea is that we slowly and continuously grow – without becoming too big for our boots – as a platform to promote individual creative talent,” says Halpin.
Halpin has a music degree from Trinity College and majored in art music competition, but had stopped being involved in music really, before he discovered the Circle Sessions.
Now, he tries to give useful advice where he can. “I only really have expertise for the compositional side,” he says. “I’ve seen enough live performances now to know where someone is going wrong or needs a tweak.”
He’s not a music critic though, nor is he a promoter. “It’s being there as their psychologist rather than their promoter,” he says with a laugh.
The idea of graduating to larger venues is attractive to those who take part.
“Individually we couldn’t command these type of venues, but as a collective we can,” says Justin McCann of The McCallan Medley.
“Its great to get an opportunity to do more electric stuff and to rock the house,” he says.
At The International, they don’t have microphones, so it’s be purely acoustic, he says. Performing at the likes of Whelan’s is a step in a new direction.
“What we are trying to do is to give people opportunities,” says Halpin. “The idea is to reward the people who come most often and are the most talented.”
Originality is a must. This is not karaoke or The X Factor.
“It is essential that it is self-composed,” says Halpin. “We don’t mind the odd cover if you have your own spin to it, but it’s about the performer’s own voice and how they choose to express it.”
For someone who has never performed their work in public before, the Circle Sessions offers them a route to becoming a performer, says Halpin, by setting down short-term achievable goals.
“You have written a song, that’s great. You come along on a Monday night and play it,” says Halpin. “Then go home and write two more.”
“So then three months later you can do a feature with your three songs,” he says.
Once you reach the feature stage at Circle Sessions, you are no longer just contributing to an open mic, now you are a booked performer.
“Maybe three months after that you will have written six songs and we’ll showcase you,” says Halpin.
Last year Halpin organised for 19 of the artists from the Circle Sessions to record an album. They paid for it with money raised at the Monday-night gigs.
“A lot of artists get ripped off with their first studio experience,” says Halpin. “They don’t know what they want and end up spending a lot of money and not being happy with the sound.”
He wanted to give people the opportunity to work with a sound engineer in a studio to figure out their sound, before they went out spending their money on studio time.
Some of the performers who take part in the Circle Sessions says it’s the feedback that helps them to grow.
“It’s creative networking,” says Conor Flanagan, a comedian. “It’s an incredible tool for building yourself as an artist.”
McCann has even switched genres because of it. “I’m not into rap at all,” he says. “But I have collaborated with rappers now because they asked me to, and I had a great time.”
The space is safe, says Flanagan.
“A man once attended the session who had never played to anyone in his life. He had never played anywhere outside of his own bedroom,” he says.
The guy looks nervous at first. “But then he turned out to be mind-blowing,” Flanagan says.
The Circle Sessions meets every Monday night at 8pm in the International Bar and all are welcome. The next showcase event will take place in Whelan’s. Date to be announced soon.