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Cork's Gavin Dunne has had one of Ireland's biggest songs of 2021. It's surpassed 38 million streams, but you don't see him on TV or hear his music on the radio, and he's fine with that. Mostly.
There comes a point in every profile of every famous person where you have to set out how famous that person is. Fame is a hierarchical structure, and there’s a sliding scale. Fame has many fixed points, but numbers are key to measuring it: the first, the biggest, the longest, and I’ll get to some of Gavin Dunne’s winning numbers.
But fame can wait. First, here’s a life lesson from Gavin Dunne:
“You don’t need a record label. If that’s the route you want to go down then fine, go for it. If it’s not working for you, you just got to find where you fit into the world, find that niche on the internet, and you can do it you know.”
And the niche that Gavin found more than a decade ago was, well, niche: making songs about computer game characters and then TV show characters which helped launch him into the lives of millions and millions of people he will never meet, nor does he want to. That’s not to say Gavin is unfriendly - far from it - but one can not have millions and millions of friends, especially in the social media age where everyone wants a piece of you. Just ask Queen Elizabeth.
The internet is inarguably the most fertile ground for making people rich and famous, and infamous. Reality TV still churns out celebrities, but a Cuisine de France baguette has a longer shelf life.
Gavin Dunne has been making music and publishing it on his terms for more than a decade for his online audience and he’s now in the position that he can pay other musicians to work on his compositions and spread the wealth around. He’s also expanded his music beyond computer game characters.
But, it’s one of the ironies of how fame and success are very much guarded by cultural gatekeeps that Gavin’s last song Valhalla Calling has clocked up nearly 30 million streams on YouTube and 7 million on Spotify and it’s only been on release since November 2020, and what are the odds you have never heard of the song, Gavin Dunne or Miracle of Sound?
Yes, a Cork man has a song heading towards 40 million plays and you’ve likely never heard it on RTÉ Radio, 96FM, RED FM or any FM station. If Roy Keane put up a photo of a new puppy on Instagram, we’d probably know what weight at birth it was.
Gavin’s not entirely bothered by the absolute lack of mainstream coverage, which makes what he has achieved on his own terms all the more impressive. And kind of insane.
Now that pubs are open for indoor pints Gavin wouldn’t look out of place in Fred Zepplins just over Parliament Bridge or in the Hairy Lemon, before An Bróg swallowed it up. His jet black hair grows long, down past his ears as my mother would say.
Before Gavin retreated indoors full-time to become a full-time indoor musician he had a band called Lotus Lullaby, whose name I remember, but music I don’t. They played often in Cork, and won Murphy’s Battle of the Bands back when Murphy’s did stuff for Cork.
But, I need to rewind a little bit:
The first chapter of Gavin’s musical career began when he was still in secondary school at Ashton; Kilian Pettit, a former classmate and now a DJ at RedFM, turned him on to guitar. He had the foresight to tell Gavin to stick with it.
“I picked up the guitar and just had a natural knack for it and he was like ‘you have to play guitar, you have to.’”
Like many trad musicians, Gav plays entirely by ear, and he tends to visualise his compositions first, almost like 0s and 1s in the binary code that makes the digital world spin.
Chapter two lasted more or less the entire decade of the new millennium and was taken up with Lotus Lullaby, and Gavin’s mission to achieve fame and success the traditional route - by landing at a label. And on magazine covers.
Gavin started Lotus Lullaby as a solo act, with a backing track. John Colman joined him on drums. “We went through a couple of guitar players, Dylan Fitzgerald was the first one and Dave Divilly then. Bass players and keyboard players cycled in and out. But basically it was my project.”
There’s a great shot of Lotus Lullaby down the docks by Kennedy Quay on their Push EP from 2005. Like many, many bands do and will forever do, Lotus Lullaby wanted that kind of post industrial/wasteland setting and that part of Cork had it, and still has it.
The four young musicians, fronted by Gavin, are looking down at the camera which is at street level, the hulking R&H hall over their right shoulders, all of them wearing ties except for Gavin, striking a “we’ve arrived pose.” The third song on that EP is titled The Miracle of Sound.
Lotus Lullaby achieved a modicum of success and local recognition: after winning Battle of the Bands they were signed to a record label, and “that’s basically when it fell apart, that old cliché,” Gavin says laughing.
Looking back, Gavin said the timing was not great; music piracy was rife, “rock music was on its last legs - it really is now, and the label just couldn’t ship to any majors (to sign them).”
One of the ironies of that period of time in the new millennium was that Cork was overflowing “with amazing bands and no one could get signed to a major because the interest wasn’t there.”
Lotus Lullaby, like millions of other young musical experiments, faded to obscurity, but Miracle of Sound, that had an enormous second life.
“The band falling apart was what inspired me to go down the route of Miracle of Sound.”
Commander Shepherd is Miracle of Sound’s breakout song, and goddamn I love it, even if Gavin likely never wants to hear it again. It’s got an unmistakable synth-y pop sound and the right amount of earnest yet cheesy lyrics to make it slightly great and utterly memorable (“No matter what scars you bear, whatever uniform you wear, you can fight like Krogan, run like a leopard, but you’ll never be better than Commander Shepherd).
To the unacquainted the song features Lieutenant Commander Shepard, to give him his full name, who is one of the heroes of Mass Effect, a computer game released in 2007 for the X-Box.
When Gavin released Commander Shepherd there was, as he says, an inbuilt audience there and fandom is a powerful magnifying force.
He had released songs as Miracle of Sound prior to Commander Shepherd, but there was something about that song that made many in the gaming world sit up and take notice. Gavin would also like you to know that it’s absolutely not like the music he makes these days.
Cue, Valhalla Calling which Gavin released at the end of 2020 and which has since by far and way become the biggest hit he has ever recorded. It has a combined play count of nearly 40 million plays on YouTube and Spotify.
“It’s literally about Viking culture.” And it began as an idea Gavin had while in the shower.
Separately, the song also blew up on TikTok when it was covered by Peyton Parrish, an American content creator who has over 1.3m followers, thereby launching it to a whole other audience on a platform Gavin wasn’t active on. But this is where the creator economy throws up a whole pile of headaches and frustration; one man’s hit can be another’s profit.
“I was like ‘OK, I can sit there and festering in rage that I didn’t get on this train earlier, or I can go and do something positive about it, so I am doing a version of that song with Peyton.”
That collaboration which will be published on TikTok will come out sometime later this year when the pair can fit the time in to record the song.
With regards to his music, Gavin has always been, well, relaxed is one word to describe his attitude. He generally never minded the giant web of fans who liked his music and shared it on social media as long as they credited him and didn’t profit from it.
“I’ve always been very idealistic in that I’ve wanted my music to be shared. I didn’t put my music into the copyright bot on YouTube because I want people to be able to use it freely and spread it as long as they credit it.”
You can guess what happened here: a user took one of his songs, recorded it with their vocals (and his words) and uploaded it to Spotify through a publishing company, which resulted in Gavin getting a copyright claim “for using their song.”
That incident was the breaking point, and from there on in “there was no more mister nice guy”.
“You can’t be nice when it comes to copyright and music because someone will fuck you if you let them.”
Gavin thinks YouTube are ultimately the ones at fault here: “Their copyright system is an absolute atrocity. They put the burden of proof on the person getting the claim, rather than the person making the claim.”
The fame game
Gavin is blunt and perceptive when it comes to fame. Usually mainstream coverage in Ireland about Miracle of Sound gets straight to the point: Gavin’s the most famous musician in Ireland you’ve never heard of. I started down that route with this piece.
Gavin has a lot to say about fame, but sums it up neatly: “The songs are really well-known but I’m not.”
But, there’s relief and protection offered by putting the music out in front of the personality.
“In my twenties I wanted fame, that’s what I wanted: to be known and to be famous and to have my face on magazines.
“I’m 41 now and looking at the social media culture over the last decade I am so glad I am not a famous person.”
“It’s an absolute curse to be famous these days. Even with my small level I have to deal with so much BS on that front that I can not imagine what it’s like for someone who’s actually famous between stalkers and between feckin’ people getting angry all over nothing.”
In the past Gavin has given people reason to be angry. By which I mean he had an opinion - like we all do - about stuff: the weather, the price of houses, the state of the Irish health care system, computer games, the forty-fifth president of the United States, who, incidentally is one of the reasons Gavin abandoned talking politics online.
“I pretty much stopped talking any politics because it was not just good for my own mental health to be dealing with that much friction.”
When I ask Gavin if he had opinions on Trump he laughs; “It’s hard not to have opinions on that fella.”
“His (Trump) supporters are funny that way because they like to call everyone snowflakes and sensitive and whatever, but Jesus Christ are they sensitive when you make a joke about their leader.”
Presidents come and go, as do opinions.
Older, wiser, slower
Earlier this year Gavin announced to his fans in a video his intention to slow things down and go back over his vast catalogue and spend time on some of the tracks he thinks he could do better, like Gráinne Mhaol, Queen of the Pirates which appears on the album Metal Up, which he put out between albums Level 5 and Level 6.
Most Miracle of Sound albums are titled with a Level - a nod to gaming - and his most recent release is Level 11. He’s surpassed more than 200 songs in his Miracle of Sound career. It’s a phenomenal output, and one which he was unable to sustain leading to a prolonged time out around 2015 when he physically and mentally couldn’t keep going.
Like many other YouTubers, he’s suffered burn out, turning out content and trying to stay ahead or keep up with the algorithms.
“I try to keep normal people’s working hours now,” Gavin says laughing. “I’m sure any artist knows the feeling when you get obsessed with a piece of work that you need to finish, you even forget to eat and sleep until this piece is where you want it to be.”
“It’s an addiction basically.” The success a song can generate then feeds back on the work load.
It took him nearly a full year to recover, and afterwards he knew he needed to slow down and not overburden himself. In 2020 he hired a full-time mixer which he says has been on of the best decisions he ever made. “Mixing took up 80% of my life. Recording and writing is the easy part of my life; mixing is the absolute bastard.”
One of the joys of being the boss of his own label is the freedom to go where he wants with any song; as he says he hasn’t really attempted hip-hop or rap yet, but if he felt a strong urge to compose a song around that genre, then he would and he would likely spend hundreds of hours on it.
“That’s my favourite thing about this job is that every song has a completely different feel and style.”
When it comes to that talent to master different artistic styles Gavin’s father comes to mind.
To older readers, Seán Dunne will be familiar: he was a poet, writer, editor and journalist who grew up in Waterford and settled in Cork. Seán’s versatility and his talent are manifest in Miracle of Sound’s range. His father died in 1995, at the age of 39, while Gavin was still in secondary school.
With Gráinne Mhaol, as with The Tale Of Cú Chulainn - an eight minute epic which was, until Valhalla Calling came along, his biggest hit of 2020 - Gavin wants to give both songs the proper trad love they deserve. And trad musicians are not in short supply in Cork.
In the past Gavin has worked with Cork musicians such as singer-songwriter Jack O’Rourke, and saxophonist Gary Baus, both of whom he described as extremely talented musicians.
“Recently, I’ve had a little more money to spend on my music so I am able to hire proper musicians to play those parts, which is great because it sounds like The Pogues which I love.”
He’s also releasing a sea shanty (this week) which has nothing to do with video gaming. Sea shanties were the unexpected breakout genre of the pandemic, so likley there is a considerable audience eager to hear what Miracle of Sound can do in that genre.
“It’s funny because I have pigeoned myself into this video gaming thing for so long and I’m trying to not break out of it, but just expand.”
It’s a gamble, but Miracle of Sound has always been lead by his own tastes, rather than solely creating to what he thinks fans wants. It’s also worked, if you look at the numbers.
“There hasn’t been much of a negative response,” Gavin said, by way of reading the tealeaves from his fans. “To be honest most of the people who’ve stuck around with me just love the songs.”
In the evolution of his song writing, Miracle of Sound has been able to move away from characters plucked from a computer game or TV show to make his music more accessible to a wider audience.
As far as Gavin can recall, he’s had approximately 15 seconds of radio play on Radio 1 for a short spot on him a few years ago. Part of what explains his near complete absence from Irish airplay is that he never really chased it, “because I don’t really need it, but it would be nice to have that recognition at home.”
“I suppose as a creator you’re always going to have some ego invested in your work, particularly at home, so it would be nice.”
Gavin retains some hope that recognition might come, particularly by going back over his Irish mythology hits.
The remasters “sound amazing” he says, especially because they now have real and talented musicians playing on them instead of the midi. The songs will appear on Remasters Volume 1.
It is unlikely however that post-pandemic you’ll be hearing Miracle of Sound on stage. He’s done some touring, but it’s not for him.
“I have a bit of a mad brain that never stops moving and I can focus that on to work thankfully, but when I’m sitting in a room waiting for people to finish doing what they’re doing so I can do what I need to be doing it drives me absolutely spare.”
Fans vs Friends
Miracle of Sound has many fans. On YouTube he’s closing on 650,000 subscribers, and and close on 50,000 followers on Twitter. That’s a lot of attention and connections.
“There’s people out there, and I think this is a product of the social media age, because somebody makes something they like they think that person is their friend,” Gavin says.
So to counteract any confusion, he’s blunt.
“I make this very clear on social media: I’m not your friend, I’m just a person who makes a thing you like, that doesn’t mean we’re entitled to each other’s time or space. That’s as far as our relationship goes.”
Gavin is frank, honest and thoughtful in his diagnosis of relationships cultivated on social media, saying that it’s exploitative how many influencers cultivate relationships with their followers on social media.
“When your whole brand is your personality, you’re one mistake away from losing your entire career,” he says.
This doesn’t mean when fans contact him to show their appreciation for a song, Gavin ignores them and moves on.
“I love hearing that from people and I do spend quite a bit of time responding to people on social media.”
Gavin pays particular attention to his Patreon supporters, who, from their own volition support him financially every month. It’s a platform popular with a lot of artists, or creators, and as Gavin says when he has a song that doesn’t blow up, their financial support is effectively supporting him from month to month.
“They get special attention from me.”
Patreon was around a few years before Gavin joined; he was aware of some of the stigma around it, as he says many people saw it as a form of begging, but when he did join he was amazed by “how many people wanted to support me” through their donations. As he pointed out not every song is a hit, and the Patreon support “keeps me in a job.”
One topic you’re unlikely ever to find in a Miracle of Sound song is money. “It’s distasteful.”
“At a time when the poverty gap is at its widest in so many Western countries, this is the time we choose to be super obsessed with idol worshipping?”
Our interview took place before Jeff Bezos had ascended into space, but that other space bound billionaire, Richard Branson was imminently taking off. Both men had news cycles swirling around them.
“Why do we care?” Gavin pleaded. But then he paused. “I don’t want to go too deep into this because I’ll get myself in trouble,” he said and then set off laughing.
For a period of five years Gavin was a regular member of Podquisition, a long running and popular gaming podcast with computer game journalists Jim Sterling and Laura Kate Dale. While this format of podcast - essentially a radio talk shows - can be fun, they can also be jading. Sure, there’s the banter, but there’s also the need to be fresh with the constant need for hot takes and opinions.
In 2019, in an emotional and honest address to his listeners and followers Gavin outlined the anxieties and mental stress he had been living with for a long time, likely amplified by social media and the hectic pace of his production schedule. Prior to his sayonara address he had taken a month long digital detox.
“I don’t want to an angry old man shouting at the internet. I just want to make songs, focus on the fun stuff and make people happy. That’s what I feel my role in life is at this point - to create your happy place, your escape from all that noise,” he told listeners on the podcast.
Gavin was forthright about how he had grown disconnected to some of the conversations discussed in the podcast, and how he knew that was unfair to the hosts and listeners.
“My heart is sore today,” he said.
As he told me, “We always had opinions on the show and I kind of got tired of that. The world doesn’t need to know my opinions.”
Gavin is also reflective that some of the opinions he’s aired are not ones he would now, but as he says on social media it’s very hard - impossible - to be allowed to change your mind.
“Once you say something it’s there forever.”
His Irishness, our Irishness, does not always lend itself to universal understanding. As Gavin says everyone in Ireland has an “edge lord humour face.”
“Ireland is very relaxed about dark humour, I think the younger generation less so, because they’re a bit more sensitive to hurting people’s feelings.”
And that’s a good thing he thinks.
“I personally stopped enjoying edgy humour a couple of years back, but back in the day I was like don’t tell me what jokes I can and can’t enjoy.”
“Even stuff with the Trump jokes, it brought so much negative energy, I’m like ‘Why am I doing this?’ I know it was Trump supporters, but it was like all this negative energy.’”
He had to remind himself of a simple truth: he was first and foremost a musician.
Gavin, in his forties, is essentially like most people in their forties: he wants a nice quite life in his house, and to pay his mortgage.
Gavin and I are more or less the same age, and went to school only a few miles apart. My younger brother was in a band called X-31 and they knew Lotus Lullaby and Ellie, who co-edits Tripe+Drisheen, went to school with Gavin. Small city, many points of social intersections.
One thing that Gavin didn’t do, which I did, and a lot of the friends that we both know did, is leave Cork and Ireland. But Gavin’s always stayed in Cork, for a long time living on North Main Street.
For many, leaving Cork is a rite of passage. Given that Gavin could essentially do what he’s doing anywhere in the world that has a decent internet connection I wondered why he had stayed put.
Cue, a brief discussion from Gavin (an “Eir victim”) and me (a “Vodafone victim”) on the state of Irish broadband, and while it’s ha ha ha laughable, as Gavin points out, it’s not a “first world problem” - a dependable internet connection is the difference between being able to work remotely and not.
But Gavin has never felt compelled to leave Cork: simply put he likes Cork. “I feel at home here, I like this place.”
Having lived for twelve years in the city centre he’s seen a fair few changes, a lot of them not for the better. On North Main street where he lived for over a decade, many buildings have been allowed to become vacant and derelict to the point of being dangerous.
“To see the change of those twelves years was very sad, especially after the economic crash (in 2008).”
In the years leading up to the crash Gavin remembers the city as being a great venue for arts and culture, especially for young and emerging bands. Contrast that with a new report from the Arts Council which revealed, unsurprisingly, that the pandemic has led to thousands of artists abandoning the arts, forced out as they are unable to make an income.
A few years back Gavin was invited to talk to the staff and students at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, which he said was “really nice.”
“If Ashton did invite me back for a talk, I’d think about it. “But, as he admits he wasn’t very happy in school.” The best days of his life, they were not.
“They were the worst days of my life. I was a nerd in school.” He was into heavy metal, computer games and “books” he says laughing. “Literally my name was Geeky.”
“That’s why I love my job now because I can be that little nerd, that geeky little nerd and people love me for it.”
Like most of us, it took Gavin quite a while to accept some simple truths about himself, and secondary school can be a harsh environment to be the nail that sticks out.
Like most of us, he strived to be one of the cool kids.
“Maybe in my early twenties I didn’t understand it as much. It took me until my thirties to kind of get that to point, being who you are you’re a massive nerd, make songs about the things you’re into, and the stuff you love, and there’s an audience out there for that.”
And it’s bigger than most of us know.
Miracle of Sound has a back catalogue of more than 200 songs. For new listeners in Cork (and beyond) I asked Gavin for three recommendations.
The Tale Of Cú Chulainn: “That’s quite a journey that song if you can get through all eight minutes of it.”
Valhalla Calling: “It’s the biggest hit I’ve very had. I did not expect that song (to be a hit). Literally I wrote it in half an hour. I came up with the chorus in the shower, said this might be fun, released it.” As Gavin says, the song did OK when he released it but exploded last January when the TV series Vikings ended.
“You do get a bit of push back from these purists saying why why are you singing this you’re not Norse. But as he says, “Excuse me now, open a history book” referring to Ireland’s Viking past. Gavin’s family are originally from Waterford, a city settled by Viking. “Viking culture is very interesting for us as it’s informed our own culture so much.”
Hades Song: Beyond These Walls. Gavin’s on bazooki on this one. “It’s a recent one. It’s got Greek instruments and it’s basically me writing about just being stuck inside during the pandemic.” The song is based on the video game of the same name.