Declan Sinnott: Guitar star hits the right chords
OCCASIONALLY Declan Sinnott is driving along in his car, listening to the radio and a guitar introduction to a song comes on. He thinks: that's beautiful, I'd love to play like that.
Then Mary Black starts singing and he realises the guitarist is him, not Ry Cooder or some other famous musician. It's a revealing indication that he still doesn't realise just how good he is.
Off-guard moments like this make him think. 'I wonder who am I wanting to be,' he asks himself. 'I suppose it says something about a lack of confidence.'
Declan Sinnott is one of the greatest guitar players in Ireland, a naturally-talented, selftaught musician who has to play music. There is no choice involved. It's a compulsion; a sweet obsession.
As a musician, producer and arranger, he has been a star-maker to the likes of solo artists Christy Moore, Mary Black, Frances Black and Sinead Lohan, but his own comfort zone is just to the left of the spotlight.
His first big musical break came at the age of 19 with the legendary folk/rock band Horslips. The group was formed in Dublin in 1970 and at one point enjoyed a bigger fan base than Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and the Boomtown Rats put together.
Wexford people of a certain vintage will never forget the first Horslips gig in Wexford and the vision of home-boy Sinnott appearing on stage in a gold lurex jump suit.
But music was more important than image to Sinnott, who left the band before they struck it big. Disillusioned, he went to London and worked as a postman for a year – the one and only proper job he ever applied for in his life.
Thereafter, he enjoyed spells with Gandydancer, Homegrown and Southpaw, before making his next high-profile appearance with Moving Hearts.
He is now back on stage again, touring with Christy Moore to promote his comeback album 'Listen', which he produced.
In a tentative inclination towards centre stage, he sings one of the album tracks 'I Will'which was a hit for Bill Furey in 1959.
'I very much enjoy singing. Working with Christy has stopped me from worrying about it. He is very encouraging,' he said.
Which brings him to the subject of confidence again, that fundamental quality he feels he needs more of, despite a much-heralded talent.
'I've become more confident. The voice is the most personal part of you. With anything else, there is an artifice. You have something between you and the listener'.
He is also singing with his own band, Small Town Talk, who play Wexford Arts Centre on June 20. Self-promotion is not one of his fortés. 'On that path lies madness. If you ask me am I a good guitar player, I'll say yes; but you can't get too egotistical about it. I very seldom listen to my own music unless I'm passing by a shop and there's something playing'.
Declan Sinnott grew up in small town Wexford in the 1950s and '60s, the second eldest of three boys. His brother Frank is a wellknown local writer and guitar teacher while Maurice had the distinction of gaining the second highest results ever in History as a mature student in UCD, gaining a certain fame as a contestant on the college quiz programme Challenging Times, presented by Kevin Myers.
His father, Frank, now deceased, was an optician and jeweller until Declan was about 10. His mother, Marie, who is a sharp-minded 92, worked as a cost accountant with Kelly's Bakery.
Music became his escape, his saving grace. He got his first guitar for Christmas when he was 13. It came from Georgie Bridge's toy shop in Selskar.
'The Beatles had just happened, but even before that I remember being fascinated by music, by sound and by words'. 'I'm still fascinated by words. I have a memory for lyrics. I can remember thousands of songs. When I was about 15, I had a tape recorder and I recorded songs from the radio.'
'You couldn't get a guitar lesson. I remember watching the Beatles on television, looking at the movement of their hands. I did the same and if it was a nice sound, I'd play it again'. He found a
book in Lowney's music shop, 'How to Play the Guitar', and taught himself how to read music. He also discovered a book of classical guitar pieces and learned every one of them.
When he was 16, a man called Denny Hogan called to his door in the Old Pound and asked him to play in a group called The Southerners.
One of the other members was Larry Kirwan, now a New York-based musician. 'He taught me A minor, for which I will be eternally grateful,' he smiles. After leaving the CBS secondary school, he went to Dublin with 'no visible means of support' and slept on people's floors and even in St. Stephen's Green. 'I just wanted to be in Dublin, that's where the music was, and also it wasn't Wexford. I wasn't fond of Wexford at that time.' He gave guitar lessons to Chris de Burgh, he recalls.
Sinnott joined a poetry and music outfit called called Tara Telephone ('the name seemed fine at the time') and appeared on the Late Late Show, the first of many appearances during his career.
Fellow band member Eamonn Carr had an ambition to form another band; the result was Horslips, which enjoyed enormous success.
'We became hugely popular in one night. We played in the RDS, bottom of the bill to Manfred Man, in front of 6,000 people, and got a standing ovation.
'The next gig we played, they turned 500 people away. I didn't fully understand why. There was an awakening of something. I felt I was a stranger to it. I just couldn't handle it. Three of them worked in advertising agencies. That informed it.'
He left 'in high dudgeon' after a year and a half and became a postman in London. One day, walking around a corner with his postie's bag, at the height of the band's success, he saw the Horslips van parked outside a hotel. It was a lonely moment.
He worked extra shifts and bought a load of music gear with the intention of coming back to Ireland to form his own group.
'I wanted to play in a band that was playing really good music and felt great.' Living in Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, he founded Gandydancer. He met and married American woman Kathy Kelly when they were both 21. They were a couple for nearly 30 years and have 11 children together. Several years ago, Kathy took a well-publicised legal challenge against the Department of Education on behalf of their son, Jamie, who is autistic, and subsequently went on to become an independent member of the European Parliament.
Declan's eldest son, Joadie, is now 35, and his youngest child, Anna, is nine. She was delighted to see her dad on the Late Late Show with Christy Moore a few weeks ago and he gave her a pre-arranged secret signal when the camera was on him. Christy used to come and watch him play when he was in Southpaw with Jimmy McCarthy and suggested forming a band with Donal Lunny, using electric instruments and pipes. He spent two and a half years with Moving Hearts in the early 1980s.
'It was exhilarating in the extreme. As a live band, it was brilliant. It would take the paint off the walls.' Moving Hearts was an unforgettable experience but there was a downside. 'You were living at 100 miles an hour. When it's that intense, it can be destructive to other parts of your life, especially all the drugs and drink'.
'My health wasn't good. I was drinking like a fish. I had to figure out where my life was going'. It ended up going in the same direction as Mary Black after Christy Moore told her that he wouldn't produce an album for her but Declan Sinnott would. During a 13-year and six-album association, he toured all over the world with Mary, playing in Australia, Japan and America. Now, playing five different instruments, (not all at the same time) he is enjoying a double act with the iconic Christy, whose new album went straight to number one when it was released a few weeks ago. On stage, they are recapturing some of the old magic.
'There is a lot madness between us but we can keep a grip on it now,' he says, referring to those moments of intense energy when the music takes off and goes somewhere else. They are due to play in Wexford Opera House on November 20 and 21 next. Whatever happens, you won't catch Declan trying to steal the limelight 'I decided a long time ago that if I wanted to be that other person, I would do something about it. I wasn't sure I could. I'm still not sure I could. I find it easy to talk on television but I don't know about living there'.