Wyvern Lingo: Taking on the world from strange angles…
We caught up Ireland’s premier vocal harmony group, Wyvern Lingo, for the first time in several years in Dublin’s Wigwam to talk about their R N’B reboot, their swaggering new single I Love You, Sadie, “Sure Look” band tattoos, and constructing their debut album one strange angle at a time.
One of the most impressive things about Wyvern Lingo, besides the harmonies, is their unusual approach to song-writing from a lyrical standpoint. The subject matter of songs such as A Letter to Willow and I Love You, Sadie tackle well-worn veins of song-writing in a new and interesting manner, pertinent to the evolution of modern society.
This unusual approach often challenges us to consider larger themes beyond the story contained directly within the song. Latest single I Love You, Sadie challenges the traditional patriarchal view of interpersonal relationships between men and women, and gives the green light for men to cast them aside and embrace themselves for who they are - in fact it encourages it.
“It started out immediately because I wanted to comment on the particular relationship I have with my boyfriend,” says drummer/guitarist/vocalist Caoimhe Barry. “We would always see it in each other that we don't fit the usual stereotype of what is the male and female in a relationship is. I guess realising that and feeling like that's not such an uncommon feeling in male-female relationships; that you're not always following that stereotype of how things go, and I wanted to comment on that.
I feel like there's a very small box for masculinity. There's a lot of scope for the way women express themselves and they can do that in many kinds of ways, but I know from friends that masculinity is a small space. I guess I'm just trying to sneak into the mainstream, let it not be such a small space. It's kind of laughable.”
“We discuss feminism and women's issues so much, and the thing is there is no such thing, they are all linked” adds Karen Cowley (bass, synth, vocals). “So many problems in the world with gender violence stem from masculinity issues, and it's so important that the conversation is a cross conversation and not just talking about women or men, that it is both.
For example I saw how Rejjie Snow tweeted about how silly catcalling was. It was a really simple tweet. It was just like, grow up lads it's not cool. And to hear that coming from a man is so refreshing."
It's not that I don't know lots of men are against catcalling, but for someone like him to do that gave it extra weight. And maybe likewise for women to say lads, yis don't have to be like this, I think it's really important that the conversation is layered.”
Wyvern Lingo’s collective stance on these big issues is positive to hear, as is their reaction to a negative experience this interviewer had at a Repeal the 8th march when upon bumping into a woman by accident, and saying sorry, my apology was greeted with “Men, you shouldn't even be here”.
“That's not what the repeal movement is about and if you talked to Anna Cosgrave, she'd be appalled,” says Karen. “Some people get it so wrong; we're all in this together,” adds Caoimhe. “We have to support each other and bridge the gap between what it is to be a man and what it is to be a woman. We're all just humans. It's such a simple sentence, but I wish we could implement it more.”
“I bumped into our label manager at one of the Repeal marches and I felt overwhelmed by how lovely it was for a man, not of my generation and who I work with, to be there” continues Karen. “It was comforting, it was a great thing and I think most women would feel that way.”
Wyvern Lingo are keen for more men to stand up and call out the myriad of social injustices faced by women in modern society. “Change has to come from within, so if guys are going around to thinking that's okay, it is up to men to break that down for them” says Karen. “I have this conversation with my boyfriend all the time. You have to do more! The only way we'll get there is if everybody is striving for change, and that seems obvious to us, but it doesn't to everyone. It's hard to discuss these things without sounding preachy. I didn't write the lyric to I Love You, Sadie so I can say I think lyrically, it's brilliant and it's put in such a nice way. It's positive; it's a love song, it's not about don't do this, don't do that. It's about letting go.”
The titular track from Wyvern Lingo’s 'Letter to Willow' EP takes the traditional love triangle motif and flips it on its head, focusing instead on the self-destructive forces of jealousy in a relationship that cause people to imagine things that aren’t there. “It’s about somebody being in a relationship with someone and thinking that you are a threat, ultimately creating all the drama with you when you're not a threat and if there's a problem it's from within” says Caoimhe.
“A lot of it comes from rants” says Caoimhe when we enquire into the thought process behind Wyvern Lingo’s lyrics. “You know, why don't you see sense? I guess that a lot of our songs are sarcastic, but we always try to put things as plainly and simply as possible, but definitely from strange points of views at times, but that's just the way our heads work.”
When we ask if we can expect more unusual lyrical explorations on Wyvern Lingo’s forthcoming debut album the response is a definitive “Oh god, yeah.”
“We were talking earlier about whether we feel responsibility as artists to be politically engaged and talk about issues like this, and funnily enough we've wrote a song called Out of My Hands,” says Karen. “It's written from the point of someone who doesn't want to engage and doesn't think they can do anything. I guess we enjoyed the sarcasm of that, because it's very hard to write about these things without being preachy. I think for us songwriting, and songwriters that we aspire to be like, are songwriters that can mask things in a beautiful space with storytelling but also say a lot without pointing it out.
What's weird about this song (Out of My Hands) is that it is really relatable. It's from the bad guy’s point of view, but it's really understandable that this is how you might feel so apathetic in the face of all you might be doing to help the world. It's centered around this conversation I had with a guy."
“You can call him a prick,” quips Caoimhe, before Karen continues. “He was being really sarcastic and cynical about artists' efforts. I'm very new to activism myself, but in the last year and a half I've done a bit of campaign work and I came across this person regularly and he was being so sarcastic all the time, from an educated perspective. Long story short, I was trying to level with the guy, I don't like confrontation. I get how you feel, but that's not good enough.”
Karen Cowley’s activism is quite impressive, and ranges from teaching music to kids in direct provision to volunteering in Calais.
“I did a campaign last year called 10,000 Missing Children - grass roots thing, just me and two other girls from Bray trying to make a small difference. There's a music group down in Mosney, we go out and do music with some of the kids in Direct Provision. At the time, the conversation was to do with HomeSweetHome, which I wasn’t involved with but supported from a distance. And I get it - activism can be a bit 'blah' am I doing the right thing? Is this silly? But the thing is, you just don't know until you get out there."
“I think a lot of people can get caught up in the idea that if you're not doing it gung ho you can be a hypocrite, and I think that we started to reconcile with the idea of not being a pest on this earth,” adds Caoimhe. “Trying to eat vegetarian, I'm not totally strict on it, but try to just have that switch in mentality that meat is a treat - just because of how crap it is for the environment. We're trying to keep an eye on where our clothes are coming from. Just little things...we try to use water bottles instead of buying plastic bottles. Little things that you're not on top of, just little changes."
“We're in a position where we can do these things” says Karen. ”We do feel a responsibility to try a bit better. And if we can get something across in a song, all the better, but you also can't force these things, they have to come out of experience. If I hadn't met that guy I wouldn't have wrote that song."
From Karen’s experience, the littlest kindness and gestures make a large impact in the long run. “Charities and organisations rely on the average person that drops by jumpers. You'd be so surprised how they rely on the everyday person. I did some volunteering in Calais a couple of weeks ago. I did four days, I didn't go for months and months because I thought that you should go for weeks, that if you go and volunteer in a refugee camp you're no use if you don't go for a few months.” However, Cowley is adamant that she couldn’t have been more wrong and would encourage anyone with time on their hands no matter how big or small to get involved.
“I was really overwhelmed by how much they needed short-termers. I went for four days, I brought over a massive bag of clothes, which is a tiny dent in the massive issue, but for those people at that time and place it gave someone a sleep-in that morning or it gave someone else a better jacket. It does make a difference.
It's horrendous to see the treatment of people. Calais is closed. So, it's around 600 refugees sleeping rough there. The police won't let them camp, they are being moved on and getting abuse. They are relying on handouts because they aren't allowed settle anywhere. They are relying on that organisation that feeds 600 people every day. It's pretty shocking,"
I'd go back if I can. I made a video just to say to people, if anybody has a bit of free time and is thinking about it, do it. You don't need any skills - if you can organise socks and jumpers and spoon out food that's enough. It was an incredible experience for so many reasons."
Having released two EPs and several singles, Wyvern Lingo have been quietly taking the next step in their evolution by recording their debut album with the help of producers Wife and Neil Comber (M.I.A. / Crystal Fighters).
“I've no idea how our label listened to his music and decided this is a good match, but they did and it was such a good match," says Karen on Rubyworks matching them up with Berlin-based Cork musician and producer Wife. "He's just very natural musically; completely self-thought and so open to ideas in the studio. It's the first time we've ever been ahead of schedule on studio time. And then we went to London to work with Neil Comber, finishing up some stuff, and he's just amazing. Both of them have no egos whatsoever - they're like anti-producer stereotype and a joy to work with.”
“The album is an emotional rollercoaster, we're really, really happy with where it is,” says Caoimhe. “It's really chunky, it's emotional, it's sincere. It's the world as we see it and our own personal world as we see them.”
And the R'n'B infused evolution of current single I Love You, Sadie seems set to continue with the release of the album. “We’re hugely influence by R'n'B” says Karen. “Everything I'm listening to right now is American R'n'B, whether it's Anderson. Paak or Destiny's Child from back in the day, or Solange - we listen to a lot of hip-hop, A Tribe Called Quest.”
“We also did a good bit of pre-production before we went into the studio” says Saoirse Duane (guitar/vocals). “We found the sounds that we wanted on our tracks so it's very much what we wanted.”
“We feel very much in control on this album,” says Caoimhe. “I think before, we weren't so sure. Do we like this?” Of their earlier work Caoimhe remarks, “I'm proud of it, but it's a moment in time.”
“It was all important in developing our own confidence as musicians and our sound,” adds Karen. “I know to the outside world the difference between The Widow Knows EP and our new stuff is like two different bands, but we're the same people - we've just grown up a bit.”
“And we'll always do that, we'll always go with what we want to create,” says Saoirse. “It just wouldn't occur to use to make something that sounded like the last thing.”
This belief that Wyvern Lingo 2.0, if you will, is better and more developed than its earlier incarnation is reflected by the fact that they have revamped two songs from their debut EP for the album. “Snow on the EP was a bit rushed,” says Caoimhe. “I had this song, but I always had this [new] way I wanted to do it.” Wyvern Lingo have been playing this revamped version live for some time now and Caoimhe jokes, “We're calling it Fresh Snow.” Used has also received a makeover for the album, which will be otherwise dominated by new material, with Wyvern Lingo having elected not to include any material from their most recent EP.
“Some of the sounds aren't that far away from the Letter to Willow EP, but we didn't feel the songs had a place on the album. We wanted to make the best album we could - the best body of work that we could - and I think that we have. We're excited to unleash it”
Karen describes the song-choice process for the album as being “intense” with a big basket to choose from. “We'd been writing for two years and we really whittled it down and down,” she says. “There was one song in the studio that just wasn't working and we cut it because it's not worth putting a crap song on the album.”
This fastidious approach to quality control will no doubt serve Wyvern Lingo well going forward, but it won’t come at the cost of experimentation. “There was one song we wrote in the studio; the one about that lovely man (Out of My Hands).” The lyrics were rendered in classic Wyvern rant style, but the accompanying music proved a little trickier to master, so the forward looking trio made a surprising about turn, venturing far into their back catalogue for inspiration. “The vibe wasn't working. We actually ripped off a really old song of ours that nobody's heard.” Hey, this process never hurt David Bowie.
Wyvern Lingo acknowledge that their evolution of sound brought some trepidation and surprise with the release of I Love You, Sadie. “It's always a risk...” says Karen. “I didn't realise how different it was sounding from the rest of our songs. We were a bit like ‘oh everyone is saying it sounds very different, but they like it. Okay good.’ We're very happy. Radio has been very generous in Ireland. Obviously we're ambitious and we'd like it to go worldwide.”
Speaking of world domination, Wyvern Lingo are pleasantly surprised to learn that they have over 6 million plays on Spotify, a number which has more than doubled since the release of last year’s Letter to Willow EP. “Spotify has been very good to us. They gave us free tattoos,” says Caoimhe. They proceed to show off their "Sure Luck" Wyvern Lingo band tattoos one by one. "We were playing The Great Escape in Brighton and they were giving away free tattoos in the artist area so we were like alright, we'd been talking about getting these tattoos for a while.”
'Sure Look' was in the running for the album’s title. “We’re very close to it but I'm afraid we probably can't” says Caoimhe. “Sure Look doesn't translate well outside of Ireland,” says Karen, explaining that the tattoo artist in Brighton thought they were looking for Sherlock Holmes tattoos.
Wyvern Lingo plan to release more singles and videos before the release of the album which will be out early next year. They remain tight-lipped on what the next single will be, just saying that it's between four songs, but they are happy to tell us they’ll be doing a cover of Passion Fruit by Drake in the near future.
Wyvern Lingo play The Grand social, Dublin on August 25th.