Paul Brady reflects on his career as a Celtic trad pioneer and pop songwriter
No musical tradition has enjoyed a bigger explosion of popularity or a wider spread of style and invention during the past 30 years than Irish music. And no musician personifies Irish music’s arc of popularity better than northern Irish guitarist and singer Paul Brady. Brady started performing in Dublin pubs in the 1960s, at a time when all Ireland seemed consumed with a rediscovered passion for its music and heritage. He dove into the music, and by 1967 he and his band the Johnstons were top draws everywhere in the British Isles.
After seven very traditional albums with the Johnstons, Brady joined Planxty, a band of astonishing innovators and eclectic musicians that included Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, and Donal Lunny. Planxty was, in every sense, the Beatles of modern Irish music. Through the 1970s, they propelled the tradition in a dozen new directions at once, infusing their sets with rock energy and Balkan exoticism while allowing all the essential Irishness to shine ever more brightly.
After a stint with Planxty, Brady went on to perform and record both solo and in harness with various combinations of Planxty members, including notable work with mandolinist Andy Irvine. Irvine and Brady’s eponymous duo album is still on nearly every Irish music fan’s Desert Island Disc shortlist. Brady’s “Arthur McBride” from that album is a riveting story so passionately sung and so tastily accompanied on guitar that it became an instant classic and remains a favorite in sessions around the world.
Brady’s career took another surprising leap in 1981. He shocked his fans by hitting the stage with a full rock band and singing original songs as powerful and catchy as anything since early Van Morrison. He followed his breakthrough album, Hard Station, with nine more and is now one of today’s most-covered Irish pop balladeers, with songs recorded by the likes of Phil Collins, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, Santana, Cher, and Tina Turner.
Last year, Rykodisc released Nobody Knows: The Best of Paul Brady, which focused on Brady’s long career as a genre-jumping songwriter. But two songs from Brady’s earlier Irish trad incarnation made it onto Nobody Knows–“The Lakes of Pontchartrain” and “Arthur McBride.”
I was particularly intrigued by the inclusion of “Arthur McBride” and by Brady’s decision to record a new version 25 years later, rather than simply include the familiar original. I caught him in Dublin on his way to master his next solo album, due for release this year. Brady chatted about the different hats he’s worn in his long career and about why he decided to revisit a 200-year-old Irish traditional song from his early days in the folk clubs.
For the past 20 years, every aspiring Celtic guitarist seems to have felt compelled to learn your version of “Arthur McBride.” What do you suppose it is about this particular song that speaks so strongly to people?
It’s a very interesting story, I suppose, and as a ballad goes it’s full of drama. It’s full of antiquity, which attracts a lot of people. The style of language is quite archaic. I brought some of the dynamism I’d learned through playing blues and rock music into the presentation of that song, and I think that might have captured people, too. I’ve always tended to do that–even when I was working within the forms of traditional music–to attack songs in a way that wasn’t customary at the time. People tend to have this reverence toward songs and treat them as museum pieces. But I wanted to grab them by the scruff of the neck and turn them into something that had a lifeblood of their own.
You’ve said that on a good day you inhabit a song, becoming the character in it. You certainly became the angry, frustrated kid in “Nothing but the Same Old Story.” The cocky character in “Arthur McBride” seems just as fleshed-out but quite different. As antique as it is, do you feel there’s a sense of 1960s-style nose-thumbing in “Arthur McBride”?
Yeah. There was that rebellion aspect to it, which was very much in keeping with the era of the time–the Vietnam War, the draft, the whole thing in Europe. And it dovetailed into the Republican thing in Ireland, too.
Did “Arthur McBride” stay in your concert sets through the years or are you coming back to it after leaving it alone for awhile?
I did leave it alone for quite a few years. Both musically, because I wanted to try different things, and lyrically. It had political connotations so I wanted to leave it alone for a while. There was a long period in the ’80s and the early ’90s where the political situation in Ireland was so volatile that people tended to be very easily confused about the intricacies of it. I didn’t want to be gratuitously throwing around sentiments like that at a time when things were very, very sensitive.
Were you also having second thoughts at that time about performing songs like “Nothing but the Same Old Story”?
No, not at all. But I was going through a period personally where I didn’t feel that the way to solve the political problems in Ireland was to do it through violence. There’s a long tradition of political revolutionary song in Ireland that has attached itself to the ethos of violence for political change. And I just didn’t feel comfortable at the time in being erroneously swept up in that whole thing.
So why did you decide to record this new version?
I felt a challenge to myself to reinterpret the song, believing as I did that the way I would do it 25 years later was pretty much the way I did it originally. I just liked that challenge.
So in reinterpreting the song now from an older perspective, what did you do differently?
You mentioned earlier how I put a lot of myself into these songs. That probably comes from my father, who was an actor. He wasn’t an actor by profession, just an amateur actor, but he was very, very talented. I remember watching him invent characters, and I got intrigued by that. There’s a part of him in me that’s that kind of actor. I like the challenge of coming back to a role again some years later, like actors come back and do King Lear again. It isn’t even a question of a conscious approach to the song. It’s seeing how you viscerally approach it—what comes out the other end of the experience.
The other traditional song included on your compilation, “The Lakes of Pontchartrain,” is another widely embraced hit in the traditional subculture. Why did you pick that one over all the other songs in your traditional repertoire?
That is probably the most popular song of mine from that era, even more so than “Arthur McBride.” Any concert I would play, people would shout for “Lakes of Pontchartrain” way in advance of “Arthur McBride.” I’ve always loved that song. Again, it presents me with an opportunity to act out a role that I identify strongly with. Every time I sing that song, I see a whole landscape and pictures in my head of places that I’ve never been to. It gives me a great opportunity to invent myself in a certain way, and I’ve always liked that about music.
It’s much more innocent and sweet. A story of simpler times?
It’s the individual in threatening circumstances and then a romantic element comes along.
But not too threatening. More “Disney” threatening. Whereas, in “Arthur McBride,” you get an immediate, if outwardly smiling, confrontation between two very different points of view. Do you wonder if “Arthur McBride” still comes off as an anthem of rebellion to kids hearing it for the first time?
That’s one of the mysteries to me–how different generations react to what’s already there. There’s a very vibrant young involvement in traditional music and singing here in Ireland these days. People in their 20s are as fanatical about traditional music as we were in our 20s. I think it’s very good. It’s just that traditional music isn’t something that I want to spend my whole life in.
I was lucky enough to be in London in 1981 when you debuted the Hard Station band in that tiny little club. I remember looking around and half the audience had their mouths hanging open, not knowing what to make of your new electrified direction. The other half was going, “Yes! It’s about time!” Do you recall that night?
Oh, I do, yeah! It’s funny, the natural dynamic is that you do something and then you do something else, you try something new all the time. From my perspective it seems at the very worst frustrating and at the very least mystifying why people want to stick with the same thing all the time. I look on it from the opposite point of view. I think staying with the same thing and wanting somebody to do the same thing all the time is what’s odd.
Of course, you’ll keep getting pestered by the marketing people to do exactly what you did for your last success. Does that happen to you these days, now that you’ve had a measure of success with your songwriting?
No, not really. I think the marketing people have sort of thrown their hands up in despair with Paul Brady.
I was curious about marketing, going back to the Hard Station days. That was such a brilliant album, and I expected you to be heralded as the next big thing. I understand Bill Graham picked up the American rights, then released the album in remixed form, and it vanished without a trace. What happened?
Well, that’s the 100-pound version of what really happened. I did have discussions with Bill Graham about management in 1981. I went out to San Francisco and we got on very well. And at that time Santana, whom he also managed, had just covered a song from Hard Station called “Night Hunting Time.” But I had a young family at the time. I’d just got married. I’d just bought a house. I didn’t see how it was going to work with me living in Dublin and being managed by somebody 6,000 miles away, so it petered out. As it happens, I did get management then in London, which was effective. But the reason why Hard Station, as you say, vanished without a trace was that the main track that came out, “Crazy Dreams,” just didn’t get enough radio attention in the U.S. It got quite a lot of attention in some areas—one of which was San Francisco—but it just didn’t get enough “add ons,” as they say.
On the new compilation, some of your more recent tracks seem more pianistic—they have more piano than guitar shapes to them. Is that a fair observation?
I think it’s half and half. I wouldn’t say I’ve forsaken the guitar by any means. I’ve always played the piano. And to me, the piano harmonically and chordally throws me in different ways than the guitar does, so I have two arrows in my quiver rather than just one. On the new record that I’ve just finished, it’s again half and half, guitar and piano. There’s a very wide stylistic variety on the new record. Some of it is pure acoustic guitar with other ingredients overlayed on top, and some of it is kind of sequenced. I’m very excited about this record. It’s another departure for me in that it’s even more disparate than any record I’ve every made.
Disparate in what sense?
Stylistically. Almost every song inhabits its own world and comes from its own frame of reference. There’s a song that comes from my love of Brazilian music, or Argentinian, the tango type of thing. And there are other songs that are . . . well, very varied.
You’re determined to give the marketing guys fits, aren’t you?
I don’t really care about the marketing boys. I’m not on this earth to conform to the marketing boys’ limited visions. I don’t want to cast aspersions on them, but at the same time if every musician in the world starts to tailor his music to the sensibilities of the marketing department, where would we be?
Getting back to your guitar work for a moment, do you still mess around with alternate tunings?
All the time, yeah. I’d say more than half the time. I very rarely use an entirely orthodox tuning on a guitar.
Do you have a particular favorite you reach for first?
One large favorite of mine is the G tuning with the C bass [C G D G B D]. I am fairly conservative in terms of tunings. I don’t use all that many, and the ones I do use aren’t all that radical. I know people who use fairly strange tunings, but it’s not something I’ve ever gone into an awful lot. I’m thinking of doing more of it in the future, however.
You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself to be a real hot chops guitarist.
No, I don’t. I long ago realized that that isn’t where my talent lies. I’m never going to be able to make the mad dramatic flourish that hits every note exactly. It’s interesting, in that one of my longtime friends is Béla Fleck, who’s about as polar opposite to me as anyone could possibly be. He’s utterly precise and utterly fluid and fluent. He’s a virtuoso, while I’m the other end of the extreme. I won’t put a name on it—what’s the opposite of virtuosity?
Still, I can almost instantly tell it’s you playing, no matter how simple and straightforward the line. Do you think of this simplicity as part of your musical identity?
I do. One of my favorite guitarists is Jimmy Vaughan. When you put him next to his brother, he’s like . . . Neanderthal, technically. But he says as much in one note as Stevie Ray did in four or five. His musicality is what shines through irrespective of his technique. I suppose I identify with that sort of person, in the sense that I’m a little bit spastic myself.
I remember that the older Count Basie got, the fewer notes he played, but they were always the right ones.
There’s a lot to be said for economy.
- Oh What a World, Rykodisc 10491 (2000).
- Nobody Knows: The Best of Paul Brady, Rykodisc 10491 (1999).
- Trick or Treat, Polygram 848454 (1990, out of print).
- Matt Molloy, Paul Brady, Tommy Peoples, Green Linnet 3018 (1985).
- Hard Station, Polydor 1072 (1983, out of print).
- Welcome Here Kind Stranger, Green Linnet 3015 (1991, originally released 197? cassette only).
- Andy Irvine and Paul Brady, Green Linnet 3006 (1976).