Inner View: Phil Coulter, The Hits Keep Coming
By John O’Brien, Jr.
I’ve always had a passion for Irish music, and I suppose my commercial success meant that I could indulge myself by working with some of the very best exponents.
While teenybopper music was good for my bank balance,
Irish music was good for my soul!
– Phil Coulter
You are coming to Cleveland on July 24th at the Westside Irish American Club. How did that come about?
This is strictly a one-off. I’m not on tour. It came about purely and simply for two reasons. #1: my friendship with John and Alec of The New Barleycorn, who like the rest of us, have had the wagons parked up for such a long time, no gigs, and I thought, well, if I’m going to be in Cleveland, wouldn’t it make sense to get the guys on stage, and have a little bit of a get together. #2: What really had me in that part of the world at all, is my son Ryan, who just signed at the start of this season as the goalkeeper coach with Cincinnati FC.
His story is about as different from that of his father, as you can imagine. I mean, you can’t get much further away from being a piano player to being a goalkeeper. He went on a soccer scholarship to the United States, and really took to that.
He really enjoyed the high level of college soccer, and he exceled; he was team captain for three years, broke records, and then came back to Ireland. Played pro for a couple of years, but there was something in the back of his mind; he always was comparing the possibilities of soccer in America.
So he went back, got his green card, and has spent the last word four years as a pro, with Madison, WI., then with Rio Grande Valley, then Houston Dynamo and now with Cincinnati FC. So it’s been quite a journey for him.
It’s a great adventure, and as far away from music as possible. We have six kids, Geraldine and I. Geraldine was a noted performer before I ever was, so the question when we meet people, and we’ve got six kids is – how many of them are in the music business? When we say none, they say wow, that’s a shame. My answer is always the same: no, that’s a relief!
To be honest John, I am very thankful to God that none of my kids at the age of 18 came to me and said dad I want to be a singer songwriter. I would’ve thought, oh Jesus, what have I done wrong? They do all sorts of things; Daragh, the eldest brother, is actually a sea captain in New Zealand. When he was 17, Billy Connolly, you know the famous Billy Connolly, the comedian?
Billy and I have been friends. Well, I was his record producer through the early days, and we stayed very close. He called me out of the blue and said, “Listen, my wife is writing a new book to retrace the journey of Robert Louis Stevenson from Europe to New Zealand, which is where her great grandfather came from. She’s bought this yacht. It’s gonna take a year to sail it from Florida through the Panama Canal, the Galapagos Islands. “I wonder if Daragh would like to crew?” Billy knew the kids, there was a kind of a two-beat silence, and then I said to Billy, ‘Billy, am I too old?
Well, the answer, the two-word answer, you can imagine, but one of the words was ‘off.’ So Dara spent nine months at that, and came back a completely different human being; it changed his life. He decided that experience of sailing through the Pacific etc., he wanted to spend his life [that way]. So, he went to the National Maritime College in Ireland, studied for three or four years there, and he’s been a mariner ever since.
Have you been to New Zealand yourself, or is that on the bucket list?
I’m old enough, John, to remember when travel was a luxury. I remember when you put on a good suit, a collar and tie, to get on a plane. I remember when my eldest brother, Joe, God rest his soul, when he was ordained in Rome. My parents, God love them, had saved, not for months, [but] for years, to take the five kids to Rome; it was the talk of the whole community, the Coulters are flying to Rome on Aer Lingus! Air travel has now become just a survival test, a necessity.
Daragh is in New Zealand; his twin sister is in Sydney. We are in common with so many Irish families, their kids are scattered around the world. So many Irish mothers are saying goodnight to their kids on Skype. Gerol and I have a pact that if we’re gonna fly down to Australia, to New Zealand, to visit the kids, we have to wait until we have enough juice in the tank to turn left when we get on the plane!
Hand Me Down My Bible; Ireland’s Call, My Boy (written for and recorded by Richard Harris, and a huge hit for Elvis Presley), Saturday Night (for the Bay City Rollers), Scorn Not His Simplicity, Donegal Danny, The Old Man, Steal Away, The Town I Loved So Well ….
I grew up listening to you, both on recording, and in a lot of your songs being sung by other people, at Cleveland Irish Cultural Festival, with Barleycorn, Paddy Reilly, Danny Doyle.
Woody Guthrie said that you write what you see. Has that held true for you?
I think you could probably divide it into two different schools of thought. I learned my trade as a pop songwriter, in Tin Pan Alley in London, from the mid 60s. I was just learning how to structure a three-minute pop song. If that is your function, you’re writing pop songs, you’re writing songs to try and get into the charts, it’s as simple as that. Anyone who tells you otherwise, I say they are a fool or a liar, because if you’re a pop songwriter, you’re trying to get hits. So, my training from all of those years would have been to to try and perfect the three-minute pop song.
We had a lot of a lot of success for the Eurovision Song Contest and the Bay City Rollers and Elvis Presley and God knows [who else], but fortunately I had a kind of parallel road, as writing songs that were not geared to the cash register. I was lucky that I had a passion for music, a passion for Irish music and for Irish folk music, much to the confusion and consternation of some of my associates!
I could be in the studio in the month of January with the Bay City Rollers and getting hits in America, like “Saturday Night.” It hit #1, and then the following month, I could be back in the same studio with The Dubliners. Some of that [crowd] thought that an indication of some kind of schedule schizophrenia, they couldn’t believe that this one guy could do the same job.
But for me, it was never a complication, Shangri La or Saturday Night [a Coulter hit for the Bay City Rollers] is a million miles away from Scorn Not His Simplicity sung by Luke Kelly. But you’re judging within their own contexts, you know Saturday Night is a three-minute pop song. Scorn Not His Simplicity … it was not the same urgency to sell records.
I have said many times that my commercial output was good for my bank balance, but my songs were good for my soul. I was in a in a blessed position, John, having a voice like say Luke Kelly of The Dubliners on hand to record songs, that were certainly by no definition commercial.
They afforded me the opportunity to be a bit more substance, you know? Luke Kelly used to call them grown up songs. He said, fairly soon, you’re gonna have to write some grown up songs.
By that he meant songs like Scorn Not His Simplicity, which, you know, addresses a pretty complex subject, or The Town I Loved So Well, or Free the People, and equally then moving from The Dubliners to the likes of The Fury Brothers or Liam Clancy. I was fortunate that in that idiom, in that circle, strong writing took a different direction.
I suppose that was always a passion, so you are very fortunate to be able to balance your work?
Yes. I think I was very fortunate, also, that I had learned my trade. I did three years as an apprentice songwriter in Tin Pan Alley, where every second Friday, with my then partner Bill Martin, we had to demo; we had to go into a little studio and demo six new songs, that is six completed songs: words, lyrics, music, and a little arrangement, for the young house four-piece band. So, that was six songs every second Friday. That concentrates your mind on the discipline of songwriting.
Most relevant was the following Monday. We would play those demos to our publisher, who was really an old-timer who had discovered a lot of big songs, a lot of big songwriters. He would analyze the songs; he would go through the songs one by one, bit by bit, tell us where we’re going wrong. It is often five out of those six songs ended up straight in the bin.
Yeah, it’s cruel, but it’s the reality of songwriting, as in a lot of other jobs. You know, you’re a paper man, you know what it is: discipline. Economy is the hardest thing to teach people, it is the hardest thing to learn.
When you are an aspiring songwriter, you want to prove how smart you are, how many chords you know, how clever you can be. Jimmy Phillips, who was my old publisher, on one of these Mondays when I produced a new song, I had fallen into whether it was very clever. He said Mr. Coulter, I know you’ve been to university, and you know a lot about music, and you know a lot of cords. You don’t have to prove it every time you sit down to write a pop song.
He called me over to the window in his office which overlooked Tin Pan Alley, on Denmark Street, and there was a traffic jam outside; there was a truck just sitting at the red light. [Jimmy] said, the truck driver, he’s the man you should be thinking about when you’re writing songs, not your university professor. The truck driver, he’s the man you want to impress.
Alec [De Gabriel] is a very accomplished musician, very adept guitar player, as is John Delaney. I’ve said this many times, that the combination of those two guys and the journey that brought them together has culminated; I firmly believe that they are the best two handers in Irish music.
How did you first connect with Alec and John?
I’ve been aware of the original Barleycorn, right? They had a hit in Ireland with one of my songs, called Donegal Danny. It was a big hit, so I was aware of the Barleycorn, and they had a few other hits.
I reconnected. We were doing one of our very early Tranquility Cruises, and I was putting together a nice balance of solo performers. I needed an act for evening time, after the theatrical stuff, and after dinner, so we could adjourn out to the to the deck, under the stars, have a drink, share a few songs, in a very relaxed and convivial kind of an atmosphere. They were tailor made for that, fueled by lots of cocktails in between the sets.
They were just perfect for that situation, perfect not only musically, but they’re so likable, great people skills. The cruisers love them, their personalities, they were mingling with the cruisers. They claimed that spot as their own.
It’s one of those classic things where the Barleycorn is greater than the sum of their parts; they have that spark between them; it’s telepathy, they make the whole thing look so easy. A few years ago, one of my musicians on the on the cruise, when he was doing his party piece, I said what are you going to do, something special? He said I’ll do Czardas, by Monti.
That’s a very difficult thing to play, but it’s equally difficult to accompany it. It goes through several keys, and it goes through all kinds of weird and wonderful chord changes. Did it bother Alec? Not a bit, because he had played it for his dad all those years ago [as a Fit-up troupe member].
His whole experience, his whole adventure so far, he has learned so much, and played so much different kinds of music. He’s got some bag of tricks. I love them. Their biggest fan is my son Ryan, who’s coming up to Cleveland on Sunday. They have a game on Saturday in Cincinnati.
Will you share stories about your time in London in 1960s?
A lot that happened in London in the 1960s! A lot of it I can’t remember. It was formative; I arrived in Denmark Street in ’64. In the 60s, London was the only place on the planet where you wanted to be.
London was swinging 60s, everything was, not only in music, but in fashion, in theater, in art generally, and people were coming in from the provinces, so the old regime in the music business of the old-fashioned variety was slowly being challenged.
The old fashioned [form of a] record was a singer, and a sixty-piece orchestra. All of a sudden, you’ve got The Beatles, and The Animals, and The Rolling Stones. All that is evolving musically.
So just to be part of that was exciting. Denmark Street was a center of music publishing industry. Every building housed a music publisher. Where you have music publishers, you’re going to get strong writers. Songwriters from the provinces, from Scotland, from Wales, from Ireland, from Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, descended on Denmark Street to be part of that brotherhood.
[Note: Phil was hired to work with so many well-known bands and performers, perhaps influencing that success when paired with the performers hard work. This included Billy Connolly, Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Man, Van Morrison. He produced work for the Furey Brothers, The Dubliners, Sinéad O’Connor and Boyzone, to name a few].
Phil continued: The funny thing is, there was no envy. It was like a rising tide floats all boats. There was that kind of a camaraderie, you’re there with very talented mates, and you’re training with them, and you’re hoping to make the big time.
It was to me, I think, looking back on fifty-one years in the music business, that that three- or four-year period was probably my favorite. We didn’t have an arsenal, we had nothing but hopes and dreams and talent, but we learned a lot of stuff in the 60s.
I learned how to drink then. I came straight from university, and Belfast. Belfast in the in the late 50s and early 60s was certainly not Sodom and Gomorrah, I can tell you that!
Do you consider the ballad boom and the Irish, not just The Troubles, but all the troubles with history being a big part of the ability to write songs, to put into song what you experience?
I think it’s always been a big source of inspiration for writers, and the fact that a lot of those historical events would have been chronicled in song, going back to the likes of Kevin Barry, go through the various battles, it’s always been a source of inspiration for songwriters. Alongside of that, there is the tradition of music and singing, it’s an oral tradition.
So, for me making transition from writing a pop song for the Bay City Rollers to writing ballads for the Fury Brothers or Liam Clancy, that was my calling, part of my DNA, I suppose. But here’s a strange thing, I’ve been motivated by political events.
I was in Derry on the weekend that internment was introduced. That was a trauma. The whole of our city; we’d been violated. There were guys who I had grown up with, who had been at primary school with me, who were then dragged out of bed at 4:00 o’clock in the morning for no other reason than they played Gaelic football or played Irish music or spoke Irish.
The British intelligence back then was non-existent, so they threw the net very wide, and dragged anybody that had been seen to be nationalist, republican, or wearing green. It was a very heavy-handed operation by the Brits. One of the most self-defeating of all of their clumsy handling of things in the north.
It was as a reaction to that introduction of internment that I wrote my first political song; really it was an anti-internment song, called Free the People. I wrote it within days of being in Derry. I knew that Luke Kelly, who was very a bit of a firebrand, very politically aware, I knew that he would be all over this song.
It wasn’t a great song, I have to confess, because it was a kind of knee-jerk reaction, but when I look back on the canon of my songs, Free the People is important for one very simple reason; that got my head into that whole space of writing songs that are inspired by, or motivated by, political goings on.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I decided that Free the People was [not a political song] a song that had to be written. It is about working in the north of Ireland, particularly Derry specifically, and I knew that Free the People was not that song; it was an anti-internment song.
The very fact that it was anti anything tells you that there was something lacking in the song. So, I knew that somebody had to write a song about Derry in that post internment here. I thought, well if anybody is going to write it, should be me, because I grew up here, I understand the niceties over the subtleties over the sensitivities. So that was probably the longest period, I think I wrote the melody in a couple of weeks, but the lyrics …
Be aware John, that we’re talking about a very highly charged atmosphere. I knew that what we didn’t need was another rebel song. I knew we needed something with a little more subtlety. I knew we needed something with an anti-violence song that castigated silence or violence, from whatever it came.
I had to very carefully in picking the words, because I knew that a few ill-chosen words could have just tipped it over to become another rebel song, which is not what I wanted. I had to choose the vocabulary very carefully. I probably took more time holding that song than any other. I knew it was trying to say something serious.
When writing a new song, are you writing for a specific person/band? Did you know you are trying to write a song for the Bay City Rollers at that time?
Very much so.
How did you team up with Bill Martin, who you called a slightly mad Scot!
Oh, I was being very kind; I think he was a fully mad Scot. I was working my first job as a kind of a musical office boy in a publisher’s office, and Bill was an aspiring songwriter. He hadn’t had any hits but, he was he was always in trying to push songs to the publisher.
He was probably the best salesman that I’ve ever encountered in all of my life. He kind of bamboozled me into a songwriting partnership, which sustained for fifteen, sixteen years. It worked well because his contribution, he wasn’t a great songwriter, musically wasn’t very adept, but he was a great man from the street.
Plus, there was not a door that he wouldn’t have gone through – when a new song was written, whatever it took to get that song to the singer that we wanted to, Bill was the man you sent out on that mission. He was a hard-nosed Glaswegian.
We often played kind of a good cop – bad cop routine with a record chief. We are going with pistols drawn. The guy would say, I’m not sure that this song is right for … So, Bill would throw a [temper] and storm right out. Then I’d say, Now, he doesn’t really mean that…
We were very effective. We turned out a lot a lot of hits, a lot of hits. We graduated from being strong writers into being record producers. We had our own label, and at one time we had staff of twenty-something people. Martin Coulter Group of Companies, which Bill loved; I mean he always wanted to be a tycoon.
I never really got much of a kick from walking into the office building and seeing the Martin Coulter Group of Companies [logo] on the building. I got a bigger charge from seeing one of my records on the charts.
You are a gifted at collaboration, at working with somebody to find the best thing for them, whether it be a song or just being a mentor to people.
It’s the whole idea of fit; for a bunch of years, I had an intern working in the office, and these are bright, young, the majority of them came from Derry, and that’s no coincidence, because they’d be talented guys would be just coming out of the university right, but who wanted to be in the music business.
My pitch to them was listen, I’ll tell you the difference between music as an academic subject and music as a means to earn a living. There is a big, big difference. In the early days, you’re going to be making the tea, you’re going to be doing copying, you’re going be delivering scones, you’re going to be taking a message, and you’re going to sit there. You’re going to listen, and you’re going to learn, and you’re going to ask questions when you want to know something.
You can’t go to college to learn how to become a songwriter; you can’t go to college to learn how to become a record producer; you can’t go to college to learn how to become a publisher; you learn that stuff by watching, listening, and just being around [the business].
I’ve been fortunate, I’ve brought along quite a few guys have good careers in the music business, and that’s always satisfying. [I would say], Right, the one thing clear here in this whole area: you’re obviously very talented kids, very bright, or you wouldn’t be at Boston College, but let me make one thing clear, God realized what your talent entitles you to. Your talent entitles you to nothing. Don’t congratulate yourself because you’re talented. It had nothing to do with you. You inherited that talent from your parents, as a gift from God.
Congratulate yourself, pat yourself on the back, when you do something with that. When you work at that, when you hold that talent, when you put in the long hours, when you do the woodshedding, when you taste, when you know, when you lock yourself away and learn and listen and work, because your talent doesn’t entitle you to anything. [It is] work ethic entirely.
Funny, somebody just mentioned that there’s a famous picture taken after a benefit concert that I did, one of our early tours with the orchestra in the Kennedy Center in Washington. It was a benefit for The Field, a company which was then Brian Friel and Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane and bunch of other show business boys.
We were at a post-show soirée, a house in Georgetown. There was Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, John Hume. We were all ex-St. Columb’s boys. That was the first time since we had left college that we were all in the same room.
We all agree that our careers have gone … I mean Seamus, he’s gone in a different direction from me, and John Hume … we all agreed on one thing you just mentioned, their work ethic. People laugh about Northern Irish and “pushy northerners” – I came across the term of endearment that they have for people from the north of Ireland, they call us pushy northern *******. I’ll argue that with anybody that there is a work ethic that is part of the northern DNA.
At the end of the day, there’s a reason for them being successful, there’s a reason why Ed Sheeran is playing to 80,000 people, with just himself and his guitar; there’s a reason for a startup that [spent] his time busking on the streets for years on end. He’s become a very adept, a very well-crafted songwriter. He’s just evolved, no bells and whistles, just this charm. I’m one of his biggest fans, I have to say.
I think that he didn’t just arrive overnight. There’s a reason they are successful, and part of the reason is not that they started off with the talent, but they are hard workers. They don’t sit around waiting for a break.
He seems to read his audience well, it’s more subtle, just small movements now.
Oh yeah very impressive.
You talk about Derry, what are some of the favorite memories or what do you feel that Derry formed in you?
I’ve often said, John, one of my first smart moves was being born in Derry, because Derry, it’s just a natural musical city. I was born 1942, the war was still raging in Europe, so things were tight. When you went to the store to buy something, things were very tight; the luxuries were non-existent. Even in those dark, dismal black and white kind of days, they were pretty bleak.
The one thing that kept the spirits up was music. In a lot of working-class families in Derry, including our own, the piano was more important than a three-piece suite. When there was any sort of celebration in our neighborhood, that happened in our house, in Coulters, because we had a piano.
It was a point of pride. There would be a gang of people. Everybody had to either sing a song, play a tune, or recite a poem, or do something.
Music was so much a part, the fiber of life. I grew up with that, I grew up with the sense that music, because of those nights that will happen in our house. I would be like just a nipper, maybe, but I’d hear from outside the door the music they played, and people enjoying themselves.
My father played the fiddle, my mother played the piano, often in different keys from the one my father was playing! It didn’t matter, because they were enjoying the whole exercise. More specifically, the people in that room were enjoying it.
So it was a very important lesson for me to learn at an early stage, that music is much more than just an academic subject, much more than something that you study at college, or that you sing at mass on Sunday, or once a year at the annual music festival.
It is something which can enrich your life.
That was very much a part of it, and it still is. Music is still a very important part of the whole lifeblood of Derry.
That was very formative. In my teenage years and in the 50s, Derry had the highest rate unemployment in the United Kingdom. Things were really tough; most men were on the dole. One of the ways that a Catholic could earn a few bob, even if you were on the dole, was playing in a band.
During the war years, there was a concentration of U.S. Navy and Air Force, the British Army, in Derry, because being there was strategically very important, geographically a very important location.
So, it meant that with all of these army camps, naval camps, Air Force camps, on weekends, there would be social events, there would always be people looking for a band to play for the dancers. So, a lot of guys in Derry had little three- or four-piece bands. They would pick up the few dollars on the weekend.
Then the whole phenomenon of the show band broke in the in the 50s. Ireland went dancing crazy, dances six days a week. This whole industry of show bands from Derry, this was meat and potatoes to Derry. There was a great pool of guys who played in brass bands, so there were trumpeters; there were tuba players, a lot of them, not very good, but it didn’t matter, at least they were able to get together.
I think maybe three bands would been Division One, but the rest would be pretty far down the totem pole. This was a way they could earn a living, even if they were on the dole. They couldn’t get a job because they were Catholics, but they could get a job playing trumpet in a show band. So there was a proliferation of showbands.
There was a time in Derry where you couldn’t have thrown a stone without hitting somebody that played on the show band, before stone throwing became the popular art form.There were show bad players everywhere, everywhere.
The story of the dance bands is coming back again. People are more aware of it now. They’ve been, certainly in my life, in the sense of knowing how big a part of Ireland that was?
Undoubtably, undoubtedly. When the whole dance thing died off; I’d offer it for a number of reasons. One of which was, in dance halls, there was no license. You just drank minerals; there was no alcohol.
Then along came discos. The clamor for the whole dance thing and the dance hall, which had which had sprung up all around the country, one after another became carpet warehouses.
It was sad, sad, and I’m sure at the time, it felt like it was overnight?
Oh yeah, especially in rural Ireland, because it did transform rural Ireland. The glamour of a big show band coming into town on a Friday night, and the dance club would be like a breeze block palace, built away in the middle of nowhere. For miles the cars were parked on either side of the road, tractors … it was showbiz, it was razzle-dazzle, it was glamour.
That era, certainly in terms of the social history of rural Ireland, was very important?
Oh yeah, that even predated the showband, the Fit-ups, when they traveled, just by doing a variety bit, a little bit of melodrama, a little bit of plays, a little bit of comedy, a few sketches; they were great. Alec’s stories are great; going into a new town, borrowing the chairs, and then tomorrow night, putting out posters in all the shop windows; he tells a great story.
Alec says that the dance halls, and then movies all contributed to the end of the Fit-ups era.
Oh for sure. Just as the discos killed off the dancehall, dance halls killed off the Fit-ups*.
How did the trouble, and The Troubles, impact you personally and professionally? Did they make you want to leave to go to London?
No, I can’t say that. No, that would be untruthful, and it would just be too easy of an answer. London was calling to me because I wanted to get professional song training; I wanted to be in the music business. I was actually in London before things got really … before the balloon really went up in in the north of Ireland, after Duke Street in the civil rights, etc.
I was already in London. I [had already] made my move at that stage. Of course, I kept an eye on things at home. I would watch what was going on. I felt for all of those … the destruction, and Bloody Sunday, for anybody from Derry, that was painful, that was a wound that never really healed for many, many years, right up until David Cameron made the public apology in in the House of Parliament, saying that that it was inexcusable; that had been unfinished business for a long time, that went very, very deep.
and the fact you would try to blame the thirteen people who were killed, which was a real insult, not only the shifting of the blame and the protecting of the paratrooper, but the fact that it was a real insult that they think, well they’re only Derry people, it doesn’t really matter. That really hurt, that really stung. That, that along with internment, would have been one of the bigger rallying cries, one of the big enlistment drives for the Provos; so many guys joined the IRA after that.
You have twenty-three Platinum discs, thirty-nine Gold discs, fifty-two Silver discs, two Grand Prix Eurovision Awards, five Igor Novello Awards, three American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Awards, a Grammy nomination, a Meteor Award, a National Entertainment Award AND a Rose d’Or d’Antibes, Do you have influencers you treasure?
Luke Kelly [was] a big a big influence, a big mentor, as well, because he was the one who was continually [trying to] persuade me to write songs that would go a little deeper than Puppet on a String or the Bay City Rollers. I learned a lot from him, and his collection of songs that he gathered, that whole world of folk music; what it took to write a good folk song.
When I look back, I worked alongside of some legendary figures. To be in the company of Henry Mancini. One of my treasured possessions is a book of Henry’s called Sounds and Scores, dedicated to me from Henry.
I was representing the United Kingdom at a song festival in Rio de Janeiro, and Henry Mancini was the chairman of the judges, alongside of Elmer Bernstein, all legendary figures. Henry presented me with the award for the best arrangement.
I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Even to be talking to Henry Mancini, to be staying in the same space as Henry Mancini, I thought, well, if God is gonna take me, now should be a good time.
James Galway, he’s still one of the leading flute players in the world, even after all these years. Richard Haris, one of the great performers, one of the great, larger than life, characters who toured America with Richard Harris, watched him onstage, watched him command an audience. Van Morrison – seeing him evolve from the back streets in Belfast and how he managed to parlay four chords on the guitar into the Van Morrison song.
To have toured with Van, to have played keyboards in Van Morrison, to have produced with Van in the studio; you learn from those kind of people; if you’re smart you learn from him. You watch and see what makes him different from anybody else.
To work with somebody like Sinead O’Connor and to know the fragility of somebody like that, and how precious and how fragile that kind of talent, that kind of personality, that kind of voice, how fragile it is.
There is a role that as a record producer, you have to be protective, you have to be almost father-like when you are producing somebody like that. That is part of that learning curve. It is part and parcel of that whole kaleidoscope, when you look back on fifty-five years of doing what I did.
You are in Spain now?
Yes, we acquired this place to get away from Irish winters or Irish summers, [which are] undistinguishable. It’s been a great … it’s been somewhere that I have used a lot to write. I wrote a good part of the whole Celtic Thunder project here. My memoir, Bruised, Never Broken, I wrote here. You know yourself, if you want to concentrate and write something of any kind of scope, we can’t do that sitting at the [office], when the phones going all the time.
Gotta go into that zone?
Yeah that’s exactly, that’s exactly my expression, just get into the zone.
What are the challenges for you right now?
Staying alive! The challenge for me is to do all the things that I haven’t already done yet. I just I clocked up eighty years in February. It was a great discovery. I was just saying that to Liam Neeson, [he turned] 70 last month. He was the last one to send me an e-mail, with ******** 70!!
The funny thing is that the older I get … I don’t feel any older, you know, I don’t feel any older. The challenge is to keep doing what I do. The challenge is to keep it going.
I keep looking for new challenges and new projects, new stuff to do, show that the brain doesn’t atrophy.
You don’t use it, it goes away?
No question, there’s no doubt about that. I was thinking about dementia, and how musicians who still play because of muscle memory, and that stimulation, that it’s a great kind of protection against such things. So I keep on playing.
What else is on the bucket list?
Well, I think I think I’d like to, I used to think that I’d love to do music alone and on Broadway, but no [not anymore]. Bill Martin and I wrote a musical, back in the 70s, but when I saw the high risk it is, and how the fatality rate is so high, that very few of them survive, I don’t think I’ve got either the time or the energy to devote three years to writing a musical which might bite the dust.
It is a big investment of time and energy. The highway of musicals is littered with the carcasses of never happens or one hit wonders. That’s a tough, tough game.
Is there anything that you haven’t done? Kind of a, What’s Next, for you?
I enjoy the different aspects of what I do. I’ve got a major gig with the Symphony Orchestra. I love conducting a symphony orchestra, playing big orchestral arrangements.
A few years ago, we did a couple of nights in Derry, when Derry was the City of Culture. I said, what’s not to like about doing a lap of honor in your hometown with the Symphony Orchestra? I enjoy that, I enjoy the one-man things.
In November we’re doing the National Concert Hall in Dublin. It is simply called, Phil Coulter at 80, a lifetime of songs, the stories, memories and melodies. I’ve put together a video clip of a lot of the past stuff, and just talk through them and show bits for those, so I look forward to them.
How do you cut it down to get into one show?
Good question! Well, I had a good experience with one of the most enjoyable projects [I’ve done]. It’s something which is a smaller scale; I did a run of six weeks of the one-man show in the Irish Repertory Theatre, off Broadway, and that was a great adventure, great adventure. It was a learning curve, Jesus, like getting up for that matinee show on a Wednesday afternoon **** me!
That was one or two shows on a Sunday. So, that was a serious jump in the deep end. I loved the challenge and I love the fact that you just had to be switched on, that the only night that you could actually go and have a late meal was Sunday night, because you had Monday off. You had a routine.
[One time I had] the day off so I’d gone down to collect my dry-cleaning right. So, I’m coming up 6th Avenue with dry cleaning over the shoulder and a Starbucks in my hand, and I caught a side view of myself in a shop window. I stopped, **** me, I’ve become a New Yorker!
I enjoyed that bit of an adventure. It just reminds you of the level of performance and sustaining the performance of Broadway; you gotta be on for every show, there’s no day off.
Inevitably these things always cycle; I think the initial [Celtic Thunder] concept was brilliant. I’m not patting myself on the back. To have five guys, five different characters, five different talents, five different ages, who all brought something completely new to the party; the idea of songs being written specifically to kind of define what the characters were; until we have a very loose kind of a thread of a story through it all.
To film it for PBS, with the full eighty-piece orchestra, whole nine yards, the big set, the front, the big budgets etc., to carry it on stage with strings, the big percussion section. For the first tour, I traveled for the first week or so, just as just refining it, playing keyboards like grand piano, and just conducting the thing to get it up and running.
I was looking at the first time I did it; it was such a big thing, and had such exposure, PBS … It’s just, it was a bit of a juggernaut, something to see.
The initial one was the exciting one, but then we sustained that for a few afterwards, but then it’s inevitable, what happens is, some of the originals leave; some of that original momentum goes; some of that original hunger goes; some of that original freshness goes; so, you’re now just going through the motions. It becomes akind of cheaper, ‘yellow pack’ version of what it started as.
I thoroughly enjoyed the concept, and I enjoyed putting it all together. I enjoyed all of the auditions and Ireland and Scotland, putting it together. I enjoy the challenge, as you rightly said, pulling off something of that scale, [put it] on the road. It was a huge success, one of the biggest [viewed shows] on PBS. We had #1 albums in the world music charts, etc. But it had its time.
I’m looking forward to seeing you on the 24th of July and I hope it’s a great trip here.
As I said, it’s a start, it’s not a concert, it’s not a gig. This is just a get together with the Barleycorn, as much to to give the guys a better crank and a bit of spotlight and a bit of kudos in their hometown. This one is personal.
*For more on the Fit-ups, Alec De Gabriel and John Delaney, pick up my book, Festival Legends: Songs and Stories, the people who made the music that defined a people, a biographical look at Irish music legends like The Barleycorn, Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy, Danny Doyle and more.
Available at www.songsandstories.net.