‘We’d be on X Factor being hacked to death by Simon Cowell!'


TALK TIME: EOIN BUTLERtalks to Donal Lunny

You’ve recently taken up the position of artist in residence at the University of Limerick. Are you enjoying it?

It’s great. The students are from all over: Ireland, the US, Japan – there’s even an Italian uilleann piper! I’m not sure that I’d call myself a teacher yet though. As a musician, so much of what you do is intuitive. But I was in there with Mozaik this week and we did workshops, a seminar and a performance. It was really uplifting for us and I think the students got something out of it, too.

Have you sewn leather elbows onto a tweed jacket or chugged a can of beer during the day?

No, but I might get myself a nice pair of corduroy trousers. I was in art college for five years, so the atmosphere in Limerick University is really refreshing, it’s a real pleasure.

Some of your students may not realise that you started out in a sort of proto-boyband.

Do we have to go that far back? (laughs). Yes, I started out in the late 1960s with a male vocal harmony group called the Emmet Spiceland and we were very much of that ilk. We were very careful with our dress and our hairstyles.

Were there screaming girls at your gigs?

There were, yes. But at the time, they were called teenyboppers. Our singing was good, but we didn’t have much of a plan. We just sang anything we liked, as opposed to going for hard and fast traditional material. We sang the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, all of that stuff.

If you were starting out today, would you have to go on one of those awful TV talent shows?

Oh God, absolutely. We’d be on X Factor being hacked to death by Simon Cowell. It’s a blood sport nowadays, isn’t it?

You made your name with Planxty and Moving Hearts. How are Mozaik different?

The biggest difference is that the music is coming from three different sources – Irish music through myself and Andy ; Bulgarian music through Nikola ; and then, most unlikely of all, American old-timey music from Bruce . Figuring out what we had in common and finding our way through that was a puzzle. Out of that came our style.

You’re recording an album at the moment.

No, Andy is recording a solo album and I’m producing it. Some members of Mozaik will play on a few of the tracks though. We’ve resolved to record another album together, come what may. But we’re scattered all over the world now, which makes the logistics very complicated.

You’re based part of the time in Japan. How does that work out?

I’ve had to accept that Ireland is where I work – so I split my time half and half. But Japan is a fantastic place. The quality of life there, and the courtesy people show to one another, is really incredible. All of this, of course, isn’t visible to Westerners at first. It’s like being a bull in a china shop – one is accommodated very subtly until one learns. And it’s very charming once you realise that. There are aspects of Japanese culture that the whole world could learn from.

Of the stars you’ve worked with, particularly outside the Irish folk tradition – who impressed you the most?

Probably Mark Knopfler. The way he puts his songs together, and the care he takes with every detail, was very impressive. I learned a lot from just being with him in the studio. Kate Bush, too, did a version of Mna na hÉireann with me for the Common Ground album. She hadn’t a word of Irish. But she really made a fist of it.

What’s been the luckiest break in your career?

Probably Andy Irvine giving me my first bouzouki. We were in his apartment and there was literally a pile of instruments in the corner of his room, things that I had never seen before – Bulgarian bagpipes, a kaval, gadulka. As soon as I picked up the bouzouki, I couldn’t put it down. After three hours Andy said, look, will you ever just take that thing home with you. I did and it changed my life profoundly.

Finally, are there any artists that you’d still love to work with?

Bob Dylan. I’d love to work with Bob Dylan. I wanted to play with him 20 years ago. I wrote him a letter but I didn’t finish it and never sent it. But I think he’s great. I think that I could add something to his music, a bit of a racket.

Donal Lunny, Paul Brady, Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin will perform at The Ardenode Hotel, Ballymore Eustace, Co Kildare on Thursday, December 3rd in aid of Aware. Tickets: 1890-616161