In studio for the recording of the Starboard Home album

Studio recording the Starboard Home album

It’s a rare thing for contemporary musicians to be commissioned to write songs and follow a brief – but this is just what happened with the Starboard Home project, a unique collaboration between Dublin Port Company and the National Concert Hall.

Dublin Port Company was looking for ways to connect the city with the port as part of the 2016 centenary celebrations. A series of conversations with the National Concert Hall made music the obvious choice to achieve this. Head of programme planning at the hall, Gary Sheehan, decided to get lead singer of Bell X1 Paul Noonan on board to co-curate the project with him.

The result June last year was a concert featuring 12 artists to an audience of 2,000 people over two nights and an album that reached No 1 on the week of release with the support of Warner Music Ireland.

“For most of us as artists, this was the first time to be asked to write about something specific under the umbrella of a project like this,” says Noonan, who composed the song ‘Steel Ballet’, inspired by the loading and unloading of ships in the port. “As writers we often flail around in the dark in terms of the writing process. It was such an evocative subject matter that spoke to the beating heart of Dublin. We were all inspired by it.”

Noonan wanted to span the spectrum of contemporary musical styles from electronic to traditional and everything in between. In addition to his own contribution, the artists he carefully selected were: Paul Cleary (The Blades), Cathy Davey, James Vincent McMorrow, Duke Special, Gemma Hayes, Jape, Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Lisa O’Neill, Declan O’Rourke, John Sheahan and Caitriona Lally. “Musically there were massive differences, but we all shared a passion for the subject matter,” notes Noonan.

“I wanted to collaborate with Paul from the start as I felt he was someone who could draw the best out of the current generation of musicians,” says Sheehan. “We wanted a reflective, thoughtful tone running through the piece. Paul guided everyone on a common path. All songs were played through with him and we used the same band behind all the tracks.”

It was an enjoyable process for the artists involved, Sheehan adds. “Musicians may bump into each other but they don’t get to work together in this way too often. They enjoyed the scope of writing about what they wanted. Dublin Port Company gave them the freedom to do what they’re good at.”

Once the musicians were selected, Dublin Port Company brought them on a tour of the port, explaining its history and the work it does, to get them thinking. Noonan says this was one of the most satisfying parts of the process.

“We held a night on the MV Cill Airne where the artists could chat to our staff and local people on an informal basis,” says Charlie Murphy, communications manager at Dublin Port Company.

“Then we left them to their own devices. When it comes to the arts, we’re not the experts. We step back and rely on others to come up with ideas. It’s a risk worth taking. All of the Starboard Home musicians followed the brief and captured something different about the port.”

Veteran Dubliners musician Sheahan followed the journey of the River Liffey from the Dublin Mountains with his composition ‘Liffeysong’. Cleary’s ‘Kingfisher Blue’ was inspired by his upbringing in Ringsend. Duke Special’s ‘Button Men’ focused on a particular job done by dockers years ago, while O’Neill looked at how men were made redundant in the port when machinery took over.

Murphy believes Starboard Home really worked in terms of rebuilding the connection between the city and port in people’s minds. “Music is an easy way of communicating that message and allowed us to reach a lot of different people,” he says. “For some people in the audience it was the first time they had ever been in the National Concert Hall. Everyone got something different from each of the songs.”

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