Saturday, April 3, 2010

Interview with Irish Folk Singer, JOHNNY DUHAN 4/3/10

A couple years ago Ken Bruen introduced me to the music of Johnny Duhan. My first taste was his CD "To The Light" and after listening to the 1st track, "Don Quixote" I knew I'd found a new favorite. Shortly after that, Ken gave me Johnny's e-mail address and we've stayed in touch ever since then. Johnny is a warm and caring man with a heart the size of Texas and his music deserves to be heard. It is my pleasure to introduce him to you here at "Signs & Wonders". This is Part 1 of what will be a 2Part interview. You can order his book & CD's at . I give you Mr. Johnny Duhan.

1)Your music and songwriting abilities remind me of a U.S. version of Tom Russell, neither of you have ever compromised in regards to your (integrity or independence) just to gain commercial success. Those two things are very important to you are they not?

Honesty, integrity and independence are crucially important to me. Staying true to myself and the culture I stem from - including the influence of my parents - is fundamental. Much more important than commercial success. World success is over rated. I've known lots of people who have achieved huge commercial success, and it destroyed them. Money has never been a motivating force for me. Fame, yes, when I was younger, but heading into my 60s, I'm beginning to outgrow that lust too. But it's still there, the longing for the limelight. At a deeper level, though, the light I long for now is a much purer light. And I believe it's there, hidden in the darkness. And somehow you have to go into the dark to find it.

2) Your songs are so soulful & contain the most intimate moments of your life. Has it been painful or therapeutic to paint the pages with your own blood?

A: Real creativity, I have found, is deeply painful. After years of writing surface formulaic songs - hundreds and hundreds of them - I recall the first real song that came to me. I was in Co Kerry on a camping holiday with my girlfriend - now wife - and we were involved in a road accident with a couple of US tourists who had given us a ride in their car. That evening after we pitched our tent we went to a local bar for a few drinks and immediately I was overwhelmed by a feeling of dread or claustrophobia. So much so that I had to leave the pub on my own (driven out) and go for a walk by the ocean. It was probably delayed reaction to the car crash. But the force I felt that night had something to do with my rising the following morning very early with a bolt of inspiration to write "Everything will be Alright", which eventually featured on my "Just Another Town" album. It was years later before I tapped into the same kind of inspiration to write the rest of the songs for "Just Another Town", and, again, the songs came after a severe bout of depression, though many of the songs are bright and positive. To write real songs you have to confront your demons, in the same way that an alcoholic has to confront his illness before he can enact a cure.

3) If you were able to go back to the beginning of your career, would you pursue a different path or would you do it all the same again?

A: I wrote a song once called Fool's Review for my Don Quixote album (now To The Light) which ran: I sometimes look back at the fool I was when I was young. Laugh when I think of me at seventeen. Blush when I think of all the silly things I've done. But that boy stands proudly in my memory, naming fools of those who were then as I am now."
Having said that with tongue in cheek, I would of course do things differently. It took me years to wise up to the myth of the 60's. Joni Mitchell song "Blue" exploded the idea that Sex, Drugs & rock'n'roll led to Nirvana. I was beginning to come to the same conclusion at that time but I wasn't skilled enough to articulate it in song. In fact, I was a very slow developer. Though I started out in a band in the mid sixties - and wrote most of the band's songs - I wasn't well informed, in the way of being aware of poetry and literature, which I believe is essential
for development in any of the arts.

4) When I was reading about your early days with "Granny's Intentions", their were some similarities to those in the movie "The Commitments". Have you seen the film and what were your thoughts on it when you did? (Ex. the Irish band playing soul & heading to London)

A: Strange you should ask that, as the same question came up in another interview recently. "The Commitments", in my estimation, is pastiche. It was written by a talented school teacher, who may have dreamt of being in a band in the 60s. It has all the surface elements of what it was like being in a copycat soul band. And from a nostalgic point of view it was very very entertaining. But it is not the real thing. Real life is a lot more nuanced and complicated than the bubbly picture we were given in "The Commitments". At it's own level, it is fine. But that level doesn't really interest me. I'm not nostalgic by nature. Roddy Doyle has criticised Joyce's Ulysses for not being better edited. For me this is a silly remark. Ulysses has all the quirkiness of reality. This real substance can not be edited out, just to make a well rounded book. Maybe it could have been better edited, but the real substance has to be their first to make a real work of art. Joyce had that in abundance.

5) Of all your songs that have been remade by the various musicians, do you have a favorite or is that like asking which one of your kids is your favorite?

A: "After the Dream" by Dolores Keane had the potential to be my favourite because Dolores, in my mind, is one of the finest singers Ireland has produced. Like Billy Holiday, she was a natural singer. But I fucked up (pardon the French) in agreeing to add a verse to a song that was already complete, just to suit the film it was featured in. You can't do things like this. There is such a thing as artistic sin, and I committed a cardinal one in messing with "After the Dream".

6) I've read some of the wonderful and touching letters that you've received from peoples lives you've touched around the world. Do those letters make all the struggles through the years worthwhile for you?

Yes, a German got in touch with me some time back and told me that he was amazed that I wasn't recognised in my own country. And it's true. I brought out a book, TO THE LIGHT last year and I couldn't get on any TV or radio shows to promote it, and only one of our newspapers reviewed it. Even though the book - and more so the four epic CD collections that it represents - is probably the most substantial artistic work - in sheer volume of size - that any artist has produced in Ireland in years. The letters I get, from overseas mostly, have kept me going. In the last week alone I've had letters from France and Nova Scotia. Some of the letters I get reduce me to tears. That for me is the real reward for what I do.

7) I gave "Honest Injun" several listens and I know you told me not to expect too much, but to be honest I really liked "Maybe" , "We Both Need To Know", and especially "Heavy Loaded Minds". What really got me was how you guys were all over the place in regards to style. At times it was like listening to a country western tune by the Marshall Tucker Band or the Allman Bros. & then we would switch to a David Bowie "Ziggy Stardust" feeling. Was that intended, to roam around see what caught on?

A: Very perceptive, Rod. We were all over the place. Our keyboard player John Ryan had his pulse on the heart of pop culture and was forever steering us down new roads. I learned quite a lot from the experience but grew dizzy artistically because of all the chopping and changing. Being in a band is like being part of a democracy, and the democracy of Granny's Intentions was full of confusion because each of the members was pulling in different ways. Back then, we were just feeling our way. I was only 17, for God sake.

8) Did you have a feeling even at that time that Gary Moore was going to go on to have the successful career he's had? And.. What are your memories of working together on that album?

A: Gary Moore was never really a fixture in the Granny's. He stepped into the lead guitarist role in the middle of the recordings for Granny''s one and only album. Gary and Phil Lynott moved into my flat in Donnybrook in Dublin when they were homeless and we became good friends. I was probably closer to Gary in temperament, though I had little interest in the heavy rock that both of them were into. Gary was such a whiz on the guitar, it was obvious that he was destined for the limelight.

9) How much money would it take to bring you to the U.S. to tour?

A: Not a lot. It's finding the right venues that would be the problem. Generally I play smallish arts centres, sometimes even without a PA system. I went to New York some years back but the venues were all wrong. The kind of songs I sing demand a lot of concentration and I need complete silence to bring out all the juices of the lyrics. Generally I don't even have other musicians with me because I want the full focus to be kept on the words and vocal performance. I'm a bit of an odd ball, I'm told. I would love to play in the U.S., but without being even popular in my own country, I can't see how that could be achieved. I'm not complaining though, as my lack of popularity has meant that I have been able to give my full undivided attention to my work.

10) Who are some of your favorite poets, songwriters, and musicians out there working today? Or for that matter, for all time?

A: I tend to go to classical composers for melodic nourishment more and more now and old poets for poetic stimulus. I listen to Bach more than any other composer of music, for melody. In fact my daughter is playing a very beautiful piece by Bach on the piano behind me as I write. I love George Herber with a passion, and Wordsworth, Dante, Emily Dickinson, Frost, Akmatova - there are so many greats. As good as I think some of the more modern songwriters are, I haven't heard any to top Joni Mitchell, Tim Hardin, early Dylan and Leonard Cohen, to name a few. My one bit of advice to up and coming writers, is to keep a check on over exposing themselves to one particular influence, if they want to develop their own voice.

11) I understand that you did the soundtrack for the 1987 movie "Reefer and the Model". Please tell us about that experience and is it something you might want to explore again in the future?

A: Joe Comerford's film. Yes. It was a great experience. I mentioned the theme song already, "After the Dream". It gave me the opportunity to work with my favorite Irish singer, Dolores Keane. Writing the score also tested my ability to come up with lots of musical pieces to order, something I'm not usually good at. I'm not a big film buff. I prefer books any day. But it was a great experience. I was advised to pursue more work in films after Reefer won top prize at the Barcelona Film Festival. I was even given a few avenues to follow, but I didn't really do it with any kind of enthusiasm, as I felt it would be a distraction on my work as a songwriter.

12) What was your impression of the movie?

A: I thought Joe caught the feel and substance of the Irish character in the way outsiders aren't able to do, though he fell down on the dialogue. If he had had the chance to develop he might have gone on to create a substantial body of work with a distinctly Irish feel. The problem for Joe and it's a similar problem for most Irish artists, is that everything we do is weighed against what's coming out of America. The reason Van Morrison and even U2 became so successful commercially in the U.S., was that they drew most of their influences from America. They became more American than the Americans themselves. If you listen carefully to the intonation of Van's and Bono's voices, you'll detect more than a hint of an American

13) Your book "To The Light" is a full scale autobiography that is written entirely in song. Where did you come up with the idea of using that format and were you pleased with the outcome?

A: This is the most important question you've asked me so far. I spent four or five years, on and off, writing part one of an autobiography, "THERE IS A TIME". And, though I was happy enough with the end result, I detected a slightly stilted note in the prose when I reread it. I think what it was was that I was over conscious of the writing process in the writing of the book. Songwriting has always come quite naturally to me. I almost feel that I was destined to write songs. Prose is different. In writing prose I have no melody to guide me, and melody is vitally important to me. I started to write part two of my autobiography some years back, and again I felt a little at sea without melodic structure to act as a compass. Half way through the book it occurred to me that the voice I use on stage to introduce my songs to an audience was a much more confident voice than the voice that guides my written prose. So, I put the autobiography on hold and spent a year writing a 50 page chapter based on a live gig, using the stories I came up with on stage to introduce the lyrics of the songs. It worked. I was so gripped by the experience of writing in this way, I literally couldn't put the pen down. Then an even stranger thing happened. The thought occurred to me that I could condense my life's work as a songwriter into four chapters, and so "TO THE LIGHT" came about. As I was writing this book it began to dawn on me that the most important aspect of the work was the four collections of songs that it represented, (Just Another Town, To The Light, The Voyage, and Flame). The book itself is only a marker for this work of a lifetime. What I've done over a forty year period is write my autobiography in song. No one that I know of has ever done this before, anywhere. And no other Irish man that I know of has spent as long working on a single work of art as I have spent working on this project. This isn't ego speaking, this is just fact. The real test, of course, is does the work have real artistic value. Only time will determine that.

14) The one man shows you perform these days are very intimate and personal in regards to the performance & venues you play in. Are you more comfortable playing your music in a smaller setting or would you at some point want to play in front of 25,000 people?

A: I have no desire to play to a crowd that big, though I don't think it would faze me if I did. But to play that game you need to be famous. For me there is something unreal about such gatherings. Most people probably go for the occasion rather than the songs. The whole popular music industry is manufactured and manipulated by money. Because of the level of manipulation that has gone on for decades, the general publics musical taste has also become affected. Most of the product we're hearing on our radios now has been elevated to that high position by advertising. To fill giant stadiums you have to operate within the cesspool of the modern music industry. I chose a long time ago not to play the game. Consequently I have a "select audience though few", as Wordsworth so eloquently put it.

15) Do you prefer playing live or would you rather be in the studio recording?

A: Above all I love the act of writing a real song. But, real songs are slow in coming, so you need infinite patience. It gets lonely in my song-cell, but I wouldn't have it any other way. To get out and play a series of intimate shows is wonderful too. The act of singing for me is amazing. It's a bit like what I imagine a tightrope walker must feel like, high above a crowd without a safety net. Regarding recording, I'm not as enamored of studios as I used to be, though it still gives me a great thrill to work with other musicians. I've just completed recording a new series of songs featuring a cello. That was a great treat.

16) You stated that one of the reasons for writing the book "To The Light" was to awaken interest in your musical albums. Has that worked out the way you had hoped?

A: Not really. As I stated already, I'm little known in own country, as I rarely get invited onto TV or radio shows. I thought this would change once I published the book and two of the four albums that go with it. But, it just hasn't happened. A journalist from the Irish Times who wanted to do a feature on it, wasn't allowed to by his editor. But, he still managed to sneak in a one liner, "It's hardly likely you'll read a better book this year" and that gave me encouragement and a quotation I could use legitimately.

17) "The Voyage" has turned out to be your most popular song. "It is simplistic- yet a deeply touching ode to the family". While you were writing it, did you have any idea it would strike the chord it did with so many people?

A: I had no idea it would take off the way it did. And from the quantity and quality of the letters I've received regarding the song, I'm convinced that there is a core substance to the song that has real meaning for our lives, especially family life. A well known musician once tried to insult me by suggesting that the words were "pre-teenage stuff", as he put it. I caught him on the hop by telling him that he was bang on, as I had been influenced by Robert Louise Stevenson's "Treasure Island" in the writing of the lyric. Any song or poem that becomes hugely popular will always have a certain amount of detractors. Even Wordsworth's "Daffodils" was derided in his day.

18) While recording "Just Another Town" you left your record company over artistic differences ( the order the songs would appear on the album) and instead invested your own finances to do it your way. I believe you said "compromise in everything except art". Have you ever wavered on that or do you feel as strongly today as you did then?

A: No, I'm as convinced by that today as I was when I first said it. I've never got on with record companies, going back to when I made my first album with Granny's Intentions. I recall the record producer banning me from the control room because our musical ideas clashed. I'm a bit of a maverick in that regard. But then I could never really understand the role of a producer. Can you imagine artists like Van Gogh or Bach having a producer hanging over their shoulder telling them what to do.

19) I got the feeling that you still regret that petty theft at Mrs. R's pub even today. Would that be true?

A: Yes indeed. To this day I pray for the woman every morning. But, it taught me a great lesson. There is such a thing as sin and corruption, and I was on the slippery slope at that time, not because of the petty theft, but because of the abuse of trust of a fine human being.

20) On the day you were sending off the demo's for "Just Another Town", you believed you got a sign when you see a mentally ill man, a drunkard on the steps of a church, and a homeless man with a dog on your way to mail them. Your description reminded me so much of another Galway resident, Ken Bruen's description's in his Jack Taylor novels. You and Ken are friends I know. How did that relationship first develop and what do you think of Ken's writing?

A: A friend told me that Ken liked my songs at a time when I hadn't a clue who Ken Bruen was. When we eventually met for coffee in a Galway cafe, we immediately hit it off. I admitted to Ken straight away that I knew nothing about crime fiction and had even lost interest in reading literary fiction by this stage. This didn't bother Ken. We share a love of poetry and songs and this kept our conversation going. When the Jack Taylor novels first appeared I was completely surprised and chuffed to find that Jack Taylor was a big fan of Johnny Duhan's songs. The first time I found out my name was featured in the books was at Brandon Books 25th anniversary celebrations. Brandon had recently published part 1 of my autobiography, "There is a Time", and I was invited to share the stage with Ken, whose first book on Jack Taylor, "The Guards", had also just been published. As a joke on me, Ken read out a passage in which my name was mentioned. I was flabbergasted but delighted at the same time. Ken has been very supportive of me down the years. And, I greatly appreciate it. He even contacted me recently to apologize for the fact that the film company (who recently turned the Jack Taylor stories into a TV series), didn't use my songs as part of the score. I was disappointed too, but I fully understand how such companies operate. One very positive thing about Ken's books, is that they deal with the here and now of Ireland, today rather than dealing with the past, as most modern Irish fiction tends to do.


  1. While this subject can be very touchy for most people, my opinion is that there has to be a middle or common ground that we all can find. I do appreciate that youve added relevant and intelligent commentary here though. Thank you!

  2. If anyone is still reading this, I would be very interested to know where the soundtrack for Reefer and the Model may be found on the internet, with very especial reference to the song After the Dream. I have periodically hunted, to no avail, yet. I have a cassette recording. Once I had the LP. It is an astonishing song, perfectly suited to Dolores Keane's voice.