Brendan Graham

First Published May 2022

“IT’S ALL ABOUT THE SONG”

Part 2

Photo by THOMAS CONNEALLY

We’re now just a week away from the moment when all of Ireland’s EUROVISION dreams will either fade quietly into obscurity for another twelve months, or possibly bloom gloriously in a way that writes the name BROOKE SCULLION into our history books forevermore. The hopes of a nation rest on the Derry girl’s shoulders as we await Ireland’s turn to step into the international spotlight during the second semi-final next Thursday, May 12th. A few weeks back when Brooke won the National Song Contest, OTRT confidently proclaimed that – at last – after years of depending on luck and the whim of the hand of fate, we finally had a song in THAT’S RICH and a performer in Brooke who had a real chance of leading us to our eighth Eurovision title. 


But…the one thing that worries me now is how the song’s presentation has been ‘revamped’ by those who apparently ‘know’ what Eurovision needs. When Brooke performed the song on The Late Late Show last week, she could hardly have been more clear in stating that it wasn’t her idea to lose her backing dancers. This decision, in my opinion, serves neither the song nor Brooke, and is a big mistake. A huge part of the song’s appeal when it won it won the right to represent Ireland at Eurovision was the energy between Brooke and her dancers, and what that in turn added to the song. Without going all the way back to the era of the Spice Girls about it, the presence of her backing dancers and how they and Brooke worked together brought a certain ‘girl-power’ vibe to the performance. That wasn’t there on The Late Late Show last week, and if it’s not going to be there in the semi-final either, then someone somewhere has made a decision that will actually lessen Brooke’s chances of making it to the Grand Final on Saturday, May 14th. 
Thankfully for Ireland, Brooke has talent to burn, as the saying goes, and a personality that will illuminate one of the biggest stages and occasions in the world of entertainment. No matter what happens, she’ll do us proud during her time in Turin. 


Should Brooke take home the crown, she’ll be following in the footsteps of a man who has walked that path himself, and not once, but twice. Back in 1994, BRENDAN GRAHAMs beautiful ROCK ‘N’ ROLL KIDS, performed by Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington, gave Ireland her sixth Eurovision #1. It followed Dana with All Kinds of Everything (Derry Lindsay, Jackie Smith) in 1970, Johnny Logan with What’s Another Year (Shay Healy) in 1980, and Johnny again with Hold Me Now (Sean Sherrard aka Johnny Logan) in 1987, Linda Martin with Why Me? (Johnny Logan) in 1992, and Niamh Kavanagh with In Your Eyes(Jimmy Walsh)a year later. Then, in 1996, Brendan repeated his victory when Eimear Quinn conquered Europe with THE VOICE.


Just over a year ago, OTRT had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat with Brendan on the occasion of the release of his song Lullaby for the World by The Mahers. But given Brendan’s remarkable place in Irish and international music – he has also, let us not forget, penned the lyrics to Westlife’s huge hit, YOU RAISE ME UP, a song that has been covered more than 1,400 times, and by artists including Josh Groban, Aled Jones, and Celtic Woman – there was so much more to talk about as well. Including, of course, his memories of those very special nights in 1994 and 1996. This week, with Eurovision 2022 almost upon us, we’re delighted to share some more from that chat with Brendan…

“I actually don’t do many interviews”, revealed Brendan, “and that’s on purpose because I like to let the songs speak for themselves. The people who need to find me and who look for songs, will get me anyway. So, I don’t have an online presence. I remember Louis Walsh going on The Late Late once – and we didn’t have a telly at the time – so, I think it was Fr. Brian D’Arcy who rang me to say, ‘Did you see Louis Walsh on The Late Late?’, and I said ‘no’, and Brian said, ‘He’s trying to find out where you are to let you know that your song is going to be #1 in Britain next week!’ It also makes it simple for me to get on with things. I can go out and about and live life and sure nobody knows who I am. As long as they know the songs…and if they say, well that’s a Westlife song, or a Josh Groban song, or a Seán Keane song, I’m happy enough with that because that’s the way things work. I like the focus to be on the artist rather than on me.”

Before we got on to the subject of Eurovision, I wanted to ask Brendan about his songwriting and its process. 

Brendan’s song Crucán na bPáiste was written about a burial ground for unbaptised children near his Mayo home. And I couldn’t help but wonder if, in writing a song like that – because of the subject matter – there was an added emotional weight in what he was trying to create, one that might have presented some different challenges than those usually encountered when writing a song? 

“Songs are different. Some songs you sit down to write. And then there are songs, if you like, that you’re called to write. ‘Crucán na bPáiste’ was one of those latter ones that I felt summoned to write. I think that the special songs find us, we don’t find them. I had set a lot of my first book for Harper-Collins, ‘The Whitest Flower’, around the area where I live in Mayo, which includes the area of Crucán na bPáiste and Maumtrasna. I’d go up to that area to sit on the rocks and just think, and soak up the stories and history buried in the valleys and the streams. [With] Crucán na bPáiste, I began to think about how it’s in this extraordinarily beautiful place up high, and there’s only boulders that mark the graves. And I just wondered what would it be like for the parents burying those children, who would not see the beauty that I was seeing. That started me thinking. The place became a kind of a claw on my gut. I knew the song had to be written in Irish to be true to the time and its geography – it’s in a Gaeltacht area. And around that time, I think it was just before that, I’d gone back to do a ten-week course in Irish at Gael Linn, myself and Bill Whelan went. And we were all put to shame by the best person in the class who was a young Japanese student who was working with one of the government departments. So, all of the timings came right together. Crucán became kind of a pilgrimage to me, I had to go there. Bit by bit, the song kind of spoke itself, and then I was set free of it, and it had found its voice. I learned an important lesson, which is to keep out of the way and let the song write itself. The way I looked on that one, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and something that often I don’t fully understand is given voice and is heard. It’s a special song. I placed the melody around a traditional melody and then took the liberty of adding some of my own music to it. It has seemed to connect with people, even people who don’t understand Irish, they get the feeling from it. That’s down to the fantastic artists who have recorded it, like Karen Matheson, Cathy Jordan, Eimear Quinn and others who understand the song and bring the emotion out of it. It’s a very special song to me, and one of only two that I’ve written as Gaelige. And it’s special because the place is special.” 

Most writers tend to rack up a long list of former jobs as they go through life before eventually – hopefully! – getting some kind of lucky break that makes all of those years pay-off. In all the time before his unquestionable success, and the recognition that has come his way for his talent as a writer, was that writer within him always alive? Always active? Or were there perhaps times when Brendan didn’t write for long spells, or wrote much less? 

“I suppose I was always interested in it, but y’know, you have a full-time job so you’re tipping away at songs at night and at the weekend. And the family is growing, and they’re going to music lessons, and athletics, and basketball and netball, all of that stuff! And I was playing sport up into my forties, competitive basketball. Now, not at the very top level, but it was still competitive. So songs were squeezed in here and there. I suppose really, I became a songwriter by default in 1993 when I was made redundant. I’d had conversations with friends, other writers and artists, and they might say to me ‘well, you should go full-time’. But I didn’t know anybody who was just a full-time songwriter. I knew people who wrote songs but who were artists who performed and I didn’t want to be that. I just thought it would have been too much of a risk to give up a job where I got a cheque every week to go into something that was unknown. So, in 1993, I was out of work and I had to do all sorts of bits and pieces to keep going, and I thought I have to make a go of this songwriting now. I have to put up or shut up. Fortunately then in 1994 ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids’ came up so I began to earn some money, then in 1996 ‘The Voice’ also came up. I always had a hankering to be a full-time writer, but was always afraid to take the leap into that unknown. But I think I would have kept writing anyway, whatever happened, because I just loved it. I loved the process.” 

And of course, I couldn’t talk to Brendan without asking him about those most special nights in 1994 and 1996. What do those moments actually feel like? To be right there, at the centre of the storm, when history is being made in front of your eyes and out of your very own life in so many ways? 

“I was thinking about this, because ‘The Voice’ was twenty-five years ago this year (in 2021 when we spoke), and with time you kind of forget the trepidation of the votes coming in, and the exhilaration when they do come in! So, casting my mind back, it was absolutely magnificent. I had been trying for three years to get ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids’ into the National Song Contest, and I was dogged about it until it got in. I actually decided on the night of the Eurovision at the Point not to go into the Green Room. I wanted to sit out front with the family and see the two lads come out and perform my song, and get the feeling that the audience was getting. And I also wanted to see Bill’s ‘Riverdance’, he had invited me to go into rehearsals and I said no, I’d wait for that night. He was about seven rows in front of me and when the boys did the song he turned around and gave me the thumbs-up. Then, when ‘Riverdance’ came out and blew us all away, I was holding all my thumbs up [for him]! It was wonderful. And then to see the crowd reacting, and our President, and our Taoiseach, and all of the people…it was a huge moment of just sheer joy. There was also, a sense of having represented your country, and that you’d done well for it. The other factor was that with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids’, the song was presented exactly as I had envisaged it. I didn’t want an orchestra, I didn’t want anything interfering with the interaction between Paul and Charlie and the storytelling. I wanted it small. God and his mother were telling me ‘oh no, you need to use the orchestra, you need a string-quartet, you need this n’ that’… But I was probably old enough and dogged enough at the time to say ‘no, trust me, it’s gonna work’. And that was tough on the boys. They had nothing around them. But that created the vulnerability and it allowed them to interact. They were magnificent. ” 

PAUL HARRINGTON and CHARLIE McGETTIGAN being ROCK ‘N’ ROLL KIDS in 1994

Brendan continued, “And ‘The Voice’ then, I had actually started writing this around the time of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids’, I had started to wander into songs that had an elemental side to them. In ’94, I had a song called ‘Winter, Fire and Snow’ that Anúna and Katie McMahon recorded, and subsequently Eimear Quinn recorded. That was set to a poem by MacDara Woods. I was starting to get interested in the world around me, the elements, the sounds, voices that you hear in the trees. So I had started work on ‘The Voice’ in ’94, ’95, I was tipping away at it, it took a long time. Anyway, we went off to Oslo with the wonderful Eimear, and she was fantastic. It was tough, she was still at college, and while she was singing in a choir, she hadn’t really sung that much as a soloist. And I wanted to put a traditional band around her, so it was going to be a different type of song to ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids.’ And as well as being magnificent, she was also a fantastic ambassador for the country. At all the press receptions and interviews she was really well beyond her years in terms of how she carried herself and dealt with stuff. Interestingly, on her album that has just come out in the last year (‘Ériu’), she has done a new version of ‘The Voice’ with a full orchestra, calling it ‘The Voice 2020.’ Everybody had said to me, ‘Oh don’t enter it again, your chances of winning it the second time are gazillions-to-one!’ [Laughs]. But that didn’t deter me, and I was excited that it was a different kind of song. And again, it was wonderful to feel that you did the country proud and that people related to what you had written, and still do.” 

One of the interesting things about ‘The Voice'”, remarked Brendan, “which I think probably isn’t widely known, because it speaks about the famine and our bloody history and so on, but it ended up on the GCSE syllabus in Britain! Which was probably unusual for a Eurovision song! But I also thought there was a lovely sense of irony about it. That’s just one of those little strange things that happen with songs sometimes. They find their own way.” 

EIMEAR QUINN winning Eurovision 1996 with THE VOICE

As Brendan mentioned that he had played competitive sports into his forties, I wondered if winning Eurovision twice – given his competitive nature in a sports sense – brought with it any extra or added sense of joy? 

“You get the song right. You start from the bottom. It’s all about the song. Then you get the right artist. Sometimes, we’re sending songs with…not the right artist for that song, if you know what I mean? But at the time, RTE were actually very good and open about how I wanted the songs to be presented, even down to what people wore on stage. It was very much a team-effort. So I wasn’t ‘just the songwriter’ and out to the side. That was interesting for me to see. I also think that we’ve moved away from that notion of getting the right song, and it’s all about other stuff now. Which is a pity. But I wasn’t thinking about winning it twice or anything like that. I was thinking make it as good as it possibly can be. Give Eimear all the support that I can, and then I have to sit on the sidelines and she and the band had to carry it. But I think I got into a little bit of trouble with The Late Late at the time, because myself and my wife had decided that win, lose, or draw, we were going to go way up to the most isolated part of Norway that we could find! And of course, we won! Then we got home – the Irish delegation – and people were saying well where’s the songwriter? I was in a fisherman’s cabin that was on long-stilts, that sat in the water, looking at the twenty-four hour sun dip and come back up again [laughs]. I wasn’t being dismissive or anything, we had just decided that was what we were going to do.” 

In doing my research for my chat with Brendan, I came across a remarkable story relating to a Mr. W.G. Whelan. There was a message left on Facebook – on an article about Brendan – by a chap from the theatre in Nenagh letting Brendan know that a lady had found a diary belonging to a gentleman whom they believed to have been a relative of his. The aforementioned W.G. Whelan had fought in WW1. I wondered if indeed, he had turned out to be a relative of Brendan’s? 

“The answer is I don’t know. I probably dropped the ball there. But I am interested in genealogy and the family history. My maternal grandfather from Nenagh used to write for the Nenagh Guardian, and he wrote this headline once that totally mortified my mother and my aunts, saying ‘The Whelan Millions’, and he had a line drawn back to connect our Whelan’s to the Tsar of Russia [laughs]. Somehow! James Whelan was his name. But there is an interesting story on the other side. My father’s father was a judge at the Olympic Games finals in London in 1908, and he judged the sprints and the high-jumps and so on, and I didn’t know that until a few years ago when my aunt, who passed away, left me – out of the blue – this Olympic judges medal. I couldn’t believe it. And I found the official record of those Olympics, and there he was with his name for 100M and 200M finals, and hurdles and all that sort of thing. And [here’s] an even more extraordinary thing”, Brendan continued…

“My wife’s maiden name is O’ Brien, she’s from Mayo. RTE had this Big Music Week event in 2013, and they asked me would I write the song, a kind of anthem for it. So, I was wondering what would I write, because they had choirs, pop singers, country singers, rap singers, traditional, every kind of singer. I thought well I can’t really write a song that pulls in everyone for half a line. At the time, Ireland was going through a rough time, so I thought I’d write a love song to Ireland, and I called it ‘The Fair, Fair Land.’ I had an idea for it, and I had a melody which was good, and I probably could have worked it up. Then the Chieftains had recorded a song of mine, ‘Lullaby for the Dead’, and they were premiering it with the Symphony Orchestra in the National Concert Hall and Paddy (Moloney) invited me along, and I was delighted to hear it get its first performance in that manner. Before all that, the Chieftains on their own played this tune. It was beautiful and as soon as I heard it, I thought, it would be so right for what I was working on. I went backstage and checked with them if it was a traditional air. It was and  they were calling ‘Dóchas.’ I thought I’d make sure it was out of copyright, so I went to the Traditional Music Archive and they said the tune’s proper name was ‘Amhrán an Dóchais.'”

And quite amazingly, Brendan discovered that it had been a runner to be the national anthem back in the 1900s. It had Irish words put to it by an Irish scholar. But that was far from where the story ended, as Brendan went on to reveal…

“But then I looked it up further, and found out that the melody was older and came from the mid-1800s and was played by a Scottish piper down in Coolfree in the Cloyne area. And it was called Mór Chluana, ‘Mor of Cloyne’, about a queen who had this wonderful singing voice, so much so that she was kidnapped by the fairies. And the name attributed to it was Lewis O’ Brien. I asked my wife did she have any musicians in the family and she said ‘no’. But about a year later, an O’Brien cousin of my wife was over from Scotland, and ‘Did you know’, she says, ‘I found out that our family came from Scotland, and one of them was a piper who settled in Coolfree in the mid-1800’s?’ So the air that I had stumbled upon, that the Chieftains were playing, was collected in 1862 from Lewis O’ Brien, who was the great-great-great grandfather of my wife! He had moved up to the Mayo-Galway area at some stage, we don’t know why. I thought that was some sort of a sign. Eventually we did the song, and that had its debut on The Late Late. I wanted four female Irish voices to represent the different ‘voices’ of Ireland.  Marianne Knight, a fabulous traditional singer from Mayo, opened with the first verse. Then, Eimear Quinn was the other-worldly voice of the spéir-bhean. Nono Madolo, newly in Ireland  from Africa, sang a verse in Irish to demonstrate the potential of the richness of transition between different cultures. Then, the incredibly talented Celine Byrne brought it all to a stunning finale, giving  it that stately anthemic feel along with the RTE Concert Orchestra and guests. And all to raise funds for Barnardos Childrens’ Charity. I have been truly blessed by the songs that have been gifted to me over the last 50 years or so and by the very many wonderful singers, musicians and arrangers, who have given of their own talent in breathing them into a life…more than they could have been on their own. To them all – buíochas mór óm’ chroí.”

Now lest anyone think for a moment that the highlights of Brendan’s creative output might shine only in the past, we can assure you that this is far from the case. Look out for a brand new single from the great Red Hurley in the coming weeks, co-written by Brendan with Tommy and Jimmy Swarbrigg, plus exciting projects with Róisín O’ Reilly, Cathy Jordan, Feargal Murray, and Eimear Quinn between now and the year’s end. 

And not only that, Brendan has also penned the lyrics to a moving song called FOR ME, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Norway. The song was officially launched last month by Anette Trettebergstuen, Norway’s Minister of Culture and Equality. 

Speaking to Hot Press magazine about For Me recently, Brendan said, “I wrote the lyric to be an expression of individual empowerment and left it open to be an anthem for diversity and recognition, whatever the cause – gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation… whatever it be as a general, or individual expression of self-realisation and identity.” 

BROOKE SCULLION will perform THAT’S RICH, Ireland’s EUROVISION 2022 entry, in the second semi-final which takes place on THURSDAY, MAY 12th. Show your support for Brooke by following her on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter! 

ENDS

Eurovision 2022/Brooke Scullion

First Published February 2022

NIGHT OF GLORY FOR BROOKE

Last Friday was a night of glory for BROOKE SCULLION as the charismatic Derry singer/songwriter emerged triumphant from this year’s selection process to become Ireland’s Eurovision entry with THAT’S RICH. Brooke will now set her sights on Turin where she’ll represent Ireland at the 66th edition of the EUROVISION SONG CONTEST. Brooke will take part in the second semi-final on May 12th, performing That’s Rich – a song she’s also a co-writer of, along with Izzy Warner and Karl Zine – in the second half of that show. 


And, for my money, more nights of glory are on the cards for Brooke. For the first time in a long, long time, I believe we have a genuine chance of adding an eighth title to our collection. Given that our last win was with Brendan Graham’s almost mystical The Voice, so superbly performed by Eimear Quinn back in 1996, it’s well beyond time that we put up a serious challenge for the crown again. And in saying that, it is, of course, both important and only right to note that Marc Roberts – one of Irish music’s truest gentlemen – took Mysterious Woman (from the pen of John Farry, another gent) to a well-deserved second-place finish in 1997. 


But since then…well, since then we’ve even sent a puppet, in the shape of Dustin the turkey back in 2008. That’s a moment that should – as a nation ever brimful of culture and creativity – still shame us. And yes, it’s true that his God-awful song, Irelande Douze Pointe, won the public vote, and part of the problem – a huge part of the problem – is that the ‘powers that be’ in RTE allowed a song like that to even participate in the National Song Contest final. And those problems continue to this day. Last Friday night’s Late Late Show Eurosong ‘Special’ is all the evidence that’s needed to prove that. 


For a start, selecting our country’s song for the Eurovision Song Contest deserves a show of its own, and not just being reduced to yet another Late Late Show ‘special.’ 


There’s a truth about The Late Late Show that has been glaringly obvious for years and years now. The show is still in existence only because of the reputation it built, and the place it secured for itself in Irish life, when Gay Byrne was the host. A presenter of rare skill – albeit not without certain flaws in some circumstances – he was, nevertheless, a once in a lifetime talent. Once he retired, The Late Late Show soon became a pale imitation of what it had been for so long. If it was a show that had come into existence with Pat Kenny, then it would have ended with him too. In more recent times, however, the show has become more of a parody than anything else, with – to be fair – some exceptions from time to time. And again, if this was a show that had first hit our screens with Ryan Tubridy at the helm, it would also have sunk long ago. 


The influence that The Late Late Show has today is afforded it by two factors: the reputation it built during Gay Byrne’s time as host, and it’s prime-time Friday night slot. 


But back to last Friday’s show. Of the six finalists – selected from 330 entries – the RTE connections among some of them are something else. How anyone could even note this in passing and not be left scratching their heads, beats me.


Patrick O’ Sullivan, who performed One Night, One Kiss, One Promise, was the winner of RTE’s recent show, Last Singer Standing. That show, incidentally, was basically karaoke. It had a panel of judges who, on the face of it, and given their own careers and achievements, should have been able to contribute so much in terms of feedback. But the contributions of Nadine Coyle, Joey Fatone, and Samantha Mumba – as far as offering anything constructive or insightful went – were not even weak, they were almost non-existent. Anyone watching that show would scarcely have learned anything about the music business from listening to what that panel contributed on-screen each week, and that’s a crying shame. I honestly didn’t think that I’d ever see a panel on any TV show ever contribute in such a meaningless way ever again. But, Friday night proved me wrong on that score. 


Anyway, One Night, One Kiss, One Promise had Nicky Byrne as one of its co-writers. And Nicky, of course, as well as hosting one of RTE’s best shows in the shape of Dancing With The Stars, was also the presenter of Last Singer Standing. Nicky was also internally selected by RTE – so there was no National Song Contest, no public vote – to represent Ireland at Eurovision in 2016. He finished 15th out of 18 in his semi-final. 


Now, I actually like Nicky, and I think he’s a fabulous presenter. In fact, he would have been an ideal host for a proper National Song Contest show. 


Janet Grogan, who sang Ashes of Yesterday on Friday night, was also a finalist in Last Singer Standing. And Janet was also part of the RTE team in 2016, when she sang backing-vocals for Nicky. Janet was on duty again in 2018 when she filled the same role for Ryan O’ Shaughnessy, who – would you believe – was also internally selected by RTE. 


Brendan Murray, who sang Real Love on Friday night, was internally selected by RTE in 2017, when he sang a song that had British and Swedish songwriters. That’s something else that needs to be addressed, and which I’ll also come back to. Brendan also failed to qualify from the semi-final in 2017. 


I, for one – although I would imagine that I’m far from alone – find it remarkable that out of 330 entries, so many of RTE’s final six had so many RTE connections. I mean, really? 


Just to be very clear on something, however, let me repeat something I stated on social media last Friday when I wished all of the performers and writers involved the best of luck for the night that was to come. They can only go along with the process that’s in place. But man, that process has some gigantic issues with it. 


Going back to the subject of the studio-jury on last Friday night’s show, I’d love to know the thinking behind how that panel of Paul Harrington (the only obvious choice as a former winner), musician Caroline Corr, singer Lucia Evans and presenter Bláthnaid Treacy, was formed. It was certainly a pretty random group. But at the end of the show, that random group had it in their power to distribute votes that would go towards determining the overall winner, so in that respect, their presence on the night was very important to how everything turned out. 

This jury gave Brooke’s song, That’s Rich, just four points, while both the international jury and the voting public awarded her twelve points each, the highest mark possible. That doesn’t say much for the studio-jury’s judgement. Or, for that matter, the judgement of whoever appointed that studio-jury in the first place. 


Rachel Goode’s song last Friday night, I’m Loving Me, was written by a team of Swedish writers, some of whom were also involved in Poland’s entry last year. 

Surely, for Eurovision at least, where there’s a chance to represent your country on the international stage, we can find Irish performers AND writers? 

We don’t lack either. Truth be known, we have both, and in abundance. 

As puzzling – but maybe not surprising – as so many finalists having ties to RTE was, it’s incredibly frustrating for RTE to then, on top of that, select a song that doesn’t have a single Irish writer involved. But if you think back on Friday night’s show, you’ll be hard-pressed to recall songwriters getting any attention at all. Back in the day, an emphasis on the songwriter, and their story too, was always part of the National Song Contest, and it was the part that I most enjoyed. Arguably, when RTE brought You’re A Star to life they essentially relegated the importance of the song to a distant second place. A huge, and arrogant, mistake. 

Their contempt for songwriters is also a feature of The Late Late Show’s country music ‘specials.’ But that’s an argument for another day. And I’m sure that day is probably not too far away again either. 

Let me be very clear about this when I talk about having performers and songwriters who are Irish. I don’t care where someone’s passport says they’re from, that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about any performers or writers who live and work here, and for whom Ireland is home. People who may have moved here, settled here, married here, or happen to work here, but are every bit as much a part of our ever expanding, ever more colourful, ever more beautiful cultural fabric as someone who happened to enter this world in Dublin, Donegal, Galway, Cork, or anywhere in between. If someone is living with us and among us, and has talents to contribute, that’s cool with me. 

And that’s a very different scenario to having a team of outside writers who have no other link to a country except wanting to represent it on one of the biggest musical stages the world can offer. 

Look, not everyone cares about the Eurovision Song Contest and whether or not Ireland is involved, let alone how we select the song that goes on to represent us. But, a lot of people do care as well. Whichever camp you belong to, the Eurovision Song Contest is a massive opportunity to present our country to an audience in excess of 180 million people. 

So, selecting the song that represents Ireland IS important. We need to give this selection process the standing it deserves. And the first thing it deserves to have is its own stand-alone show. On last week’s Late Late Show, you had – as you do almost every week – Ryan Tubridy offering viewers at home the chance to win a cash-prize. A show to find our Eurovision representative shouldn’t have something like that happening in the middle of it. And it definitely doesn’t need what has by now become the Late Late Show’s annoyingly condescending attitude to the studio-audience when it comes to giveaways. 


The second thing this process should ALWAYS involve is the Irish public having a say in things. 
And the third thing that should always be a given every year, is that Irish writers – as well as performers, of course – are the ones who are given the chance to represent their country, that should be without question. And ‘Irish’ can be a definition as simple as the one proposed earlier, or something similar. 

Ahead of last weekend’s show, I stated that in my opinion the best song of the six was Yeah We’re Gonna Get Out Of It, by Miles Graham. And I thought Miles and his team put in a brilliant performance on the night. And in fairness, I was also very impressed by Janet Grogan’s performance of Ashes of Yesterday, which revealed the song in a whole new light. However, after nailing my colours to the mast for Miles ahead of last Friday night’s show, I also said that, “I’d be equally happy to see Brooke Scullion, with ‘That’s Rich’, take the glory.” 

And to be honest, Brooke’s performance on the night, as with Janet’s, brought her song to a whole new level and won me over. As did Brooke’s brilliant personality. I’m delighted Brooke won, and I have no doubt at all that she’s going to do us all proud in Turin. 

I fell in love with the Eurovision Song Contest because of people like Dana (All Kinds of Everything, Derry Lindsay/Jackie Smith); Johnny Logan (What’s Another Year, Shay Healy, and again with his own Hold Me Now); Linda Martin (Why Me, also by Johnny); Niamh Kavanagh (In Your Eyes, Jimmy Walsh); Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan, Rock and Roll Kids, Brendan Graham); and Eimear Quinn, The Voice, again by Brendan).


That’s a relationship that’s been on the rocks for a long time now. But, I’m putting my money on Brooke to make me fall in love with the Eurovision Song Contest all over again. 
Roll on May! 


THAT’S RICH, by BROOKE SCULLION is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio. Brooke will represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest in Turin in May. 

ENDS

Chasing Abbey

First Published December 2021

BACK IN THE GAME

I was working away at my desk last Friday when I decided to turn off the news for a change and add some music to my day instead. Tapping into my Apple Music account and scrolling through my options, the playlist Today’s Hits caught my eye for some reason so I made it my selection. And a quick glance at what was on offer soon brought a smile as wide as the Shannon to my face. 

Right there in the middle of it all, keeping company with international superstars like Ed Sheeran and his recent gems Bad Habits and Shivers, Adele with I Drink Wine, boyband giants Westlife and Starlight, and Driving Home From Christmas by Dermot Kennedy…were three dudes from Tullamore and their newest banger, Close To You. What these guys have already achieved is immense. And the mind-blowing thing is that in terms of both their creative and commercial potential, they’ve barely even begun to jog yet. When they start running at full-speed…world watch out!

A few weeks back, before Close To You officially became CHASING ABBEY’s new single, I had the pleasure of catching up with the band. 

It was the afternoon after their first real-life gig in a long, long time when I sat down in the Brewery Tap for a catch-up with Bee (Jonathan Byrne) and Ro (Ronan Bell). Unfortunately, the previous night’s triumph had taken its toll on the vocals of lead-singer Ted, who wasn’t able to join us. The funny thing was, having viewed the band’s stories on Insta the night before, Ro was the one I didn’t expect to see! To say he enjoyed the band’s first night back doing what they love would be an understatement! And that was the note on which we began. 

What was it actually like for Bee and Ro to be back in the game again?

Bee: “It was…an adjustment. When Covid started, we were so used to gigs and being in front of people. Then when we had to start doing all the Zoom things, that was so strange. We had no clue what we were getting into and we weren’t able to feed off anyone. But then we got used to that. And now that’s been flipped on its head last night, trying to dust off the cobwebs. That was the feeling beforehand, but once we got into it, it was like we’d never left the stage…”

Ro: “It was carnage! [Laughs]. Even being back doing sound-check, being back on-stage, first time with a PA, just going through all those things, there’s a certain feeling that comes with all of that. And I hadn’t felt that in a long time. It felt special. And it was weird, because going into the gig, I thought it was going to be like a normal gig was before Covid. But once it started, with the crowd and everything, it felt like we were back to years ago. It was savage!”

Were there any nerves in the build-up?

Bee: “Yeah, but not nervous about being in front of people, more so remembering all the little things that you used to do, that would have been second nature to ya when you were gigging a lot. But now we had to start thinking about those all over again!”

Ro: “I think that was just before the gig, though, because halfway through the first song you kinda started shouting all the same stuff you would have done before, and jumping the same way [laughs], and we kinda slid back into what we always used to do. And I think we did that pretty early in the gig, which was fun.”

Bee: “A big thing for us as well, is that in the last eighteen months we’ve obviously been making a lot of music. Usually we’d make maybe five or six songs, pick our favourite one, and maybe try that one out at our next gig. But we had no gigs to try out any songs for eighteen months. And we had literally nearly a hundred songs to pick from. We played four or five of them last night, and just to feel the new songs ‘live’ was just…,  THAT was something we were really missing. Because you get to feel the way it went down with the crowd. And that’s a way you’d nearly pick what your next single could be.”

There’s always a certain performance high that comes with taking to the stage, but had the high of the previous night been a little bit higher than ever before?

Ro: “Yeah. It was the best we’ve felt since Covid began. We got off stage and we just said we feel alive again, ya know! It was just nuts.”

So does that mean the comedown is that little bit lower too?

Ro: “I think we’re still a little bit high! [Laughs]. Spirits were still high this morning!”

Bee: “You get a hangover from drinking, but there’s this thing called a ‘gig hangover ‘as well, where you’re just so drained. I’d say last night will go down as one of our favourite gigs for a while.”

Like everybody else, back in March of 2020, the world came to a very sudden halt for Chasing Abbey. I asked Bee and Ro to take me back to where they were as a band when that happened…

Bee: “We had just finished ‘Lately’…”

Ro: “’Lately’, along with three other songs, we had four songs ready to go.”

Bee: “And we had picked a release date for ‘Lately’, at the end of March, beginning of April, and we were going for it. Then all of this started to come up in the media and it was happening elsewhere…”

Ro: “Yeah, happening elsewhere, so we were like, won’t affect us…”

Bee: “Then it got a little bit closer to home and we were like, well maybe we’ll push out the release by two weeks, that should do it! Just until this dies down. But then it looked like we were gonna be in this for a month, so we pushed it out for another month. And we had been soooo busy up to that, for nearly two years, so in the beginning we were kinda like, well, this is kind of a nice rest [laughs].”

Ro: “Especially in the few months before that, because we’d been working on those songs, and writing all the time, and we had shows as well. So when that first hit, we were like, this is kinda…grand, like! [Laughs].”

Bee: ”Yeah, we couldn’t leave our homes, but that was what we needed”

Ro: “But then it set in with us – with everyone – that this was gonna be here for a while.”

So that time of suddenly being apart, having been together so much and so intensely for so long, what was that like?

Ro: “At the beginning, it was ok. We went home to our own families, and that was lovely because we wouldn’t always be at home with our families all that much. So, that was nice for a little bit, but then it definitely got weird [laughs], not seeing the other lads.”

Bee: “We have a group-chat and stuff, so we all kinda kept in touch a good bit that way. But sometimes then, there might have been a day or two without any message going in, and THAT was strange because…”

Ro: “…if we’re not all together in person then the phone is always just hoppin’!”

Bee: “I think we all found it difficult at different times. At the beginning, I think we were all fine. But then it hit us about how real it all was. Like, one of us might have been down for a month, but then you’d pick yourself back up again. And then someone else might feel that way for a while. But I think that was normal, I think everyone was like that.”

Ro: “I think everyone was going through that. Even with dad in here [Paul Bell, proprietor of The Brewery Tap in Tullamore], there was just so much uncertainty. As a band, we didn’t know what to do in terms of releasing, we didn’t know when we’d have another gig, or IF we’d have another gig. You didn’t even know if you were going to get Covid and die. There was that, never mind music! We all went through different periods where different emotions were the main ones.”

Bee: “And there were a few lockdowns as well. The first lockdown was fine. But then the second one came, and we had started to make plans before that one. Then those plans all had to be pulled again.”

Ro: It was that little bit of hope…gone, ya know.”

Having seen everything that they’ve worked so hard for, and everything that they love so much, taken away in the blink of an eye by something completely out of their control, has that changed everyone as individuals in terms of what they’ll bring back to the band now? Has it, indeed, even changed the band? Whereas previously, 110% was given to every show, from now on will that be 210%?

Ro: “There was a bit of that last night! When we were walking to the stage, we were just like, let’s just go nuuuuts out here [laughs]!”

Bee: “Just before we went on-stage, we said let’s see who can go the craziest!”

Ro: “I think there’ll definitely be a bit of that, but once we got back working we slipped back into a normal studio routine again fairly quickly.”

Bee: “But it has made us – and it will make us – appreciate the moments. So we will be a little bit more present, I think. Say with gigs, you’ll take out your in-ears maybe, and just listen to the crowd, really take it in. Rather than just going, that’s unreal, you might just take a minute to go…wow, this is incredible! But ya know, we did also realise a song during Covid and it’s one of our most popular songs, ‘Lately.’It wasn’t all bad either.”

Ro: “That was like a test release, because we had to really think outside the box, and it was actually exciting to do that, to do a release completely different to how we normally would. Like, we couldn’t go to a radio station. We couldn’t sit down with people. We couldn’t do anything!

Bee: “We did it all from a room!”

Ro: “Yeah, and it went so well that it’s become a very proud thing for us, that release. And I think it impressed a lot of people, too. We hear that a lot.”

Bee: “Even the music video, we had a period where the first lockdown lifted…”

Ro: “It was in between them.”

Bee: “Yeah, and inter-county travel was allowed. So we had one week to get the whole thing done. And we did. But, oh my God [laughs].”

Ro: “I think we were up in Dublin with one of the videographers, and that was just a day or two days before we couldn’t travel again. We JUST got it all done in time!”

Considering how much the band were able to write during lockdown, I wondered if the different conditions for writing – not being around each other, not being around people, not being able to gig – if all of that had affected them creatively, and changed how they write?

Bee: “All the music kind of stayed within the normal [way that we’d write]…”

Ro: “Yeah, it did. The only thing that would have changed was the inspiration aspect, because you’re just going through the same kind of mundane thing every day. That definitely made a difference, compared to coming off the high of a gig, when you could write ten songs! In lockdowns at home, well, myself definitely, we upskilled a lot, in terms of production. In that way, we’ve come on an awful lot in the last two years or eighteen months. That’s changed the way we go about things in the studio. Some things are done quicker, easier, and end up sounding better.”

Bee: “We can literally do everything just from a room now.”

Ro: “Yeah. Whereas before, it was at ‘a level’, ya know, but it wasn’t at THAT level. But having the time, and when there was no pressure of writing songs to release them, we were able to get lost in learning different skills.”

So if upskilling might have been one of the ways that Ro got through things by becoming something he could focus his attention on, what filled that role for Bee or even Ted?

Bee: “Initially, I suppose, because I don’t live with my family, so just coming back home to them. That took up a couple of months because we got to spend a lot of time together. I also got into cooking! I did a lot of that, and explored a lot of different diets, all that kind of stuff.”

Ro: “I started running as well. We all went through a bit of a running phase. Our house is down by a canal, so I used to do quite a bit of running around there, which I never did before. We’d meet up outdoors and go running.”

Bee: “But mainly, I think, what we did was just chilled out through it all. Just took a breather.”

At this stage of their careers, Chasing Abbey is a brand, a machine in a way. How do the lads plan on bringing that machine back to life after a lay-off like this?

Bee: “Well we have loads of music there. And we didn’t put any pressure on ourselves to release the next song, because we really want to find the one that can bring us to the next stage. That’s why we wrote so much. We have a few contenders now, so when the right one hits we’re just gonna put everything into it.”

Ro: “New music will really help with that, and then the introduction of more gigs as well. One thing we’ve all loved from the start of Chasing Abbey is the ‘live’ shows. So that mix of new music, and playing those songs at ‘live’ shows will ramp it back up pretty quickly.

Bee: “And once the music is out, we’ll go back on tour.”

Aside from what the band had done online, was there anything else they’d done to stay connected to their fans over the last eighteen months?

Bee: “We started making Tik-Toks, not music related ones, more kind of sketch based.”

Ro: “At the very, very beginning of Covid, Tik-tok was really taking off because everyone was at home, it was the new app. We jumped on that with ‘Lately’.”

Bee: “And it’s funny, we have our most social media followers on Tik-Tok.”

Ro: “And that’s mad, because that’s a lot of new people. Obviously it’s a mix, a lot of people did know of us, but we’ve definitely made new fans as well. It’s a different way of interacting.”

Bee: “We went through a stage with it where it was all music, then it was all promoting ‘Lately’, then a stage where it was all sketches where there was really no music involved.”

Ro: “For our next release, we’ll definitely have a Tik-Tok campaign, because it’s huge. Huge!”

So what is next for the band?

Ro: “I think right now, we’re just looking at singles. So a single, and then the next single. We’re not even thinking too far ahead. Just the next one that feels right.”

Bee: “And feels right in every aspect, the timing, the story, the sound of it. Is it gonna take us a step forward to what music sounds like now? Will it be fresh? There are so many different things to consider. But we think we’re nearly there…!”

CLOSE TO YOU, the brand NEW single from CHASING ABBEY, is OUT NOW, available to stream and download from all platforms, and to request from radio. 

ENDS

Elton John

First Published October 2021

THE KING STILL REIGNS

“There were challenges involved in collaborating during a global pandemic – I had to get used to recording over Zoom and Rina Sawayama had to quarantine for two weeks before we recorded together – but the tracks I worked on were really interesting and diverse, stuff that was completely different to anything I’m really known for, stuff that took me out of my comfort zone into completely new territory.”

Those are the words of the one and only king of pop ELTON JOHN, talking in advance of last weekend’s release of his latest album, the dazzling collection that is THE LOCKDOWN SESSIONS, a long-player that proves that crown is still very much his. The king still reigns, and don’t you doubt it. If there’s one thing that the esteemed Sir Elton has never shied away from, both in his personal and musical life – and for his courage and daring in both, we can be thankful – it’s an openness to adventure. The Lockdown Sessions is certainly that.

A collection of sixteen songs, all collaborations with some of the biggest, most exciting artists in the world today, The Lockdown Sessions features performances from Brandi Carlile, Charlie Puth, Dua Lipa, Eddie Vedder, Gorillaz, Lil Nas X, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj, Rina Sawayama, SG Lewis, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Wonder, Surfaces, Years & Years, Young Thug, and more.

In a somewhat beautiful little coincidence, it was officially released here in Ireland last Friday; on the day most – for all intents and purposes – remaining restrictions were lifted in all or in part. This wouldn’t be the first time, of course – nor will it be the last either – that this gifted magician of the ivories has been at the heart of our reasons to celebrate. 

For me, a life-long fan of the man who – together with Bernie Taupin – makes up one of the most revered songwriting partnerships of all time, the release of this album brought with it a moment that will be remembered long into the autumn of my days. Last month, courtesy of Elton‘s label, Universal Records, I had the pleasure and privilege of sitting in on an invite-only interview with that man himself.

Hosted by Matt Everitt, the webcast took place at Metropolis Studios in London, and it began with Elton remarking that this was an album he never thought he was going to make during lockdown…

“I had no plans to make any music at all during lockdown. So, this really came together as an accident. It started in March 2020 when I met Charlie Puth at a restaurant in Los Angeles. I’d never met him before and he actually lived only four doors away from me in LA and he said, I’ve got a studio if you feel like coming up while you’re here and writing something. So, I did and it’s the track that appears on the record, ‘After All’, and that was fantastic. And the next day I went next door to my music publisher’s house, who lives three doors away from me, and I worked on the Surfaces track via Zoom, the first thing I’d ever done via Zoom. They were in Texas and I played piano on some of that track. And so the first two things really were those two things. And I came back to England and then Damon Albarn asked me to play on ‘Gorillaz’, Rina Sawayama asked me to do a duet and play piano on ‘Chosen Family’. I did the Metallica Miley Cyrus track with Andrew Watt. I did ‘It’s a Sin’ with Olly Alexander and then I went and did Glenn Campbell and Lis Nas X and I thought I’ve got the germ of an album here. And then we got the Pnau track, which was just me singing, and I thought I don’t want to sing the ‘Rocket Man’ but we’ve got to get someone else to sing that.”

“And this year”, continued Elton, “we took Dua Lipa to dinner in Los Angeles and I’d become friends with her and my manager said, listen to the track and see if you like it and play it by the pool very loudly and then give us a call. And she did play it by the pool very loudly and she called us and said, I’m in, I want to do it. So, gradually I got an album coming together. So, I thought, I’m going to continue. I went to Los Angeles and I went with Andrew Watt and the studio and did Brandi Carlisle, Eddie Vedder, Stevie Wonder, Young Thug and Nicki Minaj and Stevie Nicks. And then I came back and SG Lewis had finished the track that I’d written with him in the studio, so I had 16 tracks. And I did Jimmie Allen in LA as well, a bit of vocal on that track. So, voila, out of nothing… It’s all Charlie Puth’s fault, basically. So, there you go.”

A fact sure to interest many is that the vocal on It’s A Sin is actually taken from Elton and Olly Alexander’s Brits performance…

“Oh, yeah. I did that at the Brits because ‘It’s a Sin’ was a fantastic TV series about AIDs in the 1980s in Britain, which I loved and was a huge critical success, and I redid that – ‘It’s a Sin’ – came in the studio and recorded the piano and then the vocals on it are live from the Brits. They’re the actual ones that we sang at the Brits, yeah.”

Elton went on, “I did the piano in here, put that on, and then they added some orchestra after we’d done the Brits performance and so I’m thrilled with that because it’s a great song, one of the Pet Shop Boys’ greatest songs. So, yes, that. And Olly and I have become friends. Rina and I are friends. Brandi and I are friends. Charlie Puth and I are now friends. Lil Nas X and I are now friends. So, it’s just amazing. Andrew Watt and I are now best friends. So, out of this has come a lot of friendships and a lot of magic and a lot of happiness and I loved doing it so much. As a surprise, I’m playing other people’s records and then you have to fit in with what they want and what they tell you to do, which was great, because in the early days I was a session musician, before I became Elton. When I did the Lil Nas X track and Glenn Campbell, I was in Studio 2 at Abbey Road. Fifty-four years prior to that I was in the same studio playing on The Hollies’ ‘He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother’ track. So, I thought I’ve come full circle here and I’m really loving what I’m doing. So, it’s lovely to be able to play on another musician’s track.”

The Lockdown Sessions was, observed Matt, “a record of relationships, a record of friendships”,an insight with which Elton readily agreed…

“Yeah. I do a lot of radio shows. I’ve done a radio show for six years in a row now on Apple and I’ve created and cultivated friendships with young musicians, and that’s really spurred me on. It excites me when I hear something new by somebody new, a Billie Eilish or a Lorde or a Khalid or in England by Berwyn or someone like that. Billie Eilish has just astonished me, when I played that first record by her. So, it gives me an access. And when I love a record by someone new, I interview them on the show, or I phone them up. Even if they’re in Australia or they’re in Europe, it doesn’t matter, because it’s important for me to offer a hand of friendship and offer a hand of authenticity to what they’re doing.  Because when I first came to America, Neil Diamond, the Beach Boys, Leon Russell, The Band, George Harrison, all got in touch with me and Leon Russell took me on tour and it made me feel very happy, that they liked my music and it validated what I did. So, you must always try and pass those thoughts on to other young musicians, because it helps them.”

Answering a question about how recording during a pandemic was different from his usual experience (submitted by Joanna, of W Extra, Poland), Elton pointed out that once the person he was working with knew exactly what they wanted, that made everything much easier…

“If people are vague and say, ‘I’m not sure about that’, you don’t really know what they want. Sometimes, when I’m playing on something, I can be a little too Eltonish and they say, can you cut back a little bit on that, you’re playing on my record, you’re not playing on your record. And so it’s really helpful and it’s really interesting, to see what they want rather than what I would have played. I end up playing something different. Like on the Metallica track with Miley Cyrus, Andrew wanted me to start the song on piano and finish the song on piano. On the Metallica track originally, it was just guitar. So, it was another way of looking at things. So, if someone knows what they want, it gives you a direction. It’s fun. And I have to say I never ever thought of making a record during lockdown whatsoever, and it’s become a joyous thing for me.”

“I learn something from each artist that I work with that I wouldn’t normally have learnt,” stated Elton. From Stevie Nicks, from Stevie Wonder, from Sam Lewis to Lil Nas X. I learnt something from each of them and if you’re at my age, which I’m seventy-four now, and you can still be learning from other musicians, that’s the greatest gift of all. You can never stop learning as a musician. If you shut your mind off and say, I’ve done it all now, I can do everything now, I don’t need to hear anything else, then for me that’s the dead end. I’m more excited now about music than I’ve ever been.”

During the course of the conversation, Matt touched on one of the stories that has always added some extra sparkle to Sir Elton’s already glittering legend, his all-round love of music. And this led to Elton revealing something a lot more people should take heed of, and indeed, should do themselves: buy actual physical albums!

“I buy my CDs still. I write the list of CDs that I want and I get the list that comes out on a Friday. I buy my CDs and I buy vinyl. I do my radio show every week, so Apple send me all the new releases that are coming out. There are 30,000 new songs every week on Spotify. So, you’ve got a lot to choose from. I’ve never lost it from when I bought 78 records, and that shows how old I am. The first 78 record I ever had was by Doris Day and it was called ‘The Deadwood Stage’ with ‘Secret Love’ on the other side, and I was so excited. My family always bought records. There was always music in the house. I’ve never lost that thing of going to a record store and buying something. I must have bought so many records the same, duplicate. Scritti Politti with ‘Cupid & Psyche’, every time I go into a record store and see it, I buy it. And so I must have ten CDs or three albums on vinyl. But it just never… It’s so exciting to go in a record store. Wherever I am and wherever I go in the world, I go to a record store or a vinyl store and I get as excited as I did when I was four or five years of age.”

As a massive country music fan, the song that excited me most from the first second I laid eyes on the album’s track-listing was its closer I’m Not Going To Miss You, Elton’s collaboration with the late Glen Campbell…

“Oh, it’s an amazing song. It’s the last song he ever wrote. This album came out ten years ago and it was his last album he ever made, and when it came out I commented on the song ‘I’m Not Going to Miss You’ and his family said, thank you for doing that, because they wanted to thank me for mentioning the song.  And so when they decided to recreate the album ten years on, with people doing duets with him, they asked me specifically to do that song, and I was so honoured that they asked me, because it is such a beautiful lyric about the heartbreak of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and I jumped at the chance. And it was really one of the most difficult tracks I had to do on the album because I had to get it right. I had to have the same emotion in my voice that he had. But it was such an honour because I’ve always been a Glen Campbell fan from way back when he was a guitarist on the Wrecking Crew, one of the greatest guitarists ever. One of the greatest records he used to sing, all the beautiful Jimmy Webb songs.”

“He was a gentleman”, concluded Elton, “a brilliant musician, a brilliant singer, a great voice. Like a James Taylor. You can hear them sing, and you love what they sing. So, for me it was an honour to do that and that song in particular I was so thrilled to be able to do. But I had to do it justice.”

THE LOCKDOWN SESSIONS, the brand NEW album from ELTON JOHN, is OUT NOW on all platforms.

ENDS

Editorial

First Published September 2021

MUSIC, ‘LIVE’ EVENTS, AND A GOVERNMENT THAT NEVER CARED

Anyone who couldn’t have foreseen the current government’s appalling treatment of the music and ‘live’ events sectors simply hadn’t been paying attention. The signs were on it right from the moment Catherine Martin T.D. was handed a portfolio that included responsibility for tourism, culture, arts, the Gaeltacht, sport, AND media. 


The argument can rightly be made that each of these areas needs and warrants a department of its own, given the importance of each to Irish life. At the same time, however, realism, pragmatism -and, in fact, the constitution – dictate that not every area of significance and consequence can be afforded the luxury of a department in its own name, given that our government can have no more than fifteen members (Article 28), including the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, and the Minister for Finance. So in effect, minus the aforementioned, only twelve seats – at most – ever remain to be filled in the cabinet. 


That fact notwithstanding, however, the decision to ask one minister to take on responsibility for six sectors which, each in their own right, play such prominent roles in Irish life, seemed crazy at the time. And nothing that has happened since has shown otherwise. Now, to be clear here, I understand that there’s seldom a perfect way to do anything in politics, and that no matter what any government – or minister – might do, there will be someone on hand straight away to say why they should have done the opposite. That, unfortunately, is the way of politics in general, and certainly in Ireland.


Moreover, when it came to the easing of restrictions, it’s perfectly understandable that a phased approach had to be taken, and that whatever such approach was decided upon, it would end up with some group or section of society having to bring up the rear. A phased approach makes sense. But a phased approach could still have included all stakeholders to some extent. 


What this situation has also revealed – laid bare in no uncertain terms, in fact – is that politicians – for the most part, there have been some exceptions – simply have no idea how the music or ‘live’ events sector. It’s not a matter of turning a key, opening a door, and hey presto…back in business, back to normal all in one move. There are very, very few music or ‘live’ events of any nature that happen without the need for a lot of advance planning. A lot of planning from a lot of people. Artists, their management team, their PR team, venues, sound and lighting experts, ticket outlets, and more. Everything needs to be coordinated on multiple levels. 


To be able to plan ahead, you need to be able to see ahead. And yet, as I write this, with September only a couple of sunsets away, no line of vision on a return to normality for the music or ‘live’ events sectors has even been hinted at in any detail, let alone laid out in black and white. 


For a profession so fond of hiring advisors, the ability of most politicians to communicate is worse than abysmal. A politician’s job, no matter what anyone says or thinks, is incredibly tough. There’s no doubt about that. Yes, they’re well-rewarded, but most of the people who only or primarily focus on that fact wouldn’t put up with the abuse that comes with the job for even a day. And to be fair, if they tried working as a councillor, a TD, or a minister for a week, they’d quickly find out that most in those roles – most…not all – more than earn their living. And that’s across the board, politicians of all parties and none.


A quick word on abuse, while we’re here. While frustration and anger, and a lot of other emotions are all understandable given where we are in this time of Covid, and everything that we’ve already had to deal with and come through, resorting to name-calling – sometimes in a way that’s really vile, vicious, and completely unnecessary – is not to be condoned. That’s just bad manners, childish, reflects extremely badly on those who do it, and it helps absolutely no-one in any way at all. Anybody who acts like that, regardless of who they are, doesn’t deserve to be a part of finding any way through this. 


However, there are many things that politicians could so easily do to make their own lives easier, and the lives of their constituents better. Communication is top of that list.  And right up there with it, is respect. And respect is not shown to anyone by running a so-called ‘pilot’ concert in a way that precisely zero events without further government funding could ever run in the real world. And respect is not shown by overseeing a grants process that sees several artists awarded more than one, while hundreds more received no help at all. That is not respect. Of course it was impossible to make sure that everyone who applied for funding of some kind got something that would help them. But what was always completely within the power of those who ran that operation to control, was making sure that no-one received multiple grants. Simple. 


Anyway, respect is what takes me right back to my opening point, that how little this government thought of the arts was evident from the moment the Green Party’s Catherine Martin was tasked with heading up a department that included six portfolios; tourism, culture, arts, the Gaeltacht, sport, AND media. 


Now, as far as Minister Martin herself is concerned, I admire her for having the courage to take on such a workload, and I have nothing but sympathy for the mess that she’s found herself at the centre of as far as the return to normality of the music and ‘live’ events sector goes. Even at the best of times, in a ‘normal’ Covid-less world, Catherine Martin would still have only twenty-four hours in her day, and seven days in her week, all to be divided between the six different portfolios for which her department has ultimate responsibility. Even at that, her task is monumental. Throw in Covid and its complexities, and it’s not just one magic wand she’d need, it’s a new one for every hour of every day of every week! 


The gov.ie website currently lists eighteen official government departments, and only one really comes close to Catherine Martin’s in terms of the spread of its duties, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, overseen by Minister Roderic O’ Gorman, although there are clearly more obvious links between each of those. There are some departments, which, understandably and for obvious reasons, must stand alone. Health, Foreign Affairs, and Justice. But surely, back when this government was being negotiated, more thought and care could have been given to the overall balance of things? I, for one, believe so. And have done for a long time. The madness and mayhem of the mess that has been the government’s treatment of the music and ‘live’ events sectors over the last number of months have only served to reaffirm that belief. 


So, what could have been done differently then, back when this government was formed? What would have given Minister Catherine Martin a fighting chance of representing artists and musicians with all of her might, which I genuinely believe she has always sincerely wanted to do? Well, let’s have a look…


The Department of Transport, as important as it is, could surely handle something else too. Tourism, perhaps? And do we still really need a Department of Finance AND a Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? Make them one! And, would not the Department of Rural and Community Development be a fitting and natural home for the care of the Gaeltacht as well? These questions give us somewhere to start from. 

With the Department of Finance becoming the Department of Finance, Public Expenditure, and Reform, that immediately frees up one department. The portfolios of Higher and Further Education should also come under the watch of the Department of Education, full-stop. That would mean that we then have a stand-alone Department of Research, Innovation, and Science. From the burden that rests on Catherine Martin’s shoulders right now, let’s actually go ahead and move Tourism to the Department of Transport seeing it become the Department of Transport and Tourism. As mentioned earlier, have the Department of Rural and Community Development become the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Gaeltacht. Now, Catherine Martin is left with just Arts, Culture, Sports, and Media in her charge. But, we’re not done here yet…


By making the Department of Finance become the Department of Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, we freed up a department. This can now become the new Department of Sports and Media, taking two more briefs away from Minister Martin. A possible step further even, make it the Department of Sports, Media, and Communication, leaving us with a Department of Environment and Climate as well, because that’s a portfolio that will certainly need as much time as possible devoted to the growing challenges it will continue to face in the years to come. 


And we’re not done even at that, because there’s one more move which would also make sense in two ways. If we take Heritage from the current Department of Housing and Local Government and Heritage, and move it to what Catherine Martin still has on her desk, we end up with a Department of Housing andLocal Government (and as with a Department of Environment and Climate, a Department of Housing and Local Government will have more than enough on its plate!), while Minister Martin heads up our Department of Arts, Culture, and Heritage. 

To my mind, this paints a much more balanced overall picture. But crucially for the music and ‘live’ events sectors, Minister Martin would, right from the get-go, have been in a significantly better position to champion these sectors. There’s just no question about that. Her workload and areas of responsibility would have been literally cut in half. The time and energy that she’s had to put into dealing with the tourism, Gaeltacht, sports, and media briefs since taking office could all have been devoted to her efforts on behalf of the music and ‘live’ events sector, as part of her Arts, Culture, and Heritage brief. There’s no way in the world that this wouldn’t have made some difference to things, and perhaps even enough for these sectors to – at last – be looking beyond Covid. 


So why would any government in its right mind even attempt to wedge six portfolios – each one so important in its own right, let me stress that again – into the department of one single minister? 
Well, it has to be said that the answer looks simple enough at this stage. For those of us who work in the music and ‘live’ events sectors, the problem isn’t just that this government has been acting like it doesn’t care right now. It’s that now, at last, maybe it’s becoming clearer to see that they never really cared at all. 
This government has already sanctioned the return to Croke Park of 40,000 fans for the All-Ireland hurling final. At the time of writing, public transport is set to return to full capacity next week (from Monday, August 30th), and schools are also due to reopen, if they haven’t already done so. But the music and ‘live’ events sectors? Still waiting on a ‘road-map.’ 


Just to be clear as well, very few who work in or are involved in the music or ‘live’ events sectors have any problem at all with the return of crowds to Croke Park or any other sporting occasions in large numbers, if it can happen safely. No problem at all. More luck to all involved. The point is, the exact same thing could already have been happening – in some shape or form – for concerts, festivals, and theatre too, as well as smaller ‘live’ music occasions. And the fault for that not being so, for this delay, and the embarrassing absence of clear communication on all of this, lies, ultimately, with the government. Not with Nphet as some would like us to believe. Throughout this whole pandemic, Nphet have been doing their job, which is just to advise the government. The final call rests with the government. 


And that’s who thought it was a good idea to ask one minister to take on the portfolios of the arts, culture, tourism, the Gaeltacht, sports, and the media in the first place. Those same decision makers are why the music and ‘live’ events sectors are still waiting on a ‘road-map’ instead of being well down the road to some kind of normality again. 

~ This week’s column can also be enjoyed in full at the official OTRT website, www.ontherighttrax.com 

ENDS