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Alone Again Naturally
An essential Bill Graham interview with one of Ireland's landmark musicians - revisited to celebrate his newly-announced dates for 2013.
Bill Graham, 05 Nov 1992
Sharing the spotlight with only his trusty guitar, Ireland's foremost troubadour Christy Moore prepares to take on audiences at The Point later this month. Here he tells Bill Graham of his growing sense of worth and self-confidence, defends Sinead O'Connor's right to free speech and explains just why good hecklers are worth their weight in gold...
It's surprising how many performers hide from the stage. Recluses like Kate Bush may banish themselves from the boards for a decade; Roger Waters of Pink Floyd constructed his own "Wall"; Axl Rose seems to have more demons than a distillery of Jack Daniels can vanquish.
Others downgrade live performance and just play by rote. Or like Michael Jackson create a playground where they can lose both themselves and their audience, this is not Christy Moore's way.
He knows lone gunslingers have nowhere to hide, through over twenty years on stage, he's discovered how the art and craft of the solo performer is the hardest to learn and refine. With Moore, there's no MTV mediation, negligible image games, no high-tech paraphernalia or a chorus-line of dancing girls and/or boys to distract wandering ears and eyes.
The solitary troubadour can't visit the bathroom during a drum solo. Or take a costume change while the hired lead guitarist flounces out his vanity solo. The lonesome picker needs absolute physical and mental stamina.
Of course, there are advantages. The Moore operation is eco-friendly; small and mobile. He doesn't have to pause to berate the soundman because the keyboard player's latest gizmo has started commuting with air traffic control or Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope. No regiments of roadies for Moore, a factor which has kept him securely in the black, independent and not overbothered by the whims of record companies who can prefer their artists mortgaged to them.
But solo work is also more than a marathon. Hypersensitivity is even more important than endurance. It's the ability to detect, catch and share a mood; to take a cue from a heckler and spin it every which way; to renew an old and battle-weary song that all thought was beyond reinterpretation; to communicate comedy and tragedy, compassion and scorn, love, awe and confusion, pathos and conviviality and all the emotions in between.
Bob Dylan once famously and accurately called himself a song 'n' dance man; the less enigmatic Moore is a song 'n' cracksman, joker who can make small and intimate the largest auditorium and then dominate almost 40,000 Fiile reprobates, not bad for a 47-year-old when most artists his age are looking forward to playing golf on the Grateful Dead seniors tour or getting a bus-pass from the David Crosby Retirement Home.
This week, he's at it again, playing Cork and The Point in Dublin. He's been fiddling around with nine new songs and played some at a recent warm-up in Dublin's Mother Redcap's. But he makes no guarantees about their inclusion. "I never sacrifice a gig for new material," cautions Christy.
Some may make it to his next album after being refined in early preparatory sessions in a small Wicklow studio. Moore talks of continued collaborations with Wally Page and Johnny Mulhern and hopes to start serious recording once these dates are over.
We could talk about causes, about Christy Moore the dragon-slayer but that Moore will anyway be giving his own slant at the concerts. Instead we talk about his craft and how he views his career in the wider context of Irish music. We talk of record companies and new issues since he last faced a tape-recorder, like The Sawdoctors and Siniad's recent travails.
Of course there is a bit of politics. The government was finally busting up when we talked last Wednesday fortnight in Monkstown and Christy was angered by the waste, folly and irrelevance of it all. We chatted lightly about Albert Reynolds but somehow I preferred to put my own spin on his line when he told me: "I once cycled to Dreamland."
Bill Graham: Are these concerts going to be completely solo or will you have other guest musicians?
Christy Moore: No. I think it's established in my own head that I am a solo performer and I don't visualise myself having other musicians on stage in the near future . . . The way my thing has developed, I can't do it with other musicians. I can't be as spontaneous as I need to be. I can't be as free as I need to be in the context of a band. It's impossible. I need to be alone for the moment.
BG: How do you see your own music in the context of the last ten years?
CM: I suppose in the last ten years what I do has become more important to me. I take myself more seriously in 1992 than I did ten years ago.
BG: Surely you took yourself seriously ten years ago. What's the difference?
CM:I spent a lot more time working at what I do. I've a lot more confidence. Ten years ago I wouldn't have had much confidence in my own writing, or in my own interpretations. Ten years ago, I would have been embarrassed, but now I feel I'm good at what I do and I am not embarrassed about saying it. I'm not saying it like I'm a great fellow but I take pride in what I do.
BG: Like Van Morrison's 'Cleaning Windows' with his line "I'm a working man in my prime"?
CM: I'd feel that way. At the same time, I do know it's not quite like cleaning windows either. Like there's a friend of mine on the other side of the bar and he does clean windows. I couldn't convince him what I do is the same as he does. In a way that's crap but what we do isn't ordinary, it's extraordinary. I try and behave as if it's ordinary even though I know it's not.
I don't get carried away by the trappings of it. At least I hope I don't . . . I feel as if it's having pride in the work but not having pride in the status. It's being determined that it will be as good as it can be but not getting carried away by the reaction.
I tend to place more emphasis on the performance but it's the same with the songs. I've been writing songs for the last while. Ten years ago, I would have been happy with them and recorded them a few months ago, but now, I seem to keep wanting to go on and on and on until the fucking song is really finished.
BG: What gave you that sense of worth and self-confidence we've been talking about? Was it Irish audiences or non-Irish audiences?
CM: I don't know the exact answer, (pauses). I suppose for the first twenty years of my career as a musician, I was always in awe of the people around me. I went into a band, Planxty in the Seventies and I went into a band, Moving Hearts in the Eighties. And both bands received acclaim. But some time in the last five or six years, I realised I could generate as much power with my voice and guitar as any band I'd been in could generate. It might not be as musical or varied but the actual power and the feeling, well the realisation of that gave me the confidence to take myself seriously.
BG: How do you respond to the Sawdoctors? Would you see a little bit of yourself in them?
CM: A little bit at times. I think they're brilliant. I love them. I think they're very real. They're not trying to put anything over and I tend to like people who go out on stage to have a good time.
BG: Perhaps you and they have similar audiences at Fiile?
CM: Well I certainly related to it this year. I felt very comfortable for the first time in the outdoor arena at that kind of mega-gig. I had no hang-ups. It was okay for me to be there with my acoustic guitar in between all the mega-watts.
I felt a lot of good feeling, love, and it was reciprocated. Like I know I picked out my twelve biggest, loudest, chorus-y songs and lashed them out, but it wasn't subtle.
BG:Are people in Dublin not realising that rural Ireland and I don't just mean the obvious big towns like Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, is getting rather crazy? All that space between Newbridge and Tuam maybe getting rather more interesting than Dubliners realise?
CM: Absolutely. What I pick up now is that the urban/rural divide is getting obliterated by modern communications. Everybody has access to the same information now, but there was a time even in my life when the amount of information in Dublin was vastly greater than what was available 30 miles down the road in Kildare. You can be just as up-to-date and hip in Newbridge as in Grafton Street.
BG: But has the sort of Anne Lovett/Valley Of Squinting Windows syndrome broken down?
CM: Well that can never break down to the extent that if you're in a place that has 300 people, everything is far more visible than if a place has 3,000, 30,000 or 300,000. So you'll always have the valley of squinting windows because you're always going to be curious about what's happening in the valley if there's only ten houses in it.
Like I live around here in Monkstown. I don't know what happens here. But if I lived in a townland, in the butt end of south County Kildare, I'd have a fair idea of what was happening. You don't need to be Irish or rural about it, it's human curiosity.
BG: Would you have been more ideological ten years ago? At least in the sense that maybe you needed a spine, a crutch to support your thinking?
CM: I don}t know if I was ever ideological but I suppose ten years ago, I would have been more aware 'is this correct or is this not correct'. Whereas now I would make my own decisions about what was correct without any ideology.
BG: How did that evolve?
CM: Again, I think it's a thing of confidence.
BG: On your last album, you had a song, 'Burning Times' about the Inquisition and burning witches. I suspect a song like that might not have been included on an album of yours, five years ago.
CM: No, I would have had different concepts. I found that particular song and I thought it was wonderful and it gave me the perspective of starting from the Inquisition and the torturing of all those thousands of women.
BG: Let me rephrase the question. Five or ten years ago, you might have sung a traditional ballad that had a basic, primitive feminist message and not been fully aware of that strand in it?
CM: Go back to 'The Well Below The Valley', which we recorded as far back as 1970. When I first recorded it, I recorded it as a very great song and I was oblivious to what was in the song. As far as I know, it's a thousand years old but when I sing it now, I sing it about something that still happens . . . Now I've an awareness of what happens behind closed doors, in the valleys of the squinting windows and in the suburbs of the urban sprawls. The abuse, the hurt, the pain, the suffering. I was not aware of that in 1970.
BG: What's your opinion of the recent controversies surrounding Siniad O'Connor?
CM: Well, I'm not going to say I feel sorry for her because she wouldn't thank me for that. But I would certainly support her right. To me, she didn't do anything wrong. I think she's been very courageous.
BG: When you read a piece attacking her, what's your response?
CM: I suppose I've more faith in Siniad than I have in a lot of the people writing about her. I think she's been very abused in the media because she speaks out very loudly and spontaneously. Maybe she doesn't always get it right.
BG:What's your personal sense of her?
CM: My personal sense of her is that she's a true person. Right through all the recent furore, she wasn't trying to sell products; she was responding to situations, expressing her hurt, anger or pain.
BG: Would you have ever talked to her about those matters?
CM: No. I certainly don't know Siniad privately. I've worked with her a few times. I've had the pleasure of recording with her. I know her but I'm not a friend. The last time I spoke to her was about three years ago. I've sung with her on stage a number of times and it was always wonderful. I would love to sing with her again.
BG: Abroad, you got increasing audiences throughout the Eighties but it never quite translated into record sales. Did you feel you lacked understanding and support outside Ireland?
CM: The only record company that supported me abroad was Newberry. WEA never supported me abroad. There was a token effort made with the 'Voyage' album but the proof is that with Newberry, 'Smoke And Strong Whiskey' totally outsold 'Voyage'. It was only when we started our own label and launched our own album in Britain that we realised how little had been done previously. It actually got into the Top 50 whereas previously I'd only got into the Eighties and Nineties.
BG: But you would have been annoyed in that you were getting kudos from such as Bono and Elvis Costello and the record company was doing little or nothing?
CM: I think that having had dealings across the decades with record companies, I've never relied on them too much. I've been frustrated a number of times over the past decade by the inactivity of labels abroad when I would have sell-out dates in major venues and there would be no interest. You'd go into the office and there might be a poster on the wall saying "Atlantic Welcomes Christy Moore to New York", but you know fuckin' well the minute you walk out, they take down the poster and tht's all they do. But I've never relied on record companies for my livelihood. I've always made my living as a performer.
BG: But you'd go to a major city outside Ireland and very possibly play to more non-Irish people than an act that the record company might be seriously pushing?
CM: It's frustrating. But I can see the problems they have as well. Here I am, a 47-year-old making very specific albums and I'm dealing with a record company who also have Madonna and they're geared for that sort of problem.
WEA in Ireland can handle Christy Moore because when I was signed to them, I was their biggest selling act. I feel I could sell records in other territories but if that were to become a burning desire, it might become a burning resentment. I suffered long enough in my life with burning resentments about record companies and it's something I let goof because it's excess baggage I can't afford to carry.
BG: What would you listen to?
CM: I don't listen to anything. Honestly.
BG: What's the last record or song you got enthusiastic about?
CM: What I listen to - when I'm not playing my own stuff which I do every day - is Wally Page, Johnny Mulhern, the people who send me songs, that's who I listen to. Somebody sent over the John Prine album the other night and I listened to it and then I sent it back.
I'm being honest when I say I don't listen to anything. I know it's probably hard for you, you probably think I'm joking . . . Look I was up this morning at 8 and then playing for three hours. I'll probably play again this afternoon. I'll probably play again tonight. When I'm not working on my songs, I don't listen to music.
The albums I would buy and bring home and listen to once would be Van Morrison, Siniad O'Connor, The Pogues, Jimmy McCarthy, Mary Coughlan. Sometimes when I'm out on the road young bands give me their stuff and I listen to it. Like in the Seventies, I used to listen to a lot of music - Santana, Dylan, Van Morrison. I used to listen to Mountain, I loved Mountain . . . Dory Previn. I used to listen to a lot when I was into smoking dope and listening to albums.
BG: Do you distinguish between your audiences here and abroad?
CM: It's not different from country to country. It doesn't vary. It's people who connect with the songs, the lyrics, the feeling for various reasons. But it seems to be in the last ten years that people see my music for what it is and they connect to that. It's nothing to do with style. It seems to be something to do with content and I touch people in certain ways.
BG: So it's the lone man with the guitar in front of over 20,000 at Fiile. Where does that put you in competition with everybody else's technology?
It's where I like to be. At this point in my life, I find it exciting and really quite dangerous to be out on the edge of a big stage with just a guitar. And I find it particularly thrilling in the way my life has gone over the past few years.
BG: How are the hecklers?
The hecklers are still good. Very important. Worth their weight in gold. A good heckler is as good as a good light show.
BG: When was the last time a heckler really pushed you?
I don't remember. But then the last three gigs I did were Fiile, London Fleadh, Glasgow Fleadh. You don't have hecklers there. I mean you don't hear them at Fiile because there's 60,000 of them. They're all hecklers at Fiile.
Or they're the performers and I'm the heckler.