Pierce Turner is back in New York for the holidays and all is right with the world!
By any measure it has been a banner 12 months for this legendary singer songwriter from Wexford. He released the gloriously cool and quirky Songs for a Verry Small Orchestra, a brilliant suite of orchestral pop.
Turner drew rave reviews this summer when he sang Mass that featured original compositions created just for the occasion in Brides Church in Wexford with soprano Roisin Dempsey. It was part of Ireland’s year-long Gathering celebration.
He is capping off the year with a return to the U.S., with appearances in New York at Joe’s Pub on November 30, An Beal Bocht in the Bronx on December 7 and the Tin Angel in Philadelphia on December 18.
“The last time I played Philadelphia, it was with Suzanne Vega in 1994,” Turner recalls. I’m really looking forward to the show!”
For his Philly debut, he will host a “rock and read” with yours truly on the books (This Is Your Brain on Shamrocks I and II) and Galway blues great Seamus Kelleher on acoustic guitar.
“I’ve performed well over 7,000 shows in the 45 years I have been performing,” says Kelleher when asked what it’s like to work with Turner.
“Some shows stick in my memory more than others. The few shows I’ve done with Pierce Turner are ones that always bring a smile to my face. We have been great friends for over 30 years. He constantly inspires me with his music and his amazing live performances.
“When I did my tribute to Rory Gallagher in 2002 at the Bottom Line, Pierce was the first artist I asked to be part of the show. He blew the roof off the place. “Pierce has had a huge impact on how I perform as a solo artist. I’m looking forward to the Tin Angel. I know our live shows will complement each other. It will be another night to remember.”
I spoke with Turner about the upcoming shows and his spiritual awakening springing from his new music. Here’s how it went.
The last time we talked you were working with a church in Wexford and the Irish government’s The Gathering initiative to produce an original piece of music for a spiritual concert. How did it go and what was it like for you?
It was a revelation. I grew up as a voice soprano, singing church at the High Mass at Easter time and what not. I absolutely loved the music and the chants — it enthralled me as a child. I was a working class boy in Wexford and never would have experienced high quality music if not for the church.
I have done songs like “Faith of Our Fathers” in concert and people think I’m mocking it. But this music is so close to me. Because I grew up on church music, writing something spiritual in tone was so natural.
You don’t have to worry if this is happy enough or if people would dance to it the way you do with a pop tune. You always have to worry about producing bright music. So, I put a little of that into the arrangement — tried to make bright, sacred music.
What was it like the day of the show?
It was a nerve-wracking, deep learning curve kind of thing. When it all came together, the church had a lot of Catholics there — I should say they were raised Catholics, not devout ones today.
When I did this piece there was this burst of sustained applause. I found myself crying after it was done as people were congratulating me. Some of these hardened rock fans were crying. Perhaps this was a bridge between the rockers and the church or something. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional.
Overall, it was just this message of spirituality and love that moved the whole group, and I was proud that the music was part of that.
You’re playing different rooms on this tour. How do you change the show to match the venue?
When I play Joe’s Pub it’s with a full band. I have Fred Parcells from Black 47 with me. He’s been playing with me a long time, since 1986. We have a brother-like rapport.
We sing together. He has a great voice and we harmonize together really well. It has an Everly Brothers feel to it. Of course, he is a genius at trombone.
Rob Thomas is another genius who played with Jazz Passengers and Blondie. He teaches at Berkeley. How can I go wrong with such geniuses?
At An Beal Bocht and Tin Angel, I am completely solo. I have been working on my solo show at first out of necessity based on the economics. I remember Christy Moore telling me during Moving Hearts that he developed a solo performance to feed his family because you’d lose money bringing the full band everywhere. So it has turned into something I really enjoy.
I can’t wait to see you share the stage with Seamus Kelleher!
I love Seamus. He’s a beautiful person. He’s a great man to have around. I knew he lived near Philly and when I realized I was playing there I invited him to join me.
I haven’t heard his solo thing at all and I think that’s another excuse to have him on the bill, so I can be part of the audience myself!
Will you put the spiritual music in your set or are there any plans to re-produce the piece here?
Yes. I have a musician friend of mine that runs the music in a large church in California and we have been talking about staging it there. We are scouting some churches in New York. I’m looking for a church with a good organ player and a choir.
I’m definitely going to do it over here somewhere, somehow. There’s no money in it, but I am so comfortable in it. Besides, as an artist, the more you chase money at times, the faster it runs away from you.