“When I’m on stage I’m a different person… It’s like I’m possessed.”
In Natalya O’Flaherty’s short career she’s graced the stages of The National Concert Hall, Electric Picnic and The Late Late Show captivating audiences nationwide and further afield with her hypnotising brand of spoken word.
She was commissioned by RTÉ to write a piece to commemorate the centenary of the female vote in Ireland, she took part in the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Dáil’s first sitting by reading the Democratic Programme at the Mansion House and in February she made her UK debut performing her poetry at the London Irish Centre.
Across an entire career these accomplishments would make any artist proud, however the Dublin native has squeezed it all in to the very beginning of hers. There is a sense that Natalya has been steadily building towards ‘something’, and this April her vision will be realised when the young poet hosts her debut headline show ‘More Than Words’ in The Sugar Club on April 14.
We caught up with Natalya to chat about being a part of Word Up Collective, drawing inspiration from the number 13 bus and what to expect from the forthcoming evening of music and poetry.
Your first headline show is happening on April 14. What does that mean to you?
It’s absolutely ridiculous. I’ve had my name on things before and that was weird in itself, but my face being on posters… It’s really weird. I’m really happy to have the opportunity.
What can people expect from the show? How many pieces will you be performing?
I have about an hour in total of performance that will slot in between the other acts. Marcus Woods is my main support act. He’s a brilliant DJ and then the Tebi Rex boys. Also Jake [Hurley] and Nick [Stanley] from Burner Records, they’re going to do a DJ set. It’s going to be really upbeat and lively. Not what you expect from a poetry show. There are some really good visual artists working with us and a soundscape artist as well.
Do you feel like your vision for the event has come to life?
I love just me and my voice, doing my poetry the way I have done, but I feel this has elevated it to the next level in so many ways. I think it will be a more immersive experience for the audience. I hope it’s going to be something completely new and different.
Is a connection between spoken word and music something that’s important to you?
Definitely. There’s not one without the other. Lyrics are just another form of spoken word and rap lyrics are really close to what I do myself. I think if I did what I do with a beat under it then it would probably be considered rap. I just have no rhythm, so I don’t do that!
I like different sounds. That’s what I’m all about. That’s why I do spoken word in the particular way that I do because it’s all about how things sound. How the words fit together. I think when you have an ambient piece of music behind something like that it carries it along really nicely.
What came first for you, spoken word or poetry?
It was a mixture of things. The first time I started properly writing spoken word poetry I was in transition year and we had to write a play. Certain plays were being produced and put on by the other students, but I just copped out.
I decided to just write a really long poem, and that’s what I did. It actually got turned into an amateur video that we made together and that was the first spoken word piece that I did. I had written smaller poems and stuff for years, for as long as I could write, but that’s what turned it for me.
Were you supported in school?
It was only towards the end of sixth year that it started to come out that I was doing all of this stuff. I kept it separate from my school life because I didn’t have a great time in school. I had wonderful teachers, there was no one who wouldn’t give you their 100 per cent backing. I just have a bad relationship with formal education. It doesn’t suit me.
What’s your process for writing a piece?
I always write when I’m on the bus. If I hear someone say something and it sticks in my head I write it down and that could form two more lines, or the whole poem! The poem I did for The Late Late Show [‘Brass Tax’] I wrote that in about 20 minutes, but there are other poems I’m still working on that I started years ago. It’s different for every piece, which is the fun of it.
Is there someone in your life who’s inspiring your work? Are there other artists that you’re looking to? Or are you drawing influence from elsewhere?
I love everyone on the scene. Everyone on the spoken word scene is an inspiration. Every- one is so different and that’s what I love about it, but most of my intrigue comes from what I see. A lot of what I do is saying what I see. I tell stories whether that’s about Ireland as a whole, or personal relationships that I have or people in my life have. My inspiration comes from normal people. I try to write about normal people doing normal things because it’s the most relatable, to me anyway.
I will occasionally write something abstract, but my mind is more tuned in to people and the relationships between people. That’s what humanities and literature and the arts are all about. It’s about people and our understand- ing of what it is to be a person. I understand that and I understand things by writing about them.
How does it feel to stand on stage and perform poems that are so personal?
When I’m on stage I’m a different person. My friends will tell you that, anyone who knows me… It’s like I’m possessed. I get lifted up and it’s not even the fact that people are there. There could be two people there or hundreds of thousands of people there, but I can just slip away. It’s like I’m not there anymore, it’s just the poem or the story I’m telling. And I never get nervous either. I have really personal poems about my family and myself, but I can separate myself from my art. I’m exposing myself and making myself really vulnerable and open to criticism and people not liking me. A lot of people don’t like what I do. They think it’s a ‘fuck you’ to traditional poetry, but making myself vulnerable is where it gets really exciting. It feels like I’m on a roller coaster.
There’s nowhere else I’d rather be than on stage. In day to day life I’m kind of quiet, I do my own thing. I wouldn’t really put myself out there… But being on stage is where I’m supposed to be. It’s not a case of needing the limelight. It’s just where I’m comfortable, telling people my stories.
You’ve been with Word Up Collective since 2018. What has the experience been like and how have they supported you?
Word Up is literally a family. It’s a business, but it doesn’t feel like one. Annette and Phil [managers] look after me as if I’m one of their own, so do all the boys and the other girls in the collective. I’ve never known a community like it.
There’s only a couple of us doing spoken word, but I don’t feel like the odd one out because I’m not doing music. They’re all so supportive. They’re always at my gigs, I’m at their gigs and it’s nice to know people who are putting themselves out there creatively and taking risks like I am. I don’t have a job, poetry is my job.
Do you learn from each other even though you’re all doing such different things?
Completely. I’m always talking to the lads from Tebi Rex about creative things, but then I’ll get tips about my taxes. Or tips about what to do when you’re not getting paid by a booker. If I didn’t have Word Up I just wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t have a clue. I don’t know how to chase up payments, I didn’t even know what an invoice was! Little things like that, you wouldn’t realise how much they’d hold you back.
You made your UK debut at the London Irish Centre in February. How did that go?
It was my first time out of the country, never mind in London doing a gig. I had never left Ireland up until the two days I went for that show. I have never been on an aeroplane. I can’t say poetry never took me anywhere! It got me off this tiny island and over to the big bad world of London. It was absolutely brilliant. The crowd was lovely, because it was in the London Irish centre it was all expats. I have a line in one of my poems. It was about my cousin who lives in England and basically I say the words ‘proddy fiend.’ Halfway through saying it I went absolutely red in the face because [I thought] I’d just angered my audience. I forgot where I was! I was in London calling people ‘proddy fiends.’ I finished that poem and said, ‘Oh my god. I am so sorry, I forgot where I was’, but everyone let out a mad cheer! The crowd was absolutely lovely, the crowd was gorgeous. It was a women’s only thing, for Saint Bridget’s Day… I can’t wait to go back and do more stuff all over the UK.
That’s the thing about Ireland, you have to go and come back to get any sort of major recognition. People don’t really support Irish creatives as much as they do creatives who have gone to London and made a name for themselves. It’s a damn shame, but it will be interesting to see how it goes – staying in Ireland and doing it that way.
What else is coming up for you in 2019?
As far as summer goes I’ll be doing the festival circuit, which is always fun. It’s absolutely ridiculous that I just stand up and say poetry and get into all these crazy festivals. It’s absolutely brilliant. So, festivals, gigs and then mostly just relaxing because the build up to this headline show has been so intense. I go to work everyday, but I don’t go anywhere. I’m working all the time making sure I know all my pieces off my heart and making sure all the support acts are good. I have amazing support from Annette and Phil doing all the tricky things, but it is so intense. For the most part I want to relax and get back to writing and get back to being a creative for being a creative’s sake.
Natalya O’Flaherty brings ‘More Than Words’ to The Sugar Club on Sunday April 14.
Words: Hannah O'Connell / Photography: George Voronov
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