OUR ROOTS RUN DEEP
Of the 75 minutes of moving, unifying and life-affirming moments on Kodaline’s stripped-down new live album Our Roots Run Deep, one particularly stands out. Going entirely unplugged and unamplified for an acoustic cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, one of Ireland’s biggest bands find themselves barraged by crowd interaction: heckles, laughter, jokes, chants, singalongs and finger-clicks - “I said clicks,” singer Steve Garrigan chastises, good-naturedly, who’s clapping?”
The sheer joy and ebullience in the moment highlights not just the excitement of the live music experience post-pandemic, nor the rare thrill of seeing a chart-topping band more accustomed to playing international festivals or huge hometown shows at Dublin’s Malahide Castle close up in the intimate environs of the city’s Olympia Theatre, accompanied by a string section. It speaks to the warm emotional connection that Kodaline enjoy with their audience, thanks to their deeply empathetic arena ballads of romances forged and foiled, of hopes and heartbreaks eloquently sketched, of everyday poignancies made as stirring as they feel when they hit home.
“That was kind of the idea,” Garrigan says, “to try and capture the live environment as much as possible. It's something you don't really hear on recordings. You don't really hear crowds singing along in the songs. I think that really adds to it and captures the atmosphere of the night in Dublin.”
It’s long been an ambition of the band to perform their most beloved songs – including international hits such as ‘High Hopes’, ‘Love Like This’, ‘All I Want’ and ‘The One’, from four albums that saw them top the Irish charts and make the UK Top twenty three times – in their raw and delicate initial forms, particularly at a venue which was so important a landmark for them in their early years.
“Most songs start out acoustic, stripped down, with us,” says Garrigan, “so even when we started we always talked about the possibility of doing some sort of acoustic tour. Stripping the sound down in general, it shows the strength of the song I'd like to think. And cello is such a beautiful instrument as well…a little bit of cello, I would never say no to it.”
“You lose some of that rawness and intimacy when it’s a full band,” adds drummer Vinny May, “so being able to strip it back to more of the roots of the song is something that only we really get to hear, it’s great that people are gonna get to hear how a lot of these songs sound when they’re first written.”
Emerging from the pandemic eighteen months after the release of their 2020 fourth album One Day At A Time, the time was right. The mood was for a close connection with music again, the Covid restrictions demanded seating and the band – having already planned to play a week at the venue to launch the fourth album - were keen to see the whites of their fans’ eyes again. The band played two nights at the Olympia, before heading off on a full acoustic tour.
“The big shows and big festivals and big stages are great fun,” says guitarist Mark Prendergrast, “but when you're doing those stripped back shows it's a lot quieter on stage. There's no amps to contend with. There's no drum kit crashing behind you. You really hear everything, we hear each other differently, we hear the crowd singing more. I'm sitting down, it's a much more relaxed environment. We were gonna pick the best songs from both nights [for the album] but something magical happened on the first night that the whole live album is pretty much just the one gig.”
Our Roots Run Deep is an important step for Kodaline, exposing connections in their music to early influences like Ray LaMontagne and to cult alt-rockers like Frightened Rabbit, which might otherwise get buried beneath their usual anthemic deliveries, worthy of Snow Patrol or Coldplay. It also includes key covers from sessions the band have played over the years – Garrigan’s favourite Sam Cooke number, Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ (which they first played virtually on the spot for a BBC session, on Elton John’s piano) and ‘Dirty Old Town’ because, as Garrigan explains, “We are Irish and that song is like the unofficial National Anthem of Ireland, or one of. It's in our blood.” Hence the album works as an affectionate recap and stylistic reset for Kodaline after their enforced Covid break, a softly welcoming story-so-far from one of Ireland’s biggest breakout successes of recent times.
Having reached the heights of touring, after ten almost solid years, where they can headline both Dublin’s Malahide Castle and festivals as far afield as India and Indonesia (“in Indonesia,” Prendergrast remembers, “we travelled for three hours in a van through the rainforest and then you get to this stage and play a show and hear people singing the words, it doesn't ever feel real”), the pandemic came as a “chance to exhale” and "live life". Work has only tentatively begun on a fifth album they hope to release late in 2023.
“We wanted to eliminate any kind of pressure,” says Prendergrast. We're really not in a rush this time, we just want to wait until it feels right. There’s no plan, and it actually feels nice to say that.” They’re also looking forward to alternating full shows in bigger venues with smaller acoustic outings, to relish all aspects of their music.
Our Roots Run Deep is their first album to be released via Fantasy Records/Concord. The new label home delivers the band that freedom and new independent spirit they have been yearning for as they return refreshed and revitalised ready to start working together to release music on their own terms.
“We’re really excited to be joining Fantasy Records/Concord,” says Garrigan, “We’re looking forward to working together, releasing new music and moving on to a new chapter.”
KODALINE – A HISTORY
Coming together via school skateboarding cliques, bonding over Thin Lizzy, Rory Gallagher and alternative guitar bands, Swords kids Steve, Mark and the Vinny first started playing blues jams together aged around 14. The first song they played was ‘Johnny B Goode’, thanks to Garrigan’s obsession with the school dance scene from Back To The Future, and taking U2 as their local inspiration they started landing covers gigs at girls’ schools through a friend who’s now their tour manager. As they turned 18, now an Arctic Monkeys style band called 21 Demands, they found themselves stars of an Irish TV talent show called You’re A Star, coming second in the fifth series and self-releasing an Irish number one single ‘Give Me A Minute’ in the aftermath. The show laid the roots of their future success, but weren’t at all comfortable with the instant local stardom it granted them.
“We were 17 or 18 and we were writing our own songs and playing them on TV,” says Prendergrast. “It was a wild, wild experience. You're on TV every single week all of a sudden, so people recognised you in the street, like, overnight but we just weren't there as a band.”
“If we hadn't done that I would be surprised if we'd be doing what we're doing today,” says Garrigan. “I'd definitely be surprised if we were where we are. Off the back of it we got to tour around Ireland on the back of trucks, anywhere and everywhere that would have us. It kind of felt like we had our 15 minutes of fame and then everything just disappeared. For me personally, after that show, being recognised on the street and stuff, I was kind of embarrassed by it. It made me very uncomfortable. But it also made me retreat into music, even more so than I ever had before, and try and write more emotional songs and more meaningful songs and just better written songs.”
Realising they weren’t ready to launch themselves properly, they turned down a label contract on the advice of producer and mentor Phil Magee, a pivotal figure in Kodaline’s history whom they’d met after winning studio time with him in a Battle Of The Bands aged around 16. “It was a very clever thing to do at that age,” Garrigan says of declining a deal too soon. “At the time it sounded probably a bit mad to do, but it was the right thing to do in hindsight.” Instead, they holed up to hone their craft; a five-year process. “That's just how long it took for us to develop and make our first album and I wouldn't have changed anything about that,” says Prendergrast. “It was probably the smartest thing we've ever done, just not releasing music for five years.”
When they were finally ready, now named Kodaline and with Jason Boland on bass, they hit like a meteorite. Their 2012 debut Kodaline EP saw ‘All I Want’ tipped by Radio 1 and appear in Gray’s Anatomy, the first of many TV show syncs for the song which would include Catfish: The TV Show, The Vampire Diaries and Josh Boone’s acclaimed 2014 coming-of-age romance The Fault In Our Stars. “It kicked the door open for us,” Garrigan says, recalling how one live agent had suggested reorganising it to make it more radio-friendly. “It's got a lot of emotion and it's very heartfelt and I think people have latched on to that.”
Nominated for the BBC’s Sound Of 2013 poll, they then saw their first single ‘High Hopes’ top the Irish charts and go top 20 in the UK, launching a string of international hits. Their debut album, 2013’s In A Perfect World, went double platinum in Ireland and platinum in the UK. “I remember thinking that this was the best album that we could make at the time and everything went into it,” Garrigan says. “I was incredibly proud of it, and we were very excited. The videos had a lot to do with it. Staying out of the videos and having short movies that could complement the emotion and hopefully people would connect with that. And luckily they did. I feel like we’re on to a winner with a song if it has meaning and you can hear that in the melody and the delivery and the lyric and it’s all one thing. Pretty much every song on the first record, we did that.”
The album’s title track has also become ubiquitous as the main theme of Gogglebox. “It’s bizarre,” says Steve of being the soundtrack to a televisual phenomenon. “What makes it even better is it’s a great TV show. I remember when we first heard they were using our songs we didn’t think much of it but the fact that that show has kept the songs for ten years now and it’s still the same is amazing, it’s bizarre but it’s awesome.” “We got really lucky that the moments our music has been chosen for have been really culturally strong moments,” says Boland.
As a cultural moment in themselves, Kodaline were far from finished. 2015’s second album Coming Up For Air expanded on the foundations of the first, raising their stature with sold-out tours in America and across the world and allowing them to play to 38,000 fans at Dublin’s Marlay Park in 2016 and Glastonbury’s Other Stage the following year. It also delivered further fan favourites in ‘Unclear’, ‘Lost’ and ‘The One’, one of their biggest songs which was written as a wedding gift for Magee and never intended to be released. Then the band played it live to celebrate two fans’ onstage engagement and a subsequent online fan cover convinced their label that they had to record it themselves. “It’s a song we're gonna play on every show forever, because there's people that have used that as a wedding song,” says Prendergrast.
Initial sessions for the record in LA with producer Jacknife Lee, in the middle of a constant rush of touring, however, were unfulfilling – “it just wasn't a perfect fit,” Prendergrast argues. And the band’s discomfort with such cold collaboration bled into 2018’s Politics Of Living, for which they were encouraged to throw themselves into “this whole world of co-writers”. “It was enjoyable to go and work with loads and loads of people sometimes,” says Prendergrast, “and sometimes it was very strange. It's tough to walk into a room as a band, cold handshake with someone and then you're sitting down and you're writing a song with them all of a sudden.”
“I felt like I was being pulled and pushed round to the point where I didn't even know what I was doing anymore,” says Garrigan. “I was a bit disillusioned by the whole thing. If I had had the confidence at the time, I would have just said ‘we're not doing any of these co-writes’. Bar one or two.” One undoubtedly being the affecting ‘Brother’, a heart-warming oath of support and dedication to our oldest friends. “I remember talking to Cory [Sanders, co-writer] and he was saying that we were his favourite band growing up and he was trying to write a Kodaline song.”
The experience inspired them to “shut the door on everyone” again for their 2020 fourth album One Day At A Time, produced by Boland in the band’s Dublin rehearsal space and a far more rewarding record to make. “I think it must have been day one,” Prendergrast recalls, “Steve came in with ‘Wherever You Are’, which is probably my favourite Kodaline song and he literally played the whole song start to finish on the piano and it was like’ fucking hell’. Pretty much word for word, it was there. It was so exciting to hear a song for the first time so naturally, live. It was a huge, huge confidence kick.”
Now a decade in, Kodaline might well have found themselves in a perfect world, refreshed and ready as they embark on their next chapter, writing the rulebook themselves.