In 1999 I heard a single which, for me and many others, was the perfect, life-affirming mix of dancefloor classic and bedroom treasure. Called 'The Mood Club', it was a piano-driven tribute to a Dublin soul haunt of the Eighties where Oisín Lunny, aka Firstborn, had found himself living every minute of the likes of Frankie Valli's 'The Night' and Mary Love's 'Lay This Burden Down'.
Championed by DJs like Pete Tong and Norman Jay, 'The Mood Club' went on to appear on the soundtrack to the film 'Human Traffic' and was chosen by the BBC as the theme music to its coverage of the Cricket World Cup (when you consider that the previous incumbent was Booker T and The MG's 'Soul Limbo' you get some idea of how good the song is). For its creator Lunny the recognition was long overdue, his previous outfit Marxman had released some acclaimed singles and a strong debut but had never really got the attention they deserved. The question of why they never made it remains to this day, but that summer the only one in my mind was when Lunny would get around to releasing his solo album. Two years later comes the answer 'When It Hits You Feel No Pain', a wild record which sees him mine his musical history to create a path through a Dublin after hours.
"It wasn't the agenda with the Firstborn stuff to worry too much about scheduling or whether things go off the boil," he explains from his London home. "It was a case of circumstances dictating when things could and couldn't happen but I'm happy with the way it worked out. I probably could have put something out shortly after 'The Mood Club' that sounded like 'The Mood Club' but it wasn't my intention to go down that route. It was more important for me to make an LP I could stand by forever."
But for a while that desire hung in the balance as his label, Independiente, weighed up the pros and cons of committing to Firstborn for a full album. Lunny's A & R man left the company and he found himself in corporate limbo. "I decided quite a long time before that to never rely on a record company for income again, because things can go wrong and there's nothing you can do. When the A&R thing fell through and it was all looking a bit vague, I just went and got a job and put the music on ice for a bit."
After his experiences in Marxman, fate proved kinder this time around, with Independiente offering an album deal in December '99. "I started the new Millennium with no overdraft which was a revelation for me - I haven't been in that state for years. Independiente totally come through at the end and once they did their attitude was, 'you just make the LP you want to make'. It's an extremely corny thing to say but they paid for me to follow my dream. Since '92, every time I've had a bit of musical work, I've tried to make it pay for equipment and there were only a couple of bits missing and once the deal came through I could buy them and set up my studio like I'd been dreaming of for years. That gave me a lot of freedom to get stuck in and to spend two hours sampling a vocal rather than two days because I had to chop it up using an old sampler."
With his self-professed love for getting his hands dirty in the studio, a penchant for doing multiple versions of tracks and a load of DAT's with material stretching back to 1990, narrowing a lifetime of grooves and experiences into one album was always going to be a tall order. "It was a bit of a daunting thing initially to go in every day and get properly stuck into it. I got this big 2-metre high poster of Marxman, turned it around and wrote down the names of all these tracks and ideas that I wanted to look at. I ended up filling it with all these track names and in the middle I put this large circle divided into sections. The LP was meant to make sense as it looked visually on the chart with a big circle divided into twelve segments. I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing anything: live every day as if it's your last, look at every LP as if it's your last. I wanted to get everything that I wanted to say onto this LP and I'm happy that I've done that."
But those expecting more Northern soul flavoured singles, however, are in for a dark surprise: 'When It Hits...' is a far more complex album than 'The Mood Club' could ever suggest, featuring both jarring electronics, rambling beat-backed monologues from Lunny's friend Bennan Murphy and soundtrack like excursions. "It doesn't flow easily in terms of it all being one style but it makes sense when you listen to it. Some of it's about Dublin, remembering Dublin from far away, moving to London, people dying, new life coming through. It's like a cycle, the cycle of going through a few years: 'The Mood Club' is one particular moment in time that's about a love of Northern soul and the dancefloor, and then as you travel through the songs things get darker quite quickly - 'Miracles' is a moment of realisation and seeing destiny fall away between your fingers and being quite powerless to do anything about it."
The aforementioned 'Miracles' would serve as a link to Lunny's past and present when one of the soul idols he discovered in his teenage years contributed the vocal track. "I've been into Northern Soul since the mid 80's and one of the first artists who I rated as having released amazing records was Mary Love. The daddy of the Northern Soul scene in London is a guy called Ady Croasdell and he also founded Kent Records, which released these Mary Love recordings. He said to me that they were looking for people to remix Mary Love's 'Lay This Burden Down' and I stood there for a second thinking, 'he can't the Mary Love, the 'Lay This Burden Down'. I said I'd be up for doing it and he said, 'I'll get you the DAT tape of the originals'."
While working on the remix he did a couple of interviews with American magazines, talking about how excited it was to be working on the track and how he would love to work with the singer. Then came the phone call. "I got a message on my phone saying 'This is Mary Love and I'm really looking forward to working with you!' ”. It doesn’t get better really. We started getting in touch over email and leaving phone messages for each other. So when I got the LP deal one of the first things I wanted to do was write a backing track for Mary Love. I called it 'Miracles' and I sent her over this backing tape."
It proved to be an aptly titled piece of music given Love's post-soul calling - she's now Minister Mary Love-Comer and runs her own church with her husband Brad in Tennessee. "She got some studio time from a friend of hers, Pastor Denis Hackett, who has his own little recording studio. She put vocals on it, show stopping vocals, in one take, sent it back and I worked on it some more. When we finally spoke we were on the phone for over an hour. She was telling me all about her life and what it was like when she was making the recordings that I was mad for in my teens in Dublin. When she was actually doing those back in the 60s she was going through an absolute hell of depressions. She's an incredible woman and she's really come through it and found the way out through her faith. It's in that way that doing the stuff for Firstborn has surpassed every expectation I had for it. It's like 'The Mood Club', that was written for a bunch of ageing soul boys in Dublin and it ended up being played by Pete Tong, Giles Peterson, Norman Jay all my heroes. Then getting to work with Mary Love whose recordings I had queued for was just brilliant."
And with rave reviews for the album, features in both the Face and The Guardian and his new club 'Feel No Pain' packing them in both London and Dublin things are only going to get better. "I think it's happening slowly but surely," he says modestly. "The usual industry model (for albums) is you get a huge amount of hype around a period of time, bang it out with a massive marketing budget, bang out another one and bang out another one. With Firstborn it's like a different model - instead of banging out a car that will fall apart in a couple of years it's like having a car that you'll be able to drive in ten years time." Now watch it go.
'When It Hits You Feel No Pain' is out now on Independiente Records.