Megan O’Neill topped this season’s UK Country Top 40 thanks to tracks which have been dripped to fans during the last year or so. Megan is set to tour the UK and Ireland in October, trotting around the UK and playing King Tuts in Glasgow, Birmingham Glee Club and The Lexington in London (if it remains open after a very challenging year).
I caught her live when she launched her last album Ghost of You back in 2018, and I’ve also seen her entertain tourists and lunch-eaters in London Bridge. She told BBC Radio Ulster that her personal life overtook her musical life and, given that she couldn’t control what she couldn’t control, she leaned into it. ‘This acceptance that life is always going to change’ dominates the subject matter of the album. She also played her cover of Time in a Bottle on the RTE discussion show, the Irish equivalent of the Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton show. It takes its place as a sort of bonus track on this concept album about place, love and doubt.
I first heard Megan play Rootless (‘I’m running out of seasons to grow/ There must be a demon, I know’) at the British Country Music Festival 18 months ago. The song outlined her decision to move back to Ireland, having lived in Nashville and London; her life in a song. As I’ve written before, her song Ireland is her career song, the one that will finish every set she ever performs, an ode to the land she fell in love with only after leaving. That song contrasts with the piano-led London City: ‘You kept me crazy, you kept me blind…I won’t shed a tear for you’, on the one hand, and ‘you taught me how to be myself’ on the other.
I loved Head Under Water, where Megan wishes ‘the ground would open up, swallow me whole’ instead of making a choice in a relationship, and Devil You Know, written with the great Jake Morrell. Megan’s old pal Ben Earle co-writes Strangers Before We Met, which opens with a set of tableaux – trains, cafes, bypassers, back-to-back in a bar – with a cello providing an ostinato. The chorus contains the words ‘I don’t know’, which pop up throughout the album which, lest we forget, is titled Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty.
Two songs are co-written with Kaity Rae: you can tell Sometimes I Learn is a Rae composition as it’s full of melancholy and melody (‘maybe I just gotta wait my turn’) with a xylophone used on the chorus; the poppy chorus of Break Hearts is at odds with the content of the lyric, where she and Joe Dunwell are infatuated with one another but are ‘afraid’ of ruining a friendship. I like the image of both of them having the other as a lockscreen photo, and the middle eight of a repeated line: ‘Would it be worth it?’
At that London gig, she played with duo The Dunwells, who produce the album and write several tracks including brooding, meditative opener Should’ve Known Better, where she takes responsibility and seeks to ‘be honest with myself’. Hitting the top of her range, she really pulls us in. Likewise on Underrated, her cry of ‘I’m not afraid to go it alone’ will chime with a lot of listeners.
The album ends, before Time in a Bottle, with Winter Sun, a majestic love song with some strings and many Megans harmonising around her lead vocal and piano. It sounds like Enya and it’s a rare moment of certainty on an album of doubt. Ireland have a superstar in Megan O’Neill, whose independent spirit is shining through on this album. I can’t wait to see her in the autumn.