Lucky Breaks With Singer Songwriter Pierce Turner – Episode 7

I was so honoured to interview Pierce Turner for the Confidence in Singing Podcast – we chatted about his “calling” to be a musician and how he worked hard to get his lucky breaks as an artist.  Have a listen and enjoy!

Pierce Turner is an Irish singer-songwriter who grew up in the port town of Wexford, where he played music as a child and wrote his first song at age 12. His parents had a record shop in Wexford town.

Recently Pierce was signed to a new boutique record label called Story Sound who are backing his new album which he is recording with guitarist Gerry Leonard who has also worked with David Bowie, Suzanne Vega and Rufus Wainwright.

Following his first professional job at 18 was as a musician with the pop showband The Arrows, Pierce moved to New York City and recorded several albums with Larry Kirwan.

His first solo album, It’s Only a Long Way Across (1987), was produced by American avant-garde composer Philip Glass. It was nominated for ‘Best Debut Issued by an Independent Record Company’ at the New York Music Awards.

Pierce was voted Heineken Hot Press Solo performer of the year in Ireland in 1994. His version of Dirty Old Town was featured in the  HBO TV show The Wire. Christy Moore recorded two of Turner’s songs “Wicklow Hills” and “Musha God Help Her”. Moore’s 2004 box set includes the track I Love the Way Pierce Turner Sings.

“There is no-one in the whole wide world of music quite like Pierce Turner; a unique visionary, the owner of a voice that drips emotion, a consummate lyricist and the creator of tunes which are both complex and accessible…Listen and marvel”

Penguin Books biography in The Rough Guide to Irish Music (2001)

Connect with Pierce:

A Homecoming Hug – Pierce Turner Biographical Documentary


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Welcome, everyone to the Confidence in Singing podcast. My name is Aideen and my guest today is Pierce Turner. You’re very welcome Pierce. Nice to be here, Aideen. I’m just going to read a little bit of your background for our listeners who don’t already know you. So Pierce is an Irish singer songwriter who grew up in the port town of Wexford, of course, where I’m from also, where he played music as a child and even wrote his first song at age 12. His parents had a record shop in Wexford Town, following his first professional musician job at age 18, he moved to New York and recorded several albums in a duo with Larry Kerwin. So from their peers. His first solo album called it’s only a long way across was recorded and released in 1987, and was produced by the American avant garde composer Philip Glass, who we will talk about in a few minutes, and it was nominated for Best Debut issued by an independent record company at the New York Music Awards. Woohoo! And Pierce Turner was won the Heineken Hot Press Solo Performer of the Year in Ireland in 1994. His version of Dirty old Town was featured in the film Snakes and Ladders on the HBO TV show. Christy Moore has recorded two of Pierce’s songs, including Wicklow Hills and Moshe God Help Her and recently the big news is Pierce has recently signed to a new boutique record label called Story Sound. I we’re backing Pierce’s new album which is recording with an amazing songwriter and guitarist who’s worked with David Bowie, Suzanne Vega, and Rufus Wainwright, called Gerry Leonard. There’s also a wonderful biographical documentary about Pierce called song for Song For The Year. So I’m pretty sure by Colin Murnane and hope I pronounced that Okay, so Pierce you’re very welcome. Murnane. So the Irish

just one correction also, the Wire, it was The Wire not Snakes and Ladders that Dirty old Town was in

us. Okay, there you go. The wire. Everybody knows that. What that so that was a pretty famous programme, which is Yeah, quite a fan. How did that come about? Because I think for a lot of musicians, there’s this hope that they might get some airplay on the television show.

Yeah, sometimes what you hope for comes through. Well, actually, my phone just rang one day in New York. And this woman left a message saying, we’re calling we’re calling you from HBO, we want to, we’re interested in using your version of dirty old town. And it’s a very weird version. And I did a very avant garde version, almost of Dirty Old Town, and used a drum machine which is Oh my god, the biggest sin in the world for any kind of traditional Irish music is to use a drum machine. So I found I was up against the Dubliners and the Pogues. So I thought, long shot forget about just go go back to what you were doing. And in the end, they did pick my version which is just mind blown, really. So for about an hour and sorry, minute and 30 seconds. McNulty who is the star of the wire, the detective in the wire, listened to my version of dirty old town on a boombox in his office. Fantastic. Yeah, it was it was it was I got paid well too by the way, which is probably the greatest part of it, because not many people care. I don’t think really, you know about you. They don’t go rushing out to try and buy it you know, it’s like because it’s first of all, they’re talking over it and it’s very, you know, it’s not a feature, you know, it’s it’s not like they’re showing funnies and playing your music really loud. You know, it is peripheral almost, but you can hear it. I get calls all the time of people saying is that you?

No way but then people are hearing is if they notice it. Wonderful. Absolutely brilliant. I’m really happy that that happened. And you’ve had a lot of lucky breaks, Pierce. And I mean, just can we have a little chat about how your career developed and what you think was important for you getting those lucky breaks and meeting those right people along the way?

Yeah, well, look, I don’t understand luck at all, my sister swears by it. I remember reading once that some some wealthy bloke said the harder I work, the luckier I get and And I have to say, that’s really what I think luck is, I think luck is about you doing what it is you do so much, that you kind of almost have to be in the right place at the right time. Because you are everywhere, you know, you are always ready and willing to jump on an opportunity. That’s luck, as far as I can see. And in this case, with this getting this new record deal, it’s interesting, because about two years ago, I had a conversation just before the pandemic, with another person, another writer in New York, who is a playwright. And I said, you know, I’m not sure what the point of writing songs is anymore, you know, I make these albums I go out, I sell the same amount of them almost every time. I know, it’s wonderful that there are a few, you know, a few 1000 people who love what I do, it’s is wonderful. But in the, in the whole scheme of thing, it’s nothing, you know, and he said, you know, the reason to write is to have just to accumulate material so that if something happens, you have the material. And that’s a slightly different point of view. My my only idea for writing was just to write and that was it. But I thought, that’s interesting. And it got me through that lull where I wasn’t sure if I should write songs anymore. And I kept writing them through the pandemic. And then I go to New York, and I get a new record deal. And they want to know, do I have any songs? I do. If I didn’t have the songs, I wouldn’t have had a record deal. You know, so.

I mean, this is it. And I think that my husband, Mike, you know, writes music, and he’s a producer and things like that. And he was, he’s actually drawn my attention to that recently, there was a, there’s a thing called Patreon, you know, that some musicians are using now to promote their music. And the founder of Patreon said that you have to be prolific, and he would draw, he was drawing attention to the Songwriters of the 20s 30s and 40s. And how they might have maybe four or five really famous songs, like Fly Me To The Moon, but they had actually written 2 – 300 songs. And that, that he said, was the key. So I think that that, that advice that you got, is probably one of the key things to just keep doing what you’re doing

really is and and I’ll add to what he said that Andy Warhol famously said to Lou Reed, when he was producing. Lou Reed first album was with a band called Velvet Underground, and Andy Warhol produced it. And Andy Warhol, as we know, churned out art, like, you know, he, he, he made a joke of the whole thing of laboring over a painting, he would, he would just copy them with photo machines and all kinds of things, just churning it out the whole time. And he said, Why do you write so few songs to Lou Reed? You know, because Lou, I think, had three songs, you know, three, or four, probably really good songs. And Andy said, Why don’t you write one every day? And, you know, I did, I did a few songwriting classes, and I mentioned that the young young people in the class would be appalled, or are they would think that’s an idea, you know, one or two of them would say, Why not? Because, look, they’re going to be 90% shite, you know, but the thing is that in there, you’re going to get… you have a better chance of getting the one in 20 that’s great, you know, or one in 30 that’s great. If you’ve got more 30s?

Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. I hope anybody who’s listening is is it’s sinking in, and you’re not the first person to mention them. And I have interviewed a young singer songwriter called Rachel Grace, who is also from expert age 19. She’s just started studying. She’s written a lot of songs, she started nice and young, like you. And she said, she went into her songwriting class. And the teacher said, you have to think of yourself, I am a songwriter. And that was a big shift for her mindset. And now she puts aside time to just write and that a key, I think, is just to sit down and do the thing. And to make that space and time to to to muddle around with what you’re… what you’d like to do and enjoy. Yeah. Yeah. So tell me a little bit more about where your love of music comes from.

My mother was a songwriter and she had a band I think it really, it has to have begun there. Because, I mean, let’s she was an accordion player, she was a piano player. And you think about while I was in her womb, she probably was playing the accordion in a band, you know, so I had an accordion wrapped around me before I was even born, I mean, you know, has that something to do with it? You know, you’re apparently when I was two or three, I was singing songs, you know, you know, and I think if you look at the history of people like Mozart and stuff, that kind of is, there’s always a lot of people who are musicians is that have come from parents that, that were musically inclined in some way. And often that those parents hadn’t gone that far with their career. And then, so when you’re born, you’re, you’re almost starting where that parent is stuck. Take it to the next stage. That’s

really, really interesting. I like that. And so you’re, you got something from you, basically, I think people underestimate this. There’s an education that we receive as children that we almost absorb. And music is one of those things that young kids can absorb and learn and have some, you know, skill in quite well at a very young age, if they’re exposed to it. And not everybody gets that. And people who come to me for singing lessons as adults, sometimes they’re rubbish at us, but it’s often because they didn’t get that at all as kids. So they’re starting from childhood level.

Yeah, it’s very hard to teach. Like, I went to a songwriter, a singer, a singer class once because I was just interested, and I was improving my voice. And this woman had flyers all over Manhattan. So she was brainwashing me. I thought I have to go. So I went to this class, and I was probably th worst student she had there. Because as soon as I got there, realize that nobody in the room except for me was actually a singer, you know, except for her and I, you know, and all these poor people were trying to learn how to emote, you know, she was teaching me how to have emotion. And of course, I protested. So you can’t teach somebody to be emotional. You know, that’s like something. And then she asked me not to come back again.

That’s a great story. But you know, that was just that was the wrong class for you for sure. Yeah, but it’s true that as somebody who’s starting from scratch does need that time to develop even their ear to hear the song to hear what’s happening in music. And I feel like the emotion is something that it’s almost like a, it’s a spiritual journey or personal development journey that, to get in touch with yourself, to be able to feel something deeply enough and to have have that come out through a song takes a certain amount of self awareness.

Yes, yeah. It’s also like, you must know this, you’re a singer. And you know, your father is a musician. And you know, you’ve had a similar sort of background. That, like, I don’t the first time you sang, like the first time I really sang solo in front of an audience was when I was about 12, I think. And I sang at the tops of the town, and I just got into this thing by mistake, because I wouldn’t do the parts in the school opera, I was too shy, I was too uncomfortable with it and I would be a nervous wreck. But I was sucked into this tops of time thing, because there was a choir behind me. And they all they wanted me was to sing one verse of Silent Night, which is my favorite song at the time. Right. So I sang, I did that front of the full, you know, 1000 Wexford people. And when I sang that evening that I realized that this is what I wanted to do, because it was it just such a great pleasure to do it. You know, when I sang it, just it made me like, leave the planet. You know? I was doing that already probably. But what an audience in front of me, I completely left the planet, you know, and I really felt so comfortable doing it. You know, that’s why I ended up being a musician. Really, that for that feeling. So, you know, it’s like, I think if singing doesn’t it doesn’t come to you naturally at an early stage like that. I’m not sure if it ever does.

Well, certainly you’re probably not going to make a career of it. If you’re having

Yeah, that’s. Yeah, I don’t want to discourage people from singing. Yes, I have a sister in law who was tone deaf and she would sing at parties. And she was so tone deaf that she would change keys constantly. But she loved words. So when she sang it, she has such belief in the words that it was actually really effective.

So I tell ya, a lot is forgiven if you put meaning into it and like the emotion almost you can carry it through a song. Yeah, so yeah, if you’re not really a singer, guys, and you’re listening, and don’t worry, you can still go somewhere with your music, your audience might be just you or just your grandkids or just some friends. But there’s, there’s value to doing it. But I think what you’re saying is, there is something to the idea that you get called almost, to, to work in that area. And it feels to me like it was almost you, it was undeniable that you wanted to do that thing. And even though the journey had no guarantees, and you know, it wasn’t a certainty, and, you know, a living wasn’t guaranteed out of it, it still was, it was an imperative that you take that journey.

Yeah, it’s a calling really. Somebody said it to me once, you know, said that to me. And I it surprised me when she said it that you can’t compare… I was comparing myself to somebody else doing some other job in a different kind of job. And the woman said to me that, you know, this is not you’re not, it’s not the same thing. What you’re doing is a calling. And, you know, I thought I was a bit surprised, because I never thought of it that way. But in a way it kind of is because why would you do this thing? That is so hard. My father said to me several times, this is a very hard business you’re getting into, you know, my mother didn’t say that, though. But my father did. And you know, I think, yeah, I think you really have to, it has to be the most important thing in your life to do it professionally.

But you’ve had some real highlights and but I wanted wanted to come back to this idea of luck, because before we started recording, you mentioned how location was very important to you, meeting the right people. So you were living in Wexford, obviously, and something made you decide to go to New York? What brought about that decision? And how important was it for you?

Well, the first, the first thing I did was go to Dublin from Wexford to Dublin and from Dublin I did six months in Germany with a band and came back again and all the time. Larry Kirwin and I were writing together, another Wexford man, we were living in Dublin. We were thinking we tried. I mean, I got music. I had songs written that I even to this day know they’re good songs wasn’t many now maybe three, you know, like really seriously, three really good ones, though, like professional songs to this day. And yet, they just didn’t. You know, you couldn’t get them out there in this country. So Larry and I decided the only thing to do was to leave. We thought about England. But England had bad ideas for me, because that’s where my uncles all went and it was a sadness about England for me. And we went to America. But the real point of this is that when I got to America, I spent time in America, I realized something that I was starting all over again at 22. When I went I was 22 years of age when I went there. I was starting from the beginning. And

This is a reminder.

Alexa, stop. Sorry.

What? Okay.

2pm, reminding you to come. Alexa, this is a reminder, stop. start, start that thought again and we’ll go from there. So 22,

yeah, what I realized is that musicians who had been born in Queens, and in Brooklyn or New Jersey or anything within, in America, probably but certainly within the radius of a major city like New York, had already gone as far as I had gone in Ireland, let’s say at the age of 21. I was I was almost 22. What I had achieved in Ireland, I become a professional musician. I was making a good living. I’ve had a record deal with Larry and achieved all these things that were actually kind of national status, but I wasn’t a star here, don’t get me wrong, but I had achieved national status and I had a record deal. They had already achieved that in New York because they were from Queens and Brooklyn, the difference between that is huge, because it means nothing to, to become, to just have a what what I had achieved in Ireland was basically nothing.

Nobody knew ya in New York.

Nobody knew me in Belfast, you know, nobody knew me in London, nobody knew, you know, it was just a starting point. But when I got to Europe, I was behind. I wasn’t even at starting point. I was way before I was like, going back to when I was 17, or 16 again, you know, I didn’t have any cousins in Queens and have any uncles or aunts who might have a record… who would know somebody, you know, you know, that’s, that’s the way it happens. I’m afraid, you know, you know, people know somebody who knows somebody, well, when you know, somebody who knows somebody in Ireland, it’s not the same as knowing somebody who knows somebody in Queens.

Okay. I’m going around this took this long… Oh, it’s interesting. But I know when you’re, you’re, you’re in Michigan, right? Yeah. And I’m in rural Northern Michigan hasn’t helped my career that much. That’s right. So where you are, it doesn’t matter. Yeah, I like me, what is the nearest big city to you? What’s the Detroit? Detroit?

But if you were in Detroit, you’d have a better chance than where you are, isn’t that right? I think so. I mean, it might be different now, because actually, you know, we have the internet now, it might be somewhat different. But you know, I’m just making the point that, like, if you even were born in Dublin, you know, you might know somebody who knows somebody. And if they know somebody who knows somebody in Dublin, it’s better than known somebody who knows somebody in New Ross.

Yes. Interesting. Okay. But at the next step here is connecting with people. So when having something you know what I mean, people have to like you to recommend you as well. So how did you manage to get to know people in New York and make those connections so that you could make some traction while you were there?

Well, by working really hard, as hard as I had worked in Ireland, but now I was working in New York. So that’s the difference. So, you know, you asked how I met Philip Glass. Well, I met Philip Glass, because Philip Glass was dating the woman who lived below me and my building. And I met him in the hallway coming through, I knew who he was because he was writing music for modern dance. And so was I, that was one of the things I was doing to make a living in Manhattan. And we just crossed paths. So again, I was in Manhattan, and I cross paths with him, you know? So, and you know, Larry and I worked really hard, and we caused a stir. And that ultimately, that led to us making an album, which was played off the air in New York, I think, you know, after we have, besides, besides the point, maybe, after we’ve been doing that, for about eight years, we were tired, because as I said, we’d start twice. And then we broke up. And when we changed, we changed it to a new wave band basically. But yeah, I really do think I advise people who have songwriting talents to get out there.

Yeah. To not just think locally.

Yeah, exactly. And don’t think that it’s gonna come to you, you know, you know, by playing by being a big star in your hometown, you know, being a big fish in small pool. It really isn’t going to come to you. I think, you know, when you see how it comes to people take Ed Sheeran as an example, I saw Ed Sheeran opening for Snow Patrol in New York, because my friend was managing him and still manages him and Elton John. I went because my friend was managing him. And this is a place in hell but 3000 people so it wasn’t a big venue even really, and the Snow Patrol were headlines and five years later or less Ed Sheeran was was bigger than the Beatles, you know what took other bands like 30 years like Pink Floyd and people like that, it took him four or five years because of the internet. Yeah. So that’s the difference, you know, we have, you know, yes, he had a big machine behind him, you know, and you do have to have a big machine to do that kind of thing. We don’t all want to be Ed Sheeran. So, you know, we can all be superstars. And you don’t have to be, you know, to, to enjoy doing what you’re doing. Hmm.

So tell me about this. The records that you’re you’re working on right now, what kind of what’s the theme? Or is it any different from previous work you’ve done?

Yeah, it is different because first of all, I have never worked with a guitar player as my co producer before. And he’s a superb guitar player. And he has that sound that David Bowie sound. I’ve never had that kind of a sound on my recordings. I thought I had tried to have some days. But I realized that I didn’t get it at all. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is that we’ve agreed that we have one like Gerry Leonard and I have something in common and that we’re both misplaced transplanted Irish people. He’s from Dublin. I’m from Wexford for who have lived for decades in Manhattan. And so we decided to make a kind of to make a New York album. No, it’s really a New York album. Made by two Irish guys. Wow. Yeah. So it’s, it’s very interesting. And it’s, it’s it’s a I mean, my next issue is really, I think it’s so good. I’m nervous that nothing will happen to it. Yeah. You know, that’s, you know, that’s a new one, I haven’t had that for a while.

Something will happen. Don’t worry. Well, more has happened already. That just by the fact that I made it, you know, I made the album, you know? Yes. And are you excited about working? Yeah, excited. Yeah, absolutely. You, you’ve you’ve been gigging a lot in in Wexford. Like you’re back in Wexford every year, am I right?

Yes, yeah. Basically, I’m here most of the time now, actually. But I go back to New York. I go back and forth all the time.

Yeah, yeah. What is it? What is there anything you’d like to say to the listeners from Wexford? I know you’ve got some some amazing fans and supporters and my dad and my sister are big fans of yours. And what is it you get from the kind of the grassroots fans in your local, your home county?

Well, you get what you get from them is, you know, my songwriting from… when I’m in Manhattan, my songwriting has to be about Ireland a lot about my, my young, my teenage girlfriend or something, you know, it was always a great source. And then my sense of humor. My references are often Irish as well. So then, you know, when you if you can get a New York audience to like that, then it’s amazing. Like, I mean, I, you know, I’m always thinking like, How the hell did they know what I’m talking about? Even you know, it’s like, and then when I come to Wexford and I sing the song that that song that New Yorkers understand that’s all about Wexford it’s like, it’s like it’s it’s like really going to your Mecca or something you know, because it’s like they really understand it, you know, no, a song like Moshe God Help Her for instance, Michigan helper she’s in an awful state it’s, it’s such a Wexford song. But New Yorkers love it, you know. But when you sing it in Wexford they laugh a lot.

Yeah. It’s great to be able to bring it home and to have having the experience and the confidence that having done it in New York has brought you you know, to bring that back home and I think that makes people in Wexford very proud of you as well to see you working across the water a bit as well.

Yeah, yes, I’m sure I I really don’t know much about that. But I suppose that’s the truth. I know some people tell me and I do know that. They wish to me very well and sometimes they come to my gigs in New York.

There’s a nice goal for everybody now listening. We are going to go to New York to one of your gigs. Yeah, we can’t stay with me. No, we can’t. Because they used to come for three and a half weeks. We know Pierce, so we can go stay with him!

And bring me a pair knitted socks or something.

Now is there anything else you’d like to say to any people listening that are musicians or wanting to do something with music at any level?

really, I suppose the you have to believe that there’s more to life than money that’s the first thing I think you really have to think of. And here I am not wealthy, and I have not made as much money as some of my friends who I went to school. I mean who are very wealthy driving around in Bentley’s, and stuff like that. The rewards, I still make a living and I have a really nice home. And I probably, I’m happier, and we’ll probably live longer than most of them. By the way things are going so far because a lot of them are dying already you know, so that, you know, the, the meaning of life is something that’s very complex, but it is not necessarily about money. It’s about really finding what it is that you love to do. We know this, everybody knows this. And if music is what you really love to do, you’ll be okay – just do it. You know, you will make a living, you will get by by some way you will get by.

That’s wonderful advice. And we’re going to play one of your songs now. And I’ve picked this one’s called the sky and the ground because I know that it’s probably referencing a venue in Wexford town. Is that the reference for that song?

Well, no, it the venue is called after the song. Ah, that makes sense. I was wondering which came first. I’m not that good of a songwriter. I couldn’t write about a bar. I don’t know. If the bar was named after your song. That’s nearly better than having you. Yeah, much better. Much better! Yeah, it’s not the same thing as me having to if someone said to me, write me a song about my bar will ya, what would you say, get lost. But uh, someone’s so yeah, no, the bar is called after the song and why it’s called after the song was the owner of the bar was trying to come up with a bar name. And he was rifling through his album covers. And he saw my album, the sky in the ground. And he thought why don’t I call it that. And that was pretty, pretty inventive. And because it’s more like the name of an English bar, perhaps, you know, but actually, it was it’s made the bar stand out. It’s a very different name than any of the other bars in town. Yeah, what the song itself was written. Yeah, sorry. It’s a very well loved venue. I know for sure. And yeah, yeah, no, yeah. No, it’s a venue, which is a great thing. Yeah, They did have a fire recently. Yes, yes. So hopefully they’ll come back again.

The bar next door was burnt down. The Sky and the Ground was damage, it’s not ruined, but it’s a lot of work to get back into a running order, but there’s no bars really yet anyway, so they should be okay. I think. The song itself is a New York song, and I wrote the song when I was in one summer, when my girlfriend and I sublet our apartment in Manhattan for three weeks while she went off to, for a month, while she went off with Philip Glass to Nova Scotia work on something with him. And his his, his wife, and I couldn’t go because work on a new album, and I had some things to do. So I stayed at Philip Glass’ house which is only 10 blocks from my house, my apartment, but I was kind of out of place. And I kind of had breakfast in a different diner every morning. I’m strangely out of place. But this diner, there were a bunch, it was a family that ate breakfast every day and they were clearly a family who were hooked on heroin. You could.. they had all the hallmarks, you know, of just I knew that were heroin addicts, but they were really nice people and they just sat there and had breakfast every day. And they always really nice to the waitress and they would go through their telephone bills. They were functioning heroin addicts. And I, I watched them and I wondered how does this work, you know, and I realized what they were doing was, they were juggling what it was like to be normal, and also what it was like to be abnormal to be the heroin addict. They also wanted to function in the real world so we’ll have breakfast there. Be nice to the waitress and pay their bills. So in my mind that we’re juggling the sky on the ground.

Wow. That’s what the song is about. Absolutely. So if you had to choose between the sky and the ground yourself, which would you pick, Pierce? The middle! Yeah, not too far down and not too far up. Exactly. Yeah. Well, a pint on the weekends, not heroin though. Very good. But we’re going to play your song now. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much. It was a bit of tooing and froing getting this all organized and I really appreciate your patience. And for me, you’re like the the big name for my podcast in season one so far. And so I really appreciate you and I really appreciate those 1000 fans that keep buying your albums that have kept you going all this time. And I wish you the very, very best with your next album, and hopefully it’ll blow up a little bit for you in a really good way. Yeah, I’ll be back again when it comes out. You’re very welcome. Thank you, and thank you everyone else for listening. We’ll see you again soon. Bye for now. Okay, bye.

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