In Conversation: For Those I Love

In Conversation: For Those I Love

“I used to feel like I brought a black cloud into a room; I don’t feel like that now...”

Disappearing into a small physical space in order to confront huge existential questions, David Balfe set out to honour his personal world. In time, he created a new one.

The greatest art moves you. It reaches deep down within the core of your being and shakes something loose. You know it first time. It's a visceral reaction and the feeling that this thing – be it music, film, literature, sport, video games, anything – has been purpose-built just for you.

Sure, technically, it belongs to everyone, but not really. It's yours.

Yet the greatest art is often restless, too, powered by nervous energy, challenging life experience, euphoric confidence, crushing self-doubt, and the kind of unique wins and losses that can forever alter. That's why you listen to For Those I Love and realise that this is one of the most vital expressions that Ireland has produced in quite some time.

As its moniker plainly states, the one-man project is born out of pure devotion, offering stories about a group of friends who built a world, presented with raw honesty, unconcerned with gloss even as a barrage of sounds rain down.

What started as one tribute became another as shattering circumstances changed the complexion. As such, For Those I Love, despite being made with many in mind, will always be linked to a great bond that will not break in spite of exceptional loss.

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It stands as a vivid monument to a man by the name of Paul Curran, a fiercely creative and outspoken soul who, like many creative and outspoken young souls from Ireland, now requires others to be creative and outspoken in his absence. An absence that will forever make noise.

I never stood in the same room as Paul Curran, at least I'm not aware of doing so, but I recognised the name when reports of his passing, etched with familiar resigned grace, arrived two months into 2018.

You become numb to it, the language involved, the merciful lack of specifics, the helplessness, the terribly individual yet incredibly common demographic. It's never not upsetting, though, even when you find yourself thousands of degrees removed. For those up close, life becomes something else entirely.

One year prior, Curran's best friend began the process of constructing an album, intended to celebrate relationships with those closest to him. Balfe and Curran had previously worked together under the guise of Burnt Out; the material a simultaneously raw and polished blend of unflinching hardcore / spoken word accounts supported by stark, tightly-edited depictions of working-class Ireland and the devastating fallout of economic crash.

Today, the below-the-line YouTube remarks sit as a mix of enthusiastic promise and precise memorials. Sobering, and, again, familiar. - 'Burnt Out' won't fade away. What mattered then matters now. From the ashes, Balfe has reckoned with everything he knows to create and craft something original, painful and beautiful, the themes of his former creative bond present and relevant. You need to hear it. If you care about art, about love, about empathy, you need to hear it.

For Those I Love and the nine-track album that bears its name is dance. It's house. It's punk. It's hardcore. It's documentary. It moves, asks questions, screams sometimes. Like the man who crafted it, it has a vulnerable core. I could see that first-hand when I met Balfe in the summer of 2019, a few weeks after the album originally surfaced, quietly, on Bandcamp. There was no PR campaign, no build-up, no lead single, nothing. Just the album itself and a few people picking up on it. And then a few more. And some more on top of that. It felt like something tangible, important and rare. A new pulse.

We spoke for an hour in a Dublin bar overlooking busy city centre streets. He did most of the talking. Open, warm and simultaneously guarded and forthcoming, he considered his words carefully and spoke with conviction. "I think I’d been quiet for a long time, myself, creatively, in terms of solo ventures, and I think as I got to that age – I would have been 25, 26 – I felt, just looking at the climate that most immediately surrounded me, I felt that maybe nothing was promised in any capacity," said Balfe. "I felt I needed to put something on record, in whatever format was going to work best, to just lay some ground of thanks for my family and my friends."

He’d go on to talk about how his friends felt “immortalised” hearing their names in Curran’s poetry, struggling with the weight of the For Those I Love project, how he didn’t anticipate receiving much of any response to putting it online while also acknowledging that Dublin is “fuckin’ tiny”, how everyone within it seems to be connected. Still, these stories felt like private commentaries that likely wouldn’t travel too far beyond the boundaries in which they were conceived.

People did respond, though. That shrinking-of-the-city feeling was palpable. It sounds silly to say that you could feel it in the air, but you could. Word of mouth was spreading, emotional responses forming. Suddenly, without explanation, the album disappeared.

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Behind the scenes, after a great deal of consideration and conversation following the receipt of an initial Instagram DM, Balfe had struck a deal with September Recordings. Today, he holds pride of place on their roster alongside the likes of Adele, Glass Animals, Jai Paul and Rick Rubin. This wasn’t supposed to happen. For Those I Love was never meant to be a professional undertaking. It still might not be. Indeed, Balfe is quite committed to his day job with a well-regarded creative agency in Dublin and though he quickly sold out the city’s hallowed Olympia Theatre in a matter of hours during the album’s (re-)release week, he’s sticking to his guns, preferring to think of music as a reward rather than his chief financial motivator.

 Release week at the end of March brought about something surreal; the record he made in his mother’s shed going up against Justin Bieber in the Official Irish Albums Chart. A classic underdog story with a bittersweet ending; For Those I Love would take second place in the end, just 67 sales behind.

Hours removed from the result, Balfe admits his disappointment to CLASH, noting that the release caused family and friends to briefly forget Ireland’s strict, continuous lockdown for a time in order to rally around a most surreal battle. He wanted to “take it home” for them. That, and it resurrected a fiercely competitive streak reminiscent of his youthful obsession with kickboxing. “The reality of it is that I’ve been searching for ways not to think about the significance or emotional impact of re-releasing this record, which I don’t necessarily feel ready for,” Balfe begins from the comfort of the home office he’s spent the vast majority of the past 12 months inside, sun booming down outside as children run past his window laughing.

“I wrote this first three years ago when I was not in a healthy frame of mind and I was not in a healthy space in my life. Since then I have worked very intently to be able to get to a very healthy space and I have succeeded in doing so. I am a lot better now than I was three years ago, so it’s quite difficult to step backwards into those flames again and to revisit a lot of those old feelings and some of that burden and pain that was there when I wrote the record. So, I feel like on the week that’s in it it’s actually quite a relief to just ignore that and channel the feelings into something that seems so, I don’t know, benign or temporary or surface-level. It’s quite a nice cheat, you know?”

Balfe has spoken plainly of feeling “irrationally, monstrously guilty” in the run-up to the release of the album, clearly not wanting to exploit or profit from trauma. Though he usually favours something of a disconnected existence, the campaign – for there has been a sophisticated, dedicated one this time around – has brought him a lot more online. As such, he sees the avalanche of messages – more on those in a moment – and how media outlets opt to regard this bold new artist from Dublin’s inner city.

Though the coverage has been universally positive, you wonder how he reacts to a tag like “Ireland’s potent new poet of grief” as posited by the Guardian in January, especially when it’s clear from a few minutes in Balfe’s company that he’s quick with a smile and as likely to make a famous Eamon Dunphy reference as he is to delve deep into the intricate subject matter at the heart of his music. One hell of a hook, but is it fair?

“You’re talking about a pretty interesting thing,” he nods. “What I would say is that I very much understand the value of a headline. Everybody is fighting for digital clicks. For many people there is a necessity to write with a sensationalist tone. But yeah, I mean, I would also agree that there is a hell of a lot more to me than being this harbinger of doom. I haven’t felt like that in quite a while.

“I used to feel like I brought a black cloud into a room but I wasn’t in a great spot then. I don’t feel like that now. I don’t think that my friends or my partner would, either. In fact, my partner always gives out to me for being too enthusiastic after 10 or 11pm when I want to go running or I want to work out or play old PlayStation games at the same time but I also want to get a list of terrible old dad jokes and be like, ‘Let’s figure out what the funniest dad joke is!’. I’m in a good spot.”

Being in that healthier place allows him to make sense of the missives that continue to stack up in the wake of the album returning to the general public. As a narrative, For Those I Love is never didactic in its delivery. Balfe isn’t presenting himself as some kind of self-help guru. Nonetheless, it has registered as a powerful text that people can take from and even add to.

“The stuff I get from strangers is very overwhelming,” says Balfe. “It’s very touching. It can be very stressful. It can be very beautiful. But that starts to play a dominant role in the day-to-day of your life because you’re listening, you’re hearing so many people’s deepest stories, their most dominant pain… from strangers. And it’s many a day, many, many, many a day – the private DM on Instagram. I don’t even think I knew that was a thing beforehand. The emotional weight that you inherit from some of those; it’s a very difficult thing to carry with you throughout your life and your day-to-day. I understand that there’s this crazy responsibility that comes with being able to respond appropriately to those messages as well. It’s not something that you can take in a light-hearted manner.

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“I feel like I’ve had to speak to a lot of experts and I feel like I’ve had to rely an awful lot on third parties in my life to know how to respond to some of those, because they can be very, very, very dark. And very touching, you know? I understand in a lot of ways why people are responding to me like that because it’s such an open album, it’s such a personal album, it’s an album that speaks in names, it very directly talks about people as if they’re in the room with you. So I am sympathetic to how people would feel a kinship there and a desire to talk about some of these heavier weights that they carry.

“In a lot of ways, I am very glad that they do. But it is a weird thing to try and bring with you through your life. It’s not something that I’ve really managed to separate from yet. And I think, just by that nature as well, it has made me a lot more online because I have had to engage more but it has also driven me to want to be a lot less online.”

Two-way interactivity of this nature can only stretch so far, I suggest.

“It’s not sustainable, least of all because I certainly don’t have the answers,” says Balfe. I’ve spent so much of the last couple of years trying to understand what leads to some of the more tragic outcomes that my friends, myself and my family have experienced. I have felt a sense of responsibility there, very much so.

“I think I’ve written enough about it but there are times in my past where I look back and I feel like I probably dropped the ball. There are things that I should have seen that I didn’t. I’ve dedicated a lot – and I mean a lot – of my time to read every text, listen to every expert, try and study as much as I can to find not just the answers for the why but the answers for the how to stop it or how to support. I’m not sure if my understanding is any more clear than it was. In some ways it feels like I’ve just exposed myself to more questions and if anything that really speaks to the complexities of these issues.

“And it is very complex. There have been some interviews where people have asked very direct questions; ‘Why do you think we’ve had a suicide epidemic in Ireland during the late 90s?’ or something like that and I’m like, oof, okay… I can try but we might need a couple of hours here and I’m going to have to start getting some texts out to try and reference them and I don’t have the academic support here. My point is that I understand how complex these issues are and with that I understand how a one-shoe-fits-all answer is just not acceptable going back to people.

“The communication I receive, it warrants responses on a one-to-one basis. It warrants an engagement that’s very specific and tailored to make sure that the right answer or the most responsible answer is given, or the one that can identify the best supports there. And I don’t know how to make that sustainable yet. I don’t know how to necessarily bring people to the right river to drink from because I don’t know what the right one is, even with all of the support and the excellent experts in the field that I have been privileged enough to be able to speak to over the past year.”

Despite his general confinement across that past year, Balfe has managed to achieve some significant goals. Chief among them; his debut live performance as captured in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre for broadcast on Later… with Jools Holland. The take on ‘I Have a Love’ is incendiary, all-focus passion, the end result some kind of fate.

“That was such a weird time,” he smiles. “There were sort-of on-and-off rumours in the weeks and months leading into it that we might be asked to do a Jools performance. I had sent the label an email a year before pretty much when we first started talking saying I’m not interested in being a professional musician, it’s not where my heart lies. But I have two musical goals. I have two goals left in my life in general and one of them is to play Jools Holland.”

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“And then we got it and it was one of the first times where I have ever freaked out about an external thing. I go back to signing the deal with the label and just how anticlimactic that was. It was supposed to be this big thing and I just signed it and was like, ‘Yeah! Alright, cool!’ and they were like, ‘Will you have a drink?’ – ‘Ah, I’ll take a coffee, I dunno, might go for a run over here…’ – all of the moments leading up to the Jools thing were stuff that other people were celebrating and I wasn’t. I just wasn’t very charmed by it. I’ve peered behind the curtain many times. I’ve seen the ugliness of how these things run with many of my peers who have walked this road before. But then the Jools thing came and I was like oh my god this is a special moment.”

“I started to get a little bit panicked. I did my rehearsals but then I turned up on the day and it was just so peaceful. I didn’t feel any stress. I felt nothing but comfort. And I think I got lucky because I’ve responded for years to the visual of that studio. I feel like I know how many paces it is from one side to the other having never been in it, because I’ve watched it so religiously. So then to go in and do it in Smock Alley instead and have no visual tropes, nothing that told me I was doing a Jools Holland performance, I think it let me away with one. I was able to stay very calm and peaceful about it and not become overwhelmed. Whereas, if we weren’t in the middle of a lockdown and I was going to the UK to do it, I’d have been getting sick in the jacks beforehand, probably.”

Cut back a couple of years to that quiet room in which Balfe sat opposite me, not quite agitated but certainly lined with a visible, perhaps delicate energy. At the end of that interview I asked how he was feeling. "Probably lucid for the first time in a long time, and nervous,” he offered, adding that he felt he was on the “right path” in terms of moving forward. "I feel like I understand things about myself, about my feelings, regarding the past year and a half, more now than I did before. I’m more willing to understand them. I’m more willing to see them for what they were.”

That growth is evident during his conversation with CLASH and in his recent online engagements. Balfe has allowed people into his world. In turn, they have afforded it the respect that it deserves. You wonder if For Those I Love will go down as a singular bright star in Irish music, one-and-done, forever revered. Or perhaps there is more to the story.

“I have intentions to do a second album,” says Balfe. “I started a second album with a very, very clear concept and a pretty decent understanding of the sound palette. I started to write some songs for it. This was all sort of near the start of lockdown. It has become increasingly hard to write over the past couple of months. Sure, there has been a lot less time to engage with that part but I think, really, I have found myself out of practice with the tools of my trade and the tools of storytelling.”

“My practice is spending so much time with my friends or spending time in pubs. I know it’s not the healthiest thing, it doesn’t sound that healthy and at one stage it was a very unhealthy thing for me to do but I did get quite a good grasp on it eventually and I was able to do it in a healthier way but I go to pubs by myself an awful lot. I like to. It works well for me and I’ll often meet strangers and have a couple of pints and talk to them. When you meet a stranger in a pub, so much of it is about storytelling. You listen to their stories. They ask you about yours. Oftentimes they ask you things about your life that you’ve forgotten about and you go back and explore them. I feel like that’s where my road-running is. That’s where I put the miles down. And I’m just out of practice. I’ve had no option to do that. Bar three windows, I’ve basically just been in this office for a year. So my practice is not functioning at the moment. My skills, they’re getting worse and worse. I can’t write the same. I can’t express the same. I’m not inspired the same way either. That’s key. A lot of people say, ‘Write about being stuck inside’ but that doesn’t speak to me at all.”

“The project that I was writing is so indebted to storytelling and so much of the way I write the story with this project was informing what way I was shaping the sonics. So while I have continued to make a lot of instrumental music, I don’t really think it’s that relevant to where I want this project to go, what direction I want it to lead. Some of my practical music-making skills are probably getting better, just from spending time with it but I’m not creating the world that I intended to with this project or the world that speaks to me most. I’m hoping that when the world starts to get back on its feet and I can slowly start to return to a life that I lived before or a slightly different one but still one that is inspiring that I will be able to continue with that project and get to the next phase. Because I do want to continue and I do want to get another record out. I’ve realised that I have a lot more in me left to say that fits into the vocabulary that I have put forward so far. I didn’t think that I did but I do.”

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'For Those I Love' is out now on September Recordings.

Words: Dave Hanratty

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