Phil Coulter: ‘Music saved my sanity... and my life’

The ‘anthem’ writer and hitmaker on his Derry childhood, two marriages and life in music

"I'm a bit of a hoarder as you can see," says Phil Coulter when we walk into his spacious platinum-, gold- and silver-record-lined office in an industrial estate near his home in Bray, in Co Wicklow.

Coulter first poses for some photographs, but as he does so he’s already telling me about his new autobiography, Phil Coulter: Bruised Never Broken.

The photographer asks for a smile. “Did no one tell you?” says Phil. “Happiness is not an ongoing condition, it comes in moments.” He laughs. “When I smile in photographs, I always come out looking a bit demented, like Jack Nicholson in the Shining.”

He was never meant for the limelight, he explains. “When my pop music pals were singing in the mirror pretending to be Elvis Presley, I was pretending to conduct his band.”


He certainly made this fantasy come true. Coulter has written, produced or conducted music for Sandie Shaw, Cliff Richard, Butch Moore, the Bay City Rollers, Richard Harris, The Dubliners, Planxty, The Furey Brothers, Van Morrison, Sinead O'Connor, Billy Connolly and then, as a sort of afterthought, he became a bit of a star himself with his Tranquillity records in the 1980s.

Funnily enough, he says, he recoiled from his piano lessons initially and, at his father’s suggestion, he quit. But then he found himself regularly drifting to the piano to pick out pop hooks he was hearing on the radio. “I can still remember the first tune that I could pick up because it was all up the black notes,” he says before going over to the baby grand digital piano in the corner to play it. “It was a tune called Buttons and Bows.”

He was immersed in music in Derry, he says. His dad, a rare Catholic RUC man, played the fiddle, and people regularly gathered in their house for singsongs. “It was a point of pride that everyone could stand up and sing a song and do their party piece. When I was this high.”

He points to his knee. “I’d listen outside the door. It was a living breathing thing and when I went to the piano and did my five finger exercises I would think, ‘This is not the same thing at all. There’s no crack here.’”

There was also, he says, a particular musical culture in the city. “There was great unemployment in Derry, and one of the ways guys could pick up a few bob was by playing in a band. During the war years the army, the navy and the US air force were all stationed in and around Derry, and so there would have been opportunities for bands to play at dances.

You couldn't throw a stone in Derry without hitting a showband then

“It was the one job that when you turned up for the interview the first question was not, ‘What school did you go to?’ which was code for, ‘Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?’ This was one bit of employment where it didn’t matter. If you could play the trumpet you got the gig. [Someone] would call Willie Duffy the barman in the Rocking Chair to say, ‘I need a four-piece band for next Friday night,’ and he’d call out ‘Friday night who’s free?’ It was kind of a labour exchange….

“There’s a phrase in the lyric of The Town I Loved So Well, ‘When I played in a small pickup band.’ There’s one notable balladeer who got that slightly wrong and recorded, ‘I remember the day when I earned my first pay when I drove in a small pickup van.’” He laughs.

“You couldn’t throw a stone in Derry without hitting a showband then, before stone-throwing became the popular art form it was later to become.”

When he went to Queens to study music he was “a classic square peg in a round hole.” He was one of few Catholics in the music department and one of the few enamoured with pop music. He’s still “a bit irked” that he never completed his degree. He was gratified years later when, as Mary McAleese awarded him an honorary Queens doctorate, she suggested his incomplete degree might reflect badly on the university.

While still at college, he started a band and cut a single called Foolin’ Time that he managed to get into the hands of Butch Moore and the Capitol Showband, who promptly recorded it.

Was he a bit of a hustler? “I think I was smart enough to see an opportunity ... It was a top-three record here. So now I’m unemployable. I’ve written a hit and as far as I’m concerned I’m a hit songwriter. I owe those guys a great debt.”

Through Des Kelly, the leader of the Capitol, he ended up in London working for a music executive Phil Solomon, for whom he was an underpaid songwriter, producer and general dogsbody.

“Before long, he and his new wife Angela were settled in “Cricklewood with all the other Paddies.” Angela was already pregnant but they didn’t reveal the birth of their first child to their families until a respectable nine months after the wedding. “And Solomon would sack me every four or five weeks just to keep me on my toes.”

He eventually formed a song-writing partnership with Bill Martin – Coulter as the musical genius with Martin as the savvy businessman – writing hits to order for teen sensations like the Bay City Rollers and Eurovision-winning songs for Sandie Shaw and Cliff Richard.

“If you’re a professional songwriter you write a song for a reason, for a particular artist who is recording or a pal of yours who is producing ... A song only earns its keep when it’s out there.”

His attitude to song-writing changed a little a few years later when he was brought in to produce the Dubliners, who were hitting a career slump. Luke Kelly was constantly trying to convince him to write songs with a bit more depth, he says.

The first time he did so came from genuine heartache. In 1965 he and Angela had a second child, Paul, who had Down Syndrome. “My wife handled it a lot more maturely than I did,” he says.

“For the first couple of weeks I pretended it hadn’t happened. I was very young and very naïve and very stupid ... It was not something you could ignore. You come home at the end of the evening and Paul was there, and seeing how my wife was coping with it more readily than I was ...

“Back then people didn’t say Paul had Down Syndrome. He was a ‘mongol.’ That was the term that was used, very cruel by today’s standards, very raw and very insensitive. And it was something that people didn’t talk about. I remember in our neighbourhood in Derry someone had a ‘mongol’ child and it was kind of whispered about.”

In the process of coming to terms with what was happening he wrote Scorn Not his Simplicity. “I wanted to say, ‘This happened to me and rather than hiding it away or hiding the child away, I’m not ashamed.’”

Internment galvanised the people of Derry. There was a great anger and a great frustration

Paul died in 1969, but the song he inspired is still played and appreciated. “In all of the years, a handful of songs get a personal reaction from people far and wide but none has provoked that kind of reaction ... To this day I get emails from people who have heard the song for the first time [who say] ’It was great for me to hear the song. It’s given me a lot of consolation’ ... That was the first time something deeply personal gave rise to a song.”

He wrote it for Luke Kelly to sing, he says, and he doesn’t think the song would have been written otherwise. Kelly, a committed socialist, was also encouraging Coulter to write political material just as politics were becoming intensely personal for Derry people.

"It was part of your bread and butter in Derry. I think it was Brian Friel once said, 'They tried to persuade [Catholics] of our limitations, that we were the hewers of wood and the drawers of water.' So for those of us then who managed to get our heads above the parapet, there was a particular kind of satisfaction."

Coulter saw riots in Derry during which old ladies were dowsed with water cannons, and he had friends, “no more gunmen than I am” who were pulled from their homes in the night and brought to internment camps for the crime of being in a GAA club or an Irish class.

“Internment galvanised the people of Derry,” he says. “There was a great anger and a great frustration. I wrote a song called Free the People, which was an anti-internment song. It’s not a great song. The fact it’s anti-anything tells you all about it. But it broke a logjam in my head, and I started writing about what was happening.”

His support for his city became an important part of his life. He wrote the beautiful, often covered The Town I Loved So Well. He was involved in an anti-internment rally featuring Richard Harris, John Hume and Austin Curry. He became president of Derry FC for a while. At one point he was involved in a concert in Derry's Guildhall at which an incendiary device exploded when he was a few bars into a song.

Coulter found himself sheltering under his grand piano where he was joined by another man apparently more inured to such things. “He asked me for Billy Connolly’s autograph.” He laughs. “There was always humour in Derry.”

Has he seen Derry Girls? “I’ve only seen a couple, but I love it. As soon as I heard the people in Derry loved it I thought, ‘It must be good.’”

Coulter went on to become something of a musical voice for moderation. He helped devise an arrangement of Danny Boy for Barry McGuigan's 1985 championship match at Loftus Road because the boxer wanted to avoid anthems that alienated either side of the bitter divide.

He later wrote Ireland’s Call at the behest of the IRFU when they were searching for a song that wouldn’t be alienating to any of the traditions supporting the Irish team.

He tells me about playing it for six blazer-wearing members of the IRFU where everyone was pleased except the representative from Cork “who couldn’t understand why Cork wasn’t mentioned.” He laughs. “There was a bit of reluctance to embrace it ... I used to get hate mail about it [but] when I hear a full house in Landsdowne Road singing it, that’s okay by me.”

He and James Galway also performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at which John Hume and David Trimble were honoured. It was particularly fitting, he says, because Galway comes from a Protestant background and learned to play flute in an Orange band. They worked together for years at one point giving Coulter cause to say, "Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy, you play that tin whistle like an Orange man."

In the late 1980s, he was offered an OBE but rejected it. “I know there are other Catholics from the north who’ve accepted,” he says. “I don’t think any the less of them ... The United Kingdom has been very good to me. I’ve found my career there. I was never made feel awkward or second-class being Irish ... This was more to do with my background and specifically that Tory government, Maggie Thatcher, and all that hard-line right-wing stuff she was responsible for, the hunger strike and the miners’ strike ... You can’t be seen to be joining her gang.”

Music has been a steadying influence on me through those dark hours, no doubt about it. It has saved my life on many different levels

He doesn’t avoid more personal subjects, in his book or in person. He’s honest about how his youthful hunger for success and consequent moves from Derry to London to Donegal to the US put a strain on his family and his relationship.

“Looking back at it now it was very selfish,” he says. “Nobody wants to walk away from a marriage, and I’m of an age that when you get married that’s it and we had soldiered through some very rough times as a couple and as a family. I wasn’t proud of myself for the way I had let it deteriorate.”

His marriage to Angela ended in 1982 and he went on to start a family with Geraldine Brannigan. Due to a lack of Irish divorce legislation they didn’t get married until the late 1990s. “We ended up going on honeymoon with our six kids, which says it all.”

In 1982 he also ended his partnership with Bill Martin and shortly thereafter, decided to become a performer in his own right, with his first solo piano album Classical Tranquillity. It was hugely successful and spawned follow-ups and for the first time he found himself to be “famous”.

He somehow retained a love of playing music for its own sake. He says it has, at times, “saved my sanity”. In the mid-1980s two of his siblings drowned in Lough Swilly. His brother Brian drowned while windsurfing. His sister Cyd was a counsellor and was, horrifically, driven into the lake by a suicidal client. This was the most painful period in his life.

“It was just really dark,” he says. “To lose them both in the same stretch of water, both by unnatural causes and both avoidable, that was the hardest thing of all. And then my father died in the middle of all of that. I was sick of funerals and undertakers and all that paraphernalia...

“Music has been a steadying influence on me through those dark hours, no doubt about it. It has saved my life on many different levels.”

And music has also brought him great joy. His book is filled with gleeful anecdotes about working with idiosyncratic personalities such as Billy Connolly, Van Morrison and Richard Harris.

Harris he had to caution into good behaviour for their tour together. “You might say ‘You come in after four bars’ but for Dick four bars were four places to get hammered in. He was a very instinctive performer. I had to say ‘Let’s get this clear, ‘I’m your musical director, I’m not your spiritual director, and I certainly am not going to be picking up after you when you’re drunk. The night I see you coming onstage gargled you’ll meet me coming off and you can handle it by yourself.’” He laughs. “So he never did.”

Learning how to collaborate with performers is the most important job a producer has, he says. “It’s not about how smart you are or how good you are on the board.”

He recalls how, when recording the Van Morrison's 1994 tribute album No Prima Donna, he noticed Sinéad O'Connor's timidity on entering the studio. "I'm up with Van and Marianne Faithfull and Michelle Rocca and a few Dublin socialites ... I see Sinéad coming in the back door and I just instinctively felt – she's maybe full of lip and tearing up pictures of the Pope, but right now she's a scared girl looking up here seeing legendary faces."

So he insisted everyone leave the studio and he went down and gave her hug. “The following morning she’d left a note for me. ‘I can’t get over how chilled out you are. How’d you like to work on my next record?’”

To be honest with you, I could listen to Coulter talk about his collaborations all morning, so I do. I hear about the recording of Planxty’s debut album (“I’ve not heard anything that’s advanced beyond Planxty in traditional music,” he says) and how he “barracked and bullied” the cast of the strangest, cheapest production of Jesus Christ Superstar from the pub to the stage back in 1973 (the cast included Luke Kelly, Jim McCann and Colm Wilkinson).

He describes the “tumbleweed” that blew through the studio when he first suggested adding piano to the Dubliners’ recording of Joe Hill, and then he plays the line for me. He even laments the stranglehold musical reality shows have on the music charts despite his own former participation in one, RTÉ’s You’re a Star’. “Guilty as charged,” he says.

Coulter is, at 77, finishing a record called Return to Tranquillity and about to play a run of around 40 gigs. “It’s not like going to an insurance office and sitting behind a desk,” he says. “When you’re playing music or writing music or involved in music you can lose yourself in it. You can wrap the music around you.”

Bruised, Never Broken by Phil Coulter is published by Gill Books

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times