Welcome back to the twenty-eighth feature from the Collective Series by The Idle Man. Where we meet up with interesting men who either work in the creative industry, or we just admire the work they do. written in the words of our Editor Georgia Jackson, read the full feature below as we believe it's more about what we do, rather than what we wear.
Meet Fran O’Hanlon, aka AJIMAL, by day he’s saving lives as a doctor, by night he’s entertaining us with his symphonic vocals. Fran O'Hanlon acquired the name AJIMAL in the aftermath of being caught up in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Whilst working as a medic in a field hospital as part of his medical degree, he found himself surrounded by citizens from all walks of life, including an infamous guest preacher who formerly practised as a voodoo priest, under the guise of AJIMAL.
Growing up in Newcastle AJIMAL had always enjoyed music and was involved in a few bands whilst in his teens, but from early on he always had an interest in medicine too and he went on to university where he studied to become a doctor. Whilst at university the singer started to embrace his creative side and began writing his own songs and even began working on his first album, ‘Childhood’. After graduating he stayed in London to work and perform, he’s since performed alongside the likes of Kathryn Joseph, Lucy Rose, Loney Dear, Lanterns on the Lake, The 1975 and Nadine Shah.
From a young age, AJIMAL was taught to play classical piano, but slowly he felt that the clinical and classical syllabus wasn’t expressing who he was and his own musical style started to creep out. Now, he feels much more comfortable writing and exploring music by ear. It was this a discovery that has happily enabled him to combine a career in medicine with music. Releasing his first album in 2015, the artist is due to release his highly anticipated second album, ‘As It Grows Dark / Light’, by Spring 2020.
Featuring on the album is his second single which has been released to tease his fans, ‘How Could You Disappear?’. The minimalist and creative track is all about “frailty and fickleness of memory; the way it warps and changes over time” as AJIMAL explains. The song is accompanied by a video directed by Daisy JT Smith, which sees its central character lost in memory, unable to separate the past from the present. It visualises the woman’s mind as if she’s trapped in her own thoughts with a faceless man who appears to linger in her mind.
Now The Idle Man is sitting down with the medical and creative marvel, AJIMAL to find out how he lives this almost double life and how it inspires his music.
1. Growing up did you battle between the idea of wanting to grow up to be a doctor or a musician?
It didn’t feel like a battle so much while I was growing up. I played in bands from when I was in my teens and had a pretty clear idea that I wanted to study medicine from around the same time, but I only really started writing and exploring music more thoroughly when I was studying. I’m very fortunate in that I work as a Doctor part time and it gives me flexibility to take time out when I need it for touring or recording etc. (Definitely a very privileged position to be in.) I like the balance between the two and the way they can sort of inspire one another.
3. Did your family have any influence on your career?
That’s another way in which I’ve been incredibly lucky; my family have always supported me in both aspects and never really put any pressure for me to go down a certain path. My parents encouraged me to make sure I got my degree and didn’t get tempted off track before having the piece of paper – definitely good advice.
4. You’re from Newcastle but are now based in London, do you take inspiration from the North East to the big city?
I played in a few bands as a teenager, so got quite a lot of gigging experience and it was really good being around a lot of strong songwriters, so that was a really good place to start. Bands that I loved watching like Mammal Club, Holy Mammoth, O’Messy Life, Minotaurs, Tessera Skies… You’d run into people at each other’s shows and that’s really healthy for a city to nurture, I think. People like Nadine Shah and Sam Fender are doing brilliantly as well and Nick Roberts’ BBC Introducing show has fed a lot of great things through in recent years. It can be hard to know where to start when you move to a new city, especially London, so having a network of other people to ask for help is useful.
5. How did you end up in Haiti following the terrible 2010 earthquake?
I’d taken a sabbatical year in the middle of my studies and gone to work with an NGO in the Dominican Republic; I happened to be there when the earthquake hit Port-au-Prince. I didn’t have much practical medical knowledge at that point but was able to work helping on logistics and with translation, so I ended up tagging along with a team who were running a field hospital there. The hospital was close to the border with the DR, so patients would be brought in in busloads from other smaller hospitals on those big yellow American school buses. We had something like 200 patients in these tents. My job initially involved a lot of running around, trying to keep track of who was where as we admitted patients. We worked pretty much from when it got light until it got dark and that was when we’d sit down to eat. We didn’t have electricity for the first week or so, so then it was all by torchlight. The first weeks were like that every day. It was a really intense time, and pretty strange, for quite a while, to come home after that.
6. Did you find your music became a form of therapy to help you deal with the experiences you had?
The first song I wrote as AJIMAL was called When We Were Children and I wrote it while I was there (when things had calmed down a little!) I tried to steer clear of writing directly about those events in the moment because it felt too vast to know where to begin. The scale of destruction was beyond anything I could imagine and hopefully will never witness again.
7. Doctor by day, AJIMAL by night, how do you balance your two careers?
It involves a bit of juggling, but I like having a balance between the two. Working in hospital, you meet a lot of people, sometimes at very profound times in their lives and you get to hear a lot of stories. Stories are good for getting inspired.
8. So where did AJIMAL come from?
It was while I was working at that field hospital that I heard whisperings of this former witch doctor who had practised under the name; it translates from Creole as ‘bad spirit’. I loved the sound of the word and scribbled it down somewhere. Religion is very important in Haiti and there’s a lot of Evangelical Christianity, but still sort of infused with this trace of Voodoo. I saw this former voodoo priest preach at a mass for patients at the field hospital and it was a bizarre experience. He had this strange reverence around him and I later found out that he’d been affiliated with the Duvalier dictatorship for many years… (when people had gone missing, it was sometimes rumoured that he’d turned them into animals). So there’s a darkness to it, but I loved the sound of the word first and foremost, and it felt connected to the start of the project in a way, so I adopted it as my own.
9. Growing up you were taught to play classical piano, how did your style develop into what it is now?
I never really felt any love for learning classical piano in quite a traditional way. I would learn these pieces and then almost instantly forget them again; it felt rigid and hollow. I felt much freer playing by ear and listening than learning to read it on the page; I loved listening for harmony and writing counter melodies, so that’s always what I’d gravitate towards. I drummed in an indie band as a teenager and started singing harmonies – it’s like finding alternative paths through the song and I love the way different choices can open up a melody. I always have some sort of rhythm or melody going round in my head and I think piano gave me a basis to grasp how it works on other instruments. I have a particular love for upright pianos, particularly ones that have been a bit forgotten about in a corner somewhere; they have character. There’s something immediately nostalgic about playing them. Later on some more elements of electronic music have crept in. I love the blend between light electronica and ambient music or folk – Diamond Mine (the album that King Creosote and Jon Hopkins made) was a particular turning point for me.
10. Tell us about ‘How Could You Disappear?’ What is it about?
‘How Could You Disappear?’ is the latest track from the next album, which is coming out early next year. I remember writing it in this little dungeon of a room I occupied (no windows) when I lived in this warehouse flat in Haggerston, just after moving to London. It’s about memory and the way that it can warp and play tricks on us over time. Even memories which seem so certain and unforgettable inevitably become memories of memories and details will fade and change as more time passes. It’s strange that certain things might stick out despite seeming quite insignificant, or the way that certain things, smells in particular, can bring forgotten details rushing back really vividly.
11. The video looks amazing! How did you want to represent your lyrics and music in the video?
Thank you! That’s very much thanks to the team I worked with on it. Daisy JT Smith directed the video and came to me with the pitch. Rob Jarvis was DOP on it and sorted making it all look beautiful. We ended up filming it over a delirious 23 hours straight in Daisy’s grandmother’s flat in Kent, just overlooking the sea. The flat is a bit of a time capsule with these intensely purple carpets and a pink bathroom suite that feels lifted out of the ‘70s. In the video, our lead character sort of sits lost between the half-remembered past and the present and these little elements of magic creep into it, which were beautifully captured by Daisy and Rob.
12. Are you excited for the release of your upcoming album, ‘As It Grows Dark / Light’?
The album has taken a while to draw together, so it’s definitely exciting to now be able to count down to the release. Waiting to release music and sitting around on it is frustrating, but actually I think as a result it’s meant that Guy [Massey] and I were able to develop a strong idea of the music we want to keep making going forward, and I think the album is stronger as a result of having let it evolve over time.
13. Would you like to keep yourself involved in medicine or do you plan on letting you musical career take off?
I’d like to find the balance between them, but I’m just taking every step as it comes. There are a lot of things I’d love to aim at in music and it’s nice when you can tick one of them off and set your sights on something new. I played at Union Chapel for the first time this year, supporting the incredible Kathryn Joseph. Playing there had been on my list for a while and she is amazing. Those sorts of moments are really nice to acknowledge.
14. Do you have any gigs or performances lined up in the near future?
Yes! The last headline show of 2019 on Thursday 21st November is in the beautiful chapel at House of St Barnabas in Soho, which is a not-for-profit venue working with people affected by homelessness. It’s an intimate one too, with just 100 tickets, where we’re also going to do some fun immersive lighting stuff, so I’m looking forward to that! Then most certainly a fair bit more stuff in 2020 around the album release.
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