'Even people like Ed Sheeran are a positive influence', says Cork guitarist Bill Shanley

Bill Shanley owns 18 guitars, a number he feels is just about right. 

“I have Gibsons, Strats, acoustics, bass guitars, Dobros: I’ve one of everything that I need and they’re all a bit different,” he says. 

They are, in other words, the tools of his trade.

Shanley, from Clonakilty, Co Cork, has carved out a niche for himself as one of Ireland’s top session guitarists and record producers, touring and recording with everyone from Ray Davies to Mary Black to Roy Harper, as well as co-founding Dublin’s Cauldron Recording Studios, where artists including Hozier, The Waterboys, and The Cranberries have recorded.

In between times, he’s released two studio albums himself, with a 12-year gap between his first, Fingerpainting, and his latest, Midnight Mission. 

“A lot of my time is spent playing with other artists as a side-man or producing for other people or being a musical director or guitarist, and these solo projects are something you really need to set time aside for,” he says.

Midnight Mission is, like his debut, an album of instrumental songs, part of Shanley’s vision to produce music harking back to an era when the guitar was king.

“In the mid-fifties, when the electric guitar first came out, it was a very exciting style of music and there were all these new sounds like reverb. 

"You could have instrumentals as hits, climbing up the charts. That continued right up until the Beatles and then it became all about song-writing and singing.

“I didn’t want to make an album to showcase guitar-playing and extended solos. 

I wanted to keep the songs three to four minutes long, to make lyrical pieces of music that feel dynamic and make people want to move: With instrumental music, it can be really difficult for it not to become background music or muzak.

Assembling a studio dream team to record his album, Shanley was able to call on long-time collaborators including Paul Brady, who plays mandolin, as well as The Kinks frontman Ray Davies, who adds the album’s only vocal embellishments.

Shanley has worked closely with Davies since 2006; in 2012, they performed ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. 

“He’s a brilliant artist with an amazing legacy of songs and work,” says Shanley.

A quest to highlight the guitar as king might be timely: Last year’s news that famed guitar company Gibson had filed for bankruptcy prompted a discussion about the decline of the guitar in pop. 

With electronic production tools like Ableton at their disposal, were young people bypassing the time-consuming elements of having to master instruments like guitar?

“Guitar playing demands a lot of dedication, and maybe if kids aren’t seeing stars they really like playing, maybe they aren’t incentivised to put in the work. 

But it will come back. Even people like Ed Sheeran are a positive influence there because he actually can really play. You have to put in a lot of time to learn to play.

Shanley’s own childhood was spent in the family pub, fabled Clonakilty music venue Shanley’s Piano Bar, honing his skills in the company of players like Jimi Hendrix Experience bassist Noel Redding, under the watchful gaze of his father Mossie, himself a musician.

“Basically, from 10 or 11, I was playing all the time, with visiting musicians and with Clon’s great local players,” he says. 

“That’s where I learned to do what I do.”

Mossie Shanley passed away in the mid-2000s, but the bar is still run by family, and Dublin-based Shanley makes frequent return visits, including, when possible, for the Clonakilty Guitar Festival.

With a band lined up to tour his solo material over the summer, is Shanley moving into the spotlight? 

He hums and haws for a bit. “I guess I am, a little bit, yes,” he says, reluctantly.

“It was funny, the night Midnight Mission was released, I heard it on the radio and I did think, ‘wow, that’s cool.’ 

"I’ve heard myself on the radio loads down through the years on other people’s work, but it was really nice to hear something I’d written and created being played.”

Midnight Mission is out now. Upcoming gigs: June 3, Shanley’s, Clonakilty; June 4, Whelan’s, Dublin; June 6, Coughlan’s, Cork

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