If you ask David Balfe how he’s feeling today, he will stop to think about it. The Irish producer and songwriter, who records under the name For Those I Love, takes the serious things in life seriously and it shows in his work.
When NME asks how important it was for him to depict Dublin in an authentic fashion on his outstanding self-titled debut album, he pauses for 12 entire seconds, eyes focused, formulating a considered and meaningful response. “I just don’t know any other way to do it,” he says, finally. “I don’t know that I’m a skilled enough writer to write fictitiously.”
“Dublin is actually tiny, it’s such a small place,” he continues. “Within a 20 minute window of driving, you can cover such different backdrops, socially and economically.” And with that, Balfe is off, his mind pinballing around between an astonishing number of clear-minded reflections on a tranche of sociopolitical issues that currently afflict his hometown and in particular Coolock, the predominantly working class area of Dublin’s Northside where he grew up.
“That side of the city is probably more violent now than it ever was. I don’t know whether things have got better or whether people have got better at hiding where the problems lie. Housing has not improved, work seems more precarious now than ever. We talk so much more now about our mental health and the subject of depression and how much suicide haunts our communities, but there’s still no major changes made at a state level to provide more support for people struggling in working class communities and there’s still a massive financial barrier to being able to access immediate care and counselling.”
It is clear that for Balfe, an offhand lyrical reference to a hot button political topic is not enough. As our conversation develops, he is able to drop statistics on the changes in local tertiary education uptake at will, for example, to accentuate his argument. Many musicians get by on half-measures and pithy comments but Balfe is an artist that genuinely cares about what he chooses to write about and is willing to put in the work to make sense of it too.
It filters, inevitably, into the lyrical content of every track on his debut album. ‘Birthday/The Pain’ wrestles with a scarring childhood memory of a bloodstain at the end of his street where a body had been murdered and abandoned, a sketch of lost innocence that is all too everyday. ‘Top Scheme’, meanwhile, tackles a society that treats vulnerable as an inconvenience (“It’s numbers and stats/Until it’s your life”).
The album’s origins date back to the summer of 2017, the night-times of which Balfe spent driving around his “little shit” Renault Clio with friends. They would share playlists of Omar Souleyman and DJ Rashad tunes, but every now and then Balfe would slip in a track of his own that he had been working on. If anyone had a positive comment or found that they couldn’t find it on Shazam, Balfe knew that he was onto something.
“It was a way to trick people into giving me the approval on those tracks before continuing on with them,” he admits.
And then, tragedy struck. Paul Curran, Balfe’s best friend of 13 years and closest musical partner, took his own life in February 2018. Balfe holed himself away in his parents’ shed, the place of salvation in which the teenage Balfe and Curran had formed their hardcore bands Plagues, The Branch Becomes and Burnt Out. He experienced the periods of numbness that are associated with grief, but after encouragement from loved ones, decided to continue with the album project, its trajectory now refocused.
“It ended up being this merge of archive and thank you letter to the love that I had for my friends and my family and specifically for Paul and the thanks that I had for what had been given to us and the sacrifices that had been made and the collective survival that came after it,” he says. “But it’s also this ode to Paul and Paul’s life and our love as a creative coupling.”
It is an archive in a literal sense. Over a soundscape of nocturnal, haunted beats, bewitched vocal samples and clattering drums that invoke the urban mutant rave of Jamie xx and Burial, Balfe incorporates countless real audio messages from his friends’ WhatsApp groups, including from Curran. Often buried deep into the fabric of these songs, each one is charged with significance.
“It was a way to immortalise the tone of our friendship, to immortalise Paul and to have the presence of his voice throughout it,” he says. “At one stage it was extremely comforting for me and some of my peers.”
Balfe’s own spoke-sung poetry is often the driving force of the tracks, littered with hyper-specific anecdotal references to places, times and memories. On ‘You Live/No One Like You’, Balfe enshrines his friends among the Irish masters: “You live in A Lazarus Soul/In The Dubliners songs of old, and The Pogues/The art that never grows old.”
The Streets, one of Balfe’s first musical passions (“I had never heard anything like it, I didn’t know whether I liked it or hated it, all I knew was that it took over all of my thoughts”) are a recurring reference point, a keystone in the early moments of this friendship group’s formation.
A trace of Mike Skinner’s musical palate is certainly detectable in For Those I Love’s DNA, as is the profane wit of John Cooper Clarke, who Balfe’s uncle introduced to him at too young an age. “If you’re going to curse, you might as well learn how to do it well,” was his uncle’s pearl of advice.
Upon the record’s completion, the plan was just to make 25 copies and share them among Balfe’s inner circle, most of whom are directly addressed somewhere in the nine songs. But “one thing led to another” and after a couple of highly regarded early singles and an appearance on Later…with Jools Holland, the record is now primed for release on 26 March on September Recordings [where he now shares management with the likes of Adele and Glass Animals]. It is fair to say that early responses have been strong, especially in regard to the song ‘I Have a Love’, which addresses Curran directly.
“I get these beautiful, weighty and totally overwhelming messages daily from strangers, saying thank you for giving me five and half minutes to rethink how I saw my friend’s death or to allow me this period of time to access this grieving that I haven’t been able to do. Or the thankfully much more rare messages of ‘hello, I have re-thought actions that I had planned for myself’. And I’m like, I don’t know how to fucking deal with this, I’m a young fella who has made a couple of songs in my ma’s shed and I’m opening up my Instagram messages to deal with this, it’s extremely overwhelming.”
It speaks to the profound nature of Balfe’s work that such an outpouring was forthcoming. But of course for Balfe, it primarily signifies a systemic failing in community-based support in working class areas and with that he is off again, finding the greater truth and rationalising ways that we could improve our society. A few more artists with the conscience and spirit of David Balfe would be a good start.
For Those I Love’s debut album will be released March 26