When Sorcha Richardson was about four, she sat behind the couch in her family’s house in Dalkey, Co Dublin, while an Ireland soccer match was on television, and on a Fisher Price tape deck recorded a full cassette of songs she had heard, and ones she had made up. This thing, which continued when her grandfather gave her his keyboard when she was about six or seven, was the birth of her creativity.
One of Ireland’s most intriguing songwriters, Richardson has two albums to her name: 2019′s First Prize Bravery, and 2022′s Smiling Like an Idiot. She is preparing for concerts this month at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, St Luke’s in Cork, as well as Dolan’s Warehouse in Limerick and the Róisín Dubh in Galway. Her creative intentions were obvious form an early age, but the path has been winding.
At the Other Voices festival in Dingle last year, Richardson and the actor Eve Hewson sat in the back room of Foxy John’s pub for Jim Carroll’s interview series, Banter. For those who didn’t know the connection, it felt like a curious pairing. Yet Hewson played a key role in Richardson’s musical progression. They are close friends, former schoolmates at the Dalkey School Project, and as children formed a band with a third friend, Adam Purcell (now a chef), called Ten Past Two, named for the time they got off school. To much laughter in Foxy John’s, they performed a song they had written as preteens, titled, with a seriousness only 10-year-old composers can muster, She Only Wants You for Your Money.
“We were so serious about the band,” says Richardson now. “There was an intensity and a loyalty to it. Even then I was like: we’re in a band, and we’re going to be in a band forever. We were 10. We made posters for gigs that didn’t exist. We had meetings twice a week, about our band name and whether we should change it. We never did anything, we didn’t record anything, we didn’t play anywhere, but we talked about it like we were proper full-time career musicians, which is kind of hilarious.”
Richardson is explaining this, along with her childhood obsession with Harriet the Spy, in a bar in Bushwick in Brooklyn in New York called Honey’s, which specialises in naturally crafted small batch meads fermented in barrels using wild yeast and foraged herbs. The inevitably obtuse cocktail menu’s intentions are somewhat lost on both of us. “Should I eat this?” asks Richardson, confused by a sprig of burning lavender balanced delicately on the rim of her cocktail glass. Nearby is the venue Elsewhere, where she’ll play that night as part of a tour of more than two dozen North American cities.
New York is a second home to her now. Richardson arrived here aged 18 in 2009, as a student at The New School with part-scholarship and part-funding, to embark upon a creative writing programme. New York was a bold choice for a teenager, but she knew a few others intending to study there, including her old bandmate Hewson, who ended up at NYU. Richardson was in a dorm on the edge of the East Village, the only Irish person she knew of in a building of about 800 students. “I thought I’d just try it for the year ... Within about a week of being here, I was like, I’m obviously not going home.”
She began playing open-mic nights. “I played Rockwood Music Hall, Cameo Gallery, Glasslands, The Bitter End, Pete’s Candy Store – at one point it felt like I had a residency there – The Knitting Factory, SOB’s ... One time I did a gig in The Delancey to my friend Dan and the bartender.”
She considered journalism, but baulked when tasked with an on-street vox-pop in her first journalism class, and sat on a bench instead of interviewing strangers. She wrote what she describes as “barely fiction” stories about people she knew, and her life as an Irish person in the city. “Sometimes when you move away from home you notice things about your culture that you don’t before.” What became obvious was her drive to write songs. In the evenings, she would finish her classwork rapidly, and spend her time making demos. One day, while she was interning at Domino Records, the Irish musician Conor O’Brien of Villagers visited. Richardson, then a huge Villagers fan, drummed up the courage to say “Your music is great”. His life as a touring musician, something she longed for, felt distant.
She stayed in New York after college, playing gigs and writing songs. When she released the track Petrol Station in 2015, with money she had earned from a teaching gig, it garnered airplay on BBC Radio 1, and record labels called. But she had no team around her, and was struggling to strategise. In 2017, after eight years in New York, the lease was up on her apartment, her visa was ending, and although she was working with a Los Angeles label, the reality of forging a music career in New York was biting. When she was offered an east coast tour with a band she loved, she couldn’t afford to rent a car, thought about taking trains, but didn’t have the money for hotels either.
She moved back to Dublin, but was in denial about returning to Ireland. She left instruments and suitcases of clothes in friends’ apartments. She even left a goldfish with a friend, and talked about going to LA, where she spent months of her first year back in Ireland. “It was too difficult to say to myself that I was fully moving home. That felt like a bit of bitter pill to swallow,” she says. “If you move to New York at any age with a dollar and a dream, and you leave with no dollars and your dream is spinning, it just felt: Jesus, what did I spend my time doing? Now I look at it and I see that I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing; growing up, making friends, living your life, learning how to write songs, learning how to perform.”
The music scene in Dublin was a safety net. She made money from gigs and found a tribe of musicians. It’s somewhat ironic that being in Ireland means she can tour the US. “Now I have Irish management, an Irish label. [On] my last album, all the musicians are Irish, recorded in an Irish studio. I’m so, so glad I had to stay long enough for me to realise it was actually the best place for me to be.”
Richardson’s music – tender, cinematic, atmospheric, with lyrical scenes unfolding on streets, in bars, at parties – has a night-time flavour. She writes songs that sometimes feel handed to the listener like small creatures needing protection. Occasionally they can initially even seem a little slight, until their fabric grows like vines, gripping and pulling. They also contain a remarkable intelligence for melody. Her latest release, Map of Manhattan, may be her finest song yet.
Richardson is a songwriter’s songwriter. One day, on a train to Dingle, she noticed a direct message on social media from Ellie Goulding. Initially thinking it was a fake account, she moved to report the message as spam, but checked the sender and noticed it had 14 million followers. Goulding was getting in touch about Richardson’s song, Shark Eyes, to tell her she loved it, and would like to cover it.
Goulding’s cover is robust and raw. Clearly enamoured of Richardson’s talent, Goulding asked if they could write together. “It was amazing writing with her,” says Richardson of the experience this year. They sat in a studio in London for two days, just the two of them and an electric guitar, and wrote a song for Goulding. “She’s a really good songwriter, really good, really great lyricist ... I was ready to go in and write a pop song, which is not what we did at all, which I thought was really cool. Who knows?” she says of that song’s future.
That early moment of fandom with Villagers has come full circle too. Last year Richardson was the special guest on Villagers’ European tour. And yet, like many artists, it became increasingly difficult for her to live in Dublin. Richardson is part of a wave of Dublin artists who have left the capital. She moved to west Kerry earlier this year. “I find it incredibly upsetting and frustrating,” says Richardson. “Two years ago my entire band lived in Dublin. Not a single one of us live in Dublin any more, and I’m the only person who still lives in Ireland.” It’s not that she doesn’t love west Kerry. She says it’s an amazing place to be; her two favourite views in the world are coming over the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan as the famous skyline comes into view, and Slea Head.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she says of sky-high rents in Dublin and other Irish cities. “It’s a choice that people in government are making. We could have affordable rent if we decided to have affordable rent, and affordable housing ... It’s going to have an incredibly damaging effect on Irish arts and culture. It already is ... I moved home to Ireland and it kind of changed my life for the better ... I feel way more inspired in and by Ireland than I did in New York to a certain degree. But it doesn’t feel that the systems that we have are interested at all in fostering or supporting that. But they do like to march it out and say: ‘Come and see us for arts and culture’.”
Later that evening, on a calm Brooklyn night, Richardson works through her catalogue to sways and applause. The next day she and her band hit the road for the next city, bringing songs forged in New York, Dublin and Dingle, embraced in every place.
Sorcha Richardson plays the Róisín Dubh in Galway on November 25th, the National Concert Hall in Dublin on the 29th, Dolans Warehouse in Limerick on the 30th, and St Luke’s in Cork on December 8th