Age is a tricky thing for musicians. Traditionally your twenties is the time for making all those wonderfully classic musical statements.
Think about all those great albums you own, or have seen on one of those list shows which are liberally sprinkled over all Channel 4 related stations. Pet Sounds, The Queen Is Dead, OK Computer, all golden in their chains of youth.
OK, there’s a few people in their thirties who have produced the odd good piece of work. Elbow, for instance, are currently striking a blow for people beating down middle-age, but after that? It’s all downhill. Artists fade, drive and ambition starts to wane and as musicians proceed down the slow crawl of their fifties and sixties they start to wrap themselves in the comforting sounds of their youth, grumpy Luddites raging against the disposable crap produced by today’s pop stars, with their Facebooks and their Twitter machines. At least that’s how the theory goes.
Paul Brady is 64 this year, having made his name making folk music on his own or with bands like Planxty before breaking with these roots in 1981. He should be the quintessential old folkie holing himself up in some country cottage listening to Muddy Waters records while still trying to figure out how to set the clock on his 20 year-old VCR, while making no new music of note.
Within about two minutes of speaking to the singer he’s talking about recording new song ideas onto his iPhone. He also has his own Facebook account “Paul Brady Music” and his own blog, featuring his thoughts on everything from illegal downloads to the Eurovision and classical music.
He’s also still actively making some of the finest music of his career. Last year he released “Hooba Dooba”, a fine collection of contemporary pop music while today he’s speaking from a recording studio in Dublin. Ideas, he says in that familiar Northern brogue, still come pretty easy.
“I’m writing all the time... I’m a musical animal, there’s music flying around me all the time. I carry an iPhone and I’m always playing the guitar. I might be watching the telly and something will come to me so I just put the telly on mute and the phone on record.”
Surely age has changed this habit somewhat, after all can anything match the vigour of youth?
“I suppose I’m not trying as hard as I used to, partly because I don’t feel a need to any longer. I’m not as feverishly composing all the time as I might have been 20 years ago but I still feel music very strongly. I still am as emotionally to the fore as I’ve always been.
“It’s part of my make-up. When I’m in a writing phase I feel as if I’m as inspired as I’ve ever been”, though he does admit that “I go through phases where I’m not really inspired to write at all.”
Sensitivity is a must for any writer as it is what marks out the song-writer from the singer and, well everyone else.
“I think most people have the capacity to write but most people don’t actually think about it because it’s not their job but when you’re dong this all your life you realize this is your work so therefore you’re more inclined to pay attention to emotional and musical currents that run through you because it’s your job.”
The emotional currents that run through everyday life are what often turn emotionally unpalatable stuff into musical gold. On his last album he wrote a song called “Mother and Son” which deals directly with his relationship with his late mother. He has admitted they were not as close as he would have liked. It is obviously a very personal song though one which we can all relate to but would he ever stop himself writing something in a song which he would be uncomfortable speaking about in public? While thinking for a moment it seems there is no subject he would regret tackling.
“Sometimes I think I’ve exposed myself in the past in ways that I look back on now and think maybe that was a little silly. But at the time that was just too strong a feeling and there was no stopping it coming out.”
In reality though, there is a clear line between person and performer as he freely admits the doubts and insecurities of day-to-day existence disappear ‘neath the spotlight of the stage.
“When I’m on stage singing it’s almost like I’m a different person, I don’t have the same vulnerability as when I’m a normal person walking down the street. It’s always been that way with me. When I’ve got on the stage I’ve always felt that something came into me, that some other persona inhabited me that was larger than life and therefore, not invulnerable, but not plagued with the insecurities I have myself as a person.”
There might be some downsides to aging but experience is not one of them as Brady admits for a large part of his career he has felt uncomfortable in his own skin, something only time has managed to fix.
This seems to have partly stemmed from his decision in 1981 to leave folk music for the rock and pop world with the seminal album “Hard Station”. With the switch made he faced some criticism from folk fans about the move into the more commercially lucrative pop market.
Whatever the true level of dissent from fans at the time Brady himself admits that he found it tough to turn the variety his own musical influences into a cohesive whole without dwelling on what his audience might think.
“I’m less plagued by worries of trying to integrate all the different parts of me musically. I went through long periods of feeling that audiences who wanted my [pop] songs wouldn’t want to hear my traditional music and vice versa.” Today he simply puts them all together on stage and doesn’t care what happens, with the result and perhaps much relief that “to my surprise my audience really don’t mind.”
Brady has no doubt earned his understanding audience. With 14 solo albums under his belt and the respect of songwriting luminaries like Bono, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt, he is a man who has gained his standing in today’s field with a command of the songwriting craft few on these shores can match.
As he moves towards his mid-sixties, Brady has now joined those artists whose best work should be behind them. In reality the idea that rock music is a young man’s game is something which is proving less and less accurate as the year’s go by, with people like Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Brady himself making music of exceptionally high quality into their fifties and beyond. While Brady has grown more comfortable in his own skin his desire to make quality music is still clearly high. As he talks about the current perils of the music industry; illegal downloads, mediocre pop records, and an industry which refuses to develop new artists Brady wonders whether it’s even worth bothering releasing full albums anymore. Perhaps intermittent single track downloads are a better idea, as he says with the ominous intent of a hit man, “all these things have to be taken into account”.
Before he quickly adds, as if a reminder to himself “but at the same time you have to enjoy your life and have fun.”
o Paul Brady plays two nights at the Riverbank Arts Centre on April 29 and 30. Tickets are €37.50 from (045) 448327.