After five years, two albums (both number 1 in their native Ireland) and hundreds of millions of streams, Kodaline wanted to take some time off. “It was just meant to be a little break,” says guitarist and keyboard player Mark Prendergast. “But actually, it was full of the biggest things we’ve ever done.”
They backed Ed Sheeran in front of 160,000 people over two nights at Croke Park for a massive singalong. They recorded a hit single with Norwegian superstar DJ Kygo. Singer Steve Garrigan was flown by private jet to sing with Seal, Leona Lewis and Labrinth at Kygo’s show at the Hollywood Bowl. In LA, the band sat in on rehearsals by fellow countrymen U2 and watched Bono and co “practically blowing the walls off,” according to lead singer and guitarist Steve. “The whole thing was so inspiring.” “It was just like a taste, a reminder of what we are all in this for,” says bassist Jason Boland. “We couldn’t feckin’ wait to get back,” concurs drummer Vinny May Jr.
Irish quartet Kodaline return this year with their third album, quietly confident that it is the best of their career. “We took our time, we did our own thing, we made sure we got everything to exactly where it needed to be,” insists the soft-spoken Steve. “We gave ourselves room to get out of our comfort zone and experiment, to try things we might have shied away from before. But the songs were always the foundation: the structure, the lyric, the melody. If you get that right, production can only make it better. It’s like sprinkles on top of the cake.”
Or, as the refreshingly plain-spoken Vinny puts it: “You can’t hide behind shit.”
Kodaline formed in Swords, north of Dublin, in 2012, although chief songwriters Steve and Mark had known each other all their lives and worked together since 2005. As a four piece, they achieved immediate success. All I Want, from their first EP, has clocked up over 46 million views on YouTube. Their 2013 debut album, Perfect World, established them as a highly emotional pop rock band with perfectly crafted songs in the anthemic vein of Coldplay. The follow up, 2015’s Coming Up For Air, gave them their second Irish number one, constant touring confirming their status as a growing force around the world. But it was taking its toll.
“Touring is actually the reward,” says Steve. “There’s no better feeling than just playing for a crowd and feeding off them. I’m so grateful, because how many people get to do this for a job? But it’s not quite as glamorous as it seems from the outside. The day to day reality is you're on a tour bus for eight weeks at a time, you go home for a few days and you go back out on the bus again. It can get a bit claustrophobic.”
“We had ups and downs, we had arguments,” reports Vinny, honestly. “We needed a bit of breathing space and do normal things for a while. It was like - let’s just bring it back to why we started this in the first place. We were friends and we wrote songs, let's concentrate on that.”
“We only took a few months off, but it felt like we took a couple of years out,” says Steve. The band returned to their home town of Swords. They finally got around to moving out of parents houses and setting up in their own spaces, and were quite surprised to realise they were still all living “within spitting distance of each other” as Vinny puts it. They found themselves hanging out, just for fun. “We are very tight,” says Steve. “We’re good mates.”
It wasn’t long before they were writing again, in each other’s home studios, gathered around pianos or acoustic guitars, working as a unit. “This album has been the one where we’ve all kind of been there for the whole time,” says Vinny. “Steve and Mark still come in with rough songs but we’re all contributing and shaping, throwing things in. It gives you more of a sense of ownership and connection. Four brains is better than one.”
“We wrote so many songs it wasn’t like a body of work, it was like three bodies of work,” says Steve. “And we slowly honed it down to the things that mattered most.”
“There was a lot of trust, a lot of patience,” says bassist Jason Boland. “We learned to treat the song as king and just do what's completely best for the song, which has always been the ideal but sometimes ego gets in the way. This time, we stuck with it.”
The collaboration with Kygo on hit single Raging in 2016 proved liberating. “I think sonically it opened up a lot of doors for us,” says Jason. “It was not music we would have ever made on our own, but people loved it, so it had an influence on what we think is possible. It made us question whether we were being too precious.”
Jason, who has a background in production, took a much more hands on role, creating loops for the band to play to, which in turn would push arrangements into new directions. “Jay can do performances with a laptop,” says Mark. “It's really weird to watch but it brings an electronic element that has an analogue feel, because it’s played live and it’s changing all the time.” “Everyone has the same synthesisers these days, the trick is not to make them sound like synthesisers,” notes Jay.
Conversely, watching U2 rehearse in a small room in Los Angeles also proved influential, because it reminded them of the core power of a band unit. “We were at Fender in LA, picking up guitars, and the guy said, ‘you know Edge’s coming in to collect some equipment,’” says Steve. “So, we wangled our way into the rehearsal and just sat there on the couch while they were playing. It was just a drum kit, some amps and PA, nothing over the top, but they were playing like their lives depended on it. It was unbelievable to experience that. And then to make it even weirder, half way through, (footballers) Steven Gerrard and Robbie Keane walked in. But we weren't fazed by it because we were so fixated on U2, and they were in the same boat as us, so excited by what they were witnessing, they were like ‘holy f*ck!’”
But the biggest moment, for all of the band, was performing with Ed Sheeran for two nights at Dublin’s Croke Park Stadium in July 2015. Sheeran has hailed All I Want as “an amazing song” and admitted “it made me cry the first time I heard it, and the second time, and the third.” He invited Kodaline onstage to perform it with him and the band were astonished by the audience response. “It was probably the biggest kick up the arse we ever got,” says Mark. “Because all these people knew the song. Our song.”
“It was like waves of sound crashing down on you. There’s not that many songs eighty thousand people can sing together,” says Steve. “It makes you think about what is possible because a song can take you anywhere.”
“We want to play the biggest places in the world, we want to tick all the boxes,” says Mark. “And we’re not saying we’re going to get to those levels, but we’ll give it our best shot. And the one thing we can really do is make the best album we can and give as much of ourselves away as possible.”
Their time onstage at Croke Park ended up with Sheeran, Kodaline and Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard jamming on folk classics The Old Triangle and Molly Malone, then Jason proposing to his fiancé onstage (she accepted) and Sheeran serenading the happy couple with Thinking Out Loud. “It seemed like an opportune moment, in front of a few close friends,” grins Jason. “Eighty thousand of them,” adds Vinny.
Kodaline are a genuinely lovely band, a supportive, music obsessed group of friends who like to let their songs do their talking. Indeed, the strength of the band’s relationship became central to an album full of sparkling sounds, huge choruses and waves of emotion. “We focussed in on the narratives that really meant something to us, and the melodies that carried those stories,” says Steve. “It kind of turned into an album about friends, family and relationships that have touched our lives, good or bad. It is the story of us, snapshots from our life, in a band of brothers.”
Last summer saw the band release ‘Brother’, a track that not only testifies to the groups closeness but also hinted at their new sound. “You only kind of put your arm around your friend and tell them you love them when something goes wrong, or when you're drunk,” says Mark. “The song is kind of saying it for no reason other than it needs to be said: I’ve got you, I’m here for you guys. That's kind of the essence of the song, and of the band.”
Recorded at The Vale, the new album sees Kodaline work with old collaborators (Johnny Mcdaid) alongside a variety of different writers and producers including pop guru Wayne Hector, Jonny Coffer (Beyonce, Emeli Sande, Naughty Boy, Two Inch Punch (Rag ‘n’ Bone Man, Sam Smith) and Steve Mac who they worked with on their anthemic new single ‘Follow Your Fire’.