For songwriter Niall McGuigan, “Awareness” is an emotional and cultural “map.”
By Colleen Taylor
It is a truth universally acknowledged that music often acts as an antidote, or in some cases, as a proxy, for emotional conflict. Niall McGuigan is one artist whose work makes this truth explicit. The Monaghan native is a music therapist, in both the figurative and professional senses of the name, and having listened to his debut album, “Awareness,” I can’t think of a title more fitting for McGuigan than “musical therapist.” “Awareness” is inherently soothing and medicinal. Its flowing rhythms and the gentle crescendo of McGuigan’s vocals create a calm that seems intrinsic to this singer’s creative vision. To use McGuigan’s own words, “Awareness” is an emotional and cultural “map.”
A native of Castleblaney, Co. Monaghan, Niall McGuigan has been working toward this moment in his career for years. After spending time in various music groups, a range including metal, rock, funk, and reggae, he finally went solo—but he didn’t do it quickly. This debut album has been a six-year process for McGuigan, during which he traveled the world and slowly composed the thirteen tracks on the album. In particular, Eastern and South American culture played an important role in his creative self-discovery, particularly Mongolian culture. There is even some Khomii on the album—a Mongolian form of throat singing. It may seem strange for an Irishman to suddenly adopt all this outside culture, but McGuigan didn’t do so lightly. Rather, he extensively studied these worlds and these musics, receiving an MA in Ethnomusicology in Goldsmiths University London, which focused on shamanism and the healing powers of music. After his MA, McGuigan worked as a practicing music therapist in Limerick.
“Awareness,” like McGuigan himself, is deeply existential and philosophical. McGuigan provides a reflective, meditative description of each track on his album—descriptions which offer both background and instruction. In fact, some of the captions to the tracks sound like yoga instructions. McGuigan talks about self-connectedness, inner silence, the power of breath, as well as family, challenges, and love. On one song, he pays small tribute to his roots: the title and lyrics were inspired by a phrase his grandfather used: “What’s For You Won’t Pass You.”
Because I read the song descriptions before listened to the songs themselves, I confess I didn’t expect to like this album. I thought the backstories to each track a little too lofty to make the music authentic. But I quickly discovered I was wrong. For one thing, McGuigan has a great voice, and his songwriting embraces catchy rhythms. At times, he sounds just like Bob Dylan. “Stillness” is a great, modern-sounding Indie song, and “Spirit” is arguably the catchiest on the album. “I Know Me Now” sounds like it’s straight out of Woodstock. With backing singers to join him, the sense of peace and camaraderie on this track is unmistakable. On the whole, McGuigan’s tracks are pared down and acoustic—just voice and guitar—but that’s what makes them great. The melody and voice are able to stand alone because there is real talent and vision at work in this album. You can tell McGuigan feels and cherishes the songs he’s singing, and that kind of dedication is infectious for any listener.
Niall McGuigan’s “Awareness” may take you outside your cultural comfort zone—it certainly did for me—but it’s a journey worth taking. In fact, my initial skepticism made me like and appreciate McGuigan’s style all the more. By embracing the global, the multicultural, the East-joins-West, McGuigan was able to make an album that, amidst a musical culture of synthesizers, feels true, soulful, and most importantly, undoctored.
Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column in the Irish Echo each week.