Joshua Burnside is a musician from Rostrevor. The recipient of the 2017 Northern Ireland Music Prize, Joshua talks to T&G about his writing process, his debut album Ephrata and his appreciation of concept albums.
“When I first started to play the guitar, I wasn’t interested in being a good guitarist or even a good musician; I was always much more fascinated by songwriting. I got my first guitar when I was twelve years old and have been writing songs ever since, playing gigs with different bands for fun. I studied music at university because it was the only subject at school that I had really enjoyed, though it wasn’t until I had graduated that I started releasing EPs and singles.”
“It was then that I began to consider being a musician full-time. I worked in a bar in Glasgow, the only other job I’ve had, and I don’t think that there has ever been a time when I have written less music. I discovered that I didn’t like having a boss and that working late shifts really drained my creative energy. If I was to write effectively, it needed to be on a full-time basis.”
“I try to treat the way I write music like any writer’s work, engaging with it in a slow and steady way every day. I like to write early in the morning or at night as I feel that those are the times when my mind is loosest and when my best lyrical ideas come forward; I make connections then that I wouldn’t normally during the day. We can be quite focused on all the hundreds of small daily things that take up our time, so having that time and space is really important to my writing process.”
“I try and develop each song in a more balanced way. Instead of writing lyrics then coming up with a melody to match, I like to work off a particular rhythm or drum beat and build the song from there. When writing lyrics, I tend to partially separate myself from the songs I write. Whilst each is definitely based on feelings and experiences I have had personally, I take those ideas and feelings and apply them to fictional characters or events. I think that while it can work to make yourself bare in front of an audience, it can also be difficult and a bit awkward, so by working this way I can still be expressive in my songwriting without necessarily being biographical. That way, when it comes to performing the songs I’ve written, I feel like it is similar to acting out parts of a play.”
Ephrata was released in 2017 through Quiet Arch Records in Belfast, a growing, vinyl-focused label run by his manager, Lyndon Stephens.
“A lot of people said I should wait until I was signed by a bigger label, or that I needed to write more songs, but recording an album was something I have always really wanted to do. I felt that I was ready, that I had enough songs, and Lyndon gave me the confidence to back myself and record an album.”
“While some songs came from previous EPs, I wrote most of Ephrata while spending a few months in Colombia visiting my cousin. My writing was influenced by my exposure to Cumbia, a historic North Colombian folk music tradition which fuses African rhythms and Spanish melodies. I spent a lot of time listening to that kind of music and I tried to soak that up and incorporate its rhythms and patterns into my own music. I ended up buying a nylon-stringed guitar for about fifteen pounds which I used on almost every song on the record. That guitar is still my go-to, the one that I leave sitting in the living room for when I just want to pick up and play.”
“Writing and recording an album is a really exciting process, though it can also be incredibly frustrating. When you start to work each morning it can sometimes be really difficult, and when you aren’t feeling at your most creative the fun can be seemingly sucked out of making music. That being said, as soon as I get into my rhythm I quickly rediscover how much I love making music. Working on a smaller label with people I know so well really helps, as I can effectively do whatever I like. I’ve heard stories about artists who have had disagreements with labels over their sound or their image and I’m really glad to be free of that. It’s important that a label and an artist can work together to make money, but profit shouldn’t come at the cost of artistic expression. I believe that at the end of the day the artist always knows best and that it’s important for artists to put on the blinkers and create something that feels right for them. I think that’s how you make a lasting impact.”
Joshua has begun to make his own clearly defined impact on the Irish music scene in 2017; attracting sell-out shows, wide-ranging radio coverage and Spotify streams in the millions, before finishing the year by taking home the Northern Ireland Music Prize in November. Though pleased with his lot in 2017, Joshua is already looking to the future and his next record.
“Winning the Northern Ireland Music Prize really meant a lot to me. It was lovely considering who voted for me and to know that my work is respected by fellow musicians in Northern Ireland. My experience of being a musician in Belfast and in Ireland generally is that it is a great place to make music. As with most artists, it has taken me time to build up a fan base, and that is due to Belfast maybe not having as big an underground music scene as other, bigger cities. That being said, there is a great musical community and I really enjoy being based here. Being part of the folk and trad scene in Belfast is great and I run the folk music club at The American Bar in Sailortown every other Thursday. Each week we get people of all ages and backgrounds coming in to share their music and culture; it’s amazing to see so many people who just want to sit and play a song, just making music for the love of it.”
"I’m currently working on a new album, and am looking to build on some ideas I‘ve had since finishing Ephrata. Though it was amazing to hear some of the praise for the album, I was personally a bit disappointed with some elements of it . I’m proud of having made it; I just think it’s my attitude to always want to improve. I’m not a perfectionist, but I can be pernickety, especially when it comes to the production side of making a record. I’m not the sort of person that will ever finish an album and think that it was perfect.”
“Ephrata was recorded in multiple locations, and while that worked in its own way, for my next album I would prefer to record entirely in one location. I’ve taken a lot of time when considering which recording studio to use, and have settled on Analogue Catalogue in Rathfriland. Julie McLarnon, who runs the studio, has almost 30 years experience in production and I’m really excited to be working with her.”
"Ephrata had lots of different musical styles and instrumentations across the album, which some people really liked and others maybe didn’t. I’ve always appreciated the concept of an album; I like to listen to a record from start to finish and really get into its feeling, its story. On my next record I think I want to try and achieve that. When you consider the way most people listen to music these days, it is becoming a bit of a dying art to make a record that tells a story, with a vibe to it that is consistent the whole way through. Based on local histories from Rostrevor, the songs I’m writing at the moment are designed to come together to create a kind of historical fictional drama. Coupled with a more pared back and natural sound, my next record will hopefully let people connect to the music and stories in a meaningful way.”
Ellie Kisyombe is the founder of OurTable, and an activist for the abolition of Direct Provision.