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Sun pours into D-Light Studio on North Great Clarence Street through the windows in its pitched roof.
Below vaults and between iron pillars is a white wooden photography backdrop, spread across the floor and curved like a steep halfpipe.
An eagle-eyed viewer of Pillow Queens’ appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden might recognise this. It’s the space where they performed their single “Liffey”.
And, in the room’s corner, behind a dark blue Georgian front door, is the segment’s director, Bob Gallagher.
He is quiet and politely reserved, at first. But once he steps out outside for a walk along the Royal Canal, he gets a bit more animated.
Gallagher talks about how he recently filmed at the Hugh Lane Gallery, close to the infamously cluttered studio of the painter Francis Bacon, a “big inspiration”.
Perhaps to the relief of D-Light Studio’s owners, Bacon’s influence on Gallagher has not manifested itself in his room there, with it’s chair, desk, laptop and bare brick walls.
His workspace mirrors his fluidity as an artist. There is little to inform an outsider as to what he is doing at any given moment, and though one could hazard a guess, a rundown through his body of work would cast uncertainty onto any assumptions made.
Gallagher is a filmmaker, a photographer, a singer, a historian, an occasional choreographer and once, W.B. Yeats in a “pop opera”.
Lately, he has added ballad singing to his repertoire. It’s far from the oftentimes deranged music videos which established his name as a director.
It’s all storytelling, he says. Balladry is a more emotive and direct means of expression, “whereas filmmaking as an artform is considered and less impulsive.”
Irrespective of the medium, and despite what obstacles were caused by the pandemic, that underlying principle has remained true. Lockdowns limited his choice of mediums, but by no means could it stop him. There was always a way if the story was there.
Embracing an Influence
Born in Dublin, Gallagher’s upbringing was Catholic and “quite conservative”. “My first interactions really with visual arts were probably through Catholic and Christian imagery,” he says.
That’s in his work, he says, and embedded in his psyche. “You could bemoan the effects of growing up in that environment and get nothing out of it, but I’d rather draw from the elements that are expressive and interesting.”
In secondary school, he first gained an interest in making films, being encouraged to do so by his religion teacher, who had quit the priesthood.
Later, Gallagher studied directing and cinematography at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
He made his directorial debut as a student with the 2009 short Sleight of Hand. Upon graduation, he took work shooting various music events. And it was through filming live performances that he met Myles Manley, one of his longest-standing collaborators.
“He filmed me performing at Knockanstockan,” says Manley over the phone from Delaware, while a chorus of birds chirp away in the background.
The pair later teamed up for the video for Manley’s single, “Easter Morning”, in which they re-created a trio of paintings by Caravaggio.
“Each one was about five hours,” Manley says. “He does a lot of takes. He’ll have an idea that he wants, and he just keeps doing it until he gets it.”
Naoise Roo and Girl Band
Gallagher also directed the video for singer-songwriter Naoise Roo’s 2015 single “Whore”.
“I really wanted to work with him, so we ended up having this meeting in Acapulco on George’s Street,” says Roo. “I’d gone with some ideas of my own and then he said, ‘What about a priest who’s so in love with Jesus, so much that he wants to become Mary Magdalene?’”
“He wanted to make something with just this amazing amount of sexual tension between a priest and Jesus,” says Roo.
Back in the north inner city, Gallagher stops walking to sit on a grassy bank by one of the Royal Canal’s locks.
“It’s not really conscious,” he says. “I don’t set up to make a project about repressed inner-beings. It’s an instinctive response to the music.”
Here, he points to Girl Band, another recurring collaborator since 2015, whose “intensity” helps him to “really access these inner landscapes”.
In their first collaboration, the video for “Why They Hide The Bodies Under My Garage”, a pathologist dances with a corpse.
Through his partnership, Gallagher made his first foray into choreography – for the 2018’s video for their song “Shoulderblades”.
It’s an ominous six-minute Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque dance piece performed by the Belfast-based choreographer Oona Doherty.
“I told him to choreograph me,” says Doherty. “We shot from 8.30am to 9.30pm, and I near died.”
“He isn’t afraid to ask for more, which I loved – being pushed to the limit. He’s caring and a legend, so you go with him,” she says.
Junior Brother, Lankum and Aiteach
Around this same period, Gallagher began to branch into the terrain of contemporary Irish folk. First, by directing videos for singer-songwriter Junior Brother and the group Lankum.
While remaining true to his cerebral style, visually, he became more nuanced – using stripped back sets, single-takes and simple framing techniques to tell stories.
In April, his examination of sexual and queer identities in Irish music and literature, Aiteach: Cú Chulainn to the Quare Fellow – filmed at the Hugh Lane, near Bacon’s studio – premiered at the festival Musictown 2021.
“It had been brewing for quite a while,” Gallagher says, explaining that the show stemmed from a screenplay he is developing about the American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and Irish folk in the 1950s.
“I was interested in, what was the atmosphere of the ’50s in Ireland within the traditional music world? Were people conservative? Or was that scene maybe more liberal? I researched on that basis, asking were there any openly queer, bisexual traditional musicians.”
By chance, he explains this while passing through the kissing gates that lead onto the Royal Canal’s second lock, below Drumcondra. There, he spots the bronze statue of author Brendan Behan, an early reference point.
“When he was in prison, Behan discovered his ‘Hellenism’. A cute, euphemistic way of referring to the exploring of his sexual identity,” Gallagher says.
In researching what became Aiteach, Gallagher explains that he decided to take up singing, being mentored by a member of the Inishowen Traditional Singers’ Circle in Donegal. “You can’t really just sit in on a session. You have to participate, and so I wanted to get over the fear of participation.”
Throughout the lockdowns, his output barely faltered. He adapted and ran with what resources were spared by the restrictions. For a Junior Brother livestream concert, he stuck the singer in a seedy peep-show booth.
And with Sitting in the Car, his latest short film, written by _This Hostel Life _author Melatu Uche Okorie, he relied extensively on close-up shots and characters filmed in isolation to dramatise Okorie’s story about a marriage crumbling under the psychological weight of Covid.
Turning off Dunne Street, Gallagher arrives outside at D-Light Studios, and, he says, it’s back upstairs to resume a heavy editing session.
[CORRECTIONS: This article was updated at 8.45pm on 8 September 2021, to make it clear that Bob Gallagher is more of a singer than an actor, and to correct some of his early career history. Sorry about the error.]