Bloody technology. Several minutes of dropped calls, Skype sighs and choppy conversations later, we finally establish a reliable line of communication between Dublin and New York, where Julie Feeney is in temporary residence. Julie Feeney, it transpires, is a very patient woman.
She is also a glutton for punishment. Two years ago she performed ten nights in a row at the Irish Arts Centre in New York and later she embarked on a tour of Ireland where she invited ten different choirs to join her to perform in ten different towns on ten consecutive nights.
Now she has just completed four gigs in two nights in Subculture, a new purpose-built venue in Manhattan. “Yeah, it’s intense but it’s amazing for your craft. The shows were at 7:30pm and 10pm so I would be outside signing CDs and then I’d have ten minutes before the next show started.”
It’s a rotating cast of characters that join Julie on any given night. Her upcoming shows in Castlebar and at the Spiegeltent Festival in Wexford will see her perform with her full ensemble, but for the show in the Cork Opera House she will be joined by the Cork Youth Chamber Orchestra. A subsequent concert in Amsterdam will see a different ensemble again play with her.
“It’s like re-imagining your music with different musicians, re-orchestrating in a different way each time”. Sounds exhausting. “I like to challenge myself, but it does lead to some sleepless nights. I tried out some parts of ‘Bird’ [Julie’s opera] for the first time the other night. I didn’t need to but I really wanted to have something new to mark these shows in Subculture.”
You might think then that the string of ten one-woman shows planned for the Spring in Dublin’s Project Arts Centre would be a welcome relief. But you’d be wrong. “I want to explore the theatrical side more. I’m working with a director, a set-designer and a lighting designer and all that. There’s always a lot of narrative in what I do. A one-woman show is something I’ve always wanted to try.”
She’s keeping herself busy in New York between writing scores for her recently announced Cork Opera House show, working on her opera, ‘Bird’, and working on material for her one-woman show. “I had some meetings that I needed to stick around for so I thought I’d take advantage and do some writing. It’s really inspiring here. It’s interesting to write somewhere different in a rigorous kind of way. I’ve done every version of New York that you can do so it’s nice to do a quiet version.”
We speak the day after the 13th anniversary of 9/11. It’s a memory that is vivid in the minds of everyone who witnessed it. Did the city feel any different yesterday? “I felt it to a degree but I actually feel it more in Ireland funnily enough. Whenever I’m in Ireland I’m glued to all the 9/11 stuff on the TV. I was here for the anniversary before, closer to 9/11 and it was much more tangible then. It’s still New York City after all, it’s still as buzzy as ever, so it’s very different when you’re here. It’s like, once I was performing in Lebanon and I remember it was all over CNN that there was terrible trouble, but when you’re actually in it, it’s quite different to how it looks from outside.
“But [9/11] was on my mind all day yesterday. I was sitting in a café wondering would people have been running around here, what must it have been like? I have a cousin who plays in the philharmonic orchestra here and their daughter was born on 9/11 at exactly the time that the whole thing was happening, so it’s mixed emotions for them on the anniversary.”
Julie is a Galway girl through and through. Both her Mother and Father’s families are pure Galway stock stretching back several generations. “Being from Galway is something that’s extremely important to me, though it’s not as huge a part of the show as it was. It used to frame every show.”
In fact a mini-documentary on the making of ‘Clocks’ features on Feeney’s website in the build up to a show in Kylemore Abbey which features footage of the Galway countryside and interviews with her father about her grandparents. In it she also discusses her opera which she hopes will go into production in 2016. “I’ve always wanted to do an opera. I just love creating something that’s theatrical. The process of writing the story was exhilarating.”
For those of you recoiling in horror at the idea of an indecipherable bore, rest assured that it will be in English and not your typical opera. “The whole objective for me is that anyone can go to it. The story, which is fairly far-out, is really important to me. It’s not supposed to be exclusively for people that can understand opera. It’s just a story dramatized on stage. That’s all an opera is.”
Yes, Miss Feeney is nothing if not unpredictable. One never really know where she will turn up next or what project she will be enthusing about. She enjoys the unique kind of appeal that allows her to play the Aran Islands in July and New York in September, to go from a one-woman show to an opera.
“I’ve always kind of done what I wanted, even when I was with Sony (she was with the label for two years). [Sony] didn’t really do anything anyway – they didn’t stop me or start me. I kept expecting them to do something, but they had all this internal politics going on at the time and then the label head was fired. These ideas should be coming from the artist, not the record label anyway. It really made no difference.”
How many strings can one bow take? At the rate at which Feeney is adding them she will need an entire orchestra of bows.