Introduction to magic of music
I always say the first gig I ever attended was at home growing up in Athy, Co Kildare when late one night I was awoken by the sound of the adults having a bit of an ol’ session in the house after the pub. I must have been four or five years old. I came creeping downstairs and it was the first time I saw the magic of music and how it lifts people up – you know, adults acting differently than they did during the daytime.
My father was a great singer. That particular night I remember him singing Ol’ Man River, which was his party piece. I still do it myself now and then. I remember one night playing in Whelan’s in Dublin and the PA kept breaking down. I thought to myself: Oh, yeah, I’ll do Ol’ Man River because it can be done a cappella. It kind of became part of the show after that because everyone is more interested in a song without a microphone.
First album that stopped you in your tracks
Like everyone else my age [born in 1973], I grew up watching Top of the Pops. I’d have my old tape machine and press the two buttons on it to record the episode every Thursday night. I remember tapping Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy and listening intently to the very beginning of it. Purple Rain by Prince was a big album for me. I still think it’s one of the most perfect pop albums every made. It completely blew my head open. I still listen to it.
Prince was always a big influence because he was such an alien back in the eighties. He was outside of all trends, and continued to be so. He’s out on his own, neither ahead or behind. The funny thing is that a lot of the album Purple Rain is recorded live, which always made sense to me because it sounds so energetic – the energy you get from a live show. Whatever way he was able to mix it, it doesn’t sound live. Although if you listen to the song Purple Rain, you can hear a crowd at the end of it, but it sounds like it’s artificial, but that was Prince – you didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.
Anybody who knows anything about song writing knows that Jacques Brel was one of the greatest songwriters of all time. The songs are all about something. They’re not shoe-gazing, ambiguous songs. I’ve always enjoyed writing songs like that as well. Originally, his songs were all written in French. I would have come to them via Scott Walker and his interpretations of them. Songs like the Port of Amsterdam and Jacky would be songs that I would still fit in the set here and there, especially playing New Year’s Eve in the Cork Opera House I’ll definitely be doing Jacky, which is one of those epic songs that an audience really reacts to.
He was an amazing performer, too, and he had these crazy songs like Funeral Tango which is about a corpse in a coffin looking at all the people at his funeral. Jacky was based on listening to his father’s braggadocio exploits when he was in the army. He’s one called The Devil where he has the devil talking to the world. They don’t really write them like that anymore. His songs don’t follow the verse-chorus pattern. A lot of them are circular. They’re not rock ’n’ roll songs – there’s a classical feel to them. There’s so much theatre in his songs, and I naturally perform in a theatrical kind of way. So those songs suited me.
Da Club (Clarendon Market, Dublin)
I started busking on Grafton St. – not a lot; I did most of my busking around Europe – and then I graduated to getting into venues like the Da Club, which had an upstairs place and we used to go on at 12 o’clock at night. A bell used to toll. It used to be stuffed any night we played there. The laws were looser as regards curfews and liquor licences. I used to go in there in the dark and always left in the light – in morning time.
There was a lot of optimism around at the time – in the 1990s. We were approaching the millennium, and it was all about the future. The internet and a lot of innovative things were happening. Technology was starting to become part of music, but it was still very organic. You had the whole rave culture. It was very like the 1960s. Even looking back on it, the clothes were as bad.
I remember Camille was doing Alive and Well and Living in Paris with a group of singers at that time. I would have seen Damien Dempsey’s first gigs, Mundy, Paddy Casey, the great Dr Millar – Sean Millar, one of the greatest songwriters in Ireland to this day, Mic Christopher with The Mary Janes, Juniper, the precursor to Bell X1, Damien Rice. Even the comedians were floating around. It was before comedy became the new rock ’n’ roll; it was budding at the time. Tommy Tiernan supported me once at the Da Club; Jason Byrne supported me at the Olympia. It was great seeing all those guys starting out. It’s like we’ve all been on some kind of journey.
Music gig gimmicks
I was lucky enough to go on before John Lee Hooker in Boston at a festival in 1999 and he had an intro that lasted half an hour where the band were boogieing and there was some woman on stage biggin’ it up that he was going to arrive on stage at any moment. I knew he was just backstage chilling out. I thought it was amazing: it had already been a brilliant gig, there was half an hour gone and he hadn’t even gone on stage yet. That old James Brown trick of working up the vibe.
I remember Arthur Brown – the guy with the immortal opening line to his song Fire: “I am the God of Hellfire!” – at a festival in London. He was headlining for some reason. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had been on before him. He used to wear a helmet with a thing on top of it so he could set his head on fire. To outdo them, he started pushing over the PA with his head on fire. I guess you learn what to do and what not to do.