Bell X1's Paul Noonan on the enduring power of 'Rocky Took a Lover' and the value of music therapy
Bell X1's frontman on going solo, heading back to school and the magic of music on the brain...
It was around this time last year that Bell X1, as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations, appeared on The Late Late Show to deliver a spine-tingling, stripped-down version of a classic song.
The band would enter a performance of 'Rocky Took a Lover' that offered not just a reminder of how potent a track it is but just how good Paul Noonan is at inhabiting the tiny little details that make us human.
A year on, sitting in a Dublin city centre café, his dulcet tones competing with hammering techno on speakers above, he allows for a victory lap on JOE's urging.
"It is a great fucking song," he agrees with a smile.
"I'll say that, straight out. I've made my peace with that."
It can be a curious thing, a creative person taking pride in their work.
Noonan, for what it's worth, occupies a matter-of-fact middle ground between boastful and humble-to-a-fault. Now in his mid-40s, his life, like the characters that populate the songs he has penned, is worthy of its own consideration.
First, a little more on that "great fucking song," if we may.
As Noonan notes, 'Rocky Took a Lover' was inspired by his time living with fellow Bell X1 members in Dublin a little over a decade ago.
Housed opposite the Capuchin Day Centre in Smithfield, the band would witness increasingly long queues each day at lunchtime as homeless people gathered for meals, with 'Rocky' inspired by one such individual they got to know.
"He was a very eloquent man when sober and there was a real sense of how his life had led to that point," Noonan recalls.
"He’d been homeless for maybe 20 years and living on the street for a few of these years. When he was drinking, it was a different story. He smashed our front window because we were listening to monitor mixes too loud in the studio, that sort of compensation by volume thing.
"He used to sleep on a wooden pallet everywhere; in a laneway, the back of the house. I’d see him in the morning sometimes, he’d be doing his ablutions beside this little electricity distribution box; he’d have a mirror and he’d be shaving.
"There’s an incredible sort of pathos to that. One morning I was looking out the window and he was lying there with a lady friend. The song, I suppose, is an imagining of a conversation that they may have had."
Noonan believes that the song resonated due to the massive increase in homelessness in the capital and visibility thereof, a deeply sad aspect of Dublin's character that continues to spiral out of control.
"Taking one man’s story and humanising it in that way, I think had resonance with the notion that we’re all people," he offers. "We all live our lives, bad shit happens to some of us and we end up like that without the support that should be offered. It has a few, ‘Away and shite!’ sort of lines. Those colloquialisms can be a hindrance in some ways, but also they endear people to the songs."
The effect that music has on people is something that matters to Noonan, and not in some bullshit romantic way, either. To wit, he's gone back to school, music on the brain in more ways than one, working towards a Masters in Music Therapy at the University of Limerick.
"I’m down there two days a week," he says.
"It’s great! I’m the old bastard. There’s a fine line between being friendly with twenty-somethings and being the creep, so I’m dancing around that one. I’ve been working in the field as part of the course. I’ve had placements working with people with intellectual disabilities. I’m now on a placement in the hospice in Harold’s Cross working with people at the end of their lives, and it’s amazing.
"I’m neither formally trained in therapy nor in music. My skillset is songwriting and performing and I'm finding with people at the end of their lives, that they have something to say. Songwriting has been a great platform for that and writing songs with people in that setting, at that time, has been a real privilege."
Noonan accepts that stepping into people's lives in this specific fashion, in this "sacred time", requires sensitivity and a deftness of touch. It must be difficult not to get emotionally attached, too.
"When you invest in any relationship, that can happen," he nods.
"Part of the training, psychodynamically, is learning to deal with that, naming it and acknowledging it. I’ve definitely found it to be the case, but not to the point of it being debilitating or distracting.
"There’s this amazing phenomenon called neuroplasticity, where someone who has had a brain injury or has lost the ability to speak can still sing because of other different parts of the brain. Through the therapeutic process, there is a transference that can happen. They can be taught to speak again through singing, through music.
"These are all new concepts for me and at this stage it is quite hard to describe what music therapy is, but it can be dismissed as an auld sing-song, there are those perceptions about it," he continues.
"But, sometimes, it is a sing-song and that’s perfectly valid. Other times, it’s actual brain surgery. Through that process, the neuroplasticity and harnessing that, modern brain imaging shows that brain activity that has been destroyed through an accident or whatever can be made to thrive again."
As for the day job, Noonan is enjoying something of a rebirth of his own thanks to the perhaps-inevitable pivot to solo material that every frontman at least considers.
He's released three singles so far, all adventurous and arresting, the most recent of which - 'Glacier' - taps into the whole music therapy realm.
Clip via Paulisanoonan Video
Despite last year's band retrospective, he prefers facing forwards, ready to jump onto the next thing, listening to rough cuts of potential new material rather than throwing on a fan-favourite record.
"I’ll always have monitor mixes on the go," he says. "I’ll go out in my back garden at night, stick on headphones, smoke a fag and... overthink them, probably."
Is it fair to suggest that perhaps Bell X1 deserve to be held in loftier status? Noonan is hardly likely to shout from the rooftops that they haven't gotten the recognition that they maybe deserve, but he does express the feeling that the last couple of albums haven't travelled as far as he would like.
"We don’t make them flippantly," he explains.
"We tend to agonise. It feels, at the end of the process when you get to what is, for me, the fun bit, the act of taking them out on the road and the fact that when you’re playing live you play the song once and you have to live with that, as opposed to painstakingly crafting stuff in the studio which gets very cerebral.
"I’ve always loved the bubble you get into on tour, the superficial transience of it when you’re in a town for one night and you can exaggerate parts of your personality, become someone else for a while, and then that evaporates and it’s on to the next one. It’s not real life and I’ve always really liked it for that reason. I don’t feel we got to do enough of that on the last couple of records.
"We’ve never really been strategic about the brand, about who are the people we’re appealing to, setting ourselves apart from the horde. We’re dudes who make music with guitars, keyboards and drums and we’re very hard to pigeonhole, I think. To get traction with a clearly identifiable angle or story… the amount of times it’s been put to us when we deliver a record; what’s the angle here? What’s the hook?
"I’ve always felt really inadequate about that. I’m sorry, I’m just a dude who is pretty well-balanced at this stage. The embrace we have felt here in Ireland has been incredibly heartwarming and important. As we sort of do battle with the ‘heritage act’ phase, kicking and screaming to avoid that, there is an inevitable touch of that when you go for the anniversary show tag."
Up next, a handful of intimate shows including Westival; Westport's Music and Arts Festival that runs from midweek through the October Bank Holiday weekend. As for what drew Noonan west, the answer is pretty simple.
"It’s a gig in a church, you know?" he laughs.
"I love playing in churches. I’m doing the show with Maria Kelly in her hometown, so the banners will be out. I’ve loved playing these solo shows. Playing to a couple of hundred people who are really there is so much more preferable.
"Gigs, at times, and maybe I’ve been guilty of this myself, can feel like something of a leisure activity for people, a sort of generic night out vibe. These don’t feel like that. When I play a little theatre and it’s just me, a guitar and a piano, there is something very vulnerable and exposed. People feel that tension and the danger of it all falling apart. There’s not enough noise to act as a backdrop to someone’s night out."
Paul Noonan plays the Holy Trinity Church in Westport as part of Westival on Friday 25 October at 8pm.
You can also catch him at Sligo Live on Saturday 26 October and with Bell X1 over three nights at Vicar Street, Dublin from 29 November - 1 December.