First Published September 2013
“YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE IN YOUR OWN INSTINCT”
Kieran Goss is one of Ireland’s most respected and eminent craftsmen of song. To many who endeavor to find their own way in that trade, this writer included, he has been an inspirational figure for almost as long as he’s been a public one. I can still recall the very first time I ever heard him sing or speak about the art and craft of songwriting. It was many years ago now, back when Gaybo still ruled as King on the Late Late Show throne. Kieran was a guest one night and what I remember as much as the music side of the conversation, was how great a sense of humour Kieran possessed and how totally down to earth he was. It was one of the first occasions in my life when I realised that it’s actually possible for someone to be able to write these wonderful, magical songs and yet, be a completely normal human being at the same time. Before that revelatory moment there was always the inclination to believe that those who presented the world with such glorious creations of song must surely be in some way ‘different’ to the rest of us, to me.
What Kieran proved that night on the Late Late, was that being no different to the rest of us was exactly how he tapped into his own mine of song. And what is more, and somewhat paradoxically perhaps, it was and remains this ‘sameness’ that enables him to create such uniquely beautiful pieces. In his deftness of touch with a lyric and the way his melodies map the landscape of all human hearts, his songs awaken sleeping memories and feeling with an uncommon and irresistible assurance that all will be well as you journey through time together. The one and only Don Williams, himself the owner of one of the most instantly recognisable voices in American country, once praised Kieran’s, “…amazing ability to reach out to his audience and connect with them in a very special way.” Folks, Don Williams and I could hardly both be wrong! As Kieran sets off on his first Irish tour in a few years, I had the pleasure of catching up with him for a chat recently.
Kieran once chose a song he co-wrote with the great American songwriter Rodney Crowell, Reasons To Leave(Heaven On Earth), as one of his most important songs. The song is about emigration, something Kieran’s familly experienced first-hand when Kieran witnessed some of his own brothers and sisters leave Newry in search of work in the States and Canada. So I was wondered if, now that Ireland is once again in a situation where so many of the nations sons and daughters are having to leave these shores in search of employment elsewhere, Kieran is a believer in the notion that hard times for a country can often result in very fertile ground for the arts community within that country?
“I think it’s like all things, there’s two sides to that question, Anthony. I think there is a certain truth in the assertion that hard times do generate great art. But I don’t think they’re necessary to create it. I do think that we all got a little bit self-congratulatory during the Celtic boom and everyone gets used to a certain amount of comfort in prosperity. But I do think there’s a certain amount of truth in what you’re saying, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be poor, say, to make great art. It’s more about being in touch with your feelings no matter what is around ya, and being in touch with what happens around you. And being in touch with the process of how you actually change a feeling or a thought into a song. And for me, that journey is the same whether in good times or in bad. But certainly the theme of emigration is one that’s very current again. When Rodney (Crowell) and I wrote ‘Reasons To Leave’ we thought that emigration was gonna be a thing of the past. But these days when I sing that song you can see that it’s very present again in peoples’ lives. When I’m abroad and playing it in the States or Canada, or even in England in recent months, you know that a lot of people are affected by emigration. And I think it’s a dangerous situation for Ireland, even on an economic level. Because it seems to me that a lot of the young people who are leaving are the very people we need to rebuild the economy here. Even leaving aside the economics of it, there’s the family and the social and the community level of it, it’s a sad thing when all of that young energy in a town or a village leaves. And my experience, ya know, last year playing in Holland or Germany or Switzerland, was that there were so many young Irish there. It reminded me of the old days, 20, 25 years ago when I stared going out there first. But that’s the reality of the way things are today, Anthony. People need to work and make money and if they can’t do it here, then they head off to wherever they can get work. I haven’t been in Australia in the last 2 or 3 years, but I know friends of mine who have toured there and it’s the exact same situation with the amount of young Irish there.”
Does Kieran think it’s important for songwriters, poets or indeed other artists, to try to comment on, record and document in their work issues that can face society as a whole? Such as the return of mass emigration as a fact of life in Ireland, for example.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily important. I think it depends on the artist, Anthony. I think certainly, in the folk tradition, that would have been a big part of what singers did. From my own point of view, I write about things that personally affect me. Or even something that I’ve observed happening to other people. So for me, as a songwriter, I don’t really take that ‘theme’ approach to writing. A lot of the time I’m not even sure what I’m writing about! I’m following an instinct and a melody, or a sound of words. And what I have found as a writer, is you don’t always have to know what you’re writing about. You know, you hopefully get to a situation where you can let ideas flow. And it’s for another day to actually sit and look at that and work out what exactly was that all about! And it’s at that latter stage that you can craft it into a theme or a message. But I’ve always thought that songwriting was a more personal and more inspiration driven pursuit. So personally, I don’t know about other songwriters, you could ask Christy Moore or someone else that exact same question and get a completely different answer, but for me, no, it wouldn’t be a big part of how I write.”
Was it, I wondered, the type of question that had ever caused Kieran any inner conflict at any time, a need to express his thoughts and opinions through his writing, given that society sometimes sees artists as just ‘entertainers’ and not necessarily as people who also have a right to hold their own views?
“No, it’s never really caused me a lot of bother, to be honest. I take the view that, as an artist, you have to be true to yourself. You can easily say that you find your own voice, but that’s a process and it’s a very hard done process of some days you think you’re really on the ball, but other days you think what you’re writing is rubbish. So it’s a case of believing at a kind of deep level in what you do. And then writing songs. I know a song is finished when I’m happy with it. That’s really my criteria, when I can actually look at it and sing the song and go, I really like this. Then I can go and start singing it to the world or recording it. For me, it’s such a personal thing, songwriting. It’s great when everybody likes something, that’s a bonus. But if I really believe in a song and even if it isn’t a huge hit or a big success, as long as I believe in it, that’s most important. And that’s why, Anthony, when we spoke earlier about ‘Reasons To Leave’, that’s a song that isn’t necessarily a hit. Like, it’s not a song that you’ll hear on the radio. But to me, it’s always gonna be an important song because it’s affected a lot of people and it expressed a lot of stuff that’s happened in my own family.So I would come back to the idea that for an artist, it’s a solo run and you have to believe in your own instinct. And sometimes those instincts are the same as the rest of the world, and sometimes they’re not. But it still leaves you with your unique artist’s voice.”
As a writer, I wondered how disciplined is Kieran? Does he always try and write a certain time every day? Does he go ‘searching’ for songs? Or is he that kind of writer who needs to wait for an idea to come to him first?
“I think it has changed. In the past, Anthony, I was more disciplined. In recent years I’ve been doing a lot of touring and I don’t find touring very conducive to songwriting. When you’re on tour you’re running from place to place, there’s a lot of deadlines, there’s sound-checks, there’s checking into hotels, ya know. Songwriting, for me, happens when I’m more at peace, more still. And I like that, Anthony. I write quite a bit at home, when I am at home. It is disciplined, I suppose, to a degree. But not to a point where there’s any set structure. It depends. When I feel that there’s something to write about, I do have a ‘place’ to go and I put aside time to write. And more importantly, I put aside time to evaluate it. So I am fairly disciplined but I was more so when I did less touring. But in recent years we’ve decided to do an awful lot of foreign touring and I find that a little disruptive to the writing process.”
On the subject of editing, how important is it for Kieran to go back over his work?
“I think editing is a big part of writing, but I wouldn’t underplay the importance of inspiration. That is always the best starting point. I know there are certain days when I write from a very honest place and I don’t look back and analyse it. I just keep going while I have that energy. And when that runs out, normally a few days later, I’ll listen back to the tape. Or I’ll go back over what I’ve written down. It’s a different process. It’s more in your head. It’s less in your heart and more in your head. Everything I’ve ever written has benefited from a little editing. There’s a few songs that came out practically fully formed, where just a tweak here or there was needed. Others took months of work into them, with changes, tryin’ different things, then starting again. So it depends on the song. But my answer would be that inspiration and that creative process are very, very important. But equally so, to go back over it and re-evaluate what you’ve done is also an important part of writing.”