Interview: Picture This
Ireland's prodigal sons expand their global audience with their sophomore album, "Mdrn Lv," and a tour stop in Columbus on Friday night.
Picture This is the biggest band in Ireland, a badge they’ve earned in a relatively short time since their inception in 2015.
With their second studio album, the energetic, ambitious Mdern Lv, arriving earlier this year, the foursome from Athy, County Kildare, a small market town southwest of Dublin, are now on their first headlining tour in the United States – and quite possibly on the verge of also becoming their home country’s biggest musical export.
It’s an achievement that embodies what co-founders Ryan Hennessy and Jimmy Rainsford had envisioned when they recorded their first song, “Take My Hand,” almost four years ago (guitarist Owen Cardiff and Cliff Deane joined the line-up in 2016). Their meteoric rise is something they’ve taken in stride – as long as they don’t ponder it for too long.
“It’s something that I don’t think we’ve ever been uncomfortable with because it all happened quite fast,” principal songwriter, lead vocalist, and guitarist Hennessy explains during our phone interview last week. “So, we’ve had to kind of learn to adapt and think on our feet because it was pretty much an overnight success, I guess, in a lot of ways. It’s also something that from the very beginning of the band, once we started the band properly, we also wanted to – and aspired to be – the biggest band in Ireland, and in the world. To be as big a band as we could possibly be. So, now that we’re here, it’s something that we’ve always aspired to be and it’s something we’ve seen in our heads so many times.
We’ve been so busy since the band started that we don’t stop and think about it sometimes and dwell on it, which is a good thing. Because I think if we had time on our hands and kind of sit around and take that in, it would probably be daunting. The fact that we’re so busy means that we can both appreciate it and let it go out of our heads at the same time.”
Columbus is among the list of tour stops the band is eager to visit for the first time. According to Railsford, playing to American audiences feels both familiar and new.
“It’s cool. Culturally, it’s definitely very different, but it’s something we’re used to because anyone who’s not from the United States is familiar with the culture here. And the music industry culture is so familiar to us, as well. It’s so nice to be able to come to these cities and they have a huge love for the music and a huge love for coming to shows. It’s kind of something that doesn’t get talked about a lot, that all these cities and all these states that have such a rich industry.”
On Friday night, Picture This takes the stage at The Basement along with Los Angeles-based indie outfit Future Feats.
Just before their show in Pittsburgh last week, Ryan Hennessy, Jimmy Railsford and I sat down to discuss Mdern Lv and its ingredients.
Your debut album, Picture This, was largely acoustic – but this new project has such big, complex electronic arrangements. What urged you to make that transition sonically?
Jimmy: “It was both kind of a natural progression and a conscious decision to change the sound at the same time. It was kind of a mix of both. The music started to naturally go that way, just because as creative people, we didn’t want to be pigeon-holed and stay in one box. And that fact that we made our second album’s sound a lot different from our first album means that we can now create any sort of sound on any album we bring out and we’re not stuck to one sound. That was something we were eager to do – to make sure that we can release any type of music. Because we listen to all types of music, from country to pop to rock and everything in between, and we want to be able to produce music in that way, too – a broad spectrum of sounds and songs.
But, it was also just kind of natural – the songs just started to go that way, and then we kind of noticed that and said, ‘All right, let’s really push this as far as we can for our second album.’ And, we’re very happy with how it went, and I’m sure the third album is going to sound even different, again. It’s always going to be a Picture This song and a Picture This album. The songs might change and become more experimental, but you can always tell it’s a Picture This song, I think.”
What aspects of the record came together the most readily or easily? On the converse, what was the most challenging part of creating it?
Ryan: “I think the most challenging part was deciding what songs to put on the album, because we had so many songs that we really loved. It became very difficult for us to narrow it down, because the way we create music is…I guess you could call it laid back, but I don’t know if that’s the best way to describe it. We don’t go away and say, ‘All right, let’s book two weeks in the studio and go and write loads of songs and record loads of songs.’ That’s not how we work. I write songs every day, and Jimmy is always working on music every day, so an album just kind of forms over time for us, which means we have a lot of songs.
So, the creative process is always extremely enjoyable, and our favorite part. There’s never any headaches…well, I think when we were deciding the track listing of the album, and what songs actually go on it and the order of the songs, that was actually the most difficult part of the process. But, the creative part, from the very beginning of the band, has been a very enjoyable part of the whole thing.”
You’ve often discussed how important and substantive your creative partnership is. What are the strengths you each bring to it?
Ryan: “For me, I write the lyrics and the melody of the song. A lot of the time, it’s just unaccompanied – I’ll sing something into my phone and record it and send it to Jimmy. So, I do lyrics and melody, and then Jimmy does all the music and the production, and that whole side of things. It’s a very separate process in the beginning, and I’ll do the lyrics and melody in my own space, in my own room. And then I’ll send it over to Jimmy and he’ll create the structure of the song and do all that side of it. Then, we’ll come together in the end.
I think our biggest strength is knowing our roles and knowing our positions. I’m not trying to tell Jimmy about drum sounds, and he’s not trying to tell me about a lyric, because we both know where we stand. And it works.”
I watched a clip of you, Ryan, on The Late Late Show in Ireland, and you were discussing with host Ryan Tubridy about how you discovered your singing talent rather late. I think you said you were 18? I’m wondering how you’ve further explored and developed your voice as a singer – and as a songwriter – since the band was formed?
Ryan: “I’ve just continued to write a lot of material, all the time. I just constantly am writing music. Until the band started, I always wrote poetry. I don’t always do as much of that as I should now, because everything I create is always going into a song – which is the way I want it to be. So, that, in terms of the writing side of things, is what I do – I just continue to write a lot of material. Vocally – we just did five nights in the 3Arena in Dublin, and so I brought in a vocal coach for that. I’d never really worked with one before, and she really helped me by expanding my range, which is exciting. It’s exciting to know that I can go to new places now vocally that I hadn’t gone to before.
It’s not that I hadn’t thought about expanding my range, but then when I started to work with her and look after my voice for the shows, as we were working, she said, ‘We can really expand both the high end and the low end of your range,’ which is exciting for a singer to hear.”
Jimmy, I know a bit less about your musical background. What was your path to becoming a producer and instrumentalist?
Jimmy: “I come from a musical family, so I kind of had no choice. I have eight older siblings that all play, so I don’t really remember learning how to play music. It was kind of something you just did. So, I’ve been playing music my whole life, and I only kind of got into recording when I was a teenager. I wanted to start making YouTube videos, and I had to learn how to record my drums. All of a sudden, it kind of became a thing of me wanting to be able to record and learn how to use the computer properly. That was over 10 years ago. Up until now, I’ve just been sort of constantly doing it, and doing it, and doing it, and refining it.
I only actually started producing properly when I met Ryan, because that’s how we started the band – we wanted to produce music, but we didn’t have any money or anything like that to be able to record it. So, I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to give it a go myself, because I have enough experience in recording music the last few years to be able to put into it.’ And then, from there, just…it’s always something I wanted to do from the time I started recording music and recording my drums as a teenager. I always wanted to be a music producer. I just had a mad interest in it, and love how you can sonically make things a certain way and that people feel a certain way through [that], really.
It was a good thing for me to bring to the table, that whole production experience, and be able to make a song sound the way we envision it in our heads. It’s an important skill to have.”
Mdern Lv clearly, and boldly, tackles the complexity of love and relationships. What messages do you hope someone listening to the album will take from it?
Ryan: “I like people to apply their own meaning to the songs as much as possible. I try not to delve into where the lyrics come from as much as possible, because that’s how I like to listen to music. I like to listen and apply to my own life experiences. But, the album overall is about…there’s an attitude in the world that ‘modern times have us doomed,’ and it’s all really bad. And, of course, there’s a lot of bad stuff in modern times, but this is kind of saying, ‘get on with it!’
Writing the album was trying to figure out what love actually is in the modern day capacity. And, I still don’t know what it is. I look back at, say, how my grandparents met and how my parents met and those kind of amazing love stories that you don’t hear a lot of anymore – but it’s also saying that love nowadays is very complicated and there’s a lot more to consider in relationships. It’s saying that it’s okay, and that’s just the way it is, now.
But, I’d like people to come away from the album with a feeling of hope when it comes to love. There’s a lot of heartache in the album, but there’s also a lot of joy. I think in every song, there’s at least some sort of glimmer of hope – that everything’s going to be okay.”
Picture This appears this Friday, May 3, 7 p.m. at The Basement, 391 Neil Ave. in the Arena District, with special guest Future Feats. General admission standing room only tickets are $15, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are available via Ticketmaster. Learn more about Picture This via their official website, or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.