Something of a musical all-rounder, it would appear that there’s precious little Julie Feeney can’t do. A multi-instrumentalist, composer, conductor, producer and immaculate vocalist she’s clearly phenomenally talented. She’s won awards for her previous work, most notably 2006’s debut 13 Songs which bagged the Choice Music Prize. Even more impressive is the fact that she seems to be more than happy to do everything herself. Whilst her music could never be classed as punk her career is based on self-releasing albums on her own label (Mittens – named after her mum’s cat) and is as DIY as it comes.
Clocks is Feeney’s third album and was made possible by using crowd-funding. Originally released in 2012, a UK release is finally available, and not before time. It’s already won awards in Fenney’s native Ireland and it’s easy to see why. Clocks is perfectly written and performed from start to finish and possesses a quite wonderful clarity of vision. Thematically, the album is based on relationships and more specifically, family. Feeney looks back at her ancestry and attempts to tell their stories and give them a voice. In doing so she’s created an album that is both joyous and inevitably, rather sad too.
Describing quite what Julie Feeney’s music is like is actually quite difficult. As she is an accomplished classical musician, it is no surprise that this is an album shot through with strings and choral vocals, but there’s also a considerable pop influence, and twists of folk too. Getting the mix of classical and pop right is a tricky business and the results can often be po-faced or totally laughable; Clocks however, finds the sweet spot consistently. There are times when the production and use of synths sails close to Wendy Carlos’ work on the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange, which is no bad thing at all.
Beginning with Dear John, she defies expectations by writing a song about the first shoots of a relationship, rather than the scrawled disintegration at the end. Where most Dear John letters speak of regrets and turmoil, this finely crafted song can barely contain the thrill of young love (apparently Feeney wrote it about her grandparents meeting up for a moonlit bike ride). The plucked strings contain a sense of nervousness and excitement, whilst the vocal refrain of “what a fantastic day!” leaves no doubt as to where the protagonists’ hearts lie.
At the other end of the spectrum is Julia, which tells the tale of her grandfather in the aftermath of his wife’s death. Here, the strings ache (in a similar fashion to Lou Reed’s Sad Song) as Feeney sings of him crying his wife’s name across the expanse of a river. Just A Few Hours follows in a similar vein. A haunting ballad with beautiful choral flourishes and stirring strings, it tells of the impending end of a relationship. It’s beautifully handled, and when she sings “Just a few hours in my heart before it’s breaking, I can’t tell you that I love you or I’ll break it” the music and her vocal tone evoke the mood perfectly. If I Lose You Tonight completes the tales of heartbreak in the style of lilting Irish folk; it can’t fail to be anything but beautiful.
As the album progresses, things take on a West End tinge. Every Inch A Woman is pure musical theatre albeit about Feeney’s family, whilst the pantoesque Happy Ever After leans on cheap synth sounds, brass pomp and a peculiar whistling section that sounds like Percy Edwards might have been a guest musician. Closing the album is the delicate woodwind lilt of Imperfect Love which steps away from the theatre and back into the concert hall. Singing of the echoes of love across the ages in that beautiful voice is a fitting end to an album that serves as a perfect homage to Julie Feeney’s family; but it is not so personal as to not be welcoming to everyone.