‘Everything shut down’: The breakout artists trying to regain momentum stolen by Covid
‘Everything shut down’: The breakout artists trying to regain momentum stolen by Covid
In their stylishly cluttered rehearsal studio at an undisclosed Dublin location, anthemic indie rockers Inhaler are taking a deep breath. “People forget that at the start of the pandemic, we didn’t know how long it was going to last,” says frontman Elijah Hewson. “We didn’t know when we’d be able to play a gig together again. After all that, the last thing we were going to do is record a ‘downer’ album. We wanted to make music that lifts people’s spirits.”
Inhaler are one of a number of artists in the strange position of having their nascent careers potentially derailed by a once-in-a-century public health crisis. So much about Covid is an unknown – including its impact on newcomers poised to leap from underground to mainstream. That makes Inhaler and groups like them a fascinating test case. What happens to a “buzz” band when, owing to external events, the buzz vanishes overnight?
Inhaler are not alone in their predicament. Fontaines DC’s second record, A Hero’s Death, was placed in suspended animation as gigging became an impossibility. Also feeling the force of a great pause button were genre-hopping urchins Easy Life, student disco avant-gardists Dry Cleaning, Gen Z chronicler Arlo Parks and psychedelic soul sensation Greentea Peng – plus countless others.
Hewson and his bandmates entered 2020 with the world seemingly at their feet. They’d supported Noel Gallagher, signed to Interscope, and had little trouble attracting publicity thanks to the 21-year-old lead singer’s rock’n’roll lineage (Bono is his dad). A debut LP was ready to go, too, along with a US tour booked for April and May. And then everything shut down. As it did so, their momentum crashed to a halt. “The last gig we played was the Lexington in London [on 7 March],” says Hewson. “And it was the tightest we’d ever been. We had a week off. So it was a case of, ‘see you in a week lads’. And here we are a year and a half later. We were on a good stride. Everything was looking good.”
Hype is as essential to the music business as oxygen is to the blood stream. It is also ephemeral and mysterious. You can’t bottle it and you certainly can’t manufacture it. Nobody – musicians, labels and media included – entirely understands how or why it works. What is clear is that it can fade as quickly as it materialises. When Covid arrived, the understandable concern was that some artists’ careers might be snuffed out just as they had caught fire. “People were telling me, ‘Oh this is such a shame’,” says Dana Margolin, frontwoman of Brighton art-rockers Porridge Radio, whose lauded second LP, Every Bad, was released on 13 March 2020, days before the UK’s first lockdown. ‘You could have been this breakout band and become so much bigger’.”
Driven by a scrappy, DIY attitude, Margolin was determined to concentrate on the positives and not fret about a future that had been snatched away. Once it became obvious touring was off the agenda, she busied herself with side projects and new songs. These included a seasonal single, “The Last Time I Saw You, O Christmas” (“about having a miserable time every Christmas and the same cycles of heartbreak and depression”). And, indulging her passion for the visual arts, she created from scratch a giant papier-mâché ice cream cone, which she proudly, and justifiably, shows off over Zoom.
Eighteen months on, Inhaler are similarly keen to look on the bright side. During lockdown they dusted down “It Won’t Always Be Like This”, an early single they had not initially planned to put on their LP. Re-recorded with lashings of Killers-style hearts-on-sleeve production, it sets the tone for – and gives its title to – their now radically overhauled album.
“People are picking up on the name,” says Hewson. “And not for reasons that have anything to do with our music or anything. The pandemic made the title more ‘important’.”
“We had to adapt,” adds drummer Ryan McMahon, “The first few weeks were like ‘Everything is s**t, let’s moan about it’. [But] we have to play the cards we’re dealt. Let’s put our energy and focus into the record.”
Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trial
In the case of Porridge Radio, any worries their big opportunity had evaporated were countered by the fact Margolin never had any commercial ambitions for the project in the first place. When Every Bad received critical acclaim (a four-star review in The Independent singled out its “snarling” and “sardonic” qualities), they were obviously flattered. But slightly puzzled too. Porridge Radio had been on the go for nearly seven years at that point. It felt slightly random that they were suddenly heralded as indie’s bright new hopes. “It was funny to us. Ha ha… we’re a hype band now. Look at us,” Margolin smiles. “We’d been playing in bands for years and years. Playing in this band for maybe six or seven years. And then people were saying, ‘Hot new band’. OK, we’ll take it.”
Covid has changed all our lives for the worse. However, the impact on the music business has been especially destructive. The industry will have halved in size due to Coronavirus, according to a report last November by the organisation UK Music, with lockdown reducing its contribution to the economy by £3bn. And with live performances hugely disrupted, musicians have seen their incomes fall between 65 and 80 per cent, said the organisation.
A nuclear winter (and spring, summer and autumn) for festivals has impacted on artists, for whom Glastonbury, Leeds, Reading and the rest are a vital proving ground and shop window. Venues have obviously suffered too. In April 2020, mere weeks into lockdown, Music Venue Trust warned 83 per cent of the sector faced “imminent permanent closure”. That same month in London, musicians Keiron Marshall and his wife Hannah White were working towards opening a new performance space on the site of an old bank on Sutton’s High Street. The Sound Lounge – which has a sister operation in Morden – finally welcomed its first audiences last Christmas, following back-breaking quantities of toil, heartache and soul-searching.
“There was one point where it felt it was going on for so many months and Hannah said, ‘Well, should we even bother?’,” says Marshall. “And I was like, ‘We’ve done all this work. It’s too late…’”
The original plan was for revenues from Morden to cover the costs of getting Sutton up and running. Lockdown forced a re-think. Salvation came in the form of Music Venue Trust’s Save Our Venues crowdfunding campaign, by which the public were encouraged to help keep smaller rooms such as the Sound Lounge open with contributions. In conjunction with journalist Paul Sexton, Marshall and White put on weekly live-streaming events, including a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Carole King’s Tapestry featuring KT Tunstall. “When the pandemic went on much longer than we all expected – that’s when we thought, ‘Crap, we’re going to go bust’,” says Marshall.
“Music Venue Trust were amazing We jumped on Save Our Venues. It was the only way to pay the bills. Since we’ve reopened we’ve been putting on events pretty much six nights a week. The desire from audience members to come to shows has been brilliant. In London, especially, it can be difficult to convince people to pay to see live music. But now people are prepared to do that.”
Musicians reacted to the lockdown in different ways. Chris Martin donned a bobbly hat and took fan requests over Instagram. Bono performed an impromptu song from the bedroom of the family home in the Dublin suburb of Dalkey. Hewson had moved back home a few weeks earlier. As Bono warbled from the spare room, you imagine his youngest child downstairs pulling his hoodie over his head, muttering “daaaad”. But putting aside stadium giants Coldplay and U2, the problem for up-and-coming rockers such as Inhaler is that their music demands a flesh-and-blood audience. Without a crowd singing and moshing along, their indie pile-drivers don’t quite fire on all gaskets. In lockdown, no one hears you join in on the chorus.
“The music we write is made to be played to a live audience,” says Hewson. “We had that stripped from us. It’s a weird time to be alive. It’s also a very strange time to be a guitar band. And so, naturally, we were like, ‘Oh well we’re going to go back two years now’. A meteor is going to come down and wipe off the map.”
For Margolin and Porridge Radio, an added complication was they’d recently given up their day jobs to play full-time. “Georgie [Stott, keyboardist] was working in a pub, Maddie [Ryall, bassist] in a coffee shop. I was doing bits and bobs. And then it was like, ‘We’re quitting all our jobs and we’re going on tour’…”
As with Inhaler, they grasped the opportunity to go back into the studio, and have been putting together a new album. So did R&B singer Celeste, tipped to be a break-out star in 2020. A year full of possibilities was snatched from her when the pandemic hit. Instead of losing hope, though, she exhaled, centred herself, and put to good use the spare time suddenly at her disposal.
“I didn’t panic about losing momentum when the lockdown happened,” she told me last January. “I saw it as an opportunity to finish the music the way I wanted. Back in February and March , I was due to go on tour. So I had to have the record finished. I took it [the lockdown] as a chance to keep working on music and have a bit of leeway. The world wasn’t going on the way it had. It allowed me slow down and take stock.”
Her album, Not Your Muse, was finally released at the start of 2021 and debuted at No 1. Inhaler are hopeful that, far from pulling the rug out from under, those bonus months in the studio have been to their benefit. Wide-eyed and uplifting, It Won’t Always Be Like This undoubtedly feels like the right record at the right time. From its optimistic title to its payloads of explosive guitars and yearning hooks, it catalyses the sense that, after a long dark night, dawn is finally on the horizon. “Before lockdown, we were in the studio a couple of days and then going on tour and then going back to the studio,” says Hewson. “So it [the pandemic] was a real opportunity to sit there and write an album rather than a couple of singles. Lockdown was good for us in a selfish way. It’s been bad for just about everyone else. We had no choice but to start writing. That’s what we do. We’re a rock band. We’re not going to learn how to knit.”
Porridge Radio’s Dana Margolin is philosophical about the past year and a half. She had never chased success or ecstatic write-ups. And while she would have loved to tour Every Bad and play to her many new fans, she is equally aware that all that time in a tour bus would have extracted a physical and mental toll. Now, with touring about to resume, she is better prepared for the rigours of the road.
“I was already exhausted by last March. Part of me was like, ‘Get through this year, you’re just going to get through this year’. In terms of my mental and physical health I needed a break. I was treading a fine line. And now it’s a case of, ‘Oh I’m excited to go on tour’. It’s a nice place to start from. It’s been amazing to have time to rest and look after myself.”
‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ by Inhaler is released on Friday 9 July. Porridge Radio are touring from 17 July, starting at Ashton-In-Makerfield Library