Dean: Ailbhe Reddy and Kean Kavanagh Write Mantras on Heartbreak and Wasted Days

Generations of singer-songwriters have been obsessed with using an acoustic guitar to chase the concept of self. Now here comes Ailbhe Reddy, a natural at isolating feelings in a way that’s easy to identify with. Her recently released debut album is called Personal History, a title so enwrapped in introspective folk-music cliché it’s almost admirable in its audacity. Like a miracle, the Dubliner pulls it off, offering a gripping depiction of the problems that stack up as a person makes their way through the odyssey that is usually called their “twenties”.

It could (successfully) be argued that Personal History isn’t really a folk record at all. While most of the songs bare Reddy’s folky roots – check out the 2016 EP Hollowed Out Sea – her compositions have now been ratcheted up with an unfussy concoction of electric guitars, bass and drums to form a ritzier indie-rock style. You can hear the development happening in real-time on “Loyal”: Reddy’s finger-picked guitar and delicate falsetto melts away when exposed to a bass line and neatly whacked drums before the song culminates in a crescendo of passionate wails and tightly wound lead guitar lines.

Reddy is the quintessential folk performer who likes pop clothing. Her melodies are catchy but not cornball; her voice is soft and soothing without her needing to try too hard. Whether it’s the chamber echo off the guitar lines that propel “Time Difference” or the more tightly clenched strums of “Looking Happy”, most of the music on the album makes a beeline straight into some basic pleasure centres on every listen.

Draped in such fine musical robes, the writing excels. Personal History is made up of 10 songs said to cover friendships, relationships and Reddy’s connection with herself. These are mantras for souls jaded by the eternal problems that come with romance. Reddy eschews grand, poetic gesturing for more instantly recognizable specificities: movies introduced by a love interest, closing a car door for the last time when a relationship has dissolved, the taste of gin and tonic at parties attended to distract from a broken heart.

“Looking Happy” covers the hurt and jealousy that can stir when you’re scrolling through other people’s lives via the portal of social media. This is easy stuff to relate to, yet Reddy appears laser-focused on one particular person: “Are you ever looking for me?” she asks. “Out in the city?/ Out there in Sydney?” Reddy is laying it all out there and this explicitness makes the song feel a little more high-stakes – a little more gripping.

The wonderful title track surveys the damage of a fractured romance. For those in the middle of a similar situation or still haunted by the ghosts of past break-ups, it’ll rub salt in the wound and that’s okay – sometimes we listen to music to exacerbate our pain in a way that’s strangely comforting.

Maybe Reddy is aware of the futility of music as true catharsis. On Personal History’s opening song “Failing” she describes herself performing on stage, seemingly confused that the person in the room who inspired her heartfelt lyrics is barely paying attention. But the final track “Self Improvement” closes the circle: “I spent my twenties trying to accept these/ Vulnerabilities don’t make me weak.”

An epiphany appears to be reached. By finding her centre, Reddy has created one of the definitive coming-of-age documents in modern Dublin.

Kean Kavanagh. Courtesy of Red Light Management.

For a different depiction of being young in the city, look to Kean Kavanagh. Originally from Portlaoise, he journeyed to Dublin to study in Trinity College before becoming a co-founder of Soft Boy Records.

Kavanagh has proved a vital cog not just in the business side of the company, but by producing and providing guest vocals for its artists. His debut album Dog Person is a new strand of the label’s street-smart sound as he blends pop, reggae, soul, jazz, alternative rock and hip-hop into an irresistible concoction, while his lyrics focus on wasting (maximising?) youth on cigarettes, booze, and burning time with friends.

Like Reddy, Kavanagh understands that it’s the little moments in life that are actually the most important. He brings to mind the style of Anderson.Paak, a conversational performer who uses everyday language to focus on small blessings.

“Roll Over” follows a drunken Kavanagh as he tries to bum a rolled-up smoke off a neighbour – “Is that Jamesy Burke that I see hovering in the distance?/ Just the man I’ve been looking for, so happy I could kiss him” – before coming off his buzz and looking to Jamesy as someone he can share the “shame I have been carrying” with. The atmosphere of the track is appropriately hazy, the chorus is absolutely mammoth and every section feels like a hook. It adds up to one of the most pleasing earworm singles I’ve heard all year.

The language also pops on “Sideways”, another catchy number, with Kavanagh admitting he’s running from commitment. And though his wordplay is generally informal, he doesn’t mind engaging in some psychedelic imagery. See “Coca-Cola Sky”, a tune knocking around since late 2018 that nonetheless slides onto the album naturally. “I can hear the earth/ I can feel the stars/ I can hear the birds above us in the Coca-Cola sky,” he sings, his voice fluttering into thin air. Make your own mind up on how he’s achieved these powers.

Kavanagh is always clever and funny, but many of the greatest pleasures of Dog Person come from the DIY aesthetic of the music. The mix of melodic guitars, crashing drums, piano, synths and saxophone coalesce masterfully, while the cheap electronica of the propulsive “EMMA” nods to Englishman Tom Vek’s cult early recordings. Though the arrangements feel busy, every instrument has its place. And if Reddy’s voice is quintessentially folk in presentation, Kavanagh’s defies easy descriptors. There’s a bit of cod-reggae in there, a bit of Sting too, with a light rasping texture that makes it sound like Kavanagh is singing into a bucket.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the album is a little front-loaded. The quieter “Patience” and “Snoozie” are nice but can disappear into the background a little, though the latter does set up an excellent slice of positivity in closer “Wake Up”, with Kavanagh toasting the good days and the bad days that make up a life.

Still, it’s fair to say that Dog Person hasn’t received anything like the traction it deserves. For sure, this is an Irish album of the year contender – and I find myself throwing it on when I’m not sure what I want to listen to.

Ailbhe Reddy’s Personal History and Kean Kavanagh’s Dog Person are out now.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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