Cormac Neeson: Emerging from the Cocoon

As The Answer's Cormac Neeson prepares for his first live gig with Cocoons, he tells Gail Bell about the importance of community, how becoming a father changed him and the joy of noisy drums and ukuleles during lockdown

Fatherhood has brought Cormac Neeson's music in a different direction
Gail Bell

FATHERHOOD and lockdown have spun something of a creative cocoon around Northern Ireland 'hardman' of rock, Cormac Neeson, who is emerging from the experience not softer, exactly, but more malleable; more in tune, he says, with a vitally different rhythm to life.

Belfast-based lead singer with Irish rock band, The Answer, Neeson has been going solo of late, entertaining fans online via the popular 'Cocoons' platform on Facebook Live, but now he declares himself audience-ready – "I might even brush my hair" – and with a new song to sing (dedicated to fatherhood) in front of an audience he can actually see and hear.

Central to this consolidated and wider appreciation of family and community is his most important role, of course - dad to young sons Dabhog (6) and Conall (3) who kept the musician and his wife, Louise, busy and entertained through long months of home-schooling and working from home.

"It was definitely a very anxious time, in general," muses Neeson, who recently became ambassador for Mencap and has been passionate about fundraising for the charity ever since Dabhog, who has Down's syndrome, attended its "amazing" children's centre in Belfast.

"I became a bit introspective and wrote quite a few songs during the lockdowns for Cocoons Live, but this new one called Precious Cargo – to be released in September – I felt was a bit special.

"It brought back all the feelings I had when Dabhog and Conall were born and it's really about that fatherly instinct to protect your children and do everything in your power to keep them safe."

The song was written remotely, via Zoom, by Neeson and his friend Alex Bay, a London-based singer-songwriter whose stage name is Alex Francis.

"Alex was expecting his first child and was really excited. I had asked him to play Cocoons and he was telling me about his journey so far as a parent-to-be, and we just got talking about how powerful a thing that was," explains Neeson.

"I said, 'Let's put this on hold until tomorrow and we'll do it properly and write a song about what we're talking about' – and that's what we did."

It's not the first time the Co Down-born singer-songwriter – who studied English and Ethnomusicology at Queen's University – has dug deep for a song.

After Dabhog was born prematurely in 2014 and spent four months in the Royal Victoria Hospital's neo-natal unit, he turned to songwriting in a heartfelt, personal way, releasing debut solo album, White Feather in 2019.

Written and recorded in Nashville, one of the tracks, Broken Wing, was dedicated to Dabhog and was unveiled on World Down Syndrome Day in March the same year.

Neeson, who prior to becoming a father, lived the proverbial rock 'n' roll dream, selling hundreds of thousands of records with The Answer and touring the world supporting iconic bands including The Rolling Stones, The Who and AC/DC, is happy to be living a quieter life these days with his priorities now permanently set in a different direction.

"Dabhog definitely changed the musical model a bit," he reflects in his warm Co Down tones, refreshingly still intact.

"For most of my professional life, I've been lead singer with The Answer – we made six records over that time and spent a lot of time on the road, travelling all around the world.

"That's still a big part of who I am, but it is no coincidence that the next record I made coming out of that period, getting Dabhog home from hospital... well, I don't think it was ever going to be a good-time rock 'n' roll album, given everything we had been through.

"Everything had changed – the lyrics, the melody, the genre, even my outlook on life. It was a massive crossroads. I would say I was a little less happy-go-lucky than I had been, three or four years previous. I mean, at one point, I didn't even know if I would ever sing a note again."

With Dabhog in hospital, he adopted tunnel vision as a survival mechanism.

"I would tell myself, 'Let's just get through the day and see what tomorrow brings'," he explains.

"Days rolled into nights and nights rolled into days in the intensive care baby unit – as every parent who has been in there with a very sick baby will tell you, you exist in a different reality.

"I guess White Feather was the outworking of all that – a pouring out of what was going on in my mind at the time, but also the joy and positivity as well, as we got Dabhog home and he began to thrive.

"White Feather was an album I had to make and I think the people I was working with in Nashville got a feel for what I was about at that moment in time and we luckily managed to capture it in a record. I am very thankful for that."

Today, he is very thankful for Dabhog's continued good progress – "He is just brilliant now" – and the extra family time afforded by the recent lockdown.

"Dabhog just finished P2 at Harberton (Special School) in Belfast, so it was great he managed to get a full year of education, but during the first lockdown it was all a bit manic," he says, good-humouredly.

"The way it was working for us, the two boys would be downstairs with me while my wife was upstairs, working. Then, like a tag team, we would swap over. I would go upstairs and do my thing, maybe record some vocals or something, and she would come down and be with the boys.

"It was great, but I have to say, I have a newly discovered respect for teachers and how they hold their pupils' attention. It was really intense, but at the same time, when we all came up for air, I would take a moment to think that there was something amazing about it all – about all this time we were getting to spend together.

"The boys love their music and have their own wee band, so it was noisy at times too. They love to play their wee ukuleles and they'll throw a highland fling or two into their routine – it's hilarious. They did have had a drum kit as well, but it has already been smashed to smithereens."

As a means of keeping his own musicality on form, Neeson created the Cocoons platform online, following a "kind of 'In the Round'-type gig" and bringing it, once a week, to a virtual platform.

"My partner in crime, Matt McGinn, and I - we basically got our little black books out every week and started making phone calls and very much trying to have at least one international artist appearing. It was truly eclectic and for Cocoons' 60th episode, we went all out and had Sideshow Ramone doing his sword-swallowing and fire-eating act.

"It's just been fantastic and you had a real sense that there was this lovely community out there and we really were all in this together. Cocoons kept us sane and kept us on our toes – you have to kind of brush your hair because you know people can see you - but now I can't wait to see them."

:: Cormac Neeson and Cocoons Live featuring Matt McGinn, Johnny Brady, Brigid O'Neill, Odhran Murphy and Suzy Coyle, will perform at the Stormont Hotel on Thursday August 12, as part of the EastSide Arts Festival.

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