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Lead shot Lemoncello 2 Credit Ellius Grace

On the Rise

02 May 2024, 09:00
Original Photography by Ellius Grace

An intuitive friendship and a shared passion for their musical and literary heritage underpin the sound of next-gen Irish folk duo Lemoncello

Any night of the week in Dublin - and in a lot of other Irish cities - you can go and see music of a really incredible standard”, explains Lemoncello guitarist and vocalist, Laura Quirke. “You can find people singing songs that connect you to the past, with really amazing voices. If you're living in a place where music is such a part of going out and meeting people, you can't really help but be influenced by it.” It was this uninhibited access to music that formed the foundations of Lemoncello.

Quirke was raised in County Carlow, whilst her bandmate, cellist and vocalist Claire Kinsella, grew up in Donegal, but both musicians now reside in Dublin. During her childhood, Kinsella was constantly surrounded by music, and her grandmother, a traditional fiddle player, would travel “around the back-arse of Donegal” to other people's houses to play, in addition to hosting sessions in her own home.

Kinsella began piano lessons at the age of four, but it wasn’t the smoothest introduction into learning an instrument. I hated it so much”, she laughs. “You can see every possible note, and all you have to do is press a key, but to me, it was like a big puzzle.” She quit the piano and moved on to the flute, but it wasn’t until her musician father had a lucky find at a car boot sale that she switched again. He saw a group of lads kicking a cracked cello along the gravel, and he managed to rescue the wounded instrument for the small sum of £15. “The lads thought he was an idiot for paying that much for it”, she recalls, “So that was the first cello I learned on, and that was the first instrument I connected with properly.”


Quirke’s earliest memories of music are her mother singing as she performed her domestic routine. A popular album called A Woman’s Heart, featuring songs by Dolores Keane and Mary Black, was on heavy rotation in their household, and Quirke sang alongside her siblings in “very small choirs of five or six people” at church. She learned to play the tin whistle and the flute, and eventually picked up a guitar at the age of 14. Vocally, she was inspired by the soft tones of Lisa Hannigan, as well as the voices she heard at gigs and live sessions in Dublin, where the folk music scene was thriving in the 2010s.

“For me, coming to Dublin was a big thing back then”, Quirke reflects. “There's an amazing Irish documentary filmmaker, Myles O'Reilly, who documented a lot of Irish folk artists at that time. I remember seeing a scene happening in Dublin through him on YouTube. Myles is a friend of ours now, and we know a lot of the people that I saw play at that time too”. Despite her enthusiasm for folk, Quirke was also utterly enamoured with pop music. “Between the years of 2007 and 2013, I think I know the lyrics to nearly every song that was in the Top 40,” she says, referencing listening to the radio incessantly in her early teens.

The merging of these eclectic tastes and talents began when the pair met at college in the university town of Maynooth. Quirke was reading English and Kinsella was studying music, the two bonding over a love of Fleet Foxes and Iron and Wine. Quirke was fundamental in encouraging Kinsella to play the cello live. Despite taking part in local sessions and open mic nights alongside her bandmate as a vocalist, she’s never imagined playing the instrument on stage before. The pair didn’t yet have a name for themselves when they performed, but an encounter with a group of heavily inebriated Italians soon solved that. They were all drinking their native lemon liquor at the open mic night, and when they saw Kinsella walk into the venue with her cello, they found the connection immediately hilarious, and wrote “Lemoncello” on the board. “We kept the name, because it was just a really simple pun for all ages of the family to enjoy”, she laughs. And so, after cutting their teeth on Maynooth’s live circuit, Lemoncello was officially born.


Their first EP Stuck Upon the Staircase was released in 2018, with the second Oil and Water following two years later, dropping just a week before the Covid lockdown began in Ireland. “I feel like we were just kind of learning how to write songs together and how we wanted to be recorded,” Quirke reflects. “Those songs to me are very precious, but they definitely came from a place of unconscious expression.” Kinsella agrees that these records were an urgent articulation of their youthful experiences as a band. “When we were making the Oil and Water EP, our method was like, 'go go go go, it all has to happen now!' There's a song called "Libra", and when Lauren introduces it live, she's like 'this was us getting our teenage angst out of ourselves'. It's kind of like an exorcism.”

These urgent but vibrant recordings paved the way for a different approach when it came to writing a full-length record. “The writing of our album was definitely more intentional”, Quirke shares. “In terms of the lyrics, I was a lot more concerned about perspective, and tone of lyric, and how that was going to come across. I think that that's definitely something that happens as you age.” The duo’s self-titled full-length debut is released this week on esteemed label Claddagh Records, which specialises in Irish traditional music and spoken word.

Second shot Lemoncello 1 Credit Ellius Grace

Lemoncello’s music blends folk, indie and pop sensibilities. Quirke is uncomfortable with direct comparisons to the more traditional form, especially contemporaries such as Lankum or John Francis Flynn. “I feel like we're slightly adjacent to that”, she explains. “What they're doing is so cool and we're big fans of it, but stylistically, we’re just different.”

While Quirke acknowledges the way that traditional Irish music has informed Lemoncello’s musicality and strong sense of storytelling, she believes this is mostly unconscious. But there are nods to their heritage on tracks such as “Michael Furey (I’ve Had Lovers)”, originally a poem by Stephen James Smith, and on “Lagan Love”, a traditional Irish ballad which has also been covered by Lisa Hannigan, Kate Bush, Sinead O’Connor and countless others.

The pair emphasise that their debut is a “probing” record that doesn’t push for concrete answers or attempt to be prescriptive; it explores emotional maturity, endurance and resilience - both for oneself and in relation to others. This is why Quirke admires the open-endedness of the final line of “Lagan Love”: “Nor life I owe, nor liberty / For love is lord of all”.

Ambiguity is something that intrigues her, as both writer and reader. At college, she studied James Joyce’s Dubliners and her fascination was deepened when she later read I’ve Had Lovers, by Irish poet Stephen James Smith, where Michael Furey – a character from The Dead, the final story in Joyce’s book – is referenced. Furey’s untimely end – after waiting in the cold overnight for his true love – causes other characters in the story to reevaluate their own relationships.

Dubliners really made a lot of sense to me in terms of how constricted people can be,” Quirke says.. “When I heard Smith's poem, the thing that I connected most with was that whole idea of, 'let's tear out our hearts, or nothing at all'. He says 'I'm done with tepid encounters' - so either go for it, or don't.”

This wholehearted, unfiltered approach translates seamlessly into the original songs that form Lemoncello’s album. Whether the duo are lulling listeners with their deceptively gentle vocals on “Harsh Truths”, using wry, pessimistic humour on “All the Good Men”, or reflecting on the mood fluctuations that come with doom-scrolling on “Dopamine”, they offer raw and affecting ruminations on personal growth, and the shifting nature of platonic, familial and romantic love. These musings are enhanced by Quirke’s measured yet magnetic singing voice, Kinsella’s soft accompanying vocals and of course, her majestic cello playing.

Additional Lemoncello 6 Credit Ellius Grace

The physical way in which Lemoncello’s debut album was finished is also another example of the pair’s commitment to the “all or nothing” approach. They recorded and mixed the album to two-inch tape with acclaimed producer Julie McLarnon at Analogue Catalogue Recording Studios in Ireland. McLarnon’s meticulous analogue discipline has been applied to her work with The Vaselines, Brigid Mae Power, Lankum and Junior Brother. Both Quirke and Kinsella had a long-standing admiration for the producer and engineer, and this was amplified after they spent time with McLarnon in the studio.

“Julie believes wholeheartedly in the philosophy of the process of analogue recording”, Quirke explains. “There were no screens in the studio at all. We learned so much about listening, because you couldn't look at anything. You're not seeing any of the music in front of you, in terms of frequencies. In terms of sound and production, it was just such an education doing it this way. She has a kind of punk approach to things. I liked how she made us sound new to ourselves when we listened back. It never sounded like a dead room; there was real life in the recordings she made of us.” Quirke’s sentiments about McLarnon serendipitously match those she expresses on album track “Old Friend” - “Old friend / Let’s pretend that we’re strangers again.”

Kinsella found the process equally as fascinating, as it forced her to be more assertive when choosing which takes to discard and record over. “You have to really face yourself and really be able to stand by why this is the take,” she explains. Having only ever recorded digitally before, the pair observed McLarnon’s mixing skills in real-time on her 70’s tape machine, which has no automation. Quirke described McLarnon’s process as “beautiful to watch”, like she was “conducting an orchestra” as she mixed the EQ and added effects simultaneously for each song, a process which was repeated, but only a select amount of times.

We had to pick things that mattered to the feeling of the thing, rather than whether it was technically right”, Quirke shares. She believes this is one of her strengths as a musician, and committing to recording in this manual way enhanced this inherent quality in Lemoncello’s music. Kinsella also agrees that tape captured something that digital methods could not: “You just really feel the performance. I think that there is such a magic to how Julie records.”

Would Lemoncello record their next album in the same way? Probably not. But that leans into their personal and musical philosophy of capturing a moment, giving everything to it whilst they’re in it, and instinctively knowing when to move on to something new.

Lemoncello is out on 3rd May via Claddagh Records

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