Finding a reason to keep singing
Luka Bloom's career has taken him from the brightest lights in New York to the cosiest shebeens in west Kerry
COMING FROM a family of political junkies has its distinct advantages at times. That insatiable appetite for breaking news is sated at regular intervals and fodder for creative expression is everywhere: the trick is to only venture close to it when it makes absolute sense to do so.
Luka Bloom has been pedalling around the dark undergrowth with one eye cocked to the sky for a long time now. Twelve albums into a solo career that's ebbed and flowed with all the predictability of a tsunami, he's content to have found his voice. It's where he's most at home. Bloom's songs loiter in the unlikeliest of corners: where pushbikes metamorphose into acoustic motorbikes, where relationships with long-departed parents are slowly, gently unearthed and where life's insistence on the value of being canny or wily can be sloughed off in the cool of the evening, like a pumice stone on dry skin.
Sometimes the topicality of his songs escapes notice until the umpteenth exposure. All the better to allow their observations to seep beneath the epidermis. Fire,nestling deep in the belly of his latest CD Eleven Songs, is a case in point: a simmering strike against the perils of isolation wrought by this headphone culture we've embraced and the gadgetry we worship, not to mention the warfare that terrorises those whom it claims to liberate.
Bloom's a man with a taste for the universal in the particular. It's a place he's come to know over a long number of years spent on the road, trawling through bright lights and dimly-lit back rooms, sharing his songbook with anyone who'll listen and, more particularly, with anyone who'll add a couplet of their own to the mix.
First off, to the name. Was his decision to morph from Barry Moore (writer of In the City Of Chicago, member of Red Square and baby brother of Christy) into Luka Bloom one based on escape, on denial or simply on a quest for personal reinvention, so beloved of the American pioneers? "Necessity is the mother of invention," Bloom smiles, "and in 1986, I had to acknowledge the fact that my attempts to interest people in my songs and music just hadn't amounted to an awful lot. I really struggled here and I saw great possibility in America, but I also saw that I could be easily pigeonholed.
"At that time, Sting had just left The Police and was pursuing a solo career, which was a pretty brave thing to do because not too many people were doing that at the time, and that sowed a seed in me. It was as calculated as that: doing something to try to interest people to focus on my songs.
"Sometimes people feel that there was an element of me wanting to distance myself from my family. That was never what it was about. I had been writing songs for about 15 years at that point, and I felt that they were worthy of being given one good shot. So I gave myself a two-year game plan to go to America and give it my all. And the proof of the pudding is that it kinda worked. It's been incredibly lucky for me."
Barry Moore alighted on a moniker that combined a quintessentially Joycean surname with an undeniably New York first name (inspired by Suzanne Vega's gargantuan hit My Name Is Luka). Within two years of reinventing himself as Luka Bloom, he was touring with The Pogues and signed to Warner Music.
Alter ego or mask? Luka Bloom is happy to acknowledge the benefits of turning his identity upside down and inside out at a relatively late stage (in his early 30s) in his musical career.
"One of the interesting things about choosing a professional name is that in a funny way, it makes it easier to express yourself," he muses. "Particularly if you're self-conscious about it. It's a bit like mask theatre. People think that the purpose of the mask is to conceal identity but, in fact, the exact opposite is the case: the wearing of the mask gives a person complete freedom to express themselves as they actually are. I found it incredibly liberating, and it opened up a style of writing that was brand new to me.
"Sometimes having a professional mask also allows you to be completely ridiculous and that was something I would have been really self-conscious about. I don't know if I'd really had the balls to sing LL Cool J's I Need Loveas Barry Moore, from Newbridge, Co Kildare." Comfortable in this new skin, Bloom's writing shifted a gear. Maybe it was the distance he'd got from home; maybe it was his own growing maturity, but somehow he tapped a seam that had lurked far beneath the surface. He wrote The Man Is Alivein response to his growing realisation that the father who had died suddenly when Bloom was all of a year old, had left his mark in ways which he'd never before realised.
"That's probably the most powerful personal song I've written, to this day," he says with the certitude of someone who's not afraid to admit to the sometimes random nature of creative expression.
"It was a life-changing song. It opened up a whole conversation within me and within the family around our father. It was the first time that I was even aware that there was an issue to be addressed in terms of understanding feelings of loss and loneliness, and connecting that with the loss of a father. It took me to get to the age of 35 to even be aware of that."
Luka Bloom's career has taken him from the brightest lights in New York to the cosiest shebeens in west Kerry and our very own "Grasstonbury" (aka the Ploughing Championships), via lengthy sojourns in his beloved bolthole of Clare and Australia, where he enjoys a substantial fan base. Along the way he's had to take lengthy time out to deal with repetitive strain injury which led to him dramatically adapting his percussive guitar style.
LUKA BLOOM circa 2008 is a different artist to the one who flung sweat against the walls in the Baggot Inn with Red Square back in the 1980s. These days, he's managed to find a balance between the all-consuming demands of the road (on which he thrives) and the need to forge a personal life that isn't subsumed by his musical identity. Once an album is written and recorded, he lays down his pen, for a while, at least.
"I actually want to live too," he smiles. "I believe in living. I believe in the old farmer's principle of letting the field lie fallow. In the last three years, I've produced three recordings, Tribe, The Man Is Alive(a DVD and CD), and now Eleven Songs. If I'm writing all the time, what am I writing about? Where's life happening? Have I moved on or evolved at all? But I know that when I get back to writing, it's like being a child again. I'm terrified, and don't know if I have anything to say. But that's exactly when I need to challenge myself. Let's face it: the world doesn't need any new music - so unless I feel I can contribute something a little bit fresh or different, what's the point? For me the trick is to somehow keep this songwriting process terrifyingly fresh."
His preoccupations are the same ones that keep most of the rest of us awake at night or kicking up our heels when the sun shines. "This is about humanity," he suggests. "Any politics that's in my songs is mostly with a very small 'p'. It is true that the most personal songs have the most universal acceptance. One thing I make a point of not doing in my songs, though, is blame.
"There's an awful lot of blame in our culture today. It's what I call 'post-traumatic Angela's Ashes stress disorder': pulling out every unpleasant thing and laying it naked before everyone because it's going to sell the book or the CD. That's not how I feel at all. What I love about Eleven Songsis that even the touching, sad songs have an uplifting nature. If you're fortunate enough to capture a real, raw, honest emotion with some kind of simplicity, in the moment that you're feeling it, where the song seems to just come through you, then that's what's really special."
Luka Bloom plays Vicar Street on November 1st. His new CD, Eleven Songs, is on Big Sky Records