IRELAND needs a new radio station, similar to BBC Radio2, for fans unsatisfied by commercial and/or nostalgic offerings, says musician Pierce Turner, who has survived for 30 years in the rockpools left behind by mainstream pop.
A favourite of Christy Moore and composer Philip Glass, and the darling of many respected music critics, Turner has assumed divine status with his fans but his style is not for everyone.
Turner is receiving good reviews for his seventh studio album, Songs For A Verry Small Orchestra, an eclectic mix of tunes and mature domestic observation that hits extraordinary emotional highs. That said, he’s just as happy to talk about gaps in the radio market.
“Why can’t we have a station like BBC Radio 2, that plays types of music other than the 30 or 40 ‘listeners’ favourites’ that get played on the commercial stations? You can forget about the commercial stations changing their rigid formats.
“RTÉ is our only hope, and yet we will lose RTÉ if it keeps on shedding money on a handful of listeners. Lyric FM only serves around 2% of the country’s listenership. This year, Leonard Cohen played to 40,000 people; Springsteen played to 80,000 people. Then, you have Dylan, Neil Young, Mick Flannery and even Christy Moore. The only time you hear these people is late at night on RTÉ Radio 1. This audience does exist; if you gave them one dedicated radio station, it would be a huge success,” Turner says.
Speaking of niche successes, the opening track on Songs For A Verry Small Orchestra is a cult classic. Yogi With A Broken Heart is a live recording, featuring Philip Glass on synth. It tells the true life tale of a fit young man Turner saw standing on his head by a plush New York hotel swimming pool. Having learned his identity, Turner was surprised that this individual had been a dishevelled drug user when he’d seen him a year earlier.
The improvement in the man’s fortunes had come through finding a soul mate. A year or so later, Turner saw the man again, this time back in a dishevelled state. The woman had moved on and the man’s fortunes had quickly slid back downhill. ‘Yogi’ had a broken heart.
It is the standout track on the album. Lyrically very strong, there is something really uplifting about the combined powers of Turner and Glass delivering this unique piece, some 30 years after Glass provided the arrangement to Turner’s song How It Shone.
The two performed Yogi live together in New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall at Glass’s 2010 Tibetan House benefit concerts, for which Patti Smith provided the house band. Other invitees included Iggy Pop, Regina Spektor and Damien Rice.
“I am not in Philip’s musical orbit, so when he suggested recording Yogi with me, I told him I really appreciated his friendship in doing this for me,” said Turner. “He just said to me, ‘I am a friendly fellow, but I’m not that friendly’. And I suppose it’s true that he doesn’t really do anything just for fun, or with the wrong artist. Still, it was a real privilege.”
Turner needs things to feel right before he does them. For instance, the classical musicians featured on Songs For A Verry Small Orchestra performed to manuscripts Turner scored himself, a first for the singer-songwriter.
Turner did a five-pub mini tour in his native Wexford. These were small bars that do not normally feature music. One of these was Sinnott’s, in Duncormick, primarily because 84-year-old owner John Sinnott had fond memories of Turner’s mother’s dancehall band. Sinnott also rubbed shoulders with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Gerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, which Turner mentions almost as an aside.
Normally a popular spot with local farmers, Sinnott’s Bar was jam-packed on the night. Turner picked up a few hundred new fans from the five-pub tour.
Turner’s website also informs fans that they can invite Turner into their homes for a ‘parlour gig’ featuring his piano and guitar songs. For those who like intimate gigs, it doesn’t get much more personal than having the performer sitting next to you on the couch, delivering what the New York critics have categorised as “orchestral pop” and/or “Baroque pop”, long before his new mini-orchestral album.
Songs For A Verry Small Orchestra is arguably even more intimate than any parlour gig. Apart from Yogi, the other songs feature an array of insights into the stable marriage of a man and woman in mid-life, sprinkled with the humdrum kitchen sink colours and observations that are more often mundane than cleverly screaming for attention. Yoga and drugs apart, even the core of Yogi’s life seems more banal than exotic.
Comfortable, confident and self-contained, Songs For A Verry Small Orchestra is a modern gem which, sadly, unless some media mogul delivers on Turner’s idea for a new alt-rock radio station, will probably go unnoticed by far too many.
* Thurs, Oct 11: The Grand Social, Liffey St, Dublin, Fri, Oct 19: Cleere’s Bar & Theatre, Kilkenny, Fri, Oct 26, Greenacres Gallery, Selskar, Wexford, Thurs, Nov 15: The Slaughtered Lamb, London. Further information: www.pierceturner.com