For nearly a decade he was one of the leading lights of Irish folk. And then Paul Brady turned away from the trad scene and reinvented himself as a contemporary singer-songwriter, penning songs for stars such as Tina Turner along the way. Now, with a new album under his belt, he reflects on his long journey from the pub session to the rock stage, the price of fame and talks about his burgeoning friendship with artists such as Glen Hansard, Fionn Regan and Ronan Keating.
At the end of the 1970s, Paul Brady made a decision that would change his career forever. Best known at the time as Ireland’s foremost interpreter of folk/traditional songs and a huge live draw, he had reached the pinnacle of his popularity. His 1978 album, Welcome Here Kind Stranger (recently re-isssued) basked in the kind of critical accolades that others would kill for. He looked set to ascend to the next level internationally.
“There’s no doubt that I was at the top of my game as a solo folk performer,” he reflects. “At that time I was headlining everywhere I played. I knew that if I kept on doing this I was never going to be able to write songs, so I made the conscious decision to pull back. My hero at the time was Gerry Rafferty who’d put out the album, City to City – the one with ‘Baker Street’ on it. I ate that album for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I wanted to do something along the same lines. It came as a shock and a lot of people were left scratching their heads at my decision. Because I had effectively jumped off at the top of the pile and landed on the bottom of this other pile. And it took a long, long time to get anywhere up that other ladder.”
It wasn’t the first occasion Brady had been forced to make a crucial decision. More than a decade earlier, in the summer of ’67, he found himself at a similar crossroads. He’d been playing blues, rock and soul in various outfits around the Dublin scene while still a reluctant student at UCD. His parents wanted him to get a degree and to become a teacher but he had other ideas.
He recalls: “I knew that I wanted to be in the music business. I wasn’t getting anywhere at what I was doing. I was in semi-pro bands playing in tennis clubs, when I was supposed to be studying at UCD. It was a bit of a dead end. I certainly didn’t want to be in a showband as they weren’t going anywhere either.”
Out of the blue he was offered the chance to join The Johnstons, a hugely popular folk group who had already scored several hits, most notably with Ewan McColl’s ‘Travelling People’. Brady didn’t hesitate to take up the offer.
“It was a venal decision on my part,” he concedes. “I saw it purely as a way for me to jump up three or four steps in the business. I have to admit to feeling slightly guilty about this, looking back on it. I had been seduced into traditional music almost by accident when I got to the age of 20 or 21. I fell under its spell and didn’t come out of it until I was in my thirties. It was almost like the elephant in the room that I never noticed. My uncle played the fiddle, my mother and father were musical and it was in the ether all around me growing up in Strabane. When I was a teenager it was always Little Richard or the Shadows or the Beatles over any of that trad stuff.”
In hindsight, he accepts that it was almost inevitable that he would pursue a career in folk music given the musical landscape of that time.
“There was a huge amount of traditional and folk music around – it was the era of the ballad boom and every single hotel and bar in the country had the ballad room and the weekly ballad session. In Dublin, O’Donoghue’s pub was the meeting place, where Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan, Luke Kelly, Ronnie Drew, Mick Maloney and others including myself would gather. This was where we would all hang out and drink, and it was an exciting time. Suddenly, I’m offered this chance to join a band that was nationally known. I didn’t even think twice about it. I thought, ‘Yes – this is my in. I don’t have to worry about having to get established in the folk world. It was only when I got into the band that I began to really get into the music.”
Brady spent several years with The Johnstons. He moved to London and later to New York, before returning to Dublin in 1974 to join Planxty, who were the seminal Irish folk band of the early ‘70s, providing the launching pad for the solo careers of Andy Irvine, Liam O‘Flynn, Donal Lunny and Christy Moore. From ’76 to ’78 he played as part of a duo with Andy Irvine before releasing his debut solo album, Welcome Here Kind Stranger.
Despite his dramatic decision to effectively abandon the folk world just as he had conquered it, he insists he has no regrets: “My decade of doing nothing but traditional music is a huge part of my musical history and still very much a part of my consciousness.“
Even early on, he says he saw the initiations and frustrations of being a professional musician based in Ireland.
“It was a dead-end, in that there wasn’t really an infrastructure, apart from the endless touring circuit. There wasn’t a recording scene here, there wasn’t a writing scene and there was no PR or gear-hire scene There was only one place, Hurley’s of Cross Guns Bridge, who hired out what they called ‘crazy boxes’ which the showbands would use as PA speakers. It was a really primitive time in Ireland. Christ, you couldn’t even get a phone in the house. I was living in Glasnevin in a place which we’d bought, off the plans, in 1975. We had to wait three years for a phone. In fact, we had moved out by the time the phone arrived. I had to go out to the phone box down the road and use it as my office. The only way you could access the rest of the world was to move to London or New York. People like Phil Lynott and Rory Gallagher did just that. It occurred to me that I should do it but suddenly I had a mortgage and two children under the age of two. I thought if I had management in London it would be enough.”
In the event, his gamble paid off. His debut “rock” album Hard Station – one of the first LPs to be recorded in Windmill Lane – was an instant success and he took it on the road with a full band line-up.
Songs like the biting title track, the melodic hit single ‘Crazy Dreams’ and the gritty, ‘Nothing But The Same Old Story’ (a tale of Irish emigration and discrimination) remain among his strongest and best-known works. He would go on to record a slew of successful albums throughout the 1980s, among them True For You, Back To The Centre and Primitive Dance.
Indeed, a whole new generation of fans knew Paul Brady as a contemporary rock artist, rather than a folk singer. While he was more than happy with the new musical path he had embarked on, Brady was less comfortable with the notion of being a rock star.
“Part of the whole folk ethic was that you didn’t get above your station or you didn’t go around trying to be cool wearing shades and the like. It was almost an anti-star ethos. I had that with me when I came into the rock scene in Dublin. I felt that I was out of place in the scene such as it was. The Pink Elephant and all that stuff. It was a mad time. How did I survive at all? (laughs). But I was never managed from Dublin. I was managed by the people who managed Dire Straits for about a decade. A lot of my records after Hard Station were made in England.”
At this time he also began to be taken seriously by other artists as a songwriter. Major international artists of the calibre of Tina Turner, Santana, Dave Edmunds and Bonnie Raitt recorded his songs, providing a steady flow of royalties.
“That was very good for me,” he says. “It gave me a cushion from which I could afford to take a few more chances and not be so dependent on being a record seller. I had found resistance to the music I was making on UK radio. It wasn’t cool enough. It was the 1980s. The haircut and shoulder pads era. Singer-songwriters were not the flavour at the time. It was all electronics and Kajagoogoo. People didn’t know what kind of a hat to hang on me. I never had a clearly defined image.”
Since those days Brady has blended both his folk and rock roots on albums such as 95’s Spirits Colliding, and 2000’s Oh What A World, which featured collaborations with Carole King, Will Jennings and Ronan Keating. His last album, Say What You Feel, recorded in Nashville and released in 2005 saw a return to a rootsier sound.
His latest album, Hooba Dooba (his 14th solo record), draws on all of his strengths as a melodicist and lyricist with a blend of up-tempo numbers and ballads. One song, ‘The Price of Fame’ was written with Ronan Keating with whom he also collaborated on ‘The Long Goodbye’ – a huge hit in the US for country duo Brooks & Dunne.
“We’ve written three or four together and I liked this one”, he explains. “It’s not about rock musicians whinging about being famous. I’m fascinated by the whole notion of fame. In the music business, fame and success are inextricably linked. It’s hard to have one without the other. I’ve been ambivalent about fame. I don’t particularly like the notion at all. I’m interested in what happens when two people who are close together and one gets fame and the other doesn’t. The standard notion is that the person who gets the fame doesn’t want to know his past any longer. It’s my experience that it’s almost the opposite. The person who is – quote – ‘left behind’ is often the one who withdraws and blames the other. It’s not just confined to the artistic world. It could be about a job. You get promoted and I don’t. You’re in the management now, you’ve moved on so how do I feel about it?.”
The album also features his own take on the Beatles’ Rubber Soul classic ‘You Won’t See Me’. So has he ever considered doing a covers album? “A couple of people have suggested that to me. I think it would show a different side to me. The question would be – which songs to do?”
Meanwhile, he has been collaborating on-stage with the new generation of Irish singer songwriters. As he explains: “It’s great to see people like Glen Hansard, Declan O’Rourke, Damien Rice, Paddy Casey and Fionn Regan doing well. I think it’s wonderful that people are writing songs and standing up with an acoustic guitar and singing. It’s what I’ve always done. And I’ve had fun singing with those guys recently. I did the Ruby Sessions tenth anniversary and I also did a Haiti benefit with Glen Hansard. I didn’t really know those guys very well – obviously I’m a different generation. They’ve been very welcoming to me.”
Brady takes to the road in his own right throughout Ireland over the coming months, including a couple of dates at Dublin’s brand new Grand Canal Theatre.
“Quite a lot of people are interested in the new album. But I’ve had a solid core of fans over the last 30 years and I’m grateful for that.
“I’ve learned that there is an awful lot of disappointment in this business and that nothing lasts forever. It’s really not about what happens to you, it’s about how you react to those things that happen. I’m just delighted I’m still here and that I have the energy to record and tour.”
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