“If I’d realized 20 years ago that Id be still doing this at 72, I would have retired back then,” jokes Phil Coulter when asked how it feels to have a new album out.
Coulter doesn’t know the meaning of the word relax. He moves from one project to the next and has been doing so for nearly 50 years.
Write songs for teen idols? Check. Single-handedly invent New Age music with your Tranquility series? Check. Lead a swelling orchestra throughout the globe as part of Celtic Thunder, one of the most successful touring shows of all time? Check!
Though he operates at a breakneck pace, he slows it down a bit on Echoes of Home: The Most Glorious Celtic Memories. It is indeed a glorious return to the Tranquility era that made him a star in his own right after spending decades behind the scenes as a producer and songwriter.
“Believe it or not, Classic Tranquility was 20 some odd years ago,” he says in disbelief. “The orchestras have been getting bigger and the scores more lush as I’ve gone out on these big tours and worked on the Celtic Thunder show.
“When I found myself no longer working on that show I was wondering how I could top that. The answer was to keep it simple. It allowed me to keep my energy and desire alive.”
On Echoes of Home, Coulter boils the melodies of some of the most beloved songs on the Celtic islands down to their most basic elements. The majestic Scottish “Theme from Braveheart” is stripped of its grandiose, cinematic firepower so that the gorgeous melody can breathe.
“My Lagan Love” juxtaposes low notes with high tinkling on the piano, coaxing nuances from a song you thought you loved so well. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” conveys a deeper level of love’s ache in this reflective instrumental.
On Echoes of Home, the dramatic flair comes in the spacing, living in the places where Coulter doesn’t play rather than what he does play.
Some of Ireland’s best musicians sit in with him on this new album, though they are contributing in the most offbeat ways.
Moya Brennan, whose voice on Clannad albums has made her the queen of Celtic music, is the only voice you hear on Echoes of Home. Alas, she only hums here and there on “The Lass of Aughrhim,” allowing her gorgeous Irish harp to do most of the talking for her instead.
Paul Brady, one of the most unique voices of Ireland, keeps his mouth shut except to play the haunting whistle on Coulter’s new composition “Farewell to Inishowen.”
Speaking with Coulter is never dull as the stories of a life in music come fast and furious. Here’s how it went:
Is there anything for you to discover for yourself in the recording process after all this time?
I was reminded of something as I recorded this and I guess I learned it anew. Despite the fashions of music, melody never goes out of style. In the Celtic tradition, we have these glorious melodies.
I set out to treat Irish and Celtic songs with dignity and style. Just strip away everything else except for the sound of the piano, give the melody that dignity.
I think you drive that point home on your take of “Theme from Braveheart.”
Exactly. All of the incidentals and orchestras are gone. People are used to hearing it with this grand orchestra.
The acid test is, with no orchestra or lyric, can you play the melody on the piano and have it stand up? If so, then you’ve got something.
I was struck by the drama and textures you got from allowing space between the notes.
It’s the courage to read the silences, to leave space. While I absolutely adore the luxuriant textures, this exercise is different -- just the melody. Nothing more, nothing less.
The only indulgence is to invite five of my pals to do instrumental duets. That would give it a quirk.
Moya Brennan is a hypnotizing voice. She is on there as a harpist. Paul Brady, one of the best singers and songwriters in Ireland, is on there as a whistle player. I like that aspect of the record as well.
Was this some conscious effort on your part to scale things down after spending so much time touring and recording on a big and glitzy show like Celtic Thunder?
I didn’t rationalize it that way, but now that you say it I’m sure that was going on in the subconscious. Stripping this down to me was very exciting and bold and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I didn’t try to squeeze songs in this pre-arranged theme. The only prerequisite is that it had to be this indefinable Celtic thing.
“The Flower of Magherally” is the kind of song that couldn’t come from anyplace but the Celtic lands. “The Minstrel Boy” gets played in military funerals. You get these big versions with Irish tenors belting it out, but it wouldn’t be popular without the melody.
Just using the piano, I was determined to make the melody speak on it’s own, the drama it has without a tenor bringing it out.
With all that you have accomplished, do you find it harder to challenge yourself?
And that is the challenge. In your more cynical, less energetic days, you ask yourself, why bother? It doesn’t get easier. It gets harder. The last thing you need is a new CD release.
The good news is that everyone can make a record. The bad news is that everyone is making a record. I don’t want to add to the noise.
I’ve lived in studios making music for 50 years. There is so much that is processed and not produced. All of the artillery at the disposal of record producers and engineer -- you buy ProTools and suddenly you’re a producer – it’s out there but its not all that is out there.
You have to believe that there are still people that want to hear good musicians and good melodies. That’s why I carry on.
Yet you just had this rush of success recently with Celtic Thunder. You don’t carry on for the thrill of winning over big audiences?
It is certainly fun. Look, there was that Bay City Rollers era of my career when I had an eye to the pop charts, chasing your tail. That’s not sustainable.
I always had a parallel existence. I would do a pop star piece to pay the bills, then produce Planxty on the side because it really fed me creatively. That is the way it has always been for me.
I know you were close to George Donaldson of Celtic Thunder (he tragically passed suddenly at 46). You posted a touching musical interlude to him called “Lament for George” online and as a bonus to the digital album. What was the reaction from his family?
I was shocked and horrified by his death. He was one of the few if not the only one that stayed in touch after my Celtic Thunder removal.
There was a groundedness to him. He was building buses for 20 years. He knew how special this shot was to him. The only reason he came to the auditions was he just wanted to have a look at me because he was singing my songs since he was a boy.
It was a major shock. I didn’t join the chorus of Celtic Thunder tributes. Sharon Browne (the producer) called for a quote but I wanted to do something personal to me and that’s how the song came about. George’s wife Carolyn loved it. She thought it was a beautiful tribute.
I loved the work you did on Andy Cooney’s new CD Bright New Day. How was that for you?
His talents are amazing, as is his hustling ability (laughs). He is a voracious worker, working 50 nights a week -- that’s the kind of guy he is.
Half of that album we did 20 years ago and he stayed in touch, and last year he came on strong for me to finish it. It was unfinished business for both of us.
He guested with me on a couple of gigs here in Belfast, which was great because Irish audiences don’t know him as well. I will return the favor and sit in on his Carnegie Hall gigs later this year. He is obviously very charming, great stage presence, a real professional.
Any plans to tour the U.S. behind your album?
There’s nothing locked down now but I’m sure it will be part of the plan. Now that I’m doing the one-man thing, it is easier to orchestrate a tour.
I remember bringing 20 people over to America. How crazy! The onus is not Americans to discover Phil Coulter; the onus is on me to set up shop and get known by the Americans.
We played church halls and every tumbleweed town. But it paid off.
You are a record producer, mentor and performer. What would you call yourself?
On my tax forms I call myself songwriter. That is actually what I am.
(Echoes of Home is available on Shanachie Records and online. For more visit www.philcoulter.com)