First Published March 2015
STILL BRINGING HIS MUSIC TO OUR HEARTS
Bucket lists. Things we want to do or see, places we want to go, goals we want to achieve. And all before we kick that proverbial bucket! Either written down and stashed away somewhere in a bottom drawer or in our wallets, or stored in a secret compartment of our minds for safe keeping. Wherever we may have them or in whatever form, we’ve pretty much all got them. And for our careers as much as for our personal lives.
When it comes to music, I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve checked a few things off my own bucket list. I’ve seen Garth Brooks live in concert, back in Croke Park in 1997. I’ve seen Take That live in concert too, the full, reformed five piece version! And again in Croke Park, just a few years back (and that’s the full tally of my lifetime’s trips to Croker so far, by the way! I know in the eyes of many this may well disqualify me as an Offaly man, but hey ho!). I’ve sat entranced in the famous Bluebird Cafe listening to some of Nashville’s finest songsmiths sing some of country’s biggest hits exactly as they were first brought to life. I’ve strolled backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve even had a small part in one of Reba McEntire’s videos, ‘What Would I Say.’ True, the scene I was in didn’t actually make the final cut (and I’ve never understood why, because that was some of the best driving-5 feet-up-to-traffic-lights that I’ve ever done in my life!), but hey, that’s showbiz for ya!
But also on that list, and every bit as important to me as anything I’ve mentioned above, is the fact that I’ve heard Charlie McGettigan sing his beautiful song, ‘Feet Of A Dancer’, live. There’s nothing, NOTHING, as spine-tingling as hearing a song’s actual writer sing it how they meant it to be heard. And when it’s a song like ‘Feet Of A Dancer’, and a singer like Charlie, well….that’s pretty close to as good as it gets for any songwriter. But Charlie occupies another position on my musical bucket list, too. Position number 1, in fact. Because back in 2009 Charlie was kind enough to write the Foreward to my current collection of lyrics and poetry, ‘Pilgrim In The Heartland.’ In it, he wrote, “It is therefore, refreshing to pick up a book of song lyrics that tell stories, paint pictures and stand alone without the tune. Anthony Sullivan’s lyric’s do all this, while at the same time cry out for melodies. Anthony Sullivan is one of the songwriter breed.” To put into some context how much that meant to me, and still means to me, let me just say this: I’ll never need another songwriting compliment again, because NOTHING could top those words from Charlie.
Charlie’s place in Irish musical folklore was forever assured when he and Paul Harrington sang their way into hearts all over Europe with Brendan Graham’s song for the ages, ‘Rock’n’Roll Kids’, back in 1994. When I caught up with him the other week he was just about to step back out onto the Eurovision dancefloor again, but this time with a new partner, the wonderfully talented Kat Mahon, who would perform Charlie’s beautiful song, ‘Anybody Got A Shoulder’, in this year’s Eurosong Contest, and would take it to within a handful of votes of the Eurovision itself. And what a pleasure it was to speak to Charlie for this, the 100th edition of the ‘On The Right TRAX’ column. I began our chat (after first offering my congratulations on making the final five, naturally!) by asking Charlie how the adventure all started off this time?
“Well I was in the studio with Paul Gurney about two years ago to record a few demos and I had found ‘Anybody Got A Shoulder?’ in an old Lever Arch folder. It was written, oh I’d say about about 30 years ago, Anthony. Having demoed it myself I thought it might suit a female voice better. So Paul called his friend, Kathleen Mahon. Immediately I heard her sing I knew she was the one. So Kathleen recorded a rough demo and we first submitted it two years ago, and then again this year when there was an open competition. And it was chosen this year.”
So what was the story behind the song, I wondered? What was the inspiration behind Anybody Got A Shoulder?
“Well as I was saying, the song was written over 30 years ago, for a start. It’s about someone admonishing themselves for being so foolish as to believe that who they thought was their true love was actually something else entirely. I based it on my first rebuff in romance when I was 14 years old. I was working a summer job in an amusements arcade in Bundoran when I fell madly in love with a beautiful girl. We went for a walk together and even kissed! I was smitten. Imagine how I felt when I saw her sauntering out with another fella the next day! I was shattered, and said to anyone who would listen, ‘Anybody got a shoulder? I could cry!'”
Having a great song is always only half the battle, of course. Once you have that you need to know you’re putting it into capable hands for when it comes to delivery and performance. The safe hands Charlie found belonged to a young lady called Kat Mahon.
“Kat, which is short for Kathleen, of course, Mahon, comes from Drumlish, county Longford. She is 28 years old and is the present Longford ‘Rose of Tralee’. She works in the Youth Cafe in Longford town and has been singing in bands and in stage shows most of her adult life.”
As a past winner of the Eurovision Song Contest itself, was Charlie in any way apprehensive of becoming involved again? We saw it with Niamh Kavanagh a few years ago when she had what seemed like a brilliant song in the national contest, but on the European stage, it just didn’t work. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it still wasn’t a good song, of course. So was there any initial fear of his Eurovision legacy being harmed if things did’t go so well, perhaps?
“Well I have no wish to sing in the Eurovision Song Contest again myself anyway, Anthony, as I feel that at 64 I’m probably a little too old. However, I’m still writing lots of songs all the time and I feel that my songs are still relevant to young singers. And ya know, I think too much talk exists around ‘careers’ in music anyway. I’ve never seen music as a career, but more a means of expression and connection to other people. And Niamh continues to sing, of course, despite the fact that she didn’t win Eurovision for the second time. And that’s the important thing for people to remember, I think.”
In the years since Charlie and Paul Harrington stole the hearts of all of Europe with Brendan Graham’s wonderful composition, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids’, the contest has seen some winners that few would once have imagined! Lordi, from Finland, Dana International, and last year, Conchita. In Charlie’s opinion, were those winners good for the reputation of Eurovision? Were they actually the best songs, or were the other factors surrounding each act major contributing factors?
“Eurovision is a very big TV show now, that’s built around songs. It’s a great opportunity for songwriters and singers alike to come together and do what they do best. And yeah, it’s nice if your song is remembered, but that’s not really important. What is important, in my opinion, is the spectacle, the music and the great fun of it all.”
Did Charlie believe in the notion of ‘political voting’ in Eurovision? I’ve always thought that it’s the fact that countries are neighbours, or close enough to each other at any rate, that makes it more likely that they will naturally like the same kinds of music anyway. As opposed to voting for each other JUST because they’re neighbours. How did Charlie view it?
“Neighbouring countries get to hear the Eurovision songs on their radio stations well in advance of the contest itself, so that they are very familiar with the artists when the thing starts. So it’s only natural that they will vote for the songs they know. And some songs are ‘growers’, which means that when you hear them a few times they begin to grow on you. We over in the western end of Europe don’t hear most of the songs until the actual contest itself. Now having said all that, Austria and Denmark could hardly be called eastern block countries and they have been the last two winners.”
Going back to Ireland for a moment, we really seem to have lost our way with our whole approach to the Eurovision Song Contest and how we’ve been picking songs and performers for a very long time now. Where and why did Charlie think it went so wrong for so wrong?
“I think with ‘Dustin’, for example, we were just showing our contempt for the contest. And unfortunately, some of our best songwriters wouldn’t touch Eurovision with a barge pole. I think we need to take the contest a lot more seriously than we do. Take Sweden, for instance, Anthony, they have 28 songs in their final and they run it over 8 weeks to find their entry.”
So if the job of running the National Song Contest was given to Charlie for next year, did he have a way of doing it in mind that he thought would be the best and fairest for all of the songwriters in Ireland who would genuinely love to have a chance for their song to represent their country?
“Yeah, I think we should revert to the jury system again. After all, the last time we won was when the jury system was still going. What we could still do if we want to have tele-voting or text voting, is offer a big prize to anyone who could match the jury vote. That way people would be voting for the best song. And with a big prize, I think you would have a much bigger tele-vote too.”
Is being in the National Song Contest final, or getting to Eurovision itself, something that can actually be enjoyed, given that it is, after all, a contest? Is that air of competition always there?
“Well you see, I always see the National Song Contest as a chance to have your song heard by a very large audience. That’s the main thing as far as I’m concerned. We write songs to have them heard.”
Aside from Anybody Got A Shoulder, did Charlie have any more new material in the works? Can we look forward to a new collection gracing our collections anytime soon?
“Well, ‘Anybody Got A Shoulder?’ was written over 30 years ago which shows the power of perseverance! I write songs as part of my everyday life, both on my own and with others. It’s very therapeutic to get stuff off your chest in a song. I spend a lot of time recording and re-recording songs in Paul Gurney’s Real World studios, in Longford. We write together as well, myself and Paul. ‘Sometimes’, one song I wrote with Paul, has over 70,000 hits on You-Tube, and that’s without buying the hits! As far as releasing albums is concerned, I think the whole scene has changed ,so there’s not much point in doing that anymore. Most people use itunes or Spotify to either stream or download music. There are very few record shops anymore. So I tend to just print up enough albums to sell at my concerts.”
Not just a hugely successful songwriter and performer, of course, Charlie is also the host of one of the country’s most popular shows on Shannonside Radio.
“You know, Anthony, I fell into radio quite by accident when I was asked to stand in for another presenter. I had no interest whatsoever in being a radio presenter before that. However, after just one programme, I was hooked! I really enjoy presenting and in particular chatting with guests and bringing new music to the airwaves.”
For a man with so many strings to his guitar, I couldn’t let him away without asking if he were to give any new, young or up-and-coming writers or performers out there, one piece of advice in the shape of an important DO THIS…, or one in the shape of a but DON’T DO THAT…., what pieces of wisdom would Charlie share????
“I think there are so many really talented people out there and I have as many as I can on my radio show. But the one thing I would say to them is this: Work really hard at every aspect of what you do. And try not be famous for the sake of being famous, but to be famous for the music that you bring to the people.”
~ On The Right TRAX extends a huge WELL DONE to Charlie and Kat for their Eurosong performance. And of course, we also extend our warmest best wishes and the very best of GOOD LUCK to the night’s winner, our representative in this year’s Eurovision, Molly Sterling, who will sing Playing With Numbers (written by Molly and Greg French) in Vienna!