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Amy Day’s starvation musical finds overseas success

Irish Famine inspires locally-created stage production

The Spiritual Motels: a protean band births a musical-maker.
The Spiritual Motels: a protean band births a musical-maker.

Amy Day and Omar Musisko formed their folk duo, The Spiritual Motels, in 2017. By the tail end of 2019, the band had released their debut album, Super Tiny Disappearing Oceans, and were in the midst of playing gigs around town at a diverse collection of venues that ranged from traditional spots such as Soda Bar and the Casbah to the Music on the Mountain series at the Julian Library and the Art on 3rd art gallery in Chula Vista (sadly closed now). In live settings, the duo proved to be more stylistically protean than most acts. “That’s the thing about that band, it was so much fun because it was such a flexible project that way,” says Day. “We can be two voices and an acoustic guitar, or we can be a billion synth sounds and a looping pedal and a drum-pad at a full show.”

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The band was nominated for Best Pop at the 2020 San Diego Music Awards (“We were playing out a lot and in that really nice groove”), but by the time the presentation ceremony went down that July, their local momentum had come to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic. Many local artists channeled their lockdown time into creating music. Day took a similar path, but hers would prove a personal endeavor. “Music is always this creative outlet for any form of anxiety that I am dealing with. So, when the pandemic happened, the anxiety was through the roof, and that needed a home and that needed a focus. For me, it was like, ‘I’m gonna go hide in 1847.’”

The result was less an episode of Quantum Leap and more of an immersion in historical research about Ireland’s Great Famine (1845-1852). Her interest had been sparked during a visit to Ireland’s National Famine Museum in 2019, where she added “Strokestown guy getting shot” to a collection of song ideas she kept on her phone. “A few months later, I was taking a walk and thinking about some song I was about to write and pulled out my songwriting notes. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. That story is not one song. That story is a whole musical full of songs.’ That was right around the beginning of 2020. Within a couple of months, the world had stopped, and I suddenly, by no choosing of my own, had the space to focus on writing that project.”

For Day, the process went from learning about the famine, to writing a play about the famine, to finishing the songs which would make her pandemic project, In the Midst of Plenty, into a proper musical. Next up was enlisting local musicians to help with demos of the 16 songs she’d written for the show. She eventually sent the demos to Anne-Marie O’Sullivan, who runs the Enchanted Croi Theatre in Strokestown, the Irish burg where all the events in Day’s musical transpire. O’Sullivan initially thought that Day’s message about writing a famine musical was really from one of her friends, playing a joke on her.

But when O’Sullivan heard the demos, she changed her tune. She told Day that she was interested, but that she would still need to secure funding. “To my American ears,” says Day, “I heard ‘No,’ because we don’t have funding here.” But a couple of months later, a regional arts grant came through. “In four months, we were assembling a show. That’s when we started casting and she started putting together the production in earnest for over there in Strokestown.”

Day, who serves as musical director for In the Midst of Plenty, travelled to Strokestown five weeks before the initial run of shows this past June to work on the production. She enlisted Jules Stewart, a local drummer who played on all the demos, to serve as the band leader. An additional set of performances were staged in September, and they’re hoping to do an Irish tour of the production next summer. “We have one of Ireland’s most prominent traditional Irish fiddlers in the band,” she says of fiddle player Neil Fitzgibbon. “He is the spirit of the show, and it’s irreplaceable. If you listen to the violin on those songs, it is very hard to imagine replacing the entire lifetime of culture and musicality that fiddle player brings to that instrument and the way that transforms the show. Every one of our cast members is like that. They are connected to the material in a way that it just seems impossible to replace.”

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The Spiritual Motels: a protean band births a musical-maker.
The Spiritual Motels: a protean band births a musical-maker.

Amy Day and Omar Musisko formed their folk duo, The Spiritual Motels, in 2017. By the tail end of 2019, the band had released their debut album, Super Tiny Disappearing Oceans, and were in the midst of playing gigs around town at a diverse collection of venues that ranged from traditional spots such as Soda Bar and the Casbah to the Music on the Mountain series at the Julian Library and the Art on 3rd art gallery in Chula Vista (sadly closed now). In live settings, the duo proved to be more stylistically protean than most acts. “That’s the thing about that band, it was so much fun because it was such a flexible project that way,” says Day. “We can be two voices and an acoustic guitar, or we can be a billion synth sounds and a looping pedal and a drum-pad at a full show.”

Sponsored
Sponsored

The band was nominated for Best Pop at the 2020 San Diego Music Awards (“We were playing out a lot and in that really nice groove”), but by the time the presentation ceremony went down that July, their local momentum had come to an abrupt halt due to the pandemic. Many local artists channeled their lockdown time into creating music. Day took a similar path, but hers would prove a personal endeavor. “Music is always this creative outlet for any form of anxiety that I am dealing with. So, when the pandemic happened, the anxiety was through the roof, and that needed a home and that needed a focus. For me, it was like, ‘I’m gonna go hide in 1847.’”

The result was less an episode of Quantum Leap and more of an immersion in historical research about Ireland’s Great Famine (1845-1852). Her interest had been sparked during a visit to Ireland’s National Famine Museum in 2019, where she added “Strokestown guy getting shot” to a collection of song ideas she kept on her phone. “A few months later, I was taking a walk and thinking about some song I was about to write and pulled out my songwriting notes. I was like, ‘Wait a minute. That story is not one song. That story is a whole musical full of songs.’ That was right around the beginning of 2020. Within a couple of months, the world had stopped, and I suddenly, by no choosing of my own, had the space to focus on writing that project.”

For Day, the process went from learning about the famine, to writing a play about the famine, to finishing the songs which would make her pandemic project, In the Midst of Plenty, into a proper musical. Next up was enlisting local musicians to help with demos of the 16 songs she’d written for the show. She eventually sent the demos to Anne-Marie O’Sullivan, who runs the Enchanted Croi Theatre in Strokestown, the Irish burg where all the events in Day’s musical transpire. O’Sullivan initially thought that Day’s message about writing a famine musical was really from one of her friends, playing a joke on her.

But when O’Sullivan heard the demos, she changed her tune. She told Day that she was interested, but that she would still need to secure funding. “To my American ears,” says Day, “I heard ‘No,’ because we don’t have funding here.” But a couple of months later, a regional arts grant came through. “In four months, we were assembling a show. That’s when we started casting and she started putting together the production in earnest for over there in Strokestown.”

Day, who serves as musical director for In the Midst of Plenty, travelled to Strokestown five weeks before the initial run of shows this past June to work on the production. She enlisted Jules Stewart, a local drummer who played on all the demos, to serve as the band leader. An additional set of performances were staged in September, and they’re hoping to do an Irish tour of the production next summer. “We have one of Ireland’s most prominent traditional Irish fiddlers in the band,” she says of fiddle player Neil Fitzgibbon. “He is the spirit of the show, and it’s irreplaceable. If you listen to the violin on those songs, it is very hard to imagine replacing the entire lifetime of culture and musicality that fiddle player brings to that instrument and the way that transforms the show. Every one of our cast members is like that. They are connected to the material in a way that it just seems impossible to replace.”

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