Singer Paul Brady tells Joe Jackson how, though he can still look like he's ready to erupt on stage, his wife has helped him put the emotional whirlpool of his lif...
Singer Paul Brady tells Joe Jackson how, though he can still look like he's ready to erupt on stage, his wife has helped him put the emotional whirlpool of his life behind him and he is contemplating the nature of happiness
PAUL Brady should wear a T-shirt bearing these words: "Don't stand too close." Or maybe: "I'll tear you to pieces if you cross me." Not just because these are seminal lines from his song, Nothing but the Same Old Story, but they "probably" are the "truest lines" he ever wrote in relation to his own psychology. At least, that's what Paul told me last time we talked, four years ago. Brady also revealed that at the end of one tour his band did actually get him a T-shirt and on the front it said, "Angry Man"; on the back, "And Rage".
More intriguingly, Brady suggested that his anger was "existential, not well focused or understood". So this time I decided to focus on this facet of the man, try to find out why, say, he still can sometimes look like he's ready to erupt on stage. So, tongue-in-cheek, I had to kick off by asking: Yo, Paul what is your problem?
"I never saw myself as full of rage but others may have seen me that way," he responds, laughing. "But as you get older you mellow, and a lot of it, in my case, has to do with trying to come to terms with how I relate to the world. That's always been a 'problem' in my life. Not knowing where I belong. Even in terms of the music business. Or where I feel most at home."
This feeling is understandable, in one sense. Brady was born in Strabane in 1947, to a mother from the South and a father from the North, but never had any sense of belonging to that town.
"My parents were teachers, so when they got married they had to, at first, live in a border town so he could teach in the Republic and she could teach in the North," he explains. "But then they got jobs in Strabane. Yet we were blow-ins. So that militated against me having any sense of belonging. Another thing was that I didn't go to school in Strabane. My mother taught in a school three miles south of the town and I went to her school. So I didn't really grow up with Strabane boys. When it came to, say, the local gang, you had the leader, the bully and the runt of the litter and I always felt closer to the bottom of the pack. So I did feel isolated. And that feeling persisted right up until I finally left Strabane and came down here to study at UCD."
Even so, Brady's feeling of isolation didn't cease at that point. Partly through his own fault. He now admits that he went through his late teens and early 20s "in an emotional daze" and "didn't really open any doors at all". Paul certainly felt disliked by those Dubliners who had a problem with the fact that he "came from the North, had a scholarship and seemed to be privileged". But one day he began to "get a handle on" life in the city after seeing a poster for a Blues Extravaganza in the Crystal Ballroom.
"At the time I was listening to Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, people like that," he recalls. "And back in Strabane I was seen as someone who could sing and play. So I brought my electric guitar to Dublin. But I'd never played with a band. So after that gig I went up to Brendan Bonass, who played lead with The Inmates, and bold as brass, said, 'I'm a great guitar player and I want to get into a band!' And, to cut a long story short, soon joined The Inmates."
And, to cut a long story even shorter, Paul did get a sense of belonging the first day he played with that band. In other words, this was the beginning of the end for his academic career, because even though Brady remained in college for three years he only stayed the required one hour during his final exams. "And that was my coming-of-age as I took a stand for what I wanted to do in life, not what my parents wanted."
However, the fact that Paul had begun to play in one of Ireland's most famous folk groups, The Johnsons, did ease his parents' pain. But did fame bring groupies?
"I was never in the front ranks of bird-pullers, I was the one who'd play the guitar and look moody," he says, agreeing that this must have had its appeal to some women. "But I hadn't the wit to capitalise on it! Yet, seriously, I never was the kind of fella who'd want 10 girlfriends, I'd be happy with one. And I did have a steady girlfriend for my first year in Dublin."
THIS must have eased Paul's sense of isolation? "Yeah, except for the fact that her family thought I wasn't good enough for her," he says. "Maybe I wasn't 'macho' enough. I'd go to the house and be ribbed by her parents and she'd say, 'Don't mind them,' but it did get to me. Even though, at the time, as I say, I was in a cocoon, not dealing with my emotions, keeping everything at bay."
And that's how Paul Brady remained throughout his time with The Johnsons. "A follower not a leader, someone who seemed unable to step out of the background, content to be led by Mick Moloney, the dominant figure in the group." Yet gradually Paul did feel the need to step out of the shadows. Particularly when he began to be recognised as a solo artist after joining Planxty in 1974. "I was 28 before I had a strong sense of myself."
But was this sense influenced by the fact that Brady had met his future wife in 1973 and fallen in love? "Probably," he says. "Before that, love was an idealised state rather than something I experienced first-hand. And one woman I'd been with, I met years later, and she said, 'What was wrong with you in those days, with that wall around yourself?' I think I had a fear of women at the time, a fear of beauty, a feeling, 'I'm not worthy of their beauty.' And that's something I address in my song, Beautiful World: how do you deal with the awesome power of beauty?"
At this point I am beginning to suspect that the young Brady had more hang-ups than a rack of coat hangers! Yet, happily, Paul shook off his feeling of being intimidated by beauty when he realised "beautiful women don't necessarily need to be with beautiful men" and often are "more interested in men who have different attributes". Such as? Well, the power of a solo performer.
"When I finally stood out on my own on stage I knew I was experiencing fierce interest from women," he says. "But it didn't add up for me, according to how I'd felt about myself in the past. Yet then I discovered the alter ego a performer finds on stage, the beast that comes through, the strength that comes from some other world. That's something that still attracts me to performing because it does elevate you out of your ordinaryexistence.
"If fact, if I do sometimes look like I'm going to erupt on stage that's usually because I'm terrified I'll lose contact with this power. As has happened. And you just want to fall into a crack in the floor. But even when I am connected to that energy it's not something that truly seeps into my soul. It still doesn't add up for me."
Such tensions also must make less than complete sense to Paul's family. Indeed, the last time we talked he admitted you can chart the arc of his marriage including, at one point, its near breakdown in songs from his first album to the latest. And acknowledged that many songs are "not beautiful" but "angst-ridden and angry". So much so that his wife refused to listen to certain songs, feeling if her husband was that unhappy it must somehow be her fault. But she's obviously since learned that this need not be the case at all.
"The presence of my wife in my life has been very grounding and very reassuring," he responds. "But for a long time my own volatility would have been scary for my family. And it is only when I got more content with what I was relatively speaking and learned how to deal with my own emotions, fears and feelings, that the strength within my wife became more apparent. I was this emotional whirlpool that careered around for years, being very frightened but also feeling an obligation to my talent, my art. Even though, at the same time, I was terrified of the world in which I had to exercise that talent. The music industry. And that was scary for anyone near the whirlpool. But my wife learned to protect herself from that and say to me, 'Look, I know what you're feeling but I can't handle that now because I have my own world, needs and feelings to deal with.' And the more she grows, the more she is taking that space for herself. Because, my wife as women can do did tend to shoulder the angst of the man and felt it was her responsibility to make it all better. It's the mother thing, I guess.
"But there came a point where it was, 'OK, Paul, I hear you, but I have my own life.' That happened in the last five years. And that's one of the reasons we survived. And one of the best things that happened to our relationship, overall."
Surely this doesn't mean that for the bulk of the first 24 years of his marriage Paul was a swirling whirlpool?
"I'm not sure it didn't cause problems for my children," says Paul, reflectively, referring to his son Colm, 24, and daughter, Sarah, 23, both of whom have now left home. "I certainly would have been more self-absorbed than is ideal in terms of being a parent."
So, simple as it may sound, is Paul Brady happy at the age of 55? Does he now accept, 'I am loved, I am loving,' after all those years of keeping his emotions at bay?
"I didn't know if I've arrived there yet" he says, smiling. "Sorry! Because I really can't answer that question. I'm still not sure who I am, why I am the way I am or what I'm supposed to be doing in this world. And I don't think I understand the concept of happiness. As long as I'm trying to deal with being a performer in the public eye I think I'm always going to be riven by tensions.
"But I do have this idea that maybe, in 10 years' time, when I stop all this, I'll find a whole new other way to live and that will bring contentment."
Paul Brady's new album, 'The Paul Brady Songbook', is now on sale