A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - Okay, in Dublin about 1986 - I used to listen to a lot of what I now consider to be very bad music. Posters of Hard Rock and Metal bands adorned my bedroom walls and the stereo was frequently cranked. Around the same time I also stumbled upon Simon and Garfunkel’s seminal, “Concert In Central Park,” which aired on Irish TV a few years after the fact. I recorded it and upon listening back a couple of times, there was a definite shift for me and I struggled with where my loyalties lay.
It was a tough time for me. I was a lonely, isolated teenager, probably going through a bout of depression, looking for something from music that I didn’t feel I had around me. Maybe it was camaraderie, a sense of belonging that I couldn’t seem to find locally?! I had a deep hole that needed filling and loud, fast and furious music was doing the job. But the songs of Paul Simon seemed to say things in a more nuanced way. There seemed to be more colors on the palette, cinematic landscapes that were deeper, more sophisticated than what I’d found with the rockers -though I still stand by a lot of Phil Lynott’s output with Thin Lizzy, a master of the genre-.
I bought “Sounds of Silence” and played that record to death. I learned every word and harmony I could reach and began figuring out the harmonies that weren’t there, the notes in between. It was as if a gate had been opened and I was a one-boy stampede, into a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of melody and rich story telling. I went on to discover Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg and many others and have hovered in between the folk and rock worlds ever since.
My parents had bought me an acoustic guitar when I was 16 and after putting aside dreams of being Angus Young, playing little convoluted riffs here and there, I started learning my first real, whole song, Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain,” struggling to strum and sing at the same time. A kid named Glen ended up at my house. He practically brought Bob Dylan along with him and a few other songwriting icons and we bonded over our fascination with these characters, these amazing songs and our craving to get out of neighborhoods that didn’t seem to have a clue what we were talking about, perhaps seeing us as a threat on some level and at times being threatening towards us. We began to rip songs apart and talked a great deal about what a great song was, what it should do, and how it should be performed.
We migrated from the suburbs to Henry Street in the city center and started busking. I think we knew about six songs that we could play all the way through. I believe “Tangled Up In Blue,” was the first song we played on the street one night, then the wholly inappropriate for busking, “Needle and the Damage Done.” “The Boxer,” did the job though.
Henry Street wasn’t great and we got the hint that Grafton Street on the Southside was the place to go. That turned into a few years of amazing adventures with many amazing people.
What I value most from those days - and many late nights - was that we seemed to be unwittingly apprenticed together to this mysterious trade. There were people around us imparting advice, dissecting our songs with us, pointing us in directions that illuminated things we were lacking in our approach -Pete Short take a bow-. We were glad of it and eager to learn. It was never exclusive, no-one ever had a door shut on them - though I know there were some that felt that way - but in this “club,” with Mic Christopher, Kila, Miriam Ingram and others, moving our way up through Dave Murphy’s songwriter nights at The Bailey, McDaid’s and The International Bar, we continually talked about songs and songwriting and performing, we critiqued each other, we supported each other, we changed strings for each other at respective shows. We were young, idealistic and hungry but not hungry enough to eat each other. Each of us wanted the others to succeed. That was a beautiful thing in a beautiful time.
It’s a long way around to talking about my own process today but I think it’s actually an important part of it. I have been very determined to hold on to that history just like my Irish accent. I’ve held onto all of it stubbornly, even though I’ve lived in the US for nearly fifteen years now. I think it’s important to keep an eye on new sounds and ideas but I can never jettison who I am, where I’ve come from. I believe it’s a pre-requisite for an “Original” songwriter, to carry the things unique to them and lay them out on the workbench like the contents of a tool bag when they come to write.
I will always bring some of that busking energy with me to some songs and then on others, hark back to the intimacy of the many late night parties we went to; small and sometimes not so small get-togethers, where we would sing soft songs in kitchens, as dawn popped her head over the old Georgian roofs and spires of a rapidly modernizing Dublin, or the lush green fields of whatever other Irish town, by hook or by crook we’d found ourselves in. I always bring the “Come-all-ye,” the “Singsong” as it was called, into my work, trying to recreate the childhood memories of Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties in the neighbor’s houses in Finglas; where everyone sang something, no instruments, just songs tumbling out, a cultural gift that probably seeped in through the walls and the floors of those council houses, urbanized, Dublinized descendants of our “Sean Nós” past; every person sang at least one song and every other person would sing with them. So, that’s where I start today, bringing a reverence for my past and that old and not so old culture of mine, to what otherwise seems a blank canvas.
On the more tangible side, I usually start with lyrics. I definitely lean toward the more poetic songwriters. Scouring lyric sheets has always been an integral part of getting into other artists for me and to capture an idea or a turn of phrase and wrestle it into form, poetically, sociologically or cinematically, is one of the most exciting things in my life, I kid you not.
My process then and now is to go out in the world, to parks, coffee shops, ride buses, trains and planes and just watch you all. I always have a notebook and pen with me. These are the most basic tools of our trade. I firmly believe that before one touches any technology to create music, one should learn to write a story. Sure there are all those pop lyrics out there that don’t make much sense but my belief is, that the songs that do make sense are the ones that really stick around, at least for me, though admittedly that maybe more relevant for the purer folk genre.
I’m a believer in making space for the muse, looking in the other direction to allow an idea to sneak up but being ready to nab it when it does. I’m the guy on the park bench looking off into nothing – working! Another trick of mine was to sit playing guitar watching TV with the sound off, again anything to distract the conscious mind, anything to coax that subconscious story. In that nebulous space, often empty of language, is actually where the words come to me; I would just jam things out on the guitar, anything, nothing, while allowing stories to coalesce from the wanderings through the day or the week. I’d take what comes; the cloud with the strongest emotions attached to it and then wrestle it to the ground, calling it a theme and making sure all my characters were standing in the right places and saying the right things to illuminate the whole. I’d hack away at it all, first with a machete, outlining, then whittling it all down with an X-Acto knife, making every word and syllable count, zooming out to see if it made sense; are the images reflecting the underlying theme of the song? The theme is always the anchor for me, though I will allow it to change and go in a different direction, sometimes becoming a completely different song/idea. I will always continuously ask myself, “What am I trying to say?” Where is this going?
Sometimes I will use particular motifs running through the song, to paint the scene, ocean images, forests, cities, particular tools, colors etc, whatever might give the story context, whatever will make you see the picture.
Rhythmic flow in my lyrics is very important to me. I always try to make the sentences and syllables dance, at times with alliteration, word choices and rhymes here and there - but sparingly. I don’t want to draw too much attention to the devices but always want my lyrics to sound really good even if they are just read aloud, without the music.
As esoteric as some of this might sound, my belief is, it’s not a gift, it’s a muscle I’ve been motivated to strengthen, and it’s a tangible process, to be able to find this intangible space. It takes practice. Putting time into it, is part of the craft of getting to the art, to one’s real voice. It’s been important for me to create time to create, to carve out a space in the day where I shout to the ether, “it’s X O’clock, I’m here, bring it on.” If I don’t write every day, I at least read. I look at language and I try to be conscious of how stories are told.
I’ll be honest, early on the musical aspect of what I do was somewhat secondary. I learned enough chords to bang out popular songs on the streets and at sing-along’s but after delving a bit into music theory - do it, you won’t regret it-, I’ve now got a richer, more colorful palette to use for backing my storylines. Knowing just a little about how to construct different chords and chord progressions has really opened up the musical world for me and made it much more satisfying. But I also try never to overuse these tools either. I believe wholeheartedly in simple songs, particularly those with stories in them. I will only ever give the song what I feel it’s asking for. My maxim is, that one should be able to sing the song on the way home from the pub on a Sat night; avoiding obvious complication that might get in the way of that scenario is what I’m always aiming for. I will throw the odd little twist into a song but am conscious never to have it be a distraction from the overall feel.
So this winter I’m going to sit and begin writing a whole new album, concentrating, more on chord progressions and melodies as my starting point this time and perhaps gently pushing against the more diatonic frame I’ve become used to up to now, but the sound it creates will be applied with a light brush, with the anchor of simplicity at the heart of it. I’ll be listening to what the song wants, what the story requires. It will be a tightrope walk for sure, to make it all work, to make it all sound good, make sense and have you all want to sing it. I’ll be going out of my comfort zone a little this year but that’s the craft of it. Hell, that’s the fun of it.
Photos from Ireland...
A Celtic Utility Cover:
The iconic Cliffs of Moher (click on photo for larger image):
The Prayer Tree, Fore, Co. Westmeath: