You can’t imagine what an honor it is, to talk to one of UK’s music legends. I was actually controlling the hysterical enthusiasm while doing this interview. As a Celtic blogger, decorum must prevail no matter what! I owned the Levellers albums in cassette form in the 90s and I think I must have ran the tape head down listening to Dirty Davey which is an original by McDermott’s Two Hours. He released three books of poetry On Call, All Kinds Of Disorder, and The Unicycle Set following great reviews. I have a soft spot for literary people like Nick Burbridge who fuse the power of writing and music. So yes in this reflective interview, he reveals to us what it is to be a poetic soul amidst the burgeoning of the Celtic music tide. Every encounter is an opportunity to discover and learn.
I read a short bio about your early years as a musician in the UK. Do you sometimes miss that lifestyle?
I hope you don’t mind if there’s some elision between the first two answers, as they are closely connected questions. It was in the mid 70’s, playing in Germany, when I realised there was going to be a schism between my different pursuits. My band was staying in cramped quarters in Mainz, and I remember waking one morning, after a good gig and late night, with a sudden instinct that I didn’t really belong there. I could hear a voice calling me elsewhere. I went down to watch the Rhine, and realised it was crying out for solitude, where I could get working on the next project – at that time I thought I was going to be a novelist – and from then, as at several other junctures in my life, it was only a matter of time before I went off alone. The trouble is that the lifestyle of a musician is, indeed, something that’s easily missed. And I carried on acting it out, intermittently, most of the way through my first “marriage”, which had its roots in the German experience. I could be a thoroughly bad man, with appetites which life on the road readily answers. My infidelity, drinking, and selfishness I will always regret, for the damage that it caused. But does some part of me miss that Dionysian license to transgress? …Oh yes…
How do you keep the balance between your literary pursuits and music?
The truth is that when I was first struck by a sense I might be a genuine writer, at about the age of eleven, it came simultaneously with my initial bout of clinical depression. Which sang the lead line, and which accompanied, or promised to compensate for what it would entail, I couldn’t say. The musical life always provided a kind of relief from the internal pressure of both these forces – though, as I’ve said, the pressure would always, eventually, become irresistible. These days, I keep the balance by restricting my musical life mostly to an Irish session on a Sunday afternoon (I am an Irish citizen, and my music is based in the idiom), writing songs and making albums. There was a brief phase not too many years ago when, through my good friends The Levellers, I went out and played the back catalogue of the band I’m perhaps best known for, McDermott’s Two Hours, to large crowds, and made sure I kept myself in check. This, then, didn’t pose a threat to the sense of home a writer needs, or has to create. But the literary life inevitably dominates now – albeit through books of poems, plays and stories. I long since gave up on my hopes of being a major novelist! And, just as inevitably, the depression which accompanied its first signals to me as a child, has plenty of scope to make itself felt.
You are nominated as songwriter in this years Spiral Earth Awards. How do you in general feel about the importance of musical awards in today’s digital age where everyone can vote?
Normally I pay little mind to these things (though I review albums for R2, so I have a good idea of what’s going on. But when Iain Hazlewood of Spiral Earth (who, like The Levellers, and Sean McGhee, among many others, has been a staunch ally over the years) told me I had been nominated for Best Songwriter, I embraced the task of trying to win the award, as I would any other activity which might bring my work to a wider audience. I wouldn’t be in the least interested in expanding the ego, posing for the camera, or any of the circus that goes on at the BBC awards, for instance. That’s another thing about suffering from endogenous depression. Your world is perpetually turned upside down. Moments of pride or satisfaction are fleeting, replaced by an overwhelming sense of being exposed, or ashamed. Having said that, the fact that this is a truly democratic vote appeals to a profound political sense that runs through my core, and dominates my music. I have been deeply moved to find out just how many people believe in me, as the inveterate outsider.
What are the top 5 albums you are listening now and why would you recommend them?
I was asked a similar question in the last issue of R2, and they haven’t changed at all since, as the book of poems I am currently working on has taken me into something of a time-warp, and these are my talismans: Blue, Joni Mitchell; Songs of Love and Hate, Leonard Cohen; Andy Irvine and Paul Brady (eponymous); After Hours, The Bothy Band; Bel, Gabriel Yacoub;
What’s cooking in the Burbridge musical kitchen right now?
A McDermott’s Two Hours’ folk-rock album, Besieged, has been cooking so long it may well be burnt by now. I wrote the songs before the last acoustic album, Gathered, and various people from The Levellers, Oysterband, and others, have been putting bits and pieces down when they have time. It’s being produced by the legendary Al Scott (in conjunction with my good friend, Tim Cotterell) – whose most recent triumph was Ragged Kingdom, with June Tabor and the Oysterband. Since all the albums we make are the result of others offering their time and facilities for free, I can’t complain that it’s taken an eternity to be realised. But I am promised it will emerge this year, a mighty beast, though not without finesse, or sensitivity – in contrast to Gathered, which was deliberately acoustic, and understated. My daughter Molly will be singing on it – and, beyond that, I’ve been hearing some very interesting, almost unaccompanied, songs on my nightly walks, which we might sing together. But one thing at a time!
What are the issues that you are passionate about, music or otherwise? And care to explain a bit?
This is the kind of question it’s always easier to answer with platitudes, than think about originally, and address from the heart. I’m beginning to look into old age, and I believe a point arrives when you come to terms with the fact that we are collectively, and individually responsible for the state we find ourselves in. My political beliefs, my personal commitments, and all I have to say, therefore, I try to encounter, now, firstly at a non-verbal level, in acts of meditation, or vision, penetrating the unconscious where the real work goes on; and from there, if I have to use words, I would say I am passionate about what it takes to be fully human, with a genuine awareness of a sense of justice, yet forgiveness, needful anger and the capacity to protect what must be protected, but in balance with the duty to nurture what is often called love, but therefore misunderstood. This is the fundamental creative instinct that forms us, drives us, and, when implored sincerely, releases us as we need to be released. Anything, and everything, that stands in its way, in the hands of politicians, corrupt religious orders, personal tyrants, or any other repressive force, is inimical. There is nothing quite like music as a weapon in this war.
What can you tell musicians who are doing a crossover into the “Celtic” genre? What are they supposed to prepare themselves with?
Giving advice about fusing other genres with the Celtic idiom is probably a bit like counseling a bodhran player. All kinds of people think they simply have to pick up basic rhythms, a sense of where parts begin and end, muscle into sessions, join bands, and that’s all that’s called for. Bodhran-playing is about rhythm and energy of course. But the expert knows the tunes themselves as well as any fiddler or flute-player. All accompaniments are sensitive, and serve the overall dynamic of the particular jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas etc. Mark the average player by how much attention is diverted, or dissolved by the drum clacking and clumping away across both melody and subtle rhythmic variations, or repeatedly crying out, Listen to me! I think the same kind of rules apply for “crossover” projects. A real respect and understanding of the tradition will ensure whatever’s being grafted onto it augments, and not obscures the workmanship and inspiration that lies at its heart, which is, after all, what is being made use of; so the outcome is a marriage, not a forced surrender to inappropriate attacks. Ultimately, it’s all about “listening” – it’s the key word, surely, in playing music – a drop or two of Celtic blood, and raw experience of what endures within in the culture, helps of course! Above all, prepare by listening, learning, and not seeking to impose, until a natural cross-breeding takes its course.
Where can fans buy your music?
The recent acoustic album, Gathered, is available now from Fish Records, specialists in singer-songwriter material. The first and last McDermott’s Two Hours albums (The Enemy Within and Goodbye To The Madhouse) are still on sale at www.levellers.co.uk – you can buy the others on Amazon, or from various distributors on the internet – or contact me at www.burbridgearts.org about any of the work and it will be taken care of.
Good news. I will be making three posts a week. I used to trim down the posting to twice per week due to an old suggestion. I was told that I posted a lot that it was hard for them to catch up. This was during an old template where the full text was displayed in front. With the new template, it is much easier because one would know where to look for new posts.
Brian Cunningham is still touring round the United States with his Sean Nos dance. According to his latest post:
Beautiful new video of Maura O’Connell performing ‘Feet of a Dancer‘ is out. According to her post “It’s cold out there – we’re warming ourselves with TradFest memories 🙂” Indeed. She is fantastic! Her voice is like no other. Enjoy!
If you love crafting and want to take a piece of Scotland with you..especially if you love maritime inspired art, take a look at this site. You would love many items 🙂
Enjoy your week folks. More post up soon plus an album review on Qristina and Quinn Bachand.