Unbridled emotion runs through David Balfe’s first solo album For Those I Love.
The idea for the album was that it would simply be a way to say thanks to friends and family for their love, says Balfe, last Thursday lunchtime in the snug at Fallon’s in the Coombe. “A cheesy message to friends.”
He had begun to write it a year before his best friend and chief collaborator, the spoken-word artist and musician Paul Curran, died by suicide.
When that happened, it changed the work, which through its nine tracks is an ode to friendship, a lament for the death of a close friend – and a document of the tortuous path Balfe’s had to take to emerge from his grief.
Balfe didn’t want to ignore what had happened, he says, hunched over a black coffee.
“I didn’t want to stray from the original idea, but I knew that I couldn’t put something out to my friends with no acknowledgement,” he says.
He wanted the album, also, to acknowledge the support they provided for each other through difficult times, as they struggled to figure out why such tragedies occur.
Balfe, 28, is a soft-spoken guy. As he speaks, he grows animated and talks gently with his hands.
He has short brown hair and wears a long-sleeved, green khaki top. A gold chain runs over his neckline.
“I tried to make this very much not about Paul’s death, but about Paul’s life, and the issues that can lead to a death like that and the fallout from that stuff as well,” he says.
There was much to figure out ahead of releasing the album, he says. Ethical questions around caring for Curran’s family, and his own friends and family.
He was aware that the work could be misread as eulogising, too, he says. He wanted to avoid bundling too much pain into one piece of work.
“I’ve tried to be so careful about not presenting anything that could be too destructive for vulnerable people,” says Balfe.
Instead, what Balfe wishes to realise with the album is “another way of looking”. He uses those four words countless times over the hour-and-a-half-long interview.
For Those I Love
Like The Streets’ Original Pirate Material, which Balfe cites as one of his early musical loves, For Those I Love makes the most of the freedom that comes with hip-hop.
Balfe plucks samples from all around – a couplet from a Smokey Robinson record, the traces of friendship saved from WhatsApp in the libraries of mobile phones.
Those are overlaid with Balfe’s words. He talks about memories, times spent navigating landscapes, both personal and geographical, lacking in both hope and violence.
The result is a paean to the possibilities of art and storytelling to reconfigure how we see the world. There’s unquenched anger at what makes the world the way it is.
“In making this record, I have been looking back at a lot of my early childhood experiences and about the sort of impact that they actually could have had,” says Balfe, his palms down on his thighs.
Skirting the traps laid by poverty, even if he wasn’t fully ensnared, still left its mark, he says.
In “Birthday/The Pain”, Balfe raps about his six-year-old self. He contrasts witnessing a bloody dead body on his road with the dull reality of being in school a couple days later.
“Senior Infants. Show and Tell. What did ya do the weekend? Are ya well?” he says.
“Stand in front of the class as they ask. You tell them ya looked at the blood left on the road from the man who slept on the field outside your window,” raps Balfe, over an upbeat vocal sample.
Such viscerality is to give another perspective to the listener and to evoke empathy, says Balfe. To think, “Well, you never caught a break from the start.”
Art for Balfe is all about reconfiguring perspectives, to make people look anew, something taught to him by Curran, as mentioned in “The Shape of You”, the fifth song on the album.
“You said stories to tell never breed sadness, they treat it and if you grasp it, own it, deal with it then heal it,” raps Balfe, over an undercurrent sample of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles’s song “The Tracks of My Tears”.
“[L]ack of choice emerges at such a young age,” he says.
For Balfe, lack of choice epitomizes the experience of poverty: whether it’s not having community facilities in a neighbourhood, or not having enough money to go to college or to get counselling for mental-health issues.
“I was [also] trying to look at the very lucky privileges that I had – an amazing mother, amazing friends, having access to a creative language early on, which is huge,” says Balfe, emphasising the importance of the last, in particular, in expanding his choices growing up.
It was his “cool uncle” who opened up creative language to him, says Balfe, who “gave me a lot of options as a young person, who filtered a load of great music towards me”.
“When I was born, he used to put the speakers up to the cot and play Nevermind, so he was trying to get in there real early,” says Balfe. “I think a lot of our options are based off of what we see.”
Others he grew up with had their variants of cool uncles, says Balfe, those whose influence radiated from illicit means rather than other means.
“If that’s your role model, that’s the language you will understand,” says Balfe.
Recently Balfe was invited back to his old secondary school, Chanel College in Coolock, to give a talk. It would be, he thought, an opportunity to show positive and different role models.
He talked about the work he’s done since Burnt Out, but also about Curran. “I was literally like, I met my best friend here,” he says.
“We did all these things in our community, for our community, because our community meant something to us. And, unfortunately, he passed away, but as a testament to what we built, we did a thing with Nike,” says Balfe, laughing.
That grabbed their attention. “It seemed like they were like, ‘Holy shit,’” says Balfe. “They’re from the same place as us?”
For Balfe, it was important that they heard something they didn’t expect. Something that a commenter on Bandcamp felt too, when listening to Balfe’s record: “I didn’t know you could do this with music.”
If you have been effected by any of the issues raised in this article you can call Console’s 24/7 suicide helpline, 1800 247 247, or the Samaritans helpline, 116 123.