Martha Ffion on Sunday Best
We talk Seinfeld, Peep Show and growing up in Ireland with Glasgow-based singer-songwriter Martha Ffion ahead of the release of her debut album Sunday Best
When we call Martha Ffion – full name Claire Martha Ffion McKay – the Glasgow-based Irish singer-songwriter has just been spending her Sunday afternoon doing a spot of life admin and continuing to get into 90s comedy Seinfeld. While many people are re-watching Friends and finding out that it’s quite badly dated, McKay says that Seinfeld’s comedy of manners has held up pretty well – unlike some of the characters’ outfits. “It was pretty excruciating,” McKay says, laughing about the episode she just watched. “I’ve only just started watching it, like a week ago. I’m getting quite invested.”
With our conversation touching upon Catholic guilt, Peep Show and MTV2, McKay proves to be wry, canny company as we discuss her debut LP Sunday Best, coming out this month via Turnstile – the label of artists like Emmy the Great and Cate le Bon. As every debut takes a lifetime to write, it’s worth telling Martha Ffion’s story from the beginning. McKay was born in Prestwich, Greater Manchester to an Irish father and Welsh mother who’d met in the North West English city before the family moved to Warrenpoint, Northern Ireland when McKay was two. The small coastal town was picturesque and McKay relished the liberty it offered.
“[Warrenpoint's] a really beautiful place,” McKay says. “I mean, I never felt I was missing out on anything else being there – definitely quite a quiet and sheltered upbringing, but in another way we had a lot of freedom. Ironically – given that it was the early 90s in Northern Ireland – it was quite a safe place to grow up and we could just run wild, go and play on the beach and do what we wanted.”
Warrenpoint’s location right on the border of Northern Ireland with the southern Republic meant that for McKay growing up, hopping on a twenty-minute ferry from Warrenpoint to Carlingford in the south was a common occurrence. That led McKay to plenty of experiences of crossing the border as a teenager to drink, wrestling with currency.
“When we got older and wanted to go out to clubs, we’d go to ones that were across the border so to go on a night out you’d go and get your euros,” McKay explains, chuckling at the memory. “You’d have to go to the bureau de change during the day to go in the pubs that night because it was easier to get served. Things like that were quite funny, but I guess as you’re just used to it you don’t really think it’s strange.”
That liminal space that Warrenpoint holds between northern and southern Ireland is similar to the one McKay’s music occupies, nestled between classic pop and the alternative music she listened to as a teen, being of the generation that got much of its initial music taste from MTV2. “Early Strokes is as much embedded in my songwriting as anything,” she says.
While McKay played violin and harp growing up, she didn’t really write songs until she learned guitar when she moved to Glasgow in her late teens, after an aborted stint studying drama at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh – she dropped out because she was "rubbish," she says. By the time she’d learned two covers, she was writing her own material, while never planning to enter the music industry. “I never even intended to play open mics or anything,” McKay explains, “I just spiralled into it all.”
After a few years of "writing lots of songs behind closed doors and being terrified of being on stage," McKay released her first EP Go in 2014 under her middle names Martha Ffion, recording it cheaply with the help of her friends in the Glasgow-based band Poor Things. The experience of playing with a full band led McKay to expand her songwriting horizons, recording a double A-side postcard single for Lost Map before releasing her first EP, Trip in 2016, with Turnstile. She learned fast about touring and playing for a live audience, saying working with a full band "opened up" the way she wrote songs.
Now, McKay is releasing her first full record as Martha Ffion, Sunday Best – recorded with her full live band by Jamie Savage at Glasgow’s Chem 19 Studio. It’s a clever, apt title for a debut – referring to clothes reserved for church, which are in effect a facade. Having grown up in a predominantly Catholic part of Northern Ireland, McKay explains that the title partly jokes about Catholic guilt, but is wider-ranging too.
“It’s not just Catholic guilt,” McKay explains. “All of us in this day and age kind of feel guilty about everything. We’re more conscious in a way of the impact of our actions than ever before. It’s like even [when you're] at a supermarket and no matter what you take off the shelf there’s a feeling of guilt attached to that. There’s a really good joke about that in Peep Show actually, that I can’t be bothered to retell!
“That is a theme that runs through a lot of the songs – what does it mean to be good? Sometimes [I was] literally looking at that question and sometimes I was inhabiting a character of either a ‘good woman’ or ‘bad woman’ – sometimes people that I actually knew or know, or sometimes depictions from other songs or books and things like that. I think that’s something that can be especially difficult for women: this idea that you should be good and pleasant and smiling.”
As the culmination of the first phase of her career to date, Sunday Best shows McKay putting on her best face as Martha Ffion. It showcases some songs written in early 2017, older cuts, like No Applause and Lead Balloon, and some of the earliest songs she wrote, such as Punch Drunk – a track originally recorded as Punch Drunk Love for the Go EP.
McKay remains fond of the original version, whose jangly lo-fi recording made it sound "a little like something off Rubber Soul." When revisiting it this time, McKay admits that she actually wanted the track not to sound as glossy, out of a desire to create something recognisable as human and flawed. “We were trying to make it ropier!” she laughs. “Things were sounding too polished or too good. I think we’re always trying to keep away from anything being too perfect.”
While that might make Sunday Best sound like it’s a ramshackle type of record, it’s definitely not – on the contrary, it’s a bright, bracing listen. With almost all of its tracks hovering around the magical three minute mark, the album’s songs combine classic 60s pop, like The Beach Boys and Nancy Sinatra, with more modern iterations, like Camera Obscura, the surf-y stylings of Best Coast and the guitar rock of Rilo Kiley. We ask McKay, with so many reference points on Sunday Best, how she strikes the balance between her influences and her own personality.
“I guess it’s the melodies, mostly, that I’m drawn to in classic songs,” she says. “I like songs that make you feel something – something that can be missing in mainstream music nowadays – writing about things that are really either affecting you or that you’re really empathising with from someone else. I think I probably do more of the latter. More often than not, a situation I’m writing about isn’t directly happening to me but I try to empathise as much as possible and maybe write it from my perspective.”
Inspired by her mum, who in McKay’s childhood was a librarian involved in Ireland’s storytelling community, the writing doesn’t disappoint. It’s easy to see how a confessed cynic like McKay would be attracted to a show like Seinfeld, as Sunday Best’s songs tackle how our attempts to do good things backfire or are scuppered by our past. Whether it’s the guarded love of Take Your Name, 'life getting in the way' of dreams in Beach, or the Lead Balloon which she admits 'is tethered to my heart', much of McKay’s delivery is evocative of Jenny Lewis, another songwriter who finds experience hard-won but retains an inherent optimism.
The track at the very heart of Sunday Best is We Make Do, a graceful, piano-led waltz in which McKay insists 'there’s no shame in facing every day with an overwhelming sense of making do'. If Martha Ffion is making do right now, we can’t wait to see her when she’s really doing it.