While it could not come close to eclipsing his musical achievements, Paul Brady’s reputation as something of a curmudgeon precedes him. So when I find him in a loquacious mood at his South Dublin home, it is both a surprise and relief. Indeed he says that he wishes Van Morrison, his Northern contemporary, ‘was a bit happier’.
But Paul is not a man without his own darkness. Now, for the first time, he reflects on his childhood, and in particular his fraught relationship with his mother, Mollie, who has since died. He says she ‘probably felt’ she should have married someone other than his father, and that he never really came to know her at all during her life. It is a remarkable insight into a man renowned for being guarded. But these days, Paul maintains he has come to be ‘comfortable’ with who he is.
And it certainly seems to be the case when I meet the legendary singer-songwriter who wrote seminal classics such as Crazy Dreams, Nothing But The Same Old Story and Nobody Knows – just three of the hit singles featured on the exclusive CD that will be given away free tomorrow inside our sister paper, the Irish Mail on Sunday.
As we sit down in his plush recording studio, built at the side of his home in Sandyford, he immediately strikes me as affable, humble and, more importantly, someone with a great sense of humour. And, as I quickly learn, he’s also refreshingly candid.
‘I regret the fact that I have a reputation in the media for being withdrawn and difficult,’ he says. ‘I think that comes out of a time when anybody who takes their work seriously in the pop world is considered to be a bit odd.
‘You know, you can’t take that seriously!’ I take my work seriously, but that doesn’t mean I’m a grumpy old f***. I am very comfortable with what I am now.’
But, by his own admission, becoming comfortable within himself was a long and difficult journey.
He admits: ‘I see my early twenties as being in an emotional fog. The only thing I was bothered about was music. Like everybody else you wanted to go out and get off with girls and stuff like that, but I wasn’t really interested in anything except music. I would describe myself as closed, even for myself, in my twenties and it was only when I got to the age of 30 that I started to open up. And when I finally did get married and things became real, you settle down, get a mortgage, kids come along – it’s a whole other world you have to deal with. And that experience started making me actually trying to decide who I was and what I was and how I felt about this and how I was going to handle that.’
The 63-year-old, who grew up in Strabane, Co. Tyrone, reveals that he initially withdrew into himself as a defence mechanism after he became the target of a brutal bully in boarding school.
‘I think I developed strategies of concealment and keeping myself to myself,’ he explains, ‘and to some extent withdrew into myself as self-protection when I was a boarder. That may have kept on in my life after I left boarding school. I was scared a lot of the time because for quite a few years I was bullied by a certain person. It was mental torture, I suppose. It eroded a lot of my confidence as a human being. There was an implied physical threat all the time, which was never actually carried out because I never provoked it enough. I developed strategies to deflect it. But it was weird because the guy who bullied me was slightly fascinated by me, particularly musically. And he was into music and wanted me to perform for him all the time. it was like, “I love you but I think I’m going to kill you!” sort of thing. it was very stressful.’
It was playing music that helped him eventually rebuild his self-confidence.
He says: ‘Before I went to boarding school, music was always my best friend. I wasn’t even allowed to bring my guitar to college. From the age of 11 until I was about 16, I was only able to play my guitar on the school holidays. Music for me was like an alternative world that never told any lies.’
Although Paul set out to follow in the footsteps of his parents and become a teacher, he very rarely attended his lectures at UCD. instead, he either gambled away his grant ‘on poker’ or played with local bands. Unsurprisingly, he failed his final exams and never graduated.
‘I would not have been a good a teacher,’ he insists. ‘I would have had no patience. My father didn’t really like teaching. In another generation, he might have had the courage to go and be a professional artist. Teaching was the steady job. My father had an extremely good, innate talent. he was a very lovable man. he was very easygoing, probably too easygoing for my mother’s liking. My mother probably felt she should have married somebody else or something. I think my mother had quite an unhappy life. Not because things happened to her, but because, I think, real life and her expectations of what it should have been were miles apart. What you expect from life and what you have, there’s always a wide gap, but most people learn how to deal with it and get on with it.’
Paul has spent the past 20 years working on-and-off on an autobiographical song entitled Mother and Son, which he finally managed to finish after Mollie’s recent death. The song was finally released on his latest album, Hooba Dooba, which critics have described as one of his best.
Until now, the songwriter has always refused to discuss their difficult relationship, a subject he has in previous interviews described as ‘private’.
Paul says: ‘I would never have talked about my mother when she was alive. I’m a very loyal person and I don’t want to talk about people in a way that’ll offend them if they hear it themselves. My mother and I didn’t have an easy relationship. In a way, I suppose we were both very similar. We were always rubbing each other up the wrong way. I didn’t know what I felt about my mother really until she passed on. Poor Mollie, I think she was locked in herself in many ways. It was very hard to get to her. I found her quite remote as a person. And that used to annoy me all the time as a child and as a teenager and I kept wanting to puncture the balloon. And I kept being really angry because she was who she was. But it wasn’t until about a year or two after she died that I began to, in a way, feel sympathetic.’
Sadly, the pair never managed to reconcile their issues before Mollie passed away.
Paul adds: ‘My mother withdrew for the last few years of her life. And that’s what I talk about in the song. She was in a nursing home for a while and when you’d go to see her you’d be looking at her and you’d sort of go, “Did I ever really know who you were?”
‘A stranger in her eyes – looking into her eyes and realizing that I actually never really knew who she was.’
And although proud of her son’s success, Paul’s mother would often compare him to his contemporaries.
He says: ‘She was [proud] yes, but she would equally come up to you and say, “Paul, is Elton John really a better piano player than you?” Or, “is Chris de Burgh really a better song-writer than you, Paul?”’
He pauses to laugh.
‘She would look at the situation and she’d see Elton John as this huge global superstar and her son wouldn’t be a global superstar, so she would be thinking in her own head, “Why is that, now? Maybe Elton John is a better piano player than Paul”. But she wouldn’t have the wit not to say that to me!’
After effectively dropping out of college, Paul spent several years playing with different bands before joining The Johnstons. But it wasn’t until 1974 that he started to make a real name for himself when he was the surprise replacement for the legendary Christy Moore in one of the country’s then most influential and successful trad bands, Planxty.
‘I never knew why Christy wanted to leave the band, but it was a great boost for me,’ Paul continues. ‘I came back from the U.S. where things weren’t going great for me and suddenly I was drafted in to one of the leading bands in the country. And the spotlight was on me.’
It wasn’t all sweetness and light, however, after he stepped in to fill Christy Moore’s shoes.
‘The year-and-a-half I was with Planxty I found extremely frustrating, not so much from the musical point of view, but from just the administrative and business point of view,’ he says.
‘It was just a mess. An absolute mess. Management was non-existent and every time we seemed to do anything it just seemed to be so hard to do and ended up physically disastrous. There were a few reasons why we broke up, but the band never paid any tax in all the earlier years. So, I ended up coming into a band whose tax affairs were totally out of order and the next minute the Revenue come down on us. I ended up working my ass off to pay off taxes for a band I wasn’t even in. I found myself having to clean up an awful lot of messes that were nothing to do with me and i just said, “F*** this!” It was something that had to be done. I walked.’
And when Planxty reunited in 2003, he was not asked to participate: ‘I didn’t even know it was happening until I read about it in the papers. I wasn’t disappointed that I wasn’t in the reunion, but I just thought it was a bit rude. Somebody could have said, “We’re getting together, you’re not going to be involved”. I could have just been forewarned, that’s all.’ After the band’s first of several break ups in 1975, Paul recorded an album with ex-Planxty member Andy Irvine before going on to release his own critically-acclaimed debut folk album – Welcome here Kind Stranger – which was recently reissued on CD.
His next move was controversial – he decided to leave the folk music scene and branch out into rock and pop. And similar to the audience reaction Bob Dylan received when he abandoned acoustic for an electronic sound, Paul was dubbed as a Judas-type figure for leaving his folk roots. he says: ‘The media characterized it as that, yeah. And there were undoubted similarities with Bob Dylan.’
Bizarrely, Van Morrison once even launched an attack on Paul by accusing him – alongside Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seeger – of plagiarising his work, describing the trio as ‘monkeys’. While completely unfounded, it did not stop the Belfast musician from writing a song about certain ‘copycats ripping off his music’.
Paul explains: ‘I think that’s paranoia. If there’s any sort of remote similarity between me and Van Morrison, it’s that we both happen to like rhythm and blues. And we both had a go singing in that style. I will never criticise Van Morrison. Van is a wonderful artist. I just sometimes wish he was a bit happier, you know? I mean, since that, Van has made overtures to me. There was a time that we tried to write together a few times, but it never actually worked out. But he respected me enough to make overtures to me.’
Did Van ever apologise?
‘No. he probably doesn’t even remember saying it! i don’t really know him that well to be honest. People tell me he reads every single word that’s ever printed about him. ‘Van didn’t invent white rhythm and blues. Sorry! That’s all I have to say about that,’ he laughs.
In a career that has spanned more than 40 years, the brilliant singer- songwriter has released more than a dozen solo albums. Many of his classic hit singles can be found on the exclusive Paul Brady CD being given away free with tomorrow’s Irish Mail on Sunday.
PAUL BRADY’s first big pop hit, Crazy Dreams, which touches on emigration, still clearly resonates with his fans today during these bleak recessionary times – as the Irish are being forced, once again, to go abroad for work.
‘A lot of people relate to that song,’ he says. ‘With everybody emigrating again, probably a lot of people more will relate to it; you know, coming back home and stuff, you know? In concert it’s still very popular. The minute the intro for that song starts up – everybody just goes ape.’
In another moving song about emigration, Nothing But the Same Old story – also featured on the free CD – Paul poignantly describes the story of Irish expatriates struggling to deal with living in a politically-hostile environment in London during the height of the Troubles in the seventies.
He reveals: ‘When I was living in England with The Johnstons from ‘69 to ‘73, that’s when there was a real lot of trouble with the IRA. Irish people were looked on with suspicion all the time, and Irish accents – if you spoke with an Irish accent immediately people would start to get uptight.
‘It was a real tough time to be Irish in London. There was a lot of racism. It wasn’t quite as bad as it was in the “no dogs and no Irish apply” for apartments and stuff like that in the Fifties, but still, the Irish were an underclass in London. I felt very much uncomfortable in London in the early seventies, late sixties. People weren’t sure if you were either some mad artistic genius or a terrorist!’
The Long Goodbye, which Paul co-wrote with Ronan Keating, is another track on the album. The pair recently worked together again – interestingly enough, the song, The Price of Fame, appears on his latest album, Hooba Dooba.
Speaking about the Boyzone singer’s much publicised affair with dancer Francine Cornell, he says: ‘I do feel sorry for him, but if that’s the kind of world you aspire to inhabit, well, it’s going to rebound on you! so, accept it. I see Ronan as famous – and I don’t consider myself famous at all. So, I consider this type of fame that he has is, you know, it’s the paparazzi fame.’
Nobody Knows, is a song that explores the dark side of fame, and refers to Elvis’s tragic death.
Paul explains: ‘The music business is a very seductive business. It’s very easy to get sucked into the way it operates. And you can get sucked into the success/fame game. Elvis Presley was like God – he was beautiful, he was sexy, he had talent, he had global success. He had anything you could possibly aspire towards. His pick of any woman he wanted. And what does he do? He dies sitting on a toilet.’
Delighted that he can have both a successful music career and enjoy a normal and sane private life, Paul says he would not wish the fame Elvis had on his worst enemy.
The CD in tomorrow’s Irish Mail on Sunday also includes the positively upbeat ‘The World Is What You Make It’,’ Oh, What A World’ and ‘I Believe In Magic”.
‘With The World Is What you Make It, I’m really just saying that you can invent yourself and the world is what you make it. It really is,’ adds Paul.
With such a positive mentality, It is hard to imagine how Paul ever had a reputation for being grumpy..
Irish Daily Mail, Saturday, January 8, 2011