The Beach Boy from Gweedore
'I'M pulling back on the idea," said Ciaran Brennan when I phoned to set up this interview. "Why?" I asked. "I'm afraid you'll go in too deep,"he replied.
This, believe me, was an unexpected response given that the night we met, after the recent Meteor Music Awards, at which Clannad got a Lifetime Achievement award, he gladly agreed it was time we did another interview - and even thanked me for the fact that a tale I told him during our last, in 1996, made him "go off drink for at least six months".
Yet, it was the subtext in that comment that really made me want to bring Ciaran's story up to date. You see, I'd heard a rumour that his liquid indulgences were largely responsible for Clannad's relative inactivity over thepast decade.
"That is not true," he now insists. It also transpires that his drinking wasn't the subject he was afraid I'd slap under the microscope. On the contrary, it was a subject he'd never discussed in public, but which those of us who work in the Irish music industry have known about for years.
Namely, it was the fight with their former manager Nicky Ryan that led to the latter managing Ciaran's younger sister Enya instead, and to Ryan and Brennan losing contact for years. Although, they did have a chat at a party in Enya's castle last Halloween - but that ended badly, as you will see.
Either way, Ciaran finally agreed to do this interview when I promised, "I will delve as deeply as you want", and he turned out to be as brave when it comes to probing into his own psyche as he is innovative when it comes to composing and arranging Clannad's music. Which is defined, to a great degree by those beautiful Beach Boys-like harmonies that echo all the way back to the days of his adolescence in Gweedore, County Donegal. However, Brennan who was born in 1954, the eldest son among nine children, started studying music as a child.
"I had piano lessons from the nuns at the age of seven, though my mother also taught us the rudiments of music because she was a music teacher," Ciaran recalls, sitting in my kitchen, sipping tea.
"And my father had a showband from the Fifties, so music was in our blood. He even had sheet music of songs from the Twenties onwards - they'd be lying around the house and I'd sit at the piano and try to figure out the chords. We were only taught classical music, which, at that point, I didn't like because the nun hit me on the knuckles if I played anything wrong! So I didn't get as far, in terms of the Royal Irish Academy grades, as Moya and Enya."
Not only that. Brennan's daddy also insisted he learn to play the accordion, which he didn't particularly like either. But like a good boy, he did as he was told, ending up in his father's showband. He even won a few medals for playing. Yet, musical delight didn't really enter the equation until he started playing drums, bass, guitar and discovered the Beatles and Beach Boys. All of which led to Ciaran creating his first compositions during his early teens and to one memory he delights in.
"I started to compose when the girls would be standing round the piano and we didn't even have a tape recorder. I'd give them two-part harmonies and say, 'You go into the kitchen, you go into the bathroom' and they were fascinated by this because musically it was very melodic, even though they wouldn't finally hear their parts until they sang together. That was when Moya and Enya were just wee girls.
"Then, when my father did get a reel-to-reel recorder, myself and my brother Pol would listen to Pick of the Pops every Sunday and wait for the Beach Boys to come on so we could tape it and I loved their harmonies. I'd even try to emulate the Beach Boys sound by playing all the instruments - and I'll never forget saying to everyone, 'Listen to this, I'm a one man band!'"
Sweet memories, indeed. And here one realises just how right the name Clannad - derived from the Gaelic word for 'family' - is for the band. But even though that band would eventually be formed by Ciaran, Moya, Pol plus their uncles Padraig and Noel Duggan, they actually started out performing in the now legendary Leo's Tavern, a local pub Ciaran's father boughtin 1968.
How their music itself evolved also highlights Ciaran's seminal influence on Clannad. At first,they sang mostly folk songs such as, fittingly enough, Brennanon the Moor but would also break into songs by the Beatles or Stones - which, says Ciaran, didn't particularly please American tourists who felt they could hear that stuff any day.
So Ciaran decided that they should sing songs from their own area for the tourists, and now muses: "So I agree when Moya says the first six Clannad albums captured the fact that we'd gone round loads of local houses with the bottle of Guinness, a cup of tea and Radio Na Gaeltachta, picking up hundreds of Gaelic songs!"
More to the point, when it comes to the soul of Clannad's music, he adds: "When you arrange 50, 60 of those songs something from the soil, your race, people and history seeps into you." Even so, Ciaran didn't "finally commit to being in a band" until one night when he himself almost became history.
"I was 18 or so, living in Dublin and I really wanted to study music at Trinity but because I'd been out playing drums with my father's band until three or four in the morning and not studying I got only two honours in the Leaving," he recalls.
"Then, 10 days before the Matriculation, I ended up in terrible pain for three days and everyone thought it was because I'd been drinking too much wine. But a friend of Moya's came to the flat, dialled 999 and later I discovered it was my appendix and if we'd waited even a half hour longer I'd have been dead. So, I said 'this is fate', flung my books out the window and decided 'like my father, I'm going to play music.' Then I came home, with my tail between my legs and really got into jazz.
"Then a great thing happened. A professor of music, Cathal O'Callaghan, was helping my mother do work for an RTE choir and he agreed to take us all for classical music classes; gave us a crash course in counterpoint, everything. That's what led directlyto Clannad."
Ciaran and his siblings also studied voice training with James McCafferty, who taught Phil Coulter, Fergal Sharkey, and Dana. In 1973, Clannad released their first album. Yet, their success story didn't really start until two years later when they did one "pretty phenomenal" tour of Germany.
So, for Ciaran, did the excesses. Stereotypical sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. And if you think the following doesn't apply, in varying degrees, to every major Irish rock and pop act, you're only kidding yourself. Take, say, the subject of women. Ciaran had fallen in love for the first time in 1969 with an American girl named Denise and that lasted until he married Linda Hennessey in 1983 - a woman he accurately describes as his "soulmate" and we'll talk about that later - but he still had sex with "all the groupies" during those early touring days with Clannad.
"Denise lived in America - and though I went to visit her in 1972, and we even lived together here in Dublin for a while, and I was genuinely emotionally attached to her until I met Linda, I did have my share of groupies," he says. "Those early years touring were good for the ego because it was great to be on stage and realise that you were making such an impression on all those women in the audience! We all had groupies after us so I went for it and that was a great time, overall, for Clannad."
Great got even greater in 1982, when Clannad had their first hit Theme from Harry's Game. This brings us to the subject of drugs. Specifically, to start with, dope. Back in 1996, I joked to Ciaran that many fans of Clannad say their music sounds best when you're stoned, and many fans believe he and Pol must have been "out-of-it" writing the music! "Many's the time for want of inspiration!" he replied, citing the case of Harry's Game! Now he elaborates on that tale.
"We were under pressure to come up with that in a day or two, so it was Pol's suggestion, 'Forget about going to the pub for six hours because we won't be able to compose, sing or play anything'. So we started puffing away, and a few hours later we had Harry's Game! But if someone reading this goes, 'So that's what they do all the time,' no way. I was under the influence of drink and drugs many times, tried to make music, listened back and realised it was shite. Yet there is an extra percentage you may go, that you'd never dream of going, without drugs."
Does Ciaran, as with many musicians, feel the same is trueof cocaine?
"No, it never was an aid to creativity for me," he responds, categorically. "I have used it in the past, say, when we were mixing an album and I hadn't been to bed for days. But, overall, coke scared the shit out of me because it is bad for your heart and can give you a total seizure and I'm lucky it never took hold of me. You do get a fantastic sensation from it but that's exactly why it's so dangerous."
Sadly, alcohol did take a hold of Ciaran. So much so that unknown to me, a year before our last interview - and this explains why my story hit him so hard - he was told "give up the top shelf stuff" or he would die.
"Vodka was my drink, and before that, when I was drinking gin, I'd have 10 large ones then wash it down with beer," he admits. "But a fantastic doctor, Paddy Leahy, came to Woodtown Manor, where Moya, Pol and I did stuff for albums like Anam and sometimes I was too hungover to even move and he'd read the riot act to me and said, 'Stop taking that top-shelf stuff like vodka, or it will be all over for you' which also scared the shit out of me. So I did. Yet there still was a lot of imbibing."
Indeed. So, what story had I told Ciaran? About how one evening in 1978 I called to my family home, flicked open the letter box and saw the dead body of my father at the foot of the stairs where he'd fallen as a result of his addiction to vodka, tranquillisers and speed. He was 50 at the time.
"That image wouldn't leave my mind and you were so frank about it and I thought 'Jesus, what if that happened to me?'" Ciaran explains. "So after all Clannad's contracts ran out in 1996 we took a break from everything. Including [for me] the drinking on the road. I said, 'I'm taking at least five years off' and did, to sort myself out, live in the country, get away from it all. In the meantime, we all did various projects but it wasn't until last year we said, 'This is the way we should move forward'. So now in the our dressing rooms at gigs there's nothing but water. But it just isn't true what you heard, that my drinking kept Clannad inactive, or whatever."
Tellingly, Ciaran's mood darkens when he starts talking about Enya after I ask if there is any chance she might come back on board for, say, a track on Clannad's next album.
"Well, for one thing, Enya wasn't a member of the band, she was a hired hand - even though she did play keyboards and singing backgrounds vocals and doing one or two songs with Moya," he says. "But she was 18, 19 and we were paying her £500 Stg a week and she wanted to be cut in as a sixth member and I said 'We've enough mouths to feed.' So, she went off.
"Yet at that stage I'd had enough of Nicky Ryan. I thought he was very crude when he came into the dressing-room one night aftera gig and gave out to Moya, saying she was out of tune, or whatever, after an audience had given us three encores. It was F and B and everything."
Surely, Ciaran was inclined at that point to give Nicky a punch?
"Because he was talking like that to my family I had to stand up (to that) and that's where that split was. But then, last year at a Halloween party in Enya's castle, we got talking about bygone days, no hard feelings, and he was describing his studio that cost him something like 15 million. He said, 'If you want to see it some day just give me a call.' I said, 'Why would I want to see it! I'd like to hear it, and the way I'd like to hear it is if I did a track with Enya' and he said, 'That's not ever going to happen.' So I said, 'F**k off, happy Halloween, see ya' and walked out."
This clearly is a long, sadway from those days when Ciaran gave "wee" Enya that vocal harmony line at home. Brennan also has one other major regret inlife, "though it's less now then when we were younger" and this is the fact that Linda and himself couldn't have children even though they "tried every treatment and failed" - which itself, hesays, "would drive anyone to drink".
Nevertheless, he describes Linda as not only his soulmate but also his "rock" and says, "she looks after everything I do, business wise." Incidentally, Ciaran also laughingly agrees when I joke that Linda has her hands full dealing with her husband!
"She does, yeah!" he says. "But right now Linda is really happy I'm back making music with Clannad again, touring and so on."
In that sense, Ciaran himself also "couldn't be happier" than he is right now. As for his drinking, well, despite the fact that "not one doctor agrees with this" and all say he is "deluding" himself to think so, Ciaran Brennan insists that alcohol still helps him create music and that, as music is so central to his life, he's unlikely to give up alcohol completely.
"On many occasions it has helped, certainly I remember composing the Theme for Lady Marion one night when I was plastered!" he explains.
"I'd even say 35-40 per cent of the music I've written was helped by alcohol. Definitely the music, but not as often, the words because you are incoherent when you're drunk. But out of that mess, you can later find something to use. Yet, I don't touch the top shelf stuff anymore, just wine and a few pints.
"And it definitely is true to say that one reason I always was reluctant to stop drinking completely is that I was afraid I'd stop creating 40 per cent of the music. So it is a vicious circle, isn't it?"
It is, indeed, Ciaran. But just make sure to be careful descending stairs.
"I will, Joe, don't worry!"
© Joe Jackson
Clannad play at Dublin's Olympia Theatre on March 16