The Nashville songwriting collective known as The Orphan Brigade have their third album released on September 27th. It is written, recorded and about a stretch of East Antrim from Glenarm to Ballycastle with one detour inland to the slopes of Slemish mountain. I will review this unique and stunning (in my subjective opinion) album just before its release but here is an interview that I did with Glenarm's Ben Glover, the man who brought his two songwriting buddies to the rugged, wild and beautiful Antrim Coast Road. The Orphan Brigade play Belfast's Black Box on October 12th and Carnlough's Londonderry Arms on October 13th.
Ben, I am loving To The Edge Of The World. It is a wonderful thing! Tell us a wee bit about The Orphan Brigade. How you got together and those records in a haunted house and in Italian caves?
It all started back in 2013 with Neilson Hubbard being the introducer of sorts. He had produced Joshua Britt's band, The Farewell Drifters, and Neilson and I were just getting ready to make my album Atlantic. There was a suggestion that we go and record some songs in Octagon Hall, a Civil War-era house in Kentucky, so we all met up there one evening nearly exactly six years ago. Octagon Hall is a pretty remarkable location, to say the least. It's got a very unique atmosphere and is allegedly one of the most haunted houses in the US. That night we discovered that the sonics in the place were indeed great but also Neilson, Josh and I decided to explore it further and write songs in the house over the next few months. Those songs turned into our first album "Soundtrack To A Ghost Story" which we recorded in Octagon Hall in 2014, the band comprising of the community of friends we regularly made music with in Nashville. It was an amazing experience and the three of us loved digging into the spirit and stories associated with the location. At the time, however, we thought it was a one-off project but then we toured Italy in 2016 and at that point, something clicked and it turned into a 'band.'
During that tour, we visited the town of Osimo in the Marche region of Italy, which is known for its 2,500-year-old tunnels and caves that run under the city. It has a fascinating history, carved by Romans, Templar Knights, Masons, mystics, saints, basically people who were seekers. It has the 'Da Vinci Code' vibe! So we felt an attraction to it straight away and in 2017 we spent two weeks there writing our second album 'Heart Of The Cave." We were just following this new-found creative quest we had of fully absorbing a place and almost allowing ourselves to be channels to whatever story wanted to be told.
When did you come up with the idea of the third album being about the Antrim Coast?
Italy seems to inspire good ideas in us as it was on our 2018 tour there that it became obvious that the third album had to be in Antrim! It felt like a no-brainer. The Antrim Coast is where I grew up and part of the Orphan Brigade ethos is to creatively explore our roots. Octagon Hall, the site of the first album, is in the home town of Joshua in Kentucky, so this theme of roots-exploration is an integral thing for us
Was the research about the myth, folklore and story of the coast entirely yours?
I was chief-researcher for this one, I gathered in the bones but we built the body together! I loved this process of digging into the stories of the area and spent a few months doing it. I had a long list of stories and folklore and then the three of us honed in on what resonated with us. What we try to do is not re-tell the story but find the universal connection in it. That's the secret.
Did Neilson and Joshua take any convincing?
Neilson and Josh were actually the initial champions of the idea of making this album on the Antrim Coast - I have to credit them with that. At the start, I had a little resistance but I knew it was going to be a very personal project, but I've learned by now that when there is creative resistance there can often follow magic. So to sum up, Neilson and Josh needed no convincing to set up camp on the coast! They absolutely love Ireland and both feel a strong bond with the place.
So, Neilson and Joshua arrive. Where did you start?
We started at the Mad's Man's Window, a limestone rock formation about a mile outside Glenarm. Legend has it that a beautiful young woman drowned whilst swimming in Glenarm Bay. Her sweetheart was so distraught that he lost his sanity and each day for the rest of his life he sat and gazed through the gap in the rock awaiting her return. We actually wrote five songs that first day, I'm still not sure how we did it!
You bring local knowledge. Like Sorley Boy, we all know that name here but I imagine the other guys didn’t. How did you get the guys up to speed on the Black nun, the Children of Lir and all the rest?
These are really wonderful stories and capture the imagination immediately, so it was very easy for the guys to invest and relate to them There is such a beauty and also at times darkness, and Neilson and Josh and I are suckers for those themes. I had done enough research on the stories that gave us a jumping-off point for the songs and after that it was just a matter of showing up with guitars on our backs!
You actually wrote the songs on location. Tell us about those and what that added to the songs.
It was integral to the songwriting process and without a doubt the atmosphere and spirit of the locations got on the music. On the first day after hitting the Mad Man's Window, we headed to the Ghost Room in the Ballygally Castle Hotel, a graveyard and then a midnight visit to Glenarm Forest.
Day two was equally memorable as we climbed the slopes of Slemish Mountain and then spent the afternoon in a boat in Glenarm and Carnlough Bay. The final day writing we went further up the coast to the caves at Cushendun, Kinbane Castle and Bonamargy Friary in Ballycastle. When you write outside in the elements it invites in wildness, rawness and a sense of space that is not available in a normal indoor writing scenario. It's incredibly inspiring, at times ridiculous but never boring!
Were there any difficulties doing that?
We were writing these songs outside in March and that's when that north coast wind likes to blow, so it was certainly chilly. It was also physically tiring as we were climbing mountains and cliffs and at times it felt like a workout. But I wouldn't call these difficulties, just eclectic elements that made the adventure all the more interesting and memorable.
How do you work as a trio? Do you share the responsibility of driving the song’s development?
It is very democratic and very collaborative. Sometimes one of us might have a melody idea or a lyric line that is a door opener but after that the there is a flow that kicks in which really is a shared thing between the three of us. For whatever reason we can work very fast and intensely together. It's like the muse is incredibly generous to us and gives us a few days of amazing flow, but then there is a moment when she disappears and it's over!
How did the record develop as a concept?
It came together very organically and quickly. We wrote all the songs in four days and we knew we had it in the bag by the end of that fourth day.
Then you recorded it in Glenarm?
We did, and this was a vital part of this record. The congregation of St.Patrick's Church of Ireland in Glenarm was extremely kind and allowed us to have the space for three days. It's such a beautiful and old building with wonderful sonics and atmosphere and it allowed this record to be what is it. So we wrote the record in four days and then recorded it in three.
I feel that you gave a real identity to the north east coast and was contrarily thrilled you stopped at Ballycastle. Was there any reason for that?
I was always intrigued by the story of Julia McQuillan, the Black Nun and every time I have visitors over I always bring them to Bonamargy Friary. I remember mentioning the name 'Black Nun' to Josh and Neilson and their ears pricked up right away! Sorley Boy McDonnell is buried up there too so it was a site we had to go and create on.
The furthest point we hit was the ruins of Kinbane Castle, just north of Ballycastle. We had sourced some other great locations further up the coast, but the stories associated with them didn’t resonate as strongly with us. We landed on the places which we felt we had the deepest connections with, the places that drew us to their story. You could say we took our direction from the creative compass.
What did you yourself learn about your home coast line?
Sometimes what is on our doorstep can be truly remarkable and inspiring. The making of this album just was reinforced that truth deeply in me.
How did you get John Prine singing about Sorley Boy. Just writing that sentence is wondrous to me! How was it for you hearing him sing a song written off the coast in Glenarm?
Just reading that sentence is wondrous to me! Honestly, I'm not sure if I have fully come to terms with the fact that one of the real masters and one of my musical heroes, John Prine, sung words that we wrote in a boat in Glenarm Bay. Neilson and Josh also have a video making company and they have worked with John in that capacity. They mentioned to him a while ago that we were planning to make this album and he casually said he'd like to sing on it. It came about as organically as that. I'll never forget the moment I heard John's voice coming through the speakers in the studio. It's still hard for me to get my head around.
Will it be any different when you perform it live?
For the most part we recorded this album live in the church, so I know the same passion and intensity that was on the recording will be in the live performance. We'll be touring as three-piece in England and Scotland in October but I'm excited that we'll have the full band for the Belfast gig in 12th October...that's the addition of Colm McClean (guitar) and Conor McCreanor (bass), both brilliant players who recorded with us in Glenarm
Will it be any different doing it live in Belfast and Carnlough than elsewhere?
I think so. The songs will be coming home to where they were born and that will bring something special. I can't wait to perform them live in both those places in October.
Are you satisfied with it and what do you hope the listener gets from it?
I'm deeply proud of this album. It feels very personal for me and I don't think I'll ever be able to make such an album again. We did what we intended to do and that was dive into the richness of the creative spirit in the Antrim Coast and I hope the listener is moved by what they hear. Maybe too for natives of the area it will uncover a few local tales that they weren't aware of.
How do Neilson and Joshua see the Antrim Coast now? Is making an album with people better than handing them a Tourist Brochure?
Both Neilson and Josh feel a deep connection to the area. They've been there several times now and I sense that it stirs something up in them. The Orphan Brigade feels like a brotherhood and it's a special thing for each of us that we get to explore each other's homelands in song. A Tourist Brochure barely scratches the surface of a place, songs and music have a way of revealing its soul.