First Published September 2013
THE VALUE OF A GUITAR AND A BLANK PAGE
As he embarks on his first Irish tour in about 6 years, I began the second part of my chat with Newry’s man of music and words Kieran Goss, by talking about another great songwriter, the man behind Garth Brook’s smash hit ‘The Dance’, Tony Arata. He once remarked that whenever he’s struggling to think of something to write about he likes to go to writers’ nights or turn on the radio, just to get what he called a ‘kick-in-the-gut’ that would make him ask himself why he hadn’t thought of what he’d just heard someone else sing. Arata went on to say that while everything that can be said in a song probably has been already, at least to some extent, there’ll always be writers who find a way to say things just that little bit differently. I wondered if Kieran, having been a songwriter now for so long himself, ever worried that he might run out of ways of saying what he wants to say?
“No, not really. I think that would put a terrible stress on you or burden on you. It depends on how you see songwriting. And I see it as just a part of my life. It’s not as if I judge how productive I am by the number of songs I have. For me, songwriting is an important part of my life, but at the same time, it is just a part. Like most people I get on with the reality of all the other stuff that needs to be done. If you’re out on tour then it’s about getting from a to b and getting a gig done, and meeting people. Or if you’re at home, it’s not as if I sit here and get up at 7am in the morning and write songs all day. It [writing] fits into the process of what you’re doing. So I don’t sweat it, to be honest, Anthony. Maybe at this stage I feel that I’ve written enough songs to be able to call myself a songwriter. And enough good ones that I can be proud of. Not all of them, I mean, just cos’ you write it doesn’t mean it’s a great song! Or as a friend of mine says: just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you have to inflict it on the public! A great way of looking at it! So no, I wouldn’t really get stressed about it but I do think there’s an element of truth in what Tony is saying. Sometimes just hearing a great song, as he said, gives you that kick in the stomach or gives you that lift, that then inspires you and moves you into another headspace. And that’s when you start creating songs again. But for me, it doesn’t help to put pressure on myself. It doesn’t achieve anything. I think it’s much more productive to tune into the realities of the present moment you’re living in, whatever they are, because you can write songs about the simplest of things. What, on the face of it looks like the most mundane of things, can turn into a great song. It’s more about trying to be in the moment for me. About trying to be alive in every moment of your day. Whether you are gardening or cooking or whatever. For me that [approach] has always led to songs. There are periods when you’re very prolific, Anthony, and there are periods when you’re not. But it’s not a race. It’s not a competition. It ultimately comes down to the quality of the work and for me, the waiting has always been a big part in assuring that quality.”
One Boy’s Treasure, a track from Kieran’s 2009 album I’ll Be Seeing You, is a co-write with Beth Nielsen Chapman and Kimmie Rhodes, both of whom are very well known names on the Nashville music scene, as of course, is Rodney Crowell, whom Kieran has also written with. From his time working with writers of that calibre, I asked Kieran if he’d noticed any particular character traits that would seem to be more common or more honed among writers who work out of Nashville as compared to elsewhere?
“I think the discipline part that you mentioned at the very beginning would be a very big part. And that’s a very good thing. I think Nashville will impose a structure [on writing]. There has been a culture of collaboration there for many, many years. For a long time, like most Irish writers, I wrote exclusively on my own and I saw that as part of the process. Then in Nashville I really learned to collaborate. But I also learned that ultimately it doesn’t matter how big the name is [that you’re co-writing with], or what their history is, the success of that collaboration comes down to the song. It’s all about how good is that song that you’ve written that day. And my only reservations about Nashville, Anthony, is that sometimes they judge the song just in commercial terms. And I don’t do that. I think Nashville has a tendency to see the success of a songwriting collaboration judged by who records the song and by how much money it generates. For me, I think some of my best songs are not commercial. And as an artist, that’s an important part of me. I actually have pulled back quite a bit from collaboration. I don’t really co-write in the way that I used to, maybe 5 or 6 years ago. I actually enjoy writing on my own a lot more again. I think it’s slower and it’s more deliberate and ultimately, you end up with songs that break your heart a little bit. And songs that actually touch people. Not that ‘One Boy’s Treasure’ isn’t that. ‘One Boy’s Treasure’ is actually a very good song and both of those writers that you mentioned are very good songwriters. But for me, Anthony, it was important that after a few years of that Nashville collaboration situation to come back home and literally just sit in a room with a guitar and a blank page. I think I’ve learned a lot from being in Nashville, but I also learned to value the old way of writing songs as well.”
Would Kieran agree that Nashville is as much a business city as a music city at the end of the day?
“It is, but that’s not to imply any disrespect on the writers who are there. The people you mentioned, Rodney Crowell and Beth Chapman and others, those people are great songwriters. But they’re great songwriters because they’ve found the way that works best for them. And I think that’s the challenge for every writer and every artist. Just find what it is that you want to say uniquely, and have belief and confidence in your way of expressing it, then go out into the world and sing those songs! Doing that has been important for me. And even for an artist who started out in Ireland, it was important to go out into the world and realise that there was a market for, and an audience for, those songs in Holland and Germany and Asia and America. And in recent years I’ve been playing a lot in England. That all kinda gives you confidence to come back home again. I know I’ve been a little bit neglectful of Ireland in terms of performing over the last number of years. But in October I’ll be doing my first Irish tour in about 6 years or something like that. And it’ll be the first time I’ve played the Olympia in Dublin in 10 years! So that’s hardly overplaying, I would suggest! But anyways, I’m delighted to be coming back to Ireland and playing some of these songs again and hopefully people will turn up to hear them!”
From all of his own experiences in the music business, what would Kieran say has been the hardest lesson he’s had to learn? And what has proved to be the most valuable piece of advice passed onto him that he considers to be worth passing onto others in turn?
“I don’t think there was any one incident, but I think when the penny dropped that you are responsible for your own career, not just creatively, but 100%. I think there’s a very attractive notion that somebody else will look after things. There’s all these notions that you’ll find a manager and that he’s the person who will do everything for you. Or there’s one big break that becomes a turning point and it’s plain sailing after that. Neither of those propositions have been my experience at all. My experience has been that you keep doing your best work and you go out and take responsibility for every element of whatever you want to do. Whether it’s writing, or performing or recording, or if you want to pitch your songs to other artists. With all of these things, you ultimately have to be the driving force behind it yourself. And I know from talking to other artists that the driving force for all of them is you have to be all of those things for yourself. Now, you can delegate and the art of delegation is a great art to learn. But ultimately, Anthony, that notion that, ‘Hey man, I’m an artist and someone else looks after the business’, is a bit of a 60’s, hippy hangover and it doesn’t really apply in today’s world. So if there was any one lesson for me, it was just to take responsibility for my own life. If I want to do something, then I have to actively try and make that happen. And thank God a lot of the goals that I set for myself, as a writer and as a performer, I’ve been delighted to achieve. But there’s still a lot more of them to achieve, so I’ll keep moving forward. But for any young artist or songwriter reading this, I would say to them: just be responsible for every aspect of what you do. Believe in your own songwriting, be disciplined in your own songwriting and make your own albums if there’s no-one else who will make them. Go out and do lots of gigging, play to people, win your own audience and in that way you get blessed with a life and a career as a musician. And that has been my biggest achievement. I’m 51 years old, 30 years after beginning and I’m still doing this for a living and enjoying touring and writing songs. And I know I’m very lucky to be able to do that.”