Cathal Coughlan Weighs the Sensible and Surreal on “Song of Co-Aklan”

By 2016, Cathal Coughlan found himself caught up in the “melodrama” of Tin Pan Alley pop. Also tapping back into artists like Frankie Valli, Scott Walker, Dusty Springfield, and the Phil Spector-produced 1974 Dion album Born To Be With You, were the beginning musical roots of Coughlan’s sixth solo album, and his own personal reimagining, on Song of Co-Aklan (Dimple Discs).

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“That music started jogging something in my head,” says the Irish singer, songwriter, who was also looking for some new music to play around Dublin during this time. “I just started kind of playing around with bits and pieces, and it coalesced into something. Then the really naughty stuff, socially and politically, started and that dislodged a lot more things in my psyche.”

Looking at the bigger picture of Song of Co-Aklan, which comes 11 years after his previous release Rancho Theatrohendron, the London-based Coughlan initially started writing most of the songs following the Brexit referendum and uprooting of anti-Semitism in Britain. Rooted in a sense of identity, socially and politically, most of the songs, says Coughlan, boil down to “contested and damaged senses of identity” and what that can provoke in people.

“I was trying not to make an aged, didactic, finger wagging record, but the identity question is the thing that bled through from what I was watching going on around me,” he says. “It indicates old alliances and old world views, agendas, tribal agendas crumbling, in the face of a number of things, and technology is one of those things.” 

Co-Aklan is more than a moniker for Coughlan. It’s a re-evaluation of his art, working under his name following the end of Microdisney, the band he fronted throughout the 1980s.

“I’m in no way ashamed of my name, or where I come from, but I had done that and a number of other things because I was just kind of following blindly along,” shares Coughlan, who had a brief reunion with Microdisney in 2018 and 2019. “It was time to do something, so I introduced this phonetic object. It’s not derived from Latin or Greek or anything else. I like it on the cover art (illustrated by Cristabel Christo and originated by Bruce Brand, who has worked with The Darkness and Whites Stripes) because it just looks like this exotic things, yet it’s wholly bogus.”

Songwriting from his time with Microdisney through the The Fatima Mansions in the ’90s and his solo work has been varied over the years for Coughlan. “Subconsciously, I’m aware of what it is, what boxes the pieces of work need to fit into, then I come back two days later and I find I’ve completely forgotten the thread of why I was doing this thing, what is it for, where it’s supposed to fit,” says Coughlan. ”The mid period of The Fatima Mansions was very prolific, but I kind of hit a wall in a number of ways, and things became very deliberate. The record label wanted to hear demos of everything before they could be recorded, but thankfully things are not like that anymore. You can please yourself.”

Predominantly written between 2016 and 2019, Song of Co-Aklan was initially recorded in London prior to the pandemic with Coughlan’s long-time collaborators, the Grand Necropolitan Quartet, including namely Nick Allum (The Fatima Mansions, The Apartments), James Woodrow and Audray Riley, who has collaborated with The Smiths, Nick Cave, The Cure and Coldplay. Song of Co-Aklan also features former Microdisney bandmate Sean O’Hagan (Stereolab, High Llamas) and The Fatima Mansions’ Andrías Ó Grúama, along with Rhodri Marsden (Scritti Politti), Luke Haines (The Auteurs), Irish singer-songwriter Eileen Gogan, and Cory Gray of The Delines on wurlitzer piano.

Drifting open on a digital sermon, singing, Hamster live stream of the high definition / Boil hamster quite soon for a feast during bombs / Deep-frying some shelves, updating their profile, Coughlan touches on some of the damages of a tech-driven driven world. “In terms of music, the detriments are pretty obvious and reflect the manner in which copyright has just ceased to matter,” says Coughlan. “There was a fundamental lack of regard and it isn’t just confined to the arts, though things like music, photography, creative writing has basically been subsumed into this bracket of content.”

A running thread through Song of Co-Aklan, technology is something that’s been “detrimental to a thinking society,” adds Coughlan, who also sees the positives of the digitized world when it comes to collaborating over long distances. Collaborating with artists in the UK, Canada, and the U.S., Coughlan barely had most of the tracks down when everything shut down in 2020. “I wouldn’t have been able to complete this record when the pandemic landed unless the technology was there.”

Throughout Song of Co-Aklan, Couhglan is the universal storyteller, from the human and animalistic on the sinister croon of “Crow Mother” to the cabaret-induced “Owl in a Parlour,” which he says is “a survey of the options in personal couture, animal husbandry and inexpensive domestic staffing which are now available to the spry middle-aged man in this era of global communication,” through the more illusory tales of “The Copper Beech.” 

To accompany each track, Coughlan worked with several directors to open the individual track’s visual elements, with Emmy award-winning director George Seminara working on the title track and “The Knockout Artist,” the Andy Golding-helmed “Owl In the Parlour,” and the most recent alt-jazz imagery on “Falling Out North Street,” directed by Marry Waterson.

Aside from his Co-Aklan project, Coughlan has been working with ‘O-Hagan and some Irish historians, writing a track inspired by episodes of criminal history of the Irish diaspora in Britain and America, and is one part of the electronic duo, along with Jacknife Lee, of Teilifís a hAon (Teilifís, the Irish word for television)—a name, Coughlan says is drawn from a more cultural meaning from the earlier days of media and imagery of Ireland in the 1960s—and are set to release tracks by summer 2021 and an album by fall.

Coughlan isn’t sure if Co-Aklan is a new chapter, per se, but is behind the idea of a new beginning.

“I would like it if it was,” he says. “Some things seem to come easier to me than they did a while ago. But the uncertainty of the world and my place in it has weighed pretty heavily on me. I’m really still just taking it one step at a time.”

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