Back to Rockville

Nick Carswell finds his artistic groove in Kansas, far from his native Ireland

Carswell and Hope are (from left) Dan Hines (bass), Nick Carswell (guitar, vocals) Jason Slote (drums) and Austin Quick (keyboards).
Carswell and Hope are (from left) Dan Hines (bass), Nick Carswell (guitar, vocals) Jason Slote (drums) and Austin Quick (keyboards). Emily Evans Sloan

When your hometown is Limerick, in the midwest of Ireland, but you’re living in Lawrence, people inevitably wonder how you ended up in another Midwest in the heart of America, more than 4,000 miles away.

Nick Carswell, of the band Carswell and Hope, hears that question a lot. And the answer, essentially, was practical and romantic: love and money.

Carswell was born in Dublin and raised in Limerick. After secondary school, he returned to Dublin to enroll in Trinity College. By then he was a working musician.

In 2011, his girlfriend at the time took a job with a U.S. company based in Lawrence. After he finished his master’s degree in music, media and technology, the two married. In July 2011, they headed to Lawrence. There he continued his pursuit of a music career, an interest since boyhood.

“Music was always in our house at home,” he told The Star. “My grandmother was a piano player, my mother sang in choirs at any opportunity, and my elder brother and I both took piano lessons from about age 7 or 8. I always had an ear for music and enjoyed learning how to play songs from the radio.”

In secondary school — Ireland’s equivalent of high school — Carswell started dabbling in music different from his early influences, which were the Beatles, Cat Stevens and ’70s music.

“I learned guitar with influences from Brit-pop — Oasis, Blur — to old-school legends like Eric Clapton and Neil Young,” he said.

In the early 2000s, he started listening intently to what he called the “new wave of Irish music,” with performers like Damien Rice and bands like the Frames and Bell X1, which led him to start his first band, the Elective Orchestra.

“There were two sisters on cello and violin, Dee and Kate Cussen, who are cousins of Colm Mac Con Iomaire, the violinist with the Frames and the Swell Season,” Carswell said. “We were very much influenced by the surge of great acoustic music in Ireland in the early 2000s.

“Irish rock was populated by singer/songwriters and in our first couple of years in college, we were spoiled with great albums like Damien Rice’s ‘O,’ and the Frames’ ‘For The Birds.’”

They also fell under the spell of bands like Sigur Ros and Wilco’s experimental “A Ghost Is Born.”

“It felt like the palette of sounds that could be made was expanding, all with honest songwriting at the heart,” he said. “The Elective Orchestra tried to create those large soundscapes with simple songs at the core. I recorded and produced that album myself and played a lot of instruments.”

Two months after its release, he and his wife, Hannah, moved to Lawrence. There, he almost immediately started working at a piano bar called the Barrel House.

“I was lucky to walk into a music job that needed someone who could sing and play, work with a band and dig out a million cover songs that I had amassed over the years,” he said. “The gig eventually became tedious, artistically, but it was an incredible way to dive into the talent of local musicians here in Lawrence.”

Some of those musicians ended up in his band Carswell and Hope, who will perform this weekend at a benefit for the Kansas City Irish Center. One of those was drummer Jason Slote, who’d been playing with the jazz ensemble Floyd the Barber.

“He had heard of me because he works at Kansas Public Radio, where I had been trying to hunt down work,” Carswell said. “I gave him a copy of the Elective Orchestra album and told him I was interested in gigging some of that material and maybe writing some new stuff.”

Slote invited Dan Hines to play bass; Hines is a former member of Paw and Wells the Traveler and is part of 40 Watt Dreams. Then Austin Quick stepped in on keyboards. And Carswell and Hope was born.

In July, the band released “A Hunger,” nine tracks that mix pop, folk, indie-rock and soul. It bears many influences, from Brit-pop to Swell Season and Van Morrison. Shortly after its release, Carswell and Hope took a trip to Ireland.

“We ran an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to release the record and travel to Ireland for a two-week tour all over the country,” Carswell said. “The American Carswell and Hope boys joined with the Elective Orchestra ladies, and we played several gigs as a six-piece combination of the two bands. That was a lot of fun.”

His stay in Kansas has broadened his scope, Carswell said. He got involved with the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. He is also on the board of directors for the Kansas City Irish Center.

“The Kansas City Irish community is incredibly strong, vibrant and welcoming,” he said. “The Irish Fest and the Kansas City Irish Center are gems for the entire community.”

In the days before his band visited Ireland, the Irish Times ran an essay by Carswell. The Times also asked him to explain his decision to relocate to the middle of America. After adjusting to the profound geographic differences, Carswell wrote, he was able to nurture his music and art.

“Music helped support us in our first two years, but my arts background recently opened the door to many more opportunities than I could have imagined,” he wrote. “Living in Kansas has nourished the artist in me.

“Five years ago I had a vague notion of where I wanted to be with my music and my art. I couldn’t have guessed that Kansas, in the middle of nowhere (and middle of everywhere), was on the way to getting there.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

Saturday

The fourth annual Irish Winterfest starts at 3 p.m. Saturday at Drexel Hall, 19 W. Linwood. General admission is $5. A VIP admission is $25. It includes food and some beverages. For more information, go to IrishCenterKC.org.

The music lineup includes Bob Reeder, Eddie Delahunt, Scarlet Town, the $3 Band, Carswell and Hope and Flannigan’s Right Hook. Dance performances by Driscoll School of Irish Dance, O’Riada Manning Academy of Irish Dance and Ceili at the Crossroads also are scheduled.

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