Barry Kirwan

First Published December 2017

‘MOMENTS’ LIKE THIS SHOULD MAKE YOUR CHRISTMAS LIST!

How many days left until Christmas? Everybody seems to have a countdown going at this stage. And if you’re anything like me, the ever-decreasing number of days between now and Santa’s descent through chimneys far and wide is probably beginning to finally start pushing you into taking some action on the present front! The great thing about being a country music fan, of course, is that there’s never a shortage of wonderful albums to reach for, or events to pencil into your diary. And this year is no exception. In fact, let me tell you about one album in particular that’s just been released and definitely deserves a place on your Christmas wish-list. It’s called Moments, and it’s the brand new collection from one of Irish country’s finest young talents, Barry Kirwan. 


Barry, of course, comes from Irish country royalty in a manner of speaking, being the son of one of country’s top showmen and true gentlemen, Dominic Kirwan. It should be noted, however, that both men are far too humble to consider themselves anything even close to royalty, but it’s an accurate indication of their standing in the business. Barry, while relatively new on the scene as a solo artist, is neither a stranger nor a newcomer in more general terms, having earned his living as the man behind the drums for Derek Ryan for many’s a year before eventually deciding to go his own way. 
Now, as well as adding Barry’s new album to your Christmas wish-list, you should also leave room for the Christmas Country Concert Tour which comes to Tullamore on December 19th – only a few days before Santa himself, so this is definitely Christmas coming early for country fans! – where Barry, together with Dominic, the Queen of Country herself Philomena Begley, Cliona Hagan and more, will be taking to the stage in the fabulously festive surroundings of the Tullamore Court Hotel. 

Barry officially launched Moments, the follow-up to his hugely popular first album, New Beginnings, to a full-house in the Red Cow last Thursday night, but even so, the Tyrone man was up and at ’em early again the following morning to chat with us about it all. 


“Aye, it was actually a great, great night, so it was, thank God. I was delighted. Long day it was, too, because we were in Tralee on Wednesday night at Radio Kerry’s Night With The Stars show, and then we drove on to Cork to do the Today show with Daithi O’ Se and Maura Derrane yesterday afternoon, and then up to Dublin straight after that. So you could say it’s been a hectic couple of days alright [laughs].” 

So, what kind of moments can Barry’s fans expect from Moments


“Well ‘Moments’ is a twelve-track collection, ten of which are covers, songs that I would have loved growing up, being a massive fan of country music, as I was. So a lot of those ten are the artists and bands I would have loved singin’ along with, ya know. But there’s two originals on there as well, one written by my brother, Colm, and our good friend Bradley Banning, a song called ‘Merry Mary’. And there’s another original song on there which was given to me by Rory Feek (of the American country husband-and-wife duo, Joey and Rory, of which Joey sadly passed away last year), written by Rory and Paul Overstreet, a song called ‘Between The Cracks.’ It’s funny, when I knew I was gonna be makin’ the album, I just kinda out of the blue one day thought I’d give Rory a text and see if he did have anything, cos’ I know he’s a very, very busy man. But he literally came back to me within, I think, two days, and he said let me have a look. The day after that then he sent me an email with the demo of Paul Overstreet singing ‘Between The Cracks’, and it’s a completely original song which hasn’t been recorded by any other artist. So to have that calibre of writers give me a completely original song, I was delighted. It’s a very Don Williams kind of a song, a half-time tempo, with a brush kind of a feel. But you know yourself, Rory is a major lyricist and an amazing storyteller, so the song is really about how things in life can fall between the cracks, small things that you might not realise are big things really, and they’re slipping away. It talks about love and other things that can just slip away from you so easily if you just take your eye off the ball, so to speak.” 

And the story behind the other original, Merry Mary


“It tells the story of a young lad who becomes friends with a girl when he’s really, really young, and obviously likes her, and tells how they progress in life, ya know, from an early age.”

I always love finding out exactly why albums end up being called what they are, so with Moments, I wondered was there a track of the same name included in the set? 


“There is a track on there called ‘Moments’, aye. And it’s funny, this album has been released by Rosette Records, and it’s the first album I’ve done with them. But at the very first meeting I had with them, with Mick Durkin, down in Dublin, we were just talking about different songs that we both liked, just general chat really. It wasn’t even about me releasing an album with them at that stage. We just pretty much talked music for about two hours. And as it happened, ‘Moments’ was a song he mentioned to me that he thought would be a good one to record, that it has a great message. It was originally done by a band called Emerson Drive, a Canadian band, and they had a number one hit with it in 2005. But not long after that, 2007 I think, their guitarist was killed in an accident. So they’ve never really had the same kind of success since then, sadly. But nowadays, with mental health being a major issue everywhere, and homelessness as well, ”Moments’ is just a great message song because it kinda talks about both. And actually, Bradley Banning, the co-writer on ‘Merry Mary’ with Colm – we’ve become very good friends with him – but he was Emerson Drive’s tour manager for the past few years. The last time I was in Nashville I actually had dinner with one of the guys from Emerson Drive, so it’s all a bit crazy the way things can fall into place and link up.” 

On any artists new album, every song is special to them in some way. And of course the originals usually even more so, because often times no-one else will have recorded them or put them out there before. But is there a particular song on Moments that Barry is especially looking forward to fans hearing? 


“It’s funny, I think a lot of artists will tell you that when you record albums you’re working on it so much that you don’t really like listening to it after! [laughs]. But I have to say, the other night there I was driving home from a gig and I had the album on the whole way down the road and I just loved listening to every track, so I did. But to answer your question, there’s a song on the album called ‘Why Don’t You Spend The Night’, and it seems to be a favourite for a lot of people who have heard it, and it’s definitely a favourite of mine. My manager actually suggested that song to me. I think it was written by Bob McDill, and recorded by Ronnie Milsap. It’s just a lovely, lovely song. But that’s just one of the ones I like. I mean, I’ve been a massive Garth Brooks fan over the years as well, and ‘The Dance’ has always been a favourite of mine. And even though it’s such an iconic song, and there’s nothing much you can do to change it, I really love what Jonathon Owens (the album’s producer) has done with this version.” 

With December now upon us, and the Christmas season well underway, I asked Barry if he was looking forward to all the coming weeks would bring, including his trip to Tullamore on December 19th as part of the Christmas Country Concert Tour? 


“I absolutely love Christmas, getting to spend some time with family. And my partner and myself have just moved into a new house, and we’re expecting a new baby as well in February, so it’s exciting times ahead! This will be our first and last Christmas alone in this house. Yeah, Christmas is always a great time of the year, and obviously Colm comes home from the States as well. And the tour, yeah, I did it with Brian (Cunningham, the promoter) last year for the first time. And again, I think all artists on the Irish country scene will tell ya, it’s just always great to get to spend some time with other artists cos’ we don’t really get a chance through the rest of the year. And sure the characters that are on this tour, the likes of Philomena Begley, and even Cliona as well, it’s good banter on the road and it’s good fun to be around.” 

And if Barry could be assured that his own letter to Santa would make it straight into the great man’s hands, what would Mr. Claus be asked for this year? 


“What would it be? Well I think I’d love a number one album if I could possibly have that! [laughs]” 

ENDS

Ed Holland

First Published June 2017

A HURRICANE AT HARVEST TIME

Since first appearing on the country music scene in Ireland in the last few years, Mayo based band Hurricane Highway have been gathering new fans as fast as they’ve been releasing some top quality tunes. And that’s pretty fast! The music, however, is just one of the reasons why the band have come so far in such a short time. 


Another, and one that’s equally as important, is the fact that frontman and lead-singer Ed Holland, and band co-founder Kevin Collins, are two of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. And funny, too. What you see is what you get with both men, and what you’ll also get whenever you’re in their company is some good laughs. They take their music seriously, but they know life is to be enjoyed. So they make it as enjoyable as they can for themselves and those around them.


Ed and I had been trying to make our diaries match up for some time so we could have a chat about all the exciting things that have been happening for Hurricane Highway. Sadly, though, we were finally able to catch up on the morning after the terrible events at the M.E.N. Arena in Manchester a couple of weeks back, when twenty-two innocent men, women, and children were murdered in cold blood by a callous, and cowardly, act of terrorism. And equally sadly, our chat on that morning is now published here only a few days after yet another despicable terror attack in London.
We began by Ed telling me how he’d become aware of unfolding events in Manchester the night of the atrocity at the M.E.N. Arena….


“Well basically I was havin’ a kind of a sleepless night so I logged onto Facebook, and I hadn’t heard anything at that stage cos’ I’d been watchin’ a bit of a film before I went to bed. I hadn’t even switched over to the news. So I logged onto Facebook, saw what was happening, and my first thought was just shock, horror straight away. I mean, at a concert, such a cowardly attack, ya know. I jumped up outta bed and I switched on Sky News, that’s what I did. It was horrific, such a helpless feeling. Needless to say, myself and Kevin (Collins, from Hurricane Highway), and everyone involved with the band send our condolences and our deepest sympathies to all of those affected and to Manchester.”


Moving on to happier matters, and one of the main reasons why we’d scheduled our chat in the first place, the release of Hurricane Highway’s fantastic debut album, ‘Exposed’, in late April. As the days ticked down to the album finally being released, I wondered what was life like for the band as they prepared for their big day? 

“Very nervous! [laughs]. And excited, too. Both. So much work went into it, three years of work and seven singles in that time. There was anticipation, nerves, and excitement all at once. And anxiety, too, I’ll be honest [laughs]. All of those emotions were involved. And we weren’t expecting to hit the number one spot with it, we thought if we charted at all it would be great because there’s so much competition out there. So to actually do that, to get to number one, we were delighted. And the way it’s been received so far, and the airplay it’s been getting, it’s actually given life again to all the older singles. It’s been great.” 


What had Ed been most worried about around the album’s launch?


“I suppose any artist’s biggest worry is that it wouldn’t realise the potential you feel it should. Especially when you put so much into something, with no stone left unturned, and that’s really the way we kind of tried to deliver each song and our videos, as we were goin’ along. Doin’ it all to the best of our own abilities anyway. So you’d worry that certain people mightn’t like it, that it might get slated. I haven’t really thought about it like this before, it’s a good question.” 


So, for fans who may not have managed to get their hands on a copy yet, what can they expect to find on the album? Will all seven singles be there?


“Yeah, all seven singles are on ‘Exposed’, everything we’ve done since the very beginning. There’s eleven tracks in total on there, so a good few new ones as well. We have the current single, ‘Make You Mine’, which is track one on the album, and we’re hoping to release another single from it in September. We’re already workin’ on new stuff cos’ goin’ into next year we’ll be back in the studio again workin’ on the next album. We’ll probably pick a song to be the new single and test the water with it. That system kinda works for us. A lot of other artists maybe record the whole album then pick the best singles out of it, but we kinda do it the other way round [laughs]. But that just seemed to be the way it happened, there wasn’t any plan. We recorded ‘Your Man’ and that took off with all the regional radio stations. Then we were under pressure to get somethin’ else out after that, and so on it went. Yeah, so that’s kind of how it happened.”


The release of Exposed was one huge date in the diary for Hurricane Highway in 2017, and there’s another coming up in August when the band will be among an impressive homegrown contingent who will entertain country music fans at Harvest Fest. 


“Yeah, Aiken Promotions rang us on a Friday and asked would we be available to go to a press-conference on a Monday, the official launch of the festival, so we said absolutely! On the Saturday they rang us again just to confirm everything and say they were delighted to have us as part of the line-up. And we were obviously pretty delighted with that, too, of course [laughs]. So we’re up in Enniskillen on the Saturday, the 26th, and Westport then on the Sunday, the 27th. We have some other good shows comin’ up too in the next while. We’re in the Roisin Dubh in Galway on the 4th of August, we’re in Ballymaloe at their festival on the 1st of July, and a few more cool ones like those, too.” 


Hurricane Highway, for those of you who may not know, are very much a country-rock band with a distinctly American country influence. And to the best of this writer’s knowledge, Hurricane Highway are also the only band of their kind in Ireland. Given that fact, how would Ed describe the journey of trying to establish themselves? 


“It’s been a building process, for definite. I’ll have to say that. You’re competing with all the main contenders who are in the charts, and then there’s a certain flavor of country too, so you’re goin’ to be competing with the country stars as well. Ours is more of a cross-over style, though, so there’s a small percentage of the market that we’re lookin’ at in some ways. But look, I suppose it’s about carving out a niche for ourselves in that market, really. And that’s the way it’s been from the start. So we’ve been building it all song by song. So people are getting to like us through the songs, more so than just because we happen to be the only band of our kind or anything like that, ya know. A lot of people have come up to us and said, ‘You’re brave for goin’ down the route you have’, and what they mean by that, I think, is that sometimes you’ll see even some of the big country acts comin’ in from America, the ones that are kind of doin’ what we’re doin’, and it can be hard for them in Ireland, too.”


At this stage, I suggest to Ed that we better bring his Hurricane Highway co-founder Kevin Collins into the conversation, or he won’t be too pleased with either of us! 


“[Laughs], I suppose we better! Yeah, it was myself and Kevin that started Hurricane Highway. Kevin’s wife passed away a couple of years ago and he was goin’ through a kind of a hard time. And I was just after breakin’ up from a twelve year relationship around the same time. Now I’d known Kevin alright, but not very well. Anyway, he was playin’ in a bar in Westport and I went in when he was playin’ one night, and he asked me up to sing a song. So up I went, and I sang ‘Sweet Sixteen.’ Now I only found out a couple of months ago that this was actually his wife’s favourite song, which was a bit of a mad coincidence. But we’ve always felt like there was something kinda guiding us along the way, with all of the positive things that have happened. It’s been an amazing journey. So the band helped Kevin in that way, brought him out of that place he was in and gave him a kind of a distraction, I suppose you could call it. We just really bounce well off each other musically. Kevin came to me with ‘Your Man’ and said, ‘Hey, I think we should record this’, and that’s how the whole journey started. We recorded it, and from that Hurricane Highway was born. So out of bad can come good, ya know.”


I wondered if there had been any particular piece of advice that’s ever come Ed’s way, about either life in general or life in the music business, that has really helped to shape him?


“Oh yeah, jeez, that’s a tough one. But yeah, there is, plenty. I suppose one would definitely be to enjoy the journey because you don’t know what the destination is gonna be like! And that really applies to so much in life, including what happened yesterday in Manchester, ya know. Because you just don’t know what’s goin’ to happen, you have to really live in the day, I think. There’s certain things that everybody has to plan in life, but you can’t be livin’ in next August or whatever. It has to be for today, for the moment you’re in right now. We know the work we have to do for Hurricane Highway, and I know the work I have to do for it myself, but it’s still important to enjoy every part of it. And that’s more what we’re tryin’ to do with Hurricane Highway, more so than saying, well we want to reach such a peak, but never knowing if we’ll ever get there, ya know. You have to set standards, and you have to set goals, and try to achieve them all even though there’ll be some you won’t. And in this business it’s very tough because you do get a lot of knock-backs. But that’s the music business, it’s one of the toughest businesses to be in, so you have to be able to take it. I think acceptance is key as well, acceptance of life’s circumstances. Accepting life on life’s terms, I suppose.”


If it was in Ed’s power to change one thing about the country music scene in Ireland, a change that he feels would be for the better and for the greater good, what would it be? 


“I’d stop people from jiving!! [laughs]. I’d get them to sit down and then they might go to more concerts! [laughs]. Ah no, I’m only joking there. I know plenty of people who are mad into jiving, they love it. But I think people sitting down to enjoy more country artists, concert style, that mightn’t be such a bad thing either, ya know! [laughs]”


To wrap things up, I decided to really get Ed thinking! So, if a movie was about to be made of Ed’s life, what would it be called? And not only that, but what songs would play over the opening and closing credits?


“That’s a tough one now! I’d have to think about that! I don’t know, ‘Exposed’, maybe, get a bit of promotion out of it for the album, too! [laughs]. I’ll probably be thinkin’ about this later and I’ll come up with a great answer altogether! I’ll ring ya back later! [laughs] And songs? Right, for the opening credits. Well I have to look at this in two different ways if it’s a movie about my life. Are we looking at the happiness, or the sad parts, ya know? I think, Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’, is that too cheesy? [laughs] I don’t know really. But there’s a song or two on the album which are very meaningful to us. ‘More Than I Could Be’ is one, track seven, and ‘If This Is Goodbye’, track number ten. Those two songs explain so much actually, they’d be great for a movie.”


ENDS

Niamh Farrell

First Published May 2017

THE ‘HAM SANDWICH’ EVEN A VEGETARIAN SHOULD LOVE

HamsandwicH-2015-Pic-1-Credit-Dara-Munnis (1)(Photo Credit, Dara Munnis)

We’ve all heard the saying about how you should never judge a book by its cover, right? Well, the same applies to judging a band by its name. And as far as the latter goes, I have to hold my hands up and confess to such a crime. For far too long I’ve ignored Ham Sandwich because of their name alone. Being a vegetarian, of course, may also have played into my reasoning a little bit. I don’t like ham sandwiches anyway, let alone as a band name of all things! But, the loss has been mine, and I can say that with my hand on my heart. As far as the band goes, that is!

In doing my research for this chat with the band’s lead singer, Niamh Farrell, I listened to their music for the first time. I mean properly listened to it, not just a few seconds here or there. And the result? Well I can’t get their song ‘Illuminate’ out of my head, for one thing. I also don’t want to. I love it. The same with ‘Ants’, and ‘All Worthwhile.’ And I’ve got an order in for all of their albums. I’ve got myself some catching up to do on this one! If the band’s music alone didn’t win me over, then some time in the company of Niamh definitely would have anyway. For a fun interview on a Monday morning, this one will take some beating.

The main reason Niamh and I were chatting was because Ham Sandwich are performing at the award-winning Bare In The Woods festival in Portarlington next month. I began by asking Niamh if the band were looking forward to playing there on June 11th?

“Yeah, definitely. Cos’ we’ve never played it before and we’re really excited about it. It’s a great, really mixed line-up, which I really like about it. It’s definitely got something for everybody. So yeah, we can’t wait for it. It’s the first year I think that it’s moved to a three-day festival, so that’s exciting for the guys who run it, ya know, being able to have way more music on, with so many great Irish acts on the bill as well. Yeah, we’re really lookin’ forward to it.” 

Will they just be coming down on the day they actually perform themselves or will they be able to take in one of the other three days of the festival as well?

“We’ll probably be there on the day we’re performing cos’ I’m nearly sure we have a gig on the day before it as well, so we’ll travel down probably early enough and get to see some bands during the day. I think Helmet are on the same day as us and I know our drummer is really lookin’ forward to seeing them, so it should be a good night. We’re definitely gonna stick around. We kind of always tend to do that at festivals when we can, cos’ it’s just always such a nice buzz. You get to see people you haven’t seen in a long time and it’s always a really nice vibe.” 

From Niamh’s point of view as an artist, I wondered what makes a festival a great one to perform at?

“Hmm, gosh that’s a very good question. I don’t know, there’s so many different elements. We’ve played festivals on rainy days and on sunny days, and definitely the sunny days would be better than the rainy ones! [laughs]. It doesn’t really matter what time you’re on at at a festival either, I don’t think, because people who go to festivals tend to be up-and-at’em early, ya know, and out watching music and stuff. So the time of the day is not a factor really. Stuff that’s more family orientated as well, it’s always nice to see families in the crowd and kids out for the day and dancing along. That’s always great. There’s a mixed bag of things that all lead to a good festival.” 

Without necessarily naming names, had Niamh ever experienced any festival disasters during her time in Ham Sandwich?

“Yes! [laughs]. Yeah, there was one time we played somewhere and there was a guy cutting out a part of the stage with an angle grinder right behind Ollie’s drums, and you could hear it all through the drum mic. That was a bit of a disaster! [laughs]. Yeah, a bit of a nightmare! And I remember once we played a festival somewhere that had to actually be called off because the rain was so bad that the stage started sliding down a hill!! [laughs]. We stayed the night at the festival but all the music was called off, but there was a party inside this massive big tent that had been put up. Stuff like that does happen, but I think it always turns out to be a good laugh in the end, no matter what the disaster [laughs].” 

Ham Sandwich‘s latest album is the critically acclaimed ‘Stories From The Surface’, which was released in 2015, so it’s still a relatively young album by any measure. But that fact not withstanding, have the band begun work on the follow up yet?

“Yeah, we were away for a songwriting weekend to kind of get our heads back together again. We’ve been sending demos to one another and stuff, but this was the first time we got together in a while to actually write. So yeah, we’ve got some good ideas on the go. The plan is to just work on stuff like that and see where it takes us. We haven’t got any solid plans in place yet. We don’t have a date for an album release or anything like that. We kinda just want to see what we can come up with first, ya know.”

I’d read somewhere that Niamh once confessed to never having listened back to ‘Carry The Meek’, the band’s debut album, or indeed, to their sophomore collection ‘White Fox.’ And yet, she’s also admitted that this isn’t the case with ‘Stories From The Surface’, which she has no qualms about listening back to. I wondered if Niamh knew why this was?

“Yeah, well I wouldn’t be listening to it [‘Stories…’] every day or anything! [laughs]. I don’t mean it like that. I don’t know. It’s not that a lot more work went into it, but it was a real journey of an album for us to make. So I’m really proud of that album. Not to say that I’m not proud of the other ones, of course. I think as well, that just as a person when you listen back to something you did, what, like nine years ago, you’re a bit like, ‘Aaaagh’, ya know [laughs]. It’s just kinda weird to listen to it sometimes. But making certain songs on that album [Stories From The Surface] were definitely a journey for us, and they changed a lot over the course of writing and recording and stuff. And we’re really proud of how they turned out in the end.” 

Ham Sandwich‘s second album, the aforementioned ‘White Fox’ was among those included in Tony Clayton-Lea’s 2012 book, ‘101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die)’, a noteworthy achievement for any band, let alone for any band’s second record. And Billy Corgan, he of Smashing Pumpkins fame, once requested a copy of Ham Sandwich‘s album so he could listen to their music while he was here in Ireland. When things like that happen, I asked Niamh, what on earth does it feel like?

“Just that it’s all kinda nuts really! That you’ve helped to make something that people want to hear and they really enjoy. It’s unreal that somebody thinks one of your albums should go into a book like that. It’s unreal that someone should think that about something that you helped to make, it’s a little bit surreal when something like that happens. But it’s all great, like, it all adds to your reputation and what people think about your music.” 

And when things like I had mentioned do happen, does it change how you approach making music from then on?

“Not really. I think if you let yourself feel the pressure of something like that, you’d be doin’ yourself an insult. What we do is we just want to make music that people will enjoy, and that we’ll enjoy, too, because we’ll have to play these songs [laughs]. You can’t really let yourself be pressurised into thinkin’ we have to write another album that will get us into another book! [laughs]. Because you’re goin’ about it all the wrong then and I think you’d probably make music that would be a bit insincere.” 

On the subject of making music, I wondered how the songwriting process tends to work within Ham Sandwich?

“With us normally Darcy or Podge will come in with a guitar melody and riffs and things, and then what we do is we all sit down together and work out the bass and drums. And once we have the basic structure of the song, the guys will play it over and over, and myself and Podge will work on the vocals, melodies, and lyrics. Sometimes it might just be three of us, or four of us, or even two of us, ya know, but it kind of always works the same way. We build it up like a lego house, putting the bricks on top of one another. And then we might kind of mess around with the structure once we have the vocal melody a bit more solid, that kind of thing. It’s an interesting process, and different people do work in different ways. I was talkin’ to another musician yesterday about this, and I was tellin’ him how we work. And he was like, ‘Jesus, there’s no way we could work like that!’ They do it an entirely different way, but each to their own. I think everybody does it a different way.” 

Does being a mum affect the way Niamh writes now?

“I don’t know. I guess, yeah. I guess ‘Illuminate’ was kind of about youth and being young. I guess yeah, it maybe makes you look back a bit more on your own childhood. But as far as writing about being a mam, no, I haven’t written one of those songs yet [laughs]. I think it makes you look back and appreciate what your childhood was, because you’re watching somebody else go through that now, and trying to guide them along the way.” 

Every band, in their early days, tries to get as many opening act spots as they can with bigger bands because it’s good for their profile. And once upon a time, Ham Sandwich just happened to open for….Whitesnake?!

“Oh Jesus, yeah, we did [laughs]. Oh God. I remember the phone call with our late manager, Derek Nally. I was living in an apartment in town and getting up one morning and getting the call. He’d ring one of us every day anyway, so it wasn’t something out of the blue. He said, ‘I’ve got ye the chance to support Whitesnake, their support band has pulled out for tonight, tomorrow, and the next night’, I think it was. It was just nuts! The kind of thing where you just say, and without even thinkin’, ‘Yeah, alright!’ [laughs]. Oh God, thinkin’ back on those gigs now, it was just hilarious. Us, a bunch of messers called Ham Sandwich goin’ out to a crowd of older men with heavy metal hair and tee-shirts! It was a little bit nuts, ya know. There was a lot of choice things shouted up at me during the show! [laughs]. But it was very exciting for us at the time, I remember we were all really buzzin’ about it, ya know, we were like, ‘This is huge! This is Whitesnake! And in the Olympia!’ I think it was our first time to play the Olympia too. It was definitely an experience! [laughs].” 

We’re in that part of the year now where all of the big festivals and gigs, from Bare In The Woods to Electric Picnice to Slane, are within sight. So what’s the best gig that Niamh had ever been to as a fan?

“There’s a couple. I vividly remember going to see The Cure at..Witness, I think it was? Or was it Oxegen? But I remember getting up to the front and I think I cried through the whole thing! [laughs]. And LCD Soundsystem at the Cradaddy stage at the Electric Arena, that was unbelievable. And I saw Christine and the Queens last year at Longitude, and that was an amazing show. A completely different kind of show. With that kind of indie/electro pop, there’s no instruments on stage, it’s just her and two dancers, and it was just incredible. Incredible!” 

And is there anyone Niamh would love to see perform ‘live’ but the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet?

“Hmm, that’s a good one. Let me see…Radiohead, yeah, Radiohead. I’ve never seen them before. I’ve seen some of the ‘live’ stuff they’ve done at festivals in Europe this year so far, and I need to go and actually see them ‘live’ myself. Cos’ most of my friends have seen Radiohead at least three times now [laughs], and I haven’t even seen them once! So they’re at the top of the list, for sure.” 

Niamh and the band have been on the scene in Ireland for long enough now to surely have encountered some things that could, at best, be described as pet hates, in terms of some of what tends to happen all too often. So, I was curious to know what one change would Niamh make within the scene, if it was within her power to do so, that she thought would be a major change for the better?

“Bands being offered ‘exposure’ for playing music! That STILL happens! I was only talkin’ to another couple of musicians about it yesterday. It’s kind of a runnin’ joke among ourselves at this stage, ‘Yeah, I’ll give ya some exposure for playing’, ya know what I mean! But it pisses me off, it really does. Because so many young bands get caught up playing an hour and a half gigs for FREE because somebody says they’ll get them some exposure from it, or promising them that someone in particular will be there, something like that. An end to all that bullsh*t would be nice, because it is rife in the music scene. And it will always be until people start manning up. Because you can say no to these things. You don’t have to say yes to everything. You might be promised a good bit of ‘exposure’ for it, but you might end up looking back on it and thinking, ‘I really shouldn’t have done that’, or whatever. Young bands need to realise that they have it in their power to just say no! They can say they’ll do the gig if they get their petrol costs covered, maybe get a few beers, and even fifty quid towards the fact that they’ll be travelling to play the gig. But I see so many people getting caught in the trap of spending their own money to go and work, basically! Ya know what I mean? Which is nuts, like. People have to realise that musicians are providing a service. When you go and you do your gigs, you’re entertaining people. But there’s certain people out there who really devalue that, or don’t even think it has a value! It’s just music, like [to them], and sure music should be free! And that’s such a shame.” 

Pretty much in the same way that downloads, being able to buy a song for as little as ninety-nine cent, has also devalued music, I suggested.

“Absolutely! And what’s happened now is that people don’t buy albums anymore, they buy singles. They buy songs. But by doin’ that you can miss out on that gem that can be on an album that you’re not gonna hear otherwise. And when you think of it like that, it’s such a shame. Cos’I remember buyin’ cds [albums] and you’d go and you’d listen to the whole thing over and over again. Whereas nowadays, people hear a song on the radio and they go, ‘Oh that’s great, I’ll buy that’, without ever even lookin’ at any of that person’s back catalogue of music. They’re so much being lost because of that!” 

~ Ham Sandwich are; Niamh Farrell, Podge McNamee, Brian Darcy, David McEnroe, and Ollie Murphy.

 

ENDS

Jimmy MacCarthy

First Published July 2014

ROMANCING THE WORD AND THE WORLD

jimmy m

His are the songs that always end the night. When it’s 3 or 4am somewhere in the kitchen or the sitting room of a home, or in the bar of a public house (both places where, for different reasons, albeit, no strangers exist), when hearts are unlocked and memories unchained, when a reverent hush descends as the first sounds float from the singer’s soul. ‘No Frontiers’, maybe. ‘As I Leave Behind Neidin’, surely. ‘Katie’, hopefully. And ‘Ride On’, definitely. Not everyone present might know the man behind those songs, but by God, they know his songs. There’s every chance that in centuries to come, Jimmy MacCarthy’s pen will have attained a Holy Grail like status among future generations of songwriters. Sure it has already! So what a pleasure it was for me to spend some time chatting with such a master of his craft on one of these recent delightful summer evenings we’ve enjoyed.

 

I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing Jimmy perform live once, but that was in the beautiful surrounds of the wonderful Arts Theatre in Birr. One of the things which struck me very early in that night’s performance and which impressed me immensely was the level of intimacy which Jimmy was able to create between himself and the audience. I wondered if this was something Jimmy had always been able to do so well or if it was another part of his craft mastered through the years?

 

“I think it’s always been fairly intimate with me alright, probably for a good 20, 25 years anyway, easy. But I think it’s become more relaxed than it was, for me anyway, and because it’s more relaxed it’s far more enjoyable. I wish for people to be at ease, Anthony, and one of the things about myself is that, as an audience myself, I can actually feel very uncomfortable sometimes. And I remember that feeling and I come from the point of view that what’s most general is most personal. So if I can feel ill at ease as an audience, then anybody can. So what I do is I speak to people, a lot, unfortunately!”

 

Even though Jimmy laughed as he said that, I confessed that for me, and for many more I’m sure, that particular fact, that he likes to talk so much between songs, was one of the reasons I loved watching him perform live that evening in Birr.

 

“Well the thing is, Anthony, I’m unable to not do it. So it’s quite easy for me to do that part. I think it came to me later in life when I became more relaxed myself, I think that’s true.”

 

At one stage in his life Jimmy actually stopped performing for nearly 5 years. Speaking about that time, he once said that it was because ‘Life stopped me.’ A certain degree of solitude and intensity are often regarded as important for songwriters, so I wondered if Jimmy felt he had now found a balance again between ‘enough’ and ‘too much’?

 

“You know life itself can throw all sorts of curve-balls at anybody, it doesn’t not happen to you just because you’re a performer. It’s the same for me as for anybody else, Anthony. When I wasn’t my best within myself, I didn’t want to be putting myself in front of anybody. It’s a thing that I have really, I have to be fairly clear in myself before I go in front of people. Therefore, I think, people can have a more relaxed, enjoyable experience when I’m feeling like that. And there was a few years when I wasn’t feeling like that, clear in myself, at my best within myself. Even though I wrote during those times, I still was ill at ease slightly. And I think if you’re ill at ease with yourself then you’re going to be ill at ease with the world too. I think it comes through.”

 

And did Jimmy feel that applied to his songwriting as well in any way? If he was in a good place within himself, would he feel that he could write better? Or if in a bad place, could writing be a way out of that space, perhaps?

 

“Well traditionally, if I was in a kind of a shaky enough place, in the early days anyway, I basically wrote constantly. Now I still write constantly these days anyway. I am different, though now, I’m older in myself, and also, what it all means to me is after becoming much clearer than it was then. I understand now that it’s a privilege to have a conduit for your creative output and for me, the highest part of whatever offering I have has got to do with creativity. I got that from my mother, Anthony, she was a very creative person. And I actually believe I wouldn’t have become a performer if I didn’t have to. In a way, when you have as many songs as I have, they sort of become like your children. So if I didn’t do this myself, perform that is, so many of them mightn’t have had an airing at all. And I still think that’s the truth today. I’ve been writing fairly prolifically my whole life and yet there’s still so many songs that people haven’t heard. the main-stays of my set are the most well-known of my songs, but there’s always a bunch of the ones that aren’t heard that often that I try to bring in too, on a revolving basis.”

 

Many songwriters are noted people-watchers and with Jimmy coming from a family of 12, I imagined there would always have been plenty going on around him, so plenty to keep an eye on. Did that family background, would he say, together with the influence of his mother, of course, have influenced his songwriting?

 

“Well my mother was a powerfully creative person and she encouraged creativity and I think that is where it came from. My brother Sean is a painter and all the rest all have some sort of gift. Another brother, Ruairi, is a jewellery maker. They all have something, a sense of creativity, no matter what their jobs. And I believe that people at large in the world all have their own creativity. It’s just that it all doesn’t manifest in the obvious; poetry, acting or singing, say.”

 

‘Warmer For The Spark’ is a tribute album to Jimmy and his songs which features many of the finest voices ever to hush a venue in this country and indeed, all across the world (Mary and Frances Black, Christy Moore, Maura O’ Connell, Mary Coughlan and Tommy Flemming). When he hears other artists cover his songs, though, is it like hearing his songs anew again?

 

“I always hear them as my songs and I’ve been fairly lucky, Anthony, in that they always remain identifiable to me. I was lucky with the people involved here in Ireland, not only with the artists, but with the producers as well, Declan Sinnott and Donal Lunny, for instance. They’re people who are powerfully creative themselves and when they look at something, they look at it often from a very wonderful place and rarely would they not get the essence of the song’s original idea. I think it’s true to say that they can respect the integrity of the songs.”

 

Jimmy has also been the subject of 2 special television tributes. Do such tributes ignite or release a new vein of writing with the confidence they must bring, I wondered, or is it more a case of they bring their own pressures to maintain the success already achieved?

 

“I don’t know, Anthony. The thing about it is, as the expression goes; ‘Some people have something to sell, and some people have something to say.’ With me, it’s really always been something to say, that’s what I do, no matter what the result might be. It’s within the rhythm of my life to create songs.”

 

Jimmy has often been described as being a romantic with a capital R. I asked him about this, and the fact that he’s also said he still loves those he’s loved romantically in his past.

 

“When I say romance with a capital R, I mean the great romance rather than the boy/girl, lesser romance. Not that I don’t still love all the people I’ve been close to, because you know, the people you get closest to are the people who form you most. You trust them enough for that transformation, whether it be for good or for ill, to happen. And change is an essential part of not only an artist’s life, but of a human being’s life. But romance with a capital R is really the great romance. Like, I bought a place down here [in Jenkinstown, Killkenny], it’s the remains of an old building, and I put everything I had and hadn’t into it! That was romance with a capital R! It’s the place where Thomas Moore wrote ‘The Last Rose of Summer’, and I was inspired by the idea of that. So it’s that element of romance; the romance of art, the romance of beauty. All romance. I’ve been a sucker for romance all of my life.”

 

In Jimmy’s book, ‘Ride On – In Song And Story’, while speaking of his song ‘The Highest Point’, he remarked that it’s his dream to write a truly great song. Many would say, and I would be among the loudest in such a chorus, that Jimmy has already gifted the world many, many truly great songs. But what, for him, makes a truly great song?

 

“A truly great song to me would be ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.’ A truly great song will always survive one way or another. It will survive in spit of yourself. It will resonate within the hearts of humans for a long, long time.”

 

I wondered if, during the course of writing a song, Jimmy is ever aware of just how good the song he’s writing is? Or is that something that he can’t think too much about during the creative process?

 

“There is a moment with some songs where you kind of say, ‘There’s something wonderful about this’, and it makes you sit up straight and really watch your q’s and p’s, and dot your i’s. You become acutely aware that what you’re doing deserves an alertness. Sometimes I’ve written songs and even though there’s nothing wrong with them and they have nice tunes and lyrics and you feel inspired by it…but…, but occasionally there is a moment where some ‘bell’ goes off and you realise that this is ‘something.’ So then you become more driven by it. You become more fussy about it. Once that becomes clear within your mind, you want to extract the best from yourself. Because you’ve become aware that it’s not ordinary. That something does happen. There’s a sort of sound that says to you, ‘This is a very credible idea, there’s wonder in this. This can be great.’ And you kind of go with it from there, Anthony. And it happens quite a lot! And it’s rarely been wrong for me.”

 

Intriguingly, Jimmy’s current show is titled The Prophecy/ Conspiracy Tour…

 

“Well it’s from a lyric that’s fairly punchy, Anthony. Listen, and I’ll give you a few lines form it…, ‘The planets’ aligning, scripturally perfect timing/ Feeling secure under the eye of a drone/ The campsites, the liners, pandemic Oppenheimers/ No mark-up number, let it be known/ One world, all nations, talking great, the populations, loved another and protect your homes/ Fear not or tremble, if you may not yet dissemble/ Just take the red pill in the rabbit hole zone.’ So it’s got a lot of prophecy and so-called conspiracy in it.”

 

As one of Ireland’s greatest, most famous and most respected songwriters, and having battled his way through many’s a dark night and against many’s a tough demon to become that, I couldn’t bid Jimmy farewell without asking him what advice about songwriting and life he’d pass on to those who follow behind him further on back the trail?

 

“I would say that the advice I would have to give is not just to songwriters, Anthony, but to all people. It’s to love your life and be happy because there’s no percentage in anything else!”

 

 

ENDS

 

Johnny Duhan

First Published March 2016

HEART OF A POET, VOICE OF A LEADER

Johnny Duhan

As you’ll all know, we’ve just had a general election. And possibly, just the first of the year, depending on what happens over the next few weeks and months. Looking back over all of the coverage, be it on tv, radio or in print, I can’t remember the arts having been mentioned in any substantive or passionate way by any candidate from any party, in any context. Now granted, there are many issues of a more serious and pressing nature which should rightly and justifiably be the main sources of concern for our legislators. But I believe it’s also important to acknowledge and respect the vital role the arts has always played in our country’s past,continues to play in our present, and should play in our future, also.

 

Great songwriting can come from both the art of the craft, and from the heart of the writer. You can hear how a great song has been crafted together. But when it comes from the heart of the writer, you know because that’s where you feel it, too. Right in your heart. Johnny Duhan, in my opinion, is possibly the finest ‘heart-writer’ of songs that Ireland has ever known. With the heart of a poet, Johnny speaks with the voice of a leader, especially when it comes to the subject of radio airplay for Irish artists in Ireland. I had the pleasure of chatting with Johnny again recently, and  I put it to him that my observations around the general election may be part of the reason why so few Irish artists actually get airplay in Ireland? That the arts, although highly praised by official Ireland, in reality, are all too often much overlooked?

 

“Tony, great first question. For the past few days I’ve been on tenterhooks while Willie Penrose was confined to his tomb-like position of not knowing if he was going to make it back from the dead and gain his place in the Dail. Though I have no affiliation with the Labour Party, I have a deep respect for Willie, as he has been totally behind the campaign to achieve legislative change to introduce a quota of Irish music for Irish radio. Just before Christmas, Willie managed to get a private members Bill seeking to introduce legislation to enact an amendment to the Broadcasting Act through the first stage of the Dail, with the support of Francis Fitzgerald. Hopefully, when this Bill comes up for discussion in the Dail at the next stage, it will be successful. Willie has generously acknowledged that a series of articles that I wrote for the Sunday Independent motivated him to take up this just cause.”

 

Johnny has been part of a small group who have been lobbying for change on this matter for some time now. When he thinks of the many short and long-term benefits of having more Irish artists on the radio, benefits which seem so obvious, how does he deal with the frustration of having to be in a fight that shouldn’t have to happen at all?

 

“How do I feel about the present state of Irish broadcasting? In a word: FRUSTRATED. A quota set in legislation is essential. In France, where they’ve had a quota for the past 30 years, the French government not only insist that radio stations play 40% French music, but they also support French musicians in lots of other ways, including financial support. It’s one of the great scandals of our time that successive Irish governments have completely ignored Irish musicians and Irish music, of all categories. But hopefully, when Willie Penrose’s Bill comes up for discussion in the Dail, politicians from all parties and independents will get behind this initiative and make the change that is essential to bring back a steady flow of Irish music of all types back onto our airwaves.”

 

Johnny decided not to send his ‘Highlights’ album to independent stations in Ireland and I wondered if that, in some ways, was a sort of a calculated risk, to an extent? In that, if he didn’t send it, someone could make the argument about stations not being able to play what they don’t have. But on the other hand, albums cost money to record, manufacture and distribute. So by not sending that album out, you were actually being more prudent with your finances. I asked Johnny if I was close to correct or way, way off the mark?

 

“Off the mark this time, Tony. I did it out of a sense of frustration. Most stations have been excluding my work – and the work of countless other Irish musical artists – from their playlist for years anyway. I did send copies to a few long-time supporters in regional stations, and I continue to be grateful to them for playing my songs. But it’s not just about me. It’s about the broad picture which has been tainted for a long time. And on reflection, I see that the main problem is that we need to enact legislation to make a level playing field for all the broadcasters. The aspirational appeal to the stations to be patriotic and support local home talent has failed, mainly because some stations don’t abide by the principle. Some of the Dublin stations don’t care a damn about any form of Irish music. The Broadcasting Authority are hampered because they have no teeth. We need a law to compel all the stations to work by the same rule book. Simple as that.”

 

Turning towards the more creative side of things for a moment, I asked Johnny if he has a target of a certain number of songs he tries to write each week or month, or even year by year?

 

“I don’t set myself targets. I totally believe in inspiration. But to activate the inspirational pull, one needs to be constantly digging down the mine of song for the nuggets. I hit a rich seam last year and my new album, ‘Creation’, is the result of that windfall. Right now, I’m working on chapters for part three of my autobiography. ‘There Is A Time’ was part one, ‘After The Dream’, part two (still without a publisher,) and I’ve just started part three.. All this prose writing feeds into my song work, which is my mainstay.”

 

As Johnny’s career and life go on, does he find, or has he found, that at certain times in both, the sources of his inspiration have changed, in stages almost? Or is it always much more random than that?

 

“Most definitely [more random]. It took me at least ten years to find my own voice as a songwriter. And I found it through writing prose. After a five or six year career in swinging London with Granny’s Intentions and other bands in the 60’s and 70’s, I found myself lost in the west of Ireland after a recording deal fell through, living on my girlfriend’s parents’ farm. While there I made my first attempt to write my autobiography, going right back to my boyhood. My efforts failed to produce a book but, tapping into my earliest experiences, led me to discover the musical and poetic ore needed to make real songs, as opposed to the pastiche I had been writing up until this time. For each of my other collections, I used the same method of utilising memories of experiences I’d been through – and the musical landscapes associated with the time I’m dealing with – to compose my works. For the past ten years or more, I’ve been delving for spiritual songs with a fresh slant, to try and give melodic voice to the strong religious beliefs that have sustained me over a lifetime. Unfortunately, my timing, as always, seems to be a bit out of kilter with the times we live in [laughs]. But I still plough on, regardless. I have a very strong faith in God and I need, at this time in my life, to articulate this in song, to help others who may be frightened of following the same narrow path. For me, it’s the only path. Plus religion and spirituality, if you look into it, is the source of all the great art work throughout history. Without God, I believe, art would eventually wither and die.”

 

Most writers, be they songwriters, poets, novelists, or whatever kind, tend to go through periods of time when they find it difficult to write. Has Johnny experienced those moments in his career? And if so, how has he navigated his way through without the panic of thinking, ‘I’ll never write again!’, consuming him?

 

“Usually after I complete a full song collection, Tony, I feel spent. At such times I’ve been tempted to copy myself and reproduce work based on what I’ve already done. But I’ve always managed to gain courage to avoid this trap. For me, each song is a unique work that can’t be copied or replicated. It may have melodic and poetic resonance of work written at the same time, but that is usually only because the subject matter and the time I’m dealing with come from the same strain. I know that some songwriters deliberately set out to emulate themselves, but that doesn’t interest me.” 

 

It’s 40 years since Johnny got married, the inspiration for his beautiful song, ‘The Voyage’, and it’s 25 years since the great Christy Moore first offered it to Irish hearts.  While accepting that we are, or at least should be, always learning, I asked Johnny what came to mind as the most important  lesson he’s learned about songwriting in the 25 years since ‘The Voyage’ first set sail?

 

“In a word: PATIENCE.  You have to develop routines of working, which inevitably become very boring. But you must keep at the slog. Keep listening to music that truly resonates for you, and not just music that is fashionable. Keep reading poetry, day in and day out. Poets you really love, not just ones who are famous. And keep singing. I do it for hours and hours every day. And, of course, keep writing, even though the blank page terrifies you! And finally, in my case, keep praying. Because ultimately creation is in the lap of God.”

 

 

ENDS