Colum Sands on his musical family and what makes a folk song

Colum Sands on his musical family and what makes a folk song

COLUM Sands has got pedigree. The 63-year-old singer-songwriter, record producer and radio presenter of course grew up in a hugely musical family, making his first performances and recordings as part of The Sands Family from Mayobridge, Co. Down.

Since then he has enjoyed extensive solo appearances and in between them he still continues to record and perform with his brothers Tommy and Ben and his sister Anne in the family band.

Earlier this year, Colum released his ninth solo offering, Turn The Corner, and this week embarks on an extensive tour of Britain. I caught up with him to talk through his fine career…

Colum, your family were undeniably musical. What was it like growing up in Mayobridge?

Well there was no electricity in the house. People came in and played a few tunes, sang a few songs, told a few stories — and a few lies — to pass away the night, and that’s where it started.

There is that thing in traditional singing sessions where, even if they were traditional songs, you wouldn’t sing other people’s songs, so the first songs we started to write — myself, brothers Tommy and Ben and sister Anne — would have been little local songs about events in the locality just so that you would have your own song when you would be called upon.

Did that give you the bug for songwriting?

Well we were mainly doing traditional songs until the late ’60s and I suppose in a way the Troubles were a starting point for writing because there was a lot of stuff going on around us in Newry, near where we lived.

I suppose we thought that folk songs shouldn’t be just about the folk of 50 or 100 years ago, it should also be about the folk who are living now.

For example, one of my early songs Whatever You Say, Say Nothing was about the suspicion that could go on here. Before that we grew up in a very mixed area.

You would have children helping their neighbours in the fields with sowing, planting, reaping and the harvest, but then go on to different schools and churches and none of it ever an issue. But when the Troubles came along more separation crept into our lives. That would have fuelled a lot of the writing.

Referring to that time as ‘The Troubles’ always makes it sound like a mild irritation or a simple domestic squabble…

I know. It’s a big big understatement. That’s Ireland. It’s like them referring to the Second World War as ‘The Emergency’ — masters of understatement.

Since the family band still perform occasionally, could you ever envisage a major tour of lots of dates?

It tends to be sporadic because we all do a lot of solo stuff. But we made our first album in 1968 and we are still playing together. We do family tours in Germany every year.

We have just been playing at a big festival in Nuremberg and we were playing at the weekend at the Seamus Heaney memorial concert in Bellaghy, so the family thing is still going. A full tour would need to be planned at least a year in advance though.

Do you enjoy the solo performances?

I do. It’s more testing as a performer because when the applause dies down you are on again whereas in a band situation there are other people around to lead you into the next song or tune.

The advantage of the solo show is that you can change course and head off in another direction in a concert, whereas in a band you have to work to a list structure. There is something good about travelling on your own too.

I wouldn’t want to do it for a long time but just having time to think as you are driving along is good. There is a sense of freedom. You just start off a new day and see where it leads. I’m sure there is a nomadic gene in all of us.

Lots of people play at it every year. They get into their car with their caravan or tent and head off for a couple of weeks. I think they are just touching base with that gene and then they go back into what they do every day.

Have folk clubs survived a bit better in the North of Ireland than the Republic?

A few have survived and started up again and have been really good. I travel to quite a few gigs around Ireland and there is a kind of a turning of the wheel there. A lot of people are attracted again to the small club gig in a curious type of place like somebody’s barn or a house or an old church or something.

So, for you, what is a folk song?

The ones that can be sung without anything other than a voice and can be listened to within that context, you could call them folk songs.

The settings may change but if a song can hush a gathering, if the story in the song or the voice of the singer is enough to still a room then I think you are brought back to that thing about the power within a song.

If you were to send somebody out in the world today to listen to most of the music coming out of the radio you wouldn’t get much of an idea of how people are. It’s just fashion for a certain age group, three minutes to fill until the commercials come up after it.

But I think that central thing of songs that grip you and draw you in will never change. I often think, as a songwriter/singer/performer, that I’m part of something that’s so much bigger than me or the folk scene.

Do you get nervous trying out new songs?

I can be reluctant to try out new songs. Songs are a bit like old clothes. It may be time to change them but you feel comfortable in them and you stay in them maybe longer than you should.

How many songs have you written?

Not that many actually — maybe 60 or 70. Something has to spark it off. Some people can set themselves a target of perhaps 10 a week and hope there is a good one in there but I have never been able to do that.

Column Sands is on tour this month. See listings on page 11 of Rí-Rá for full details