- 02 Apr 01
He may indeed be from Limerick but if you think you’re going to get a subheadline that mentions bringing home the bacon, acting the ham or even being on the pig’s back, then you’re sadly mistaken. Instead we’re going to keep things simple. Mick Hanly has just released a new album entitled Happy Like This. What better occasion for Jackie Hayden to visit him in his Kilkenny home and look back over his career to date, and to remember the days when he hadn’t a sausage (would you cut the crap, please? – Ed)? Pix.: Brendan Fitzpatrick.
Hands on the buzzers, your starter for ten. Who wrote the song which was most played on American country music radio last year? Johnny Cash? Garth Brooks? Willie Nelson? Hank Williams? Dolly Parton? Randy Travis? Clint Black? Do you give up? The correct answer is Mick Hanly, composer of ‘Past The Point Of Rescue’, former resident of the Dublin suburb of Fairview but now happily ensconced in the rural environs of Thomastown with a new family, a lighter heart and, according to reports, a heavier wallet – a result of the royalties accruing from the afore-mentioned American achievement, Christy Moore’s and Mary Black’s versions of his songs and the comparatively modest successes of his own solo albums and live concert work.
This has been no instant journey to the end of the rainbow for the quiet, self-effacing Limerick-man whose recording career goes back to the early seventies when he recorded the Celtic Folkweave album with Michael O’Donnell, that was followed by two solo folksy efforts A Kiss In The Morning Early and As I Went Over Blackwater, the excellent Live Hearts with Moving Hearts, Still Not Cured (with Rusty Old Halo), and two solo country-folk-rock albums, All I Remember and Warts And All.
With the release of a fresh new album to be called, appropriately, Happy Like This, I visited the man himself in his new abode, idyllically set by the banks of the River Nore.
“I used to go running round crazy, drank to be more of a man,
But I’m doing a lot more lately, I’m doing the best that I can.
These days I get less angry when things don’t combine.
Laughing at how I behave, sometimes is more in my line.”
(‘These Days’ – M Hanly)
JACKIE HAYDEN: Why is the man who wrote the most played country song on American radio living in remotest Kilkenny?
MICK HANLY: I came down to a gig here five or six years ago and I met Marie, who I now live with, and we started seeing each other and after a while we fell in love and decided to live together. But I also thought there was something about Thomastown. I began to realise that I wasn’t enjoying living in Dublin anymore.
What was wrong with Dublin?
It was getting too stressful. My daughter Jessie was living with me in Fairview and she hadn’t the freedom to go down the road on her own without me worrying about her. Everywhere I went you had to lock your car, and I began to think this is crazy, this is no way to live. I wrote about it in ‘Wherever You Go’ on Warts And All. I had convinced myself I needed to base myself in Dublin, but that’s a myth and when I had the option to leave, I took it. One day I said ‘Right, let’s go’.
Did you move straight in together?
(laughs) No! At first we had this independence thing and I lived in one part of Thomastown and Marie in the other, but then we moved in here with my daughter and her daughter and it’s been very happy since.
In recent times you have enjoyed a lot of success compared to that earlier period. You got a Smithwick’s/Hot Press Songwriter Award, the BMI Award, your song by Hal Ketchum got to number two in the charts and appeared on a million-selling album. Was there an obvious point when you noticed your fortunes began to change?
I wasn’t conscious of it, but I think I became more relaxed. I developed a better feeling for my own worth, if you like. That was really important, and I didn’t have that before, you know, It’s hard to project yourself out there and be convincing in your work if you don’t have a sense of your own worth. I know it sounds daft, but I used to think that the reason people might befriend me was because I played the guitar. I didn’t think they could like me for my own self. But then I met someone who loved me for what I am.
I get the impression from some of your lyrics that maybe you didn’t like yourself and that you may, at times, have been quite hard on yourself.
I think it was the way I was educated, the way I was reared. It gave me cause to be self-critical because of the stuff I was doing. The education thing was pretty horrendous.
Horrendous in what way?
It was a terrifying experience, going through the Christian Brothers in Limerick. I think there’s a lot that we deny about the education we came through. Like there were certain teachers who were more into humiliating me than encouraging me. I saw a terrifying regime in school, kids flogged in a way they’d be put in jail for to-day.
What was the worst you saw?
I saw kids being beaten, like savagely, for being late without even being asked to explain their lateness. There could have been any reason, but if you saw some of these kids, they looked undernourished to me, they looked all strung out, and they possibly came from homes where the mother was possibly beaten the night before, and they probably got no breakfast and these people were savagely attacked by different teachers with sticks. It was just horrific.
When I interviewed Larry Hogan, who also grew up in Limerick, he told some dreadful stories about sex-abuse at his school. Did you encounter any of that?
I did, but I didn’t see much of it. I was in a class where a lay-teacher was abusing a lot of the children. That same teacher tried it with me, but I was too hardy and I knew it wasn’t right, so he didn’t pick on me any more, but he did pick on the weaker, more delicate boys. At the time I didn’t really know what it was, but this teacher had a very quick temper and he’d be cuddling some kid in the class and we’d keep our heads down.
“ Dad was cross and I’m the same,
But I won’t hand him all the blame.
I know from where his anger came.”
(‘Warts And All’ – M Hanly)
Was school a lot different from your home life?
Our home was safe and it was secure and it was as affluent as we needed, but it was tense as well. My father was a very explosive man. He’d relax at about ten o’clock every night when he’d break open a bottle of Guinness and he’d probably have a small Paddy with it, you know. And you were dealing with a different man, as if he was after smoking a couple of large joints, a completely different man.
So how did you deal with his mood swings?
I learned very quickly that if he was in the right mood he’d say yes to everything I wanted. I remember one time I wanted to keep pigeons and he said ‘no problem, work away’. So I went off and got the pigeons. But when he came in from work and saw the pigeons he nearly strangled me! He was kind of a tense man, you know?
What kind of house was it?
A bungalow with three bedrooms, a bathroom, a little scullery where my mother slaved over a sink every Monday, a kitchen and there was this room for the priest. When I look back on that, there we were gasping for space, and we had a lodger as well. But when the priest called for his dues, there was this room where he was welcomed. This was quite normal in that society at the time. People kept one room where they spent all their big money to put a nice china cabinet in it, the best suite of furniture they could, or sometimes couldn’t, afford and this room was kept under wraps for this guy collecting money for the church. As well as that room gone, we also kept a lodger to supplement my father’s income, so there were only two rooms left for the parents and six children!
So did you ever know hunger?
Well no, not real hunger, I suppose. I have known hard times, like after I left Moving Hearts and for a while when I was in France, but not real despairing hunger.
You used the word explosive about your father. I’ve often thought, perhaps taking some of your lyrics too literally, that you might have the capacity to be a violent man yourself.
Well I think it’s something I have to keep in check. My reaction to the kids, if they were getting on my nerves, might be to strike out, but I know I just couldn’t do it because it serves absolutely no purpose and I’m glad I’ve learned that.
Despite the generally more contented impression I get from your new album, I still get the occasional flash of anger.
I suppose some of the anger in my work came from the feeling of not being able to effect change. I wrote a lot of political songs which I also think were badly written, and a lot of that came from a disappointment about the world and the way people are constantly being kept underfoot. Last night I was looking at a TV programme about the mercury-poisoning of rivers in Amazonia, and these people living by the river buying fish caught in it and slowly poisoning themselves to death. The mercury comes from this gold-mining that’s going on. Imagine that this search for gold is actually killing people. After that I watched another programme about a sort of meningitis which can attack a young child like Helen (his youngest daughter) and after that I watched Ali Hewson’s documentary about Chernobyl and I thought ‘what the hell is going on here?’. There are so many contradictions that sometimes the only response is either despair or anger.
Did any of your earlier anger come from those periods when your music career might have seemed like it was going nowhere?
There would have been a bit of that, for sure. You see, I was trying to keep my standards up, but there wasn’t much of a market for what I was doing. But what was really wrong with my career was that I wasn’t focused properly. I hadn’t really found what I wanted to say and a way of saying it. But over the last three or four years I think I found a voice of my own and suddenly it became a joy to go out and deliver it, whereas before that I was confused as to why this or that wasn’t working or why I couldn’t be relaxed putting it over. I think it’s just a question of a new-found confidence about it. People smell it immediately!
Might there have some envy because others were doing well – Christy Moore, Mary Black and others from the same tradition?
I suppose there might have been a degree of envy. But I always recognised how good Christy and Mary really were, and people like Maura O’Connell, say. They can all really sing. You see, I’m not a real singer. I’m depending on my writing to make it happen for me.
Who inspires you in your own singing?
I don’t really know. I like a lot of the good country singers, like George Jones, for example, and I love John Hiatt. I love John’s delivery, although I find his tuning a bit suspect, but he goes for a feel and he horses into it and lives with the consequences. I think he was very inspirational in the way I approached my last two albums in that I recall reading on the back of one of his albums that it was recorded in about four or five days and I thought ‘that’s the way I want to do it, get it first takes if I can’.
That goes against the current trend of taking three months to get the snare-drum right!
That’s true, but my music is old-fashioned. I’m not playing for my daughter who’s into Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth and so on.
Do you feel any need or desire or pressure to keep up with current music trends?
None whatsoever. I really only listen when I’m travelling. The last thing I really listened to was Iris Dement. I played with her in America. She’s a nice writer too. I listen to Lyle Lovett a lot, Joe Cocker, Ray Charles, Hal Ketchum, but I wouldn’t be listening to Erasure or stuff like that!
“Still I get up every morning
Take my guitar and pray for luck.
Searching for gold in the mountain.”
(Nothing In The Can – M Hanly)
What about those people who think that writing a few songs, a gig here or there, a week in a recording studio, a spot of television, and so on, it’s not a real job at all, in fact it’s a bit of a luxury?
(laughs) Well, I suppose it is in a way. I do enjoy a lot more freedom than someone clocking in at nine every morning. But once I start working on a record I have to call on a large amount of discipline. The luxury would be to say I won’t bother with that, or I’ll skip that awkward part, but you’ve heard the new album and it’s the result of a year and a half’s work. There’s only thirteen numbers, but to get thirteen recordable songs I had to write over thirty. That’s requires application. It’s not easy and it’s a craft you have to learn, to keep the standard as high as you can. Any writer will tell you that. The stuff doesn’t just fall out of you.
Do you have a pattern to your day?
I do, yeah. There’s always a couple of hours spent trying to nail down a new song or tease out a new idea. I like to have something held over from the previous day to build on. The problem with writing songs is that when you’ve finished that song you’re left with an empty page, and you constantly live with the possibility that you’ll never write another song. It’s different for novelists. Their process is more continuous, working on the same piece over a long period of time. No matter how many songs you write, you just don’t know if you’ll write another one ever, never mind writing one to-morrow. When I walked out of Westland Studios after finishing the new album, I thought maybe that’s it, you know. Maybe I don’t have anything else to say. But I’ve had that feeling before.
Your first solo album, A Kiss In The Morning Early is only fifteen years old, yet its style almost belongs to another world. There were a lot of folk-singers doing that sort of thing at the time, but it’s virtually non-existent now.
Well I’m delighted it’s non-existent. When I look back to those days, I wanted to be technically perfect and ‘show-offy’. I was very naive. A lot of the songs I did suffered because I was using very intricate guitar patterns – it lacked what to me music is about.
Emotion. At least that’s how I see it. Still, a lot of people love that first solo album. I think maybe Andy Irvine is still using that approach, although Andy would be doing his own songs as well, whereas my songs on that album were mostly songs I took from a book, Colm O’Lochlain’s More Irish Street Ballads.
Was the Moving Hearts experience a distraction from your solo work?
No. The Hearts experience was an eye-opener. I was only in the band for about fourteen months, but it taught me a lot. I wasn’t very happy in my life at the time, and I didn’t write while I was on the road with them which I thought was bad. Any of my stuff we did was written before I joined. I didn’t have the musical input that you should have as the front-man in the band, and so I decided that the next time I fronted a band I would dictate everything and I went to the complete opposite with Rusty Old Halo, where every riff was mine, until I realised that these guys were well able to handle it and often knew better than I did. With the new band I don’t tell them how to play anything, although if someone comes up with something I don’t think suits the intention of the song, it doesn’t get used.
When I saw some of the early Rusty Old Halo gigs at the Harcourt I thought you seemed more at ease than you had been with the Hearts.
Well I was. I had a bunch of material and I was calling the shots. Actually I hadn’t set out to write country songs at all, but I assembled the guys, including Matt Keleghan on drums, and we had about three weeks to get ready and go into the Harcourt and have a crack, purely for the fun. So they all got into the vibe of it, and Paul Kelly’s fiddle put a country feel into it and I felt more comfortable with it. In the Hearts I was, how can I describe it, overwhelmed by such good musicianship, with Declan Sinnott, Donal Lunny and so on.
Did Christy Moore feel the same about his spell in the Hearts? I think I remember him jokingly complaining about all the chords they’d work into a song.
Oh stop (laughs). I’ll tell you a story about that. For the first rehearsals they had with me I brought a song I’d written in a kind of reggae beat called ‘2-1 Freddie’. After about two days we got round to having a shot at it. They had worked out a new rhythm for it and a new approach to it and eventually when they were finished I couldn’t sing it anymore! And it was my song! I wasn’t even able to count it! Christy would have been able to tell them he couldn’t do it, but after all the work the lads had done on it I couldn’t tell them I didn’t like it. Christy would have told them ‘for fucks sake, this is the song, let’s not get bogged down in this shit’. But I thought if I said that they’ll say I’m not good enough (more laughter). Of course, I didn’t have the composure or the confidence that I have now. I’d tell anybody now and I wouldn’t give a shit. I’d tell them ‘this is my song, this is the way it is and if you don’t like it, piss off’.
But they did do ‘2-1 Freddie’ in the end.
We did, but I still had terrible trouble counting it. Unfortunately it used to come half-way through the gig, and until I got through it the gig used to be a nightmare for me. And eventually I had to tell them that I couldn’t do it their way, which they knew anyway and we went back to my way of doing it. My version became known as the pass version and theirs was the honours version! That’s a fact.
But which version was the better one? Did their arrangement improve the song?
Not at all! The other version turned out like I don’t know what. It was mumbo-jumbo. I think the essence of the song was lost and I don’t say that in any derogatory way, but we were getting so wrapped up in arrangements.
Was that your first venture into the rock area?
Did that lead to any contact with drugs or were you already familiar with them?
(laughs) I’ll tell you about my first encounter with drugs. It was with hash. Donal (Lunny) and Andy (Irvine) had heard me playing in Trinity and I was asked to do support for Planxty on a nationwide tour around the time they were peaking with the ‘Cliffs Of Dooneen’. I’d been working with the E.S.B. and this was the kind of break I’d come to Dublin for. I was delighted. So I rang the Planxty manager Des Kelly’s office and I was told to be in the Terenure Inn at three o’clock to be picked up to go to a late night gig in Sligo for the opening of the tour. Not taking any chances I went down early to make sure I’d got the right pub, but because I didn’t want to seem too eager I went to another pub to pass the time so I could stroll into the Terenure Inn fairly cool like at about five to three and sit down. At four I’m still sittin’ there and when a quarter to five came I freaked out because they’d obviously forgotten me. Just then the Transit arrived and I jumped in. Don’t forget, those were the days when the band and all the gear went in the same van with the driver and the sound-man. I took a seat beside Christy, the first time I’d ever met him and I noticed he was smoking something very unusual! I’d never seen a joint before. After a couple of minutes he turned to me and said (imitates Christy’s voice) ‘Do you want a blow, there?’ and in my innocence I said ‘No, I have my own’, meaning I had cigarettes with me. Sure Christy thought that the stuff I had was so potent I wouldn’t even smoke it in front of him, so he was dying to find out what it was I had. Anyway about thirty miles down the road I pulled out the fags and offered one to Christy. When they realised I was so innocent about drugs I got an awful ragging for the rest of the tour! Anytime anybody said ‘Anyone got any draw?’, Christy’d say ‘Jaysus Mick’s got a great packet of Players there’! That was my introduction to drugs.
Did you indulge often?
I did the cannabis thing for a while, but I had no real interest in it. It didn’t suit me, but anything else I tried hadn’t suited me either, so I didn’t bother.
What else did you try?
Apart from cannabis I tried that, eh, amyl-nitrate, is that what you call it, and I tried cocaine. That’s all really. But I didn’t like them, you know.
But were you frightened by them or were you just not impressed by the effect?
Well when I tried cocaine I found that the end result was that people were inclined to form into coteries. It’s a divisive thing, it gives people powers that they shouldn’t have. Whoever has the coke is the one everybody seeks out. I didn’t like that, that hold that cocaine has. With hash, I just didn’t like the effect of it.
Now that you have kids, would you feel that cannabis should be de-criminalised?
Oh yeah. Of course it should. It’s a ludicrous situation.
How would you feel if one of your own children, Jessie say, told you that she was using cannabis?
Oh, I’d warn her just like I’d warn her about a bottle of Paddy. I’d say ‘look, you have to treat this thing with respect’.
Have you treated the bottle of Paddy with respect?
Em (pause) . . . Well I try to, but I have to be very careful. It’s a thing that I like, really being on the edge. Maybe I should be more careful with it, but that’s the way it is.
Did you over-indulge in the past?
Yes, I certainly did over-indulge, but I think it’s part and parcel of the musician’s lot, if you like; the kind of life that you lead on the road is so bizarre, you’re trying to gear all your energy and your form so that it’s right on the night. You have to be peakin’ for a certain time. When you get to a certain level money can organise that for you, but at some levels I’ve been at, you find yourself in towns and it’s eight o’clock and the sound-check’s at nine and you don’t go on stage until twelve, and you have all this time to kill. The town is a strange place, you don’t know anybody in it, so what else can you do to pass the time?
Did the drink ever become a serious problem for you?
(pause) I’d say if I didn’t watch it it could become a serious problem all right.
Did the drink problem ever affect personal relationships or your career?
(sighs) Yeah, it would have. I think one gets careless and neglectful if you’re overdoing it. But I don’t see it as a problem now because I nail my work down. I’d see it as a real problem if it affected my work. It would affect me if I drank before gigs, I know that for sure. I have done that; I’ve been slaughtered going on stage sometimes and I haven’t enjoyed it. Now I just don’t drink before a gig, I think you lose an edge if you do, for simple things, like strings breaking. Like I’m a solo act, I don’t have a team of roadies standing by the stage in case one breaks. I think you do a better gig without the drink, no matter what they say, like the story that the singer Matt Monro used to go on stage with a bottle of whiskey on board, but maybe it’s different for others.
Quite a few artists who came out of the folk scene became interested in politics, but your work now deals with more personal, localised matters.
Yeah, I got into the political scene for a while in the early eighties. I wrote a song about the Ferenka factory in Limerick closing down, I wrote a song about the blanket protest, I wrote ‘Open Those Gates’, but I never thought I nailed the political thing right, and I’m a terrifically naive person. I’m a trusting person. I feel that most people in the political arena have to compromise their ideals, or lie, in fact, just to survive. I couldn’t imagine myself a member of any political party. I couldn’t use even a white lie to get to a better end. The most recent thing I wrote which I thought was political was ‘My Love Is In America’ for myself and Dolores Keane. I did think strongly about how the family must feel, left alone for eleven months of the year. What’s the point of all that? Why must it be like that?
So can interviews help explain the work, or should the songs be able to stand alone without any elaboration?
Personally, I don’t like explaining things too much at all. I’d expect the songs to stand on their own, but I like the mystery, and the option the listeners have to make that song their own, to apply it to themselves. For example, I played a song from the new album, ‘I Feel I Should Be Calling You’, to someone. It’s about my parents, but they thought it was about somebody else entirely.
Actually, because it refers to a song getting to number two in the charts I heard it as you feeling that you should be calling the person who inspired that hit, which in turn I had assumed was about a failed relationship. I saw great irony in the possibility that you were now estranged from the very person who had inspired a song whose success had helped your new-found contentment!
(laughs) It’s a very plausible explanation, that‘s for sure! But I don’t see anything wrong with that option, I really don’t. But I’ll tell you. My parents died within a short space of each other and shortly after that things started to happen for me. Marie and I had a baby, Helen, and the hit with Hal Ketchum happened. I can actually remember putting my hand on the phone to call them to tell them the good news on more than one occasion, and then finding they weren’t there to share it. They never saw it happen for me, and I knew I was going to get there someday. It was a very odd thing for me to handle, people saying ’he writes great songs’ and all that, and then me going home for Christmas with no money. That parental concern goes on for a long time, as I now know with our own kids. If there’s an after-life and they’re looking down on it, I hope it all makes sense now.
“The money means nothing and fame never did.
They slip through your fingers like rain.
But sure I could do with a piece of it now
To prove to my folks that I’m sane.”
(‘Words And The Bottle’ – M Hanly)
On the new album you sound more relaxed, more contented, more affluent even!
I don’t know about the affluent bit! But I’d agree with the other observations. On songs like ‘These Days’ and ‘Happy Like This’, there’s a genuine acceptance of what I am, contented with a degree of success and a lot more relaxed about myself. I’m also excited by the sound on the album, particularly Kenny Craddock’s Hammond organ. I think he’s really nailed it. It helps the songs slip from one style to another. And I think I’ve also got the running order right, and I gave that a lot of thought. It’s like a gig in that sense. I know some people decide the running-order on the basis of what tracks might appeal to radio people, but I think that something as basic as the running-order is a fundamental part of the way the listener experiences the album.
What was your lowest period?
I suppose I was at my lowest when I left Moving Hearts, feeling I hadn’t really pulled it off. I thought I had some talent, yet here I was on the dole on £42 a week – no disrespect to those on the dole – and worse off than people that I thought had less talent, and the future didn’t look bright at all. But a couple of new songs gave me a lift. I’d written ‘Without The Fanfare’ and ‘The Silence’ and I thought they were pretty good, and they gave me a new standard to keep up. I was cycling around Dublin, leaving Jessie to school, and that was pretty good for my discipline too and I dreamt about getting a song away with some major star.
With a family to look after, did you never think you’d have to pack it up to do something to earn enough money for them?
I didn’t, because I knew I wouldn’t be much good to them if I gave up without giving it a real shot and if I was going around unhappy and unfilled. To be a writer of any kind I think you have to have a masochistic streak.
Which songwriters inspire you?
Randy Newman was the first who really knocked me back on my heels. Lyrically he’s been a guiding light, but I haven’t taken any of his ideas or anything like that. I like the touch of humour he brings to even a serious subject. That’s a craft. If you can add a touch of humour it can act as a release of tension.
Is listening to good songs and studying them the best way to learn how to write songs?
Ultimately no one can tell you how to write songs, it’s a craft you learn yourself and when you have a basic framework in place you then have the freedom to move all over the place and even bend your own rules. If you don’t get the basics of any craft off properly, then you’re going to get dreadfully bogged down struggling to express yourself. For example, a lot of writers start off assuming that every line has to be of equal length and that every two lines have to rhyme. Then it dawns on you that it doesn’t always have to go like that and you can learn some of that from the writers you admire. Newman’s a wonderful writer, full stop. Joni Mitchell’s another. I get a great buzz out of trying to break the rules.
When you talk about rules, what sort of things come to mind?
Well there are some words that mightn’t be cool to use, like ‘stew’ or ‘hurling’ but I like pushing those words in there. On the new album there’s a song a song called ‘One More From The Daddy’ where I mention four songs my father used to sing. Now some people may not be familiar with those titles, and there’s one of them I call ‘Creeshlaw The Day’ and I’m not even sure if that’s the right title, but sure the way I look at it is that they can go and find out! When you get a bit of confidence you stop worrying about the rules and you start writing the song that you want to write, the song that’s inside you. But you can also learn by deciding to take a risk every now and then. Paul Simon putting the line ‘The Mississippi Delta shining like a National guitar’ in that song of his, ‘Graceland’ – that’s a real risky line because a lot of people don’t know what a National guitar is, but I think great, so let them go and find out! And if they can’t or don’t want to bother, they can still enjoy the song.
On the new album you mention people called The Murphs. Is that another risk of that nature?
Exactly. But you wouldn’t get away with that sort of thing in Nashville! If it’s not understood, it’s not allowed. Now I don’t agree with that policy. I remember when Warts And All was released, I remember talking to someone in Nashville about ‘Fall Like A Stone’, a song in which I use the word ‘discotheque’ and I was told that no way would an American country artist sing that word.
Would you be happy if someone wanted to change the words in one of your songs?
Sure. I’m not precious about that at all. The way I write the song mightn’t suit everybody else. Jesus, I don’t give a shite what they do with it so long as they don’t turn it into something completely different.
And so long as you get your royalties?
(laughs) No I wouldn’t be too unhappy if someone told me I was going to make a half a million dollars out of it. I’d say ‘fine, just leave one line intact’.