The gift wrapping has been scrunched up into the recycling bin, the Christmas tree is hanging around like a hungover mate at a rollover party and you’re allergic scrolling through inspirational quotes and pictures of fireworks, log fires and festive selfies.
The first few weeks of January are always a struggle for most of us, as we try to bypass the pressurised optimism and just try to get on with things. Christmas and early January is often the toughest time of the year for anyone with mental illness, and over the past eight years the First Fortnight festival has aimed to make it easier to address these issues, through music, theatre, debates, comedy, spoken word and other artforms, to try and erase the the stigma.
Belfast-based musician Tony Wright was one of the most prominent figures in the early years of First Fortnight. In January 2011 his old band And So I Watch You From Afar were headlining the festival, and he appeared on Ray D’Arcy’s 2fm show to talk about the event and his recent depression diagnosis. “Within half an hour, I went from about six people knowing about my diagnosis to pretty much the entire landmass being aware,” he told RTE recently.
Since then, he says “it’s been beautiful to see the festival grow and help people… to see the festival grow outwards from Dublin and to see the initiative taken up by other organisations across Europe. The conversation is getting louder and that is exactly what the festival sets out to do.”
Wright – who now records as VerseChorusVerse after leaving ASIWYFA – is focusing on conversation as much as music for his latest First Fortnight appearance at a Culture Vulture event in Dublin next week. Last year he published his first book, Chapter & Verse(ChorusVerse), and he’ll be discussing this, mental health issues and his solo music, with its brittle folk and raucous blues and brass a more direct emotional hit than the visceral post-rock abstractions he created as a founding member of ASIWYFA.
Chapter & Verse(ChorusVerse) is part memoir, part “nervous nostalgia” around leaving his old band on not-so-good terms, and a widescreen, wide-eyed US road trip which sees him hustling for gigs and publishers’ time, triumphant support slots with Gogol Bordello in California, playing on porches in Nashville and epic long walks in New York listening to the Beastie Boys on headphones.
As well as musical inspiration and classic episodic travel journal writing, in the book Wright also deals with his depression, the loss of his mother at 16, loneliness, self-reflection and trauma – including a violent assault in Vienna that left him suffering PTSD, but there’s a thread of self-deprecation and dark humour running through it – and one particular body horror comedy skit that’ll leave you doubled over in all respects.
Tony took a time out over new year to chat to me about his “weird life”, his book and his new stage show – and laughing in the face of darkness.
The timing of First Fortnight is very deliberate in that the start of the year is a tough time for many people, being bombarded by Insta-positivity and pressure to reinvent themselves. Do you buy into the idea of resolutions?
“When it is an honest decision done for the right reasons, I very much do, yes. If it’s to paraphrase your good self, an Insta-driven like quest, then not so much. But I do think it is true that change begins with yourself.
You can be led to do certain things or pretend to, but that desire and drive, if you are to succeed in what you have chosen, must come from within. We all have the most incredible power to alter our lives in whichever direction we choose to, wherever we shine that light will become illuminated.
When did you finally decide you were going to write about your “weird life” so far?
At a moment of intense boredom, I think. It began as a bit of self-therapy and an awareness that I needed another hobby to focus on to keep the darkness creeping. Plus, whenever it was pointed out to me that my life was a bit weird, I began to examine it. I’d never thought of it as weird before but then after a bit of reflection… well… I suppose it is. Thankfully nothing badly weird – just odd really, I guess.
When you were spending those few weeks in the States were you conscious you were going to write about them in the book. Many passages feel like set-pieces, with soundtracks, with you listening to music on headphones.
I was, yes. I’d written the more biographical parts before then (although I hadn’t finished that part at the time), and was writing on the go to a certain extent while in America. The chapter on a train, for example, was all written in real time. The book has a certain feeling of vignettes throughout, tied together by the narrative of the journey. My journey.
I was constantly taking notes in a trusty little notepad. I still drank at the time of writing so I needed to, otherwise only the bartenders would remember what happened.
Had you always planned to turn the writing into a stage show?
Not at all. The stage show came about totally by accident. I was offered a gig in the Strand Cinema in Belfast, and I hadn’t played a solo show in a while. I was a little tired of the singer-songwriter gig format and wanted to express myself in a different manner. So, when offered the gig, I asked if it would be cool to a kind of spoken word gig entwined with songs. The thought was as off the cuff as that, and the Strand seemed into it. I’d been sitting on the book for nearly a year at this stage and was wary that, well it might not be very good to anyone else!
So I wanted to trial run some of the stories with an audience. The response was incredible, so from there I was encouraged to flesh it out into a proper theatre experience. I finally became a song and dance man. Minus the dance.
There’s dark humour all through the book, including in some of the most harrowing passages. Even giving it the subtitle, (Another Dickhead) On the Road. Is centred around a typically Irish coping mechanism?
I guess so yes. I didn’t want to give the impression that I was telling a ‘woe is me’ style of story. My life may be weird and tough at times, but I’ve been incredibly lucky to do some of the things I’ve done and I’m very thankful for the opportunity to pursue this weirdness.
Also, when you spend as much time alone as a solo artist as I have, you need to be able to laugh in the face of the darkness from time to time. Not the band, The Darkness, I should stress. I haven’t had the pleasure. Of meeting them, I mean.
Also, the subtitle is a bit of a joke between me and my dad. My auld fella was/is a very talented driver, who raced for years and loves cars. However, his two sons never rushed to get our licenses. When I finally did a few years back, I phoned to tell him the good news that finally one of his progeny can drive. To which he responded, ‘Oh great, another dickhead on the road’. Cheers daddio, love ya!
As well as that, it’s also a nod to a more famous book which I’ve never actually read. Jack Kerouac, of course. Who is, at the time of writing, more celebrated. But I’ve never read his book and I doubt he’s read mine – so we’re even.
In the book you describe being gripped by “nauseous nostalgia” and a “terrible hangover” in the aftermath of leaving ASIWYFA, especially when suddenly reminded of times you’d spent with the band. Has that feeling started to disappear now or does it still rear its head?
It has subsided a little yes, as I continue to have more experiences in life. But, of course, I spent the bulk of my 20s playing music with them in one form or another and some of my teens too, so it’s to be expected.
I’m so proud of the music I created whilst an active member of the band, and I’m so touched that the thing I created means so much to so many people across the world. I’ll always be a vital part of their story and, conversely, they’ll always be a bit of mine too.
Are you on good terms with your old (band)mates?
I haven’t seen them in a good while now. There’s definitely a joke to be made here with regards to the band name but I can’t think of it right now.
The name VerseChorusVerse is basically the exact opposite of your more abstract writing with ASIWYFA. Was this a very deliberate move to start completely fresh?
Yeah, it was kind of a joke, since we didn’t have verses or choruses. VCV was a side project that became the going concern for reasons outside of my control. It was a chance for me to sing, as I desperately needed my voice to heard at the time – metaphorically of course. I also wanted to craft a different style of furniture, using different tools, so it was always going to be diametrically opposed to the band in a sonic sense.
Was there much resistance from the singer-songwriter ‘community’ in Ireland, if there is such a thing? Like did you worry about being considered a chancer as it was such a change in direction? VCV and the singer-songwriter tradition seems to be more ingrained in you anyway. You recall your mother playing you John Denver, and many of your formative music experiences (good and bad) include you singing or listening to Muddy Waters, Paul Simon etc…
There was in certain quarters, yes. I was welcomed by some and in others I very much felt the outsider. I always have felt that way however, and I probably brought some of that feeling over from the final experiences in the band and how I was being made to feel.
A lot of gaslighting had taken place, and I’m not talking about lighting farts – for a change. Like I say in the book, I was going through PTSD at the time I was setting up my new musical life. It wasn’t the healthiest frame of mind to be entering a whole new sphere in. But I did it and here we are. Besides, it gave me plenty of fodder to write about! Swings and roundabouts…
In recalling a gig in the UC Theatre in California supporting Gogol Bordello you mentioned it felt more honest. Do you still think you were “hiding behind effects pedals” all the years in instrumental bands? I guess writing evocative song titles in ASIWYFA still wouldn’t have had the same emotional resonance.
When I talked about honesty, I meant that I wasn’t lying to the crowd anymore. You mention the song titles, we did have sloganeering titles a lot of the time and I was the one relaying those to the crowd. I was the accidental frontman in the band I formed because nobody else wanted the mic.
It’s hard to talk about ‘Solidarity’ to thousands over a year, espousing the benefits of it (which there are, many many benefits of course) and selling ourselves on that same ticket. When, in truth, there was very little between the band as a unit offstage. I felt like a lying politician and I hated it. The hiding behind effects pedals thing is a hugely literal metaphor for my own existence at that time.
In California, nobody knew anything about me and my past life, but I got to hold their attention and entertain them with just my guitar, voice and songs. There was no hype or expectation. It was a total sink or swim situation in front of 2,000 people that were not there to hear me, but somehow I managed to win them over despite the fact they were their for some gypsy punk rock and it was just lil ol me on first.
I silenced them when I was playing and had them cheering and laughing between songs – I held their attention with no safety net of gimmicks or light show or stage show – with only the most basic of tools, a guitar and some lyrics to shout and a few stories to tell. That’s what felt honest.
You seem to put a lot of emphasis on the positive and negative results of random chance events — the Iceland volcano foiling your BBC TV appearance; the assault in Vienna; the chain of coincidences that led you to have dinner with Jim the music manager in California. Do you embrace this seemingly haphazard way of leaving it to “the gods”?
To a certain extent, definitely. I mean, is there any other way to do it? Life happens, you can influence what direction it might sway but everything is never under just one person’s control. Be like water, or – as the great philosopher Ferris Bueller said, ‘Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it’. I’m aware that doesn’t really answer the question but there ya go.
One line that stands out in the book is when you say you don’t really clock out and go back to your personal life and leave music aside, saying “music is my personal life”. Does this mean you risk your happiness is tied up in how well your music career is doing?
For a very long time, yes this was definitely the case. I’m trying to focus on other things and have a life outside of music too. If for no other reason to make sure I don’t become a terrible bore. Well, any more of a terrible bore – with a penchant for lazy rhymes.
After VerseChorusVerse beginning mainly as a solo acoustic venture, what’s it like to be back working largely in a band dynamic?
It’s great! But I’m still mainly gigging with just my acoustic. I just enjoy doing what seems natural at the time for me to do, musically. The next album, if there is one, could be any amount of different styles. I’d love to do an album with a load of brass. Or something like a musical, but not a rock opera/musical. Something weird. Something that really… cooks.
In the book you describe the “optimism” in Belfast around 2005-2007. How do you feel about the music scene in the North and the whole of Ireland at the minute? I guess you’re more engaged than ever, with the experience of being artist in residence at the MAC.
Without going into the bullshit business aspect of it, I think its in as rude health as it’s ever been in. I’m an old fart on the circuit now of course, so its so fantastic seeing the next generation coming through and it being so much more than dudes on guitars, bass and drums.
I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, but we have had that for an awful long time – and there are still some amazing ones out there!
There’s a lot more to do with that format still. But it’s so, so, so great to see more gender equality more than anything. In 2005-07 it was a lot more male-orientated, but to see so much more inclusion and more non-binary is beautiful. To hear new sounds and new dynamics is good for the soul, and long may it continue.
Art is one of the vital things that makes us human, and it defines us as a species. Every human should be represented in some way in that experience. Like love, it’s a human right.
Tony Wright is appearing at a First Fortnight Culture Vulture event next Tuesday at the Sound House, Dublin. See firstfortnight.ie. Chapter & Verse(ChorusVerse) can be ordered from all bookshops and is now on Kindle. Wright’s third album Outro is on Bandcamp, Spotify and other streaming services.