Interview With Pembroke: Behind The Music
I first connected with Finola after she read my post in the Creatives in Paris Facebook group. She eagerly expressed interest in being interviewed, along with her music partner Ellen, on their lives, careers and creative pursuits while living in France.
I spent a few hours at Finola’s apartment, on a rainy afternoon - just a few stops from the Place de Bastille. Finola’s space is a beautiful mirror into the life of a musician. Guitars hanging from the wall, notes of inspiration and a true, at home feeling - the kind that fosters and nourishes creativity.
I sat with her and Ellen, the women of Pembroke, to discuss their journey over a cup of hot tea. The music duo comes to Paris by way of Ireland, both country and city. Humble, kind-hearted and most importantly, talented - here is my interview with Pembroke.
How Did You Two Meet And Find Yourself In Paris?
Finola: We were pals, acquaintances through mutual friends beforehand while living in Ireland. I moved to Italy to teach English and then afterward moved to Paris to learn a new language and take a break before I started my “real life.” That was about 8 years ago in 2011.
I taught kindergarten here, thought “Oh god, well this is great” and never left.
Ellen: My Paris story is very similar. I came here for a summer and really liked it. I came quite a bit when I was small with my parents, so I feel like I’ve always had an affinity for Paris.
I had been studying French & Italian in Dublin and very quickly realized it wasn’t for me - so I dropped out. I started working and was still very young. It looked like I was going to buckle down and just keep working - but, I decided I wasn’t ready for that and decided to come here.
I thought, I’ll go for a year - get my French up to scratch, check that off the list, have a nice time while doing it and then, I’ll figure out what I want to be when I grow up. But, at some point I just decided to stay and have been here for 7 years.
Finola and I actually reconnected on Facebook. We planned to have a coffee, followed by several drunk nights out and we’ve been best pals ever since.
How Did You Each Get Into Music?
Ellen: We were both doing our own music bits before we played together.
Finola: I was a musician by myself. I played classical music and in college I played cover tunes at drunk parties, strumming away at the guitar. But, it wasn’t something I thought I was good at. I had a reasonable technical level, but I was never top tier. Music in my head was something I was average at. I went to open mics all the time, but actively never played. All my friends were musicians and my close friends knew I played music.
A year of attending open mics and never playing. Then, I started doing a rare appearance after a few too many, completely and utterly nervous.
Ellen: I started going to open mics because a friend introduced me to it. I always loved singing and music, but I don’t play any instruments. So, I never knew who’d I sing with. At the open mic, we stood at the back and I just thought it was the coolest thing. Everyone there was cool and I fancied all the musical men - so, I started hanging out there often.
Eventually, I started singing one off spots with various people. I had zero stage presence or idea of what I was doing. Truly, I would be approached by people after the show, who’d say “Hey, you have a really, really great voice, but you look so uncomfortable up there.”
How Did The Band Start?
Ellen: We actually came together at an open mic. It was hosted here at a historic and significant music spot here in the city.
The open mic was practically perfect in my opinion, maybe that because I started hosting it after a while. But, we had a great mix. A lot of really good musicians and people who were going up there and playing for the first time.
Finola: I had reached a point where I had this cache of songs I’d been writing over a past few years. But, I didn’t want to sing them.
I had this really jazzy song with a large range. And one night, I think I just said to Ellen, “I have this song and only you can sing it.” So, I taught her half of it as we were drunkenly walking around Paris. We were really getting into it. And, decided to make it a real thing.
We slowly transitioned into playing together and that song is actually the first track on our album.
On Their First Gig & Tour
Ellen: It was at SoFar Sounds, which is a platform that hosts secret, living room or cool venue gigs in your city.
The nature of it is acoustic and the whole idea is that if you’re coming for the music you have to be silent and enjoy the show. People sit on the floor together and gather.
So, that kind of attention - it was really nerve racking. But, we got through it and had a really lovely time.
We did a whole lot of pub gigs and whatever we could really find. Which was good training because you literally have to play through the crowd or continue to go even if no one is listening. That’s definitely where I developed my stage presence.
We reached a point when we were producing the album and decided to do stop doing those cover gigs and focus on longer sets to show our own music.
How Did You Come Up With The Name Of Your Band?
Finola: When we were doing our pub gigs, we were making posters basically saying , Finola Cahill & Ellen Banville, so we knew we needed to have a proper name.
In Ireland, there is this group of boys who I love dearly - they’re my humans back home. And, they lived in this apartment on Pembroke street. They adopted me and let me stay there when I didn’t have an apartment and I kind of became the den mother of the group.
Ellen: They really are an interesting and unique group. They were probably the most intense 19 year olds. They didn’t drink, but would go out every night and just live life. They all had these big goals at such a young age.
FInola: Truly a group of just great young men. And, completely in love with each other - the greatest of friends. And, now living their best lives. All successful, following their dreams. They were the Pembroke boys. And we were the Pembroke girls.
So, when I was home I had passed by where they used to live and it clicked - Pembroke. I texted Ellen immediately and that was it.
How Do You Feel You Have Progressed As A Band ?
Finola: I had such stage fright in the beginning. Over the years, the confidence has changed and so has our level of musician ship. We went from being this duo to producing an album with about 16 people on it. It’s this round, rich piece of work and a beautiful representation of our life in Paris.
All the people who play on the album, since we don’t have our own band, is a mixture of our close friends who we’ve grown with as musicians and people. And, people that we have just met through the grapevine who respect us as musicians.
We went from this pub gig duo, figuring out their thing, to two independent women making their own space.
Ellen: Making the album was such an experience. It was amazing, interesting and really hard at times. We had so many people put us in touch with their friends and connect them with us for our album.
They really got what we were doing and were happy to be a part of it. And, the energy around it was just so positive.
FInola: It was made with a lot of love and the spirit of giving. We had this great luxury of having no commercial concerns, we were just trying to make the best thing possible form our diverse points of view.
The age range of the people on this album, our friend Alex who’s 22 - to our percussion section made up of these talented, retired musicians.
Ellen: Everyone who got involved, we were bringing people from our lives and connections, were immediately on board and excited about the project.
Finola: It was definitely like this faith in humanity vibe when creating the album. Just having so many people make time to work on it with us and be truly interested in creating it with us.
What’s It Like Being a Musician in Paris?
Finola: I have no idea what my life would have looked like here if I wasn’t a musician. All of my friends and closest people are musicians.
Ellen: I would have been long gone.
Finola: I don’t know how I would have found my people. The nature of music is collaborative. And, we’re all trying to put our feelings out there at the same time. So, it naturally creates these bonds that I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s everything.
Ellen: I think Paris is very interesting in music and life. It’s different than London or New York. Like in London, you’re a Londoner and part of the community, the daily grind. Similar to New York. Where as I feel like in Paris, you’re not Parisian. I’m not sure I would want to be though.
This isn’t in an unwelcoming way and not to throw shade on the Parisians, it’s just not how it works. If anything, I feel like I’ve bonded with people because we’re foreign. I know a lot of people who aren’t from here and we all can agree that we’re living in a bit of our bubble - in the best way possible.
Finola: I think it’s hard to feel like you truly belong if you didn’t grow up in a place. You don’t know the cultural nods or social training. I’m comfortable here now and on a day to day I don’t feel foreign. But, I could never imagine considering myself anything else but Irish. I have no idea who’d I be if I wasn’t an Irish woman.
Ireland is still very tribal, more so in the countryside than in the city. Songs, football, community driven traditions - there continues to be this deep focus, especially where I grew up. So, to me I’ll always be not just an Irish person, but my identity is very fixed upon where I came from. I can’t imagine not being that person.
Ellen: That definitely trickles into our life here.
Finola: Our music is 100% Irish music - it’s a representation of who we are and where we came from.
You can check out Pembroke on their Website, Facebook, and Instagram
And listen to their first album, At Sea, here.