Celebrated singer/songwriter talks about
‘Unfinished Business,’ among other things
Paul Brady, a prominent figure in Irish music for nearly five decades, will come to the City Winery in Boston for a solo concert on Sept. 12. A native of Strabane, Brady first gained attention in traditional and folk music circles as a member of the ballad group The Johnstons in the late 1960s. The 1970s saw Brady establish himself as one of the Irish folk revival’s leading musicians through a series of recordings with traditional artists like Tommy Peoples and Andy McGann, a stint with the legendary Planxty, a historic partnership with Andy Irvine, and then a solo career; this period produced two landmark recordings, the Brady-Irvine album and Brady’s own “Welcome Here, Kind Stranger.” His distinctive vocals, his prowess on guitar and mandolin (just two of the many instruments he plays), and his interpretation of traditional songs like “Arthur McBride and the Sergeant,” “The Lakes of Pontchartrain” and “The Jolly Soldier” brought him acclaim and an audience that extended well beyond Ireland.
But Brady had many other musical interests, and in the early 1980s he began a whole new career as a singer-songwriter, his voice as well-suited to the pop/rock domain as to the traditional/folk idiom. He went on to release a series of successful, well-received albums, and some of his songs wound up in the repertoires of artists such as Tina Turner, Dave Edmunds, Santana, and Bonnie Raitt.
In recent years, Brady has revisited some of his folk/trad material, notably through reunion concerts/tours with Irvine and the release of archival or anthology recordings, such as “The (Missing) Liberty Tapes” and “Dancer in the Fire.” Last year, Brady issued his first studio recording since 2010, “Unfinished Business,” which included tracks co-written with songwriters Sharon Vaughn and Ralph Murphy as well as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon, and two traditional songs on which Irvine appears.
Brady recently took time from preparing for his US tour to speak with Sean Smith of the Boston Irish Reporter.
Q. Paul, the way you’ve described it, this album wasn’t planned in any way: That is, you didn’t sit down and say to yourself, “I’m going to make some kind of an artistic statement.” Can you talk a little about the way “Unfinished Business” came about?
A. I’m a songwriter, I write all the time. I just had a bunch of songs together and wanted to see what I could do with them. I’m not really interested in simply putting out albums, rounding up people to work in the studio for a set period of time. But I did want to get the songs on tape, as it were, to see how they sounded outside of my mind, so for a while I just did it for fun; I was my own recording engineer, and I played all the instruments – guitars, piano, bass, percussion – and then when I felt I was ready I brought in some friends to help out. For me, a song isn’t a song unless it’s sung to people. I’m a communicator, a performer, I like standing up on a stage and sharing the things I’ve written. I’m not tailoring them to an audience.
Q. You also said previously that you had had some concerns about the future of music recording – you wondered “was there any point in putting out an album at all.”
A. Early on, around when I started writing this batch of songs, I was thinking some about the whole way the music business had changed, and particularly whether the album as we knew it would still exist. That was on my mind. But I’m not concerned so much with it anymore. I make my music, and if people like it, they like it and hopefully will listen to it. I’m way past the time where I’m worried about trying to find an audience. It’s all kind of summed up in the album title: I’m not finished doing what I’m going to do -- just in case anyone thought I’d ridden off into the sunset.
Q. Among the outstanding features of “Unfinished Business” are the collaborative efforts between you and other writers, notably Paul Muldoon. The songs you and he worked on (“I Like How You Think,” “I Love You But You Love Him,” “Say You Don’t Mean”) are chock full of literary and pop culture references, and some amazing wordplay. How did this partnership come about?
A. I’ve known Paul since the 1970s, when we met at an arts festival in Fermanagh, and he was on the bill. Several years ago, we ran into each other at a reunion concert for the band Horslips. I knew Paul had written for other pop singers, like Warren Zevon, and I asked him “Do you fancy writing a song?” So he sent me a whole bunch of lyrics, and some of them worked, some of them didn’t, but I was very pleased to have the chance to work together. He’s quirky and modern, quite humorous, but there’s always a depth to his writing that’s attracted me.
Q. And, of course, you’re joined on two songs (“The Cocks Are Crowing,” “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender”) by Andy Irvine. The two of you were on the road last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the album you put out back in 1977. Did you ever imagine it would be so enduringly popular?
A. I’m pleasantly amazed at how the album has found such a place in Irish music. It’s a great thrill to see, 40 years on, how enthusiastic people are about it, and how they come out to see Andy and me perform. I’ve thought about why the album’s been so popular, and while I don’t really know about other places, in Ireland it just really seemed to strike a huge chord. I guess it’s part of the soundtrack to that generation’s life, even as other generations have discovered it as well. Andy always had his arsenal of songs, from Woody Guthrie to Bulgaria, and I had mine. I feel we approached folk in different ways. I listened to a lot of different stuff – blues, R&B, country, Motown, pop – and I always liked to focus on the arrangements, to take them apart to see what works. But Andy and I just seemed to click from the start, and we always felt easy with each other.
We’re actually going to do a few shows together this fall with Donal Lunny and Kevin Burke, and I’m certainly looking forward to that. We played with them last year, too; there was some film shot of the tour, which is being edited as a TV program and maybe a DVD.
Q. You mentioned your fondness for different kinds of music, like rock and pop. That’s been reflected in many of the albums you’ve released since the 1980s, like “Hard Station,” featuring your own compositions. Did this “new direction” result in any backlash, given your strong ties to the folk/traditional music scene?
A. What I find strange is when people think it’s the norm to be interested in just one form of music. I’ve always fought against that kind of rigid exclusion. It hasn’t been easy -- the folk scene can be pretty conservative in some ways. But when I began doing my songs, and working more in pop, rock, and so on, I didn’t have a backlash from my fans. I’d been doing a lot of solo shows, and at these I introduced a lot of the songs that became part of “Hard Station.” So one of the things that’s now a hallmark of who I am is people who go to my shows will hear a wide variety of music.
Q. You’ve been involved in a number of collaborations and projects over the years, of course, and perhaps one of the more underappreciated ones is “The Green Crow Caws” album from 1980, celebrating the works of the great writer Sean O’Casey. Where do you see that particular venture in terms of your musical development?
A. “The Green Crow Caws” was a very interesting, enjoyable experience. I was approached by Siobhan O’Casey, his daughter, who had a notion of making an album of his songs. John Kavanaugh, the actor, had been in many of O’Casey’s plays, so he was a logical choice to be the vocalist, whether singing the songs or reciting O’Casey’s poetry and prose.
It was actually a good training ground for me. There were a lot of different sounds on the album – some folk and traditional, some things that sounded like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, and even a bit of honky-tonk. It was the first time I’d worked with instruments like cello, sax, viola, and there was the opportunity to make some contemporary arrangements, so I look on the album as a bridging from the traditional to the rock scene. It helped me gain a lot of confidence to put a band together later on.
And it was one of the last recordings Seamus Ennis, the great uilleann piper and music collector, ever made. I’d written a lament in a kind of orchestral style that I wanted him to play. Instead, he deconstructed it into a real modal tour-de-force. But I was thrilled that he liked it.
Q. So, give us a sense as to what we might hear at your concert September 12. Might there be some classics like “Arthur McBride” or “Lakes of Pontchartrain” during the set?
A. I usually work out my set list on the day of the concert. I’m a creature of emotion and mood, and sometimes I need to be in the right emotional space to figure out which songs I’m going to do on a particular night in a particular place. I always try to include something from every phase of my life: Maybe I want to do a traditional song, but maybe it’ll be something else I haven’t done in years. I feel guilty sometimes that some songs I might’ve closed out my set with great aplomb in the past are ones I don’t sing nowadays. That’s just how it is sometimes.
For better or worse, I feel my music is never fashionable – but it’s never out of fashion.
For more information about Paul Brady’s September 12 concert at the City Winery, go to citywinery.com/boston.