There is a line in a T.S. Eliot poem where the narrator, one J. Alfred Prufrock, laments, “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.” The anxiety of merely playing a subsidiary, passive role in one’s own life is something that springs to mind when Dublin solo artist Stephen Tiernan elucidates the reasons for his choice of moniker: Participant. Speaking to us after a serene, fire-lit acoustic performance in the somewhat surreal location of an old Georgian house on Henrietta Street, Tiernan explains: “The idea comes from when you feel like you’re just a participant, like you’re just taking part in someone else’s life — a supporting character.” It seems a fairly bleak, if refreshingly honest sentiment. Tiernan continues, “I like the idea that I’m fronting something under the name that is meant to mean ‘taking part’, but it’s just my project. As soon as I started writing these songs, it was always going to be Participant.”
Though you perhaps wouldn’t guess it from his pleasantly realised sparse, ambient soundscapes, Tiernan previously performed as a bass-player rather than a solo artist, and it was only after his band Heritage Centre went on hiatus that he realised how much he missed playing and accordingly decided to give his own music a shot. “I talked about Participant for years and years, but I put it off, I made excuses,” he says of the decision. “Finally I convinced myself to put out this EP [Bit Slow] — you can’t just talk about it or be scared about people hearing it. I was frustrated that I wasn’t playing anymore, but also I felt like it was time — I’m getting older and it got to a point where it was like: I’m either gonna do it now, or it’s gonna pass me by.”
Certainly, the decision to go ahead with Participant and release the Bit Slow EP has turned out to be a welcome one. The record is a subtle, slow-burning one, with warm ripples of guitar swimming over a sea of atmospheric sounds and some beautifully fragile vocals from Tiernan. Lyrically he is disarmingly frank and earnest, notably in the title track with its opening lines, “Could you ever see / yourself lying next to me again / when I’m underachieving / paralyzed?” He dismisses the notion that his lyrics are about any one incident or relationship, however: “The thing is, I tend to write quite thematically. It sounds like the songs are about one specific thing […] but I might be writing about several different experiences and putting them altogether in one song.”
Tiernan’s songwriting process in general is particularly interesting, picking out lyrics he wrote down a long time ago that stem from past events and using them now to reflect on more current themes in his life. Experimenting with bits from his own work isn’t something Tiernan has restricted to lyrical ideas either, he explains: “I sample extensively from my own back-catalogue of demos and other bands I played in […] I don’t think on the EP there’s a single sound that I didn’t record myself or sample from my own body of work. It took me ages, but it was really interesting.”
Bit Slow was a promisingly executed debut, and with a new EP in the pipeline for early next year and an increasing focus on polishing performances with his four-piece live band, it’s clear that — for all of Tiernan’s own misgivings — Participant is maybe more of a Prince Hamlet than a Prufrock after all.
Participant’s Bit Slow EP is out now.
Photo by Gareth Gregan.
Originally published in tn2 Magazine.