Tom Waits, but Brian Byrne doesn’t – An Irishman’s Diary on a set of new songs inspired by James Joyce

‘Chamber Music Project’

“Tom Waits’s growl makes the late Ronnie Drew sound like Minnie Ripperton.” Photograph: Frank Miller

“Tom Waits’s growl makes the late Ronnie Drew sound like Minnie Ripperton.” Photograph: Frank Miller


It’s not every day you hear the names “James Joyce” and “Tom Waits” in the same breath. So I’m intrigued to learn that Brian Byrne, the Navan-born but now Los Angeles-resident composer of film scores, had Waits on his mind when writing some of the new songs he has set to Joyce’s 1907 collection of love poems, Chamber Music.

The mind boggles, and it will continue boggling until at least next month, when the songs are unveiled at a concert in Dublin.

Vocal talents

In any case, maybe the writer of Tom Traubert’s Blues and Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis will now be himself inspired to have a go at putting Joyce to music.

They may have more in common than is at first apparent.

In fact, speaking of hookers, the title of Chamber Music was famously reinterpreted by its author after a visit to a Dublin lady of the night. It had been first suggested by his brother Stanislaus, in the original, respectable meaning.

But the writer came to dislike this as “complacent”, preferring instead an alternative translation that arose one evening in the company of Oliver St John Gogarty.

The pair were drinking porter with the said female, in her boudoir, while Joyce recited some of his poetry. And in the middle of one of these Joycean odes to love, their hostess had to answer a call of nature using a chamber pot which was in the same room but placed – almost discreetly – behind a screen.

Of the resultant tinkling, Gogarty commented “there’s a critic for you”, and a classic Joycean pun was born.

But the truth is, in contrast with his later writings about love, there’s nothing remotely bawdy about the poems in Chamber Music. The man who wrote them was a hopeless young romantic, or even, by his own account, a hopeful one. In a 1909 letter to Nora Barnacle, he explained: “When I wrote [Chamber Music], I was a lonely boy, walking about myself at night and thinking that one day a girl would love me.”

The poems were always intended to be set to music, and Byrne is far from the first to attempt the task.

In fact, stranger performers than Tom Waits have tried over the years. Probably the most eccentric was Syd Barrett, founder member of Pink Floyd, but soon the victim of a catastrophic mental breakdown.

Gloomy charm

The Madcap LaughsGolden Hair

Apparently Golden Hair was also the poem that started Byrne on his Joycean cycle, so let’s hope that’s not a bad omen.

Happily, the Navan man has already proven himself a durable performer. In a stellar career, he has collaborated with Bono, Gladys Knight, and Katy Perry, among others; has conducted Barbra Streisand; and played piano on a Lisa Minelli cover of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It). So he’s versatile too.

For the Chamber Music show, as well as Elling, he’ll have the help of singers including Jack Lukeman, Cara O’Sullivan, and Andrew Strong.

Strong, in fact, was part of the inspiration for the version of I Hear an Army Charging Upon the Land, which was both the last poem in Chamber Music and the last one Byrne wrote, after thinking about it for “six years”.

‘Soul voice’

His Chamber Music Project will be presented at the National Convert Hall on September 10th, with a line-up of musicians that also includes the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.