Michael Gillespie’s new venture as a solo artist was just coming into full swing when the coronavirus pandemic hit the world.
But a year on, this month, since the release of his self-produced debut album, All versions of the Truth, the Donegal Town man hasn’t let this hold him back from continuing to be creative.
Well-known in north-west music circles as a bassist playing with various outfits for over 15 years, Michael had literally just started stepping out as a solo act, when things had to be put on hold.
Not one sit on his hands, Michael has kept busy behind closed doors during what, despite everything, he described as one of his best years, yet.
Although he has recorded and performed with many bands over the years, Michael said, he never set out or intended to record an album of his own. He just wanted to scratch that ‘musical itch’.
It was rather a case of curiosity that drove him on to do it just over three years ago. “I’ve always written, words, short stories, prose. Gathering thoughts would probably be a good way of putting it. So nearly all the lyrical content was written way before I even started putting it together musically.”
As he was recording the album himself at home, all the while still touring the country with bands and running his own business, Gillespie Cleaning, Michael said there was no pressure.
“I wasn’t doing it on a time scale, it would be ready when it was ready. And, after two years, I knew what I was trying to do and what the entire theme, story and angle of the album was going to be from start to finish,” he said.
Michael has collected different riffs, ideas and melodies over the years, so when he found the right riff, mood or melody for a particular set of words, he would start.
While Michael was joined on the album for backing vocals and keys by his partner, Zara Montgomery, and Fintown man Peadar Coll on fiddle, he played every other instrument and recorded the entire album himself at his Letterkenny home.
“When it came to the recording process, living in a semi-detached house, I set up in the garage so I could work later nights.
“Usually I would get a chance to do things between 8pm and 1am, because you’d have work, gigs, or other things to do during the day. It was always more of a late night effort.
“I recorded everything with two mics and a laptop that at the time was still running Windows XP, and possibly a FreeWare version of Q-Base, After that it was just a great education on YouTube, really, trial and error,” he laughed.
“Because you are nearly doing the entire thing yourself, you are very close to it [the album]. It was something that was in my head, and ended up being what I wanted it to be, so that did give me a sense of accomplishment. I felt very complete.”
Michael did get the opportunity to perform at a number of events as a solo artist following his album launch, including a support slot to We Banjo 3 in Sligo.
He said: “Stepping out and performing live as a solo artist then was another completely new challenge in itself, having come to this as a bass player, in a live context. It was a complete change of role for me, but it made music a scary, yet fun place again.
“I got to do a number of gigs, and then 2020 was shaping up very nicely and was going to be my year to push away at the album, but unfortunately things went the way they did.”
Michael managed to record his album while gigging full-time, running a business and at times, even studying. In January, he and his partner Zara called it a day on touring the country with well-known covers band, The Humble Earthworms.
He said: “I don’t sit with a feeling that this was a year wasted. This has actually been the first year where there was no pressure, a year of writing for writing’s sake.
“We were busy for so long, so 2020 hasn’t been a million miles away from what we had planned it to be anyway. When I was making the first album, while still touring with a band and running a business, there was a variety of things going on. You always felt like you were chasing the clock.
“Slowing down has done me the world good and, ironically, I’ve had one of my happiest years ever. And I say that with full regard to anyone whom this year has affected badly.”
While his day-time business was on hold during the summer, Michael spent his time with Zara doing home renovations, but also continuing to be creative, having learned a lot from the process of making his first album.
“I’ve spent the entire year so far writing, having some time off work too, I’d get up in the morning and spend an hour finishing something up or finalising a track.
“Then, in the afternoon, I’d go in and start demoing, working on a track a day. I have about 20 or 30 odd demos sitting there, so I am very pleased.”
The most exciting thing about music for him, Michael said, is the process of making it. “The actual making of music is what fires me up.
“I get such a kick out of something that didn’t exist and then hearing it as an end product. That is a very exciting part of making music. So my intention is to keep pushing on with the writing and recording, as I have been.”
Although he had already called it a day on paid gigging work, Michael still keeps in touch with fellow working musicians, whom he said are not just missing the financial incentive of gigging, but are also missing the camaraderie and social element.
“Uncertainty is the big thing for the industry now. Anybody can take a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but it’s the ‘maybe’ that is difficult on a lot of people, especially in music.
“Beyond the financial incentive of gigging, there is a great energy to it. There is a nice sense of camaraderie and an entire social life tied to it and I think it’s that element is very much being missed during these times,” he said.
Michael said he went back and forth on a lot of themes for a playlist (It’s like asking a music head their favourite song- you never get an answer!).
“I settled with what I’ve listened to most this year. Tracks that have been on repeat. I’d say the thing that ties these songs together for me most is the mood and their sound. My ears tend like things a little lo-fi-sh and warm; And they’re just great songs!”
The Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny is proudly funded by Donegal County Council and Arts Council Ireland.