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Q&A: Musician Shane Cullinan

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

Gülce Tulçalı, Arts Editor for Emerging Voices, talks with Shane Cullinan, musician and composer, about his experience of making an album during the pandemic.

When the pandemic started, what questions came up for you as an artist?

It was kind of a shock at first. It took a week or so to even register because everything stopped. People started to think: “This is really serious. We don’t know where our money is going to come from.” Performers went into survival mode, both personal and institutional survival.

I know this because I’m in the performing industry. You often get paid a lot later from the time you do the work- a month to six weeks. Everyone who was owed money wanted to collect their fees, and that led to uncomfortable conversations with the institutions. People needed the money they were owed; at the same time, institutions and venues didn’t know how they were going to pay their regular staff. Until rescue packages were introduced, it was very cut throat. It was unpleasant for everyone.

Some people are still processing how that all played out. Whichever side of the table you were on, everyone panicked. It was a chain effect. Things are generally back to pre-pandemic ways. But creative institutions have had to remodel their businesses to work in a post-pandemic world. These changes mean that many creatives don’t have the same volume of opportunities as before. Production companies used to employ composers for original scores for plays or short films. But now, as they are still in financial recovery mode, commissioning is a bit of a luxury. It’s great performances are back, but the commissioning side in the creative industry is not even close to what it was before the pandemic.

"Production companies used to employ composers for original scores for plays or short films. But now, as they are still in financial recovery mode, commissioning is a bit of a luxury."

Recently, I was commissioned to compose for a play due to open next year. Now it’s uncertain whether it’s going to happen because they’ve not secured the funding. Prior to the pandemic, I’d never been brought into projects before finances were secured. This is the kind of shift I mentioned, a change in how business is done.

How did you come to make the album Everlights?

First half of the pandemic, some people were excited to have an opportunity to be creative. I had no interest in writing at all during lockdown. I just could not get myself to do stuff. I had no inspiration. Creativity is often nurtured by connecting to other people, and I was not seeing people. Even if it’s just passively being around others, you’re receiving inspiration whether you’re aware of it or not. Being isolated for months, I had no interest in being creative.

And then I guess there was a breaking point. I often need targets to work. I forced myself to create these targets without knowing where they would lead. There had been talks with my agent in which it was suggested now would be a good time to strengthen the instrumental part of my portfolio. It was also a time when people who work outside the art world wanted to contribute, but didn’t know how. So it was a good opportunity to be innovative and show patrons, “this is where your money would go.” Only after we secured the funding and knew we could employ about thirty musicians, did I gain my motivation back. Once I knew the target was set, I created 6-8 months worth of work, and produced the album in about a month. The creativity that had been blocked, it just flew through. But I really had to force myself to reach that state again.

How was the album funded? How was the process different?

90% of the album was financed by crowdfunding. So many people were incredibly generous. I have a pool of musicians I worked with over the years. Because we managed to raise more money than expected, I was able to work with new musicians too. Both from a performance and production perspective, it was quite different because we had not fully come out of the pandemic when we started recording the album. I travelled to Palma to record with my drummer whereas my guitarist recorded all of his bits remotely. If the album were to be produced now, it would have been recorded very differently. It would be a lot more hands-on as it was for my other studio albums. This was a new way of working. And everybody was psyched to be working on something again because they had had so much time not working.

I had to travel to Palma to record with my drummer whereas my guitarist had to record all of his bits remotely.

What specific things affected musicians, in comparison to visual arts or other creative work?

Ultimately we were all impacted in similar ways. Creative people in art and music are still bleeding from the disruption. For some it worked, for many it did not. The rescue packages from the government saved some people which was great. I just had to ride it out in other ways. We’re survivors, kind of like cockroaches. I know for many in the sets industry they will have had time to reflect on how the pandemic changed them as an artist and what that now means for their career.

For a long time, people were just focused on how to survive without being able to process how stressful it was. I think we’re all realizing how that affected our mental and general health now that we’re able to reflect. It’s true there is a grieving aspect to it all, where people inevitably think about how their lives and careers could have been different and of course whilst acknowledging we are lucky to be on the other side of it and can look towards a brighter future.

A huge thank you to Shane who shed light to his personal and collective experience of creatives during and after the pandemic. Shane Cullinan Music Page can be found here.


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