Yenkee. It sounds like a slang word, doesn’t it? Some sort of affirmative: “Yenkee, a pint’d be grand.” Its two syllables seem to combine urbanism, digital culture, and Cork, into one word.
Yenkee himself, Graham Cooney, said the word came from his nephew, a young child, and if you Google ‘Yenkee,’ you get an electronic accessories manufacturer (wireless earpods, gaming chairs and keyboards), and his music; a mix of the pop culture preceding Yenkee – disco, hip-hop, synth, pure pop songs – and the technological possibilities of today.
The songs roll by like movie scenes: dimly lit apartments in the city centre; the late night rolling and stumbling down the street outside. The rhythm section carries the melodies across the beats, letting them glide through each song.
He started at 9 with his first guitar. By 15 he was making money busking in Cork City with his mates, playing Mumford and Sons covers, saving the spare change and buying recording gear. Once he went into someone else’s studio. “I didn’t really like it; didn’t really suit me that much, and I felt like I was giving away my songs,” and he’s been doing it DIY ever since, first from his bedroom in his parents’ house on the north side of Cork, and now in London.
Cooney has previously stated that “the most important stuff happens in the studio, and that’s where I’m more comfortable.” The studio is where the products are made that are both the realisations of his efforts, and the fuel for his live shows.
“I think our first live show was in 2017. We put out our first song in February, and I think we had a show the following weekend. I think it was more like I had to put out a song because I had a show, as opposed to putting on a show because I had a song coming out. I got booked for a show and then it was like ‘I better have a song out.’
“I think I’ve always been more comfortable in the studio, just because I have full control over everything. I won’t say I’m a perfectionist or anything, it’s just nice to have control over all the parts. And you don’t have 100, 200, people watching you in the studio. One thing, for me, is my vocals – it takes me a long time to do vocals. And then before a show, the couple of hours before are spent solely on trying to get my vocals up to scratch, just so I can sing my songs.”
And that’s where the songs begin; with a sung voice-note on Cooney’s phone. “the best songs I’ve had are returning to those voice-notes and finding the best ones; finding the ones I’m still excited about.”
“I have a song called Lucy that’s probably my favourite song that I’ve written, and I don’t really remember writing it. It kinda just feels like it wasn’t there one day and then it was there the next. I don’t remember where it came from. I feel like they’re the best ones.”
Everything has its place in Lucy. The groove retraces its path through the song, never leaping out of its pocket and into melodrama, or collapsing into itself. The keys only colour the melodies, adding space around the beat, as the guitars play around and with the rhythm, never crowding the space.
A bird’s eye view of Lucy, if such a thing were possible, would show each piece of the song fitted together like city blocks on a map, with the melodies tracing the roads around the corners. There is a space for everything, and nothing takes up more space than it needs. The listener can move within the song like they would through a city; watching the pieces move past, lost in their own thoughts.
"I think it was more like I had to put out a song because I had a show ... I got booked for a show and then it was like ‘I better have a song out.’"
Sometime this year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cooney and his girlfriend moved to London. Why? He says he’s been asking himself the same question.
“There’s a whole host of musical reasons to come over to London. The scene’s obviously unbelievable here, again; not this year. But, we have management and agents based here, and I have a few music friends based around London.
I dunno what it was. Myself and my girlfriend were like ‘let’s just do it.’ We’d been planning to do it anyway, so when all this happened, we were like ‘will we bother?’ but we just went for it. It felt nice to get out, get into some place new. It definitely helps with my songwriting and creativity as well. I’ve definitely found that since I moved I’m creating a lot more.”
"I just gave myself the space to relax and deal with the mental aspects of it [lockdown] before I ever thought of writing songs or making music.”
Are You Alright?
A new place has given Cooney a new space to create his music in. The urbanism of London – its music and scene, its rush and anonymity – provides room for him to create his music, release it himself online via his own Bride Valley Records label (with vinyl copies of ‘Cannibal Tree’ released on Soft Boy Records), and to work a day job that funds his creativity.
Urbanism provides the freedom and funds to pursue his music. Digital culture has given him the ability to release it into the wild beyond his bedroom studios. And Cork, where it began, and where his family is, provided him with the stage name that sums it all up: Yenkee.
He says that, now, with the lockdowns and restrictions, he has had more time to work on his music. “These last two months have been really really good for me creatively. I’ve been writing a lot, making music, making videos, writing stories. It’s definitely gotten better.
“I think that, now that my mind has gotten more acclimatised to what’s going on, I can sit down and write and be creative. Whereas, I think that my mind was just in a different place at the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve heard a few musicians say that they didn’t really feel that creative, and with all the spare time they still felt the need to just relax, and their brain was on other things. I definitely felt that.
“I mean, on paper it should be the most creative, fertile period ever, because you’re at home, with all your stuff, and with all the weird angst, you should be writing songs like crazy. But it just didn’t really turn out like that. I just gave myself the space to relax and deal with the mental aspects of it before I ever thought of writing songs or making music.”
Cooney still believes that things will keep getting better. “You have to believe that they will, because we’d be crazy if we didn’t. I live in hope. This time next year, hopefully, we’ll be back. Or at least playing gigs, little shows or something like that. Step by step.”
‘Yenkee’ sounds like an affirmative. In its own way, it sums up what Cooney believes about this worldwide, weird and frightening, situation: ‘Yenkee, it’ll be grand.’