by Cindy Reich Phil Coulter is no slouch. He wrote songs for Elvis, wrote the mega-hit “Saturday Night” for the Bay City Rollers and produced three albums for “Planxty” (for the traditional music lovers in the audience). It”s impossible to pin him down and put him in a box. Pop songs that he”s written have gone to number one many times and sold tens of millions of albums. Some of his most powerful songs are ballads such as “The Town I Loved So Well”. “Scorn Not His Simplicity”. “The Old Man”. “Steal Away”. Just to name a few. His Tranquility series were groundbreaking and defied categorization again. Phil took great traditional songs of Scotland and Ireland (and a few of his own); set them in orchestral settings and the results were phenomenal. Speaking from his home in Ireland, Phil Coulter took some time out to chat with Cindy Reich of the “Celtic Connection”: Phil, I have to tell you that I got an advance copy of Celtic Thunder and am totally captivated by “Steal Away”. It is the best track of the lot. Somehow it never crossed my radar when the Furey”s did it, but this version is spectacular! “Thank you! That”s a song that has been around for a long time and I have to tell you I have a soft spot for that wee song. I know its not a big song, an important song ” its not “The Town I Loved So Well”, but what flatters me is that people sing “Steal Away” in folk clubs here in Ireland and believe the song has been around for a hundred years.” I agreed that it does have that timeless quality that could have been a song from a hundred years ago. Phil went on, “They”re the hard ones to write”the ones that are deceptively simple are the harder ones to write. I”m glad you”ve discovered it!” I enthused about the harmonies and the quality of tenor Paul Byrom”s voice, as Phil replied, “Celtic Thunder was a big, big involvement for me last year as the kind of musical ringmaster and musical creator–finding slots for existing songs or writing the new material or slotting in the other songs be they Irish or the big pop anthems like “Knights in White Satin” or “Desperados”. It has been a labor of love, but it has still been a labor. It has been a big, big investment of time and energy, so I hope I got it right.” Phil, you”ve gone all the way from pop and rock and traditional to stage shows”Eurovison, the whole lot. You are not a one trick pony. You”ve had many, many major hits. How do you maintain such a high level? “The simple answer to that is I regard it as my job. And because you get a few hits doesn”t mean you can take your foot off the pedal. It doesn”t mean you”re entitled to any more. It doesn”t mean you”ve cracked it. It doesn”t mean you”ve discovered the formula. It doesn”t mean you”re some kind of alchemist that can make hits out of nothing. What it means is that by applying your work ethic to your talent”you put the ingredients together in a way that it worked and you just hope that along the road that you”ve learned from those experiences and you”ve got in your toolbox the tools to do it again. There are no guarantees. This is my job. It is as simple as that and it”s a job I take very seriously.” “It”s a great job”, he continued, “and there are a lot of people who would crawl over broken glass to have it. I work hard at it and I think I do it reasonably well. It”s a lot of spade work. It”s a lot of digging away at the seam beneath the ground until you hit the gold.” Yes, I replied, but you”re a craftsman, like a master craftsman of any sort of art. “I”m glad you say that”, said Coulter, “Because I keep preaching this to the youngsters that come into the game. I was a visiting professor in the music department at Boston College for a number of years and whether it was a student there or someone coming into my orchestra, I would tell the kids a number of things. I would tell them that because you”re talented, don”t believe that the world owes you a living, because nothing is further from the truth. Your talent entitles you to nothing. Your talent is something you inherited. It”s a gift from God. You inherited it from the genes of your parents. But don”t think that because you are born talented that it”s going to be easy. You start congratulating yourself when you work at your talent and turn it into something, you know? Learning the craft.” “Songwriting”that”s another one of my hobby horses when I get on my soapbox and talk about songwriting”, he continued. “It is a craft. There”s no such thing as a born songwriter. There”s no such thing as a born silversmith. There may be somebody who has a great eye and a great hand who can work with the raw materials, but you have to learn the craft and how you put the skill and ingenuity together to be able to turn out something worthwhile. And that”s what songwriting”s about and that”s what crafting a record or a stage show is about.” I agreed and said that you must continually adapt, because your audience changes all the time. “Nothing is forever, you”ve got to keep changing. Even people”s expectations of a stage show”twenty years ago, they would”ve been content to see three or four guys and a half decent PA and a few shining lights. Now, for the big acts there have to be pyrotechnics and state of the art lighting. At that kind of level, people expect it.” Yes, I agreed, but now you also have to compete for people”s attention in a world where everything is a sound byte and people need to be entertained to a phenomenal level in three or four minutes or they just walk away. “Then”, Phil continued, ” you have to ask yourself, how much of the bells and whistles are covering up for the fact that the actual content”that the substance is missing?” But then we can go back to the success of the Tranquility series, I countered”this is a great segue–because here is something that you”ve been doing for a long time”taking songs with great lyrics and taking the lyrics away to concentrate on the melody. “In the midst of all the changing fashions and fads”, Phil said, “whether it may be rap, or whether it may be R&B or teeny bop or whatever happens to be fashionable, the one thing that endures is quality. The one thing that endures is a good tune, and if you look at the history of popular music you”ll see that. In the midst of all the madness, the diamonds will always come through. So the choosing of a song in my repertoire is a critical part of the whole exercise and that”s where being a songwriter helps me. The songs are the real stars of the whole show, whether it be on the record or on the stage, I reckon. It”s a question of leaving the space and letting those melodies breathe. The strings and the other instruments provide the carpet that the melodies can dance on. Its as simple as that.” I love words, I countered, and most ballads I latched on to were because of the words, but having said that, there are some songs, that the melody is so captivating, I never even hear the words. “That”s the great irony”, said Coulter. “The whole Tranquility series is taking those great songs and stripping away the lyrics which in many cases were every bit as good as the melody. And that doesn”t mean that I am not a lover of words as yourself. As a songwriter, I would take as much pleasure and I would spend as much time crafting a lyric as I would a melody. A song like “The Town I Loved So Well”"that melody came within a week, I would say. But the lyric took me a year, because I just knew, given the circumstances, and given the volatility of the atmosphere in the north of Ireland, that this song was addressing, that I had to be very careful in my choice of words and images.” ” Had I not thought this one through, just a few ill chosen words here or there would have just tilted the song and I”d have made it into a rebel song and that was the last thing that I wanted to achieve, and the last thing this country needed was another rebel song. The crafting of the lyric and the honing down of the words and the choosing of the words is something, which again, is part of the craft that gives me great satisfaction and delight.” But that is one of the great ironies of yourself, I countered. Here you are, a master craftsman of lyrics”one of the most powerful songs, ever”"The Town I Loved So Well”. Songs like “Scorn Not His Simplicity”, “The Old Man”"these are really strong songs, lyrically. So you take these same songs that have such power because of the way they were crafted with words, and then remove the words. “Maybe that is something that appeals to my quirky sense of humor. It kind of wrong-foots people”, Phil continued. “I like confusing people. I refuse to be pigeon-holed. I”m not comfortable being put in any box and that”s why the whole idea of new challenges and the whole idea of re-inventing oneself is important to the whole creative process. That”s really why I took on the Celtic Thunder project. I can do this. It falls within my remit”I can call on a lot of the skills I”ve learned. It”s a big project, its going to take a lot of time, but you know what? ” I can do this.” Phil Coulter has just released “Timeless Tranquility” a twenty-year celebration of the Tranquility series on the Shanachie label and a DVD, filmed on location in Ireland, “Tranquility Classics, A Journey Through Phil Coulter”s Ireland”. You can also check out Phil Coulter”s website, www.philcouter.com or www.shanachie.com

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