Rising Star: Ria Maguire

From the Mourne Mountains to Nashville and back – County Down's latest songwriting star has high hopes

Who/what/where/why/when is Ria Maguire?

I’m a 20-something female who loves to listen to music, and occasionally write my own. I’m living in Belfast at the minute, and balancing singing and songwriting with some music-related youth work.

When did you start writing music?

I began writing at quite a young age. 13, maybe. I had to write a couple of compositions for my GCSE and AS-Level music exams, and I loved the experience of creating something of my own. Writing songs is the perfect way to combine my love of music with my tendency to over-think.

Who were your early influences?

The first CD I ever bought was East 17’s ‘Steam’, so lets not go down that road... My parents weren’t into music to be honest, so there was never really music on at home. Most of my musical experiences were gained at school. I went through the grungy phase and had a huge appreciation for blues and soul, and then I heard Tracy Chapman. I had a different expectation for songs from then.

I started listening to current singer/songwriters, the likes of Carole King’s Tapestry album. Damien Rice’s O was a massive album, and Eva Cassidy’s voice just blew me away. I’m not sure if these artists influence my music as such, but they most definitely inspire me to make honest music that is able to touch someone in some way.

You grew up in Newcastle, County Down. It's a picturesque place, but is it conducive to the burgeoning artist?

Newcastle is lovely, but I don’t think that my environment has had too much of an effect on my creativity. I have always been more influenced by the people around me, and what they are going through. But the mountains do the soul a lot of good. The feeling of being so small in such a vast area really frees something in my mind.

You studied Ethnomusicology and the Anthropology of Music at Masters level at Queen's University. What did the degree consist of?

It’s a lot harder to pronounce than to study. Basically anthropology is the study of people (culture, society et cetera) and ethnomusicology is about studying people, but it uses music and musical practices as an investigative tool.

My undergrad thesis looked at the MP3 format and how it has changed the way people listen to music, and my postgrad research looked at how musicians (in the grey area between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’) balance out their lives, passions, money and energy whilst trying to make it in the music industry.

I’m actually in the process of getting my undergrad thesis published. As I’ve said, I really enjoy learning about people, and I’m sure that’s why my music has such a human element to it. There’s very little about people and their practices that I don’t find interesting.

You are a member of the Belfast Community Gospel Choir. Are you a solo singer, or part of the chorus?

I am one of the founder members of BCGC. I'm part of the chorus, but also sing solos from time to time. We’re in our third year together, and I have loved every minute of it. I have met so many new friends there, and have really grown fond of gospel music. The physical effects of singing in a room with so many people is magic – there is no other word to describe it.

I have a few favourite songs that are on the repertoire that have moved me to tears on several occasions. But you can’t help but feel rejuvenated after a great practice or a belter gig. Our director, Marie Lacey, arranged one of my songs ‘I'm Here’, from my previous EP, All That’s Left is Love, for the choir and we perform it pretty regularly.

One of my most memorable moments with BCGC was performing my own song for the first time in May Street Church with an army of singers behind me. It was a beautiful experience. I’ll never forget it. The choir reignited my passion for singing with other people. I think differently about recording now. Whereas my first EP was much more geared towards a single vocal melody line, and the harmonies were worked out when I arrived at the studio for recording.

You've recently been busy promoting your new EP, Into the Silence. For those who haven't heard it, what can they expect?

I’m very excited. It has four very different tracks on it. I designed the tracks to each have a different flavour and a life of their own, I suppose. There is one poppy sounding track, ‘Truth Rises’ (above), one choir track, ‘Work of Heart’ (below), an alternative, bass driven song called ‘Running’ and a soul ballad called ‘Me and You’.

I launched it at the Belfast Nashville Songwriter's Festival in Belfast in February 2012, and played an ‘in the round’ show with Nanci Griffith and Matt McGinn. I was also awarded the Katherine Brick Award for Young Songwriter of the Year at the festival. Currently I’m in the process of organising a second show to coincide with the online launch, and am getting a few more musicians involved, which is always great.

Where did you record the EP?

I recorded in Hill House Studios in Holywood. Gareth Dunlop (an amazingly talented Northern Irish singer/songwriter) produced and engineered the record, and I stole most of his band to play on it. These guys are absolute pros, and made it a brilliant experience. I also had six friends come up and record choir vocals on ‘Work of Heart’, which was a great experience for all involved.

I love recording, and being in that type of creative environment. The studio was built by those guys out of love and hard work, and they have done an amazing job. You can have great equipment, but if the vibe of the place is wrong, then people can’t flourish.

There is a distinctly spiritual tone to some of the tracks. Do you consider yourself to be a Christian artist?

That is a tough question to answer. A few people have commented on the spirituality of this EP, and it’s something I thought very little about during the writing. I would consider myself to be a spiritual person to some degree, but the themes of these songs aren’t out of an ancient book – they’re about things that have mattered in my life.

I understand that writing about ‘truth’, for example, may have Christian overtones, but lots of things can mean lots of things to different people. What I value in life (truth, love, friendship) are very much grounded in people and their stories – not God and the story in the Bible. I write about things that are relevant to me.

‘Work of Heart’ has a deliberately deceptive opening line ('Holy water washed over me'), but the song is really about how a religion that we are born into can have little to no relevance to a person. It’s what they do in their own hearts and lives that matters.

You recently travelled to Nashville with four other Northern Irish artists as part of the Belfast Nashville Songwriter's Festival. 

We travelled there for a series of industry meetings and performance opportunities. The trip was life changing. I came away equipped with a new perspective and a fresh, informed outlook of my own work, and also of the music business.

We performed at the infamous Bluebird Café, which was one of my personal highlights of the whole trip. We shared the stage with Chas Stanford (‘Missing You’) and were welcomed by the Nashville audience with open arms.

That gig, as well as our other showcase events, provided me with a fresh driving force to continue, to improve and to succeed. My ultimate ambition is to write and perform for a living. I’m pulling material together for an album at the moment, and hope to start touring properly in the near future. I love writing and performing, and I’ll be happy for as long as I’m able to continue.