Phil Coulter Salutes Celtic Thunder with Heartland

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How It’s New York:  Loads of New York celebs know and love Phil Coulter (see his note about writing a song for Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson’s wedding, below), and lots of musicians have worked with him over the years.  Phil was one of the first to produce Planxty, and is a big fan of Andy Irvine, who played NY a couple of weeks ago (our interview and video here!)  And in his interview Phil talks about playing New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
How It’s Irish:  Phil has been involved in music, Irish and non (Bay City Rollers!) for a long time.  There would be no Celtic Thunder without him.

Here’s my piece on Phil Coulter, whose new album Heartland is out now on Shanachie records.  It was in Irish Examiner last week.

Tuesday October 18, 2011

Still Producing Beautiful Music

Photo by Jack Hartin

By Gwen Orel
“Beautiful Music!” said the parking lot attendant, looking blessed out. I was wondering why he’d driven my car right by me.
Inside, Phil Coulter’s latest album for Shanachie, Heartland, was playing.
That’s success – when the parking attendant wants to stay in the car.
Phil’s new album, which just came out in September, is already selling well. He’s got the popular touch.
As he pointed out when we spoke on video skype last week (He’s in Antrim; I’m in New Jersey), of the top 10 selling Celtic albums on Amazon, Phil is responsible for five: four are from Celtic Thunder. And one is his. Pretty impressive.
Of course, Phil is one of the driving forces behind the hugely popular band (see our article about them from September 20).
He left Celtic Thunder recently. The parting was over control and business, and it’s a little sensitive, but, “they’re still singing my songs,” Phil says.
Since launching his musical career in 1964, Phil has won 23 Platinum Discs, 39 Gold Discs, 52 Silver Discs, two Grand Prix Eurovision awards; five Ivor Novello Awards, which includes Songwriter of the Year; three American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers awards; a Grammy Nomination; a Meteor Award, a National Entertainment Award and a Rose d’or d’Antibes.
He’s written songs for Elvis Presley, the Bay City Rollers, incidental music for the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon series, and wrote the much covered “The Town I Loved So Well.”
You could say it’s a broad career.

 With so many projects in the works, it’s unlikely the soon-to-be 70 Phil will be retiring any time soon.
He’s one of the ambassadors for Derry’s City of Culture, 2013, and is already planning to come up with something spectacular.
He’s extremely chipper when we speak, considering the time difference and the fact that he had been working all day.
He had been in the studio in Antrim (he lives in Wicklow) with Mary Byrne, a finalist last year in the UK talent show “The X-Factor” (it just debuted here in the states this autumn).(I blogged about it for WSJ’s Speakeasy!)
Mary, Phil told me, is a 52-year old woman who had been working as a check-out lady at Tesco.
When he was asked to produce her, “I didn’t even think about it, I said right away, absolutely! She single-handedly managed to empower an entire generation in this part of the world!”
This will be Mary’s second album. It’s the same instinct and ear to the ground that made him listen to a CD sent by a friend in Derry years ago, “before Celtic Thunder was even dreamed up.”
“If I’d been in a grumpy mood, I could have put it on a shelf where it would be sitting to this day.” But something made Phil listen to the CD of his friend’s neighbor’s kid.
The rest is history – the kid was Damian McGinty, teen idol who just co-won the summer series “The Glee Project.” Look for him on “Glee” this season.
Phil has had hits in every decade but doesn’t feel entitled to them. “It’s my job. I take it seriously. Being from the North of Ireland, I was brought up with a good work ethic, it never bothered me to put in long hours in the studio.”
He hails from Derry, and attended St. Columb’s College at a time when an education act brought in by the Labor Government in the UK made higher education open to scholarship boys. “It was beaten into us that if you had talent, brains, intelligence, the obligation was on you to use it.”
He and fellow graduates of St. Columb’s playwright Brian Friel and poet Seamus Heaney have discussed it, he said, and agree what they share is their work ethic.
And, being a minority, “this was the way I had to get ahead of the game. So it had political overtones as well.”
He began as a student himself, writing a song for a student record at Queens College that then got picked up by a band in Ireland.
“Once that happened I was unemployable,” he says. “I didn’t want to have a job anymore. I got a sniff of what it was all about, and I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a music teacher.”
When he taught at Boston College, he told students to be smart-talent isn’t enough. “Do you know what your talent entitles you to? Zip. The entertainment business is very cyclical. Part of the survival instinct is to move with the times. The break ain’t gonna happen unless you go after it.”

Photo by Jack Hartin

Phil describes the new album “Heartland” as “a swan song” to his work with Celtic Thunder.
It consists of orchestral versions of songs the band has performed, all but two written by Phil (the others are the traditional “Buachaill En Eirne” and Jimmy MacCarthy’s “Ride On”).
All of the songs are close to him, but he admits to “a soft spot” for the title track, “Heartland,” the song which opens Celtic Thunder performances.
He says, “I needed to set the whole scene for what was to follow. There are ingredients of Celtic mysticism, plain chant, monks, a chorus in Gaelic… I was factoring in all these things.”
Another is “Noreen,” originally written as “An Cailin Fonn,” and subtitled “Natasha.”
Phil wrote it for Natasha Richardson, as a wedding present for her and Liam Neeson, and played it at their wedding.
But he couldn’t come up with a lyric for it, and eventually wrote the lyric “Noreen.”
On the new album, you hear the melody as he originally conceived it.
“It’s an O’Riada type construction, melody and harmony,” Phil explains.
By that he means the great traditional musician Sean O’Riada. “He was one of the first to orchestrate traditional music who really got it.”
He’s so well known for his work with Celtic Thunder, as a producer and as a solo performer (Classic Tranquility; Sea of Tranquility) than his achievements with trad are lesser known.
But during the ’70s, while working with Elvis and the Bay City Rollers, Phil also had a “parallel existence,” producing folk groups that included the Dubliners, the Furey Brothers, and Planxty.
Hearing I was going to be talking with Andy Irvine, Phil raved that Andy “is one of the great unsung heroes of Irish music. He doesn’t get 1/2 of the credit he deserves for bringing new energies and sounds and rhythms to Irish music. I can tell you because I was there!”
He first began playing trad at 16 when he went to the West of Donegal for a month to study Gaelic, but music was always in his house.
His father, from Co. Down, played jigs and reels on the fiddle, and his mum, from Belfast, played the piano, “not very well at all, I have to say. As often as not my father would be playing and my mother would be accompanying him in a different key. But it didn’t matter. They were having a good time, and the people in the house were having a good time.”
Phil studied classical piano, but “it was never just an academic subject. In our neighborhood, whenever there was an excuse for a party, the party was at the Coulters because the Coulters had a piano, and Sargeant Coulter played the fiddle.”
Performance, for Phil, is about connecting with the audience.
That’s why when he performs his solo shows he will tell stories or recite a poem or a bit of theatre. “It’s what entertaining is all about.”
He’s had a lot of financial and critical success, but for him success boils down to is “looking forward to going to work on Monday morning” – and moment he wishes he could freeze in time, like playing the White House or Carnegie Hall.
When Celtic Thunder first played Radio City Music Hall, less than a year after he and Sharon Browne put the band together, he remembers telling everyone:
“Be quiet, be still – look around you. Look at this and drink deep. Listen to the sound and drink it deep into your ars, sniff and smell the air. This is something to remember. You’re standing on the edge of Radio City Music Hall! This is historic in your life. This is a milestone in your lives. And by the way, it’s taken me forty years to get here.”

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