'If this is my swan song, I'm going on a high note'
Songwriter Johnny Duhan reveals the complex inspiration behind 'Creation', his latest collection of songs
In this, the 40th anniversary year of the marriage that inspired my most successful song, The Voyage (and, coincidentally, the 25th year since Christy Moore launched it), I have spent the last nine months writing and recording a new album, Creation, which, I was surprised to discover, is linked like a mooring chain to The Voyage.
One of the pivotal lyrics from the new collection, Winter, deals with an aging couple (my first mate and I) coming to terms with growing old: It seems forever since a summer left its golden mark and pleasure on pleasure ignited from just the spark of being together.
After lamenting the downside of ageing, the inspirational pull that got me started, the song steered me in the more positive direction of reflecting on the family we've raised and the ever-growing line of descendants joining our crew. As a father and mother, we've watched our children grow and reaped a treasure beyond measure - grandchildren who glow when we're together.
While I was singing these lines (testing them on the pallet of the tongue), the word "treasure" stopped me in my tracks as it dawned on me that it was connected to a crucial line from the first verse of The Voyage - "For the heart's treasure together we set sail." As The Voyage was partly inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, the sudden realisation of the attainment of the trove that my wife and I set out to attain 40 years before curled my lips in a broad smile. And the connection was apt in more ways than one, for the motivation behind the full collection, Creation, was a desire to describe in musical and poetic terms the very nature and mystery of the creative process itself.
By the end of spring, I had amassed 16 songs, half of which were related to familial and human matters and the rest centred on spiritual concerns. Not since I wrote the album Just Another Town back in my twenties have I come up with so many songs in such a short period of time.
The title song, Creation, came as the biggest surprise of all, growing out of an aphorism that formed in my head early one morning while I was contemplating the creative process that I've been engaged in for most of my life.
Reflecting on the fact that most of the creative periods I've experienced over the span of my songwriting career came after long arid stretches of failure and impotence, the song's lyric turns the world on its head and paradoxically suggests that the tools of creativity and contentment are to be found more readily at low points in life when spiritual and human support are drawn on. The love dealt with in the lyric isn't some ivory tower romanticism but a deep commitment that endures and thrives in the giving of oneself. 'I thought losing was failure, but the opposite is true; losing led me to treasure the measure of you.' (And there's that word again, "treasure".)
By serendipity, the chief oboist from the RTE orchestra, David Agnew, contacted me out of the blue soon after I wrote the song Creation and informed me that he'd like to play with me before his teeth fall out. Consequently, he is the soloist on both the title song Creation and a related track, Resurrection, which he shares with a string section and a choir of birds.
Memory has always been a chief source of inspiration for me ("the stem on which the flower of creativity grows" to quote Kavanagh). Many of the songs on Creation harp back to events that have had a profound effect on me, from the near and distant past. The song In Me draws on a mysterious childhood recollection to illustrate the wonder of life.
When I was just a boy, one dark night I woke with a sound in my head, a low drone that drove me out of my bed. While absorbed in this tonal touch, I experienced a sensation that my body was as large as a universe. The memory remained with me all my life but I was reluctant to disclose it until I read this passage by the French palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin: "Man only progresses by slowly elaborating from age to age the essence of the totality of a universe within him."
Another pivotal song in the collection, Advent 2013, describes a pre-dawn pilgrimage to a coastal chapel in preparation for Christmas, which entails not only braving some of the worst storms in living memory but also confronting religious doubt born of the times we live in.
"Black on black as ebony, the clouds and the rocks and the spread of the sea,
and only shadows guiding me. The narrow path, the town up ahead,
a forest of lights and the holy bread, and the deep hunger by which I'm led."
Other songs in the collection deal with friendship, temptation, love, hope and charity, subjects of the heart which are concisely summed up in the chorus of the song First. 'In thoughts of others, we gain like lovers who put one another first.' Putting our grandchildren centre stage in the song Hold Your Horses was essential, to mark one of the real treasures and joys of ageing.
"Aoibhean, Alanna, Saoirse, Hannah and Kate,
hold your horses, be patient and learn how to wait.
That's what I used to tell you while spinning yarns
till the girl became the queen in the prince's arms.
Now that you've outgrown my tallest tales
and you're into pop much more than fairytales,
slow down before you join the crazy dance
of the whirligig of early teenage romance.
Don't get me wrong, your hearts will belong in the dizzy regions
when the pulse in your blood is as strong as the beat of the rhythm
of your favourite pop song.
Aoibhean, Alannah, Saoirse, Hannah and Kate,
hold your horses, you're still just at the starting gate.
There are years of pure adventure up ahead
before the girl finds the prince… and they are wed."
It goes without saying that the nuggets of wisdom we impart to our offspring go mostly unheeded, but the time and attention we give them surely live on as a vital part of their development.
Creation may well turn out to be my swan song. I hope not. But if it is, then I will be grateful to have gone out on the high note of Resurrection, with the help of David Agnew and this dawn chorus. For info on Creation and tour dates: johnnyduhan.com