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The Future of Irish Music: 2021

Image by Faolan Carey.

Words: Dylan Murphy

While 2020 is a year everyone would rather put behind them, that didn’t stop artists across Ireland putting the work in and defying the odds whilst the music industry was hung out to dry.

Despite the financial uncertainty that nearly a year without live performances brings, there has been a consistent stream of new music hitting streaming services every Friday. An interesting phenomenon that is unique to this year is that many artists have blossomed when restricted to the virtual world. Singers, rappers and groups have harnessed the power of streaming to build an audience online. With no live shows, many new artists will have a dedicated audience by the time they play their very first show.

So with that, a piece showcasing the future of Irish music will inevitably look a little different this year. There haven’t really been gigs to get a gauge of what an act is like live or how they connect with fans or how that 808 slaps through a speaker.

What we do have though is a slew of internet-savvy artists who have made the most of a bad situation is continuing to thrive in the face of adversity.

We want to highlight the trailblazing artists ready to make moves in 2021. Curating this list didn’t really come with strict criteria. There are a huge amount of artists we are excited about, with each having their own rationale. That may be a unique newcomer with only two singles under their belt, an act that despite their modest discography has captured everyone’s attention. It could be an act gearing up to release their debut album after years of grinding. The important point to make is that we are backing these 15 acts to push on in 2021 and make some serious noise.

15.

Yenkee

Cork-born singer Graham Cooney, has spent the better part of three years honing the free-spirited sound of his Yenkee alias. The analogue coat that wraps his patience percussion and meditative vocals is but one arm of his DIY arsenal informed by years busking in Cork city.

Sculpting dreamy soundscapes fit to soundtrack a coming-of-age film, Yenkee’s music has the power to make you feel nostalgic for experiences you’ve never had. Crafted through the lens of an artist inspired as much by past icons such Al Green, Prince and Randy Newman as he is modern-day trailblazers like Ariel Pink, Yenkee marries the familiar with the unexpected.

This nostalgia-tinged approach is exemplified by the use of an unknown excerpt from a rare recording of a sing song in a rural Irish pub circa 1963 in Music Meditation Vol. 1, which he released earlier this year.

That release was bolstered with a number of other records in the past couple of years including the stunning 2019 Cannibal Tree EP.

The result is an impressive yet concise catalogue of thoughtful music that meanders but is never lost.

Having just moved to the big smoke (London) this year, we’re confident of a further expansion of his lucid approach in 2021.

14.

Lucy McWilliams

Lucy McWilliams garnered praise from all corners of the country following her glowing vocal contributions on her collaborative effort with Malaki – ‘Fair Play‘.

The Berlin-based singer has innate ability to serve a vibe with her comforting cadence and intimate songwriting ability, as highlighted by both her work with Malaki and her stunning debut ‘RUNAWAY‘.

Growing in confidence with every release, Lucy noted a sense of optimism among the Irish scene ahead of 2021.

“There are so many amazing young artists coming up in Ireland and are already getting outside attention which is so great to see, the likes of April and Inhaler are really breaking out. I think Ireland has such a strong community of creatives and it does feel that everyone is really supportive of each other, especially starting out.”

Having spent her spare time practising with her band this year, we have our fingers and toes crossed that she’ll be bringing her relatable musings to the live arena next year.

13.

Lucy Blue

You know that feeling when you find a series on Netflix and quickly binge through it and are left with a jarring, empty feeling in your stomach?

Well, Dublin native LUCY BLUE only has a couple of tracks on Spotify and similarly, it was easy to rinse those quickly. So it called for a bit of a deeper dive that revealed demos on Soundcloud.

While most of the cuts subscribe to the bedroom pop vibe popularised by Clairo et al, LUCY has sprinkled a retro feel on the likes of ‘space originals demo’ and there’s even gentle touches of hyperpop and nods to Imogen Heap on ‘All by Myself’.

Her music released thus far is thoroughly cry-able to and if next year continues anything like 2020 hopefully she’ll have some official releases to soundtrack our sadboi tears.

12.

Bobbi Arlo

Bobbi Arlo has performed on stage with the rest of her Good Buzz crew at Longitude and a multitude of other shows, but following a slew of stellar singles, 2021 feels ripe for her to make a mark as a solo artist.

When making music is more accessible than ever, Bobbi’s sound selection stands out amongst her contemporaries. Her vocals often sit on top of immersive and grandiose production that would swallow less dynamic artists. However, the Dublin singer’s sharp delivery and earworm cadence often slices through and gleams with personality.

In recent years, we’ve had a number of Irish artists make waves and knock on the door of the international music industry. Rather than surf on the crescents of others, Bobbi is part of a group of artists enthused and ready to put down their own marker.

“I’m a massive fan of SG Lewis and he released some new tunes over lockdown and it really got me pining for the studio. His music always seems to fill me with a need to create. I’m also a massive Jafaris fan and every time he releases a new track it reminds me just how much I can succeed because he’s Irish he started just like me so why couldn’t I potentially be where he is next year or the year after”, she said.

“The lockdown situation has really forced people’s world to be online so people are actively searching for new music not just in their own country but worldwide… The internet is the key right now, I think It’s opening up a different platform for Irish acts specifically to reach a larger audience. I also think Irish people, in general, have majorly upped their game with supporting their own, all it takes is one big hit and it’ll spread across the pond.”

11

Archy Moor

Catching attention with his 2019 release ‘Moonboy‘, Nigerian-born Dublin-raised spitter Archy Moor has carved out a unique spot in the local scene with his lackadaisical flow.

Showcasing the same freewheeling pen-game as the likes of Mick Jenkins, Archy’s releases to date have been solid and he still has plenty of room to experiment.

In spite of a modest discography, he’s been working behind the scenes with a flurry of talented producers. His only release of 2020 saw him team up with Soft Boy RecordsGaptoof on ‘The Long Road‘, and since then he’s been in the studio with another Soft Boy in the shape of Brién.

Working on a debut project set for release in 2021 Archy told us of the bright spots in a difficult year.

“I’d say the few in-person sessions I had with Brién from Soft Boy was the most inspiring and motivating time for me to make music this year. There was just a different energy in the room that you won’t get cooking up in the bedroom studio. Probably my best music to date came from these sessions”, he explained.

“I always want to make sure that with every new release I can look back on it and say there’s some form of improvement from the drop that came before it. Usually this means I never drop for the sake of dropping, often it’s whenever I’m confident that I have slowly progressed myself as an artist that I put out new music.”

With ambitious plans for 2021 he hopes to take his music beyond Ireland.

“There are a lot of channels nowadays to do so remotely so if you take full advantage of these, I don’t see why your audience can’t be global.”

10.

Zack Oke

Multi-hyphenate Zack Oke doesn’t often stray far from the shadows. Not currently on social media, the 23-year-old lets his music do the talking – a rarity in the clout-fuelled social media age.

Carefully crafting his words over sparse, stripped-down instrumentals, it feels like a deliberate decision to give his ruminations more leverage and room to breathe. In terms of beat selection, he toes a similar line to the likes of Deb Never and while he certainly borrows inspiration from a generation of lo-fi artists Zack does so, without ever drowning in his influences.

Moreover, his 2020 project Sleepwalkers is a great place to start to get to know his sound. It channels the haunting and uncertain energy of the past year into a deliberately shrill piece of work.

An act whose art is indebted to the pervading DIY culture, Zack is following the footsteps of those at the top of the game right now.

“Seeing Rejjie Snow succeed outside of Ireland as well as what Soft Boy is building within Ireland was really cool to see. especially because of the DIY nature of it all.”

Comfortable creating his own video content, no doubt we’ll see Zack shine in a number of mediums next year.

9.

Aby Coulibaly

Despite having only a couple of official releases under her belt, It’s obvious that Aby Coulibaly has serious star potential. Singing for as long as she can remember, it wasn’t until summer 2019 she dropped her first loosies on Souncloud.

Fast forward a year and Aby has shared two official singles that highlight both her songwriting ability and effortless hook game. Dancing between poetic affirmations and Erykah Badu-inspired whispers Aby is quickly becoming a darling of Spotify playlists.

Co-signs aren’t everything, but getting nods from Complex, Radio 1Xtra and Wonderland after only two releases can only be a good sign. Working closely with her Chamomile Records crew, she’s part of a new generation of RnB emerging from Ireland and right now, she’s the most exciting of the lot.

8.

Enola Gay

Turbulent times often evoke rabid reactions in music. None more compelling than Belfast based four-piece Enola Gay.

Their debut single ‘Birth of a Nation’ is a monstrous single, that’s deliberate lyricism and march-like bassline demands immediate action. The kind of track that has you ready to run through a wall.

Influenced as much by Danny Brown and King Krule as they are others that fit a more conventional post-punk mould, the crew hailing from the North’s capital aren’t restricted by traditional conventions. Illustrated by their decision to team up with fellow Belfast native Mount Palomar on a genuinely haunting techno reworking of their single ‘Birth of a Nation’.

Speaking on what motivated their unpredictable approach, the group hailed the trailblazing acts before them that laid down the necessary groundwork.

“It’s inspiring seeing acts such as Silverbacks, Just Mustard, The Murder Capital, Fontaines DC get the recognition they deserve – makes us proud to be Irish. Our holy grail would be Girl Band, they literally influenced everyone we just mentioned. They changed the game, delivering such raw emotion from orchestrated chaos by having a total disregard for how their instruments ‘should’ be played”, they said.

They’ve only played five shows and had one official track out, but it was enough for the group to get a slot at Ireland music week this year, where they wowed industry heads. Despite their modest discography, the Belfast crew’s willingness to experiment, no fucks given attitude and fierce delivery is enough to have us pining for their next release.

7.

Son Zept

It’s hard to pin down Belfast native Son Zept’s sound into any neat box. Producing a flurry of post-club material across two mini albums this year, the eclectic producer has become a favourite of niche music-sharing groups online.

We’re quickly running out of otherworldly superlatives to describe the production wizard, but his music feels like the opposite of a peace wall – it has a magnetic energy that inspires a close-knit experience. Now just filter that idea through a first-person missile launch experience through space and that’s about as close as you’ll get to defining his swirling and immersive sound.

In a time where quick-fire singles hold a lucrative currency and playlists placements often inform creative decision making, fully-fledged immersive bodies of work are becoming increasingly marginalised. However, Son Zept is making deliberate attempts throughout his work to guide listeners through an interdimensional journey fuelled by resynthesising his past.

Emerging through the experimentation of his teenage years spent playing in various bands across a host of different genres, Zept has found a unique multi-genre lens through which he reworks and designs his astral anthems.

“I’ve been making electronic music since I was 13ish and always played around in different bands, metal, jazz, experimental stuff”, he told us.

“It’s kinda just about soaking up your whole past and resynthesizing it. Yeah, that’s electronic/club music but I’m also making lo-fi accordion solos and multi-sample hectic minimalism tracks. So, take all influences in; jungle, black metal, power-ambient and then resynthesize it.”

This approach has been bolstered by a strong visual identity made up of incredibly captivating visualisers for his work online.

Though, encouraged by the accessibility of the digital age Son Zept has found arguably more joy in more conventional approaches to getting his music noticed – word of mouth and physical copies.

“The retro way is still just effective like I physically hand my EP to Objekt or Avalon Emerson after their DJ sets and I hear about stuff being played in Berghain or festivals (and it makes my feckin week)”, he said.

Looking to the future, Zept is looking to push conceptions of traditional releases.

“I’ve already said about finishing my ABC mini-album trilogy thing. But jasus, I wouldn’t dare want to predict what the post-covid market is like for trying to get a 3D printed album but we’ll see.”

6.

CMAT

Ireland has a long history of using humour as a vehicle for dealing with pain – no matter how big or small.

CMAT has captured the hearts of people across Ireland this year with her self-deprecating, but never hopeless quips. Formerly of the musical duo The Bad Sea, CMAT came through with her country-fried debut ‘Another Day (KFC) in April where she sang about crying in KFC and “doubling down on chicken for moral support”.

Industrious as any, CMAT is hosting a thoroughly collaborative Christmas live stream with a slew of other talented artists. Further highlighting, that the CMAT show lives and breathes beyond streaming services.

Thinking big picture, CMAT is dreaming about global tours.

“I think Ireland is still a very hard place to make a living as a musician. So hopefully I get to travel abroad as soon as the world opens back up again. I really want to go to a McDonald’s in a foreign country and marvel at how the menu differs from home. I am very cultured!”

It wouldn’t be fair to capture her music in a couple of emojis, but a tensed arm emoji and sad cowboy just feels so apt for her yehawing hits.

5.

Efé

Following the lineage of artists like Rex Orange County, Zack Villere and closer to home – April, Efé turned up at just the right time.

The anthem of soft bois’ tinder accounts and the inspiration for your friends’ completely beige Depop store, bedroom pop is everywhere now. It’s the type of sound that can give you a warm hug when you need it most. It doesn’t feel too pushy or overbearing and simultaneously has the ability to transport you to better days.

For 20-year-old Dublin native Efé, the world that her music lives in is just as important as the individual lyrics or sounds.

“Every time I’d leave a concert or festival I’d have such a huuuuuuuge drive of inspiration. Just wanting to be up there on stage!!  With a cool looking set, singing, and just having a really good time, performing. It has inspired me to think of more than just the music but rather the sets , what would be happening around me and what the stage would even look like lol”, she explained.

Efé’s Instagram feed is filled with aesthetically pleasing plants and her music videos feature saturated and dreamy landscapes. It feels as though her world has broken away from that of Tyler, The Creator and developed its own distinctive atmosphere.

Efé has quickly mastered the art of meditative pop music and following her stellar debut EP What Should We Do This Summer? it feels like the world is her oyster.

4.

GAFF

Hailing from the west of Ireland, GAFF represents the intersectionality of modern music.

Think the key tenets of modern hip hop – 808s and running hi hats meets raging sun-kissed guitar loops and borderless vignettes of days spent daydreaming and late night drinking.

There’s an effortlessness to the free-flowing nature of his lyrics that feels indebted to rap but executed through a the lens of someone who spends as much time listening to Bakar and Jean Dawson.

Having only released two singles in 2020 and still without a full body of work, there’s an alluring sense of excitement and mystery around the young singer. His penchant for blurring genre lines coupled with ability to craft catchy hooks makes him an obvious candidate for bigger things.

A product of the internet’s borderless landscape, GAFF doesn’t feel beholden to any traditional roadblocks to success. Having been inspired by his musical upbringing and the opportunity the internet brings, he’s managed to find a huge global audience from his bedroom, racking up hundreds of thousands of streams on various releases without really dipping his toes into the physical Irish scene.

“I’m from the west coast of Ireland, rural Ireland in Roscommon, I’m so out of touch with any Irish music scene, I’ve not been in it at all, just cause I’ve in my room all day making beats and put them online. It just gives us so much opportunity that other generations never had. If you want something enough and you put the work in and care about it you can do whatever the fuck you want.”

GAFF feels at home online, but no doubt when shows are back, he’ll have the chance to connect with an untapped audience at home in 2020.

3.

Brick Nasty

In a lifeless year, Brick Nasty feel like an adrenaline shot to the arm.

Harnessing influences from Outkast, D’Angelo and adding their own distinctive spice of woozy vocals and choppy guitars, the pair have a genuinely unique style.

The duo described themselves as, “Anthony Hamilton meets Ballymun”, if that isn’t enough to pique your interest then nothing is.

This year, they released 4 singles and sold out a couple of socially distanced shows. Built for the live arena, it feels like we only have a glimpse of the Dublin outfit’s potential. Here’s to 2021.

2.

Monjola

Following a similar route to label mate Aby Coulibaly, until this year, Monjola made a few guest appearances (One notably on Tebi Rex’s debut album and another on CBAKL’s Wisdom is Misery) and dropped a number of loosies on Soundcloud.

He subsequently took the leap and shared his debut effort ‘Know You’ on Spotify this year. His sophomore single ‘Feels Right’ mirrors the breezy energy of Kojey Radical, while sharing a similar delivery to that of Daniel Caesar – with an added hit of dopamine.

Monjola’s music cuts to the core, saying ‘miss me with the bullshit’ and skipping right to what matters. Themes of self-exploration and lusting for more deep-seated connections are teeing up an act tired unsubscribing to hip hop’s bravado-filled newsletter.

As an increasing number of young Irish artists rush to an oversaturated market Monjola is standing out with a perfect balance of style and substance.

1.

For Those I Love

In a year where everyone is trying to hold it together, Dave Balfe aka For Those I Love has reiterated his most vulnerable self.

First appearing as part of Dublin art collective Burnt Out, the poet and producer’s work is primarily an emotive extension of the now finished monochrome multimedia project. Following the death of close friend and bandmate Paul Curren, Dave has centred his work on examining the societal ills that put tremendous pressure on young people across the country through his own grief-stricken lens.

While the monotony of daily life in 2020 has been broken up by very little and we may be searching for rare moments of normality to get us through, Dave has resonated through other universal experiences of connection and the result of losing that – pain.

Whether that be him highlighting the vicious cycle of social exclusion and the impact of the Irish State’s dehumanising policies in ‘Top Scheme’ or the ode to the small moments that create lasting friendships ‘I Have a Love’.

Arguably already having a breakout moment on Jools Holland in November, FTIL’s use of euphoric rave instrumentals and stripped-down, raw affirmations speaks to a forgotten generation of young people.