Rachael Lavelle: Reason to Dream Big

It’s probably an overused cliche in music to call something ‘dream-like’, but so often it feels right to apply the label when something has the capacity to transport the listener to a fantastical realm. On Dublin songwriter Rachael Lavelle’s debut album Big Dreams, the subconscious plays a big role in the listening experience, both in its conjuring of unearthly soundscapes and in the way it encourages the listener to lose themselves in the thoughts they didn’t know they were harbouring deep within. Dream-like, in this instance, couldn’t be more appropriate.

While this is the first major body of work from Lavelle, it’s been a long time in the making. Its first single, ‘Perpetual Party’, was released all the way back in 2019, with almost four years passing until follow-up ‘Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential’ emerged. That’s not to say that people weren’t slowly becoming acquainted with her music, as a handful of enchanting live renditions of tracks that would eventually become part of Big Dreams surfaced online in the interim, and many who were lucky enough to have caught her performing in the flesh would have left spellbound by her ambient pop compositions.

Sometimes an artist’s self-doubt can often find itself getting in the way of the creative process, and this is a theme that often emerges in the lyrics across the album. The nagging insecurities that fester in the back of many people’s minds are spoken aloud throughout the record – ‘am I good enough, am I being the best version of myself, what do others make of me?’ – and hit home especially hard for those who are prone to bouts of anxiety on all of the above. 

The inner monologue that appears on tracks such as ‘Gratitude’, ‘My Simple Pleasures’ and the title track is provided by broadcaster and ‘Luas Lady’ Doireann Ní Bhriain, a much-loved public figure in her native Ireland who Lavelle hears regularly and feels soothed by. If you’re listening to Big Dreams enough, then Lavelle’s voice has the potential to act in the same therapeutic way; easing the worries by reassuring you that you’re not alone in experiencing these thoughts.

Taking artistic cues from art-pop acts of recent years (think Weyes Blood, Julia Holter, etc) and mixing them with the lavish arrangements of classic musical theatre, Rachael Lavelle has crafted an exceptional debut album, and one that deserves to stand the test of time as a touchstone for the genre on the whole. Speaking to Wax on the anniversary of a significant date for interviewer and artist alike (more on that later), Lavelle opened up about the labour of love that came to be Big Dreams and the creative process she went through to complete the stunning debut.

How are things going in preparation for the release of Big Dreams? You must be itching to get it out there.

Yeah, it’s been done for ages and I spent so long working on it, so it’s been great to have been releasing some of the tracks since June. It was like, “oh, this is like a real thing”. At the moment there’s just a lot of admin, I’m putting the record out independently and I’m learning a lot. It’s been stressful, definitely, but it will be good when it comes out. It will be good for my brain.

A lot of the songs have been kicking around for quite some time. How does it feel to finally let them out into the world?

The one that I released in June called ‘Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential’, it’s so funny because I started writing it in maybe 2018 or something. I spend so long working on songs and do so many different edits. With that one, during Covid – because obviously the gigs were cancelled – I was doing lots of videoed performances. I feel like I always try out my songs at gigs, so it’s funny if you actually look back at the videos, because there’s about ten different versions of the lyrics. I’m like, “oh no, it’s so annoying that they document it”, but it definitely feels good that they are coming out. It was so fun to make the music video with Bob Gallagher as well, it just gives a whole new perspective on the song and a new life to it.

How much of an issue is that for you generally considering you spent so long working on some of these songs? How often do you find that they go through changes, and do you ever find yourself getting to a point where you have to say, “no, that’s it”?

With ‘Let Me Unlock’, there’s just so many versions that didn’t feel right or perfect, but at the end, we’d worked so much on it we actually couldn’t work on it anymore.

When was the album actually finished?

Like a year and a half ago, but written maybe two years ago. I was re-recording the vocals up until the very end.

I was actually thinking about this this morning, but today actually has quite a bit of significance because it is two years to the day [October 5th, 2021] from when I saw you on Anna B Savage’s tour in the UK at the Bristol show.

Oh, that’s so funny.

I remember bits of it now, listening back to the album, thinking it was a little bit different back then.

That was so fun. Was that in Louisiana? It was a great venue. That was my first gig opening for her and it was so fun. I had a really great night.

You said that a lot of the record is all about fighting with your inner monologues and trying to find yourself in different ways. Could you go into a little bit more detail on the things that you wanted to explore and give a general roundup of how you feel you captured those things?

I think when I started making it, the titles came first, so ‘Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential’, or ‘Eat Clean’, or ‘Big Dreams’. I kind of figured out their meanings or what kind of significance they had as I went along the way, but I didn’t really set out with a massive intention. When I introduced the speaking voice to the album, Doireann Ní Bhriain – this unbelievable woman in Ireland who has done loads of amazing things, but she’s also the voice of the tram system in Dublin – I kind of loved the idea of having her on it as the narrator of my thoughts. To me, the experience of travelling on the train is that people have their headphones in, they’re not really listening. I liked the idea of having this voice that you’re familiar with, but they’re saying these sad things. I think having that voice added that layer of being able to say sad things, but they’re kind of funny as well, because they’re ridiculous. That’s just your brain.

When I started out, I was doing lots of the morning pages, which is where you journal in the morning – but you just have the same thoughts most of the time. The more you do it, the more you realise you’ve just been thinking the same thing. It’s ridiculous that I would think this and then not really do anything about it. There’s so many contradictions, you know, I think one thing and then the next day I think another thing, and we want things to be black and white. All of our culture has these slogans, but life is so much more messy than that. I think I wanted that to come across as confusing.

What’s your experience with using guided meditation/self-help things? Doireann doing the extra voice kind of reminded me of that in a way.

I have such a funny relationship with it because I love it and I need it, but then it really annoys me at the same time. The self-help influencer culture is so visible, but I love it and I’m so intrigued by it. I definitely need it in terms of like, yeah, just like calming your brain to take care of your body and function in the world. I want to be this person that has this perfect routine where they’re doing their exercise and journaling every morning, but I’m just so chaotic. I wish I was like that. Maybe that’s the attraction; you want things to be simple.

Over the course of making the album, obviously you talked about how a lot of the concepts and themes changed, but do you feel like you changed a lot while you were doing it?

Oh yeah, I definitely did. I just went through this period of really not knowing what to do; a lot of self-doubt and a lot of trying really hard or not trying at all and expecting the results. As time went on, I realised it would come together if I kept working on it and trusted that it had to have an ending. I learned a lot musically about having that space to work on things without having the pressure of a label. I really hope with my next album that it won’t take as long as that.

Have you already begun work on that?

Yeah, I’ve been working on that since this one was being mixed.

In terms of the musical side of things, I wanted to know a little bit more about your background and what musical experience you had prior to working as a solo artist.

So my granddad was a composer – Michael Coffey – and he wrote a musical called Carrie, which was an Irish musical that did really well in Ireland. It was meant to go over to the West End but the producer died and all this kind of drama. He was very inspiring because I’d go over to his house and he would play lots of the American Songbook, like Cole Porter or the musicals by George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, or Rodgers and Hammerstein. Musicals were big for me, and I feel like musicals get a bad rap, but they have the most amazing melodies. I would have started in that kind of area, and then growing up as a teenager, I would have just been into Destiny’s Child and all pop music. When I went and studied music technology for a year, I started listening to more contemporary electronic music, and I was interested in exploring my voice with electronic stuff.

Were vocals your primary thing or was piano something that you were also learning at the time?

I was really lucky that my parents sent me to piano lessons when I was younger, but I think I did to grade five or something when I was like, “I hate this!”, which I really regret now. I had a singing teacher as well, and I loved that. I think piano, I stopped playing for about four years, and when I started songwriting, I remember watching people just singing along and playing chords, and I was like, “I could do that,” and that’s where I went.

Was there any particular eureka moment where you realised you wanted to be a songwriter in that sense?

I remember very specifically when I was studying, I knew this was what I wanted to do, but I hadn’t really written that many songs. I don’t really know what started it. I suppose there’s a sense of “I have to do this”, but you know, maybe it’s an absolutely terrible idea.

Going back to influences, I can definitely see elements of all of the things that you mentioned – the lushness of musicals and stuff mixed with the poppiness of say, the late 90s, early 00s. In terms of contemporary stuff, what are you enjoying most at the moment?

There’s this amazing record by Daniel Rossen, called You Belong There. I’ve been listening to a lot of that, and then I’ve been listening to a lot of Enya and Björk. I love serpentwithfeet and Sevdaliza. Oh, and PinkPantheress, she’s really cool. I kind of go through phases of loving one song specifically, or an album that puts me in a really good mood. I love Astrud Gilberto so much, I listen to her all the time. If I’m ever in a bad mood, I just put her on and I’m suddenly feeling so much better about life. An absolute legend.

What are your plans for translating Big Dreams to live shows? You did large portions of the record by yourself with just a small collaborative team. Do you see yourself expanding beyond just yourself live, or do you feel like it’s possible to just get the full scope of the record across with just a minimal setup?

At the moment, I have a little tour in Ireland and I’m touring with Ryan Hargadon, who worked on the record with me, and Hannah Hiemstra, an amazing drummer and musician. They’re both so talented, so the trio is the dream for me at the moment in terms of touring. We’ve reworked the songs – I mean, they’re not as per the record, but they’re just a different version of them. I don’t really want to play to a track, so when you have amazing musicians, it’d be good to play more. I did a collaborative project with Glasshouse, an ensemble in Dublin, and there were some arrangers that arranged some of the tracks for a small ensemble, like strings and flute and drums and everything. That was really fun, I’d love to do another one of those.

Any plans to bring it beyond Ireland?

Yeah, definitely. I’d love to do a tour in the UK. Hopefully next year.

I also wanted to ask you about the videos you mentioned earlier, where you worked with Bob Gallagher, who I think is a great visual artist. What was collaborating with him like and how do you feel he portrayed the themes in the songs? Do you feel like what he did was anything like what you’d imagined, or did he just have a completely different concept of it?

Bob is amazing, he’s a genius. When I asked him if he would do a video, I was expecting him to say he was too busy or whatever, but I knew that he would be the best person for it. When I sent him an email originally, I didn’t know what the video for ‘Let Me Unlock Your Full Potential’ should be about, but I knew that I wanted there to be an archer in it. I don’t know why, I just kept seeing these arrows and things. I sent him these really elaborate references of all these gothic women sleeping in elaborate sets and things. He replied to me with Marina Abramović’s ‘Rest Energy’ piece with Ulay, and then it just kind of went on from there.

Bob’s interpretation was really interesting because he kind of saw it more like a relationship dynamic, and I guess I didn’t really think of it as that. It was nice to have this new layer to it, and was really interesting what he brought to it and with the different characters. We worked with Sarah Flanagan, the art director, and she was just amazing. With all the costumes and the set, it was like being in a Disney movie.

I know that there’s such a thing as the power of editing, but are you actually good at archery?

Not at all. I was like, “yeah, surely I’ll be able to do this”. We had a few days in his house where he set up the targets outside and it was funny because you’re just really concentrating so much. We were watching all these YouTube videos of the three ways to shoot an arrow. Bob was actually really good at it, but he had obviously been practicing, you know, in his garden. It was really weird because the art director’s assistant, Sophie, comes from a family of Olympian archers, so she was on set and was able to say if we were holding things wrong.

He did the video for ‘Big Dreams’ as well, which I’m assuming was a lot simpler to do.

Well, we just videoed that on the same day. We shot three videos in one.

Generally speaking, what’s next on the agenda? What do you hope people will take away from this and where do you personally hope to take things in the immediate future?

Well, in the immediate future, I have this tour around Ireland, and hopefully I’ll get to the UK next year. But yeah, I’m just back writing and hopefully I’ll get some gigs lined up. I’m super excited, maybe this is just my life now. I’m looking forward to getting into a more creative zone. I hope that people listen to it and buy it, and I hope it gives anyone a little bit of entertainment.

Obviously the album is called Big Dreams – what is the best dream you’ve ever had?

This is the first one that’s coming to my brain, but it’s actually a really strange, fucked up dream. It was one of those dreams where somebody tells you something – my granny had died maybe three or four years before, and she was a very wise poet. Whenever you met her, she’d always have a piece of advice that you needed to hear, and I can’t remember what specifically was going on in my life. Anyway, I had this dream where I held her when she was younger, and she was really comforting. She just gave me this advice and I woke up in the morning just feeling really comforted by the experience. Maybe that’s too weird. I’ve had a few glimpses of lucid dreams where I would be awake in my dream and then realise that I’m awake. I was trying to train myself to lucid dream for ages, sleep and dreams are just so fascinating.

Words: Reuben Cross // Photos: Cait Fahey

‘Big Dreams’ is out on November 10th. Pre-order the album here.

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