Cork-based singer-songwriter Polly Barrett takes the stage this week at both the Your Roots Are Showing music conference and TradFest on the Emerald Isle.
What are your roots?
Well, I can tell you with some confidence that I’m 48% Scottish, 37% English, 10% Irish, 3% Scandinavian and 2% Welsh. But I was raised in Ireland by my English mother, and I identify as Irish.
Where do you currently reside?
I live on the Mizen Peninsula in west Cork, Ireland. It’s remote and windswept and incredibly good for my head.
When and why did you become interested in music?
I don’t come from a musical family. I feel like music kind of chose me. I was desperate to express myself as a teenager and writing songs felt incredibly theraputic and rewarding. I hadn’t had much interest in listening to music outside of what was on the radio until I was about 17. I joined a band in school and the guys in the band drowned me in wondrous music I’d never heard before. Joni Mitchell, John Martyn, the later Beatles albums, Carole King. My mind was blown, and I was hugely inspired. I recently had a memory of going to see Irish singer-songwriter, Gemma Hayes in a stadium when I was 18. She was this tiny thing in the distance with a guitar all alone on the stage and I just thought, ‘I could do that!’. I trained to be an actor in London after I left school but the feeling of pouring my heart out in song always felt more like the right path for me. Like a little nudge from the inside saying ‘Yes, this way!’
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
Definitely. Bolstered by the fact that I’m utterly useless at everything else!
What are the challenges involved with the vocation?
Well it’s hard to be the product you’re selling. You either need very high self-esteem or be excellent at faking it. I find having a team around me helps. On the days when I feel like it’s all a waste of time and I’m only embarrassing myself if I continue, they’re still there believing in me and that makes a huge difference. Another big challenge would be family. The life of a musician / songwriter isn’t necessarily conducive to family life.
What are the rewards?
Connection. That’s what it’s all about for me. When you feel that energy coming off an audience and you know they’ve come on a journey with you. It becomes this beautiful symbiotic relationship and everyone in the room is feeling it. I think that’s incredibly powerful and potentially healing. I want that to happen every time I play a show.
How have you evolved as an artist over time?
Same way I’ve evolved as a person really. You can’t separate them. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more self-aware, more empathetic, more spiritual, more open. And I’ve become a mother. I think all of that is reflected in my music now.
What have been some career highlights?
In 2013 I toured the UK on my own in my campervan. I was so liberated and empowered by that experience. I also did loads of exploring the countryside in between gigs. There’s a cross-country pathway between most towns and villages in the UK and that’s something we don’t have here in Ireland. I think probably the next highlight was realising I still had a career after having my son. I hadn’t been able to write a song since falling pregnant and after 3 or 4 years I just gave up on the idea of having a career in music anymore. I was doing an online course in Interior Design and feeling pretty underwhelmed when suddenly a song came to me. The floodgates opened after that, and I started recording and releasing music again in 2021. It was euphoric honestly!
Is your creative process more “inspirational” or “perspirational”?
Oh definitely a bit of both! It’s cyclical. The initial writing part is mostly inspirational, and it flows nicely when it’s ready. But the arrangements and rehearsals I find pretty perspirational. I have quite a short attention span. Luckily my partner Frank adores arranging and experimenting. So we’re a great team in that way.
What makes a good live show?
When the people on stage are genuinely enjoying themselves and you can share in that enjoyment.
What can audiences expect at your Showing Roots performance?
You can expect some hypnotic melodies with finger-picked guitar, mandolin, bodhrán and some tongue drum. We usually play with a talented cellist, but she can’t make the conference, so we’ve been experimenting with looping some drones to replace her gorgeous low-end sounds. You might witness myself and Frank having artistic differences on stage if you’re lucky!
What’s on your musical agenda for the rest of 2023?
After the conference we’re playing at Trad Fest in Dublin, then we have a show in the legendary Levis’ Corner House in our nearby Ballydehob on the 10th of February. This summer we’re very excited about a little US tour including Milwaukee Irish Fest in August.