Not broken but a survivor

INTERVIEWING singers, comedians and writers, most of whom are Irish, you realise that there is an abundance of talent out there which is so often overlooked, or in some cases, simply taking for granted, here at home.

INTERVIEWING singers, comedians and writers, most of whom are Irish, you realise that there is an abundance of talent out there which is so often overlooked, or in some cases, simply taking for granted, here at home.

Perhaps being tagged onto the edge of Europe means we’re always looking across the water for some kind of odd validation. For instance, it’s so much easier for an Irish artist to get air-play on Irish radio if you get played on UK radio first. It’s a strange thing. It seems the guardians of Irish radio, or perhaps the public at large, need reassurance which can be only gotten from our neighbours across the water.

Then there are the artists themselves. Many, while not exactly lacking ambition, seem quite happy occupying that space between international superstardom and obscure jazz quartet. Jack Lukeman, as he says himself, is no “careerist”. He still lives in his hometown of Athy, Co Kildare.

“I’m thankful that I’ve survived as a musician for the last 15 years or so and that’s a charmed existence in many respects. I wouldn’t say I had any master plan,” he says.

Since the release of his first solo album, the acclaimed “Metropolis Blue” in 1999, Jack L has won fans across the world - most recently winning the Best Music Award at the Edinburgh Festival - while never perhaps rising to the level of fame his talent deserves.

In fairness, it’s not something that seems to bother him too much. World domination (musically at least) comes from “hard graft and a lot of luck”. It’s the luck part which perhaps Lukeman has missed out on. Not that he feels bitter about it ,in fact, he says he’s been “lucky to be playing music for a few years now and getting away with it”.

His career thus far has produced seven studio albums and led to the release of “The Story So Far”, a collection of the Essential Jack L tracks in October 2009.

The album came about, quite by accident, when author Anna McPartland released her book “So What If I’m Broken”, which has characters re-united through a Jack L show and features his song titles as chapter headings. He was asked to do something to tie in with it the book.

Often artists have a problem playing their best-known stuff and want appreciation for their less known “gems”. Lukeman is not one of them.

He has no problem with the Greatest Hits thing. “Growing up, the Greatest Hits stuff was how I got into a load of bands. It was kind of nice to do it.”

For his shows at the Riverbank on January 14 and 15, he’ll play all these “old favourites” while testing a few new songs which he hopes to record for an album later this year.

The writing of new material is something he relishes.

“I’m always writing. At the end of the night I often empty my head out onto a page,” he says.

Of course this process has changed over time. Over a career you learn certain things which you had wished you’d known when you were younger, but does the process of actually writing music really get any easier?

“It’s easy to put together the skeleton of song. Sometimes a song comes purely in a stream of consciousness, other times it would take years to build a song. There’s nothing easy about it, unless you have those moments where you sit and play the guitar and, suddenly, there’s a song.”

Jack L is a firm believer that as a writer you must first please yourself and admits that he writes songs solely for his own entertainment, and hopes the audience will follow.

“I would try to write songs that would turn me on first. You’re trying to entertain yourself and people get off on that. It’s all about creating an atmosphere as much as a song,” he says.

“There’s a certain kind of hypnotism there that you’re trying to draw people into a story for a few minutes. I write lots and lots of songs and it’s like mining for gold . You see the ones that are shining out, that have something different.”

While he was forced to look back over his career while compiling “The Story So Far” (he chose the track listing himself), looking back is not something he wants to do as an artist.

“It’s always about the next song, the next album. You always think you can do things better”

If live performance is all about creating an atmosphere, then Jack L is something of a natural, but does he believe it is something anyone can learn or is it, like his versatile baritone, simply something you’re born with?

“It’s something you can only learn through experience. You learn your trade as you go along. It might look effortless but it’s just the knowledge of doing it for so long. Most things can be taught.”

For instance, for his own shows he doesn’t have a strict set-list. He has a beginning and an ending but the middle is determined by the crowd.

“If it’s going in an up-tempo direction you take it there, if it’s a nice relaxed atmosphere you take it there. That’s something you learn as you go along, how to judge the atmosphere of the room.”

Perhaps though, the key to any kind of performance is, as he puts it himself, not over-thinking things. You need to learn enough tricks to not have to consciously call on them at any point in a show.

“It’s like dancing, if you think about it too much you trip up. You find the centre of the song and try to get into it.”

The dancer analogy is apt, you can’t of course switch off completely, it is a balancing act.

“I don’t think about it too much, I just do what I do”