Interview by Barry Egan
Surreal, even spooky, to be sitting opposite a fella who played a part in your youth (not least after he has performed his 1982 masterpiece Downmarket for you at the Independent.ie’s Windmill Lane Sessions on a rainy afternoon in Ringsend).
Paul Cleary’s songs like the aforesaid Downmarket and 1980’s Ghost Of A Chance became the soundtrack to my youth (and possibly some of your youths too) in Dublin and further afield in Ireland back in the early Eighties.
I remember reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm at school and listening to Paul’s band The Blades at home. I tell Paul now of the-soundtrack-to-our-youth claim that he has heard a thousand times before. “I’m not trying to play it down, but...”
Does it feel like ‘I didn’t really write the song — it just came through me’?
“I’m not sure about that quasi-spiritual stuff,” laughs Paul whose iconic Dublin post-punk trio broke up in the mid Eighties only to reform for some high profile — and unsurprisingly well-received and emotional — reunion shows in 2013 and 2014.
“Of course there’s art involved in writing the song, but a lot of craft too — 1pc or 2pc comes from elsewhere,” he adds. “But 80 or 90 per cent or more is the craft: sculpting out the words, the chords, the melody. Something magical happens somewhere along the line. You’d hope something does and no one can really put their finger on what that is.
“I’m sure it’s the same for novelists and painters and poets. That is the magical thing about art. I was always interested in the creative process,” he says. “And I was obviously more interested when I started to try and create myself in terms of songs.
“It’s a weird thing. You could be at home and you feel there is something happening and you go into the piano room — and I am not even sure what I’m supposed to do in there, but I just know if I start banging out a few chords, something might happen. Now a lot of time it doesn’t but you get a certain feeling as a songwriter.”
What kind of stuff resonated with him as a young man? I mention Dennis Potter.
“Oh, I loved Dennis Potter,” he smiles. “He was so good. I was really captivated by his stuff. The way he blends the past and the future and the present,” Paul says. “And obviously, like myself, Potter would have been left of centre politically. And also Monty Python — I was one of the first kids to get my friends to see Monty Python. I was into football as well. I was a normal kid.
“Also my dad was a big fan of The Beatles. He used to bring back Beatles bootlegs. I grew up listening to The Beatles. He was into classical music too — which would have been in the background too.”
What goes through your mind when you sing songs that you wrote when you were 15, 16?
Does it bring you back to being on the Dublin streets when you were a kid?
“It doesn’t. Well, not often — because I have sung the songs so many times. What is important is that you are giving the best performance of the song, and also when you’re on stage you are trying to gauge how the crowd are. I might even be listening to the drums or the bass.
“There are so many things going on at the same time that it is very hard to identify or pin-point what you are thinking of. The lyrics are almost automatic,” he says. “Though sometimes I do think about when I wrote the song, actually, and it is a weird one because it will throw you. You might even hit a wrong chord.”
To paraphrase Bono, the wrong chord — and the truth.
Windmill Lane Sessions: The creative wisdom of the Young Folk