Lucy McWilliams released her debut single Fair Play in the height of the first lockdown in April 2020. Fair Play was the result of a collaborative effort with her close friends Malaki and producer Matthew Harris.

Portrait of Lucy McWilliams

Photography by Nicholas O’Donnell

Essential Listening

  • Runaway

  • Fair Play

Her second single RUNAWAY was a revamped version of one of her back catalogue songs. “I wrote it last summer and I hated it,” but then, with encouragement from friends, she was able to see her own writing in a new light.

“My band came over from Berlin and we lived in Dublin for a month over lockdown. We were just playing songs and jamming. Then Matthew [Harris] heard me singing RUNAWAY and said “what’s that?” and I was like “I hate it”.

“He was really encouraging. I hadn’t thought about it seriously until they were all there. I feel like I need someone in the room to say ‘yeah, that’s okay.’

“We’d just been listening to so much Bossa Nova music that week and that’s where we got the idea for the chorus. It’s just messing about and seeing what works and it’s just with my friends so there wasn’t that pressure of ‘we’re in the studio for 8 hours and need to come out with a song.’”

RUNAWAY was released a few months later in August and is the first solo writing credit for McWilliams.

<< Enjoy a special GoldenPlec performance of 'Runaway' by Lucy McWilliams >>

“It was kind of a joke, the lyrics ‘I’m drinking too much’ are joking. I was just bored in lockdown and wanted something to do. Then, after Matthew finished the demo, it just sounded really good. Still, if those two weren’t on the track I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it and would have waited.”

McWilliams is measured in her approach to releasing tracks. Fair Play easily reached two million streams on Spotify in the short months following, but “there was no plan really. I’d been writing music for years and doing demos. But I hadn’t found a song that I wanted for the first release.’ But then she did find that desire with Fair Play.

“It’s crazy, over one million people have listened to it. I want to know who they all are. It really spurred me on, ‘come on Lucy, keep going, what’s next?’’

"I don’t want to just release songs, I want to think about how and why I’m going to do it."

McWilliams is in her third year of studying a vocal degree in BIMM Berlin. “It’s really intense,” she laughs. “I was so shy when I first moved here. I think about the first few classes, I almost started crying thinking about singing in front of people which is so ridiculous. I mean, I’m doing a vocals degree, I don’t know why it gave me such a fright.’

“I always wanted to leave Dublin since I was little. It’s great, it’s my home, all my friends and family are here but I find it overwhelming. I was looking at places around Europe and when I looked at BIMM Berlin everything was in English here.

“It was still very much by chance. It was here and I could do it. The teacher in the audition was from Dublin which made me think of it as a home away from home. There’s so many Irish people here, I still speak no German.”

She laughs at herself and then says, “I didn’t know how much music and art was here until I was living here. It has opened me up to music I would never have found otherwise. Even the way that I view music is different. Being in a room with people my age playing and being enthusiastic made me realise this is all I want to do.

“In Ireland it was ‘I like to write songs, let’s see what happens with it,’ whereas here I realised these are the kinds of people I wanted to be around.

“Berlin is the perfect place to test the water for gigging as well. Especially because in Berlin every other person you meet is an artist or a musician which can be overwhelming but also comforting. In Ireland we have so many musicians but everyone is watching whereas here no one cares. I can mess up here and no one knows who I am.”

Admittedly, McWilliams is yet to enter the murky world of gigging regularly. “I’ll always go onstage with Malaki for one song but it’s not my show. I featured on one of his songs last year and last summer I opened for him. That’s one of the only times I’ve done a full set with my own songs.

“I feel guilty because every time I talk to other musicians they say ‘I had all these gigs lined up [before lockdown]’ and I’ve just been writing for the past 2 years. I can still hide behind sitting in my room and making music with my friends.”

She moved back to Dublin for lockdown in March. In the midst of life grinding to a halt, her creative wheels started turning. McWilliams needed her band.

“I hadn’t spoken to them for a year and I just asked them to come to Dublin and they did. They just moved in for a month.” Ricardo (keys), Sebastian (bass) and Victor (guitar) first performed with McWilliams for a college assignment.

“They were so kind to me and I knew I wanted to work with them more. I love making music alone but it’s better to have those people to work with you in the room – to laugh with and laugh at.”

And, of course, Matthew Harris is never far from McWilliams. When they are both in Dublin, they live only a few streets away from each other.

“We just get each other. I don’t feel embarrassed to ask them questions which I would think were stupid. There was a moment before summer when I had to send him stems of vocal takes. I couldn’t work out how to download them properly so he cycled over to my house and I handed him out the laptop because he couldn’t come inside.

“Bringing songs to my friends and finishing them is the best feeling ever and the safest feeling I have sat in. Being able to be vulnerable in a small group of people and have them be excited about it as well.”

Living in Berlin does McWilliams good. “The good thing about being around creative people all the time is you see the full thing, not just a glimmer. How I see it is, the more I work and write, it means when opportunities come about, I will be able to enjoy them and not be so wrapped up in my own head.’

With this McWilliams was also able to stretch her physical comfort zone. “I started going to gigs alone. There are differences between Dublin and Berlin. It’s more normal in Berlin because there’s so much happening all the time. It’s to enjoy the music whereas in Dublin it can be more of a big deal and about the going out part – which is also fun but here I can go to a gig for 2 hours and go home.”

“I’ve seen some of my favourite gigs here. Celeste was incredible. When we saw her, the whole room was silent. It was a full venue and people were drunk but everyone was just standing listening to her sing. Sasha Keable was also super cool. Ezra Collective was amazing. You can see them here,” she points to a poster above her head on our Zoom call, “I had to rip this down from the wall, it was the best thing ever.”

"In Berlin every other person you meet is an artist or a musician which can be overwhelming but also comforting."

McWilliams notes the things she enjoys most as an audience member and what she wants to emulate when she is able to take the stage for her own gigs.

“An artist’s band is so important to me. My favourite thing is when they are really sick and they are able to converse with each other by looking at each other and just playing the music. I also love stripped down vocals which feel so intimate and like it’s just a normal person telling a story.”

Despite her easy-going and playful start to music releases, McWilliams has a longer term plan in place. She has a steady certainty in her outlook about a rather unsteady industry.

“I used to sing in choirs – like every other girl singer. I saw music as just a hobby and I didn’t know you could do that. My piano teacher growing up was a session musician and she was the first person who I saw play a song by ear. I was always going to do something in music.”

“Towards the end of the year, she released the acoustic versions of both her singles. “[The plan] at the moment is to get as much work together as possible – as many songs and demos. I want to release a project at the end of the academic year in 2021. Hopefully by March I will have figured out the idea.

“I don’t want to just release songs, I want to think about how and why I’m going to do it. With the first two singles, they were just released to do it but there was nothing after whereas now I want to work out what I am trying to say with my music.”

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