Interview | Neil Dexter On Going Solo With I’ll Be Ready
Neil Dexter is positioned to be one of the most intriguing prospects in the Irish music scene in 2022.
Kickstarting his solo career in 2021 with the release of his single ‘Loving You’, the Dublin-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter received immediate coverage, most notably on 98FM’s Totally Irish hosted by John Barker and Nialler9’s Best New Irish Music playlist, with the single having received its world exclusive premiere on Gemma Bradley’s BBC Radio Ulster Across the Line. His debut LP, I’ll Be Ready, is set to be released this Friday October 14th.
We had the chance to catch up with Neil ahead of its release.
The coverage and positive reception at this first outing as a solo artist comes has come as a pleasant surprise to Neil, something he doesn’t take for granted:
“I think it’s hard enough to get people to listen to things these days or just to engage in some way so the fact that so many people have done that, especially people in the industry that I respect have done that and given me positive feedback has been great,” he explains.
“You can tell when people are genuinely engaged in what you’re doing. That’s been amazing and I’ve been so appreciative. Some people have said similar things, like ‘Loving You’ was a bit of a U2/Madonna mashup in some ways and I remember Tony Clayton-Lea tweeted about it saying something about that! People like that seem to get it or get what I was trying to do and enjoy the end result which is great.”
Music has been a constant presence in Neil’s life, having been classically trained from a young age. His father is a music teacher and was a choir master and organist at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Neil sang alongside his siblings as a boy soprano.
“We were once described as the Irish Von Trapps. My parents had seven kids and we all do music whether it’s a career or not – our family used to do our own concerts and stuff. My experience of music through that was amazing, you’re singing these incredible old classical pieces that you probably never would come across otherwise and it’s amazing. That was a great experience.”
Neil is perhaps best known as a founding member of the Irish indie rock quintet, Spies. Once hailed as one of the most promising acts in Ireland, the group released their then long-awaited debut album Constancy in late 2018 before finally calling it a day in 2020. For Neil, the split was bittersweet. He is open and candid in recounting the final days of the band.
“Looking back, we feel quite lucky that we finished it when we did because our last gig was February 2020 and then of course the pandemic hits so in a way it was really nice to have it sort of wound up in just before that.
When we were recording the album, we all were thinking “what do we wanna do with this album? How are we gonna release it?” and we all kind of asked some difficult questions: “are we all going to commit to this?”, “how much are we gonna put into it or are we gonna just do it, y’know, release it with friends or whatever? How far are we gonna take it?
I remember at the time, Michael [Broderick, frontman] had a choice to do a PhD and at that point that would have been quite demanding. He was like “look, to be honest, I really wanna do this PhD” so the rest of us were like “okay, so that kind of means that we may not be able to do this in the same way”, so we all had to kind of think ourselves what we wanted.
It ended well, which is good, and we’re all really good friends. We actually still play together in some different ways. Hugh [O’Dwyer], he plays bass with me now, he’s gonna be playing bass for the live shows.”
Neil’s transition into solo artistry began as early as 2018, after Spies had wrapped up the recording of Constancy, as he and his now former bandmates had begun work on other projects. Neil, for his part has also played with Jetsetter and currently performs with Tandem Felix in addition to his own work. His colourful music career has also seen perform with the National Youth Orchestra and the Trinity Orchestra. I’ll Be Ready is a manifestation of the multitude of influences that have informed Neil’s sonic palette over the years, incorporating sounds of past and present, boasting avant-pop experimentation and lyrical themes of self-reflection and personal growth.
On stepping out on his own, Neil expands: “I hadn’t really exercised the muscle of writing your own songs. I avoided that for years because when you take full responsibility for something, writing it, that kind of scared me a lot. I don’t think I had the confidence to do it. I don’t I’d written any one song and finished a song on my own because I preferred contributing to a group and writing together for all those reasons.
It took me until my mid-twenties to get enough confidence to really write a full song and go “okay, this is good enough” or “I like this enough” and that’s also maybe to do with taste and what I was listening to. I think naturally your taste diversifies a bit as you get older, for me anyway it has. The influences for my album are probably a lot broader than what I was listening to when Spies were writing in the early days for sure.”
Neil credits the feeling of self-fulfilment and the encouragement of talented collaborators in David Tapley [Tandem Felix] and producer Stephen Dunne with being the deciding factors in making a go of it.
“The moment when it clicked; there was a few sort of half ideas or songs but I’d been doing that for years so I never really had a barometer to measure what was good enough to warrant releasing a song or finishing a song. So I spoke to Dave [David Tapley] – I think it was in the smoking area of the Sugar Club or something after a gig – he was just like “Man, why don’t you just fucking book the studio and we’ll just go in? Doesn’t matter if you haven’t finished the song, let’s just go and have the craic, and see what happens”. So that’s exactly what I did.
The only time I ever actually really finish songs is when I give myself a deadline, so that worked well. We booked the studio for a couple of months ahead, and I had three songs which ended up being ‘Robert Wyatt’, ‘Loving You’ and ‘I’ll Be With You’.
The biggest thing is the confidence, but then the reward is there because you’ve written it yourself. It’s like “Wow, I can’t believe I’ve written these songs” and it came together as an album, which is amazing. Dave has played a huge part and Stephen Dunne who produced the record as well. The two of them have a great creative workflow and I kind of tapped into that with this album and we just went for it.
When we recorded the album, there was no right or wrong, there was no “You have to do this or that”. We just kind of listened to music that we liked and thought “Let’s throw a bit of guitar here” or “Let’s just throw some drums in here”. After being in a band, it was very nice just to do whatever you want – if you want to put in a children’s choir, fuckin’ put it in.”
Citing influences as disparate as Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, Arthur Russell, Perfume Genius, Destroyer and Westerman; Neil’s sound on I’ll Be Ready borrows from and tips its hat to each and more. Crystalline synths, euphoric dance beats and deftly layered vocals are woven throughout. Neil’s eclectic tastes come from being something of a crate digger and historian, he explains.
“I went through this kind of thing over the last few years when anytime I wanted to discover new music, I didn’t really look to music that was coming out today. I started going into looking at different times in history. Like okay, 1979, what albums do I like from that year? Then just really digging into other albums that came out that year that I could like.
For some reason 1982 just kept coming up. Avalon by Roxy Music. I just love the production on that album. Those kinds of albums that just maybe I stumbled across or just kind of came across. So, definitely there’s a lot of ’70s and ’80s influences but maybe too much. Sometimes I wonder do I listen to any modern music? But I don’t think it really matters, you just like what you like.”
One track on the album in particular, ‘Don’t Question It’, was heavily influenced by ‘The Electrician’ by the Walker Brothers, Neil tells us. He became enamoured having watched 30th Century Man, where he heard the track for the first time.
“I hadn’t really listened to Scott Walker at the time, so I was just like wow, this guy is insane. That song is sort of an anomaly in a way because they did kind of cheesy stuff apart from that it sounds like.
It has this dissonance of maybe some modern classical music which I would have known about growing up, the way it starts is so moody and then when it kicks in with the drumbeat, it just goes to some other planet… I think what really resonates with me about it is when it does kick in, it’s just so unexpected and his voice just goes ooOOOoooOOooooOOhhh. That’s definitely what inspired ‘Don’t Question It’.”
There is of course so much more to the album than paying homage to the forbearers of its sound. I’ll Be Ready is loaded with emotional depth. While most of its lyrical content was written in a stream-of-consciousness style, much of the tracks are self-reflective yet relatable.
“‘I’ll Be With You’ is a bit about loss, hoping to see someone again but maybe not”, Neil tells us. ‘Alpha’ is about isolation and social anxiety. There’s a sort of seediness about that track, which I like. ‘We’ll Be There’ is kind of a reaction to a tragedy. I think people take from it what they will which is what I like. People latch on to specific lyrics or specific things that are kind of universal. I would love people to connect with things on their own emotional level, whatever part of the journey they’re at and to get something from it for them personally because that’s what I get from it. The extraction of what I’m feeling or what I’m going through.”
Even the title itself suggests a deeper meaning. It wasn’t intended this way, however, Neil reveals.
“That was kind of a working title for the track and obviously became the album one but looking back after having written the song and the album, it kind of feels like it’s basically me sort of reflecting on where I’m at in my life. I have a three month old kid now, at the time when I wrote that song and was putting the album together I was at that age or time of my life where I didn’t really know if I was ready for the next step, maybe having a kid. I didn’t know if I was ready to get a house or do any of that stuff but I think it was me sort of saying to myself “okay, I will be ready” and trying to convince myself that I am, but maybe I’ll never be ready. I think I’ll Be Ready just kind of stuck.”
With the album release date fast approaching, Neil is looking forward to its launch at the Workman’s Club later in October. Those wondering what to expect will have to keep wondering, though. Neil isn’t entirely sure himself.
“I’ve never done a live show. I don’t know anyone really who’s done their first live show as their album launch, which kind of feels kinda mad. I’m as excited as you are or anyone else who’s going to the gig how these songs are gonna come alive on stage. I think it will be quite intense but hopefully in a good way. The songs are quite intense. I just hope they land with people and they go “okay, wow” or that someone will take something away from a track.”
I’ll Be Ready will be released on 14th October 2022.
Neil Dexter will play at the Workman’s Cellar on 20th October 2022.