The Murder Capital are a band with emotion and consideration deeply engrained in their sound and demeanour. While the group’s debut album ‘When I Have Fears’ is taken from the title of a John Keats sonnet, it’s also an ode to a friend of theirs who passed away in early 2018. Paul Curran was a poet and an instrumental part of the band Burnt Out. His influence on Irish culture, while often going under the radar, was far-reaching. From musicians to painters, his legacy will echo for years to come through art on this island. It was through Paul that James McGovern of The Murder Capital met another poet, Craig Doyle, also known as Unorthodox Coolock.
Becoming enamoured with his work, last August The Murder Capital invited Craig to support the band in a sold-out Button Factory, followed by a UK tour and eventually at a special homecoming in Vicar Street. I was fortunate enough to be attendance at the latter, and while some in the crowd were a little bemused when a spoken word artist clutching a pint of Guinness strolled onto the stage, by the time he had finished his recital of Paul Curran’s poem at the beginning of ‘Joyrider’ the entire crowd had forgotten they were about to indulge in some post-punk chaos.
Craig’s work weaves in and out of the mundane, the everyday into the deeply emotional and gut-wrenching, all with a constant seasoning of humour, delivered with the confidence of a man with a decade of performance experience under his belt. This is all relatively new to the Dublin poet.
I had the chance to catch up with the burgeoning artist just before he set out on the sold-out UK and Irish tour with The Murder Capital. We discuss his relationship with hip hop, working with one of the world’s most exciting new bands, plus Paul Curran’s profound impact on his work.
I was listening to your work over the last couple of days, particularly a recording you did with Culture Night. What struck me was it felt like there was an almost invisible layer of emotion underneath the seemingly everyday scenarios. Is that something you try to achieve?
Anything I write will have something emotional attached, like any art, it comes from within. If it feels like there is this layer underneath, then I’ve done what I set out to do. There is nothing better than evoking these feelings in other people. You know it’s true, I know it’s real.
Why did you find it important to go about reconstructing the stereotypes of being from a working class area in North Dublin?
I’ve found that although I’ve stayed out of trouble and tried to treat others how I’d like to be treated, with kindness and respect, there was always a feeling of judgement once you ventured out of the area. Meeting people through work, college or out in town and saying you are from Coolock, automatically comes with a judgement. I’ve never really understood why people would hold these stereotypes against people, dismissing them based on their background. I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, we shouldn’t make assumptions about individuals. So I guess it is kind of a more lead by example vibe. That although where I’m from might have a bad rep, there are incredibly kind and loving folks from there too.
You mentioned before that people can be disarmed when they hear a spoken word artist with a Dublin accent. Does disarming them help open their mind to your subject matter?
Dublin has a couple dialects in it, it’s interesting to stand behind a mic at an open mic and talk about say, your love of books or the hardships of just living, and it comes out in a Dublin accent. When I perform I like to lean into it a good bit, and it naturally happens for some words and phrases. I think it’s all about the familiar, when you hear familiar accents or memories you just open up, disarmed if you will, and that allows them to come on the journey with me, instead of trying to understand what I am saying, they can get lost in the piece.
I’ve seen an increasing amount of Irish rappers do poetry readings recently, Mango, Rebel Phoenix, Nealo… Then when you listen to someone like Emmet Kirwan his rhythm and delivery is reminiscent of hip hop music. How important is that genre for you?
The two genres are synonymous with one an other. If you strip a hip hop song down to just the lyrics, it’s poetry. Tupac’s ‘The Rose That Grew From Concrete’ is the perfect example of an incredible rapper who had his roots in poetry before pursuing music. Or at least found his voice and purpose through writing poems. For me and what I do, I just try to consume as much of that content as possible, give me a good beat, and a nice flow with a story underneath and I’m on board.
I admire all them boys so much, they have elevated themselves to places that set the example for the likes of me. ‘Just Saying’ changed everything for me, it spoke to me so much, as someone that moved abroad in search of a better life. It just gave me a serious drive to put my stuff out there. As for hip hop, it is something that will never leave me, there are so many influences that show me new and interesting ways to explore use of language and topics to speak about. People who don’t perform would say things like, you’re so brave standing up there and doing your thing, which is cool. But for me what Mango, Rebel and Nealo are doing is something I could only dream of doing. Who knows, maybe in secret, drop an EP without saying anything and only do a 100 cap showcase, that would be more my thing. If I was to ever have a crack myself.
You mentioned that your work comes from a love of storytelling and hip hop. Which hip hop artists influenced you deeply when it comes to storytelling?
My favourite albums would usually have a narrative running through them, like a topic or theme that they stick to. At the moment, it would be the likes of Kendrick, Jay-Z and J Cole. You look at the likes of ‘Good Kid m.A.A.d City’ or ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive’ and that’s where I’d draw the influences. The use of colloquialism, in a style where the rhythm and cadences are so beautifully constructed that it can’t help become a story. They use everyday events to convey more, I can’t help but be drawn to that.
Tell me about your work with The Murder Capital, how did that come about?
Through meeting James it all kind of came about. We had a mutual friend in Paul Curran and he introduced us. Then once he passed away we became closer and understood one an other better. We knew that support and love is all we need to feel accepted and with the backing of loved ones behind us, it gave us a hunger to go after it, to take nothing for granted. Luckily James and all the boys from TMC respect my work and wanted to try achieve something different with their show. Opening for them in the Button Factory for their album launch was a bold move and it paid off big time. The room was so amazing that day and I think it elevated their show taking a chance on a poet.
Did you have any apprehensions performing such a pared back art form in such a high energy scenario like a Murder Capital show?
A million percent, I wasn’t sure it would work to be honest. I didn’t think that a crowd at their show would go for it, but the lads reassured me that it would work and it did. It is an amazing thing to walk out onto a stage knowing it is just going to be my voice and the crowd just hushes once I start and give me the space to perform. It is intimidating but I am there for a reason, so why not just go for it and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and do what I love.
How do you feel going into the tour with them? Did that first show give you confidence that the pairing you have works well?
I am intimidated for real. The most people I have performed on front of, apart from Button Factory, was about 80/100 people. Then on this tour the shows are sold out, which means there will be at least 2/300 in the room for my set, with more people drifting in as the set ends. After doing the Button Factory it definitely gave me more confidence in my own ability to hold a room with my work. Match that with the strength of TMC live and it just makes sense.
Is it a testament to their overall love of art, not just music, that they could see the combination working?
The five lads are artists, they love creativity, it’s infectious. They are clever boys, they know what’s up. They like people who stay true to themselves, who are not hiding behind an act and who are not afraid of being brutally honest. They reference poets, photographers, painters and fellow musicians as influences so it doesn’t surprise me that they wanted something different, that represents them as artists and lovers of art.
You mentioned Paul Curran. Murder Capital’s album was dedicated to him, naming their album after his favourite poem, other artists like Kojaque and Paul Alwright dedicated music to him, and even Skepta was struck by his death. Why did Paul strike such a chord not only with his audience through his work, but with other artists?
As someone that grew up with Paul it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. From early on you could tell there was just something about him that stood out from the rest. He was able to go to places and make a room light up, people were just drawn to him. His poetry and music caught the attention of everyone, he was true to himself and to his art. He made it look so effortless, he was also the coolest dude, Coolock’s finest.
‘Dear James’ by Burnt Out was played after your set at Button Factory and before Murder Capital came on stage, do you find it emotionally difficult to listen to Burnt Out now, or is more of a beautifully written time capsule for you?
It can be difficult. When it was still so raw, his passing, I couldn’t listen to his poems or Burnt Out without crying. All you want to do is pick up the phone and talk to him, go on a walk and have a great chat about this and that. I was in a dark place and had pretty much walked away from it all, not really thinking straight and saying that I would never write or perform again. As time goes on it doesn’t get easier but you learn to live with the pain and grief. Once I started looking after myself again, speaking to a counsellor and practicing positive mental health techniques it became clear that this was Paul at his finest, that it should be something I draw inspiration from and use it as a tool to motivate me to achieve my dreams, to make him proud. So now when I hear it, I smile and it feels like he is in the room with me, guiding me on this journey. It gives me a mad rush of energy, I can just tap into a flow and go for it.
He was the first person you showed poetry to, did you go to him knowing he’d be constructive but critical of what you had written?
Paul was brutally honest, he would tell you out straight if it was shit. I knew that if I could impress him then that was a good place to start. So I kind of gave myself a very high bar to start at because I knew I had probably the best in the country at the time at my disposal. He always gave me so much time and I am eternally indebted to Paul for that. The first time I showed him a piece of mine about working class family struggles, I remember when I finished reading it out we were sitting on a bench in a park and stayed silent for about two minutes. It was nerve-wracking at the time and after saying nothing he just put his arm around me and said I am bringing you to an open mic on Monday, everyone has to hear this. He was very profound and knew exactly what to say and how to say it. A true icon of the game.
How important were those early open mics to your confidence and craft?
They are a staple to the development of anything I am doing. It is the gym for my words. It is such a respectful environment that it gives you the space to grow and shape your art. You know that the room is filled with folks who are interested in what is going on, you have a guaranteed audience. I prefer the intimate gigs that have about 40 people there, it’s just something different, it feels safe. Then once you go consistently in the beginning and you meet the same people and start talking about art with each other it gives you this kind of validation and acceptance. You can’t help but develop and hone your craft. You want to impress the regulars who are waiting for something unique.
To finish up, you’re working on a spoken word play? I’d love to hear more about that?
Without giving too much away, it is something I’ve been developing since I started writing and performing spoken word. I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost, I use the medium of spoken word to convey these ideas rattling around in my head. So the next step for me would be to hopefully get to do this play in a small theatre or at Fringe festival or something. It is based around three central characters, one is a child around 10 years old, a dealer and then a bloke, similar enough to myself. Each of their stories intertwine one day and change their lives forever. I love stories that just drop you in the middle of it, that’s what I’ll hopefully achieve with this project. Still undecided on whether to do it solo or bring in a couple others for support. We’ll see how it shapes up.
Photo: Derek Doyle