When I was in my 20s and 30s I probably thought that anyone over 60 was at death’s door. It’s funny how your perspectives on age change with advancing years,” says multi-award winning singer-songwriter Phil Coulter.
The Wicklow-based musical legend doesn’t give that door much thought, however, now that he is in his mid-70s: “I’ve had a good life. I can honestly say that so far, I’ve never felt that I’ve done all that I want to do, or achieved everything that I wanted to. I still have lots of unfulfilled ambitions and dreams — and I’m not finished yet.
“I deliberately don’t consider my own mortality too often or too deeply and while I know that death is an inevitability I prefer not to dwell on it. I know what my last thoughts will not be: ‘Is that all there is?’,” he tells Feelgood.
While Coulter has achieved worldwide recognition since his early 20s, after penning two Eurovision Song winners in the 1960s, his large family is now also an excuse to globetrot, with some of his nine adult children — three from his first marriage and six from his second, to Geraldine, scattered in various continents. “Never mind leaving behind a catalogue of songs, my greatest achievement is bringing all those children into the world and nurturing them,” he says.
The catalogue of songs and remarkable talent, however, has resulted in 23 platinum discs, 39 gold discs, 52 silver discs, two Grand Prix Eurovision awards, five Ivor Novello awards and three American Society of Composers gongs, in addition to a Grammy nomination.
But aside from that exceptional recognition, the music has been his lifeline in a very personal way. “It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that there have been occasions in my life when music has saved my sanity,” says the Derry native. “One of those occasions was when I had a particularly bad year some time back, (in the 1980s), losing both my brother and sister, neither through natural causes. Both were drowned in Lough Swilly in Donegal, the scene of some of the most carefree times in my young life, during family holidays.”
His brother Brian drowned while windsurfing on the Donegal lake, while his sister Cyd, a social worker, was counselling a client who drove a car in which she was a passenger, over Buncrana pier.
To manage his grief he recorded an album called Lake Of Shadows, inspired by that stretch of water. “That certainly helped me cope,” he admits. “Music has been so much more than just my career. It’s been my life, my passion, my lifeblood. I can’t conceive of a life without music. I thank God regularly that I’ve been able to make a living from my talent. That’s a rare privilege.”
However, he stresses that there is a need to continually adapt not to rest on his laurels and perhaps that is one of the keys to his relevance throughout the past five decades.
“You have to be aware of what is happening around you and react to the changes in musical tastes. I dare say that’s how you keep your edge, your energy - and your enthusiasm. No matter how talented you are you still must work hard,” says Coulter.
No retirement plans so? “I keep promising my wife that I’ll maybe slow down a little, but I certainly do not have any plans to pack it all in. As long as I have my health and as long as folks keep turning up at my shows then I’ll keep playing. When they don’t show up then I’ll realise that maybe I ought to have quit while the going was good!” he laughs.
It must demand a lot of energy surely, to take in 27 venues across the country, which is he is currently doing, so how does he stay on top of his game? “Yes, it’s a lot of gigs and a lot of road miles. You have to embark on a project like that with all your faculties intact,” he admits.
“While I’m not a health fanatic, I try not to abuse my body. I do modest exercise and I try to eat healthily - most of the time. But who doesn’t enjoy a good fish and chip every so often? My days of drinking spirits are well over but I do really enjoy a good glass of wine, preferably with a tasty, home-cooked meal, shared with family or friends.”
If he was to dole out any advice about ageing well, it would be: “Don’t think too much about it. Keep busy with whatever gives you a buzz. Challenge yourself every so often. Take a few minutes every day to think about the good things in your life. Look after your body and your soul. Never give up and never stop dreaming.”
There could well be the germ of a new song in that.
Phil Coulter is at Cork Opera House November 18 and at the National Concert Hall on November 23. See www.philcoulter.com
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