The burgeoning Irish artist is just two singles into his solo career, but he has been writing this story since childhood.
When Alex Tierney was seven or eight years old, he went to see James Morrison perform at Dublin’s storied Olympia Theatre. It was his first time attending a gig. Morrison had been a staple on the Tierney car radio during Alex’s childhood and, Alex thinks now, was “one of those people who would have instilled in me a great love for just a really well-written song.” Another one of those people was his dad, Greg, who was the frontman of Irish rock band Refugee throughout his 20s before managing a different band — all before Alex was born. “It’s about the songs,” Greg always told his son. “It’s about writing great songs.”
When Alex Tierney was seven or eight years old, he also performed for the first time. His school regularly held assemblies, where students could come to the front and play a song for everybody. He remembers thinking, “Well, I’ve got to do that!, and he got up in front of two or three hundred people to play the opening six-note riff from Muse’s ‘Starlight’ over and over again.
But that’s pretty much as far as covering other musician’s songs went for Tierney. “It was never that special thing until I started writing my own music,” he says. “I never wanted to be in a cover band or anything like that. It’s never been just about, like, I love performing. Nah, I love making something. When I was in school, I tried being in the choir, and it’s just boring because it just doesn’t feel like you’re singing anything with a passion because you’re just singing something that somebody else wrote that you heard for the first time last week with a piece of sheet music in front of you.”
Tierney has been obsessively writing songs since he was 16 or 17 years old. “At the weekends, after school — I used to even have ideas in school, and I’d take my phone out under the table and write it in my Notes app or go to the bathroom and go to the Voice Memos and say something into it,” he says. “It was any chance I got to do anything musical while still dealing with school. Just writing and writing and writing and writing because I knew that was the one thing I knew I wanted to get really good at.”
And it feels as if all of what is beginning to play out now has been written in the stars all along. Tierney’s budding career is already characterised by full-circle moments. Like last November, when Alex’s older brother and manager, Christian, called him. By all appearances, it was a regular Tuesday night. Alex was sitting on his parents’ couch, in the same Lucan house he had grown up, with an oven pizza on his lap. “Is everybody sitting around?” asked Christian, an established music photographer away in the U.S. with Niall Horan at the time. Alex and his parents were now sitting on the edges of their seats. “You’re supporting Lewis Capaldi on Thursday,” Christian said. The gig was at the Olympia Theatre. “I put the pizza down and walked around the room for five minutes,” Alex says. “Anything I had for the next two days was immediately cancelled.
“Capaldi was riding a multi-week No. 1 wave with platinum breakthrough single ‘Someone You Loved’. Tierney was still seven months out from releasing his debut single, ‘Over the Maybes’, but he already felt at home. He played stripped-back guitar and piano versions of his yet-to-be released songs, and the set couldn’t have gone any better. “It was just one of those nights where you get into bed and you’re just like, “That was really nice. That was a really special day””, he says, and it had been the culmination of several good nights.
“I feel like words are the nerve-wracking part for a lot of people — showing people the lyrics they wrote."
Tierney’s first official gig came April 23, 2019, at Whelan’s, opening for a local singer-songwriter named Kryan in the upstairs room holding around 150 people — family and school friends who were around to witness that six-note ‘Starlight’ riff way back when — and playing a full set of his own music for the first time. It was completely nerve-wracking, but it would have been worse had he not grown up in the Tierney household, where the guitar was always strummed by someone and music has always been a popular topic at the dinner table — conversations first revolving around Greg’s nostalgia now evolved into guiding Alex’s future. “Because my family, that we were all musical, music and creating always just felt like a thing that was something I should be doing whereas a lot of people grow up and they don’t have that around them and they can feel a lot shame getting into creating things,” he says. “I think a lot of people, when they start writing anything that they’re trying to make poetic, it can feel a little bit shameful. I dunno, you’re kind of like, Here’s some literature! I feel like words are the nerve-wracking part for a lot of people — showing people the lyrics they wrote. It’s nice that it is so welcomed in my family. I can just send a voice note to my brother and be like, ‘What do you think of this?’
”Tierney used that support system to his advantage again come late May 2019. Lyra, an Irish instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, had asked Tierney to open for her on back-to-back nights. Alex and Greg loaded up the car and drove nearly three hours to the southern bank of Cork, Ireland, on May 28 before turning around and heading back to Dublin for the second show May 29. On the drive home, around one in the morning, Greg imposed his hard-earned wisdom and suggested Alex add a faster song to his set.
“So I get home at probably two in the morning, go to sleep, wake up and end up writing a song that afternoon that was a much faster song than normal,” he recalls. “I was like, I’m gonna play it tonight. But it was kind of ridiculous because it’s only my third gig ever. I was so, so nervous. Right before I was going on, I was trying to replay the words to the verses in my head. I was just like, Oh my God. I’m gonna forget the song. I’m gonna forget the song on stage. But luckily, it went alright. I think I might have had to improvise one line on stage ‘cause I just forgot, but nobody noticed. It was really good to have that start as well because they were two decently sized gigs, that second and third one.”
All of this gigging, and the overwhelming support at each one, before officially debuting as a solo artist gave Tierney the affirmation to do what hetruly loves: making songs. “People’s reaction to [my music] made it feel like it was something that could have value and that people actually wanted to listen to it,” he says. “By that time, I felt really confident in what I was doing.It felt like the right time this year to release something.”
‘Over the Maybes’ was released June 12. The song was written in March and April, in the early-goings of lockdown. The slow-burning, swoon-worthy R&B ballad spotlights Tierney’s buttery voice levelling with someone: “No more holdin’ back / I got nothin’ to lose, right? / Sorry if I’m being too honest/ It’s what I’ve been thinking all mornin.’” The reception to his vulnerability left no uncertainty, as the tune hit 50,000 streams within one month.
‘Painkiller,’ dropped Oct. 7, picked up where ‘Over the Maybes’ left off.
Both singles were written within similar times and work to establish that a singer-songwriter element will always live at the heart of what Tierney does, but that isn’t all of who he is as a musician. Where ‘Over the Maybes’ features electric guitar alongside R&B-leaning influence, ‘Painkiller’ continues that hybrid theme with hip-hop-style drums and production. Together, they foreshadow that Tierney will never pigeonhole himself as a singer-songwriter with a guitar, constantly seeking to get better, experiment and bake in different influences. This approach bleeds into the visuals, too. “One visual theme that we felt would fit with my music was the natural beauty of Ireland,” Tierney says, explaining the ‘Painkiller’ music video shot by Christian that spotlights him and his guitar at the base of a waterfall on the northwest coast. “The lyric video for ‘Over The Maybes’ shows off this, so we thought it would be fitting to continue. The waterfall also felt fitting with the lyric, ‘My love keeps me all out the past, keeps my head over water’ in ‘Painkiller.’”
The mixing and matching is clicking so far. The likes of Capaldi and Horan as well as Irish alt-pop band Picture This have thrown their weight behind Tierney, as all three have shared his releases to their Instagram stories and Horan talked about him during a livestream.
“I think it definitely helps to be able to take yourself seriously as an artist,” Tierney says of the A-list approval. “A lot of people can think of big artists as these gods, you know what I mean? When in reality, even though we’re at different parts in our careers, it’s the same job. We’re still playing gigs and making music. It validates you because you feel like a peer to those people, and that feels really special.”
With this mindset, there is no cap on where Tierney’s career could go. He already has written enough songs to fill out a few albums, but he is taking his time. He is selective. It’s not about how many songs he can flood streaming services with because all that matters, all that has ever mattered, is writing great songs. After that? The hope is simple.
“I’m not religious, but it’s probably the closest thing I can think of to a religious experience when you’re at an amazing gig or when you’re listening to an amazing album,” he says. “You just close your eyes, and there’s just a feeling that you don’t know how to describe other than that’s what music feels like. So if I could make music that, one, while I’m playing it I feel that and, two, other people could feel like that while listening to it, that’s all I could ask for.”
Alex Tierney’s ‘Painkiller’ music video debuts exclusively below.