Interview by Barry Egan
As a singer-songwriter, said Bjork, what I do is write about how the human feels. That’s precisely what Paul McDonnell does, too. He has a beautiful voice as will become obvious as you listen to him sing his version of Alison Moyet’s All Cried Out. “You took a whole lot of loving/For a handful of nothing,” sings Paul with an unadorned emotive power.
Paul sang with De Dannan; he had his voice described as “wonderful” by Eddi Reader of Fairground Attraction.
Paul, who started singing at 11 in Irish as a lead singer for a school group — which won the All Ireland Slogadh Competition in Tralee that year — started to listen to Simon & Garfunkel and Don McLean albums from his big brother when he was 15. He would close his eyes in his bedroom that overlooked Croke Park and get lost in the undiluted escapism of the lyrics.
“At 15, I was trying to find my feet at whatever I was in life. I couldn’t kick a ball. I grew up beside Croke Park and never cared for it a jot. It just wasn’t for me. When I was 16, I wanted to be an international sportsman in rowing. That faded with the realisation that I wasn’t good enough. And then I went into college and did science. I did other work.” This was until he slowly but surely drifted back into music.
He says that you can’t do something in life because it is easy. You have to do something because it is “your truth. It sounds philosophical, but I had to be honest with myself. The nicest compliment you can get is that you wrote something that really made people think, challenged their own thinking. That is the challenge I have as a writer.”
Asked what lyrics is he most proud of, Paul brings up Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly (Bauby was left physically paralyzed locked-in syndrome, but by blinking his left eye-lid he was eventually, through a long drawn out process, able to write a book).
“There was a part in the book where when he was still healthy. He went to Lourdes with his girlfriend and fell out with her. He didn’t apologise. He said, ‘Don’t read into the silence.’ I thought what does that mean? He was being quiet on that trip. It was like, ‘Just because I’m being quiet doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. It just means I’m being quiet. That’s what my song Josephine is about. I wrote a song recently called I’m Not Ready. I find relationships sometimes very difficult.”
Is he in one now? “No. No. I struggle with that.”
Why does he struggle? “I think it is not having huge faith in your ability to be what other people are,” Paul answers, “a father, a husband. I guess when you chase the dream of art, other things can fall by the wayside.”
Is that why that song meant something to him because there were perhaps girlfriends he should have apologised to to keep the relationship?
“Maybe. You have always regrets. I’m Not Ready is about running away.”
What is he frightened of?
“Boredom. From the outside a lot of relationships can seem like they’re put in place for logical reasons rather than romantic reasons. That’s the compromise I couldn’t make.”
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