THERE was a time when Joe Chester wanted to be a priest. The acclaimed songwriter, producer and occasional member of The Waterboys says, that as a teenager growing up in Dublin, Catholicism, and not rock music, was his religion.
“I was very religious. I would say that I was devout until I was in my early 20s,” the 44-year-old confides, over tea in Dublin’s Library Bar.
“I was born in 1972. It was a different time. At one stage I thought I was going to join the priesthood. That’s what I wanted to do.
“I was a member of the Dominican Council of Youth, which was kind of like a propaganda group. It was the publicity wing of the Church. And I loved it. I was so into it.”
Chester’s revelation comes as we discuss his remarkable fifth album, The Easter Vigil. Framed around Easter Week, it is a record that on the surface would appear to have obvious overtones.
From ‘Spy Wednesday’ through to ‘Like A Rose Tattoo’, its nine tracks are peppered with religious references.
Yet, it quickly reveals itself as something opposite, a subtly angry meditation on the unwinding of one’s faith.
“I wouldn’t like people to think that it’s a religious record at all,” says Chester, who turned his back on the Church more than two decades ago.
“Some of the songs are about that, but a lot of them are not. In one way you could read it as being about what happens to the vacuum that’s left behind when a person loses their faith.
“It’s a funny expression that, losing faith. It’s not like you find something else. A much better way to describe the experience is that it is enlightenment, actually. To stop believing in all that stuff is a positive.”
A fixture of the Irish music scene since the mid-1990s, Chester first surfaced as a recording engineer and guitarist with Sunbear and Ten Speed Racer. He released his debut solo album, A Murder of Crows, in 2005 and was nominated for that year’s Choice Music Prize.
It began a run of albums that, despite glowing critical acclaim, failed to find an audience to match.
He found greater commercial success as the producer behind hit albums by Mundy, The Coronas and Ryan Sheridan, yet says that eventually living in Ireland “became financially impossible”. He and his French wife have since emigrated to France.
“I was ready to leave for a long time,” he says. “I haven’t felt at home in Dublin for a long time. Even after just a year and a half, I feel more at home in France. I couldn’t relax here. I was anxious all the time.”
The move to Nice, however, hasn’t been without distress. The couple had a narrow escape during last summer’s horrific atrocity when a 19 tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day.
“We were on the promenade that day,” says Chester. “I still go over the numbers of this, why we got so lucky, because we literally missed it by minutes. Because my wife was feeling sick, we decided to go home early.
“And I mean seriously, four or five minutes later the truck ploughed through the people just where we were. So a really, really narrow escape. I felt physically sick afterwards. I’ve never, ever experienced anything like that.”
The experience has brought perspective. For The Easter Vigil, his ambitions are modest.
“I just want people to hear it,” he says.
“Every artist wants an audience. No one wants to release a record in a vacuum. I didn’t bother touring The Tiny Pieces Left Behind (2008), the follow-up to ‘A Murder of Crows’, and that sort of started 10 years in the wilderness.
“I don’t want to go back to that – self-releasing records to no one. I would much prefer to be the only person to ever hear this record than to just have it languish in obscurity. Hopefully it will get heard.”