Quiet, Gentle Wonder
Ireland’s indie and folk music scenes are small enough that when a game-changing record is about to be released, you’re sure to hear about it in the weeks beforehand. Some buzz on Twitter, reviews in papers and magazines, press emails and word of mouth. Hemet, for this critic, was a rare instance in which first impressions arrive with the opening notes. There is something to be said for an album, quietly released, that sneaks up on you.
Niamh Regan’s debut is astounding in its maturity. There is a sense, throughout these eleven songs, that the kinks have already been ironed out long before anything was ever put to tape. Take Regan’s voice for instance – it’s a timbre that begs comparison to Regina Spektor, Lisa Hannigan or Laura Marling, but is honed in its own style. Softer moments hang like a thread, Regan’s voice poignant and persuasive.
Regan is based in East Galway, and is largely inspired by Irish traditional and folk songs. At seventeen, she won a Paul Brady scholarship to study flute and guitar in the University of Limerick, where she formed the trad/ bluegrass band Juhn Echo. After completing her degree in music, Regan released her debut solo EP Tried To, and began work on Hemet during a year of personal turbulence and change.
Like a vignette, each song on Hemet is a distilled experience. Regan embodies various characters and perspectives, drawing on the stirring effect of specific moments in time – a coffee with an ex-partner, the memory of a voice, birds flying against a grey sky. These stories are supported by Regan’s Nick Drake-style fingerpicking on acoustic guitar (‘She’), as well as elegant piano (‘Two Seagulls’), and even a full band for the indie-pop-inspired ‘Save The Day’, one of the highlights of the album. Elsewhere, there is support from a variety of instruments including viola, trombone, cello, mandolin, piano, clarinet, bass, and synth.
Whether the arrangement looms large or small, Regan’s lyrics are centred. Her talent comes not only from her ability to stir emotion (and she will stir emotion), but to know the right arrangement to serve the song. Catchier moments on the record might remind you of the indie-pop styles of Julia Jacklin or Phoebe Bridgers, while the more subdued parts have all the emotional punch of Joni Mitchell. To blend specificity with universality, pop melodies with eerie silences, and retain a singular voice throughout, is a feat indeed. Hemet goes gently, but do not be fooled by the obvious comparisons – Regan is an artist of singular talent and substance.
To purchase Hemet on CD or vinyl, visit https://niamhregan.bandcamp.com/album/hemet
Published on 24 September 2020
Andrea Cleary is a freelance music and culture writer based in Dublin.