What does it mean to make music?
For many, it’s a diversion from some of life's more difficult moments. For others, it’s a way of releasing pent up energy and frustration, and shouting down a microphone or jabbing notes into a keyboard helps relieve the ever-increasing stress of the world around us. For Irish-born, Lisbon-based electronic artist Olan Monk, however, it’s important for music, especially pop, to hold some weight with it. To tell a story, to inform, and to soundtrack the moment we find ourselves in across our lives.
Monk’s latest project, ‘Auto-Life’, explores such themes through the lens of performance. Originally designed and created with performance in mind, it’s been trapped in somewhat of a limbo state, awaiting the right time to truly find its home in packed rooms and venues across the world.Drenched in gorgeously arranged autotuned vocals, accompanied so ornately by rolling electric guitar riffs, the project opens and ends witht the roar of a crowd in an attempt to capture live music’s inner-beauty in the confines of tender isolation.
Throughout the project’s creation, Monk began considering not only what performance means to music, but also what it means to perform music. “A lot of what music lost in the last year and a half has been that community experience,” Monk explains, “sharing space and listening to music, and that’s what's so exciting about coming back to that”.
‘Auto-Life’, Monk admits, is as much an attempt for them to discover their own links and influences as much as to provide a backdrop to others' more personal reflections. “I was trying to come to terms with what makes up the music that I do, thinking about this lineage of young superstars, rock music and rap music and these burnout figures and thinking about that in a way that deals with some of the heaviness and in terms of its social and cultural weight” they recall of the stars we’ve lost too early in their own creative journey, be it by misfortune or choice. “It’s tragic, but at the same time maybe there’s a way of re-imagining all of that” they add, “and this project tries to imagine what it would be like if you lived through that and what it would be like coming out the other side”.
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Monk was born and raised in the most Westerly region of Ireland, in Connemara Co.Galway. Growing up in an Irish-speaking area, they were bilingual from a young age and often found themselves spending time walking and wandering through the beaches and fields surrounding their home. Surrounded by traditional Irish music, Monk found themselves pushing against the grain and delving deep into the history of punk and grunge, with bands such as Nirvana proving the backdrop to many a long night.
That sense of isolation, Monk admits, can still be heard in their work today, with ‘Auto-Life’ proving Monk’s first true attempt at meshing the more insular elements of synth and electronica with the more guttural guitar and drums of their youth. “There’s something very isolating in a positive sense about growing up in the middle of nowhere in Ireland” they add, “and that more than what was going on around me musically, can be heard in what I make today”.
“Connemara is so important to me,” Monk further explains, “my sense of home comes from growing up there and now I live on the coast in Portugal and it’s still the Atlantic pulling me in some way. It’s where I started making music, and not traditional Irish music but Nirvana rip-offs”. Despite those initial rejection of their hometown’s musical history, they have recently found themselves falling back in love with some of the Ireland's more traditional sonics and stylings. “Sean Nos is one of the most inspiring things there is,” they note, “there are these links between Sean Nos and North African singing and it’s clear there's so much we have still yet to learn about this which is really inspiring”.
From Galway, Monk spent their early adult years playing in bands across Ireland before making the move to London, where they began delving into the tones and textures of electronic music. In 2018, they released their debut project ‘Inis/Anam’, which Monk describes as their attempt at replicating their upbringing, “with no one around, just making what came naturally to me”. They followed this up in June of 2020 with the visceral gothic-pop ‘Love/Dead’, a 10-track debut album which saw Monk reflect on the transience of life and the inevitability of death. In comparison, ‘Auto-Life’ is full of the joys of spring.
“I’ve really been focused on this release and getting everything ready and together for it,” Monk describes of the run-up to the projects release. “Now that the music’s out, with all this change in the last 18 months, I’m just thinking of how to bring this to people after so long away”.
And that day is coming ever-closer, with Olan’s long-awaiting return to the stage taking place in London’s very own Cafe Oto. “Cafe Oto was very much part of my London experience when I lived there,” they explain of their decision to make it the setting for their live return. “I booked this one show because it seemed possible, we were in discussions with the venue about safety and everything, and it felt like the right place to start, the right size and not to jump straight into something larger”.
Like their work, Olan Monk is considered beyond measure, ever-open to exploring where music may take them.
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'Auto Life' is out now. Olan Monk will play Cafe Oto in London on October 21st - buy a ticket here.
Words: Cailean Coffey
Photo Credit: Inês Baptista
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