First Published November 2014
THE STORYTELLING SONGMAN
Far too often we leave it far too late to tip our hats to those whose talents touch our lives and our hearts. Only on their departure from this mortal coil do we profess aloud their genius or marvel at the magnificence of their contribution to the world they shared with us. As if, almost, to have done so while they walked among us would have been some sort of crime.
So a few years back when the good folk of Banagher unveiled a beautiful wooden sculpture in honour of a man who is quite possibly the town’s most famous son, singer/songwriter Johnny McEvoy, I, for one, was all for it! And back then, that was when I knew Johnny only by reputation. Since then, however, having now enjoyed the pleasure of the great man’s company, I think there should be two sculptures in his honour! Ahead of Johnny’s concert in the Bridge House Hotel in Tullamore on Sunday, November 30th, I caught up with the man himself for a little bit of a chat over coffee. And we got straight down to the glorious business of songwriting!
Many songwriters say there are three main ‘wells’ they go to for inspiration: one being the memory – as in looking back over their life and people they’ve known; a second would be the heart – people they’ve loved and those who’ve left them heartbroken; and the third would be the soul or the spirit – things in life that they feel passionately about. I wondered if Johnny would often visit these ‘wells’ himself?
“I would do, yeah. You see, I tell stories and that’s how I look upon myself, as a storyteller in song. God only knows sometimes where the ideas do come from, they can come out of the blue. Love songs I find difficult enough to write. But the songs I do write, Anthony, they’re stories, but they’re about events. They might be about war, they might be anti-war. They might well be about love even. Hardships, heartbreak. But they would certainly all come from the heart. No matter what I write, be it good or bad, I believe in it and it comes from inside me. The first serious song I ever wrote was ‘Long Before Your Time’, and that was just a story that came out of nowhere, about a man losing his wife and their child being brought up by him and he having to make the decision of whether to save the child or his wife. A dreadful decision to make. And really where that came from, the idea, I don’t know. But it was from the heart at the same time. I’d scribbled a couple of songs before that one but I could never get any further than the first couple of lines, but ‘Long Before Your Time, that was the first serious one. And ya know, I didn’t think much about it except that I was glad to have written it, but then someone said to me ‘You should record it.’ And when I did that then, and it did so well, I said well maybe this is what I should be doin’! And actually, one of the reasons I wrote it was because I was finding it hard to get original songs. Most of the ones around at the time, the mid-70’s, were cover versions, the ballads having kind of slipped out of favour to an extent. So it was almost a necessity that I wrote it in the first place. When the song did so well for me in the charts I realised I could write a song. And I really got going at it and worked very hard at getting ideas. And what I felt was that my strength was writing stories in the old ballad tradition. Most ballads tell stories and that’s what I was doing, and what I was happy doing.”
Would songwriting be something that helps to ‘centre’ Johnny in his life? Or what would do that?
“Well at the moment what centres me is my grandchildren. As regards being a professional songwriter, singer and musician, I would probably regard myself as a singer first and a songwriter second. But they would come very close together. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you actually finish [writing] the song. If you ever do finish it! Because you’ll always be tweaking things a bit. I’ve recorded songs recently and even since I have I’ve been thinking, ‘Hmm, should have put this bit into it, that bit into it.’ I mean, even from night to night you can change a line or a word here or there. But you’re allowed to do that, YOU wrote the song! I’m lucky, I feel, that I’m still performing. This is my 50th year in show-business. It’s important to me that I try and do it even better now than when I started out, but most importantly, that I try and enjoy it better than I did! And I find that I can now, now that I don’t have the pressure of making a living out of it. So the gigs are more pleasurable, the writing I have more time for. And yet, and this is a contradiction in a way, but a lot of the songs I wrote were written in the back of a transit van! We could be here playing at the Bridge House and I’d get an idea during the middle of the night while I’m singing other songs or while the band are setting up, and what would often happen then is on the way home I’d be thinking about it. And I constantly carried an A4 pad and a felt pen. I had to write it big in the van because it was jumping around so much on the roads! So quite a lot of them were written like that, maybe the bones of them. Then I’d get home and let it lie for a few days before sitting in the room with the guitar again and record it or rewrite it as I’d go along. A few now, over the last few years, have been written at home because I stopped travelling the roads 4 nights a week. That was getting too much for me. I couldn’t enjoy it anymore and it was too much for me so I felt, look, if I’m not enjoying it, I don’t see why I should be doing it, ya know. I only do two tours a year now, the spring and the autumn. And from doing that, I realised that my mind was clear from the travelling and the toil of the nightly gigs, so it was free to go in any direction. I used to write longhand, but now I sit down at the computer and it’s actually easier to do that. That’s what I’ve found anyway, and I could spend hours at home, literally through the night, maybe. Or, you could end up with only four lines at the end of a day. And you leave it there and go back to it, and go over it and over it again until it starts to take shape. And sometimes, Anthony, the song is not what you set out to write at all, it becomes something else. There was a song called ‘The Ballad of John Williams’ that I wrote, and it started out as a song about a Welsh miner. That’s where the name Williams came into it. But somewhere along the line he ended up becoming a passenger on the Titanic! When you’re not travelling the roads you can just sit back and absorb the feelings and the words that come into your head. But sometimes, though, you need a bit of pressure as well, you know, if you have an album coming up, say. So you’ll knuckle down and get stuck into that as well and hopefully you’ll come out with something new. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. And then you can go through periods where nothings happening. You just dry up completely. I’m sort of going through that at the moment, where I find it difficult to get my mind down to it. But I know that when I get back on the road it will start the whole process again.”
So when Johnny starts a song but then finds that it’s going in a different direction than he first thought it was destined for, is it instinct that lets the song go where it wants or was that something he had to learn how to do?
“I let it go and I follow it, Anthony. If I started writing about..let’s say that pen in your hand, but halfway through I find the song is becoming about this glass here, then I let it go to the glass and I follow it. Because that’s where the song, and your sub-conscious, want to go. I didn’t have to learn that, no. I think you either write songs or you don’t. To learn to write commercial songs, you’re talking about ‘moon’ and ‘June’ type songs. They have a certain kind of construction to them. But my songs, I like to think there’s a bit more in them. Now I don’t get many people covering them, but I think that’s because I write them purely for myself in the first place. Another singer might not be able to get out of it what I get out of it, do you know.”
During a period where the songs are hard to find, is it difficult to get through it? Or do you just trust yourself that when the time is right you’ll start ‘finding’ the songs again?
“Yeah, when the time is right. And you’ll know it. Because they’ll start coming into your head when you’re doing the most mundane of things. You could be out in the garden and suddenly…! Or even waiting to go on stage, as has happened to me on many occasions. I find that if I sit down and say. ‘Right, I’m gonna write a song now!’, then that’s it, nothing’s going to happen! The thought comes first. And what I find also with me, is that the melody will come at the same time. So melody and lyrics together. And whereas I might change the words here or there, I never change the melody. That stays the same, whatever came into my head I’ll follow it. I’m lucky in the sense that I can write both at the same time because I know of people who write the words first and find it very difficult to get a melody to suit it then. And they have to go to somebody else for it. But I can’t write with somebody else either. I have to write on my own. Whether it’s in the back of a van after a gig, or sitting down on my own, or at home in bed.”
I wondered if Johnny’s new album, Basement Sessions, was made for people who were already fans or was it an album to try and attract a newer audience?
“A bit of both, to be honest, a bit of both.”
Is that a hard balance to achieve?
“Yeah, it’s hard to do, it is. I had the tour coming up anyway, so what I did for the album was pick songs, fifteen of them, that I will do on the show. So that people at the show, if they like a song I do, they know they can get it on record that same night. There’s loads I left off, mind, but there’re hopefully for another one. Well you always want to broaden your audience, but I think most of my fans would be my kind of age, or younger, down to middle age. I don’t think I’d have an appeal to younger, and to be honest, I don’t write for them anyway. I sing for my age group. And a lot of the songs I sing too, they can melodramatic, a little bit what some might call old-fashioned. But I don’t mind that. I like old-fashioned things, traditional things. I’m slow to change when it comes to that. I’d regard myself as old school, Anthony, I’m just too set in my ways!”
Would Johnny feel that songs these days have perhaps lost the effect that they once held over people, given that, while the likes of iTunes has made music more accessible, it’s also made it a lot cheaper, in terms of how it’s valued as much as what it’s worth?
“I can’t really judge by what’s ‘pop’ at the moment, because I don’t listen to ‘pop’ music. I think there’s always room there for a good deep song, though. You take someone like Leonard Cohen, he’s in his 70s but he, with his songs, has an appeal to younger people who are only discovering him now, whereas I discovered him in ’67! And yet he’s brand new to them. So maybe there’s young people now, or even middle-aged people, who discover me now too, who wouldn’t have heard of me before. There’ll always be good songs, Anthony, even if the majority are bad songs. But yes, songs are easier to access now, much easier than in my time when you had to save up to get them! So there maybe too much out there. But then didn’t Mozart say when he was told there was too many notes in one of his tunes, that it had just the right amount of notes. It couldn’t have any more or any less, either! So if all these songs are coming out, there must be some kind of demand for them. But it’s harder to get a hit now. In my time all you had to do was get on The Late Late Show, sing your song and it would be in the charts the next week. A lot of acts nowadays have to pay for their own albums too. In my days there was always a record company doing that. Now, artists themselves have to put up the money and that’s very difficult. If you’re a young artist and you have no money, then how are you going to record? And the chances of somebody coming along and giving you a 100 grand to do an album, well, it’s very slim!”