For many years Paul Brady, the Strabane-born folk-rock veteran turned peer-respected AOR singer-songwriter, appeared to the public an inscrutable presence, the product of a mid-century Border-town upbringing, instilled with the values of diplomacy and close counsel.
But the act of writing a memoir changes a person. Brady at 75 seems more open than before, more liable to laugh at the ironies of his life and work. At several points in an hour-long conversation at his home studio in south Dublin, his eyes take on a shine: a lot of old ground has recently been made raw and freshly turned. This is the first interview to promote his book Crazy Dreams. Writing it was, he says, an impulse rather than a strategy. When I ask if the process revealed anything about his character, he offers this:
“That maybe sometimes I stick in situations that aren’t suitable longer than I should. I was constantly unsure of my feelings. Like, for instance, The Johnstons. That went pear-shaped very badly, but it took me a long time to get out of it.”
I’m normally a very private person, and I’m very loath to go into criticism of people, and suddenly this book comes out and I’m saying things that probably needed to be said – but should I have said them?
The account of his years with that Meath folk-rock group is the most gruelling but also most compelling section in the book. Brady, in his early twenties, lucked into a dream job with a successful recording and touring act, but personnel changes, muddled musical policy and bad business decisions reduced him to living on his wits in New York, almost destitute, coerced and controlled by the band’s manager and co-songwriter Chris McCloud, husband of the group’s singer Adrienne Johnston.
By the end, The Johnstons seemed less a group than a dysfunctional cult. Adrienne became depressed and isolated from her family and died in the US in 1980. McCloud passed away nine years later. Brady still bears the mark of that time.
“That was the lowest point in my life, my career. There was definitely a coercive thing there, it was very bad. I can’t even begin to talk about it half the time, I mean, there’s been an annual Johnstons revival in Slane for the last 10 years or so, I got involved with it once, but it was just too painful. I was 20. It was a manic, controlling syndrome, very, very dominating.
“To be honest, I’m kind of shocked at myself with this book, because I’m normally a very private person, and I’m very loath to go into criticism of people, or even to be hugely revelatory, and suddenly this comes out and I’m saying things that probably needed to be said – but should I have said them? There have been many points, and a lot of them are coming to a head now, where I’m going, ‘I wish I hadn’t done this!’
“But the Johnstons was messed up, I mean how much more messed up can you be than to release two albums on the one day, one of them hardcore trad and the other string arrangements on pop songs? And all the time we were being lionised by the hardcore trad scene we were expected to be the next Seekers, and that just kept pulling us apart like a melodeon.”
It was at this point, broke and effectively homeless, that Brady discovered one of his signature songs, the traditional ballad Arthur McBride. His arrangement would become canonised in folk-rock circles – Bob Dylan’s version on Good As I Been To You could only have come from Brady’s revision.
“I was attracted to big story songs, Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore, The Lakes of Pontchartrain is another one, anything that’s a story, it allowed me to set out my store and show what I can do.”
Interesting that such a quintessential Irish ballad is about a lake in Louisiana.
A fleeting sense of satisfaction is all I can say I had after that record. I’m ashamed of this in a sense
“That’s not the only anomaly about it, it’s like, ‘What is it talking about?’ There’s all these railway lines there, so it’s not that early in the 19th century, and there’s foreign money, what’s the foreign money, is it Spanish money, is it French money? I mean the whole of Louisiana was Frenchified from the Acadians up in Canada, and what war was this, was it the Spanish-American war? It’s an amazing cultural backdrop to the song which is just not explained, I mean I’ve never had a definitive explanation of where the song’s context lies.”
Therein lies the magic of a lot of folk songs – they’re inherently cryptic.
“A lot of the language is obscure and hinting at stuff rather than fundamentally explaining it all, and I think the vagueness of language in songs is a bit like having a ritual in society: it’s always done that way because it’s way too complex to allow it to become anything more than this ritual.”
Throughout the 1970s Brady further established his reputation as a virtuoso guitarist and singer with Planxty and Andy Irvine. Then came Hard Station, his first solo album, in 1981. He was in his thirties, married, a new father, a professional musician of 15 years. Listening back, I’m surprised by the amount of anger in that record. Busted Loose, Hard Station and Nothing but the Same Old Story are the sound of a protest singer masquerading as FM soft rock, a fist wrapped in a satin tour jacket. It must have been exciting, I suggest, to finally find his voice as a songwriter after so many years of apprenticeship.
I realise I’m a bit of an odd fish in the sense of my background, my experiences, my abilities
“That’s the awful thing about being artistic, in a way, you do something and you go, ‘Thank god, that’s good’, and then, ‘Alright, next.’ A fleeting sense of satisfaction is all I can say I had after that record. I’m ashamed of this in a sense, but most of my experience at the time was a sense of hating the mix and wanting to remix it, and getting sucked into that madness. Every record I made until about a decade ago, I went temporarily insane. That’s what happened me with Hard Station, and that’s because I was exhausted trying to make the record, with two small kids.”
What cured his neurosis?
“Are you ever really cured of it? The reason I’m over it now is I actually don’t care what happens to a record I put out anymore. I don’t see myself… I mean, this book thing is a strange dynamic for me. In one way I’m back in the selling-myself state of mind that I left behind three or four albums ago. And now that I’m having to talk about this book I’m finding it’s difficult, it’s like, ‘I thought I’d put you out of the f**kin’ house!’
“I was very, very lucky in that a couple of times I was dragged out of obscurity and stuck on the main stage. That happened with The Johnstons, that happened with Planxty. And to some extent it happened later on with my relationship with Dire Straits and Eric Clapton, people like that, they just picked me up. I was known in Ireland and among the Irish diaspora, but I never was a globally known figure in the contemporary music world. I was very fortunate that I got the kiss of the Blarney every so often.
“We were gifted in the ‘60s and ‘70s with the ability, if you satisfied certain requirements, to make a living. I don’t know how anybody can work in the music business now. It’s madness. I sell CDs and vinyl at gigs, and I’ll sell this book at gigs. Like I say in the book, Hot Press didn’t even review my last two albums. It doesn’t bother me, to be honest.
“But I suppose, to round it off, the impetus to do this book was that I realise I’m a bit of an odd fish in the sense of my background, my experiences, my abilities. I have been private, so people don’t really know much about me beyond what I’ve said in interviews and records and stuff, but in this book I have not shied away from talking about my mistakes and things I got wrong. I hope there’s enough in there that people can identify with and say, in their own way, they know what that feels like.”
Crazy Dreams is published by Merrion Press