Friday 20 September 2019

'We don't find special songs, they find us' - songwriter Brendan Graham

Brendan Graham tells Barry Egan about losing his job at 48, writing a Eurovision winner at 49 and what Con Houlihan and the death of his parents taught him

Brendan Graham
Brendan Graham
Composer Brendan Graham with Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan
Eimear Quinn in the Eurovision Song Contest (1996)

Between the Flahavan's Oats and the Jacob's Fig Rolls, a man in a small, country town supermarket demanded of Brendan Graham: "How did you write the effin' song?"

"Which one?'' Brendan countered. "You know effin' well which one," the man insisted.

"Sure didn't we see you on RTE walking the mountain road. And then you disappeared. And we didn't see you again till you came out the far side - a million euro later!"

"I don't really know how I wrote it," Brendan pleaded.

Composer Brendan Graham with Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan
Composer Brendan Graham with Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan

"You know effin' well," the man insisted, before turning on his heel back past the baked beans and out the door.

Written in 2002, that effin' song You Raise Me Up has long since become a gargantuan international hit, selling over 100 million copies. It has been covered by over 100 artists from Josh Groban to Westlife to Daniel O'Donnell and, most recently, Johnny Mathis. "Of course, if your song is parodied then you know it has truly 'arrived'," Brendan says referring to Salute to the Underwired Bra by American comedienne, Anita Renfroe. He recites a few choice lines from it: 'You Raise Me Up... and make my molehills mountains/You Raise Me Up... and change my Bs to Cs...'

The real answer to the question the man in the supermarket asked Brendan that afternoon is, he says, that "the truly special songs write us. We don't write them; we don't find them. They find us. Else, how is it explained? How a song can seep out of the wilderness... out of rocks and streams and the deep pool of its own dark history. And, how a remote place in the Mayo mountains can, of its own volition, send out its story to the world."

He lives with his other half Mary, "between the mountain and the Mask" in a home that has, he says, "a half-door - and I love the notion that from behind that half-door on the side of a mountain in Mayo, the songs go to wherever they will go: to Superbowl... the London Palladium... Sydney Opera House... a choir in Vilnius... Ellis Island... that I can still live there beneath notice with no website, and not on Facebook or WhatsApp".

Whatever about WhatsApp or social media, Mary came to him through music. He met her in 1967 in the Shamrock Club in London's Elephant and Castle. This Irish dance hall was run by the Caseys from Kerry, brothers who were all world-champion wrestlers, Brendan explains, adding that he was in the resident band - The Moonshiners - on bass guitar and the odd vocal when a magnificent Mayo woman Mary came in one night.

Much to Brendan's disappointment, however, she and her friend Maura Reilly, also from Mayo, had their tickets for Australia for six weeks after that. "I went out the following year," he says.

Eimear Quinn in the Eurovision Song Contest (1996)
Eimear Quinn in the Eurovision Song Contest (1996)

But not only that, he married Mary in Perth in 1969 with Fr Brosnan from Kerry officiating at the wedding. Their eldest daughter, Donna, was born in St John of God Subiaco Hospital the following year in Perth. Brendan's job of industrial engineer took them to live in Melbourne where their twin daughters, Grainne and Niamh, were born in 1972. Two more daughters, Deirdre and Alana, were to follow.

Brendan says he is in the "grand-fathering stage of life now. There are nine of them from one to 12 - and all lively, the older ones mad into playing sport and playing instruments. It's a great and reflective time," he says, "this changing of the guard".

Asked about the secret of his happy marriage to Mary, Brendan says that a sense of humour goes a long way in a marriage and also a sense of silence - "not always blurting out the first thing that comes into your head, especially in those fraught moments, which are part of life generally. In other words keeping both lips pressed firmly together; especially one's own to avoid having to bite your tongue."

When Brendan, Mary and family came back from Australia to Ireland at Christmas time in 1972, they had, he says, no piano. Brendan would go to his parents' house in Kilmacud to 'play' the piano. "On hearing my 'playing','' Brendan smiles, "my mother could often be heard to say 'That fella has no voice and he'll break the piano!' And she was right," says Brendan all these years later.

What he learned from his parents, Enda and Gertrude, was not to take himself too seriously, "and just press on with things. Something to do with the Chinese proverb 'Keep a green bough in your heart and the singing bird will come'. Even if it's out of tune!"

Born on February 12, 1945, in Tipperary, Brendan remembers being 17 at a trial for the Irish Youth basketball team. Being a boarder in Newbridge College, the trial was in Dublin. During the game Brendan looked into the crowd and saw his dad. He "was just there… never had said anything but had taken the day off and just came up. I have never forgotten that moment."

His father died in March, 1977. He was 64 years of age. Enda had suffered over many years, Brendan says, but he never complained. The night before he died, Brendan - on the way to a basketball match - dropped into Sir Patrick Dun's hospital in Dublin to see him.

"He told me not to be delaying and wished me a good game. Not always easy with affection, that night he took my hand - held it a little while. 'You've always been loyal', he said, close into my eyes. I never felt less so than when I left him there, rushed to my game. If I didn't know it was to be our last goodbye, he did," believes Brendan. "The next day he was gone."

His mother, Gert, as she was known, died in October 1987. She was 75. Brendan wasn't there; he was working in Scotland when he got word. "She too had a tough final few months and like dad never complained. She had looked after my Dad all those years, traipsing in and out of hospitals… and in her final months my sister, Trudy, had looked after her with great dedication and devotion," Brendan says, adding that their deaths "affected me greatly, the suffering they endured, but endured with such grace and dignity".

"And I wondered, too, about their mental suffering, as well as the physical: to see themselves go down slowly in front of each other and us their children: two people that were so vibrant, so giving, so full of their own dreams for themselves… and for us. It was, among the grief of loss, in another sense an uplifting thing - one that I hope I will bear with me..."

What has certainly stayed with Brendan is his songwriting genius. The very first song he had recorded came about from his fascination with the character of Father McKenzie in Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles. Brendan was thinking that the priest, who was 'writing a sermon that no one would hear', should have his own song.

In late 1966, on a red serviette in a Chinese restaurant in Harlesden, Brendan wrote the lyrics to Father Dickens and promptly sent it off to Tommy Swarbrigg, his friend from Joe Dolan's band in Mullingar (and now "the instigator" behind his upcoming National Concert Hall show.)

By Christmas 1968, Brendan was in Australia, when a battered album arrived in the post: Johnny McEvoy's With an Eye to Your Ear. Sandwiched spectacularly between The Beatles' Here, There and Everywhere and Leonard Cohen's So Long Marianne was Father Dickens. "Eventually, a royalty cheque arrived, from Shaftesbury Music in London's Tin Pan Alley - "all £1.1s 5d of it".

Brendan didn't have the heart to spend it, primarily because he feared he might never get another one. "And also the thought struck me, if I couldn't do better than this, I should throw in the scratching and scribbling in Chinese restaurants. So, I still have that first royalty cheque!"

Ironically, the writer of Father Dickens almost became literally Father Graham. He spent six months - from September, 1962 to February, 1963 - as seminarian at All Hallows College in Dublin.

"It was scarcely enough time to give it a 'fair go'. I genuinely thought I had a vocation but I just thought I wouldn't be good enough. I certainly did not like the 'total obedience' angle of it all."

That said, if Brendan had gone on to become a priest "maybe I'd have accepted the 'house rules'; and maybe even become part of that same system that I was reacting against".

Brendan says he has never regretted his decision to 'try' for the priesthood - "even if I was told on leaving that 'leaving here could be the loss of your eternal soul'."

Whatever faith was inside his eternal soul, Brendan Graham had no choice but to draw upon it in 1993. He lost his job as a production manager in a clothing manufacturing company in Dublin. "It was almost like someone else's nightmare, such was the shock. There was no money coming in, but the money 'going out' didn't stop and with five daughters all at different levels of schooling." They were the soya-bean years for the Grahams. "Anything with soya in it was cheap and shopping was a weekly obstacle course."

The house was re-mortgaged a few times - "all of that that so many people have suffered in the recent past. I understand that road", he says.

Mary, fortunately, had a job. That was keeping the family afloat. At 48 Brendan wasn't that re-employable "in what was then a shrinking industry in Ireland".

But Brendan never lost hope. Early one morning not long after things started "looking bleak", he drove to the Dublin mountains to Ticknock. He looked down at all the houses of the waking city and thought to himself: '''If you can't make something out of all the opportunity that is being offered to you by all those people then, you're not up to much'.

"That moment changed my perspective," he says, adding that "a bit of luck stepped in". That bit of luck manifested itself the following year when Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan won the Eurovision with Brendan's song Rock 'n' Roll Kids.

"I learned to be grateful for what is sometimes taken away," says Brendan, ever philosophical, "as much as for what is sometimes given". In 1996, another composition of Brendan's The Voice, sung by Eimear Quinn, also won the Eurovision.

So, two years after possibly feeling he was on the scrapheap at 48, Brendan had written two Eurovision winners. How did he switch off the demons in his head saying he was finished to get in the head space to be able to write those two life-changing songs?

"Well, I never did really think I was on the scrap heap at 48," he says now. "After the initial shock of having no job, I made myself go out of a morning and Paddy Kavanagh's seat by the Grand Canal in Dublin became my office."

Brendan would sit and talk to the ghost of the late poet, and ask him for a bit of advice, inspiration, anything that was going.

"I was doing bits and pieces which earned me some income," he says, "and had more time now to write songs. So, in a way I became a full-time songwriter by default. If the demons were in my head, I didn't give them free lodging for long. I needed the head-space to get on with things."

And how. As well as being the go-to guy for an international hit, Brendan is also a best-selling novelist (The Whitest Flower, The Element of Fire and The Brightest Day, The Darkest Night.) He credits his old English teacher in Newbridge College, Fr Henry Flanagan, for inspiring him. He used to tell his young pupil, ''All of life is a fumbling for the light''. That is how Brendan sees it. We fumble. We are human. We are strong and we are weak... "And we are wonderful, whether we Buddhist, Baptist, Muslim or Jew - or none of the above," he says.

"I like people. I like positive people who create a good vibe around themselves - it's a transmittable thing; I like people who are generous of heart. None of us gets anywhere on our own - it's the people around us, who love and support us, give us space.

"Writing is a fairly isolated undertaking. You need 'alone-ness to get in the space'." He admits that that process can take a lot of understanding in a house "when the wheels of the real world keep whirring round for everybody else. I can't write my songs and books unless I'm given the space and time in which to write them. I can't have success with them, without the singers, arrangers, producers, publishers, radio stations to bring them to life and get them heard," he says.

"Similarly, with the books, I need the stoic belief of my agent Marianne Gunn O'Connor, to advise me and keep hope alive. Marianne always believes. So, I always try to acknowledge all those people, say a 'thank you' to others.

"In a more public way," he continues, "my concert in the National Concert Hall is to do just that, to share a stage with some of the wonderful artistes and musicians who have been largely responsible for my success… and to say 'thank you' to them", Brendan says referring to Eimear Quinn, Anthony Kearns, Sean Keane, Cathy Jordan (of Dervish), to say nothing of a 40-piece choir and some special surprise guests on the night at the NCH.

Brendan also credits the late Con Houlihan for providing him with another kind of blessing once upon a time. He was sent to Con for maths grinds as a 13-year-old, living in Castleisland. "I loved going to Con as much as I hated maths. It was a magical mystery tour of an hour each week; everything but maths and Con said to me: 'Never mind the Maths, Boy! All you need to be good at Maths is a form of sly cunning - literature's the thing'. So, into one's life come these great 'inspirers' who, if we look and listen, change the course of what we are, who we are. It can be a few words, even an unsaid thing. I try to learn from them all."

Sponsored by Ashford Castle, 'Raise Me Up: The songs and Stories of Brendan Graham' at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, October 12. Tickets from €25. or phone: 01 417 0000

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