- 21 Apr 17
Polymath Joe Chester tells us about an encounter with French actress Juliette Binoche, and overseeing demos for the young Hozier.
Singer-songwriter, producer, musician – Joe Chester wears many hats. Is it a wonder that it’s been five years since his last solo effort, Hope Against Hope?
“I’ve done two tours with The Waterboys,” reflects Chester, before reeling off a list of other projects. “Then there were Hedge Schools and Lazarous Soul records, reunions with Gemma Hayes and Ten Speed Racer, plus whatever albums I produced in the last five years. So it has been busy.”
Chester is seated with Hot Press on the occasion of the release of the Easter Vigil, nine enthralling tracks which use the structure of the spring feast as their scaffold – though Joe protests the ecclesiastical connotation.
“It’s not really a religious record,” he insists. “It’s a skeleton to hang the songs on. I just liked the shape of the whole Easter week thing; to begin on Spy Wednesday and to finish on Easter Sunday, it was a nice shape. There’s an element of the loss of faith there. I’d say I was a religious child but most Irish kids were. I was born in ’72 and it’s a totally different country now.”
There are references to old Dublin landmarks such as The Swastika Laundry (famous as the symbol was co-opted by the Nazis) and more contemporary areas such as Meeting House Square, which hide the earlier intent for the record, a collection of songs about the capital.
“‘Like A Rose Tattoo’, for example, was written about the Tenesse Williams play famously staged in the 1950s by the Pike Theatre at the Dublin Theatre Festival. It was raided by the guards on the instruction of Archbishop McQuaid and taken off because a condom was used on the stage. It ruined people’s lives, the theatre director ended up in prison.”
The Meeting House Square reference is contained in lead track ‘Juliette Walking In The Rain’, inspired by seeing the French actress Juliette Binoche strolling in the city centre location.
“That was a really inspiring moment,” notes Joe. “The films she made with Krzysztof Kieslowski were huge for me when I was a kid. It was perfect, pitch dark, lashing rain and nobody around. I was standing there with my wife Julie, we were just beginning our new life together, and then I came face to face with an image from my youth. It was very powerful.”
Joe moved to Nice a year-and-a-half ago to be with his French wife Julie, who plays drums on the album and took care of photography and design duties.
Continental life suits Joe, who admits to feeling more relaxed in his new home.
“I didn’t really feel at home in Dublin anymore,” he muses. “And I would say Dublin, not Ireland. I have a deep connection with rural Ireland. I had a sense of anxiety living in Dublin and I don’t have that anymore.”
He does of course regularly visit for work purposes. The album was recorded in both France and Ireland to facilitate guest performances from Waterboys Steve Wickham and Anthony Thistletwaite, and Vyvienne Long on cello. What did Chester learn from Mike Scott and co?
“How to be a really good accompanist and serve the songs. Also, in terms of performance, Mike is unbelievable, really amazing. He totally lives in the moment on stage and taught me how to let go. I had a lot of hangups!”.
Joe was also one of the first people to hook up in the studio with young Andrew Hozier.
“We did some demos when he was on a different label,” he reveals. “It was a voyage of discovery – he was really only starting out. We were recording covers; the label didn’t really want him to do his own songs. I’ve had similar experiences with a lot of artists, and I say to them, ‘Give them what they want and then start pushing back.’ Labels are very risk averse. I think it was a Bee Gees song they had him doing. I think he found that to be a very tough process.”
As an experienced and in-demand producer Joe exercises caution with the clients he takes on.
“I’m like a dog,” he concludes. “I can smell the difference between the people who are more interested in having a career than making an artistic statement. There is a lot of that around, I don’t want to work with people like that.”
Joe Chester gives Easter Vigil a live airing in the Roisin Dubh, Galway (April 23); The Unitarian Church, Dublin (28); The Spirit Store, Dundalk (May 4) and Crane Lane, Cork (27).