Monday, 30 April 2012

How Paul Brady got cool again

Paul BradyCover of Paul BradyPaul Brady has been in music long enough to know it's never plain sailing but he remains impressively cheerful about the whole business.

The Tyrone-born singer-songwriter, will be 65 next month and his new compilation album reflects the range of his work as a writer and musician (he also plays guitar, piano and whistle).

Brady says: "I am seen as something of the elder statesman now. Looked at retrospectively, my career has had its ups and downs."

He adds, with a smile: "The Irish are the first to diss their own as someone who has gone out of fashion but, I'm happy to say, it seems I am cool again. Maybe it's age, a sort of 'Leonard Cohen effect'. The good thing for me is that I have always had an audience. I think it's hard for some young musicians to make headway nowadays, because a 'showbusiness' approach is seen as a bit of an anathema. It's not rocket science. You need to project yourself and the people who have spent money on seats deserve to be entertained. That doesn't have to mean selling out."

The main reason Brady has a loyal - and expanding - audience is the quality of his albums. The first one I heard, back in 1981, was Hard Station, which was a memorable piece of work. New then to Brady's solo work, I wasn't caught up in any debate about what a radical departure it was from the traditional 'folk' sound of 1978's Welcome Here Kind Stranger.

Brady says: "Most of my regular audience at the time were not amazingly surprised because they had heard me doing some of the new songs - but the folk police in the UK were a little less forgiving. And the media in Ireland just wanted to automatically compare it to the old stuff. I had spent most of the 1970s recording and performing traditional songs and my journey into a more rock sound at that point felt a bit like bouncing on hot coals.

"That's when I wrote the song Dancer In The Fire, about a character afraid to dance in the fire. I guess, subconsciously, I may have been articulating some nervousness about change. People were surprised but, with hindsight, my decade in traditional music was the anomaly - a side line - rather than the core of my work as a musician. Anyway, these days music lovers among the public don't have a locked-up mentality where everything strand has to be categorised."

It's worth pointing out that in the 1970s Brady made some marvellous folk recordings - with Planxty and on his own - and his versions of Lakes Of Ponchartrain and Arthur McBride remain timeless classics. But his work since has always been interesting and challenging. His background wasn't one of hard-core traditional Irish music. His parents, both general primary school teachers, loved music and he remembers his father singing Victorian parlour songs. The young Brady, growing up in Strabane in the 1950s, also recalls the thrill of discovering the music of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and then The Shadows, with the instrumental playing of Hank Marvin.

Brady adds: "I started off with a band called The Johnstons but I knew I was never going to be a folk virtuoso - it was more that it was a rich part of my heritage. It did teach me how to become a singer and gave me my voice and style."

That voice and style is evident on the 19 tracks on his new Anthology called Dancer In The Fire. The songs range from lovely traditional folk (I Am A Youth That's Inclined To Ramble, featuring Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny); a rock song called Steel Claw that was a hit for Tina Turner; and also a bouncy cover version of the Hank Williams classic You Win Again. "You can't be in Ireland and not hear country music," he says.

There is also a different version of Crazy Dreams, a hit from Hard Station. Brady, who had trouble naturally selecting from 16 solo albums, adds: "Back in 1981, I wanted to use this demo but at the time I thought it seemed a little light and that I needed more gravitas. But with the benefit of hindsight, I thought it actually sounded quite fresh. I'm glad I changed the original title, though, which was something maudlin like Another Day Without Her."

The album also shows off the strength of songwriting that has seen his work covered by artists of the calibre of Maura O'Connell, Art Garfunkel and Bonnie Raitt.

When did he start writing songs? "I wrote my first song back in the early 1970s when I was playing in Johnstons. One or two, at most, stand up but I think I was still a bit of a callow youth. Hopefully I got better."

He occasionally collaborates, as he did with Ronan Keating, yet one partnership that has always intrigued me is with the American master John Prine. How did that come about?

Brady explains: "My song with John is a rather strange story. I rarely collaborate on a song and sometimes it works out that it's 90-10, 50-50, or 10-90 in terms of the lyrics. In the song Beautiful World, the idea came when I was at a party in John's house in Nashville. He was humming and whistling a tune and said he had got the melody but not the lyrics. I'd always loved the obliqueness of his lyric-writing and I wanted to try to enter John Prine's world and see what would come. When I sent him the words, he said he'd forgotten about the idea but joked that it was very nice to get a co-written song in the post."

Prine recorded the song on his album Lucky 13 and, when I suggest the Irishman made himself sound like Prine the songwriter, Brady replies: "That's pleasing because that was precisely what I was trying to engineer."

Brady's pretty content with his world. He has a son and daughter (who work in computer engineering and IT) and two grandchildren, and the elder statesman of Irish music is still game for touring. He goes on the road for a UK tour with his talented old friend Eleanor McEvoy ("now that's one powerhouse singer who works really hard," says Brady) before doing a 70th birthday concert with Andy Irvine.

Folk. Rock. Irish. Pop. Traditional. Soul. Who cares about categories? Just enjoy the dance, especially when Paul Brady is involved.

- Martin Chilton


How Paul Brady got cool again - Music, Entertainment -

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