First Published July 2014
ROMANCING THE WORD AND THE WORLD
His are the songs that always end the night. When it’s 3 or 4am somewhere in the kitchen or the sitting room of a home, or in the bar of a public house (both places where, for different reasons, albeit, no strangers exist), when hearts are unlocked and memories unchained, when a reverent hush descends as the first sounds float from the singer’s soul. ‘No Frontiers’, maybe. ‘As I Leave Behind Neidin’, surely. ‘Katie’, hopefully. And ‘Ride On’, definitely. Not everyone present might know the man behind those songs, but by God, they know his songs. There’s every chance that in centuries to come, Jimmy MacCarthy’s pen will have attained a Holy Grail like status among future generations of songwriters. Sure it has already! So what a pleasure it was for me to spend some time chatting with such a master of his craft on one of these recent delightful summer evenings we’ve enjoyed.
I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing Jimmy perform live once, but that was in the beautiful surrounds of the wonderful Arts Theatre in Birr. One of the things which struck me very early in that night’s performance and which impressed me immensely was the level of intimacy which Jimmy was able to create between himself and the audience. I wondered if this was something Jimmy had always been able to do so well or if it was another part of his craft mastered through the years?
“I think it’s always been fairly intimate with me alright, probably for a good 20, 25 years anyway, easy. But I think it’s become more relaxed than it was, for me anyway, and because it’s more relaxed it’s far more enjoyable. I wish for people to be at ease, Anthony, and one of the things about myself is that, as an audience myself, I can actually feel very uncomfortable sometimes. And I remember that feeling and I come from the point of view that what’s most general is most personal. So if I can feel ill at ease as an audience, then anybody can. So what I do is I speak to people, a lot, unfortunately!”
Even though Jimmy laughed as he said that, I confessed that for me, and for many more I’m sure, that particular fact, that he likes to talk so much between songs, was one of the reasons I loved watching him perform live that evening in Birr.
“Well the thing is, Anthony, I’m unable to not do it. So it’s quite easy for me to do that part. I think it came to me later in life when I became more relaxed myself, I think that’s true.”
At one stage in his life Jimmy actually stopped performing for nearly 5 years. Speaking about that time, he once said that it was because ‘Life stopped me.’ A certain degree of solitude and intensity are often regarded as important for songwriters, so I wondered if Jimmy felt he had now found a balance again between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’?
“You know life itself can throw all sorts of curve-balls at anybody, it doesn’t not happen to you just because you’re a performer. It’s the same for me as for anybody else, Anthony. When I wasn’t my best within myself, I didn’t want to be putting myself in front of anybody. It’s a thing that I have really, I have to be fairly clear in myself before I go in front of people. Therefore, I think, people can have a more relaxed, enjoyable experience when I’m feeling like that. And there was a few years when I wasn’t feeling like that, clear in myself, at my best within myself. Even though I wrote during those times, I still was ill at ease slightly. And I think if you’re ill at ease with yourself then you’re going to be ill at ease with the world too. I think it comes through.”
And did Jimmy feel that applied to his songwriting as well in any way? If he was in a good place within himself, would he feel that he could write better? Or if in a bad place, could writing be a way out of that space, perhaps?
“Well traditionally, if I was in a kind of a shaky enough place, in the early days anyway, I basically wrote constantly. Now I still write constantly these days anyway. I am different, though now, I’m older in myself, and also, what it all means to me is after becoming much clearer than it was then. I understand now that it’s a privilege to have a conduit for your creative output and for me, the highest part of whatever offering I have has got to do with creativity. I got that from my mother, Anthony, she was a very creative person. And I actually believe I wouldn’t have become a performer if I didn’t have to. In a way, when you have as many songs as I have, they sort of become like your children. So if I didn’t do this myself, perform that is, so many of them mightn’t have had an airing at all. And I still think that’s the truth today. I’ve been writing fairly prolifically my whole life and yet there’s still so many songs that people haven’t heard. the main-stays of my set are the most well-known of my songs, but there’s always a bunch of the ones that aren’t heard that often that I try to bring in too, on a revolving basis.”
Many songwriters are noted people-watchers and with Jimmy coming from a family of 12, I imagined there would always have been plenty going on around him, so plenty to keep an eye on. Did that family background, would he say, together with the influence of his mother, of course, have influenced his songwriting?
“Well my mother was a powerfully creative person and she encouraged creativity and I think that is where it came from. My brother Sean is a painter and all the rest all have some sort of gift. Another brother, Ruairi, is a jewellery maker. They all have something, a sense of creativity, no matter what their jobs. And I believe that people at large in the world all have their own creativity. It’s just that it all doesn’t manifest in the obvious; poetry, acting or singing, say.”
‘Warmer For The Spark’ is a tribute album to Jimmy and his songs which features many of the finest voices ever to hush a venue in this country and indeed, all across the world (Mary and Frances Black, Christy Moore, Maura O’ Connell, Mary Coughlan and Tommy Flemming). When he hears other artists cover his songs, though, is it like hearing his songs anew again?
“I always hear them as my songs and I’ve been fairly lucky, Anthony, in that they always remain identifiable to me. I was lucky with the people involved here in Ireland, not only with the artists, but with the producers as well, Declan Sinnott and Donal Lunny, for instance. They’re people who are powerfully creative themselves and when they look at something, they look at it often from a very wonderful place and rarely would they not get the essence of the song’s original idea. I think it’s true to say that they can respect the integrity of the songs.”
Jimmy has also been the subject of 2 special television tributes. Do such tributes ignite or release a new vein of writing with the confidence they must bring, I wondered, or is it more a case of they bring their own pressures to maintain the success already achieved?
“I don’t know, Anthony. The thing about it is, as the expression goes; ‘Some people have something to sell, and some people have something to say.’ With me, it’s really always been something to say, that’s what I do, no matter what the result might be. It’s within the rhythm of my life to create songs.”
Jimmy has often been described as being a romantic with a capital R. I asked him about this, and the fact that he’s also said he still loves those he’s loved romantically in his past.
“When I say romance with a capital R, I mean the great romance rather than the boy/girl, lesser romance. Not that I don’t still love all the people I’ve been close to, because you know, the people you get closest to are the people who form you most. You trust them enough for that transformation, whether it be for good or for ill, to happen. And change is an essential part of not only an artist’s life, but of a human being’s life. But romance with a capital R is really the great romance. Like, I bought a place down here [in Jenkinstown, Killkenny], it’s the remains of an old building, and I put everything I had and hadn’t into it! That was romance with a capital R! It’s the place where Thomas Moore wrote ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, and I was inspired by the idea of that. So it’s that element of romance; the romance of art, the romance of beauty. All romance. I’ve been a sucker for romance all of my life.”
In Jimmy’s book, ‘Ride On – In Song And Story’, while speaking of his song ‘The Highest Point’, he remarked that it’s his dream to write a truly great song. Many would say, and I would be among the loudest in such a chorus, that Jimmy has already gifted the world many, many truly great songs. But what, for him, makes a truly great song?
“A truly great song to me would be ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ A truly great song will always survive one way or another. It will survive in spit of yourself. It will resonate within the hearts of humans for a long, long time.”
I wondered if, during the course of writing a song, Jimmy is ever aware of just how good the song he’s writing is? Or is that something that he can’t think too much about during the creative process?
“There is a moment with some songs where you kind of say, ‘There’s something wonderful about this’, and it makes you sit up straight and really watch your q’s and p’s, and dot your i’s. You become acutely aware that what you’re doing deserves an alertness. Sometimes I’ve written songs and even though there’s nothing wrong with them and they have nice tunes and lyrics and you feel inspired by it…but…, but occasionally there is a moment where some ‘bell’ goes off and you realise that this is ‘something.’ So then you become more driven by it. You become more fussy about it. Once that becomes clear within your mind, you want to extract the best from yourself. Because you’ve become aware that it’s not ordinary. That something does happen. There’s a sort of sound that says to you, ‘This is a very credible idea, there’s wonder in this. This can be great.’ And you kind of go with it from there, Anthony. And it happens quite a lot! And it’s rarely been wrong for me.”
Intriguingly, Jimmy’s current show is titled The Prophecy/ Conspiracy Tour…
“Well it’s from a lyric that’s fairly punchy, Anthony. Listen, and I’ll give you a few lines form it…, ‘The planets’ aligning, scripturally perfect timing/ Feeling secure under the eye of a drone/ The campsites, the liners, pandemic Oppenheimers/ No mark-up number, let it be known/ One world, all nations, talking great, the populations, loved another and protect your homes/ Fear not or tremble, if you may not yet dissemble/ Just take the red pill in the rabbit hole zone.’ So it’s got a lot of prophecy and so-called conspiracy in it.”
As one of Ireland’s greatest, most famous and most respected songwriters, and having battled his way through many’s a dark night and against many’s a tough demon to become that, I couldn’t bid Jimmy farewell without asking him what advice about songwriting and life he’d pass on to those who follow behind him further on back the trail?
“I would say that the advice I would have to give is not just to songwriters, Anthony, but to all people. It’s to love your life and be happy because there’s no percentage in anything else!”