Robbie McDonald
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Robbie McDonald


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"Show Stopper"

Gay relationships often take unexpected turns, but when singer/songwriter Robbie McDonald suggested that his boyfriend take up meditation, it was the beginning of a very strange end, and a brilliant debut. Interview by Brian Finnegan.

Three years ago, when singer/songwriter Robbie McDonald suggested to his Irish boyfriend of 11 years that he visit a Buddhist meditation centre, little did he know that this simple piece of advice would change his own life irrevocably.

"He really took to it like a duck to water," Robbie says with a rueful smile over coffee in the Front Lounge. "He was really into it. After about a year he came to the realisation that he wanted to live a contemplative life. He was raised Catholic, so that's where he naturally gravitated. He joined a monastery and became a Catholic monk."

Before the split-up the two were living in Los Angeles, sharing ownership of a house and working together in a day-job running a listings magazine, while Robbie played with a succession of inide bands at night. "At the time he was choosing to go, we'd talked about it and I'd resigned myself to it," Robbie remembers, "and then, literally two weeks before he left, they pulled the plug on the paper and I lost my job. I couldn't pay the mortgage. It was awful."

Robbie's savior came in the form of his ex-partners mother, who offered him a cottage in Wexford free of charge for a long as he needed. "So, I rented out the house in LA and moved lock, stock and barrel to Ireland," he explains. "It was the saddest thing I've ever been through, but it was also an amazing opportunity."

This apparent contradiction in terms is something that runs through Mighty Quiet, the debut solo album Robbie produced while holed-up, completely alone in a rural Irish retreat. It's an album about a break-up, filled with melancholy lyrics, introspective self-examination and softhearted nods to forgiveness, yet its overlying mood is more like that of a musical showstopper. It's a quiet, spiritual album that can't stop itself from bursting forth with a kind of post-Sondheim Broadway flavour, like Hedwig and the Angry Inch meets Damien Rice.

"From a songwriting standpoint, I don't think I've ever written so honestly," says Robbie. "I guess it's because I was living this hermit-like existence. There was nothing else for me to do and it was such a difficult time. It was a great comfort to me to write."

Hard as the experience might have been, Robbie isn't a man who gets mired in self-pity. "As much as the whole situation made me sad, there was a part of me that really embraced it even when I was doing it," he says. "The bands I was in during my time in LA were kind of heavy, emo bands. So this is the first time I've done an album that's so vulnerable and heartfelt."

"People have said they think it's very classical. It's funny because I didn't set out for it to be like that. I like to think that this is a singer-songwriter epic, which is a bit of theatre. I guess my only concern with the theatrical side is that it still has to come across as sincere. It's a difficult balance to achieve."

Mighty Quiet may be about the demise of his relationship, but in tune with its contradictory soft-shoe showstopping, it also breaks the mould of break-up albums. "It's not and 'I Will Survive' album," Robbie explains. "It's not about being angry and using songwriting to move on.

"The way my ex-partner and I feel is that we're still connected, we're still soulmates. I'm going to find somebody else and have a relationship, I hope; but after 11 years with somebody, just because you're not physically with them doesn't mean they ever leave you. So a number of the songs address that notion of connection without physical contact. That spiritual connection that lasts forever."

The connection has continued in more ways that that. The album is currently being sold in the bookshop at the Northern Californian monastery where Robbie's ex-partner lives. "All the monks have heard it," he laughs. "At dinnertime they either have their meals in silence or they read from scripture. But they made a special exception and had a few meals listening to the CD. So they all know the story and I now have fans at the monastery. It's mad!"

Californian Catholic contemplatives are not the only fans of Mighty Quiet. "Put it this way," says Robbie. "It's done better before it's even been released than any of the albums from the bands I was with in America. None of my previous CDs have been embraced in this way.

"I think a lot of chart music can move you in a very formulaic way with those moments that they create in the studio, but that's different to finding music that gets you to feel something you weren't letting yourself feel, or weren't imagining you did feel. If my music does that, then I've been successful, whether or not I'm considered a commercial success."

With his hermit-like existence in Wexford behind him, Robbie is now living and gigging in Dublin. "I think I'm happier here now than I was in Los Angeles," he says. "I have lots of new friends and the social life here is so much better. Looking back at the whole thing, I didn't ask for this experience, but boy am I really glad it happened."

Robbie McDonald's debut solo album, Mighty Quiet, is available at Tower Records and can be purchased on-line at A track from it, Comic Book Hero, can be downloaded free of charge at - GCN

"Wearing his heart on his album sleeve"

Heartbreak is the inspiration behind Robbie McDonald's new album, writes Colette Sheridan.

Having plied his musical wares on the college circuit in the US in a number of indie rock bands, Los Angeles-born singer, Robbie McDonald's debut solo album, Mighty Quiet, is a departure from that genre. Released on Tower Records, the 12-track album, written in Ireland and recorded in LA, has already garnered a lot of favourable previews –– in Hot Press magazine, for example.

The album "promised to be an impressive work, with McDonald's classy voice applied to an intelligent cycle of songs..." Hot Press went on to say that the material "guarantees at lease one decent Irish album next year."

The 37-year-old Dublin-based McDonald was, before he left for Ireland, a member of an indie rock band called Trip Adagio in Los Angeles.

"We did a lot of touring across the states, got some airplay and a number of college tours, and we self-released two albums. The lyrics were very poetic and the music was probably a bit challenging. We didn't really fit into the mainstream or write a pop hit. We tried to be as innovative as possible, and I feel we did some amazing work. It just didn't really fit into the scene, although we had a very loyal college following."

While McDonald still doesn't aspire to being a mainstream artist, he says his solo album is "a lot more accessible, more listener friendly. I always like to do something a bit innovative and try to push myself creatively. I still feel I'm doing that with these songs."

The album is inspired by the break-up of an 11-year, gay relationship with an Irish man, who, in pursuing his spiritual journey, decided to become a Catholic monk.

McDonald says a number of people have drawn comparisons between Mighty Quiet and the work of Kate Bush.

"Kate Bush is a very advanced musician. I hope that's what people mean. Vocally, there is a similarity, perhaps. I don't sing in a typical male fashion. My phrasing would be more similar to Jeff Buckley, of whom it's been said the influences are female. There's a kind of androgynous quality to the way I sing. I don't try to sound as if I'm making any macho statement. I'm not afraid of being sensitive when I sing."

Early Elton John albums, circa the 1970s, have also been referred to as a possible influence on McDonald's new work.

"I can't really say what my influences are. I have a pretty strong work ethic with respect to song writing. I write every day. It keeps me in touch with what I'm feeling. I'm always trying to work through life by writing. When I was presented with this transition in my life and quite a lot of pain, the only way I knew how to deal with it was through writing songs."

Los Angeles-based producer, Andrew Bush, who has worked with Quincy Coleman, encouraged McDonald to record an album out of his material. "It was recorded in an analogue studio. The sound is almost that from a vinyl record. It has a warm feel. It was recorded virtually live. We've created a very organic, live sounding album that sounds like an intimate experience."

Bush has an amazing grand piano from the turn of the century in his studio, says McDonald. "It's a beatiful sounding instrument which I play on the album. I also play some of the guitar tracks, as well as doing the vocals."

As for the bass player on the album, Todd McDearman, he was in some of McDonald's rock bands. The songs on Mighty Quiet operate on two levels, says McDonald. "You can enjoy them even if you're not one of those 'muso' types. They're immediately accessible. But if you spend time with them, they have more of a lifetime."

One of the tracks, Blood in Ice Cream, is quite catchy and offers optimism in the face of disappointment. Yet, it's not without depth. Another track, Comic Book Hero, is more introspective, accompanied by superb piano playing.

McDonald has lost a partner but written a fine album. And now he appears to be philosophical about the break-up.

"In the book, The Road Less Travelled, love is defined as supporting the other person in their spiritual journey, and for some reason, that has always stuck with me, because love is a very hard thing to define. I still believe we're connected in a spiritual sense and we're soul mates. There wasn't really any bitterness or anger and that's reflected in the album."

The launch of Mighty Quiet, in Bewleys of Grafton Street, in Dublin, promises to be more than just a gig. The songs will be presented with theatrical effects and a strong narrative flow, telling the story of the album's inspiration. Something worth seeing, if you ask me." - Irish Examiner

"Mighty Quiet"

...I've been thinking a lot about relationships recently, and how difficult it is for men to from them with each other, or at least sustain them. I've been listening to Robbie McDonald's Mighty Quiet, an album written in rural Ireland, when he did exactly what I think is so brave and challenging and currently impossible for me: faced himself in his solitude, for a mighty quiet year, at the end of an eleven-year-long relationship.

The result is immediately one of my all-time favorite CDs, a touching and melodic memoir, a funny and uplifting reflection on the impact that love can have. The story behind it is that his lover left him to become a monk. The met in Dublin's Gay Pride march of 1993, one I remember well because we'd just been decriminalized, and the sense of liberation was giddy-making. But it's even more interesting to me that Robbie let him go, because he felt he didn't want to stand between a man and his vocation.

When his lover tried to return, having has second thoughts, by the Robbie had moved on, and it becomes less of a clearcut melodrams, and more of a bittersweet real-life story, one which was told at the sell-out launch that he held in Bewley's Cafe on January 12, complete with a great band and a couple of smooth classy tap dancers.

- Hot Press/Dermod Moore

"Four stars"

Four out of four star review****

While lyrically Robbie McDonald's debut solo album might be a quiet meditation on life, love and loss, performance-wise it comes on like a big Broadway show written by Burt Bacharach.

The opening strains of Skimming Stones are pure lounge-Burt, with its lone, Lazy-Sunday-afternoon piano intro, but as soon as McDonald's melancholic voice kicks in, the song moves into different territory. The vocal builds until you get to the heart of what this main is all about. Two words: "torch" and "song."

It's a gamble that few male singers can pull off, but McDonald has the vocal range and pitch and he clearly feels every deep emotional pang of this album, a catalogue of a lonely, hermetic year after splitting up from his long-term boyfriend.

On Hello, McDonald's writing is as smoothly professional as the best of Billy Joel, while Blood in Ice Cream subtly shifts from the piano-base to a rhythmic acoustic guitar arrangement with cello compliment, continuing the introspective theme of McDonald's quiet year.

The album's centrepiece, Comic Book Hero, is a mini-masterpiece about the unrealistic expectations we pin on relationships. Such is the plaintive melodrama in McDonald's voice, the song actually affects on a cellular level. Similarly moving is One Time Tonight, a perfectly structured, lyrically pared number about the moments when we recognise the end of love.

The tempo shifts up a tiny bit on the the loungey I'd Beg for More, but for the most part the pace here is the same throughout. This production mood-blanket is the only criticism to be levelled at what is one hell of a polished debut. The final song, If Heaven Has a Say, is about the actual moment McDonald and his boyfriend finally split. I defy you to listen to it without getting a lump in your throat.

- GCN/Shane McNamara


Mighty Quiet (solo debut), two releases with Trip Adagio (Soapy Bubble and When Nice People say Nasty Things), two releases with the Venetians (current release Rise Mona Lisa has a single charting in the US at #8 in indie charts, #45 in mainstream charts)



While retaining an indie rock sensibility, Robbie's lyrics are poetic and layered and the music tends toward the dramatic, taking on a sort of post-Sondheim quality. As such, his fans run the gamut from singer-songwriter lovers to showtune aficionados--and the occasional indie rock fan creeping in through the back door.