Do you ever look back at chance encounters from the past and wonder what they could have become? Cathal Coughlan and Garret “Jacknife” Lee met in the Irish post-punk scene in the 80s, but didn’t fully connect until they reunited through mutual friends and decided to work together as Telefís – pronounced “tele-feesh,” after the Gaelic word for television. By 2020, when they started this sonic world together, both artists had made a name for themselves: Coughlan as a thought-provoking singer-songwriter perfect for fans of Bryan Adams and Lee as a producer boasting credits including the likes of Snow Patrol, Weezer, and Taylor Swift. They already had impressive catalogs, but their work on a hAon (Gaelic for “Number One”) might be their best to date.
a hAon is a new kind of quarantine album, drawing from the chaos and confusion of the pandemic era while also looking back to a seemingly simpler past. With Coughlan handling lyrics and vocals and Lee taking on composition and production, the project explores Irish history and pop culture while intertwining nostalgia and today’s society.
“Collaborating in this way, with a dynamic and consummate artist – who has access to a wide range of skills which I don’t have, but with whom I share many common interests and cultural/historical reference points – has been one of the highlights of my creative life,” Coughlan shares. “It’s made me so glad that I’ve been able to remain active for long enough to see something like this happen.”
We’re so glad that this incredible collaboration was able to happen as well. Let’s take a closer look at some of our favorite tracks from the album!
The birth of Telefís came with the anthemic “We Need,” a synth-tinged exploration of the passage of time and the cycles of society, accented with drums reminiscent of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” It’s a triumphant insistence that “we need to restore the magic” and truly connect with one another to shape a better future.
I’d just finished mangling a Luke Haines and Peter Buck record. Luke knows Cathal and re-introduced us. On the first or second correspondence, we thought we should make some music together. Music is probably the only way I can properly communicate with someone. I sent Cathal the backing track that would become “We Need” and he sent me back the vocal and we went back and forth from there. Lockdowns and travel restrictions forced us to work remotely, and I think helped us get to where we got so quickly.Jacknife Lee
“Falun Gong Dancer”
Lee says that a hAon is full of sounds that are “mischievous, dark, arcane, crispy fresh, and always unexpected,” and the eerie “Falun Gong Dancer” is a key moment in the shadowy ambiance the album creates. The best way to describe the song is simply haunting, leading with a piano reminiscent of Bon Iver as Coughlan’s vocals go silent in between certain lyrics, letting his words sink in more. Falun Gong is a Chinese religious movement that has influenced works like the famous Shen Yun dance show, offering a worldly air to the song.
“The Symphonies of Danny La Rue”
This track is one of the most memorable examples of the “cultural/historical reference points” that Coughlan emphasizes about the record. Danny La Rue was an Irish musician and drag performer who died in 2009, after several decades of singing and musical theater performances. Coughlan’s voice is just as commanding as La Rue’s was at his best moments, sharing La Rue’s life story and legacy in a compelling new medium that brings more life to the details than an encyclopedia page or biography ever could.
Released as a single before the album drop, “Ballytransnational” brings all the 70s disco vibes you never knew you needed. Its punchy bass intro is reminiscent of Alice Merton’s “No Roots” while the lyrics succinctly wrap up how so many people have been feeling since the pandemic changed our lives forever: “headlines strike fear, not amusement.” It’s simultaneously a look to the future and a desperate grasp for the past as Coughlan insists, “you’re never, you’re never, you’re never going back.”
A gaunt wooden rollercoaster overlooks the flatlands leading to a land border which, for many years until now, used to count for nothing. It used to be the topic of rueful recollections from decades past, but the received wisdom was that the bad old days were over, and seamless moving of fluid identities and capital now ruled the day. Public health concerns and political ferment have now given way to protectionism of many kinds. As the generation who understood the damage caused by that border passes away, the border’s time has come again. And it says: you’re never going back.Cathal Coughlan
Telefís described “Picadors” on Instagram as “falling birds into fuzz guitar beat,” and as strange as that explanation sounds, it oddly works. “Picadors” opens ominously before shifting to an 80s-esque track reminiscent of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” It’s full of thought-provoking imagery and contrasts like “first love, last rites” and “come to senses as yours leave you.”
Which songs on a hAon did you enjoy most? Let us know in the comments below or link up with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram! You can find the album on your favorite streaming services now, and get to know Telefís on Bandcamp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and their website.