Shay Healy met his pal of forty years and heard how he recently beat a professional crisis but admitted he is ‘struggling’ emotionally
Paul Brady has just got the thumbs up after negotiating his way through the biggest ever crisis in his career.
Did he have writers block? No. Did he have to go into rehab? No. Was he caught listening to a Chris De Burgh CD? No.
The clue is in the first line. Brady’s thumb was growing arthritic and sore to the extent that he couldn’t play his guitar for six months. For many guitarists, the thumb wouldn’t be sore, except Brady’s percussive style is what gives such power to his songs. That helped do the damage.
His search for a cure took him eventually to the small principality of Monaco where he found a surgeon who set about the task of rebuilding Brady’s thumb and when he played on stage at The Sugar Club on Feb 4th, his rebuilt thumb stood up to the strain and the man is back in business.
‘I was worried about it..I had no notion of whether I would be able to play. It was quite scary about how it would feel after an operation. It was vital to me because I enjoy playing music…it’s who I am, what I do. And when you can’t do it you begin to wonder who you are. This was the longest time in my life that I haven’t played an instrument’.
Paul Brady was born in Strabane, Co. Tyrone sixty seven years ago. He attended the famous St.Columb’s College in Derry, which was also the alma mater of Seamus Heaney, Seamus Dean, Phil Coulter and John Hume. Brady came to Dublin to attend UCD and it wasn’t long before he was in the thick of the music scene. I first saw him playing with a rock band called The Kult, when he was about 18. But he didn’t pursue the rock music. Instead he went the folk route and joined The Johnstons folk group alongside Mick Moloney and sisters Adrienne and Lucy Johnston. They toured Ireland and the U.K successfully, but when the group didn’t take-off in America, Brady left the band and returned to Ireland and won himself a reputation as a fine interpreter of Irish songs. He joined Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny and Liam Og O Flynn in the groundbreaking band, Planxty, whose line-up was rounded out by Christy Moore.
However, it was the release of his second solo album Hard Station that showed off Brady’s great skills as a writer and songs like Crazy Dreams, Dancer in the Fire, Nothing But The Same Old Story are as fresh and relevant today as they were back then.
The songs that Brady writes and sings are articulate, intelligent and melodic and he is his own best critic when making his performances achieve a satisfactory level.
‘I can’t think for people and I don’t know what people think of me..but I can imagine I think people recognize that whatever guise its under it will always be of good quality, and when people come to me, they know I’m someone who puts his heart and soul into every performance. Every gig I do justifies my existence and the people who like that stick with me. Some people think I’m very intense but I take my music seriously. Its very important to me and I take it seriously.’
Politics inevitably reared its ugly head for someone born in the North of Ireland but Brady evaded becoming politicised.
‘I got approaches to join from various political parties in the North from a Nationalist point of view, or would I be a fundraiser, performing at events. I did not want to be seen to be espousing any one political party because in the first place audiences came from all traditions and didn’t see me as one thing or the other. I really valued that position. If I played in Northern Ireland my audience would be very mixed and I didn’t feel that any particular political viewpoint expressed exactly how I feel.’
The Island is one of those songs that resonates in the Irish psyche. This iconic song of peace could easily be misinterpreted and take away from the power of the lyrics. ‘Contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t represent any one tradition.
‘I don’t know where The Island came from beyond the fact that it came from a point of view that the character in the song feels powerless in a very conflicting position..most people felt like they were powerless and at both extreme ends there was a lot of activity going on. We didn’t know what to do, what to think. If you grow up in Northern Ireland it’s something you have to deal with all the time. Can you remember in the Fifties when the IRA campaign happened and .it was very hard to know how to feel about it, because there had been an awful lot of injustice, an awful lot gerrymandering? So it was hard to know what peoples’ feeling were and I wrote the song to find a way through all the ambivalence and confusion. I’m never able to explain The Island. It’s a song that’s bigger than me. People want to nail you down and I don’t want that. I’d rather the ability to just float’ .
In the late 90s, Brady ached to be an international rock star and I personally would have staked my house on the song Nobody Knows as the hit that would make him famous worldwide. But alas, it wasn’t to be, something that now represents a lucky escape to Brady.
‘Everybody wants to be a rock star. Anyone who works in the music business wants to be successful and in the public eye but I don’t handle that kind of thing very well and I‘m not comfortable. I’m one of the people who think “fame” is the total sum of people misconceptions about you. I’ve never felt comfortable in the glare of the spotlight. Obviously you do good work like Nobody Knows and you put it out and you’re disappointed if it doesn’t have a degree of success. But actually it worked to my advantage. Frankly I have been able to slip through the music business without the glare of publicity and people say to me “you’ve lived for so long and made a good living out of music. And that’s success and you don’t have to be on the front page of The Sun every morning.” ’
There was a time when he got a bit lost and didn’t know who or what he represented and it was affecting his followers.
‘Audiences got me confused with what I was. I’m not surprised – I was confused myself and the people who came to see me as a folk musician wondered was I selling out folk. Whereas some of the rock fans didn’t know anything about my folk period. What happened in the long run is that anyone who “got me” has stayed and because I was never fashionable, I was never unfashionable.’
The music business is tough and you can have all the talent you like, but you also need a modicum of luck. If you’re in the right place at the right time, things happen. Two of the greatest female stars in the world led to Brady’s reputation as a songwriter being seriously enhanced, not to mention the bulge in his wallet.
Brady set himself the highest standard since the beginning of his career and has never dipped below it. But who could have anticipated that in 2001 he would fill Vicar Street for 23 consecutive nights!
Brady confesses that it was Paul Charles, his agent at the time, who first suggested it. ‘I’d often thought if I could get some of the people who I have played with and admired to come and celebrate with me on stage.. But to put flesh on the bones of that idea was something I couldn’t do. So Paul Charles went to the promoters, the Aikens, and they were sceptical at first, but people got turned on by the idea. There was no advertising, no promotion and nobody knew who was coming on every night. In some cases I had to change in mid-stream because someone unexpected came on. There was that kind of dynamic. The word got out about this strange event and one night Van Morrison showed up. ’
Having just pulled off the 23 consecutive nights, the success of the stupendous, series of gigs there was no slacking for Brady.
‘I’m an odd sort of a character. As soon as I achieve something, I don’t take it for granted and go round clapping myself on the back’.
In the forty years I know him, Brady has had a reputation of being a bit of a grump at times. The encroachment of old age is something he is acknowledging in his inimitable way. ‘I’m dealing with old age grumpily. I don’t like getting out of a car after an hour and a half’s journey and feeling stiff. But I’m luckier than many people-I’m mobile, I swim three times a week -30 lengths. It’s not very aerobic but it’s great for keeping your muscles stretched. Philosophically I just accept it. I Don’t think anybody enjoys ageing, but its just something you put up with.’
There is one shadow over Brady’s life right now, over which he has no control:
‘ I have four grandchildren, two in New Zealand and two in England. I‘ve never seen Leo who is my son Colm’s three months old. We’ve seen him on Skype and on Facebook….but its not the same.
‘Mary and I miss having family in Ireland and its a big hole in our lives emotionally. Its something that you never get used to it.’
He didn’t ascribe his unhappiness at being a long distance granddad to Sean and Leo in New Zealand and Lyra and Finn, the two children of Brady’s daughter, Sarah, who lives in London, as the reason for his current state of mind. But for now, Brady is not communicating his own inner feelings to the world.
‘To be honest I’m going through a rough period where I’m not saying anything. I’m enjoying working with other people and the thought process that goes on and getting your head around something different. I don’t have the burning ambition any more, declaiming to the world about this, that and the other thing. I may start writing lyrics again, but at the moment I’m struggling.’
Is God someone he believes in that might give him comfort?
‘God? What does that mean? I tend to believe that the human organism responds to situations in almost a clinical way. These reactions are brought about by your mood. If you’re happy it sets up a chemical reaction in your body and it makes things easier to do and makes thing happen in the world. To me there isn’t some person “up there”. Everybody is God and God is everybody. I’m a bit hard on religion. I think religion has passed its usefulness in this century. Anywhere I look around I see it doing more harm than good.’
Some people still regard Brady as difficult and cranky, but his irascibility comes from his continuing search for perfection. He has mellowed, safe in the knowledge that he has never made a bad record or written a bad song and musicians know that at the end of the day, even if he is cranky, it’s a privilege for them to play with Brady, a much respected songwriter and musician around the world.
And a good friend.
Welcome Here Kind Stranger (1978)
Hard Station (1981)
True for You (1983)
Back to the Centre (1985)
Full Moon (1986)
Primitive Dance (1987)
Trick or Treat (1991)
Spirits Colliding (1995)
Nobody Knows: The Best of Paul Brady (Compilation) (1999)
Oh What a World (2000)
The Paul Brady Songbook (album and DVD) Live recordings for RTÉ TV series (2002)
The (Missing) Liberty Tapes (2003) [Recorded Live at Liberty Hall, Dublin, 21 July 1978]
Say What You Feel (2005)
Hooba Dooba (2010)
Dancer in the Fire: A Paul Brady Anthology (Compilation) (2012)
With Andy Irvine
Andy Irvine and Paul Brady (1976)
With Tommy Peoples
The High Part of the Road (1975)
With Matt Molloy and Tommy Peoples
Molloy, Brady, Peoples (1977)
With Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds
Fiddle Duet (1976)
With Andy McGann
It’s A Hard Road to Travel (1977)
With John Kavanagh
The Green Crow Caws (1980)
Feed The Folk (1985), Temple Records FTP01, (“The Green Fields Of Canada”)
The Transatlantic Sessions Series 3 (2007) (various artists)
The Paul Brady Songbook (2002)