Sean Cooney of The Young'uns on immortalising Lyra McKee and Richard Moore on powerful new album Tiny Notes
David Roy speaks to Sean Cooney of acclaimed vocal folk trio The Young'uns about Tiny Notes, the Teeside-bred group's powerful new collection of songs celebrating the lives of inspirational people including Derry-born Children in Crossfire founder Richard Moore and the late Belfast journalist Lyra McKee...
"IT'S been a long time coming," admits Young'uns singer and songwriter Sean Cooney of his group's imminent new album Tiny Notes.
The vocals-led, BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards-winning Teeside folk trio have been working on the follow-up to 2019's acclaimed album The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff since before Covid struck: dedicated to telling the moving and occasionally tragic stories of inspirational figures living and deceased, Tiny Notes is finally due for release next week and will be well worth the wait for fans of the group, which also features David Eagle and Michael Hughes.
"It took an awfully long time to make and we also had to delay the release date due to a manufacturing thing," explains Cooney, who hails from Stockton-on-Tees where The Young'uns formed back in 2003 shortly after stumbling upon the Stockton Folk Club in the back room of their local pub.
"So it feels like it's been a very long time in coming, but we're really, really excited about it. I just sort of can't wait, really."
As mentioned, Tiny Notes is something of a 'concept' album: its heartbreaking/warming title track is a gentle ode to Paige Hunter, whose handwritten notes tied to the railings of Sunderland's notorious suicide spot Wearmouth Bridge have saved the lives of at least 30 people – and all because she made the decision not to jump herself.
Opening song Jack Merritt's Boots commemorates the outgoing community-minded spirit of the Dr Martens-loving 25-year-old who was murdered during the terror attack at London's Fishmongers' Hall in 2019, Tim Burman is a tribute to the titular Lockerbie bombing victim, while Three Dads Walking centres on the suicide awareness campaigning of Andy Airey, Mike Palmer and Tim Owen whose daughters all took their own lives.
There is plenty of 'local interest' too on the record: the epic, strings-enhanced song Richard Moore tells the inspirational life story of the Derry-born Children in Crossfire founder who was blinded by a rubber bullet as a 10-year-old child and later met and forgave the British Army soldier who fired it, while the touching ballad Lyra is dedicated to the late journalist who was shot and killed by dissident republicans while covering a riot in Derry's Creggan estate.
"It's not something I take lightly, choosing these subjects and writing these songs," explains the Sheffield-based Cooney of his passion for immortalising real people in song.
"The actual song Tiny Notes took me at least three years until I had something that I thought was worthy of the story. The first year of that was just kind of thinking about it, really, and doing lots of research around the subject. So there's a great sense of trepidation going into writing songs about real people."
He adds: "The album's called Tiny Notes because of Paige and her story, but also because we're in a privileged position where people often come to us with their own 'tiny notes' containing song suggestions."
Indeed, on the upcoming tour for the album – which includes a visit to The Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire on May 20 – the trio will be bringing along a spare suitcase specifically to collect song ideas from fans.
"That's actually what happened with the Richard Moore song," explains Cooney, who combines being a playwright and professional storyteller for schools with performing in The Young'uns, who are a multi-talented bunch: David Eagle is also an acclaimed stand-up comedian and Michael Hughes is a teacher.
"Our friend Brid from Derry asked us 'Have you heard about Richard Moore? I think he'd be a great subject for a song'."
Creating this song in tribute to the Derry peacebuilder, who is also a talented guitarist, was a big moment for The Young'uns and Cooney as a songwriter: it marked the first time he actually approached one of his subjects in order to explore the prospect of creating a song based upon their life.
"We got asked to make a radio documentary for BBC Radio 4 about songwriting and what it's like writing about real people," he tells me.
"Usually, when I write these songs about real people, I never tell them until I think I've got something that's good enough to share. But for this [documentary], the suggestion was for me to actually approach the person beforehand for the first time ever.
"So that's how we got in touch with Richard. Happily, he was delighted to be involved and thankfully he was really pleased with what we came up with.
"It was a special thing to be able to sing it to him for the first time, and his reaction was just beautiful."
As mentioned, Moore is a musician himself, and it seems there are already plans for a live team-up: "I know David's keen to get him up on stage with us to play at some point," enthuses Cooney.
As for the other 'Irish' track on the record, the poignant ballad Lyra, it seems the idea for the song about the late Belfast-born journalist came to The Young'uns man in a dream.
"Like so many other people, I watched the news of what happened [to Lyra] with great sorrow," he explains.
"Then I discovered Lyra's career and the things she'd written and said and spoken of. Like that amazing TED talk she did in Belfast, where she talked about her experiences of growing up gay and coming out to her mum, and the release of that. It was just such a beautiful thing. And then all those incredibly inspirational words that filled her funeral.
"I remember having a dream right around that time, Easter 2019, where I heard the most beautiful song I've ever heard. I woke up crying, because I knew that I couldn't remember it. It was just this incredible moment where I was completely overcome with emotion.
"That feeling, and the kind of beauty and pureness of that moment, somehow that kind of came into my head when I was trying to write about Lyra McKee and the huge inspiration that she was and is to so many people."
Cooney adds: "We performed it for the first time in Dublin at the Trad festival just before Covid, in January 2020. Lyra's niece Laura came down from Belfast to hear it and we met her for the first time, which was a lovely moment."
Only a listener with a heart of stone will make it all the way through listening to Tiny Notes without their eyes moistening at least once, which calls into question how such 'heavy' subject material will lend itself to the trio's traditionally celebratory live performances.
There's also the matter of what to do about the strings which enhance some songs on the record, courtesy of Bellowhead man Jon Boden.
"That's a really good point, because our live sound and shows have always been sort of based on the joy of singing together and, in the main, singing unaccompanied," offers Cooney.
"We're looking at having some strings at certain shows, but I think it'll only be one or two really and unfortunately not the Dublin gig.
"Our shows are also about entertainment. When we first kind of got up to sing in the local folk club in Stockton on Tees almost 20 years ago, you were expected to have a bit of patter, a bit of craic in-between the songs.
"Obviously, it helps when you've got a stand-up comedian like David in the group. And what David always likes to say is that, even though lots of these subjects are incredibly heavy and there's lots of tragedy, and some songs have come from the despair of certain people, the reason that compelled us to put them together and to share them with people in the first place is the hope within them, and the uplifting nature of many of the causes the people we sing about champion.
"So, our songs can be deep and heavy, but the atmosphere of the gigs can actually be quite uplifting and joyous. It's just a matter of us getting that balancing act right between serious subject matter and also having lots of fun as well."
:: Tiny Notes is released on April 7 via Hudson Records. Pre-order now at hudsonrecords.co.uk/artist/the-younguns. The Young'uns play The Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, on May 20. Tickets via paviliontheatre.ie