Friday, September 23, 2005

The Voyage continues with Johnny Duhan

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

Songwriter Johnny Duhan continues to chart his course, navigating his way even further into our hearts, with his latest album, ‘The Voyage’. A familiar title from a familiar and much loved song, this, his seventh album is a collection of old and new songs, that travels to the heart of marriage and family life, encompassing the aspirations and struggles of several generations of the one strain. Like all Johnny’s work, these songs are highly personal explorations on themes of birth, marriage, commitment and the tension, reconciliation and joy that happens within the family circle. “The first group of songs I wrote many, many years ago” remembers Johnny, “was called ‘Just Another Town’ and that was about community, the city where I grew up, the street where I grew up, the family I grew up among and the people that affected me most growing up. All my work since then except the album ‘Don Quixote’ which is about my travels with the rock band and the people I met along the way, is related in some way or another to family and this album is very related too. All the songs are about family and family relationships, the ups and downs, the struggles of everyday life for a family.”

Though now living in Galway, Johnny originally hailed from Limerick. He first came to public attention as the lead man with the blues based rock band ‘Granny’s Intentions’ in the 1960s. He chucked the heady rock n’ roll lifestyle for virtual seclusion and found in himself the passion which has since guided his star, song writing. His songs have been sung all over the world and have been recorded by many great artists. Johnny himself is the supreme interpreter of his own material which with each new round of words and melody become more and more poetic, full of imagery, graceful and sensitive, and always highly personal. ‘In our Father’s Name,’ a song with a very memorable melody is Johnny’s personal favourite

‘In the long shadow

of our family tree

that darkened once

the heart in me

I found good reason

to believe

in our frail seed.’

“I met a guy at a gig one time who told me that the song ‘The Voyage’ meant very little to him because he had no time for his family” says Johnny. “In fact he told me he hated his brothers and sisters and he hadn’t been home in years. There’s a lot of fractured families out there like that. I wrote ‘In our Father’s Name’ for them and for all divided people.”

The title track of this new album ‘The Voyage’ is already well known to us. “A lot of people think it’s Christy’s song” says Johnny, “I actually recorded it a long time ago on an album called ‘Family Album’ which in many ways is the only album of mine I was never really satisfied with. I recorded it for another company and since I parted with them I’ve worked on my own and I don’t have to compromise at all. When the rights to the album reverted to me I decided I couldn’t re-release it without getting rid of the dud songs. I went to work on it so there’s about half of the old songs and half new. I believe the five new songs are the real thing – inspired by real events and real people.”

‘The Voyage’ is Johnny’s best known song, popular all over the world particularly for weddings and anniversaries and Johnny has a constant stream of emails and letters from people requesting the words of the song or the sheet music or telling their own story about it. The Irish Tenors also recorded it and sold one and half million copies of the album it was on in America alone. Christy Moore however, admitted in his song book ‘One Voice’ that he had some reservations about recording it at first. “In a way I understand that” says Johnny. “Soon after I released the song on ‘Family Album’ my Dublin booking agent phoned me and told me he was having difficulty getting promo spots on TV because most of the people in RTE thought the family was a dead institution. I don’t think this was true. Deep down, most of us love our families, but it had become a taboo subject to sing about. In a way it was a radical thing I did turning this notion on its head.”

Despite Johnny’s reservations, ‘Family Album’ was one of his most successful collections, with its songs being covered by Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Francy Conway and of course Christy. ‘Trying to get the Balance Right’ was recorded by Mary Black and again it’s a song about relationships. “I struggled with this one for a long time” says Johnny, “then I remembered a circus I went to when I was a kid, watching the high wire act and I kind of compare that to that of the struggle of two people trying to stay together without falling overboard.”

Like most songwriters, Johnny sends his songs to singers he thinks they might suit. One of his favourite singers is Dolores Keane who sang his song ‘After the Dream’ for the film ‘Reefer and the Model’ and ‘The Room’, one of Johnny’s most melodic songs, which she recorded some years ago. “For me she would be up there with the great singers like Billy Holiday and Ray Charles,” says Johnny. “There’s no other Irish singer like her.”

Many of the songs on ‘The Voyage’ relate to children. “They inhabit the whole album in a variety of ways,” Johnny explains. “They’re the ‘crew’ that keep the ship afloat, though they can be mutinous at times, and occasionally even make us walk the plank.” Johnny’s own children are now having children of their own and ‘Aoibheann and Alanna’ is a song celebrating the birth of twins born to his son. “On the morning they were born” Johnny remembers, “our place was full of magpies, and I saw three magpies in different spots, three and three, three for a girl and double. The melody came to me first and I wrote a little piece around it, then a little later the actual song came. It’s a pretty song and they are two pretty girls.” The pretty girls’ father, Johnny’s son was the inspiration for the song ‘When you Appeared’ when he was born himself, and it explores the apprehension of bringing new life into a sometimes violent world. Birth is touched on again in the song ‘Woken Gently’. “This one comes from a very old memory,” says Johnny. “I was born in a house with two rooms up and two rooms down and there was a lot of us so I ended up sharing a bedroom with my parents and I remember I had this hazy recollection of my mother giving birth in the room and I waking up in the middle of the night to it, so I tried to capture a bit of that in this song.”

Another song was inspired by his son, “‘Brian’s song’ incorporates a shanty my son composed on my shoulders when he was five or six on the way to a beach near our home.” Possibly the most beautiful song on the album ‘Cornerstone’ is dedicated to his wife and reaffirms eloquently and emotionally his commitment to their marriage and their love.

Inspiration is crucially important to Johnny. “You need as much patience as skill in the making of a song” he says. “I often think that real songs write me rather than I them. Deep down my work is a quest to understand the experience of my life – my upbringing, the town and people I grew up among, the girls I’ve fallen for, the family that nurtured me and the family I helped form.”

“The words of my songs are more than fifty per cent,” he adds. “ I love melody as well but I spend an awful lot of time trying to write poetry and then converting it into songs. I wouldn’t claim that the songs are poetry but at their best they would be.”

Click here to buy Johnny Duhan's 'The Voyage' from the .tradnet store on Amazon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Hell or High Water – the determination of Andrew Murray

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

‘If it's for you it won’t pass you’ says singer Andrew Murray philosophically, about his musical talent and the opportunities that lie ahead for him following the release of his first album. Having recorded previously with the well known traditional band DeDannan, singer Mary Staunton and box player Dave Munnelly, Andrew has at last succumbed to the wishes of friends and admirers and recorded a solo album of his own. ‘Hell or High Water’ might sound a bit like it was a desperate struggle, but the reference is really to the sea which on many occasions gave Andrew and his fellow islanders a rough crossing to their beloved island of Inishbofin. “That and the fact that I was determined when I put my mind down to it to get it done and to do it the way I wanted to and not have anyone tell me what I should be doing” says Andrew. “So, when the title came to mind I stuck with it.”

Growing up in the tight knit island community surrounded by the sea and so much music naturally had its influence. “Inishbofin is a very special place without a doubt” says Andrew. “There’s a large percentage of native Inishbofin people who sing and play music, and for a place with a couple of hundred people, that’s quite phenomenal. The island is renowned amongst the musical fraternity as a place where egos don’t live long. You just go and play and do your thing but don’t expect anyone to be bowing down shining your shoes for you because it won’t happen!”

For Andrew, whose home now is in Co. Wicklow, it was the most natural thing in the world to start playing music growing up on Inishbofin. “It was easy to fall in with it, we all played music as kids” he remembers. “Our big day was St. Stephen’s Day, going around with the wren. All our instruments would be dusted off and we’d give it wellie for the day and make a few bob.”

Andrew’s family ran the Doonmore Hotel on the island and it was in the bar that Andrew heard most of his music. “I worked in the bar as a kid and spent a lot of time listening to the older musicians. Once the summer season was over, that was the entertainment, there wasn’t any TV in the bar, so you played music and sang and everybody took a turn doing something. I remember one night when fourteen people picked up the box and played it. There was maybe forty people in the bar and fourteen different individuals were able to pick up the accordion and play. Then there was ten or twelve singers as well. It was as natural for us to sing and play as to go to sea fishing. Its still like that today.”

Andrew was about 19 when he sang first in public, “The first thing I did in public was probably a Rolling Stones’ song or a Doors’ song or something like that” he says laughing at the memory. Arty McGlynn was one of the first musicians he performed with. “He had heard me sing out on ‘bofin and he invited me to sing a few songs with himself and Nollaig at the Clifden Arts Festival. That was probably the first time I got up on stage with anyone in that line of music. Ever since then Arty has been a great friend.”

Arty is one of a relatively small cast of musicians who feature on Andrew’s album ‘Hell or High Water’. He accompanies on ‘I wish my Love was a Red Red Rose’, a song Andrew’s been singing for years. The other musicians are in essence the band who travel with Andrew when he performs. ‘Hell or High Water’ was recorded in Gavin Ralston’s studio in Wicklow and Gavin plays guitars on the album. Jeff Woods who plays piano is probably better known in the world of popular music for his work with the band Picturehouse. Joe Chibi plays double bass and Des Lacey plays drums and percussion. The renowned composer and arranger Fiachra Trench arranged the string section featured on some tracks.

Another friend for years, Tim O’Brien from Nashville came over and played mandolin, fiddle and did vocal backing on the song ‘Green grows the Laurel’. “We tried to keep it simple and not overdo the instrumentation,” explains Andrew about the recording. “It’s a vocal album of twelve songs. I wanted to keep the voice and the songs to the front. I just got tired listening to albums of singers where there is so much happening it’s taking away from the person’s voice. Personally, I didn’t like that so I tried to keep away from it myself.”

In this, his first solo album, Andrew also wanted it to reflect in as far as possible the material he has been performing over the years which is fairly diverse. ‘Castle Garden is a traditional song, the melody of which is reminiscent of another song Andrew is very fond of ‘The Lakes of Ponchartrain’. Like many traditional songs, ‘Castle Garden’ has many versions and this one Andrew heard originally sung by Len Graham. ‘Black Muddy River’ is a song composed by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead – an unusual choice you might think but again Andrew was inspired to try this one having heard it sung by the great Norma Waterson. Thom Moore sent a number of new songs to Andrew when he was recording and ‘Little Miss Kelly’ is one of those. “Its up tempo and lively” says Andrew, “Its light hearted and I just liked the bit of humour in it.” The last song on the album is Ewan McColl’s ‘The Father’s Song’ “I remember when I heard it first” says Andrew, “I couldn’t shake it. It’s a fabulous song – you have to listen carefully to the lyrics.”

Most people will remember Andrew for his time spent with DeDannan around 1997. The songs he sang at that time were traditional and traditionally styled songs, and while Andrew has always been drawn to traditional and folk music, his interests are much broader than just that. “I have a particularly deep voice, and I’ve found that singing blues songs seems to work well. I’m particularly drawn to folk in a broader sense, American writers, Irish writers, English folk singers as well as Scottish folk singers – just the whole thing really” he says. “It depends on the song. It doesn’t really matter to me where it comes from or what genre it originated as, if I get a song I like the sound of, I just take it in and do what I can with it myself.”

It’s not surprising to hear that Luke Kelly is one of Andrew’s heroes. “His was the first voice that made me sit up” remembers Andrew. “I was about 17 at the time, into all sorts of things and music wasn’t high on my agenda. I remember quite clearly being at home in the bar early one evening and I stuck on a tape of Luke Kelly. I remember thinking, ‘That’s something, that’s really out of the ordinary’. To this day I feel Luke Kelly had something special, something coming from deeper inside.”

“I’ve always felt the singer is only a conduit for the song to get through to the listener, and the more true you are, then the better it comes through. The song itself is a carrier of other emotional and deeper things going on between the melody and the lyrics. The singer is really just a carrier of that, you pass it on to the ears of the listeners. You are the messenger. That’s what I try to do, to be as honest as I can with myself, not allow myself to get in the way of the song and pass it on the best I can.”

Click here to buy Andrew Murray's 'Come Hell or High Water' from the .tradnet store on Amazon.