The Lost Brothers on new LP and Valentine's night show in Belfast
Irish duo The Lost Brothers have just released their fifth album, Halfway Towards a Healing. David Roy spoke to Navan man Oisin Leech about the new album and his 10 year partnership with Omagh-born Mark McCausland as their Irish tour winds its way towards Belfast for a special Valentine's night show
MUSICAL duo The Lost Brothers have marked their 10th anniversary by releasing their fifth and possibly finest work to date, Halfway Towards a Healing.
Recorded in Tuscon Arizona by producer Gabriel Sullivan and with influential input from former Giant Sands man Howe Gelb, the album finds Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland's close-harmony-based songwriting becoming more cinematic in feel without losing the easy-on-the-ear intimacy which has endeared them to thousands of listeners since releasing their debut LP Trails of The Lonely a decade ago.
Fans are currently getting to grips with Halfway Towards a Healing, deciding on new favourite songs and pondering the dusty, US/Mexico desert vibes which have infused many of the tracks recorded under the baking Arizona sun.
"There's a song called Echoes in The Wind and another one called Where The Shadows Go – they seem to be the cornerstones of the album that people are connecting with," Oisin told me of the initial reaction to the duo's latest LP.
"Some friends have said it's our best album and others say it's our darkest album. But it's funny, by calling it Halfway Towards a Healing, we've tried to give it some sort of a positive title – whereas all our other albums have very 'the glass is half empty' titles.
"Without wanting to sound too cheesy, music is definitely a 'healer' for Mark and I. Whenever we play music on stage together or whenever we're recording, we do feel that it's kind of a soulful healing thing – a very powerful thing.
"I don't know why, but it just makes us feel where we belong. And that's where the title song came from."
Although the album was recorded in the US, at Gabriel Sullivan's Dust & Stone studio, according to Oisin the songs were already thoroughly worked out well before they hit Tuscon – with a little help and encouragement from another acclaimed Irish muso.
"We actually went to Sligo and worked with Steve Wickham [The Waterboys] for a year in a studio called The Model," he tells me.
"Each week we'd drive down with a collection of songs and Steve would challenge us to go away and write better. This happened over a series of weeks and months and it built up a new way for Mark and I to write.
"We have an instinct together where we can kind of communicate in the songwriting without talking. With this new album, although it's very hard for us to analyse the 'work', we do know when it feels right – and when we're playing songs like Echoes in The Wind or Where The Shadows Go live, it just feels really good.
"It feels like the right 'road', so then you develop that road and try to take it as far as you can. So we had these songs rehearsed to the absolute nines before we went into the studio, which was good as we didn't have too long [to record]."
As for getting alt-country pioneer Howe Gelb involved, it seems that relationship was forged one fateful night in Scotland: after playing a show in Glasgow with Howe, the pair told him that they were off to New York for a few days and asked did he know any good studios.
"He said 'forget New York, come to Tuscon'," recalls Oisin.
"We were only there for a week but it was hugely inspiring. When you arrive into a brand new city with a brand new book of songs, it opens your eyes and your spirit to new things and puts everything slightly on edge – which I think is a good thing. If you're too comfortable it gets too comfortable.
"Tuscon has a magical feel: they've an incredible music scene and it's very close to sacred Native American grounds. Howe took us out into the desert – two lads from Omagh and Navan walking around in the heat in their winter coats.
"In the middle of it all, Howe took us out to his garden, poured us the very best Mexican tequila that he keeps on the top shelf, lit a huge bonfire and burned all his old files from his filing cabinet [an act referenced on the album's climactic number Ballad of a Lost Brother, on which Gelb provides vocals].
"This was his form of 'producing' us, because the next morning we went in and recorded five or six songs in a row. He was trying to seep the Tuscon spirit into our bones, I think."
Oisin and Mark first met in Liverpool around 2001 when they were both involved in other musical projects. By 2008, they were tying to write together – and the rest is history.
"In a way, these upcoming shows are anniversary shows," Oisin enthuses of their Irish tour, before recalling the moment the pair first realised that they might work well together.
"One of the first songs we wrote together was called Angry At The Sun. It's the first song on our first album Trails of The Lonely. We started the song in Liverpool and finished it in Navan and Omagh and when we sang it together, it just felt right.
"When a vocal blend happens, if you're lucky, the crystallisation of two voices creates a third sound. The Everly Brothers and Simon & Garfunkel were the absolute kings of this, no-one can touch them. We're nowhere near that, but we're lucky that, yeah, something magic happens when Mark and I sing together. When I sing alone, I'm rubbish!
"We've tried to develop that, playing with harmonies and keys and exploring other areas lyrically and melodically so that we're nor just putting out the same record every three years."
The current tour kicked off last night at Dublin's Sugar Club and finds the duo expanding their live sound with the help of supplemental musicians to an extent that's unusual for them.
"We don't normally tour with a band but for this tour we will have members of O Emperor doing the Cork and Limerick shows with us," explains Oisin.
"As the tour goes on, I think the band is going to get bigger and bigger, which is good because it gives our audience something different to enjoy. It's really just to expand the sound live, because some [of the new] songs are little bit more cinematic and they need that extra instrumentation.
"Also, it gives the audience something new to go home with after 10 years. We'll do half the set as a stripped-back duo and half the show as a band.
"We're really lucky that The Waterboys have some gaps in their touring schedule, so Steve [Wickham] is going to come and play with us in Dublin and in Belfast.
Of the latter, Oisin adds: "That's on Valentine's night, so we're going to get on our Otis Redding jackets and hand out flowers!"
The Lost Brothers play Wexford Arts Centre tonight, St Patrick's Gateway Centre in Waterford on Saturday February 10 and Belfast's Black Box on Wednesday February 14. See Thelostbrothersband.com for full tour details