'I've never been fashionable'

Sat, Mar 20, 2010, 00:00

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW: PAUL BRADY:Paul Brady, one of Ireland’s most successful singer-songwriters, left his home town of Strabane in 1964, the first of many departures from his comfort zone. Since then, he has walked away from financial security, from the folk music scene, and from political orthodoxies. But he finally seems at ease

IT BEGAN when he was 11, and his father asked him whether he’d prefer a guitar or a harmonica for Christmas. He chose the guitar. Thus did Paul Brady step on to the path that would lead to him becoming one of Ireland’s most celebrated singer- songwriters. He has created more than his fair share of iconic songs – Hard Station, Get Back to the Centre, The Island, Nobody Knows, Crazy Dreams, Busted Looseand Steel Claw. Many have been covered by such stellar artists as Tina Turner, Cher, Carlos Santana, Art Garfunkel and Phil Collins. And he’s not done yet. This month sees the release of a new album, Hooba Dooba. A toe-tapping collection of strong tunes, smart lyrics and effortless hooks, it finds Brady in first-class form; and the title offers a clue as to his current state of mind, both in music and in life. You don’t go calling an album Hooba Doobaunless you’re at ease with the world and at ease in your own skin.

“It’s a total mish-mash of everything I’ve always loved,” says Brady of the album, as he removes the teabag from a mug, adds milk and hands over the resulting brew. It’s early in the day for a rock star to be up, let alone doing interviews, but he has already, he tells me with a serene smile, been for a swim. No slacking for this sixtysomething, clearly. In the spacious, well-equipped recording studio in the back garden of his house in south Co Dublin, guitars jostle with music stands and microphones. Behind the massive mixing desk I can see the winged shadow of an open grand piano.

On Hooba Dooba, Brady plays a dazzling array of instruments: acoustic and electric guitars, percussion, organ, mandolin, bouzouki, piano, electronic keyboards. He has come a long way since he and his father headed off to make that all-important first purchase in Strabane in the winter of 1957.

“Not many people had guitars in those days,” he observes with a bleak grin. “I was one of the first people in the town to have one. It was a steel-string guitar, but the tutor book we bought for it that day was for a Spanish gut-string guitar – and it was for classical playing. I struggled for weeks with this book and I just could not make head nor tail of it. So eventually, I just threw it in the corner and said: ‘Right, I’m gonna have to learn this myself.’ ”

He makes it sound almost ludicrously easy; and it becomes plain, as he talks, that his 30-year career has seen him negotiate one similarly vertiginous learning curve after another. Several of those new songs – including The Price of Fame, co-written with Ronan Keating, and Luck of the Draw, written for Bonnie Raitt – are rooted in the shifting realities of a life in music. But, as he points out, they apply to the changing dynamics at the heart of all human relationships.

“You could be working in an office with somebody, and then one person is plucked upstairs,” he says. “They’re suddenly in a different stratum entirely and, well, what happens there? I’m interested in that. I’ve always hated the notion of fame, in a way. But I know that you almost can’t have success in the music business unless you have a certain amount of fame.”

Another song, The Winner’s Ball,is a mischievous comment on the current pop-culture obsession with celebrity and overnight success. “Looking around at music at the moment – The X Factor, and the way people are prepared to sit up all night listening to someone sing a version of a song which isn’t nearly as good as the original version – it’s all a bit comical to me,” Brady says. “I’m not annoyed by it at all. It’s quite funny, actually. The idea that if you put on the right shirt, it’s gonna happen.”

He chuckles at the idea that clothes might make the musician. But then, he adds, he’s biased. “I was never fashionable anyway, in terms of image, or whatever. I had no image. When you see some of the early videos of me – the stuff on YouTube – the state of me! I mean, really. There’s one with me doing Busted Loosein RTÉ and I’m wearing this, kind of, striped jacket.” He shakes his head in mock-despair. “Visuals were never my strong point.”

Words are a different matter. The song Mother and Sonexplores the delicate theme of parent-child tension. Brady wrote the first few lines of the lyric nearly 15 years ago, but was able to finish it only after his mother died. Even now, he says, it’s a subject he finds hard to talk about. “I loved my mother. And I’m sure she loved me. I did not want the song to be full of pain or full of recriminations or anything – because whatever I might have felt at times in our relationship, I certainly don’t feel that now. I was trying to be as tender as I could be.

“But I also wanted to love the little person that I was, too. It wasn’t an easy relationship. It was just . . . difficult. I think we were both similar, in ways. And I suppose I needed a lot more than I got, there.”

BRADY GREW UPin a three-storey terraced house at 20 Church Street, Strabane. His parents were both primary-school teachers. “We lived in Strabane simply because the Border was there,” he says. “The river that flows through the town is the Border – and on the other side was Lifford .”

His father cycled to school in the Republic; his mother drove with young Paul to Sion Mills in her little Morris Eight. She taught in a mixed-religion, mixed-sex school founded by a local Quaker family. For Brady, the result was what he calls a “dual-culture upbringing”. “It was fundamentally different across the bridge, in the Republic. It felt different. Strabane was quite polarised at the time, politically and religious-wise. It still is.”

In 1956, following the IRA attack on the RUC barracks in Co Fermanagh in which Sean South was killed, the tanks moved in. “It was weird,” Brady says. “The Cyprus thing was still going on. And suddenly all these armoured cars arrived in the town square outside the police barracks – but they had desert camouflage on them. This was the funniest thing we kids had ever seen. But you weren’t allowed to get too close, in case you’d be spying for the Fenians. ‘Don’t let them fellas near them tanks now, or they’ll be telling the Fenians’ – that’s what the other kids would be saying.”

But he has plenty of happy memories too. Summers were spent in Bundoran, where his father would often be “called upon” to perform. “From a very early age I would watch my father holding a room totally in the palm of his hand. He loved big ballads like The West’s Awakeand La Paloma– and he used to do monologues. But not the ‘dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah’ kind of thing that people would learn off by heart. He imbued them with such drama – I mean, you really believed everything he was saying. He had a repertoire of ‘turns’. It’s a bit like now I have a repertoire of songs, and there are some big ones that people want to hear all the time. With him, people wanted to hear Little Rosaor The Face on The Bar-Room Floor. When I perform now, or even when I write, I tend to put a character in a song, and then when I sing the song I try to become the character. And I definitely got that from my father.”

In 1964, Brady headed south to study French and Irish at University College Dublin. The city was buzzing with rhythm and blues bands, all seeking to emulate the success of The Animals, The Rolling Stones and The Spencer Davis Group. “A whole rash of them came out all over Dublin,” Brady recalls. “Beat groups, they were called at the time.”

Within two years, he had moved in and out of three bands – The Inmates, The Kult and Rootzgroup – playing music by Chuck Berry, James Brown and Ray Charles. Then, in the final year of his college course, a letter arrived to his parents from the UCD registrar, revealing the awful truth about his lack of attendance at lectures.

“I went through this charade of leaving the bands,” Brady says. “But the folk boom had started, and folk clubs had opened up all over the place, so I started going to those and playing acoustic blues.”

He never did get his degree. But he got friendly with a musician called James Keane, brother of the fiddle player from The Chieftains, Seán Keane. “He was the one who opened the door to traditional music to me,” Brady says. “It was like opening a room inside myself that was always there but that I just wasn’t aware of. I felt instantly familiar with everything in there – and for the next 12 years, I didn’t come out of the room.”

He joined one of the most successful folk bands of the time, The Johnstons, and toured all over the UK and in the US. In 1978 he released a solo album called Welcome Here Kind Stranger, which won an award from Melody Makermagazine for Folk Album of the Year. Musically, it seemed he had found his niche. Not only that, but he was making a good living – enough to keep a wife, two small kids and a mortgage in reasonable comfort. And then he heard a song called Baker Street. “I knew the singer, Gerry Rafferty, very well,” says Brady. “He used to play with Billy Connolly and Tam Harvey in a folk group called The Humblebums. We’d meet them at festivals all the time.” With its languid sax intro, sophisticated production values and contemporary confessional lyrics, Rafferty’s hymn to urban disaffection threw Brady into a musical spin. “It was a huge development in popular music, as far as I saw it, and it just floored me,” he says.

He realised that rather than singing traditional songs such as The Lakes of Ponchartrainand Arthur McBride, he needed to be writing his own songs, which would express what was happening in contemporary Ireland, in a contemporary style.

It was a risky proposition. What was happening in Ireland in the 1980s was, in hindsight, a recession. “And muggins here decides he’s going to stop performing and follow his muse,” says Brady. “To give my long-suffering wife credit, she never once questioned what I was doing. Never once. Because what, in fact, I did was commit temporary professional suicide.”

HE RENTED Aroom in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square from a musician colleague and set to work on the eight songs that would make up his album, Hard Station. “Looking back on it now, I’m going ‘how did I do that, could I not have timed it better?’ – but I was just turning 30, and I just felt invincible.”

He began by dissecting Baker Streetto find out what, musically, made it tick. “I took it apart, and I tried to figure out: what’s going on in here? You know, nobody has actually noticed this, but the introduction on my song Hard Stationuses the exact same major ninth chord that Gerry Rafferty used for the start and end of Baker Street. I mean, I completely covered it up with other stuff, but I was determined to be able to do what excited me so much when I heard that song.”

Hard Stationearned Brady a four-star review in Rolling Stonemagazine and flattering comparisons to John Martyn, Van Morrison and, yes, Gerry Rafferty. At the same time, the reviewer noted that Brady had a “way all his own” of delivering a lyric. In the years since then, it has become apparent that it’s the lyrics themselves which are inimitable. Brady’s interest in social justice leads him to consistently question accepted socio-political dogmas – and he isn’t always thanked for it. For example, the sweet, simple melody of The Islandconceals a lyrical sting – “Up here we sacrifice our children/ To feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday “ – which earned him a severe rap on the knuckles from Republican quarters. The searing anger of Nothing but the Same Old Storywasn’t calculated to endear him to unionist audiences. On the new album, he’s still rattling cages, with Over the Borderputting “the war on terror” and “holy jihad” side by side. None of it, the song concludes, “makes any sense at all”.

Despite his fondness for mordant observation – which, being a bit of a born-again blogger these days, he also indulges on his website – Brady doesn’t consider himself a political animal. “No. I’m a lone wolf, I’m afraid. I’m not a person who likes to court controversy. I prefer to sneak through life – which is a huge liability if you want to be in the public eye. I don’t like being singled out with a view. But I’m quite happy to write a song about it and let people make their own mind up.”

He is also happy to turn the sharp edge of his lyrical pen on himself. The song Money to Burntakes a swipe at the financial sector, but also wags a finger at its creator.

“Like everybody else in this collapse in the last couple of years, I’ve been hit too,” he says. “I look around and I hear people arguing about pensions and I go, ‘What’s a pension?’. I don’t have a pension. So I’m as prone to worry about the future as the next person. Okay, I’m giving out about property developers whingeing about having lost three or four million. But at the same time I’m saying to myself, ‘Come on, stop worrying, you’re all right’.” He is, too.

Over the past 12 months universities have been queuing up to offer honours, “which, considering I never even got a degree in the first place, I’m very happy about”. The University of Ulster conferred an honorary degree last July; the Galway University Foundation chose him as its annual Irish-person-to-be-celebrated in New York in November; and he is currently working out, with Micheál Ó Sulleabháin, a Paul Brady scholarship programme at the University of Limerick. As he approaches his 63rd birthday, what is his artistic credo? Does he have one?

“Part of me believes in magic,” he says. “I believe that, having made a decision to work as a songwriter and a performing artist, I’m working with magic. And I realise that, if I give myself to this fully, then magic happens.

“But there’s a whole other side of me that’s fearful. So I’m constantly lurching between the artistic side and the . . . the other side. The dark side. I believe that one’s instinct is God. Intellect, on the other hand, needs to be watched very carefully. I’ve had to learn, to practice, talking my intellect down and stopping it being the inner critic. There’s enough outer critics out there.”

Paul Brady begins his UK and Ireland tour in Derry’s Millennium Theatre on April 3. He plays the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin on April 9 and 10. For a full listing of tour dates, see paulbrady.com

BORNPaul Joseph Brady, May 19th 1947, in Strabane, Co Tyrone

FAMILYMarried to Mary. Daughter Sarah born 1977; son Colm born 1979. Now the proud grandfather of Lyra, aged one.

ALBUMS Back to the Centre; Full Moon; Hard Station; Hooba Dooba; Nobody Knows; Oh What a World; Primitive Dance; Say What You Feel; Spirits Colliding; The Liberty Tapes; The Paul Brady Songbook; Trick or Treat; True for You; Welcome Here Kind Stranger