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give PIERCE a chance
While commercial success hasn’t exactly come a-knockin’ on his door, Pierce Turner, in stoical mood, tells Liam Fay why he’s not all that bothered at the relative lack of lolly rolling in but how with his new live album Manaña In Manhattan just released, the wily Wexford wizard believes his time will come . . . Pic: Cathal Dawson.
Liam Fay, 02 Nov 1994
I try to make music that will take people somewhere else, somewhere beyond the daily bullshit, and make them feel that life is dignified and special after all,” says Pierce Turner. “I’m trying to do something original and I’m trying to do something that is spiritual in some way. It’s a lofty goal, I know, but that’s what I want to do.”
Whenever a rock musician starts talking like this, it’s usually time to release the safety catch on your rocket launcher and take aim. Too many songwriters excel at that most pernicious form of instrumental accompaniment, the blowing of their own trumpets. They’d rather write agendas than songs, forgetting that while most musical manifestos have the shelf-life of an ice cube, a good tune lasts forever. In this as in so much else, however, Pierce Turner is a notable exception.
Turner is the most innovative and inspiring Irish songwriter working anywhere in the world today, bar none. Regular readers will know that I have been championing his work in these pages for some years now, and nothing he has done during that period has even faintly diminished my enthusiasm. Listening to his albums or watching him play live, I still get a real sense of the thrill that should always but only rarely does attend the making of music, free of the usual muffling layers of routine, bombast and cliché.
How then do I explain the fact that 1994 finds Turner apparently even more marginalised than ever and without the support of a major record label? Like it or not, the answer seems to be that his belief in music as something more than just software simply isn’t fashionable at the moment.
“There are things that music can do that nothing else can do,” Turner asserts. “It can take you places that you could otherwise only visit in dreams or something. That’s the purpose it should serve. Fauré’s Requiem does that for me. Elgar’s Nimrod does it. Roxy Music does it. ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ does it still. Some songs by This Mortal Coil can do it. A lot of records can do it but certainly not the stuff that they play on the radio, either here or in the States. ‘Losing My Religion’ was a great single, one of the best of the past few years, but I couldn’t put that in the same category as Fauré’s Requiem. That’s really how high I think these people should aim.
“It sounds like I’m some sort of high-falutin’ artist gobshite but it can be done. The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ reaches that quality. Today, that record still sounds like it was written by a spaceman. Listen to the chord structures and the music behind it. Brian Wilson was an absolute genius. He had no fear at all. It could’ve been written by Mozart. Listen to Bob Dylan singing ‘Desolation Row’. It’s an absolute masterpiece from beginning to end. It keeps going on and on and it keeps getting better as it goes along. If you set that as a standard for yourself then fuck-all songwriters out there are reaching it.
“I think I have reached it a couple of times. I think ‘Zero Here’ reached it, for instance. People might say I’m nuts for saying that but, at least, I’m aiming that high even if I’m deluding myself. Very few people are aiming that high anymore.”
Pierce Turner’s odyssey from an Irish showband called The Arrows in the mid ’70s through the New York based Major Thinkers in the ’80s and then on to his current solo career has already been well documented. It was, however, during Turner’s childhood in Wexford that the real seeds of his taste for musical adventure were sown. It was in his formative years too that he began to develop what was to become a rather ambiguous relationship with his native country.
Turner was weaned on the sound of flutes, fiddles and guitars. “My mother had a band, so they were practising all the time in the house,” he recalls. “Every one of my siblings were musicians who were classically trained. I was in the local brass and reed orchestra from the age of 8 so I learned how to read music and how to figure out difficult clarinet parts and all that. My mother also owned a record shop and that meant that I was able to get my hands on a very wide range of different types of music. Then, I quit school when I was 14. My mother was a very adventurous woman who thought that school was bullshit. She had taught herself everything and she saw no reason why I couldn’t do the same. So, as soon as I could, I got out of school and started concentrating on music as much as I could.”
Pretty soon, Turner had established himself as the Rebel County’s answer to the young Brian Wilson, writing, arranging and even recording his own original material.
“I had every musician in the village involved in my recordings,” he laughs. “When I was 15 or 16, I was always bringing local musicians into the room and making them bang on the sides of saxophone cases or anything that was there. Even then, I had a very clear image of what I wanted the finished thing to sound like.”
However, it was in the midst of these early recording sessions that Turner began to feel suffocated by what he perceived as intrinsically Irish attitudes and conventions. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, in 1976, that he eventually emigrated to New York but, by then, he had been gasping for fresh, foreign air for some time.
“I love this place but if I’d continued living here, I would’ve been paralysed,” he insists. “People here are too self-deprecating. I don’t think Irish people will easily allow themselves to be great. You can get up in the morning and feel that you’re fucking great because you wrote something the night before but all it takes is one fucker to say something to you and you can feel like you’re useless within five minutes.
“That’s what Ireland did to me. There’s no shortage of people here to tell you that you’re shite. There certainly is this refusal to believe that anyone who you know is any good. How could you write a great song, sure didn’t I go to school with you? That’s the way everyone keeps everyone else down.
“All of this boils down to my own problems as a person,” he continues. “I should’ve been able to overcome all that but I’m obviously greatly affected by the Irish way of dealing with things. It definitely knocks the shit out of me. I like to be a nice guy. I like to be popular. I like to be an ordinary chap hanging out with the boys. In Ireland, you’d better be like that or you’re a cunt. They don’t like succcess in Ireland. If you’re successful, you better pretend that you’re not successful. If I’d stayed in Ireland, I would’ve rather been one of the boys than tried to be successful. And that immediately tears you apart.
“When I had all those musicians playing my stuff in the house, some of them started to get contrary because we were only playing my stuff. So, they’d come in with stuff and it was terrible shite but there I was, playing it away like an eejit, because I didn’t want anyone to think that I was a big-head. I didn’t even let on that I knew the difference between what was good and what was shite. The thing I loved about New York was that over there they love it when you speak up and say what you want. Until I got out there, I never really believed that I could be any good and I could actually see my dreams through.”
For Turner, living in New York, and in particular in Manhattan, has been like living in “a big fucking opera twenty four hours a day.” He finds the sights, sounds and smells of the city endlessly stimulating and the distance, both literal and cultural, from Ireland has enabled him to see his years in Wexford with a heightened clarity that suffuses his lyric writing. It is only very recently, almost too decades after his original departure, that he has felt sufficiently confident and secure to even consider returning to this country permanently.
To that end, he and his wife Claire have just purchased a small cottage in Wexford. “When we have children I don’t want to raise them in Manhattan,” he says. “The New York opera can be a very bloody, dangerous fucking opera as well.”
For those who have yet to become intimately acquainted with the Pierce Turner experience, his music is an indescribable but infectiously passionate blend of soaring melody, pulsating rhythms and lyrics that are evocative, rich and certainly more intrinsically Irish than any currently being written within this jurisdiction. The perfect crash course is Manaña In Manhattan, the new live album which draws together some of the best material from Turner’s three solo records (all of which, incidentally, are still available from a bargain bin near you).
The collection is released here by Virtual Recordings and is distributed elsewhere through Gael Linn, a complicated arrangement that underlines the lack of record company support. By no stretch of even a deejay’s puny imagination could Turner’s music be described as ‘difficult’ or ‘inaccessible’ – nevertheless it does defy simplistic categorisation and this appears to have erected insurmountable obstacles for the marketing department of his last label, Beggars Banquet.
“I just couldn’t have done another album with them,” Turner avers. “Martin Mills (Beggars Banquet MD) truly loved my music and he really wanted me to do another album. He’d have put up the money for a £40,000 or a £50,000 record and we could’ve kept doing that for the rest of our lives. But what bothered me was the staff that work for Beggars Banquet are geared towards a totally different kind of music to what I’m doing. I felt like I was fighting them. If you are getting really good reviews in all these magazines and then you have this fucking cunt in Beggars Banquet who feels that the papers are all wrong and that the record is actually not any good, it’s very frustrating. To me, that’s too infuriating to live with.”
The relief of being unshackled soon turned to impatience with the inability to release any further material until a satisfactory new deal can be secured but Turner insists that he is content to keep his powder dry for as long as is necessary.
“It’s like this Canadian journalist who asked me does it not frustrate me that my records don’t sell in Canada,” he says. “I thought about it for a minute and answered honestly, ‘No, not really’. He looked at me like I was fucking mad or something (laughs). I don’t know why I say it doesn’t frustrate me because it sounds like I’m some sort of insane head or something but I’d sooner have no deal than the wrong deal. Record companies need me as much as I need them. I really do think that, and that attitude is what keeps me going. It obviously means that I don’t make very much money but I’ve gotten used to that.”
Meanwhile, Turner believes that the material he’s writing at the moment is scaling even greater creative peaks, primarily as a result of his collaboration with a new backing band, the string quartet who are featured on Manaña In Manhattan. And, from what I’ve heard of some of this work-in-progress, I tend to agree.
“The problem with being a solo artist is that you are almost too free,” he argues. “You can have a brass band on one track, an Hawaiian band on another, a whole fucking showband on another. In a way, continuity tends to get lost because there’s too much going on. Some of the greatest records are actually restricted by them just being an acoustic guitar player or just having a bass drum and two guitars. Working with the quartet has given birth to a whole new sound for me. They’re a very rock oriented bunch of musicians, and they’ve encouraged me to raise my game to a higher level altogether.
“Working with these musicians has also done a lot for my confidence because I always thought the classical world was magical and completely superior to me. When you’re in a room with four classical musicians, working with them constantly, after a while you realise that it’s the same as with any other musicians. It’s taken some of the mystery out of it and allowed me to be more ambitious.”
So, can we expect any global number ones emerging from this partnership?
“I’d love to think that I could write a song that has instant appeal to the world at large and doesn’t wear thin but there are very, very few songs like that,” Turner replies. “I have songs that I do think could have wide appeal but within a week I find them so syrupy that I can’t stand listening to them. I’ve tried to give those songs to other people but they can smell a rat straight away (laughs).”
As Hot Press reported some time ago, shooting begins shortly on Animal, a new feature film, set in Dublin, which was inspired by a Pierce Turner song (‘Musha God Help Her’) and which also showcases a number of his other tracks. Turner will actually appear in the movie, as himself, and he’s currently dotting the crotchets and quavers on an original soundtrack for the project.
Above all else, however, Turner is excited about his next studio album proper, a record which he fervently believes, and hopes, will finally have the widespread popular impact that has thus far proven so elusive. Sooner rather than later, he reasons, things have to start going his way.
“There seems to be something difficult about getting my music across to the general public,” he says. “I don’t really understand why that is but I do know one thing, if you don’t give up and you keep doing it then it’ll get through somehow or another. My songs are not written for temporary situations. They’re meant to last a long, long time so it makes sense that it’s gonna take a long, long time for them to break through to people. I’ve been around long enough to realise that if you have staying power you’ll eventually get some sort of reward. At the very least, people will eventually say ‘Hey, this cunt’s not so bad after all’.”