In the middle of the 2000s, things in the music business were different. People went to record shops and bought CDs. Record companies signed artists to lucrative publishing deals, and lavished money on the media to make their artists successful.
For Derry~Londonderry band Red Organ Serpent Sound, back in 2004 things appeared promising. Having signed to Mercury Records, a huge record contract was a very real possibility. The band had been wowing audiences with their energetic brand of punky garage pop for some time, and their debut album was supposed to put them on the musical map...
Then people discovered that they didn’t have to pay for music any more. Within a few short years, the labels were floundering and artists bore the brunt of the squeeze. Many people found that the 'career' they had been promised was suddenly worthless, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Casualties of the music industry crisis, a combination of factors fatally derailed Red Organ Serpent Sound. So when Chris McConaghy stepped out from the shadows with his own project, Our Krypton Son, many looked on with interest. Would the unassuming singer-songwriter make it in his own right? Was he wise to even try?
'When I was in Red Organ, we were so busy,' recalls McConaghy down the line from his native Derry~Londonderry. 'But I think, in the last five or six years, that the major labels have only been interested in product. Now,' he says, 'I wouldn’t go near a major label.'
Somehow McConaghy still seems hesitant, all these years later, as if on the lookout for someone to pull him up on some imagined crime. It's no surprise. He's not the only Northern Irish artist to have been through the music industry meat grinder. It's left him cautious of it, removed from it. Wounded but not out.
'I think Red Organ was doomed from the word go,' he adds. 'I don’t think that we should have been signed to a major label. We were picked up at the same time as bands like Razorlight and Kasabian, and Mercury were expecting a certain kind of product. But it would never have worked.
'But the reality of being self-employed for three years, going round touring and investing so much in it, then everything falling apart with the label wanting to drop us... It added a certain focus that I should start doing something with these songs I had written, rather than just waiting about.'
Far from being tinged with bitterness, McConaghy now seems at peace with his past. Yes, his previous band may have squandered a great opportunity, but that’s what anarchic rock and roll bands are supposed to do – aren't they? For McConaghy, it was a lesson learned.
'In terms of the industry, this was back in 2005 and things were a lot different back then. Even if I had the opportunity – and I don’t think I would have the opportunity, frankly – I wouldn’t want to sign to a major label again. I just wouldn’t want to work like that, with a big advance hanging over me, and all those things you have to keep on top of. I’d rather keep it low key, and do things on a small scale.'
Keeping things low key has not been a problem for McConaghy since the break up Red Organ Serpent Sound. Far away from the pressures of 'the industry', he was able to work on his songs and develop the persona that would at once protect his privacy and endear him to so many who have discovered his sound.
In 2012 McConaghy finds himself at the forefront of the current crop of confident, determined Northern Irish musicians who are attracting the attention of the global media, with an eponymous album garnering critical acclaim at home and abroad.
Working with Derry-based indie label Smalltown America, McConaghy has finally found an environment in which he can work at a pace that he feels comfortable with, and to make the kind of records he wants to, rather than the kind of 'product' that is expected of him.
'Smalltown are a great enabler to allow you to do things that you would like to do. It’s really a family atmosphere with them, it’s very hospitable. I think the label is getting more exposure these days, and it’s been great to work with them. Anything I’ve wanted to do, they’ve been up for doing it, and I hope that will continue.'
With 'integrity' and 'soul' very much at the forefront of what he does, the songs featured on Our Krypton Son are perhaps understandbly earnest and poetic. A simplicity masks the complex craft that has gone into their creation – and that's exactly how McConaghy would have it.
His nine-song album conveys a sense of world weary romance, a sense of disillusionment at the world’s problems outweighed by the promise it offers. Far from being a downbeat affair, Our Krypton Son is full of optimism.
Tracks like ‘Plutonium’ and ‘Sunlight in the Ashes’ are full of beguiling twists and turns, difficult to pin down, but instantly accessible, whilst ‘Catalonian Love Song’ already has the makings of a Northern Irish classic. Part of this is down to the quality of the songwriting, but some of these songs have been around for a long time. McConaghy was happy to let them mature.
'I’ve got a strange relationship with all the songs on the album, but I’m glad to get it out there, so I can move on with things. Some of the songs were written a number of years ago, but the majority were started three years ago... I became a father, took a load of time out. I just find it hard to progress with something hanging over me. Now that it’s come out, I can do something different, and quicker.'
He talks of releasing a series of EPs, as well as touring, and it becomes clear that McConaghy has hit the ground running. A mature singer-songwriter capable of exploring a variety of different themes, he holds his creative future firmly in his own grasp.
When it comes to any 'career' that he may now have, one thing is for certain though: McConaghy will approach it with a sense of realism and intelligence. After all, he’s seen the very worst of what achieving your dreams can entail.
'I grew up with this rock and roll dream, people buying yachts and all that carry on, but I think the yacht buying days are over,' he laughs, content to arrive at his final destination in a much more modest fashion.
Visit the Our Krypton Son Facebook page for information on forthcoming gigs.