Pierce Turner: 'There is very little melody in the current pop idiom'
The same cannot be said of the uncompromising music of the Wexford-born songwriter, who wears his ecclesiastical influences proudly
Pierce Turner: “I remember the quality of church music when I was growing up”
Once a choirboy, always a choirboy? Wexford-born, Manhattan- based musician and songwriter Pierce Turner is unequivocal about early influences. As a boy growing up in Wexford in the 1960s, his local church choir, hymn singing and the mysteries of Gregorian chant opened him up to a lifetime of interest in, and intrigue about, sacred music.
Inevitably, rock music took him on a different path (his parents owned a record shop, which broadened his musical tastes), but over the past 30 years Turner has taken the ducking-and-diving approach to new extremes. In the mid-1980s, he signed to UK indie label Beggars Banquet, and in 1987 released his debut solo album, It’s Only a Long Way Across. Produced by composer Philip Glass (who has remained a loyal and trustworthy sounding board ever since), the debut was followed by The Sky and the Ground (1989) and Now Is Heaven (1991).
Those three Beggars Banquet albums have been highly praised for their blend of singularity and songcraft, but from the 1990s on, Turner’s output as a commercial artist has been stifled to an extent by his reluctance to play the game. Did he rigidly choose the uncommercial route, or did it choose him?
“That’s a question I try to avoid even thinking about, because it plays havoc with my head sometimes when I can’t pay the rent.” He says it is probably best to ignore the erstwhile record-industry chatter, but the topic continues to nag.
“There’s a deeper context to that question, and that is – do I avoid commercial success to a certain extent? I think of times in my life where I could have fought about things, but I didn’t. I just thought it was the wise thing to do. I remember years ago touring in America, and Lucinda Williams was opening for me. I was super-friendly with her, but I found her extremely competitive and not nice. She was intent on becoming a star . . .”
In the interim, Turner forged a career as an irregular recording artist of real character. His latest album, Love Can’t Always Be Articulate, maintains quality while reflecting on early church influences. Recorded in Manhattan’s Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church last year, the record has a tonal quality that is complemented by Turner’s use of the in-situ grand piano and organ.
“In R&B, an artist is considered to have a great pedigree when they attest to gospel singing as a major influence,” says Turner, “and I really consider the ecclesiastical influences that I have to be just as valid in their contribution. What it boils down to is a melodic history, which is very Caucasian, that I’m proud of. Gregorian chant, plainchant, or whatever the hell you want to call it, is fascinating.
“Melody is a constant issue, though. If you look at music right now, there is very little melody in the current pop idiom – it seems to be a very small range of notes, five notes sung over and over again, and that’s quite a problem. Whereas if you break down Gregorian chant, it’s almost like playing an Irish reel – it’s the rhythm of the notes, the way they go back and forth. They’re not predictable.”
Turner immediately admits to straying into technical areas he is all too used to inhabiting – “but I do think we are almost a little bit embarrassed to admit that we’re influenced by church music, because immediately people might think you’re going on some religious route.”
Or even the dreaded folk Mass? “Oh, that was horrible. Music in churches went right down the tubes once they started that. Horrible.”
And yet for Turner churches are inspiring. “I also realised that if I hadn’t experienced church music when I was growing up as a working-class boy I probably wouldn’t have heard the music at all. I remember the quality of it; along with chant, I was hearing Mozart and Bach, the origins of white folk music, really. That’s an education that I quite likely wouldn’t get if I were growing up today.”
Turner is adamant that he remains a musician unwilling to trade principles for success. “I also think of myself as not being serious enough about my songs. I look at artists who are, and I think, Would my life have been easier if I had adopted that approach?”
Does he ever wake up sweating, struggling to answer such questions? You think he might laugh, but his answer is deadly serious.
“Yes, I do. But then I look at the bigger picture, and I’m still alive.”
- Pierce Turner performs at Unitarian Church, Dublin, June 11th, and St Iberius Church, Wexford, June 18th. His album Love Can’t Always Be Articulate, is available from record stores and pierceturner.com
SACRED SOUNDS: ALBUMS RECORDED IN CHURCHES
The Trinity Session, by Cowboy Junkies (1988)
Recorded in late November 1987, in Church of the Holy Trinity, Ontario. In order to persuade church officials to allow access, the band put its name forward as the Timmins Family Singers, claiming they wished to use the church to record a Christmas Special for a radio broadcast.
Neon Bible, by Arcade Fire (2007)
The Canadian band’s second album was recorded at the Petite Eglise, in Farnham, Quebec. The former Masonic Temple, which the band had bought and renovated, also hosted the recording of their 2010 album, The Suburbs.
One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, by Aretha Franklin (1987)
Recorded over three nights in late July 1987, at the New Bethel Baptist Church, Detroit. This double album, notes Rolling Stone, “is a striking musical documentary of uninhibited rapture and sobering confessional intensity”. Why this church? Aretha’s late father, civil rights leader the Rev CL Franklin, had served as pastor there for many years.