Exclusive Interview: 5 Minutes with Irish Neo-Soul Quintet Shookrah

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Image: Miki Barlok

Made up of Senita Appiakorang on lead vocals, drummer Emmet O’Riabhaigh, Daniel Coughlan on guitar, Diarmait MacCarthaigh on the keys and bass guitarist Brian DunleaShookrah are a quintet of Irish musicians bringing a serious heat to the international music scene with their funky neo-soul take on the pop genre. Bursting with funk licks and complex themes, Shookrah are a band that has an infectious lust for life and an energetic sound to match. The five-piece have just recently released a brand new single, titled ‘Flex’ that oozes body-positivity, sexiness and funk. A track about losing oneself to dance as a form of self-love, ‘Flex’ epitomises just what Shookrah is all about.

Listen to Shookrah‘s new single, ‘Flex’, below.

We caught up with Senita and Emmet of Shookrah and chatted about ‘vibing out’ with fans, collaborations and sacrificing time to make music.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts? 

Emmet: I don’t think it was a conscious decision for any of us. That tends to be the way it goes, I think. You’re just drawn to creativity and artistic expression. There’s a type of satisfaction to writing or performing a song that you worked hard on and are proud of that you can’t really get from anything else. I don’t want to use the old soul fulfilment cliché, but it can be better than sex. Well, poor to average sex.

Senita: It was inescapable for me, I straight up defied my mom’s attempts to dissuade my artistic leanings for medicine or law. “What are you going to be when you grow up Seni?” – Mom, “A butterfly… or, or Whitney Houston!“- 5 year old me. “I’M NOT PAYING 20 THOUSAND RANDS A YEAR FOR YOU TO BECOME A BUTTERFLY OR DRUG ADDICT SENITA, GIVE ME SOME PEACE!“, lol. It was an innate calling, something I have decided against time and again for something more solid, meanwhile cheating with that decision time and again by meddling in some artistic endeavours. I’m a pisces man, I need outlets for my meandering mind.

Which comes first when you’re producing – the sound or the idea? 

Emmet: I think it depends on the song. Both starting points can lead to a solid tune, so whichever naturally becomes the impetus then informs the rest of the song, in terms of production and arrangement. When we were writing specifically for this album I think we became more aware of what is needed to make it an holistic experience, in that we’d have 4 or 5 fairly upbeat and intense tunes written and realise that we need to balance it out with something a bit more chilled and spacious. There’s a good reason why most albums are varied sonically and aren’t just wall to wall nuclear fire. The ears need peaks and valleys, not just in terms of dynamics, but in terms of songs in general when listening to an album. In the past I think we were a bit more idea-based and then when we got to the recording stage we’d end up reworking a lot of parts once we found the right sound. This mainly involved weeks of messing around with synthesizers and percussion, and of course the delete button. Cutting the fat is always a good idea and even though we’re a bit more clever when arranging these days, there’s always a little flab that can be lopped off. It can mean the difference between a sonic mess and an infectious groove.

Does your material feature any collaborations? 

Yes indeed. God Knows, who is one-third of the incredible Rusangano Family, features heavily on a tune. Their album ‘Let The Dead Bury The Dead’ won the Choice Music Prize last year and I heavily recommend you check it out, truly powerful stuff. We’ve played shows with them a few times and not only are they seriously the nicest three lads you could possibly hang out with, I can honestly say without hyperbole that they are the best live band in Ireland at the moment. God Knows was just amazing to work with. The positivity and enthusiasm was just something else. We were just honored to have him come to the studio and lay down some bars but we couldn’t believe how enthusiastic and fun he was about the song. He brought it up a hundred notches with a really intricate and quite touching verse.

What’s on your current playlist? 

Emmet: Louis Cole‘s album is amazing so that’s getting loads of play. Bit of experimental prog rock from Free Salamander Exhibit, really interesting band from Oakland. Then hopping around between all sorts from Kanye and Kid Cudi‘s ‘Kids See Ghosts’ to classic class acts like Randy Newman – I can never grow tired of that man.

Senita: Keeping an eye on album releases given the task at hand so: Noname‘s new album is FIRE, The Internet have me through most moods, Tyler, The Creator – OBVS, Anderson.Paak‘s ‘Oxnard’ is BOMB. The stuff I’m play-listing is a lot of emerging artists such as Duckwrth, Charlotte Dos Santos, Cleo Sol, Amber Mark, Ari Lennox, Homeshake, Silk Rhodes, Poppy Ajudha, Seinabo Sey, Ravyn Lenae, Gavin Turek, Ivan Ave, Kadhja Bonet, Milo, Quelle Chris, Open Mike Eagle, Jonwayne, Princess Nokia, JunglePussy, Lizzo…the list goes on. Discover on Spotify and Instagram keep me learning and updating constantly.

Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage. 

Senita: I can only speak for my own chemistry with folks, but I love to vibe out with them. I try to make eye contact with as many people as I can, emote with them what I’m singing… dance at them, flirt, scare them. I appreciate the moments I have snatched with performers whose gigs I’ve gone to and loved- even if imaginary. It’s important to come from a gig knowing that they were sending something out. And so I try to do the same with the crowd, and with the band as much as any one of them are receptive to it at the time. My responsibility is definitely with those spectating and when I’m feeling nervous, at the very least I hope to channel something true that allows me to transcend any visible outward fear. There’s something really special about seeing a band have fun with one another, or genuinely feeling out the music- that sincerity and ease even if they aren’t being exhibitionist in their performance is some of the magic of going to gigs imo. It’s something I hope we achieve on stage, albeit that we mainly spend our time focusing on keeping a hold on the reins of the high octane music we write.

What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?

Senita: Lyrically, I like to adopt stories that are and aren’t my own, personalize them and develop a wider, relatable narrative to them. The themes to the songs used to revolve around my personal life a lot more than they do now. At the moment, I like to pick a topic that’s at the foreground of my aggravations- and make them more universal Eg. ‘Don’t Wanna Doubt You’. And then for a song like ‘Flex‘, I made an exercise for myself of basing the lyrics on a similar subject matter as Kings of Convenience’s tune ‘I’d Rather Dance With You’. Sometimes the style of melody can be informed by the tone of the jam we’re having, or a particular want to play around with different voicings and sound like someone I respect, like Solange or something.

Take us through a day in the recording studio.

Emmet: Here is a snapshot of a day recording the rhythm sections parts, which were engineered and co-produced by Brendan Fennessy of O Emperor: we wake up, brush off the mild to medium level hangover, get some food and coffee and head up to Brendan‘s studio (where we also happen to rehearse). I will spend the first few hours with Brendan setting up the drums and trying some different mic positions until we find something that sounds like it suits the song. Eventually, Brian the bass boy, Diarmait the keys boy and Dan the six string silly sausage arrive and we set everything else up. Brendan makes sure we’ve got a nice headphone mix and the big red button gets pressed and we get her done first time EVERY TIME. Except for most times, but the fun’s all in making mistakes, trying things differently and pointing and laughing at the accused. There’s a lot of little breaks, listening back, checking if we’re grooving and tight. Generally we’d get 2 to 4 tracks done per day and then go out and celebrate our victorious session. Brendan made it wholly enjoyable and exciting experience with little pressure and lots of laughs. 10/10 would do again.

Senita: The day goes a little different for vocals, I try to get in early and warm up while set up happens. I go over parts with our past member Imelda where necessary and just try and dance or get as much warmth into my body. Plenty of replenishment and then get in our makeshift booth to just start singing and get into the mode of things. I usually start by singing through the song and recording a couple of takes like so, just to get into the vibe and have a natural arch or progression to the song/story and then take some time to focus on sections to give it maximum attention and variety of approach. Then it usually gets down to the harmonies and texture building with ad-libs or whatever else comes to mind. I tend to get stuff done relatively fast, so usually two tracks to completion per recording day.

Was there a specific moment in your life where you thought, “this is what I want to do”? 

Senita: I had always had the notion that I’d like to perform and had grown up nurturing that skill set, be it Stage School, and extra singing lessons to taking on music academically in secondary school and college. I think I had a eureka, or soul nourishing moment that affirmed that this really was something I am committed to whether I like it or not during one of my Jazz recitals in college. We played ‘I Know You Know’ by Esperanza Spalding, and all the rehearsals leading up to it and during the recital itself were just so satisfying in a way that I’ve tried to open myself to re-capture since. It really felt like all I needed was the right people to gel with, who had the same kind of sensibility or connection with music, to really take it to another level of expression. Of course, that sense of purpose or enjoyment can’t be churned out at every gig or rehearsal, but I believe we aim to get something true that leaves that impact on ourselves and others when making music together in Shookrah. I at least hope so.

Image: Miki Barlok

What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set? 

Emmet: Each other! A pint of water and a pint of good beer to stay loose and stay hydrated. You can’t have one without the other! One or both will usually spill onto the setlist, turning it into an avant garde graphic score.

Senita: My phone to keep time, our setlist and a water.

Any emerging artists on your radar?

Emmet: Loads of amazing people coming out of Ireland at the moment. Too many to mention but those that spring to mind are Sam Clague, Elaine Malone, Fixity, The Bonk, Loah, Horse, Kojaque, Super Silly.

Senita: Word, the output from Ireland is alarmingly sexy en ce moment. My Irish faves are all the above and: NuxSense, Jafaris, Fehdah, Pillowqueens… International faves: Oshun, Sho Madjozi, Ari Lennox, Junglepussy, Noname, HOMESHAKE, Anderson.Paak… refer to my answer on ‘listening to’.

What gets your creative juices flowing? 

Emmet: Seeing other bands and hearing new music, working with other people or just hearing an outsiders perspective on a tune. When it comes down to actually getting together to write, it’s a combination of our collective mood on the day and if one idea just perks all of our ears up then the creative juice just starts to gush out of us and fill the room. Doesn’t happen every time, but when it does it’s supremely satisfying and reminds you why you’re sacrificing so much time and energy to make music.

Senita: Listening to other music and going to gigs, as well as having some kinda conflict, recent occurrence that triggers a subject matter. And life be full of those!

Take us through your collection of gear, tech or software that accompanies your creative expression.

Emmet: We’re not a hugely gear-orientated band, if there is such a thing, but an example of gear or production technique steering us in a certain direction would be a certain synth patch, or guitar/bass effect that instantly changes the vibe of a song for the better. We’ll let the sound sink in for a while and figure out how we can use it to make the song more unique. Our music isn’t electronic in style or approach so we try to some extent to avoid sounding too ‘traditional’ as a band because we don’t want a listener to hear the first few bars and think “Oh great, another funky funk souly band”.  In terms of production for the album, we recorded with Brendan Fennessy who is the drummer of the (by now) defunct O Emperor – one of the best bands in recent Irish history if you ask me – and he acted like a producer as well, at least at the recording stage. He was just brilliant to work with and has a seriously astute ear for songwriting, arrangements and general sound. Brendan sent us the stems and we recorded loads of extra synth, guitar and other vocal bits over the course of a few months. It tends to be the way we work, to let a song kind of blossom over time and reveal itself as we experiment. It’s not the most efficient method time-wise but it works for us and I don’t think the album would sound the same at all if we just stuck to the old fashioned in ‘n’ out studio method.

Any side projects you’re working on? 

Senita: I’ve always kept myself on my toes in terms of side projects, be it working with someone as a backing vocalist (Brian Deady, Jack O’Rourke, Shaker Hymn), co-writer ( Dáithi, Le Galaxie, Outsider YP) or a whole other musical collaboration (Lakerama). At the moment, I’m working on creating a podcast called Points of Intersection, which I hope to launch in the new year. It’ll be a once a month podcast and quarterly vlogcast interviewing and chatting with figures in Ireland who are meshing and widening the intersectional space in Ireland, and bringing topics and questions of such to the foreground of Ireland’s culture as it becomes more and more applicable. I’m gonna incorporate music selected by said candidates, as well as my own hot picks and hopefully welcome people to engage in various interesting topics and discoveries on how to broach topics categorized as ‘intersectional’ and provide a local inlet into our responsibility to gain knowledge on said areas and allow that to decide our behaviours. I am psyyched!! I’ve also joined the female media and event collective GXRL CØDE, and am getting back into DJing more, so watch this space on where to find me under unnecessary alias DJ Helicopta Parent.

How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry? 

Emmet: We definitely have. We’ve learned a lot both from a songwriting standpoint and a music industry standpoint, and as our knowledge of the industry has evolved I think it has informed our approach to songwriting and production. We started out just as a group of friends with no major goal in our heads – it was essentially a jam band. But when we wrote what turned out to be our second single ‘WOMAN’, we started to take it a lot more seriously, and after critically listening to our first EP, we realised that we need to be more aware of how to best craft a song, particularly when our keyboard player Diarmait joined. He brought a whole new level of helpful analysis to our songwriting approach. We began to pay a lot more close attention to arrangement and structure, while still embracing a healthy amount of left-field ideas. We realised from the likes of Thundercat and Hiatus Kaiyote (and of course just from trial and error) that there is a nice balance to be struck between pop sensibilities and experimentation and a bit of darkness.

Senita: I think a healthy balance of trying things out, listening to things past and present and reflecting on it has helped. I’ve been in many different outfits, be they house-electro collaborations or soul singing in more traditional bands, and I’d like to think that I’ve taken something from each experience to develop in my own personal exploits, from professional etiquette of performing with recording and touring artists, the business side and contracting, right to the writing process. I think there’s always room for cringing at the past and what you may have seen to be adequate music-ing, but I also wouldn’t take any of it back. I hate to sound twee, but every detail of your past uncovers something about what you’ll do going forward, and I fuck with that!

Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year? 

Emmet: Well we’ve got this single ‘Flex’ which was recorded as part of our debut album and has just come out. There will be plenty of gigs in Ireland and we’re in the process of booking some European dates too so there’s lots of excitement building. We’re really, really pleased with how the album has turned out. It was difficult deciding what tracks should be single releases which I suppose is a good sign because there’s no track on the album that any of us don’t like!

Senita: We’ll be releasing another one or two singles closer to the album release and generally gonna try and SET.IT.OFF everywhere we go!

Image: Miki Barlok

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