Dublin singer/songwriter Ylroy may be new to the music scene but truthfully, they’ve never been far from the pulse of what makes the heart of this art beat. Currently studying music at one of Ireland’s most prestigious conservatoires, the 23 year old has taken every opportunity to surround themselves with something resembling creative oceans and not just mere juices.
Sometime between class and choral concerts, Ylroy manages to bring a relaxed sophistication and confidence to the otherwise unpolished and ruthlessly raw genre of antifolk.
With influences in the music of Moldy Peaches, Judee Sill and Sufjan Stevens, their debut EP produced by the GRAMMY award-winning Ben Rawlins, follows a story of hopeless romance that changes with the seasons but also the story of relationship realisations that align and define each season as they restlessly move in. The up and downs of queer love and lust is painted with strokes of realism, charm and introspection from start to finish. It’s clear that while antifolk’s rejection of perfection is scattered in Ylroy’s deeply emotive and reactionary writing, folk’s inherent beauty, compassion and steadfastness drives the music melodically through till its resolution.
Upon the release of ‘Three Flowers For My Beloved’, I sat down with Ylroy to explore their background in classical and religious choral music, their musical translation from studio to stage and the meaning behind the songs beyond a casual gossip. The EP opens with a verse of the famous hymn ‘All People That on Earth Do Dwell’ and this is how we began our discussion, right at the very beginning (a very good place to start).
Talk me through the intro. Why did you choose to begin with a church hymn?
“I’m involved in choirs and Stephen’s day is an important day in the church year, so I literally googled ‘hymn in G major’ but I couldn’t find one that I liked. So I texted my friend, he gave me a list of hymns to choose from, and this was one of them! I love Vaughan Williams and when I heard it I thought it was perfect!”
How do you think that being surrounded by classical music has influenced your writing of folk/ anti-folk music?
“The influence comes more from the network that I have. When recording the EP, all the people in my band are classical musicians on my university course. I found I was able to communicate abstract ideas very well using classical music terms and otherwise. Using the classical music system is so much more efficient and I can easily translate all the music to different instruments. The band all have sheet music to play with and this helped a lot in the recording process. We’re not really a band, it’s a solo project so we had very limited time for rehearsing. I think we maybe only had 3 rehearsals and the rest is then just improvised.”
How important is collaboration when it comes to fleshing out the songs?
“I’ve written all the songs by myself just with the guitar, but with arrangement I had help from my friends. For example, the trumpet player, Erinn majors in trumpet so she knows what she’s doing. And sometimes I would hum a melody to her and she would play it, or, Jamie (second guitarist) would write a line for her to play. I trust them enough with the arrangements, if something sounds good we keep it and if it doesn’t I say ‘scrap that’ lets try something else. So it’s just a lot of experimentation when we’re together. I think as long as you have a solid base for a song, the arrangement is much easier especially when you’ve got so many skilled people with you… Most of the time, it’s just like jamming. The whole idea is that I don’t want the record to be clean, I don’t want it to be very precise, because if it’s too clean, it’s not the music I want to make”
How does it work transferring things to a live setting, is that also collaborative? Do different sets feel different to you?
“I think it depends on the amount of bandmates that I have at the time. Sometimes if people are not available then it’s just me and Jamie on guitar doing an acoustic set. I try to stay true to the recording but it just depends on the resources that we have. Primarily I think of myself as a story - teller so I really like basic guitar and just my voice. I’ve been playing solo and also with Jamie for some time now. With the band, there’s so many moving parts that I’m hyper aware of what’s going on. If something is played differently to what I expected then I get distracted whereas with just the guitar and me, it’s a lot easier to deliver the story. I find that people listen more when it’s stripped back and the audience is more exposed when they talk, you can hear them so they tend not to speak.”
Would you ever tell anyone to ‘shut up’ if they’re speaking in your set?
*laughs* “No no, I normally just say ‘this is going to be a softer one’ and people get the message or I’ll do a rall (to get slower) or break after some phrases in the song so that people can notice the quiet or be more aware if someone's talking. But yes, I can hear if someone's talking because on stage, you're hyper aware of what’s going on.”
What is your take on antifolk? What does it mean to you?
“Antifolk takes the format of folk but it’s not as serious. Take a Bob Dylan song, and look at his lyricism, it’s more serious and more poetic. But antifolk is poetic in another way. It kind of makes fun of itself, there’s not a lot of rhymes, basically just saying what’s on your mind. In antifolk you really don’t need to be good at guitar or an instrument, and it doesn't have to be beautiful like most folk. If you convey the message you want, then you’re successful. It doesn’t have to be good in a stereotypical way as long as you stay true to yourself and make some jokes about it. Making fun of yourself is big on antifolk. Using the song to communicate your thoughts that is almost uncensored or poetically convoluted. When you’re writing a song it's just like talking to a friend, it doesn't have to be complicated. I try to blend the features I like about folk, such as the phrasing, into a more anti folk style.”
What about the emotions behind antifolk? How are they different from other genres?
“I think antifolk songs talk about an emotion like love in a very unique way, because it’s not using phrases about love that have been recycled, it’s a different way of experiencing things. The lyrics are often very specific but also general. For example, in one of my songs I talk about going on a date with someone. While that story is personal to me it’s also general because all the emotions have been felt by everybody at some point in their life.”
How is this all then contrastingly opposed to the type of music you’re studying?
“Antifolk is so fun for me because it is the opposite of what I’m studying a lot of the time in classical music. Because in classical music, like if you study opera, each note needs to be amazing, it needs to flow, be precise and be clean. But with my own music I feel I can be myself more.”
If you’re comfortable with talking about it, what or who are the songs about?
“The EP is just about one person. I was seeing this person, and our first date was Stephen’s day. We met online and we’d been texting for about a week before. He was apprehensive at first because he wasn’t out. Queer relationships in your twenties and also in your teens are very difficult because people don’t come out at the same time. People experience things differently so they come out at different times in their entire life. It just so happens that I’m privileged enough to be surrounded by people who make me feel comfortable about being myself but other people don’t always have that. I think it’s common in Ireland, even in Dublin, your friends that you have since school stick with you even past university so if they have a certain expectation of your personality or of your sexuality, it’s harder to branch out from that and you question whether you’re still going to be accepted by your friends if you do. He made it clear at the start that he was emotionally unavailable, but I was like ‘oh I can change you’. Around that time I started identifying as non-binary and when you’re gay or queer, there’s a lot of expectations that you need to have a masculine figure and or be white or ‘built’ and I’m none of those things. So it’s hard for me to be truly myself when I’m with someone, I have to fit into boxes to be attractive or to feel wanted. But when I started dating this person, he basically said ‘I like the way you act, the way you smile, the way you do things’ and no one had ever said that to me before. Growing up as a queer person you’re always aware of your movements, because you don’t want to be perceived as gay. So growing up I’d hide myself and I didn’t have to do that around him and he appreciated me for how I am.”
What was the timeline between the relationship and when the songs were written?
“I wrote the songs in a period of 3 to 4 months and then we recorded around a month or two after. It’s the same length as the relationship that I had with this person. It was a very short lived relationship but it came at a time when I was going through a lot of changes. The last song was ‘Spring’ and basically in the song I was mourning the time I told him that I loved him. I’m a very affectionate person and his reaction was surprising. And that’s the first line of the song… At the end I realised, he’s not comfortable with himself yet and I needed to give him space but also I couldn’t always be on the sidelines. I enjoyed the time that we had but like I said in the song, ‘I can’t wait all spring wishing for your flowers to bloom’. So it was sad when it didn’t last. But I guess, I got an EP out of it.*laughs*”
And a damn good one at that. Soon the mist, fog and cold of Ylroy’s ‘Stephen’s Day’ will cover our homes, our hands and our noses as we accept this yearly wintery fate. If anything, ‘Three Flowers For My Beloved’ is the perfect soundtrack for this exceedingly chilly period, but if everything it is the romantic nuances of queer love, an internal monologue of emotion and a profound proclamation of honesty.
Ylroy’s debut EP ‘Three Flowers For My Beloved’ is available now to stream on all streaming platforms.