Robyn G Shiels Has No Time to Sleep
Peter Brennan talks to the Kilrea singer about A Lifetime of Midnights
Funny little man Moby famously ended years of producing techno nonsense when he recorded the classic 1999 album Play from the comfort of his own bedroom.
In doing so, the diminutive DJ proved a valuable point - that stay-at-home albums do work. It was further underlined last month with the release of A Lifetime of Midnights, the stunning debut solo album from Kilrea man and - dare I say it - Moby look-a-like, Robyn Shiels.
The album is a stripped-down and moody affair, recorded over the last five years from Robyn's Belfast home. As the title suggests, the recording usually took place around midnight, with Robyn running a busy city centre newsagent's most other hours of the day.
It's fair to say that recognition has come fairly late in the day for the Shiels, who previously lined up with Therapy brothers Michael and Charlie McKeegan in the Sons Of Massey. But recent airplay by Radio 1, favourable comparisons with cult singer-songwriter Will Oldham and a recent successful Limelight gig has given the 37-year old exactly that.
Not that he's fazed by it. Meeting him in a city centre bar on a Saturday afternoon in mid-December, when most other people are in a Christmas presents frenzy, it's quite clear that this is a man with only whiskeys and Marlboro Reds on his mind. But a man who is also very proud of his work.
'I'm very happy with it and I'm glad people like it,' he says. 'I have an 8-track in the house and I've been messing about and writing songs for a good few years.
'But fair play to wee Jimmy Devlin (No Dancing Records) who knew I'd a few songs knocking about and told me to release an album. It was only then that we started putting something together. When you reach a certain stage in life, you have to take a chance.
'Luckily I've had some great people around me who've encouraged me and helped to get the thing done right. Every Friday night Danny Todd, who sings on the album, would come round and we'd record.
'The songs are very personal. When you get to my age and you've gathered a few experiences in life and you just feel like getting them down on paper and into a song.'
He's done the right thing. A Lifetime Of Midnights is undoubtedly one of the most powerful pieces of work to come out of Belfast this year. Robyn's smoke-stained vocals coupled with superb accompaniment make for an evocative combination.
Opening with the sound of drums being kicked down a stairs and an opening line - 'I drink alone cos I'm tired of Belfast' - it's no surprise to hear that a) this is a man with some issues; and b) one of those is his adopted city.
'I find the whole Belfast music scene a bit shallow,' he says. 'I've no part in it at all. The only reason they all like my stuff now is because it's been labelled as 'Americana' by music magazines and it's in fashion. But I've been writing this stuff for ten years.
'In another two years time they'll move onto something else. But they can do what they want - I'd rather have people who like my music for what it is. A lot of the bands round here are only in it for a couple of years and then they go off and work in some shit job.
'But I've been at it a while and once you've done that you get to know what exactly it is you want to do, you realise that you're bravin' good at what you do and it's just a matter of sticking at it.'
Brought up in the sleepy Co Derry town of Kilrea, birthplace to former Celtic manager Martin O'Neill, Robyn spent a number of years working at a petrol station and gigging around local bars.
Before long, however, he was up in Belfast and living with the McKeegan brothers from Therapy, discovering 'how to have fun.' He worked the petrol pumps for five years before moving on to and eventually taking over a newsagent's behind the city hall.
'I bought the newsagents a while back and I'm pretty busy with that now,' he explains. 'It's tough combining that with the music as you can have long 'oul days, but I have the incentive to come home and record now as I've a great bunch of lads around me.
'Kilrea's a nice place, but I didn't want to be stuck there so I came up to Belfast. I wouldn't say that I'm treated as an outsider in the music scene but I find it helps as you're singing from a different perspective.'
If A Lifetime of Midnights is anything to go by, Robyn has a long and successful career ahead of him. Having already supported prestigious acts such as Anthony and the Johnsons, Devandra Banhart and the aforementioned Will Oldham, he clearly has the respect of his peers.
He has also been lined up to record an exclusive live session for Radio 1 at their Maida Vale studios, after getting airplay on both the Steve Lamacq and Huw Stephens shows.
'As long as I keep playing music I'll be happy,' he declares. 'I'd like enough of a career so I can earn a bit of money and I don't have to work in a shop.
'That'll give me a bit more time to write songs as I tend to take my time with that. But it's also something I'll always do - if I didn't I'd be suicidal.'
As the bar begins to fill with festive shoppers gasping for a post-spree pint, Robyn makes the startling admission that his favourite Christmas song is Slade's Merry Xmas Everyone.
It's a traumatic moment and one that can only be followed by another trip to the bar, at which point Robyn declares: 'I think I'll move on to the whiskeys.' And from that point there is no return.
A Lifetime of Midnights and new single We Are Of Evil is available at HMV in Belfast and on www.nodancing.co.uk.