They have played festival shows all summer, but there was a gig on a Monday night in July that was especially memorable for Denise Chaila and her fellow musician friends and collaborators, MuRli and God Knows. It was the homecoming party for Limerick’s all-conquering hurling team — they had just won their fourth All-Ireland title in five years — and the TUS Gaelic Grounds was packed with fans. The trio put on a show as though their lives depended on it.
haila, in particular, is utterly enraptured by Limerick hurling and she was as thrilled as any other Shannonsider when they overcame the severe challenge of Kilkenny on that scaldingly hot summer’s day in Croke Park. The three watched the game separately, yet together via a WhatsApp group chat.
“I was so proud,” she says. “I knew they’d do it, but I had a meltdown in the middle of the match. I hate it when things are so close. But I love it at the same time. MuRli was going, ‘No, we’ve this in the bag. Don’t worry about this’.”
“Limerick,” MuRli — born Mawuli Boevi — says with a smile, “is becoming the Real Madrid of the hurling world. You feel as though you’re going to win. But I’m not going to lie, I was watching that game at home and thinking, ‘Oh no, maybe we were a little bit too confident’.”
On the evening that the county won the Liam MacCarthy Cup, Chaila and fellow Limerick musician Emma Langford joked on Twitter about “shifting” the entire squad. It was easy to get caught up in the euphoria.
Chaila made sure to sport her Limerick jersey on stage on the night of the homecoming, just as she did in the city’s other great sporting cathedral, Thomond Park, when supporting Ed Sheeran on his Irish tour earlier in the summer. Thomond may be home of Munster Rugby, but Chaila made sure she was bedecked in green.
“It’s one of my regrets that I didn’t play [camogie] when I was younger,” she says, “but the [secondary] school I went to” — the fee-paying King’s Hospital School in Dublin — “preferred hockey to hurling.”
For God Knows — Munyaradzi Godknows Jonas — allegiance to Limerick wasn’t so simple. He has lived in Shannon, Co Clare, for most of the time he has been in Ireland. “My uncle saw me wearing a Limerick jersey and he looked at me in disgust,” he says. “‘You traitor! You should be wearing a Clare jersey’.”
Chaila bursts out laughing. “I love that for you and for him and for us,” she says. “Hurling is tribal.”
The three were born in different parts of Africa, but Ireland is very much home. Chaila is a native of Zambia, God Knows grew up in Zimbabwe and MuRli hails from Togo.
While God Knows and MuRli need little introduction to aficionados of contemporary Irish hip-hop, Chaila has earned national prominence. Although she has been making music for several years, some would be forgiven for considering her rise to be meteoric.
Video of the Day
She has transcended her art in the way few of her peers have. There have been several interviews on The Late Late Show, for instance — watch Ryan Tubridy hanging on to her every word — and often she is held up as the embodiment of the cultural richness of the ‘New Irish’. That can be quite a cross to bear for anyone.
The three friends are speaking to me via Zoom from separate locations. Chaila is in a quiet corner of one of Limerick’s best-known pubs, South’s; God Knows is at his gaily decorated home/studio in Shannon; and MuRli is in digs close to Paris in advance of a flight to Togo. He hasn’t been back to the land of his childhood in years and he is looking forward to the adventure.
It has been a relentlessly busy summer and getting to speak to the trio at the same time has been a challenge. Among the festival dates were acclaimed shows at Longitude, Dublin, and All Together Now in Co Waterford. There was also the off-the-beaten-track Ypsigrock festival in Sicily, which went down a treat.
We speak a few days after they return from Sicily and shortly after MuRli departs for Togo via France. “We are suffering,” Chaila says with a laugh. “Everyone on the crew was like, ‘Did we eat something? Was it the heat? Did we not drink enough water?’ It was the first time any of us had performed in Italy and it was really special to play new territory.”
The trio has been working together for four years — they met at a Bible class in Shannon in 2018 — and God Knows and MuRli provide vocal and sonic accompaniment for many of Chaila’s solo shows. Now, they are set to release a debut EP, Walk, as Narolane. The name is also that of their label and management company, and was devised by MuRli.
“They talk about the road to God being narrow and then people talk about the road less taken. The path we’ve decided to take is to make music in a way that feels ‘us’ to us. Maybe it will take longer for us to achieve what we want to achieve, but we know the narrow path we are on and we will stick to it.”
The four-track EP is exceptional — a superlatively produced song-suite featuring the rapping of Chaila and MuRli over atmospheric, beat-heavy nocturnal music. One song, the Afro-inspired Chikondi, features the vocals of Dublin troubadour Ailbhe Reddy and it’s an inspired collaboration.
An album will follow at the end of this year or early in 2023. It’s apparently recorded already, but the three want to make sure it’s of a high standard before they bring it out. There’s plenty of fine-tuning to go. “The last thing we’d want to do is rush the music,” MuRli says.
God Knows seems especially excited by the Narolane project. “We see it as the three of us being on the same level,” he says. “People might see us on the [magazine] cover and think, ‘Isn’t this how they usually perform [live], with Denise at the centre and the guys at the side?’ But this is a completely different project. And it’s about us grabbing other incredible people and saying, ‘Why don’t you come walk on this road for a second?’ And when we worked with all these other artists, it really stretched us.”
They were able to call on an eclectic and impressive range of musicians, including Micheál Quinn — who drums in the bands Meltybrains? and Enemies and is a member of Dermot Kennedy’s group — and Dublin singer-songwriters Sorcha Richardson and Gemma Dunleavy. “There were a lot of eureka moments when we were in studio together,” God Knows says.
Each musician has released solo music this year, but God Knows believes collaboration with each other, and with artists from across the spectrum, is the key to artistic development and risk-taking. “It’s very easy to be comfortable. Making ourselves uncomfortable means we can create better music. We strive for excellence always.”
Remarkably, all three have won the RTÉ Choice Music Prize, the Irish version of the Mercury. It is awarded to the best home-grown album each year as voted for by a panel of music critics and industry figures. God Knows and MuRli got the gong first, in 2016, for their debut album as Rusangano Family, the band they founded with Ennis native John Lillis, aka DJ MynameisjOhn.
Chaila bagged the 2020 prize for her debut album, Go Bravely — which she prefers to describe as mixtape rather than an album. It was a sign of her stature as a rising artist that few were surprised when she won the prize. It is that rare thing: an award-winning album that features snatches of the Irish language.
“It felt significant because the critics were looking at who is making the most interesting and boundary-pushing music,” God Knows says of the Rusangano Family triumph. “For us to win it that year — and to also watch Denise win it — it’s really special because it feels like validation from your peers and those who really love music. And it gives you that extra boost of confidence.”
Ordinarily, the prize is awarded at a packed event at Vicar Street, Dublin, but when Chaila won the 2020 award in March of 2021, the pandemic was still at large. “I had to receive it in a remote, Covid-oriented sort of way,” she says. She pauses for thought. “That’s sort of been a theme for the majority of my career. I feel as though I’m operating under duress from the majority of what I was doing. It was really dystopic to break through in such an environment of malaise and distress and confusion.
“The Choice,” she adds, “has two facets — what it did for me internally, as I see myself, and what it did for me externally, in how other people see me. Ultimately, it had very little bearing on how I saw myself because for the majority of the year I found myself pushing really hard to divorce myself from the opinions of other people. I struggle with that sometimes — the people-pleasing aspect of my personality. But after winning it, I was able to step back and see it as an opportunity to say: ‘This is something that’s been given to me in good faith by people who love music.’ It went a long way for me to help me understand how to understand criticism, how to understand praise, how to understand applause.”
Chaila, in particular, is a captivating interviewee. She has little interest in rote answers and she thinks deeply about her art and her place on the cultural map.
After the Narolane album, she will begin work in earnest on her follow up to Go Bravely. “I love music and I’m always making things. [The new solo album] will come as soon as I am able to write the script for the movie that I see in my head. The challenge of music right now for me is trying to keep up with my own very rapidly transforming emotional growth and change. As time goes by, I start to think, oh gosh — what is that I actually want to write about? What do I want to say and how does it compare to what I wrote last year? Music moves fast. Growth moves very quickly.”
Her own career is rattling along at speed. Go Bravely helped give her an international profile and she featured on a remixed version of Ed Sheeran’s single, 2step, this summer. Sheeran has rhapsodised about Chaila’s talents and as the red-haired English man is one of the most popular singers on the planet right now, the praise and the song will have ensured even more people know the name.
Chaila says she feels pressure on occasion and knows that as she is no longer a new artist, there’s a weight of expectation around what she does next. “The further you go in an industry like this, the more you start to think about the kind of alienation that being put on a pedestal can give you. The thing I find hardest to do is to take time for myself, to disconnect from other people’s opinions and rest.
“When you get to a certain point, people who mean well for you have dreams about your life also. One of the things I love that my parents always say is, ‘Somebody else’s emergency will never be your urgency’. It means that just because other people want to rush you to a finishing line or an end goal doesn’t mean that you have to move at their pace.
“At the end of the day, when I made music, I did not make music to be involved in a sort of cyclical machine that turns me into a producer of content. I am not a content creator and I don’t want to be.
“What I am,” she adds, plainly, “is somebody who makes music, has been a musician and is currently investing in being a musician.”
She is determined to keep her feet on the ground and one suspects she will have little trouble in doing that. The deep-seated bond with God Knows and MuRli will help.
None of the three seem interested in quitting Limerick for brighter lights in this country or abroad. “A lot of the artists we look up to come to places like London or LA,” God Knows says. “But the ability to create where you’re from is special. Some of the work that we’ve put in in digging the ground and working the land in Limerick has given us the courage to be a movement, to build a community of like-minded artists.”
He considers the fortunes of London-based artists such as Stormzy, Tinchy Stryder and Wiley. “They’ve had all this success but that’s not because they moved from where they were from. I mean, there are parts of East London where you’ve artists who’ve had, like, 12 number ones. But what they did was they put in hours and hours of work and spent time in community with different people and building from there.
“Myself and MuRli went into Moyross” — a deprived Limerick suburb — “and did workshops there and people remember us from the work that we put into our community. And, you know, there’s a great musical community in Limerick and that’s resulting in really great work that’s coming out of the city. I like to think that, in a small way, each of us is contributing to that. Limerick has been really good to us and we want to give back.”
Narolane’s ‘Walk’ EP is out now. See Instagram: @narolane_
Photography: Aron Cahill; Styling: Orla Dempsey; Hair: Ololade, @loxperience; Make-up: Julie Martin
Location: Wilde Vintage Dublin, 1A Richmond Avenue, Drumcondra, D3. Open Saturday and Sunday, or by appointment
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/limerick-has-given-us-the-courage-to-be-a-movement-denise-chaila-god-knows-and-murli-on-their-supergroup-narolane-41950376.html ‘Limerick has given us the courage to be a movement’ – Denise Chaila, God Knows and MuRli on their supergroup Narolane