Shortsleeve Conor was born in Lisbon, but started playing in Aberdeen when I was a 21-year-old pizza chef. One Sunday, after finishing the close, the team headed over to a pub nearby called the Prince of Wales. We walked through the double doors to be met by the most joyous music I’d ever experienced. Fiddles, banjos, guitars, loud chattering, singing, tin whistles, flutes, pints pouring and a saxophone. I fell in love with trad and folk music right then.
My family is Irish, though I grew up in the U.K. on the Wirral, so I already knew the music but hadn’t really experienced it. I was at that time a DJ playing house and disco. Now I decided folk music was something I wanted to pursue. The next week I brought my guitar to the session and asked if I could join in. Everyone was really nice and I think I sang Raglan Road or something. I listened to lots of the Dubliners, the Pogues, Margaret Barry, Hamish Imlach and the Fureys around that time.
There was a fella who played in the session called Sandy Cheyne, who I now know is an artist and brilliant banjo picker. He soon showed me it was more useful to play a five-string than a guitar in this environment, because there are so many of the latter to compete with.
He encouraged me to adapt old Scottish tunes to be played on the five-string banjo. Sandy had a huge influence on my musical direction. I started listening to all sorts of country music and learnt about the roots it had in Scottish and Irish.
I listened to lots of on musicians like Bob Dylan, Dock Boggs, Ola Belle Reed, Jean Ritchie, Doc Watson, Clarence Ashley, Nathan Abshire and too many other names to mention. But it was the trad session approach to music which had the biggest influence on me.
I learned how to entertain a crowd, often using humour in the songs. It also showed me how to be vulnerable with my writing. Things I like to talk about in my songs are non-traditional relationships, mental health issues, class politics and the end of the world. Also love. Lots about love.
I moved to Lisbon to study in 2021 and did what I always did when I moved to a new place: looked for the music. Funnily enough the only Irish trad session in town was a five-minute walk from my new home.
By then I had a few songs under my belt and wanted to take them to some open mics. I was then introduced to a musician called the Mighty String at the city’s oldest open mic in a nice venue called Camones. We decided to do some terracing – where you busk to tables at restaurants – and became mates. He sat me down one day and told me I need a new name. Conor Riordan was too difficult to pronounce over there and he’d always noticed I wore short sleeve t-shirts. Shortsleeve Conor was born.
I’m a really lucky person. When things are not meant to work out they usually do. So when I moved to Lisbon I wasn’t expecting there to be a blossoming folk music scene I could jump straight into. But I soon made a great group of friends, who all happened to be excellent musicians.
I’m also really lucky that I didn’t have to pursue the Shortsleeve project too hard. Gigs just seemed to happen and the response was generally encouraging. But there was always one problem question: “Have you got any of your music online?” I didn’t and I didn’t really have a plan to. But I had a friend who had just decided to start a record label to capture this special moment in the city’s cultural history.
Cheap Wine Records was founded by Lee Squires with the ambition of promoting Lisbon’s folk music scene. It also aims to nurture future talent, showcasing their work so they can tour and go on to bigger things. Shortsleeve Conor was one of the first projects, so again I was very lucky.
The album – ‘Whatever that means’ – was put together at Estudio Roma 49 in Lisbon, with my friends and fellow musicians coming together to make it happen. The same goes for the production, marketing and funding. This community-led approach to the music made me feel right at home. It’s the same mindset as being back in the Prince of Wales, sitting in a circle playing tunes over a few pints. Only now I was blessed with a hot Portuguese sun, instead of the freezing North Sea winds.
I’m writing this the day the Doomsday Clock moved 90 seconds closer to midnight, the closest it’s ever been. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot going on in the world to be happy about. But being from northern England I have to find what’s funny in everything. It takes the edge off. That’s why in my writing I contrast the rise of fascism with not being able to get a parking space in my song Pink Champagne. That’s why my song about being in an abusive relationship is so upbeat.
I like to write about these things, but to add some humour into them. It helps because I also really struggle to express how I feel, which can be really frustrating when I’m in a relationship. I’m only at my most vulnerable when I’m telling an audience how I feel about someone who should have heard it first. I really try to leave nothing to the imagination with lyrics.
Now my album is out I don’t really know what to do. I hope to use it to travel with my music and meet new people. When we started this record project the Mighty String asked me to write down what my long-term goal was for the album. I said I’d like for it to be well appreciated in a small but enthusiastic audience so I could disappear into anonymity without worrying about it too much and become a furniture painter or something. Then in forty years I’d like for it to be rediscovered and for it become a country classic so I can go on tour with it globally in my seventies.