Danny O’Reilly of The Coronas has been fascinated and inspired about how the Black Lives Matter movement has spread from the U.S. and throughout the world, including the tiny village of Dingle, Ireland, where he’s been sheltering in place for—as of this writing—four months.
Though not as publicized as the England protests, where a crowd threw a statue of slave dealer Edward Colston into a river, he’s watched on the news as crowds peacefully gathered in Dublin, and Dingle itself, where about 200 people showed up in unity.
“Obviously, every couple of years there’s been incidents happen, and it’s always sort of bubbling under the surface,” O’Reilly said in a video call from his family’s vacation home, where he was staying with his sister. “Now it really seems like it’s boiled over. It’s on the news all the time here, and everyone got behind it on social media. It’s a real turning point, hopefully.”
The Coronas’ frontman and chief songwriter couldn’t bring himself to watch the horrifying video of George Floyd’s murder, but he’s been following developments regularly during quarantine.
The band’s 2019 ended with the departure of guitarist Dave McPhillips, a founding member.
Then, in December, O’Reilly’s routine Google alert on his band—one of the biggest in Ireland—came back with something unexpected: a strange virus in China that was causing many people to fall ill or die. This year the Coronas, who already headline arenas in Ireland, were hoping to break out overseas with their sixth album, True Love Waits, a U.S. tour and large festival appearances.
“We started getting messages from people in January,” O’Reilly said. “We wanted to poke fun at ourselves and make light of it, but it was such a sort of strange and serious ongoing thing.”
It wasn’t until three months later that everything gradually fell apart. O’Reilly left Dublin for what he presumed would be an extended weekend, tours were canceled, and True Love Waits was postponed from May to July. That’s how he came to be living with his sister in a home atop a grassy hill, overlooking a valley in the remote southwest corner of County Kerry. Ireland was beginning to lift its travel restrictions and reopen the economy.
“The government did really well here; they got out before it and there’s a really small amount of cases every day now,” he said.
In Dingle, he’s been playing his family’s upright piano, working on new songs, and concentrating on the album release, which the band will most likely have to promote without playing any more shows through the end of the year. O’Reilly recalled Dave Grohl’s column in The Atlantic about the healing nature of communal music and how people will need it when the time is right. He said he feels the same way for his band, which includes bassist Graham Knox and drummer Conor Egan.
“We’re not like a shoegazing, sit-down-and-listen band. Our crowd; they need to be able to hug a stranger and sing a song,” he said. “Coldplay played in Croke Park two years ago here. I was talking to strangers, and I was hugging a stranger, like, ‘This is so cool!’ These are my favorite moments. I miss going to gigs … as much as I miss gigging myself.”
Until then, O’Reilly and the Coronas are focusing on True Love Waits, which marks a forced shift for the band. McPhillips was the lead guitarist. He appears on a handful of the new songs, but with him gone, the trio considered dropping guitars altogether and making mellower music.
Eventually, O’Reilly brought in numerous friends and even family to co-write, and those people ended up recording as well. In the end, the three followed the directions the songs naturally took, and those songs have plenty of guitar playing. Cian MacSweeny of Cork band True Tides contributed, as did Lar Kaye of Dublin pop duo All Tvvins and British singer-songwriter Gabrielle Alpin. Other friends sang backup, and his sister— Roisin O’Reilly, herself a singer-songwriter—co-wrote and sings on one song.
The Coronas worked with three different producers on both sides of the Atlantic to get the album done in 2019.
“Sometimes I think a change is as good as a rest,” O’Reilly said. “And we had a new sense of vigor. ‘Let’s try to do different things. Let’s work with different people, try different songs … different vibes.’ And it sort of seemed to focus the three of us into pulling in the same direction. We all saw the potential of a new chapter, and a new sound, and evolving in a slightly different way than we would have.”
Before, the band would squeeze in songs that stuck out by being folksier or having a heavier rock-oriented vibe. This album is more cohesive and flows better, he said.
“We didn’t really think about the live show,” he said. “All our back catalog has guitar in it, anyway. We’re probably going to have a session guitar player.”
Thematically, True Love Waits addresses some of the common themes in O’Reilly’s songwriting, as well as one important new one. There are songs about feeling down, trying to not be so hard on himself and in true Irish fashion, songs about writing songs.
“Self-improvement lyrics is the thing that, since I’ve become 30, I can’t keep from writing—not being afraid to give myself a pat in the back if I’m doing OK, trying not to be too hard on myself, trying not to overthink things, trying to be a better brother, better soul, a better boyfriend and a better bandmate,” he said.
Then there are two songs—the title track and “Light Me Up”—about the dissolution of a relationship. But it’s not a romantic relationship.
“It’s what happened between myself and Dave,” O’Reilly said. “Even without knowing it, I ended up sort of writing about our relationship. He was in the band for 12 years. It’s longer than any relationship I’ve had.”
The guitarist’s departure was an amicable one. O’Reilly said that for the last six months McPhillips was in the band, he’d grown tired and uninterested. The two had a heart-to-heart in July 2019.
“I think being a band is like a marriage. If one person is sad, it makes the other person in the thing sad. It rubs off,” O’Reilly said. “And in fairness to Dave, I think that was one of the reasons that he made the brave decision to say, ‘Guys. I don’t want to drag you guys down. I’m not enjoying this anymore. I want to change. I feel like I need to do that, but it’s more for you guys than it is for me, because I’m just being around and there’s no point in me being here and phoning it in.’
“He could have stayed in the band and phoned it in,” the singer continued. “We never would have asked him to leave because he wasn’t happy. It was a very thoughtful decision.”
Out of all the shows the Coronas have had to postpone in 2020, none were more important than the handful of Irish arena concerts, which O’Reilly said can fund the band for an entire year and pay for the other tours, on which the band breaks even. Any kind of show is a good show at this point, he said, but in the age of COVID-19, he’d rather play a low-capacity but sold-out club than a huge but mostly empty socially distant hall or arena.
More than likely, the band won’t play the U.S. until spring 2021; backup plans are already in the works, he said. He’s looking forward to visiting the Bay Area, where he has uncles who live in Oakland and in the Sunset in San Francisco with their families. The San Francisco uncle can see Outside Lands from his home, and O’Reilly hopes to play there one day.
The band is sticking to the July 31 release date for True Love Waits because O’Reilly and co. don’t want to sit on it for upwards of two years. The frontman is already working on new songs and hoped to have about five ready for when trio hits the road. That way, the Coronas will have new material to play alongside the newest album.
In the meantime, O’Reilly doesn’t shy away from the ribbing his band (actually named for a typewriter used in the film “Almost Famous”) has received for sharing a name with a virus that caused a pandemic. He’s heard all the conspiracy theories that were directed to the likes of Corona beer and 5G towers, but luckily, he said, his band hasn’t been more affected than any other.
“It’s just a name, at the end of the day,” he said.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.