Composer/performer Keith Mannion has been making a big name in music circles but keeping a low profile here at home.
The quiet 37-year-old has always been about making music, not appearing in the spotlight. That’s all set to change now though, because with the release of his third album, Romola, later this summer and a number of high profile gigs lines up, it looks like his star is about to shine pretty brightly.
Keith was born and reared in the Knather, Ballyshannon although he says there’s “more than a touch of the Sligonian” in him as his parents are both from there. Gerry Mannion and Jackie (nee Bradley) are very well known for their former stables, Five Oaks.
Keith is the eldest of three boys - his brothers are Brian (35) and Derek and (33).
After attending St Joseph’s NS, he went to the De La Salle “right next door”. There, he was big into sports, mainly football and GAA. He played for Aodh Ruadh until he was 18 and was on the Donegal U16 championship team in 1993.
All along the way though, he was also pursuing his passion for music.
“I got into music early on. My mother’s sister Denise taped everything off the radio and I definitely got that interest from her.
“I’m a massive Captain Beefheart fan. Himself and Zappa blew my mind, along with Curtis Mayfield, and Charles Mingus. But bands like Talk Talk (latter day stuff), Teenage Fanclub, Cocteau Twins, Neil Young, Grandmaster Flash, to Matthew Dear and the Ghostly label, were constants on my record player, since I was a kid. And the late great Nina Simone.
“I used to go to markets looking for records and music magazines. I’d listen to Dave Fanning 2FM and BBC1. This was the late 80s and the British stations are where the whole electric thing came from.
“I wasn’t performing. I was just listening to music and studying. I was very open to everything. I started getting it - Martha Reeves, Miles Davis and New Orleans jazz. The brass music really blew me away.”
After secondary school, Keith went to Griffith College in Dublin to study journalism but it wasn’t for him. “What I probably should have been doing was Arts and English. I’d always liked writing with a friend of mine, Mark Gallagher. We’d write stories in copy books. He went on to become quite a successful journalist,” Keith recalls.
His two years in Dublin weren’t a write-off though, as Keith had started to work as a DJ “to earn a few bob”.
Around this time, Pauric Bromley opened El Gringo’s nightclub in Ballyshannon and Keith also DJ’d there once or twice a week.
In 1999, when Keith was 22, he headed off to Norway. “All of my friends talked of going to Australia or New York but I’d grown up surrounded by trees, the Knather Woods, and so was more drawn to places like Canada and Scandinavia”.
It was in Norway that Keith got his hands on his first bits of electronic equipment. “I thought, ‘this is great, this is something I could really put my mind to. I’d always played a bit on acoustic guitar and in college I tried a bit with a band or two but it never really worked. So Norway was a kind of introduction to it all for me. They seemed to be ahead in technological terms.”
After his stint in Norway, Keith went to study Arts as a mature student at University College Galway. He quickly met up people who he knew would become lifelong friends. “There was great musical stuff going on within this little group and there was also a new crop of young people in Galway coming up with a lot of creative ideas.
He stayed on in Galway for a few years after graduation then moved back to Donegal in 2008. His father Gerry took ill, so Keith helped run the family business but also resolved to have a new go at his music.
“He put a folder called SlowPlaceLikeHome on his desktop. “It described everything that was happening with me perfectly. It’s so much better here, out of the rat race. I seem to have found a whole new way of writing and it’s really taking off.” That became the name of his new “music project”.
“Technology had progressed so, that after some solid research, I began combining gadgets and using what little knowledge of studio recording I had, I started to experiment with noise and machines. I began constructing tracks for personal interest and found that as I went along with the unconventional style, I garnered methods of building and recording compositions that I never imagined possible, possible for a pretty limited musician - in myself.”
This is probably a good time to mention that all the instruments and vocals on Keiths’ albums are performed by himself.
A friend, Albert Twomey from Plug’d records in Cork, asked to hear some tracks and persuaded Keith to send a few to radio stations. “He had coaxed me into sending him on a track. He then wanted more and more and eventually convinced me to send it to some folk in radio.”
Aoife Barry (RTE 2XM) and Cian O’Ciobhain (RTE RnaG) gave Keith’s music its first national airplay. He finished his debut EP, Waiting for the Third Second Chance. A second EP, Coastal Hubs for Chivalry, soon followed with good reviews in the national press.
Stephen McCauley of BBC came across a song, ‘Selkie’ and played it a lot, on BBC stations Radio Foyle, Radio Ulster and Radio 6. He also persuaded Keith to come out of the shadows and agree to be interviewed on air.
That led to Keith, and a newly formed band, performing live last year at events such as the Body & Soul festival, Electric Picnic, the Turner Prize launch in Derry, Cork Film Festival and Donal Dineen’s end-of-year bash in the Sugar Club, Dublin. Throughout the performances, the sound was ‘morphing’ and Keith was imagining a new album. Romola, from Bluestack Records, will be released on August 11th.