With Luke Kelly badgering me, I had to write grown-up songs
Phil Coulter hardly needs any introduction. With songs such as 'Puppet On A String' and 'Congratulations', along with deeply affecting ballads including 'The Town I Loved So Well' and 'Scorn Not His Simplicity', he is embedded in Ireland's national culture, as well as in the international pop songwriting community.
By his own admission he runs on parallel tracks. He can toss off a cheese-puff song for the Bay City Rollers at the same time as producing records for the likes of Planxty, The Dubliners and Sinead O'Connor. He's a hack and an artist. But one thing I never expected him to be was cool.
Phil is mannerly and polite, with an air of professionalism around him like a domed force field. That's why I had always thought of him as a bit stuffy before I met him, but behind that professional front is an irreverent and intelligent artist.
It's easy to forget that he was a man in the thick of London in the Swinging Sixties, when he supplemented his income by playing piano with Van Morrison, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Rolling Stones and wrote songs for a publishing company that went on to sell millions of copies.
Today, we're meeting at the Barracuda restaurant on Bray's seafront, a long way from the vibrancy of the English capital back then. We're in a window seat facing the beach, beautiful and desolate, the sky grey, the waves falling over each other to break messily at the feet of a lone walker.
Phil is impeccably dressed – blazer, shirt and tie (with a jaunty duckling motif) and a camel coat. He's friendly and at ease and, tellingly, interested in other people's lives. He wants to know how the picture desk works, what a day in the life of a photographer or editor is like. When the photographer arrives, he asks him where he's off to next, how his schedule is shaping up.
We order lunch – both of us go for the fish. It would be a shame not to, considering we're 20 feet from the sea. We're here to talk about his latest Irish tour. For the past few years, Phil has been accompanied by a 'special guest', his wife Geraldine Brannigan, who sang the Coulter-penned song 'Toi' at the 1975 Eurovision.
What about the old rock 'n' roll rule of no WAGs on tour? "You've got to park the domestics, for sure," he says. "That's the nice thing about being at this stage in our career and in our lives. De La Rochefoucauld said domesticity is the enemy of creativity. I understand what he's saying. It's a challenge to do both, but it can be done. It's too easy to blame the business if your marriage breaks up. It's too easy to say the music industry creates assholes. Those guys would have been assholes no matter what they did."
The force field retracts a little to give a glimpse of the real Phil, a no-nonsense sort of guy with little tolerance for fools or time wasters.
Phil grew up in Derry in the 1940s and 1950s in a house full of music. "Whenever a party happened, it happened in the Coulters' because we had a piano and it was a point of pride that everyone had a party piece.
"If you couldn't sing or play you had to recite a poem. It was a family thing, a bit of pride, don't let the side down."
That same pride is in his voice when he talks about how much Derry has changed.
"I think the critical thing is Derry is a very different place now," he says. "Two major things which changed Derry are Cameron's apology for Bloody Sunday – that Bloody Sunday was unforgivable, as if your whole family had been raped and murdered and then the whole shimmying to cast the blame on Derry people; but that apology drew a line under what for us was unfinished business. That was a wound that was still seeping.
"The other accolade was winning this City of Culture. That 'Sons and Daughters' concert that kicked it off was very emotional for me. I was the oldest one on the stage and was thinking of people who were dead and gone and who would never have thought this was possible."
None of Phil and Geraldine's children has gone into the music business. "People say, oh, that's a shame, but I say it's a relief. Sure, if I was in Carnegie Hall and one of my sons or girls was playing drums or guitars, it might be nice for me, but I don't know if it would be for them. It has to be tricky enough being the children of even a half-assed celebrity because when people meet you for the first time there's some kind of assumption."
Phil has worked with many of the greats, including The Dubliners and Luke Kelly, who sang Phil's most personal songs.
"It's still one of the most enjoyable memories I have in a recording studio," he says. "They were just unique. My toughest job with The Dubliners was getting them into a recording studio at 10am – especially when you had Ronnie Drew, God rest his soul, saying, 'The first pint of the day, the morning pint, is the most important'.
"I'd say, 'We need to rehearse these songs before we go into the studio', and Ronnie would raise his eyebrows and say, 'Rehearse? We rehearse on stage'. They were five massive characters, larger than life, and Luke Kelly in the middle of them all was particularly significant and a big influence on me."
Phil credits Kelly with having encouraged him to start writing 'grown-up' songs about grown-up issues and complex feelings, which led to him writing his best-known songs, 'The Town I Loved So Well' and 'Scorn Not His Simplicity'.
"He was nagging me all the time as a songwriter to write songs that were not like 'Puppet On A String' or 'Congratulations'. When my first son was born with Down Syndrome, as part of the coming to terms with all that I wrote 'Scorn Not His Simplicity'. Without Kelly badgering me all the time and having him there in the studio ready to sing the song, I might never have written it. It's not the kind of song you'd be inspired to write while you're working with the Bay City Rollers."
He laughs, and allows a glimmer of his northern wit to shine through.
"That's one of the great therapies of being a songwriter, you can get that stuff out of your system. When tragedies befall you, songs can work as an aid to finding a place in your heart where you can lock them away. Another example where a song came out of something was when my youngest sister and older brother were both drowned in Lough Swilly within a year of each other. I wrote a lament."
Apart from Kelly, Sinéad O'Connor is one of the few voices Phil hears in his head when he's writing songs.
"I have great respect for Sinéad O'Connor," he says. "When people ask me about her, I always say people forget why she became famous in the first place, and that was her voice. My experience with Sinéad O'Connor was sublime, there was never a cross word.
'Of all the artists I've worked with, I put her top of division one. I've had more problems with rhythm guitar players in rock bands who can't tune their instruments than with any substantial talent.
"My summation of Van Morrison was to do with his talent, his ability to conjure stuff out of thin air. It's never easy because he'd be demanding, and rightly so. He's not a guy that says, 'Oh, that's near enough'. The Dubliners would have been the complete opposite of what I was trying to achieve in the studio, but I learned a lot from them, too, that it's not rocket science. It's not the cure for cancer. You're supposed to enjoy this."
The restaurant has cleared, and we're verging into straggler time. "The thing about my music," says Phil, "is it's not fashionable, it's not stylish, it's not chart-orientated, so it's not a fad. People who are into my music are into my music."
He may not be fashionable, but after a couple of hours in his company there's no doubt about the fact that Phil Coulter is definitely cool.
Phil Coulter plays Dublin's Olympia Theatre on Friday, May 10, in aid of Lions Club suicide awareness and Pieta House. Tickets from Ticketmaster.ie.