Photo: Ramsey Cardy
It was announced this week that Northern Irish singer and songwriter Ciaran Gribbin has become the new lead singer of legendary rock band INXS. As well as peforming the group’s classic hits, Ciaran has been writing new material with INXS’s Andrew Farriss.
Although Ciaran’s new role puts him very much in the spotlight, M magazine has been following the talented songwriter’s career for a long time, from his solo work under the name Joe Echo to writing hits for superstar Madonna and onto writing songs for the movies Heartless and Killing Bono.
M spoke to Ciaran as he prepares to embark on his first tour with INXS. You can listen to Tiny Summer here, the first INXS song written by Ciaran and Andrew Farriss and the first song that Farriss has co-written with anyone other than Michael Hutchence,
Writing songs with INXS’s Andrew Farriss
I met Andrew two years ago at a party, hit it off, and we kept in contact over email and meeting up at gigs. Six months ago Andrew called me out of the blue and asked if I fancied coming down to Australia to do some co-writing with him. I was honoured, but at that stage there was no talk about me becoming the singer with INXS or anything like that, it could have been writing for anything – movie, solo work or other artists, and I was delighted with that.
On the very first day I arrived at the airport we had breakfast then went straight into the studio and wrote a song. There and then we both knew there was something, I think we just knew there was a strong chemistry between us as writers.
Co-writing for me is definitely about chemistry, I’ve done it in the past where I’m writing with another songwriter and it feels like hard work, but bottom line it all boils down to the chemistry you have. I was running on adrenalin and excitement about writing with Andrew and every day that week went like the first. I never really felt intimidated by the guy – here is a man who has been in a top band for 30 years and sold 35 million albums with many awards and all the accolades you can get but he’s a very humble person, a family guy – there’s no bullshit.
I suppose Andrew’s real strength is creating little hooky things on piano, keys or guitar – that kind of funk element which you can find on many of INXS’ massive hits. Suicide Blonde, New Sensation. He’s known as a keyboard player but he’s a fantastic guitarist too. Andrew builds the foundation of where the song’s going, the chord structure or hook. Another strength of Andrew’s is that he’s equally comfortable with something soulful or dance-oriented or all-out rock or pop. That’s something I’ve learned from him – he’s opened my mind a lot to writing in any style.
Andrew is very open to me coming in and changing chord structures, to me saying ‘why not try this?’. But my strength is melody, topline, lyrics, it’s sort of a joint effort but it often starts with Andrew coming up with a little hook and then I’ll start the topline, he’ll add to it and then we’ll work on the lyrics. It’s a mixed bag.
Co-writing the Grammy-nominated Celebration for Madonna
Strangely enough it was my biggest break in a way, but it came very early. Before that I’d been in bands – touring with Franz Ferdinand, Snow Patrol, Scissor Sisters and I was used to writing just for the band. It wasn’t until I went solo as Joe Echo that I started to really open my mind and I sat down with my manager Bob Young. I said ‘I want to be tested, I want to be pushed into areas I’m not comfortable with and learn from a country writer, a jazz writer, a dance writer.’ Bob set about asking everybody he knew in the business if they would be up for some co-writing and my first break came when I started writing for Paul Oakenfold, working with a great London-based writer Ian Green. Again the chemistry was there and in the space of three or four days we were writing and recording tracks to a very high standard. Oakenfold really liked what we were doing – we were writing primarily for his album – and then he played the stuff to Madonna – we got word back that she wanted to record two of them, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Creating music for films
I’d learned quite a lot on a film I worked on called Heartless. The director, Philip Ridley sent little demos recorded on a dictaphone. It was a real learning curve as Philip would say ‘can you make it sound like David Bowie, a bit like Blondie, or whatever’. When you’ve got one of those under your belt you always make a lot friends along the way. A great lady called Jackie Perryman recommended me to the music supervisor on Killing Bono. Jackie’s background is in movies and syncs. I’d written a lot of things for Jackie for adverts and so on and she really believed in me. The direcor of Killing Bono was convinced he wanted an Irish songwriter so me and a few other guys were flown in to London and we discussed what they were after. I was then asked to write one piece of music for a scene, where they said ‘make it soundlike Flock Of Seagulls or the Police’. I was on the movie before they’d even finished the casting, I read the script and got a good feel for it. I got one song on the movie and they really liked it, then before I knew it I had three or four and eventually they just came to me and said ‘Look, your demos are really good and not only would we like you to do all the music we’d like you to produce the soundtrack as well’, which was a serious honour. It probably took about nine months of my life, that movie, I was also on set for about six weeks, making sure the actors looked the part, the amps were authentic to that vintage and advising the actors on how to hold the guitar properly! That was amazing, I loved every minute of it.
You really do need to have patience when you’re working on movies, it’s crazy how many times you have to go back to the drawing board, the directors have a rough idea of what they want, but not exactly what they want, it’s a matter of talking it through at the start – these guys aren’t musicians so they might say ‘I’d really like that song and could it sound a bit like that?’. A lot of it is producing a song in ‘in the style of’. I gained so much experience.
Performing live with INXS
They obviously have an unbelievable history and those amazing songs. It’s funny for me because not only am I writing for this band with Andrew I have to perform these songs too. I haven’t done my first gig with them yet, which will be in Peru in five weeks
Approaching the new material, I’ve almost got a clean slate – yes, when I walk out on that stage I have to pay tribute and honour the legacy of Michael Hutchence and those wonderful songs, but in a way we have a clean slate in what the future for INXS will be. The band have always been happy to try out different angles and have gone through many different styles. One of the most groundbreaking songs for me was Suicide Blonde because it successfully mixed dance and rock music and nobody else was doing that at that stage – they were one of the first bands with that sound. With INXS now, we’re trying to find a sound, not so much a style but a sound, so we’ll try and find a really cool vibe on a keyboard or a weird sample. Lately we’ve been using really old 80s keyboards that no-one is using anymore – we really are experimenting.
In a way, it’s a dream come true – I grew up with this band I have so many memories as a kid, being ten or eleven and seeing them on MTV and then live on Jools Holland when I was 15, then the Wembley gig in ’91 – I had that on video and me and my mates would sit in on a Friday night and just watch that, being blown away by how great a band they were. Twenty years later, here I am walking out onstage as the singer of INXS. It’s not all plain sailing because Michael Hutchence was such an amazing, charismatic, powerful rock star and there’s serious weight on my shoulders, not to copy what he did, but pay tribute to that legacy. It’s something I’m dealing with every day in my head as to how I approach this – all I can do is go out there and sing every song with the same passion and energy that Michael would have done and hopefully the INXS fans will believe I’m giving it all on those songs.
More than anything, it’s all about new music for INXS at the moment. The band have had many ups and downs since Michael’s passing and they really are hungry to get out there and try new things and move on with new music.
The future for music in Northern Ireland
PRS for Music have been very good to me over the years and I’ve worked with PRS for Music membership representative Stuart Fleming on songwriting workshops. The organisation have been so supportative. It’s important for young aspiring songwriters to have as much support as possible. I know times are tough everywhere in the world at the moment, but I don’t think the young songwriters of Northern Ireland have much too worry about as, more than ever, there’s industry on the ground and people like PRS for Music and others are helping new music come through, I think the future is bright. Bands like Snow Patrol, Duke Special and, going back, Van Morrison, inspire a lot of us – when you see someone coming from the same place as us topping the charts worldwide you can see it can be done.