Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Sending new signals

JOE BREEN, Irish Times

Both his native Donegal and American country music course through Kevin Doherty’s memorable caustic lines, built on melodies of elegant intensity

A FRAMED VINTAGE broadsheet poster of Donegal’s attractions sits on the wall of his Dublin home, while on the floor rests a vinyl copy of a Carter Family recording. Kevin Doherty doesn’t have far to go for inspiration when his well runs dry. Both his native county and American country music course through his wonderfully imaginative and compelling songs, including the 12 tracks that comprise his latest project, Telegraph .
Strictly speaking this is not a solo album but a collaboration between a number of leading Irish musicians, including guitarist Conor Brady and pianist James Delaney, who fly under the flag of Telegraph . But Doherty writes all the songs, sings and produces and, in the way of many independent artists, he also markets it because there is no major company behind the project. So though Telegraph is not his third solo album, it might as well be. The previous two, his debut Strange Weather and the more impressive Sweet Water , showed Doherty to be a hugely promising talent. Telegraph moves him to a different level – songs such as Tugboat mark him out as a singular figure of some substance.

“ Tugboat was a collision. A few things happened at the same time. One was Michael McDowell who was minister for justice at the time and he was quite vociferous about the influx of people into Ireland. I wasn’t long back myself – I’d been away and had lived very happily in other places. And I was quite taken aback by some of the attitudes that were being expressed. Some people posited the argument about the Irish who had emigrated but that was decried as pat and simplistic.

“But, in fact, it’s the truth. And so I just created the characters in the song to show how the Irish were sometimes treated abroad as a juxtaposition to what was happening here. And the line ‘pull the ladder up’ refers to what someone said we should do – we’d reached a certain level of financial security and that we should pull the ladder up. . . so there was a welter of images and notions and there was an amount of anger as well.”

Tugboat is the centrepiece of the album, a big brooding epic full of memorable caustic lines and images built over a melody of elegant intensity. The song is split into two sections with different narrators. In the first, the tugboat captain vents his distaste for the latest boatload of Irish for whom he would not “give his spit”. In the second, a middle England voice decries “the sons of bitches with their fuses and their switches and their ancient bloody hurt/Well we all hurt Paddy for what it’s worth/So pull the ladder up boys/The world is full of causes/Pull the ladder up leave them to their notions/They might as well be digging holes in the ocean.”

Tugboat is in good company. There is richness and variety in songs such as his ode to his beloved Country Music; the love-struck waltz, The Stars Will Be Our Satellites Tonight ; his light-hearted dig at music biz capitalism Love and Money ; his anti-Iraq war ballad Christine McCoy Thinks of her Man Charlie ; and Looking for Love, the final track and his musical manifesto. Telegraph mixes the private and the public Doherty to great effect.

“With Telegraph there was a conscious thing that there was certain things that I wanted to write about. That might sound pretentious, but it is the truth.

DOHERTY WAS BORN in Buncrana 42 years ago, and he is married to his childhood sweetheart, with whom he has two children. He is quiet spoken, thoughtful and generous in conversation, with an easy, self-deprecating wit. “Growing up in Donegal, particularly in Buncrana, the North was sitting on your shoulder. You were of it, but it is amazing the distance those 10 miles gave you.” He says his parents (his father was the local golf pro) brought him up to have respect for everybody. “And that was instilled in me. You don’t rush to judge, to be judgmental. You wait until you find out the other side of the story. And that applied to the North as well. Coming from one tradition, one part of the community, that doesn’t mean people from the other side are cyphers. They are real people so that’s why I’m always reluctant to jump.

“There’s a line in Looking for Love : ‘I’ve enlisted so I’ll soldier on/I’ll do my duty/and that is to open up the space/Where I might find beauty’, and that resonates with me because there is a time, there is a moment when there is an opening in your head and anything is possible, where everything comes into line, where everything makes some kind of sense – just for a moment. If you do it right, then the audience comes in with you and it is there for everyone.”

Doherty left school at 17 and went to London to work on building sites. “I played guitar but was always fascinated by the word. Just the sound of it, people speaking it. I loved it.” After returning home he played with a number of bands, mostly country and bluegrass outfits, before he joined up with Four Men and A Dog, the traditional Irish music band with whom he still plays (see panel, right). But he was especially drawn to roots music, from both black and white traditions.

“Country music was in our house. Funny, I was just thinking recently that when I imagine myself as a kid, my memory seems dominated by John Wayne. Westerns. We just had RTÉ1 and RTÉ2. But I had got Max Steiner’s soundtrack to The Searchers and I just felt, let’s go home. In fact, when Jimmy, my son, was three or four he was completely obsessed by John Wayne and one day I put on The Searchers for him. He was on my knee and when it came to the moment where Wayne lifts up Natalie Wood and says ‘Let’s go home’ the tears were in his eyes. And it brought me right back. So John Wayne was the dominant force – that is until Clint Eastwood came along, the man with no name. A Fistful of Dollars . Opening scene at the well. And he lifts up his hat with that glint in his eye. That’s that. John was gone. Anyway, the music would have been country. I remember Hank Williams and Hank Snow records. Jim Reeves, that was big stuff. That stuff stayed with me.”

So did his fascination with all things Stateside. “America was the most gigantic thing in my imagination when I was a child. I distinctly remember standing and watching the planes flying over our house on their way to America, or at least in my imagination they were. America was everything.”

He also recalls his first real musical awakening when, as a teenager, he came across a jazz compilation album his father had bought. As he went through each song, nothing hit him until he came to the final track – bluesman Big Bill Broonzy, accompanying himself on guitar singing C C Rider . “Holy moley! And that was the first time I was plugged in.”

Shortly afterwards he was babysitting and bored when he came across More Bob Dylan Greatest Hits . “I remember putting down the needle on Watching the River Flow and having to take the needle off again. I got an awful fright. It was akin to your first sexual awakening. I was aware of Bob Dylan, but it was the early ’80s and to the people I knew it was a case of ‘Bob who?’ And so I put the needle back down again and I was gone. I was gone and I was getting friends at school to ask their parents had they any Bob Dylan records?”

Through Dylan he came across another great bluesman. “And then you hear Muddy Waters. Fantastic. Sure your head is gone by that stage. I was 15 and there was no going back.” Later he would come under the spell of Leonard Cohen. All of these influences can be traced in his songs, but he has carved out his own sound.

Flash forward to the present and the immediate future and why he is going out under the monicker of Telegraph . “I had to make a record. I was going to burst if I didn’t and so the album is made, and then you wonder how am I going to get this outside the kitchen so to speak? I talked to a few people I respect and the first thing they said was, don’t go out as Kevin Doherty. The whole singer/songwriter thing, people assume a certain sound and this album isn’t it.” The decision was taken to go out as Telegraph , a name he likes for its allusions to connections and stories.

He also spoke to actors and multimedia specialists such as Alan Farquharson about how he might add an extra dimension to the live show. “I really liked the idea of using film, images, sounds just to create a landscape to show where the songs came from.” He cites the montage Farquharson created for Country Music as an example: “It starts off with Dolly Parton, obviously thinking of my sentimental Donegal nature, then there is Hank , the guitars and harmonica players and then to coincide with the line, ‘Take me down to the shady grove where the rain blows through’, suddenly there is a tree and it dissolves into a lynching. Bang! He got it. The songs resemble me quite a lot. They seem quite calm but if you listen hard, underneath there is a tremble, a fear and an anger. I don’t like to push it into your face.”

He is not a natural salesman but accepts that has to change. “For a long time it wasn’t that I was apologetic about the songs but I didn’t want to be a nuisance. That’s changing because I realise that when you pass 40 it’s time to do something.” But he also accepts that his songs may not be for everyone. “I was awake the other night and the analogy of making chairs came into my head – that I make chairs that I know some people will really like sitting in, but that they are not for everyone. And, unfortunately,” he adds with a soft laugh, “they take an awful long time to make.”

Telegraph is on general release. The band Telegraph will play at the Button Factory in Dublin this evening


Kevin Doherty lives a parallel life. When not writing and performing songs as Kevin Doherty/Telegraph, he is also a singer and guitarist with Irish traditional band Four Men and a Dog. The band, which has been together for about 20 years, is very active on the festival circuit on the continent.

“It is work of very high quality. All I do is provide a bit of chordal scaffolding to let the others do their thing. And the reason it works, the reason Im still there, is that we are a band.” He recalls Levon Helm, late of The Band, saying that to him when Four Men and a Dog recorded at Helms studio in Woodstock, New York. “I mean, driving around Woodstock with Levon Helm in a convertible and he says to us: ‘you’re a real band’.” Now that’s rock’n’roll.

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