independent

Sunday 21 October 2018

PHIL COULTER AND MUCH MORE IN...

YOUR SPACE

PHIL COULTER had a weekend ritual as a young musician – trawling record stores for treasure.

'You would go in to five or six of them and browse the vinyl. Second hand collections, jazz – all sorts. You felt that you fell in with soulmates, fellow travellers.'

Phil, and his contemporaries, saved up their money to buy something which they cherished. 'You really got something when you bought a record,' he mused.

Prior to the interview, I had been charged with the task of getting him to sign a record for a relative. 'Wow, this is going back,' he remarked, carefully opening the sleeve of the album, Sea of Tranquillity, released in the mid-1980s.

Modern technology has made it very easy to record – everyone can make an album. However, the bad thing, according to Coulter, is that everyone is making records. 'My observation on today's landscape is that I'm very glad I'm not starting out.'

'Records can't all be of high quality,' he said. 'A while back, getting signed by a record label was a big event. Now, though, there is no infrastructure or support for newly emerging writers and performers.

Recording practices, too, have transformed. While producers of the 1950s or '60s would have commonly had an orchestra of 40 or 50 musicians in the studio, that kind of sound is now a rarity.

'You have to make your own luck,' is his advice to anyone keen to make a living out of music. 'There is no point in writing 12 songs at home and doing nothing with them. The whole world isn't going to sit up and take notice if you don't push those songs.'

Engage the media; hold a showcase in a decent venue – make the effort. That's the invaluable advice on strategy from a man who really and truly knows how it's done. 'It ain't easy,' he added. 'But then, it never was.'

The Derry native has earned his stripes. With a career in its fifth decade, he has penned Irish classics from The Town I Loved So Well to rugby anthem Ireland's Call and the poignant Scorn Not His Simplicity.

But he also wrote Cliff Richard's Congratulations, My Boy for Elvis Presley, and countless other instantly recognisable pop and rock songs.

He has worked with icons like Christy Moore, Elvis Costello, Van Morrisson and Sinead O'Connor, the Bay City Rollers, and more recently the male singing group Celtic Thunder. His own solo catalogue is also formidable.

'When I came into it, the business was populated by people more interested in music than in business,' he explained. Renowned hit-maker Mickey Most was one of those people. 'I would play something for Mickey, and he would say "I don't like where you're going with the intro," and feedback like that.'

Phil and his song-writing partner Bill Martin had a structure for a number of years. They would go into the studio every second Friday to do demos of six new songs. On Monday morning they would bring those six new offerings to 'The Bosses', get their notes and get back to writing the next six potential hits.

'Those guys knew the craft,' he said. 'And it is a craft. If you've written 20 songs, go and write another 20. Make your mistakes and learn about economy – the thing is not to fall in love with every phrase.'

The process of writing for this man begins and ends with applying himself.

'That's where I go to write,' he said – indicating a piano in the corner of his comfortable office. 'The notion of wandering through the Wicklow hills waiting for inspiration never works.'

He doesn't tend sit down to 'write a wee song for the sake of it', often working to a brief either of his own or prescribed.

'You have to remember you're writing something you hope has a shot at going further than your piano,' said Phil. When he started out as a composer, he said, 17 out of the top 20 songs in the charts would have been written by 'guys like me'.

And every songwriter wants to record a hit. 'Anyone who says they don't is either a fool or a liar.'

Coulter's act Celtic Thunder broke a record for him recently, with their album making it to number one in the US Billboard world music charts, and number 11 in the top 20 in the mainstream Billboard charts.

Coulter has therefore had a major chart entry in the States during every decade since the 1960s. 'It's a nice statistic!' he said.

He attributes his professional longevity to simply turning up for work on a Monday morning. 'It's my job,' he said. 'It's a great privilege to make a living out of making music. Countless millions of people would crawl over broken glass for the chance.'

A smaller number, however, would possess the same kind of work ethic as our man.

He attributes that dedication to his work to a good start in life at St Columb's College in Derry.

The school has produced two Nobel Prize winners, in Séamus Heaney and John Hume. Alumni include a string of other high achievers – Paul Brady, Brian Friel, and others who have reached excellence in their particular fields.

'All of them are different guys, with different talents, who followed their own careers,' said Phil. 'But they all had a work ethic in common, instilled at school.'

In the late 1940s the British Government introduced the opportunity for students who didn't have the financial means to go to university to get scholarships.

'Not one of those people had the means to go to college,' he said. 'The only chance you had was to get a scholarship.'

Therein lay the lesson that you were not 'entitled' to anything, and had to earn your ticket to a different lifestyle.

'It is an obligation to use your talent,' said Phil. 'It is a great crime to fritter away ability.'

Ryan Coulter (21) is one of Phil's six children. The young man is attending a Tennessee university on a soccer scholarship, and has inherited his father's attitude.

'He's up at 5.30 a.m. five mornings a week,' said the proud dad. Ryan used to play for Joseph's Boys, for Bray and for Dundalk. It was his ambition to be a soccer player – and his parents encouraged him to work hard to achieve that.

'You are the only person who can make that happen, I told him,' said Phil.

None of the Coulter brood has ended up working in music, although they are all big music fans.

'Sometimes it was a source of embarrassment to them,' admitted the musician, on what the children made of their father's fame. 'But they are old enough now to value some of it – particularly when Ireland's Call is played at a rugby match.'

Phil and his wife – singer Geraldine Branagan – moved to Bray around 20 years ago. Their youngest child Georgia was only a few months old.

The young family was a factor in the decision to move to Bray – avoiding the 'Taxi of Dad' service that would have ensued had they chosen a more rural setting. Six teenagers could account for quite a bit of mileage on the clock.

'We never wanted to be far from the sea,' added Phil, who said that the family received a very warm welcome in Bray.

'It was the house that swung it,' he said. And it is a beauty. In a private location, yet close to the town and the coast, the Coulter property is a place any family could make a home.

'We have invested a lot of time in it,' said Phil, who said it is a comfortable house, where six children have grown up happily.

The family have had no bad experiences in Bray, with one terrible exception.

In the early hours of August 16, 2009, Shane Clancy murdered Seb Creane, a close friend of the Coulter children, before taking his own life. The horror that unfolded at Cuala Grove that night was more than any young person should ever have to face.

'Life isn't fair. The good guys don't always finish first,' said Phil, who composed a beautiful piano piece which he played at Seb's funeral. His protégé Tommy Fleming also sang at the service.

It was a dark time which continues to haunt the family. Young men and women congregated at the Coulter house after the tragedy to remember their friend, as the Creane home was sealed off for investigation.

'I was devastated by the effect it had on the kids,' said Phil. 'Seb was in this house as often as

he was on his own. He was a gentle, talented, sensitive kid. He did some design work for me and was superbly talented. He was the kind of guy that I as a father would have been happy for my daughter to bring home.'

Phil felt compelled to contact the Joe Duffy show early that week, as inaccuracies about the circumstances of the deaths flooded some media outlets. 'I wanted to set the record straight about the boy I knew,' he said.

'Seb was from a hard working family. His parents had worked hard to send their sons to a good school [St Gerard's].

'It is so depressing that kids of that age could be exposed to that kind of pain. To lose someone is painful, but to lose them so violently is very hard for anyone to swallow – let alone kids of that age.'

Despite being blessed with a successful career, Phil has experienced deep pain in his life. Many of his songs were written in memory of lost loved ones: The Old Man for his father, Shores Of The Swilly and Star Of The Sea for his sister Cyd and brother Brian who drowned in Lough Swilly, and the unforgettable Scorn Not His Simplicity for his son who was born with Down's syndrome and died at the age of four.

While Luke Kelly recorded what is considered the definitive version of Scorn Not His Simplicity, Coulter described recording the song with another Bray native – Sinéad O'Connor.

'With all the various distractions about Sinéad, people forget why they became fans originally – that voice.'

Phil played piano for the recording session, and Sinead sang the song. 'I finished and I let the piano resonate. I sat, and she stood, for what seemed like an eternity, but was more likely minutes. Something very special happened there.'

If there was just one song that Phil would like to be remembered for, though, it would be The Town I Loved So Well.

Luke Kelly, 'the force of nature that he was', badgered Coulter into penning the ballad.

Coulter had written Free The People in anger following internment in Northern Ireland, when people were lifted by the army and imprisoned without charge.

Later, though, he wanted to write a piece reflecting on what had happened in his home town.

He wrote the melody in a matter of days, and pored over the lyrics for months. 'Every word was carefully weighed,' he said. 'I knew that with the wrong choices it could slip over the edge into a rebel song.'

It became a love song about his home town. He sat down with Luke in a very ordinary Sheffield hotel, and played the new song.

'I sang it with my eyes closed,' he said, nervous that Kelly – who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk songs – would deliver a harsh critique.

'When I finished and opened my eyes, he had tears in his. I knew then it was a powerful song.'

The intensely personal, local song, containing so many specific local references and place names, has struck a chord with people all over the world.

Back in Bray, it was some years ago when Phil and Geraldine got married. As they drove away on honeymoon (with six children in tow!) their friends and family gathered on the steps of the house and sang them off with Phil's Steal Away.

That is the moment he chose as the best of his life so far. 'There have been a lot,' he added. 'I have been lucky in that regard.'

The secret to his relationship, he said, is that he and Ger 'cut each other slack.'

Their children are their shared legacy. 'They are more important to me than all of the songs I have written,' said Phil. 'We have six healthy, well adjusted kids.'

Like everything else of value, a relationship must be worked at. 'Treasure it,' he said. 'You can't take it for granted.' going with the intro," and feedback like that.'

Phil and his song-writing partner Bill Martin had a structure for a number of years. They would go into the studio every second Friday to do demos of six new songs. On Monday morning they would bring those six new offerings to 'The Bosses', get their notes and get back to writing the next six potential hits.

'Those guys knew the craft,' he said. 'And it is a craft. If you've written 20 songs, go and write another 20. Make your mistakes and learn about economy – the thing is not to fall in love with every phrase.'

The process of writing for this man begins and ends with applying himself.

'That's where I go to write,' he said – indicating a piano in the corner of his comfortable office. 'The notion of wandering through the Wicklow hills waiting for inspiration never works.'

He doesn't tend sit down to 'write a wee song for the sake of it', often working to a brief either of his own or prescribed.

'You have to remember you're writing something you hope has a shot at going further than your piano,' said Phil. When he started out as a composer, he said, 17 out of the top 20 songs in the charts would have been written by 'guys like me'.

And every songwriter wants to record a hit. 'Anyone who says they don't is either a fool or a liar.'

Coulter's act Celtic Thunder broke a record for him recently, with their album making it to number one in the US Billboard world music charts, and number 11 in the top 20 in the mainstream Billboard charts.

Coulter has therefore had a major chart entry in the States during every decade since the 1960s. 'It's a nice statistic!' he said.

He attributes his professional longevity to simply turning up for work on a Monday morning. 'It's my job,' he said. 'It's a great privilege to make a living out of making music. Countless millions of people would crawl over broken glass for the chance.'

A smaller number, however, would possess the same kind of work ethic as our man.

He attributes that dedication to his work to a good start in life at St Columb's College in Derry.

The school has produced two Nobel Prize winners, in Séamus Heaney and John Hume. Alumni include a string of other high achievers – Paul Brady, Brian Friel, and others who have reached excellence in their particular fields.

'All of them are different guys, with different talents, who followed their own careers,' said Phil. 'But they all had a work ethic in common, instilled at school.'

In the late 1940s the British Government introduced the opportunity for students who didn't have the financial means to go to university to get scholarships.

'Not one of those people had the means to go to college,' he said. 'The only chance you had was to get a scholarship.'

Therein lay the lesson that you were not 'entitled' to anything, and had to earn your ticket to a different lifestyle.

'It is an obligation to use your talent,' said Phil. 'It is a great crime to fritter away ability.'

Ryan Coulter (21) is one of Phil's six children. The young man is attending a Tennessee university on a soccer scholarship, and has inherited his father's attitude.

'He's up at 5.30 a.m. five mornings a week,' said the proud dad. Ryan used to play for Joseph's Boys, for Bray and for Dundalk. It was his ambition to be a soccer player – and his parents encouraged him to work hard to achieve that.

'You are the only person who can make that happen, I told him,' said Phil.

None of the Coulter brood has ended up working in music, although they are all big music fans.

'Sometimes it was a source of embarrassment to them,' admitted the musician, on what the children made of their father's fame. 'But they are old enough now to value some of it – particularly when Ireland's Call is played at a rugby match.'

Phil and his wife – singer Geraldine Branagan – moved to Bray around 20 years ago. Their youngest child Georgia was only a few months old.

The young family was a factor in the decision to move to Bray – avoiding the 'Taxi of Dad' service that would have ensued had they chosen a more rural setting. Six teenagers could account for quite a bit of mileage on the clock.

'We never wanted to be far from the sea,' added Phil, who said that the family received a very warm welcome in Bray.

'It was the house that swung it,' he said. And it is a beauty. In a private location, yet close to the town and the coast, the Coulter property is a place any family could make a home.

'We have invested a lot of time in it,' said Phil, who said it is a comfortable house, where six children have grown up happily.

The family have had no bad experiences in Bray, with one terrible exception.

In the early hours of August 16, 2009, Shane Clancy murdered Seb Creane, a close friend of the Coulter children, before taking his own life. The horror that unfolded at Cuala Grove that night was more than any young person should ever have to face.

'Life isn't fair. The good guys don't always finish first,' said Phil, who composed a beautiful piano piece which he played at Seb's funeral. His protégé Tommy Fleming also sang at the service.

It was a dark time which continues to haunt the family. Young men and women congregated at the Coulter house after the tragedy to remember their friend, as the Creane home was sealed off for investigation.

'I was devastated by the effect it had on the kids,' said Phil. 'Seb was in this house as often as

he was on his own. He was a gentle, talented, sensitive kid. He did some design work for me and was superbly talented. He was the kind of guy that I as a father would have been happy for my daughter to bring home.'

Phil felt compelled to contact the Joe Duffy show early that week, as inaccuracies about the circumstances of the deaths flooded some media outlets. 'I wanted to set the record straight about the boy I knew,' he said.

'Seb was from a hard working family. His parents had worked hard to send their sons to a good school [St Gerard's].

'It is so depressing that kids of that age could be exposed to that kind of pain. To lose someone is painful, but to lose them so violently is very hard for anyone to swallow – let alone kids of that age.'

Despite being blessed with a successful career, Phil has experienced deep pain in his life. Many of his songs were written in memory of lost loved ones: The Old Man for his father, Shores Of The Swilly and Star Of The Sea for his sister Cyd and brother Brian who drowned in Lough Swilly, and the unforgettable Scorn Not His Simplicity for his son who was born with Down's syndrome and died at the age of four.

While Luke Kelly recorded what is considered the definitive version of Scorn Not His Simplicity, Coulter described recording the song with another Bray native – Sinéad O'Connor.

'With all the various distractions about Sinéad, people forget why they became fans originally – that voice.'

Phil played piano for the recording session, and Sinead sang the song. 'I finished and I let the piano resonate. I sat, and she stood, for what seemed like an eternity, but was more likely minutes. Something very special happened there.'

If there was just one song that Phil would like to be remembered for, though, it would be The Town I Loved So Well.

Luke Kelly, 'the force of nature that he was', badgered Coulter into penning the ballad.

Coulter had written Free The People in anger following internment in Northern Ireland, when people were lifted by the army and imprisoned without charge.

Later, though, he wanted to write a piece reflecting on what had happened in his home town.

He wrote the melody in a matter of days, and pored over the lyrics for months. 'Every word was carefully weighed,' he said. 'I knew that with the wrong choices it could slip over the edge into a rebel song.'

It became a love song about his home town. He sat down with Luke in a very ordinary Sheffield hotel, and played the new song.

'I sang it with my eyes closed,' he said, nervous that Kelly – who had an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk songs – would deliver a harsh critique.

'When I finished and opened my eyes, he had tears in his. I knew then it was a powerful song.'

The intensely personal, local song, containing so many specific local references and place names, has struck a chord with people all over the world.

Back in Bray, it was some years ago when Phil and Geraldine got married. As they drove away on honeymoon (with six children in tow!) their friends and family gathered on the steps of the house and sang them off with Phil's Steal Away.

That is the moment he chose as the best of his life so far. 'There have been a lot,' he added. 'I have been lucky in that regard.'

The secret to his relationship, he said, is that he and Ger 'cut each other slack.'

Their children are their shared legacy. 'They are more important to me than all of the songs I have written,' said Phil. 'We have six healthy, well adjusted kids.'

Like everything else of value, a relationship must be worked at. 'Treasure it,' he said. 'You can't take it for granted.'

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