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Music with a Message

By Brian Bushard

bbushard@inkym.com Clare Cunningham always wanted to be a rock star. She was 10 when she picked up her first guitar, living in a small village north of Dublin, Ireland. She took her musical dreams to Nantucket, where she played at Kitty Murtagh’s. She toured the world, playing with hard rock groups from the U.K.

Now, she’s a solo performer in Nashville. Even though she’s living in the heart of country music, the songs she sings are not country. Instead, they run the gamut from 1970s rock to pop, electronic dance music to the Celtic folk tunes she grew up with.

“I’ve always had the rock and the raw whisky voice,” said Cunningham, an award-winning singersongwriter who also spends time on Nantucket, where her sister lives.

“But stylistically I’m everything. I’m not just one thing. I have a hand in every genre, but mostly blues, rock, soul.”

Along the way she’s learned there’s something more to performing, something that goes beyond the chords you play on a guitar. The stage is like a platform to spread a message, she said. Her message is about overcoming mental-health issues, like the anxiety, OCD and PTSD she deals with.

“I’m trying to speak for people who don’t have a voice,” she said. “I just want people to know this stuff is real.”

There’s a stigma to mental health people often dismiss, she said. Growing up in Ireland, nobody talked about anxiety, OCD or PTSD, which she herself experienced, she said.

The idea was to write those experiences into her music and provide support for people going through the same thing.

“When you show it’s not something freakish, people will relate to you,” she said. “I didn’t really have that. It’s so stigmatized. It’s hidden. It’s a wider problem to go and get help because it’s seen as a sign of a weakness. I do think it’s a good idea to be raw and honest about things because that’s how people connect emotionally.”

This week, Cunningham is up for six Josie Music Awards, including rock vocalist of the year, multi-genre vocalist of the year, folk and Americana artist of the year and song of the year for a song about Ireland called “Angel of the Emerald Isle.” Josies recognize independent musicians and singer-songrwriters around the world.

Earlier this year, Cunningham took home a second-place award for best 2020 songwriter from the International Singer-Songwriters Association, and first place at the World Songwriting Awards for best alternative song, for “Carry Me.”

CUNNINGHAM, PAGE 4B

“I’ve always had the rock and the raw whisky voice.

But stylistically I’m everything. I’m not just one thing. I have a hand in every genre, but mostly blues, rock, soul.”

– Clare Cunningham Musician

Clare Cunningham performs at the 2018 Nantucket Project. Cunningham, who grew up in a small village north of Dublin, Ireland and toured the world with U.K. hard-rock groups, cut her teeth playing gigs at Kitty Murtagh’s.

File photo

Clare Cunningham is now a solo musician based in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo by Bruce Jones

(Continued from page 1B)

Sometimes, she said, writing is just about creating a rock song. Other times, it means expressing a more personal side of you.

“I find it’s really important because a lot of people are too afraid to open up, especially in Irish culture,” she said.

“In America if you go and seek help it’s seen as a good thing. For Irish people, and Irish men in particular, it’s seen as a weakness.”

One song, called “Heart of Mine,” is like a conversation with Cunningham’s own anx-iety, where she sings, “I close my eyes, open my soul, surrender when you take control.”

In another “Eireann I Mo Chroi,” she still longs for the country she left behind. “And if you don’t receive my call,” the song goes, “please always know I’m never gone.”

In 2012, she formed a 70s classic rock cover band called Smokin’ Aces. She left to be the lead singer of a Swedish all-female rock quintet called Thundermother in 2013 before leaving four years later to start a solo in Nashville.

Cunningham likes to say she doesn’t box herself into one musical category.

“Nowadays, there are record labels and you need to have a brand. That’s why I’ve had difficulty selling,” she said. “But there are exceptions. David Bowie didn’t box himself in.”

In April, Cunningham released a song called “Grey Lady,” inspired by the time she spends with her sister Laura, who lives on Nantucket. She started writing it on the flight off the island about 10 years ago.

The release was also a benefit for Palliative & Supportive Care of Nantucket. The song was about falling in love with the beauty of the island, but the release was about providing support, just like the songs on mental health are, she said.

“It’s even more inspiring when you see someone on a platform,” Cunningham said.

“There’s a stigma and I just want to show that there are people like myself. It all starts because someone starts singing. I just want to have a platform to be able to speak to people. Music has the power to heal people.”

“You need to have a brand. That’s why I’ve had difficulty selling. But there are exceptions. David Bowie didn’t box himself in.”

– Clare Cunningham Musician

Clare Cunningham is up for six Josie Music Awards this week, including rock vocalist of the year, folk and American vocalist of the year and song of the year. The Josies recognize independent musicians and singer-songwriters worldwide.

Photo by Bruce Jones

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