Adrian Crowley remembers the Saturday morning when the song “Northbound Stowaway” arrived. “I was just sitting down, playing these two chords, and the title was there in my mind for a while, and I was wondering what it was and it was just there,” he recalls. “And then the first three verses just came and my son was passing the doorway. He was going up the stairs and just when I was singing the chorus for the first time, and he stopped on the stairs and he smiled and nodded.”
The songwriter seems bemused by the way that his songs arise, bubbling out of the subconscious in their own time and their own way. He speaks about them almost as if he has nothing to do with them as if he finds them somehow rather than making them.
“I find there’s a very splendid mystery in how songs come to me,” he says. “I suppose I try to be present for a song when it’s hinted at its impending arrival. I just try to be there for it. And as for the craft, I think there’s a kind of an element to being partly on your toes and partly relaxed enough and not self-conscious for it to happen.”
Crowley has been tuning in to these songs, wherever they originate, for most of his life. The half-Irish, half-Maltese songwriter lives in Dublin, tapping into a rich Celtic folk tradition without being overly beholden to it. His songs have a dream-like, cinematic quality and startling visual imagery. The Irish Times named him one of “The 50 Best Irish Acts Right Now” in 2009, and Ryan Adams once mentioned him as one of the best songwriters no one has ever heard of. His ninth full-length album, The Watchful Eye of the Stars, out on BaDaBing Records, was produced by John Parish and includes some of his most extraordinary work to date.
The Songs That Hover Around Him
Crowley’s process sounds in some ways more like tracking a wild animal than sitting down to write. “At the risk of sounding abstract, a song might appear as a silhouette that I’m trying to let it show itself before I get closer. Sometimes I might just start with a single word or a single sentence or an image,” he explains. “I feel there are, quite often, a few songs, sort of hovering around me at any moment, and I have to write them down. Not to try and capture them straightaway, but I like to write things down in my notebooks.”
He knows that a song is starting to emerge when it begins to make him see imagery. “I feel when it’s the right kind of song, it just projects images in my mind. Not just in my mind but my heart,” he says. “When a song comes to me, I do see it. It’s not just a collection of lines that go together.”
For the long, hallucinatory “Northbound Stowaway”, which opens The Watchful Eye of the Stars, that process began with the title phrase and a skeletal melody, which opened up, over time, into one of the album’s most densely orchestrated tracks. In the story, the stowaway finds a single seed in his boot after weeks of starvation and derives sustenance improbably from this tiny bit of food. It is not clear, as the song crests into its final string, sweeping verses, whether the person dies or not, an ambiguity that Crowley says was wholly intentional.
“I had a few different images come to me in those verses, almost like the voyager leaving our solar system where everything starts shifting and starts sending back signals that become distorted and strange and for some reason I felt that that was a part of the song,” says Crowley. “And it’s true you don’t really know what happens to the guy, but there’s something about that seed that he eats, that I had the feeling would sprout again.”
Old Friends and New Collaborators
Crowley worked with John Parish on The Watchful Eye of the Stars, reconnecting with the producer most famous for his work with PJ Harvey after a chance encounter years ago. Crowley had sent Parish a demo cassette in the late 1990s, enclosing a reply postcard in the package. “He sent me a lovely postcard. Well, 20 years later, we ended up recording,” he says. Meanwhile, Parish had produced an album by Crowley’s friend and sometime collaborator Nadine Khouri to which Crowley contributed some backing vocals. “So, he sent me a message a few weeks after I sent Nadine the vocal take just to say thank you, and it was definitely going to end up on the record. And he said, by the way, did you send me a cassette in the late 1990s? He totally remembered. It’s a pleasure working with John,” Crowley continued.
Crowley says that Parish’s great gift is a clear musical eye. “I know that sounds a little odd, but he can really see into the music. He seems to know what an artist is about and what they’re trying to do. He’s got a really great way of bringing out a variety of good things from the artist, a variety of good things that will be assembled together for the album,” he says. “So, I do actually think he has certain things that he does that are distinctly John-sounding, but it’s not always obvious. When you listen to an album John has worked on, you might say oh this is really cool, I wonder who produced it, and then you look and, oh, of course. He doesn’t take away the identity of the artist.”
Crowley recorded the album at J&J Studio in Parish’s home territory of Bristol. Jim Barr, who played in Portishead, engineered the record and played some stand-up bass on it. Khouri turned up to sing background vocals on “Northbound Stowaway” and “The Underwater Song”, while Welsh-Breton artist Katell Keining lent her talents to “Bread and Wine”. Crowley and Parish agreed that strings were essential to fill out the set of tunes, so Crowley tapped the Dublin-based Crash Ensemble — Kate Ellis on cello, Cora Venus Lunny on violin, and Lisa Dowdall on viola and viola de gamba.
With so many players involved, it was necessary to strike a balance between individual creativity and the needs of each song. The long, continually evolving “Northbound Stowaway” was especially challenging. “I never really want to tell [the string players] too much what to do, but still, they need to know what’s coming next in the song. It’s a funny balance between knowing what’s going to happen and letting yourself be free,” he explains. “It’s quite a long song, and there are subtle shifts, but everything needed to happen together at each shift. Otherwise, well, they were worried it was going to be too meandering.”
After the first rehearsal, the string musicians asked Crowley for a roadmap for this song. “The next day they came in and I had everything printed out and a score basically, which they used. And then instinctively embellished but it was all coordinated. It was just what needed to be done.”
A Room by Himself
As we speak, life is just starting to return to normal after a year of lockdown and pandemic. Crowley has a tour planned for fall 2021 and another slated for early 2022, both in the UK and Europe for now, with hopes for some U.S. dates further on when travel becomes easier.
Like most of us, Crowley has had a very strange year. Two siblings got COVID, and both his mother and father were seriously ill with other issues. For a time, his mother was in the hospital a few minutes away from Crowley in Dublin (she lives elsewhere in Ireland), but he couldn’t visit because of pandemic restrictions. And, of course, there was also a complete shutdown in live performance and extreme difficulties in gathering with other musicians or, indeed, anyone.
“I kept busy as much as I could. In the end, I was very busy and collaborated a lot with artists and had a few cool projects that just fell into my lap at the right time,” he said. “The thing is, I’m used to spending long periods of time in a room by myself. But you realize that just being in front of people, being amongst people, it’s what we need. It’s like sunshine for a plant.”
Crowley also spent a lot of time with his immediate family. He connected via music with his teenage son, who plays the uillean pipes and also makes beats for rappers. Crowley says he sometimes joins in on harmonium when his son is playing the pipes. “It’s extremely loud and it just vibrates in your body, and it’s an amazing feeling, especially playing with my son,” he says. He has also made guitar and piano samples that his son has used in his beats. Crowley has a young daughter at home, too, who sings all day long. “I’ve just been so grateful for music this year,” he says. “I’m always grateful for it. But I realized how grounding and freeing it is as the same time. It’s like a balm.”
Even trapped inside, all year long, music has a way of transporting people. Crowley says that that’s one of the things he values in the songs he loves. “Great songs have this quality. You don’t know what it is, but you just go, aha! You don’t really know what’s making the sound and the melody. Sometimes you can’t even hear all the words. But it brings you somewhere. That’s what it is for me. It brings you somewhere,” he says.