Interview by Barry Egan
He sees song-writing as a sort of holy covenant between him and the listener. The gospel according to Paul Brady is all about one thing: integrity. It is not a huge leap of imagination, therefore, to see why he was so angry when U2 decided to take $100 million from Apple and then distribute their new album for free to iTunes subscribers.
The man who the Daily Telegraph dubbed Ireland’s musical statesman says: “I just thought it was a publicity stunt that made it even more difficult for, say, a young band who have spent 20 grand making an album to ever make that money back. Alright, so, U2 didn’t invent making music for free but they kind of rubber-stamped it in a way,” he adds, “and I felt it was something that they shouldn’t have done. I’m not the only one. Apple are still apologising for that gaff. So I am not taking all the blame on my own shoulders!”
I say that it seemed like he was the only singer in Ireland to put his head above the parapet on the issue.
“I’ll tell you," he laughs, “put your head above the parapet is the right way to describe it! You know — never annoy a U2 fan!”
U2 didn’t invent taking money for free but they kind of rubber-stamped it
Paul doesn’t seem particularly annoyed by Van Morrison’s comment back in the mists of time that: “I’m carrying these Paul Brady monkeys and these Bruce Springsteen monkeys and these Bob Seger monkeys, and I’m just fed up with it. I just wish they’d find someone else to copy.”
I ask Paul did Van ever apologise since.
“No, but I’m not expecting it any day now,” he laughs. “I have great respect for Van, both as a person and as a musician and singer.”
“Of all the people on this new album,” he says referring to The Vicar Street Sessions Volume 1, recorded at the 23 sold-out shows Paul played in 2001 — and including a galaxy of stars, from Mr Morrison to Sinead O’Connor to Bonnie Raitt and Mark Knopfler, playing Brady’s songs live with him at the Dublin inner city venue — “Van was the easiest. You had to go looking for permission from people to include their track. We kind of felt Van is going to be difficult about this, but Van was the easiest of them all. He said, ‘Give me a listen to the song [Irish Heartbeat] and then he said, ‘Let’s go! No problem!’ Van would probably feel I’m a kindred spirit in the sense that I’m into music as much as him — rather than the fame. Van has a bad rap for being difficult but sometimes it is not justified,“ he adds.
It is nice to get popular, but after a while it’s like a wee dog lapping at your heels
Equally, Paul Brady has an unwarranted reputation for being an unsmiling and tortured curmudgeon. “I am not a curmudgeon. I don’t explain easily because. . . we have spent the last hour, 20 minutes talking, about how to explain me. I don’t know how to explain me any more than you do. So I’m hard to explain. So people think that means you’re difficult.”
I ask him does his wife understand him?
“Well,” he smiles then laughs, “up to a point.”
Does he understand himself?
“No, no, no — I don’t.”
Is the music a therapy? His route to understanding? “I’m happy on my own a large part of the time because when I’m on my own I’m kind of in a musical world. It’s like your friends — you know, all this music. I wouldn’t say I’m a loner,” he continues.
“I love company. I love the craic as much as anybody else. But I don’t freak out when I’m on my own. I’m quite content with my own company. I can be a hermit for as long as I want.”
He has a studio at the end of his garden in south county Dublin. “I can walk across there in my slippers if I want. I don’t even have to put my clothes on!” he laughs.
“When I am being creative and when I’m into a project, I will work all hours of the day. And then when I am not doing that I will lie around the place as much as anyone else. I don’t feel compelled to spend a number of hours every single day at my craft.”
The very fact that he could sell-out a head-spinning 23 nights at Vicar Street says something substantial about his craft’s appeal. Paul, who turns 68 on May 19th, has an illustrious 45 year career that has seen his songs covered by everyone from Tina Turner to Bob Dylan to Cher to Joe Cocker. He puts his music’s endurance down to his lack of ever having been in vogue.
“I’ve never been fashionable,” the troubadour from county Tyrone says. “So I’ve never fallen out of fashion. I was never interested in anything other than the music. It is nice to get popular, up to a point, but after a while it’s like a wee dog lapping at your heels. It distracts you from what you are trying to do, really.
“I suppose fame was never the thing that drove me. It’s a by-product of it. Maybe it might have been fun if I had become globally famous, but somehow I don’t think it would have been,” he laughs sitting in a famous Ringsend studio.
I think my mother loved me in so far as my mother knew how to love
I met Paul for his recording of Follow That Star and Hank Williams’ You Win Again for ‘The Windmill Lane Sessions’ on independent.ie. He held everyone in thrall for an hour of acoustic magic. (You can watch it — in all its sonic wonder — now on Independent.ie)
Paul can recall being 11 years old and his father Seán giving him a Christmas present of a guitar and “not knowing what to do with it, actually. It was a steel string guitar. But he gave me a guitar manual for a Spanish guitar. So for two or three months I tried to marry the two up, but it didn’t seem to work.
“And, in any case, I was in boarding school at the time and they didn’t allowed me bring the guitar with me. Just in case I might have enjoyed myself,” he smiles ruefully of the six years he spent in St. Columb’s College, Derry. Asked about what that was like, he says, it was “pretty dark.”
Was it dark because he was bullied badly at school? “Ah, well. . .one particular individual took a notion for a couple of years. . . and that didn’t do me any good. But I wouldn’t say that was the fundamental hallmark of my career in St Columb’s.”
I am fundamentally doubtful that anyone gives a shit. I’m still an acquired taste
How did the bullying affect his confidence?
“In a strange way, it made me what I am,” he explains. “Because I have always been very confident in my music. I’ve always felt instinctively that there’s nobody who’s better than me. But I’ve always had the notion that nobody would get it. And I’ve been sort of half proven right,” he laughs.
Even now after all the international success, Paul Brady still feels people haven’t got him?
“I feel that I am an acquired taste,” he answers. “I was never meant to be page one in the national media.” On his 2010 album Hooba Dooba, Paul had a song called Mother and Son, where he sang about the relationship with his then recently deceased mother Mollie: ‘He leans to comfort her/And catches by surprise/The stranger in his mother’s eyes.’
Does his belief that he was never going to be page one come from his relationship with his mother?
“It is all very complex,” he answers, “and I don’t think there’s an easy answer to all that. I think it’s in my make-up as much as anything else. It’s just that I never felt that what I was into was going to be immediately successful.”
Without getting too Freudian, I press him about his relationship with Mollie. “It was up and down,” Paul says haltingly, even slightly uncomfortably (he will joke at the completion of our tete-a-tete: “I didn’t know you were going to get so personal!”) “We were very similar, I suppose, and people who are very similar tend to rub off against each other.”
I ask him what he think his mother thought of him.
“I think my mother loved me in so far as my mother knew how to love. But, you know, life was difficult for her. That is a question for another interview. I doubt if I could successfully psychoanalyse my mother,” he laughs.
I say to Paul that he once said that he felt that his mother married the wrong man. “I mean, sure, we all marry who we fall in love with, and whoever they turn out to be is beyond our control. I don’t think that my parents were particularly any different to a lot of parents I know. We’re very different people. It’s the oldest story in the world. Opposite attract but eventually repel,” he says doing the actions with his hands.
Asked about his father Sean, Paul says that he was “a very congenial man who basically wanted to enjoy life as much as he could, and was very talented, very smart — both my mother and father were very smart. He was not perhaps as organised as he might have been in terms of domesticity, but he had a great talent and was very much loved.”
Sean got to see his son become successful and was very proud?
“He was proud, but he would not have thrown bouquets around, easily,” Paul says. Both teachers, Sean taught in the South and Mollie taught in the North. “We lived right on the border.” That experience, he says with a laugh, “was interesting. You are basically sharing two cultures. When you are over on this side of the bridge you get the whole British radio and TV stuff coming and when you go over the other side of the bridge you get Radio Eireann and all that stuff. I went to a primary school,” he says of Sion Mills Primary School, “which was mixed religion and mixed sex, one of the few in Northern Ireland, which left me terribly confused.”
And how is he now? “Oh, I’m fine!” he laughs. “But it was not the right preparation to go into a boarding school which was all male and Catholic. I had sat in classes from the age of four up to 11 with boys and girls, Catholics and Protestants, so I didn’t get all this segregation stuff.”
Was it true that his parents got a letter to say that their son wasn’t attending his lectures at UCD?
“No!” he laughs. “I got the letter! But they opened it! ‘We thought it might have been important!’” he says mimicking his parents’ reaction. “They were obviously shocked that I was living a double life in Dublin — pretending to go to lectures but not really! But they eventually became reconciled, when I was asked to join the Johnstons — this would have been in about June, 1967 — they were a nationally famous group at the time.”
When young Brady finished up with The Johnstons in the early 1970s, he joined folk super-group Planxty until they wound up in 1974. Two years later, himself and Andy Irvine from Planxty released a joint album and in 1978, Paul’s first solo album Welcome Here Kind Stranger came out. “I was totally in love with traditional music and song throughout most of the 1970s. I enjoyed very much my time.”
What kind of man was Paul Brady back then? “I was probably fairly irresponsible and enjoying being so!” he smiles. “I was discovering my own capacity for different types of music. I was surprising myself with how quickly I could become fluent in any particular music I approached. It was almost like discovering you were bilingual. That was a bit of a thrill. Of course by the end of the 1970s, I got married and had children and you know the mortgage and all that — so I had to wise up.”
He doesn’t agree with the late Cyril Connolly’s theory that, there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.
If anything, the prams in the hall (Paul has two grown-up kids, both in their late thirties and both living abroad, Colm in New Zealand and Sarah in England) and the marriage to Mary, have emboldened his creativity.
“Actually, the whole business of being in a relationship, an adult relationship, was very good for my creativity because it rubbed me all kinds of different ways and all kinds of feelings came out, feelings that I decided I wanted to write about. I suppose that was the first impetus for me to finally say, ‘Look, I want to try and write songs and get back to the music I was into before the whole trad 1970s era.’ So I would say the whole marriage thing started to make a man out of me.”
Before that Paul Brady was very much a boy? “I would say so.”
How would his wife have described the boy she met back then? “Well!” he laughs, “she fell in love with him. So she can’t complain too much!”
He and Mary, whom he met in 1973 (their kids Sarah and Colm arrived in 1977 and 1979 respectively) have been married, he says with a smile, “40 years this year.”
Does she think all the love songs are written for her? Before he can answer, I ask him are all the love songs written for her. “Probably — yeah!”
His wife’s 40-something years love of him notwithstanding, Bob Dylan, and many other stars, have a long-standing love of Paul and his music too. On his 1985 box set, Biograph, Dylan had nothing but the highest of praise for Brady — whom he said, along with Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed, “wasn’t witch-doctoring up the planet.”
“He obviously liked the music I made,” Paul says. “And I suppose on one level because I wasn’t all over the media all the time shouting my head off, he considered me someone who was more interested in music than in getting noticed. I’ve always liked to sort of sneak through,” he adds, “without being noticed.”
In truth, Paul Brady has done more than sneak through. That said, Paul’s success has, he says, “never sat easy with me, because once you get a lot of attention you have to justify it. I am very proud of the music I make. Whether they have appealed to people broadly or not, I feel I have made good records.”
Asked what was going through his head when he wrote the very good, maybe even classic, Hard Station album in 1981, he says “those were the first songs I wrote basically. Hard Station was a result of me trying to figure out whether or not I could be a songwriter. I was very interested in Gerry Rafferty’s work at the time,” he says of the Scottish singer-songwriter.
Is it true Paul retired to a flat in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square for two weeks to de-construct Rafferty’s Baker Street song?
“Yeah. I figured it out and thought, ‘Well, that is not all that hard!’” Brady laughs. “Once I had broken that down and figured out what it was, I felt confident that I could make my own stuff.” And if the answer was that he couldn’t be a songwriter, what would Paul Brady be doing now? “I don’t think like that,” he smiles. “I always knew I could do it. I just needed to focus on it.”
Does he ever have moments of doubt about his work? “No, not about my work. But I am fundamentally doubtful that anyone gives a shit. I’m still an acquired taste. . .”
Paul Brady plays Vicar Street on May 15 and 17th.
Windmill Lane Sessions: The creative wisdom of the Young Folk