A helping hand
While I was in the throes of promoting my demos over the following weeks, I got an unexpected call from Gavin Murphy, the stand-in guitarist on that last, annoying recording session. He had heard some of the mixes and said that he was particularly taken with my lyrics. He hoped I’d consider writing some for his band, X-Pression. They were a two-man unit and Gavin was their ambitious driving force. They had a small number of complete tracks but quite a few more that still needed lyrics and vocal melodies. This was decent pop and the lyrics really weren't as bad as Gavin implied – just a little naïve here and there. But, hey, I had been that teenage soldier myself, so I had total sympathy.
Gavin played me a few new pieces and we settled on two that I might focus on to begin with. The first song I finished was It Beats Living Alone; the second was Lullaby. Gavin’s guitar work was just fantastic. He has great feel and amazing melodic instincts. Of all the songs I have ever had a hand in writing, It Beats Living Alone remains an absolute favourite. We might never have gotten the arrangement right but there is something very special in that song. I was so pleased with it that I asked if Gavin would mind if I recorded my own version. He even played on the track – produced again by Rob – but the recording didn’t quite capture the essence of the song.
A new Room
Gavin was a complete breath of fresh air. He had eclectic tastes, he wasn’t a musical snob and he just lived for music. We clicked immediately and, even though I had only been drafted in to write lyrics for X-pression, Gavin and I quickly morphed into a band. The idea was that we’d write, record and perform together, with both X-Pression and my solo efforts continuing in parallel. In reality, our focus shifted quickly and exclusively to our new creative partnership.
The naming of bands is always a difficult chore. Gavin and I didn’t bother with a name and, until we had devised a repertoire big enough to gig, we were in no rush to come up with one. Then Gavin entered us into a talent competition and a performer name was required for the application. So Gavin, catching sight of one of my cassettes, listed us as ‘ Room’ – cannily eschewing the definite article so as to avoid any confusion with The Artists Formerly Known As Rainbow Kite.
Room came to life pretty quickly. With Gavin being so prolific, I had to sweat to keep up with him. Very soon, we had a roster of great tunes and we were ready to gig. Ambition kicked in again. We recorded demos and sent them out. We played them for contacts we had made here and there in the industry and took every scrap of commentary on board - which, in hindsight, that was one of our biggest mistakes. When someone suggested that we should tap into the ‘unplugged’ fad of the 90s, we laid down a few acoustic demos. Someone else spotted that some of our stuff would make brilliant dance tracks and, lo, we produced a pair of poppers-fuelled, techno-scented dance tracks. Foolishly, we even tried to infiltrate the closed shop of Eurovision. Tape after tape was sent out – and nearly every one of them was returned with a rejection slip.
Looking back, we clearly had no identity and our insane genre-hopping cost us dearly. We thought we were being clever by showing our diversity to A&R people, letting them know that we were malleable, that we would work in any style they wanted. Insanity! It wasn’t fame we were after; we wanted a means by which we could work in music. Our tastes and influences were so diverse that we could have been happy in virtually any genre. But we eventually copped on and decided to let our own style emerge from the music we were writing.
As seen on TV
We even managed to get some hugely valuable radio airplay and the holy grail of TV exposure. We were accepted on two very different RTE talent shows within a couple of months of each other. The first was ‘Search for a Star,’ the annual offshoot of the afternoon TV show ‘Live At 3,’ whose audience demographic comprised catatonic hausfraus and bored pensioners. We performed Lullaby – just my voice and Gavin’s delicate guitar – on a garish set of tinfoil stars. We scored respectably but knew that we couldn’t win. Or, as host Derek Davis said after the credits rolled, ‘that song was a little too esoteric for this show.’
Learning from that, we approached the next talent show, ‘Go For It!,’ with a more determination. The audition process called for two songs, one fast and one slow. We did Lullaby (our best ballad at that point) and Solid Ground, our uptempo money-shot song of the moment. Marty Whelan was involved in the auditions and, I think, the production. Having been selected for the TV show, Marty was adamant that we should perform Lullaby. Even when we pointed out that it had featured in the rival show, he was undeterred. And so, frustratingly, it was decreed that Lullaby was to be our song for the second time on TV. If we made the grand final, we might be allowed a different song – but the producers would have final say.
We didn’t win but our performance was dignified and polished. Even better, we now had some great video footage to add to our demo pack.
While Room had started to generate a little buzz, the telly exposure opened way fewer doors than we hoped. We kept writing and recording and we expanded the band to improve our gigs. Drummers – a seemingly elusive and mercurial species – came and went but Gavin’s sickeningly talented brother, Des, became our permanent bassist. In December ’96, we did a fantastic three-song demo of But I’m OK Now, Blue Wallpaper and a more organic version of Solid Ground. That set helped pave the way to an important showcase gig in the Mean Fiddler (known these days as The Village). A very important aspect of this was that an EMI rep would be coming to see us.
We were completely psyched. We cajoled everyone we knew to come along and begged them to dance, scream and cheer, even if we were shite. But we weren’t shite. We played a blinder and came off the stage ecstatic. The EMI dude was less than enthusiastic, however, muttering something about having hoped that we’d be ‘more like Oasis.’
It’s not you, it’s me
We soldiered on with gigging and promotion opportunities but I started to develop serious doubts. I listened back to everything as objectively as I could and came to the conclusion that the problem was me. I didn’t have the persona, voice or writing style that could ever lend itself to the edgy rock sound that labels seemed to want (except for boybands, record companies – and their Irish branches especially – were allergic to pop at that time). I’m not a convincing rock singer – most other genres, yes, I can have a go. But rock demands a particular gravel and attitude that I simply don’t have, or even aspire to. Added to that, I'm 11 years older than Gavin and, at 33 years old, I was definitely past the age where any label would willingly sign me up. I mulled it over privately for a few weeks and eventually sat Gavin down to explain that I felt that his best hope for success would be with another singer. We thrashed it out and, eventually, he conceded that I had a point.
It was like losing an arm but, if Room was to continue, it could really only be an expensive hobby. Gavin had too much talent and youth on his side and it would have been a crime to hold him back. I hung up the metaphorical microphone in October ’97 and walked off into the foggy distance. Cue end credits. Fade to black.