PAUL Brady hurtled onstage at London’s Royal Albert Hall in April and gave a majestic rendition of his masterpiece, Nothing But The Same Old Story, to a hushed and expectant capacity crowd.
A standout performance at Ceiliúradh, a concert held in honour of President Michael D Higgins, Brady’s rendition was as full of grit and belief as the young Irish man depicted in the song.
The Irish in Britain couldn’t have asked for a better articulation of our history and the relevance of the song for the occasion was palpable. It was something that wasn’t lost on Brady.
“It was extremely intense. I kind of had to blink twice! There’s no way to sing that song unless you really project it and believe it. So, there’s no way I was gonna go out there and hide!” laughs Brady.
Indeed, such a song requires gutsy delivery which Brady supplies aplenty, armed only with voice and guitar. It’s unsurprising that no one has dared attempt a cover version.
Surely no other song articulates the experience of working Irish people so vividly and brilliantly, encompassing the emigrant’s fears, frustrations, hopes and dreams, as well as themes of racial tension, the solace of the pub, nostalgia and homesickness.
With a rousing chorus and Brady’s trademark biting guitar accompaniment and open tunings, it’s angry but poignant — a tour de force in songwriting.
It’s an emigration story which has come full circle. Written in the 1970s, England was a different place for Irish people — they worked in its cities, “built a hundred houses, must have poured half a million pints of beer, living under suspicion, putting up with the hatred and fear in their eyes” and “making jokes on the radio”.
Sadly, Ireland’s emigration cycle has started again, but happily, it’s a different experience for emigrants today and a very different new era of friendship between the two islands. But it’s important to remember the story portrayed by Brady.
“I certainly enjoyed my piece and Joe O’Connor’s piece before me. I thought they dovetailed very well together. There’s always a problem being backstage in getting a feel for what’s happening in the hall but I often sneaked up to take a look and enjoyed it very much. There was a great atmosphere in the room” he says.
As we chat about that magic night in April, the Strabane man is on a break from a recording session in his Dublin studio. If the mark of a great artist is recognition from your peers, then Brady reached those heights long ago.
With over 15 solo albums and numerous collaborations, his songs are as eclectic as the range of artists who have covered them — from Tina Turner and Cher to Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Saint Etienne. He’s collaborated with Carole King, John Prine and Ronan Keating, and counts Bob Dylan among his fans.
His hits, such as The Island, Nobody Knows, The World is What You Make It and Crazy Dreams, have spanned decades. Remarkably perhaps, Brady turned out the classic Nothing But The Same Old Story when he was just a budding songwriter — it appears on his seminal first record Hard Station (1980) which was written in about a year.
“I wrote it fairly quickly in the late ’70s,” he remembers. “Things hadn’t changed a lot by ’79 — we were still very much in a period where there was conflict between Britain and Ireland. So it was all fresh in my mind.”
Earlier attempts at songwriting produced “all very mawkish, adolescent stuff” which Brady jokes he now wishes would disappear. The eureka moment came around 1979.
“When I heard Gerry Rafferty singing Baker Street for the first time, I began to realise that I wanted to write songs in a contemporary style about my own experience rather than continue to sing songs about things that happened to other people 200 years ago. It was really then that I started to write.”
Brady lived in London from 1968 to 1972, leaving for America and returning to Ireland in 1974, when he joined Planxty. He’s been in Dublin ever since and says he wouldn’t live anywhere else but Ireland. For the whole of the ’70s, he was “basically infatuated and enthralled by the whole traditional music scene” and made a host of records with Andy Irvine, Matt Molloy and Tommy Peoples for Shanachie and his own trad album.
But there’s a misconception that he started off in traditional music — because that’s when he came to national prominence — and then moved to contemporary music. Brady says the opposite is true.
“People talk about the surprise when I changed from being a trad singer into making my own music in the ’80s but I think the big surprise was the opposite — that I actually left that kind of music and went into trad music for ten years in the ’70s. It was the exception.”
Growing up in Strabane, he rarely saw or heard traditional music on the radio. “I had an Uncle Bernard in Irvinestown in Fermanagh and he played the fiddle. They were all mountainy men and played a lot of traditional music. I’d only see them a few times a year and the fiddle would come out. I loved it but it wasn’t something I felt I wanted to attach myself to, so it surprised me as much as anyone else when I did.”
Fans of traditional music hold him in high esteem. His re-working of traditional songs, using his unique open tunings and rhythmic strumming/picking, transformed The Lakes of Pontchartrain, The Homes of Donegal and in particular Arthur McBride — (Bob Dylan was a particular admirer of Brady’s version and famously lists Brady as one of his heroes on his 1985 Biograph album sleeve notes). Did he have any idea how iconic some of those songs would become?
“Not at all! When I worked out the solo guitar arrangement in Arthur McBride, I knew there was a certain amount of energy in it and knew it hadn’t been done before. But a lot of my guitar playing was influenced by people like Joni Mitchell and the open tunings that she used and the rhythms that she played were very influential on me.
"And also guitar players like Nic Jones, the English guitar player from that period — he influenced me a lot. But largely speaking, I brought a lot of, for want of a better word, rock ’n’ pop sensibility to my arrangements of traditional music which made them sound different to what other people were doing.”
As for Lakes of Pontchartrain, Brady confesses he learned it from Christy Moore’s version on the Planxy album Cold Blow & The Rainy Night. “Christy had left the band, and I just thought this is a great song, I’ll sing it! I really had no intentions of taking the song over or anything!” he laughs.
“I just felt it was too good a song not to include in the band’s repertoire. So I developed my own arrangement based on open tunings and a certain style of playing, similar to that in Arthur McBride and of course, both songs did become iconic but I certainly didn’t plan it that way!”
As a youngster, Brady played piano and guitar on school summer holidays in Bundoran, trying to sneak in a few blues songs. “They weren’t exactly what people wanted to hear! They wanted the old ‘Come-All-Yes’. I might have sung some Chuck Berry and maybe a Mississippi John Hurt and Leadbelly song and an old American folk song, I Gave My Love a Cherry — I was into that kind of stuff,” he reflects. “But we were mainly a house band so people could come up and sing and make eejits of themselves!”
Brady really began singing in college in Dublin, where he was a bit of a soul boy, covering Ray Charles and Ike and Tina Turner, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. “That was really my first love and I still love that music. So I suppose it was a real total right turn when I went into trad music and it was a complete life change for me.”
It was The Johnstons who drew Brady into trad, touring England in the late ’60s burgeoning folk scene. “They had a no. 1 hit with the Ewan MacColl song The Travelling People and were big in Ireland — they introduced The Curragh of Kildare to the folk pantheon. We were very popular,” he recalls.
We talk about Ireland’s fragile recovery, and the strengthened ties between Ireland and her neighbour. Thankfully Britain is a very different place for Irish emigrants than the one Brady wrote about in the ’70s, but the unwelcome return of Irish emigration troubles him.
“Obviously I’m very pleased relations are better between Ireland and the UK but I’m saddened by the state of emigration again today. It affects me personally insofar as my son is now living in New Zealand and my daughter is in Epsom. Both of our children have emigrated so that’s painful and I certainly wish that that hadn’t happened.
"And I certainly believe that if some of the greed had been controlled, that perhaps we wouldn’t have got into the troubles that we’re in that have made all our young people leave. But, then again, Ireland’s always been a small country and it’s a big world. Irish people have always wanted to get out there and see what’s going on and in some cases they don’t come back. That saddens me.”
About to embark on a British tour, Brady has several exciting projects bubbling.
“I’m mixing a whole load of live material from a long session I did in Dublin in the Vicar St club in the early noughties,” he says. “I played for 23 nights and did duets with guest artists like Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Sinead O’Connor, Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Stigers, Gavin Friday, Mary Black. Permissions are always hard to get, and I can’t confirm it will happen, but I’m hoping it will come together by Christmas.
“I’m also writing a lot of songs with Paul Muldoon (renowned Armagh poet). I find his poetry is very exciting. So I’m writing a lot of music to his lyrics — about five of six songs so far. It’s a totally different direction for me and it’s exciting and I’m really enjoying it.”
Brady hasn’t decided whether this will form an entirely new album or part of another work. “I’ve plenty other songs I’ve written myself and with other people — I have an awful lot I have so much work to do here I feel myself slipping behind!”
Three potential albums kicking around suggests no shortage of inspiration, ideas and ability. Brady will also tour the US in October and maybe Australia early in the New Year, “which will give me a jumping off point to go and see my son in New Zealand! That’s what I’m kind of looking for now — chances to get to places where I can be with my family.”
He doesn’t write much on the road as touring is “so one-dimensional and exhausting. I don’t feel very creative when I’m on tour except on stage.”