Dexys frontman Kevin Rowland - 'There's still an awful lot of ignorance about Ireland'Britain may not all be that interested in its nearest neighbour, Kevin Rowland tells our reporter, but the Dexys frontman's Irish heritage has always informed his songs
The 1980s were just six months old when a debut album that would come to be regarded as one of the decade's greatest was released. Searching for the Young Soul Rebels was the work of Birmingham-based Dexys Midnight Runners and, in Kevin Rowland, it introduced a distinctive young vocalist and lyricist quite unlike anyone else.
Its first single, the northern soul homage 'Geno' - a UK number one - demonstrated his ability to write songs that would connect with mass audiences, but it was the startling opening track that gave a sense of Rowland's rare talent and uncommon world view.
'Dance Stance' celebrated Ireland's glorious literary heritage and was borne out of rage. Rowland was acutely aware of his Irish roots at a time when Irishness was despised in a UK that had suffered from the IRA's murderous campaign in the 1970s. It was an era of 'No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish' notices and where Paddy-joke books sold in big numbers.
"There was a lot of anger there," Rowland says today, "because there was so much bloody ignorance about what Irishness was but, you know, there's still an awful lot of ignorance in Britain about Ireland."
He says much of the commentary surrounding the death of Martin McGuinness supports his theory. "It's a simple response to him, and no knowledge or interest in the sort of injustices he would have experienced when he was young. Too many people over here [the UK] just don't want to know [about Ireland]."
There's a touch of combativeness about Rowland in interview and he was certainly an angry young man when his band - named after a type of amphetamine - first emerged.
That first Dexys album alluded to those injustices on its striking cover artwork. It featured a photo of a 13-year-old Catholic boy who had been forced from his home due to sectarian unrest.
"I think we really achieved what we set out to do with that album," he says, "and with the Don't Stand Me Down album [in 1985], but less so with the one in the middle. I was less happy with that one."
That album - Too-Rye-Ay - was a massive success, a fusion of Celtic soul and new wave, and buoyed by the massive chart-topping success of 'Come On Eileen'. He says he's sick of being asked about the band's most defining song - and it's hard not to sympathise. They've got far better in their locker. "To be honest, I haven't listened back to any of those albums in a very long time," he says. "They're of a place and time - what's the point in looking back?"
And yet the latest album from Dexys [he dropped the remainder of the original name when they reformed] is very much about looking back, to a childhood where Irish ballads were a fundamental part of his upbringing. Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul, was released last June, and saw Rowland tackling such traditional standards as 'Carrickfergus', '40 Shades of Green' and 'I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen' as well as emblematic Irish songs of a more recent vintage such as 'The Town I Loved So Well', Phil Coulter's sentimental ode to a Derry convulsed by the Troubles.
I suggest the album is a homage to his family and he likes the idea. "It is, in a way," he says. "They were songs that I would hear a lot as a boy and they meant so much to members of my extended family. I still remember my aunts and uncles singing them, unaccompanied, and those songs meant a lot to them. They were a reminder of where they were from and how, even if you're living in a different country, you're still so connected to your roots. It's part of who you are.
"When it came to recording them, I put all of myself into them. Nobody could accuse me of going through the motions - that's the last thing songs like these would have deserved."
He points out that he had wanted to record such a covers album around the height of Dexys' popularity in the mid-1980s. The project was going to be called Irish, but part of him felt he wasn't a good enough singer to do the songs justice. "I think I'm a much better singer than I was when I recorded those first few albums," he says. "I wasn't short of attitude when I made the first album, for instance, but I would argue that I wasn't much of a singer."
Let the Record Show made quite an impression - some loved his chutzpah, others (including some UK critics) were bemused - but, he insists, it was exactly the sort he wanted to make at the time. He regrets not taking it on the road, but hints that there were some difficulties behind the scenes that made a tour impossible. "Yeah, we really should have toured with it and I think the songs would have been really powerful live, but that boat has probably sailed by now. We missed our chance."
Of late, Rowland has concentrated on DJing, something he says he gets a huge kick from. "It's music I love and stuff that influenced me but it's also about throwing a few surprises in, too."
Next week, he will be behind the decks in Dublin - he's always happy to have any chance to return to the land of his parents. "I'd get up to Mayo when I can," he says, "but I don't know if I'll have time on this occasion as I'm only over for 48 hours. I have an aunt in Bray so I might call out to her."
Always a restless spirit, he's mulling over what project to do next - there's some cultural stuff, non-music, that he says he's working on, but he is open to doing another covers album. Let the Record Show also features covers of Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides Now' and Rod Stewart's 'You Wear It Well' and Rowland says there's something compelling about re-imagining songs that have meant so much to him in his life.
"Both of those had a really big impact on me as a teen - it's difficult to articulate why. I respond to songs intuitively and I'd hope that people who listen to music I've made might have the same reaction."
Kevin Rowland will perform a DJ set at the Grand Social in Dublin on April 8