'I'm another thing on stage'
Given that he's admired by fellow artists and adored by fans the world over, you'd think that singer-songwriter Paul Brady had plenty to laugh about. Yet when not performing, the Tyrone troubadour can seem troubled. Was it boarding school? A difficult mother-son relationship? Barry Egan finds out
Published 23/12/2007 | 00:00
WHEN the lift opens, we're on the fourth instead of the fifth floor of the Westbury Hotel. Paul Brady is already halfway out of the lift before he realises the error. In a comic turn worthy of Harpo, Chico or Groucho Marx in the 1933 comedy classic Duck Soup, he turns quickly on his heels and jumps back in again.
It is a brief and -- because this is Paul Brady -- iconoclastic moment of vaudeville absurdity. All that is missing is a long cigar coming out of his mouth.
"I love the Marx Brothers," he smiles. "I love to laugh." (This isn't immediately apparent, however, from talking to the man who can alternate between withdrawn and introverted and all the emotions in-between.)
And he was surely not laughing in 1985 when fellow Northern Ireland singer-songwriter Van Morrison bizarrely accused him (and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seeger) in an interview of plagiarising his work. Van said: "And you know, I'm carrying these Paul Brady monkeys and these Bruce Springsteen monkeys and these Bob Seeger monkeys, and I'm just fed up with it. I just wish they'd find someone else to copy. I mean, find someone else to copy, or else send me their royalties, you know." A year later, in 1986, Morrison appeared to refer to this again on his song A Town Called Paradise from the album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher: "Copycats ripped off my words / Copycats ripped off my songs / Copycats ripped off my melody ... "
"The monkey on his back?" Brady laughs. "I wasn't offended, I was actually quite flattered that he considered me enough of a threat to want to bring me down. Who knows? I haven't met him in a while. You know, he just took things too seriously."
Without being discourteous to Morrison, none other than Bob Dylan was impressed enough to borrow Brady's arrangement of the traditional number Arthur McBride. The Wall Street Journal hit the nail on the head when it wrote that, "Paul Brady is a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of rare gifts, an artist who has made an indelible impression in both traditional and pop-rock genres." The 60-year-old from Co Tyrone is an internationally respected artist: he has collaborated with the likes of Bonnie Raitt and Richard Thompson, and had his songs covered by everyone from Tina Turner to Santana and Cher.
Brady can remember the first time he picked up a guitar. He got a Spanish guitar with steel strings for Christmas in 1959. He tried to play a bit of Chuck Berry and The Shadows. But then he went to boarding school for six years, at St Columb's in Derry, and wasn't allowed to bring his guitar.
"I didn't enjoy boarding school at all," he remembers. "It was a total shock to me. It was a total different culture and I wasn't prepared for it at all. I didn't deal with it very well and I was extremely unhappy. So from the age of 11 until I was about 17, I didn't really progress much on the guitar. The sum of my ambition was that I would become a teacher like my mother and father and I would have long school holidays and I could play guitar in a hotel on my summer holidays. That's what I thought I would do."
What about his emotional progress, as opposed to his progress on the guitar?
"I don't know whether it was boarding school, but it was also the person I was," he says. "It took me a long time to ... I was in my late 20s until I focused at all emotionally." Around about that time he met his wife, Mary.
"I was complete blotting paper for whatever was going around me," he says, adding that he drifted through his 20s without a strong sense of himself. "It was only when I met my wife and also started to write songs around the same time that I began to explore myself and what was going on inside. At the age of 28, I was ready to get real."
He has written two enduring masterpieces, The Island and Crazy Dreams. He says he's always surprised at the effect his songs have on people. He mentions The Long Goodbye, saying that different people like that song for different reasons. "It is a love song about a relationship that is coming to an end, but no one seems to accept that it is going to happen," he says. "Other people have looked at that song where they had a family member that was dying." He denies that The Long Goodbye was about the death of his mother, Molly. She died last year. He says he is trying to write a song about his mother. "But I'm finding it hard. It's funny that you should ask that because this song is actually called Mother & Son. It is half-written and it has been half-written for a long time."
What's a long time?
"Oh, 10 years," he says, "Fifteen years. Each time I go back to it, I just can't seem to finish it. That's not uncommon with me either. The Island was around a long time before I finished it."
Brady is honest enough to say, that he had "a difficult relationship with my mother" before pulling back: "I'm not going to go into discussing it, because everybody's relationship with their parents is very private. But it was difficult. You know, I wouldn't be the first son who had a difficult relationship with his mother. So it was just a hard one."
His relationship with his father is better. "That was always easy. And it still is easy. It is even fine now, as he is waiting for Godot," Paul laughs, referring to the fact that his father is now 94 and has just entered a nursing home.
Does he still listen to Paul's music?
"He does. He hasn't got a sycophantic relationship with his son's talent. He is not all that impressed. And when I know I'm really good, he sees it. And when I know I didn't get it quite right, he sees it, too. My father is a performer to his fingertips."
It's difficult to square the Irish legend who will routinely awe crowds with the reserved, troubled genius in the chair opposite me. "I become something else on stage. It is the only place that I feel safe enough to be what I imagine myself to be. In the space of that time I'm on stage," he says, "there is a sort of a covenant between you and all these people who you believe have come to see what it is you are. That almost gives you permission to become this other thing onstage. You would never do that when you're off the stage because convention would call it something else. Onstage, you can be what you imagine yourself to be."
Which is what?
"It is the character in whatever the song is. It must be like Method singing. There is something of acting in it. Singing certain songs offer that potential. Even when I was singing traditional songs, there had to be songs that had an inherent drama in them, like Arthur McBride or The Lakes of Pontchartrain. They were big, big songs. They were short films in a way. And you were acting it out. I stopped singing those songs for quite some time because I couldn't find a way to become the character for a while but now even if I had a band with me on stage I would probably just walk out straight away and sing Arthur McBride as the very first song. That, in a sense, would be laying down the law for the evening and saying: this is what it is."
The Strabane-born troubadour says the biggest misconception about him is that he can be hard-work and that he is grumpy. He doesn't think he is either. When asked how his wife would describe him, Brady laughs and says: "That's a very unfair question, because I have to put myself into what I think is her head."
Is it difficult for her to live with a writer who lives in his head?
"Less and less, to be honest. She has been a very good teacher to me. I like to think that we both, in a way, helped each other through our relationship because we are very different people. Obviously what attracted us to each other were worlds of differences. That is fine, but, sooner or later, the differences have to be sorted out, or there has to be some way to accommodate those differences," he says, "and we have managed to do that with real hard work. We are in a very good situation now."
Brady has two children, Sarah and Colm, and admits that he, "probably wasn't that great when the kids were young. I would have been trying to invent myself as an artist and invent myself as a writer, and I found that very difficult to do, and also to be a father."
He also says, "One of the things I find difficult to live with about myself is that I have probably an over-exaggerated sense of obligation to what I perceive as a gift I've been given, and I don't want to waste it. I feel a lot of the time, I'm actually not living up to it ." Brady is so self-critical I feel like offering him a cudgel so he can beat himself up a little further.
Clearly he has become more philosophical with age. "Sixty is the new 50," he laughs. "You start to prioritise because you know that there is just not all that long left. You really start to look at yourself and decide what you are spending your time doing and should you be actually doing this. In a way, it is sent to us to help us define ourselves more."
Is that defining yourself more with your work or your wife and children?
"I think all those things."
His 28-year-old son, Colm, is currently surfing in Costa Rica. "He is very different to me. He played hockey for Ireland. He is like his mother; he is quite reserved," Paul says. "She is the opposite to me. She thinks I'm extrovert." He claims that his daughter, Sarah, on the other hand, is more like him. "She likes crowds and company and laughing and parties and stuff," he says, before pausing. "No, that's ridiculous." I say that he appears to be describing Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. "Take two!" he laughs. "My daughter is wonderful."
You're not so bad yourself, Paul.
Paul Brady plays at the CityWest Hotel in Saggart, County Dublin, on Friday