There was a point when Seán Ó Corcoráin hit rock bottom. His band broke up, some friendships and a four-year relationship ended. He was on his own, and an immense feeling of loneliness and isolation consumed him. “I had given up on music,” he says. “I had pretty much given up on everything. I was completely desolate. I didn’t know where, or who I was, or where my life was going to end up. It was a pretty dark time.”
Plunging down a vortex of self deprecation, hopelessness, and solitude, the Irish singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, says he finally had to make a change and pull himself up. Music was the first step.
Corcoráin eventually started to untangle the toxic relations and habits, insecurities, and sadness. Fused by new and dark waves of indie rock, pop, piercing vocals, and penetrating lyricism, Outsider’s debut, Karma of Youth, unravels the hopelessness, an unexpected, conscious awakening, and Corcoráin’s ultimate perseverance.
His chosen name says it all: Outsider. A nod to the 1956 Colin Wilson novel, “The Outsider,” which explores an artist’s sense of alienation in society, Corcoráin’s Outsider is not far off. As an artist, he feels almost like a foreign object in the current, alternative and indie rock world.
Honestly, he’s not sure where he fits in.
“I am an outsider, and I’m making the music for people who feel that way,” Corcoráin tells American Songwriter. “I don’t feel like I look like anybody else in music. Am I alternative? I suppose I am. There’s a lot of pop sensibilities in my music, too. I don’t really know where I fit in.”
Perhaps a late starter, if compared to most, Corcoráin didn’t really start writing until his mid-20s and singing until he was 29. Once, a former band member even told him that he couldn’t sing, which crushed him at the time. Eventually finding himself, and his words, lyric by lyric, Outsider was shaping. His first recorded vocal and single, “Late Night Radio,” landed a spot on the Netflix sci-fi series Shadowhunters in 2017.
Isolated and withdrawn at his lowest point of depression, Corcoráin literally researched how he could stop feeling this way, so he started practicing Muay Thai and removing some noxious habits. “I had to try something, and slowly but surely I gave up alcohol, started exercising, and eating the right food,” he says. “I would do anything not to feel the way I was feeling, because I was just absolutely drowning in it.”
Lyrically, and artistically, everything shifted further for Corcoráin in July of 2019 when he experienced a life-changing awakening, referred to as a “kundalini awakening” in Hindu. In short, it’s a rebirth as one’s consciousness is awakened on every level. Although, Karma of Youth was written prior to this experience, the songs took on new meaning and, as Corcoráin says, were better understood after this self-resurgence.
Initially, when he wrote Karma of Youth, he was in a different place, but allowed himself to subconsciously write without any predetermined meaning to his lyrics. He practiced just letting songs flow and go wherever they wanted.
“I waded into the waters of not really knowing what I was talking about sometimes,” he says. “I was finally letting my subconscious bleed into the creative process, and that’s just how I create now. Sometimes I would write songs and have no idea what I’m talking about, and it takes me six months to figure it out. It’s like there’s something being born in my subconscious that I’m not even aware of yet, and later it would become this song or this concept.”
Karma of Youth opener “Saviour” was one track Corcoráin didn’t understand when it was first written, but following his awakening, the concept organically connected to the song.
“I was like, ‘who’s this fucking savior?’” he laughs. “It was a premonition of the spiritual awakening. That’s what the song was alluding to, and I’ve often experienced with my songs that it can sometimes be a premonition of what’s to come for me.” Corcoráin remembers writing another song about great love that he had met while experiencing a breakup. “The [songs] don’t want change,” he says. “You just understand them more. They never change, you just go, ‘Oh my God, that’s what I was talking about.’
Without being too versed in spiritual symbolism at first, a journalist friend in Delhi even pointed out some Hindu meaning in his lyrics. (Taking my soul on a revelation night drive, with my heart and my crown at her feet on “Revelation Night Drive” has a link to the crown chakra in Hinduism. The seventh chakra, it influences one’s consciousness.)
Entering the raw psyche of Outsider, Karma of Youth opens and shuts on something soaring. Ultimately, Karma of Youth is the revelation of Corcoráin’s perseverance, revealed in synthesized melodies and enrapturing choruses from opener “Saviour.” Filled with shamanic verses and imagery—drowning dragons, eating spiders—”Savior” is Outsider’s intro to an enigmatic, anthemic, and abstract world. Beyond, Karma fluidly expands into something more euphoric.
“It was forged in that fire of just needing to write something that would help me. I needed to push through,” he says. “I needed to like drive myself on because I was drowning. I just felt like my life had fallen apart at one stage.”
Modeled by the movement of “Míol Mór Mara,” Karma of Youth drives constant into the rallying cries of “Brotherhood O.A.” through thunderous “Young Gods of Na Sionna,” written about the suicides along the Shannon River around the economic recession in Ireland, and “Íosa Chroí” in its solid refrain of Heaven is in your heart to the pop swell of “Revelation Night Drive.” The calm after Karma of Youth’s storm, it’s peak paean of triumph, instrumental “Saturns Return” is a synth-and-drum march forward into some astra plane.
Keeping with the consistent motion of Karma, “Motörmaze” is a more stirring track for Corcoráin and documents his rebirth. “A fire was started in me when I wrote that song,” says Corcoráin. “It’s got that lyric of overcoming, I killed the boy. It’s just a phrase for killing your old self. I’ve been born again. I can allow myself to go back. I’m not this unbelievable failure. ‘Motörmaze’ is definitely that song. It’s that moment where you realize you know it’s going to be okay.”
Corcoráin performed all instruments on most of the eight tracks on the album, and enlisted Atlas White Studio’s Owen Geaney with additional production and sound engineering and Grammy Award winner Greg Calbi (Arcade Fire, Interpol, The National), who mastered the album.
Brooding and flitting in its post-punk pulse, the true spirit of Karma of Youth is more lifted. “I needed to persevere, because that was it for me,” he says. Corcoráin says when he did reach hit bottom in depression, he couldn’t even write sad songs and needed something more in the vein of “Míol Mór Mara.”
“It was the end for me if I didn’t,” he says. “I know that sounds kind of dramatic, but I felt I couldn’t go any lower. I felt I couldn’t go anywhere, so those songs really set me free. I just got that energy from it, that perseverance to just drive against the dark or keep going.”
Typically, finding the right lyrics can be a painstaking process for Corcoráin, who often labors over finding the right phrase—even word— within a song. Other times, if there’s a word or phrase that makes him uncomfortable, or pause, he knows he has to leave it in. “If I’m embarrassed about it, if I am afraid of it, it has to go in,” he says. “It’s all that stuff you don’t want anyone to know you feel, the most vulnerable feelings you’ve had in your life. I think I achieved that in Karma of Youth.”
Against more “norms,” Outsider also melds Irish and English lyrics into Karma of Youth, but writing in the Irish language of Gaeilge is something he doesn’t consciously think about. “I don’t crowbar it in there,” he says. “It’s just something that happens. Usually I veer towards English, but sometimes the Irish just comes out.”
It’s how “Míol Mór Mara” came out. Roughly translated as “giant beasts of the sea” “Míol Mór Mara”—which was featured in FIFA 18 and was the first Irish language song used in a video game—leans on the symbolism of being swallowed up the sea and reborn, and was inspired by the Joseph Campbell’s tale of “Jonah and the Whale.”
Awe-inspired by The Pixies who’ve weaved Spanish into some of their lyrics, Corcoráin says he wants to do the same with Irish. He doesn’t want his heritage, his language, to die out.
“My identity is Irish,” he says. “It’s something that I feel Ireland has always struggled with, as we’ve always tried to fit in on an international level.” Referring to Ireland’s colonization by England and a loss of identity, the country’s language is one very few youth have embraced. “All of our traditional music is ancient, so it doesn’t really fit into modern times,” says Corcoráin. “When you’re a kid growing up, it doesn’t fit into your world as much, so we write English songs, play indie-style music, and I think the Irish identity gets left to the background.”
In Ireland, there’s an elitism within art to be completely nationalistic and sing entirely in Irish and not dilute it in English, says Corcoráin, or just avoid it all together. “I’m coming down the middle,” he laughs. “I don’t give a fuck what you think, so how about I just take the song and do whatever the fuck I want with it because it’s mine anyway.”
True art is something Corcoráin often questions today, whether it’s holding back in lyrics or a lack of diversity among artists, specifically in the indie and alt realm, where, he says, there are too many rules.
“How are you creating art if you’re abiding by these imaginary rules or you’re afraid to hurt someone’s sensitivities?” says Corcoráin. “We’re just afraid that people will tell us, ‘you’re wrong,’ or ‘you’re stupid,’ and it’s all fear-based. If you stop doing those things, originality comes to a halt in its tracks. You can’t hope to fully be yourself or to ever move forward in the world.”
He adds, “You just fit into this paradigm. Throw away those mental or imaginary rules or those shackles. People are going to criticize you no matter what you do so fuck them. Just do whatever you want.”
That is what music is to Corcoráin. It also has the ability to give listeners some kind of an “awakening.” In thinking of how Karma of Youth could impact listeners he’s not thinking in terms of a “kundalini awakening,” but more empowerment, a “metaphysical roadmap for the lost soul.”
“I would want them to wake up to the fact that they can be themselves—step into their own power, and wake up to that kind of power to be yourself,” he says. “I spent so long being afraid to be who I am or afraid of who I was, or afraid I wasn’t good enough. If my album could help people overcome… if someone feels completely lost, then hears it and it helps, then there’s a lifeline.”
Music has always helped Corcoráin cope, and if possible, he wants to pay it forward.
“I was gifted with music growing up that saved me,” he says. “That is the single most nourishing experience you’ll have growing up. If you’re going through a hard time and you hear great art or great music and there’s a lyric in there that could literally keep you going all year, it’s lifesaving. I know that sounds dramatic, but that’s how powerful music is. It saves lives. It really does.”
Throughout the years, Corcoráin has heard from fans who have deeply connected to his music, and says it’s important to him to always have that direct connection—even personally getting back to everyone who reaches out. “That’s a promise I made,” he says. “I was so lonely when I wrote this album. If there’s anybody that wants to talk to me ever again, I am going to get back to every message, because I know loneliness so well now. I’ll never forget what it felt like.”
If possible, he wants to change the relationship between the artist and the audience, particularly at shows. He’d love to demystify the image of a rock and roll artist, and the separation. “I would love to break down the separation between the listener and the artist, so that it’s not about people coming to the gig to celebrate you,” he says. “I love those gigs where the energy is so powerful, and when the right chemistry is there you know there’s an alchemy between the crowd and the band, and there’s no separation. That’s the pinnacle experience for me, when you can leave feeling completely elevated and connected to the band. You can’t manufacture that. It’s just real.”
Now, Outsider, Seán Ó Corcoráin, is still pushing himself forward. In lockdown, back home in Dublin, he’s been writing completely new songs like “Trans Rí” (trans king in Gaeilge) and another about a Halloween festival in Ireland. He’s even found himself, subconsciously, writing more lush, slower, romantic stuff. “The processes is never ending,” says Corcoráin. “I just love writing new songs, and I can’t wait to get more out there.”
No longer concerned about the factory-molded image of what a rock star is, he’s clean, lucid, and literally enthralled in a momentous, musical journey. Even his awakening was something Corcoráin was advised not to talk about, but it’s something that was life changing and life affirming, so he’s been completely transparent when speaking about it.
“I am done hiding anything about myself,” he says. “And if it means that people think I’m weird or I’m crazy or I’m stupid or I don’t fit in, I don’t give a fuck. It took a lot to break into myself, to reveal myself, but I’m glad I did that. I really benefited from it as a human being.”
There are no filters, only purpose. Karma of Youth is a documented chapter in his life, and there’s more to uncover. “I’m trying more and more to push myself where I don’t care about any of that,” says Corcoráin. “If it means that I can become myself five percent or 10 percent more this year, fucking great. I’m going to do some things that suck along the way, and I might do some things that I’m not happy with. Well, it’s worth that risk.”
“I think [David] Bowie said that if you’re not willing to make mistakes or feel like you’re completely out of your depth and you don’t know what you’re doing, that’s the place where you need to be. You can always fall apart.”
“If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” —David Bowie