Brendan Graham

First Published February 2021

THE UNIVERSAL CONNECTION

Brendan Graham Author and Songwriter at his home in Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

In August of last year eleven year old RUBY MAHER – appearing as RUBY M – took to the stage of hit show THE VOICE KIDS UK and proceeded to turn in a performance that wowed the room, and charmed viewers everywhere. Show judge WILL.I.AM knew he had to have the Newbridge youngster on his team. Ruby’s performance that night can only be described as that of a soul who was simply born to entertain.

Wrapped in the sheer joy of her performance was the unmistakable sense of absolute ease with which she commanded the stage, allowing her to instantly win over the audience. That moment spoke of a confidence both rare and fabulous, and pointed towards a future every bit as bright as the energy that exploded across our screens that summer’s evening.

And now, with her dad Dave and sisters Stacy and Robyn in tow, Ruby is back! And thanks to the most beautiful of songs from the pen of one of Ireland’s greatest ever songsmiths, BRENDAN GRAHAM, the next chapter of Ruby’s story is looking as radiant and ablaze with promise as the moment that made Will.I.Am turn his chair.

LULLABY FOR THE WORLD, co-written by Brendan and James McMillian, stormed towards the top of the Irish charts upon its release in January, giving THE MAHERS a #2 single on the Irish iTunes chart for their debut release as a family. And since going ‘live’, the official video for the song has already amassed more than 150,000 views on the family’s official Facebook music page.

Brendan Graham, as many will immediately call to mind, is a double Eurovision winner, having triumphed with Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids performed by Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington in 1994, and The Voice, performed by Eimear Quinn in 1996. He’s also the vessel through which the song Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears, entered this world, a song which, despite its relative youth in the larger scheme of things, has already entwined itself forever around our collective emotional memory as a nation. God knows, any of those achievements taken alone would be enough to secure a place in our musical and cultural history books.

But a writer of Brendan’s immense talent requires a chapter to himself, at the very least. And a song like You Raise Me Up is another reason why. It’s been made famous around the entire world by the likes of Westlife and Josh Groban, has been played more than one-million times on US radio, and has been covered more 1,400 times (according to the most recently available count!). There’s also  a spoken-word version of You Raise Me Up which Brendan himself has recorded in support of the wonderful work done all around the world by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The Tipp man’s class as a writer is matched in every respect by his class as a person. Brendan is a gentleman whose humility will always wave away assertions that he is a legend of his craft, as well as a master of it. Wave such declarations away though he well might, this truth, however, remains. And we – music lovers and students of the craft of songwriting – will ever preach this truth.

As well as celebrating The Mahers bringing Lullaby For The World to the world, Brendan has also been a busy man with several other artists too. There’s literally a list of noteworthy projects that Brendan has recently been involved with which are worth checking out post-haste. These include The Watchman, a single taken from Eimear Quinn’s new album, Eriu (and co-written with Eimear), recorded with the RTE Concert Orchestra, a track upon which Marty Whelan bestowed the title of ‘song of the year.’ Brendan had four other songs on that particular album too.

With another Tipp man Denis Carey, Brendan also co-wrote the Sean Keane single, The Coast of Labrador, penned Macy’s Widow as recorded by Irish Tenor Anthony Kearns; and co-wrote Cancion de Amor, the title-track from the new Eleanor Shanley and John Feeley album (the Hot Press Folk Albums Collaboration of the Year. There’s also a version of You Raise Me Up which was a pre-Christmas single from the Korean group Contempo Divo, and he had another co-write entitled Mary’s Lament on Secret Garden’s Sacred Night Christmas album, which featured Cathrine Iversen.

Known as a man who is content to do his work in the background while his songs speak for themselves, we were very lucky and honoured that Brendan agreed to have a chat with OTRT about the new single from The Mahers, his song Lullaby For The World.

Brendan has spoken before of the “philosophy of stone walls and bare fields”, and I’ve even heard that there’s a particular rock above Maamstrasna where he likes to go and just sits in contemplation from time to time. So nature and the natural world are clearly things that he feels very connected to. That he would, therefore, write a song such as Lullaby For The World should come as no surprise. But I asked Brendan to tell me what had led him to write the song, and in turn led him to The Mahers…

“I wrote it about fifteen years ago, when climate change was still a big problem. One of the upsides of Covid for me is, because you’re isolated, you have more time to think about things. So I started going back over some older songs that I thought had a bit of promise and dusted them off. It surprised me that basically what I was writing about back then, is even more relevant now. I have a long connection with the Mahers, going back to Ruby Maher’s grandfather, Joey Maher, who was a World Champion handball player. He had a group called the Maher Family, way back in the seventies. They won Opportunity Knocks, with Dave, Ruby’s dad in the band, and I wrote a couple of songs for them back then. From time to time I’d make contact with people I’ve known down through the years, and when I met Dave again he showed me what they were at and how brilliant young Ruby was. And I thought of this song which is basically a conversation between a young person and the world in a dream sequence, where the young person is talking to the world, telling it not to worry, we’ll fix things. And I thought it was very timely.”

“The melody”, observed Brendan, “was written by a wonderful English musician called James McMillan.”

The lyrics of Lullaby For The World are so beautiful that they easily stand alone as a work of poetry as well. And back in 2008, the late Con Houlihan, writing in the Evening Herald at the time, said, “Some of the best poetry being produced in this country today is in the form of song. Christy Moore and Brendan Graham and Jimmy MacCarthy are touched by genius.” People often debate whether or not poetry and lyrics are, or can be, the same thing. Generally speaking, I wondered about Brendan’s thoughts on this divide…

“Well I was very surprised to be included alongside the company of Christy and Jimmy, both of whom have songwriting skills that I have admired for years. They’re both master storytellers and painters of pictures in words. I don’t see the thing as a divide. There are common elements, and the most common is language. Lyrics, I think, are not poems, but they can be poetic, if I can make that distinction. You’d think of Cohen, Dylan, and Kristofferson, a lot of their lyrics are very poetic. A lyric is heard with music, it’s a fairly direct arrow to the heart, whereas poetry is seen – and can be heard – but probably is more of a direct arrow to the intellect. In a lyric, you’ve got three minutes, so you can’t really afford somebody to be wondering what all that was about! And poetry doesn’t have a hook generally, which is a big distinction, because the hook is meant to catch people in. And, as they say in Nashville, people listen backwards. Of course, whatever way you’re expressing your thoughts, the key thing is to connect to the listener or the reader. To me, that’s the most important thing.”

Brendan has described himself as being “a slow writer.” I wondered if he meant that in the sense that he tends to wait for some songs to come to him in the first place, or more so that he waits to get a song right once it has come his way?

“Well it’s all of those things. Sometimes you just get distracted. You get three-quarters of the way through the thing, and it just isn’t quite working. I have a barrel-load of unfinished songs. And as I said to you, what I’ve been doing is going back through them. Some of them are not worth finishing, others are. I suppose there are different ways [of writing], and I’m open to them all. Sometimes, it’s the phone-call, as Sammy Cahn answered once! Somebody rings you, and they need a song for a special occasion or event, or a particular album. The professional side of you as a songwriter responds to that, because people expect you to be able to come up with it, whatever it is. Other times, it’s inspiration, like Crucán na bPáiste, I just had to write that song. Other times then, like with ‘You Raise Me Up’, I’ll get sent a melody, I can hear a story in the melody. But over the years – and I suppose I’ve been writing songs for forty years – I haven’t actually written that many songs. Hence, I’m slow. And I always say to a co-writer, ‘Look, I’m really quite slow!’, so that they’re not expecting the Nashville speed-dating approach to songwriting where you go in at breakfast time and you have the song by lunch-time! And that works for some people. It just doesn’t work for me. If I’m co-writing, I like to retreat from the initial meeting, to get back into my own space and then let the idea germinate. So, the answer to your question is, all of that and everything else. It doesn’t matter to me how the song comes. Sometimes I’ll go to the piano and get a little riff, or sometimes I might hear an expression, or something out of history attracts me and I might make a note of that and then come back to it.”

Brendan mentioned that he’s been writing songs now for forty years, and he also once remarked that, “There’s a sense of magic about any creative process.” But at what stage in his life did he first become aware that this ‘magic’ of the creative process was actually a part of his own life, and would possibly play such a central part? When did he first know he was a writer?

“I suppose it started when, even as a teenager, I was always interested in not just the singer but who wrote the song. So I’d be down at the local chipper at the jukebox, waiting for the arm to pick up the 45 so I could see who wrote it! Don’t ask me why! I always liked English and language, and writing at school. I think it was in the sixties in London that I wrote my first lyric. And it was kind of in answer to Paul McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ I thought Father McKenzie should have had a song of his own, because he was an interesting, mysterious character. So I wrote this lyric called Father Dickens and sent it back to Tommy Swarbrigg, at the time we lived in Mullingar, so I knew Tommy. He and Jimmy [Swarbrigg] came up with a melody. Then, I went to Australia, and I got this album, Johnny McEvoy’s, ‘With An Eye To Your Ear.’ There were all these marvellous full orchestral arrangements on it, songs by Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles, and here in the middle of the whole lot of them, was ‘Father Dickens’! I still have the royalty-cheque, I think it was something like one-pound-one-and nine-pence, from Shaftsbury Music in London. That was a thrill.”

Brendan continued, “When I came back from Australia in ’72, I didn’t really know much about the Eurovision, but I saw it on in a shop window in Ballinasloe – we were living there then – and I thought to myself, God I’d love to write a song for that, without having any idea of how to go about it. But it was just a focus in my mind. That led on then to ’76, and ‘When’ for Red Hurley and even though that year I had two songs in Larry Gogan’s Top Ten. It took me a long time to understand the process, how you have to go into another part of yourself, and that’s where the magic lies. I don’t fully understand the process, but I know when I’m in that space. I suppose when you hit the touchstones in yourself, people around the world are not that much different so you hit the touchstones in them. Now obviously, it’s not just the inspiration, you then have to anvil out the song into something that makes sense to other people. And it’s a wonderful feeling when somebody walks up to you and says, ‘You must have been in my head when you wrote that song.’ You know then that you’ve done your job and that the universal connection is there.”

 LULLABY FOR THE WORLD, written by BRENDAN GRAHAM and James McMillan, and performed by THE MAHERS, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio. 

ENDS

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