You can call Gavin Friday many things, but a Catholic? On his first album in16 years, Friday nicks the capital “C” in the title to make catholic, a gorgeous album that honors and challenges the religious beliefs of love and loss.
“The Roman Catholic took the name ‘catholic’ from the Greeks, which means universal for the common man. This is in contrast to what Pope Benedict does at the moment,” Friday explains during an extensive interview with the Irish Voice.
“The small ‘c’ is my way of claiming it back. The church customs are all velvet and rich in color. I wanted the music to have that. I don’t practice the religion, but it is in me.”
Sound theatrical enough for you? That’s the intent.
Friday’s career has been dominated by cinema, soundtrack and theater. So it’s no surprise that this shadowy pomp and circumstance looms over catholic.
Country heartache, Bowie-synths, sci-fi swirls, epic strings, trance, and chilly Germanic rhythms run through an album that is a glorious study in contradiction.
“Able,” the album opener, has a crisp eighties pop sheen that you’d hear on a Psychedelic Furs album, while “Song that Hurts” has a lazy, acoustic cabaret feel underneath the singer’s cracked falsetto.
The lyrics are equally gorgeous. “I want to be able to hold my own/to breathe without drowning/to find a home,” he whispers on “Able,” a song that brings the man out of the dark and into the sunlight of bold survival in 4:46.
“Did you know the best is yet to come/it’s all ahead of you/if you want it/it’s all behind you if you can let it go,” he pleads on “It’s All Ahead of You,” a song representative of a recurring theme that lets go of the past and move forward.
Then there’s the album cover, a stark work of art shot by Italia Vogue photographer Perry Ogden, depicting a deceased Friday laying in state, a crucifix on his heart and an Irish flag draped over him. To be sure, it is an artistic statement in and of itself, a commentary on Ireland’s current spiritual, financial and moral bankruptcy.
“We just had the IMF come to us and say, ‘Look, Ireland, you’re broke and f***ed. We’re taking you over,’” Friday declares. “This album is political but in a very un-political way.
“I categorize it as an emotional album. It’s about loss on many levels, but also deals with hope. No one in life has not had a tough time. We get stuck in stuff -- a bad marriage or relationship or your family. Sometimes you can grieve, but you really can move on and get out of that rut.”
Friday has firsthand experience of this -- he grappled with the death of his father, which flavors the lyrical content on catholic.
He has, in between solo albums, immersed himself in award winning soundtracks -- William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, In America, The Boxer, Get Rich or Die Tryin' (with Quincy Jones) and three songs for In the Name of the Father which featured two collaborations with Bono and a Golden Globe nomination for “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart” as sung by Sinead O’Connor.
It’s as though all of that work was merely an apprenticeship to catholic, a gorgeous, captivating, and conflicted masterpiece.
We spoke for just under an hour in a rambling conversation that never lost potency or charm. Here are the best bits:
How did the album come together, and how would you describe it to someone who never heard it?
Wow. That’s tough! When the songs were written they were quite minimal. A song like “Blame” was written on an acoustic guitar. I really wanted to get the situation to get lost in music.
A lot of music is so ProTooled. It’s so hard to surprise any more. I took all these songs and at the time and wanted to take a surreal country ballad and add the moon to it.
That’s the surprise element that is missing in so much music today. I see an album in an old school way -- spend 50 minutes with this instead of just hacking it up into singles.
There are so many layers to it – very dense. How long did the process take?
I have been writing ever since the last album came out, which was 16 years ago. I wrote most of this after my dad died five years ago. It was then I went on this fast track of writing.
As far as the complexity you hear, we find a song and then it will tell us what it needs. A domino effect that also came from not knowing the people playing this album real well. There was no familiarity; we were feeling one another out so that an element of freshness and risk was there.
One thing you bring back is the album cover. It’s genius and a real work of art. The image of you dead with a cross on you and the Irish flag might be a symbol of death of the country and religion. Is that fair to say?
It is fair to say, but it isn’t a deliberate commentary. Most of it isn’t about religion.
“Blame” is about telling people you f***ed over that you love them, not about sinning. So it’s more personal and less spiritual, although there are those elements as well.
Where did the idea come from?
I went to the Sir John Lavery “Passion and Politics” exhibit in Dublin at the Hugh Lane Gallery last September. The images were of statesmen of the 1916 Rising. They were all these remarkable dead men -- murdered or assassinated by the Irish and the British alike.
I was struck by the genius and promise lost by those lives cut short. There was an image of Michael Collins lying in state. The cover is homage to that.
Is the cover art and an album about moving on a commentary to the transformation in Ireland?
Being Irish and 51, you see the rags-to-riches and back again many times when you reach this age. Now we are seeing the Catholic Church lose this dictatorial grip on us. We were subjected to no condoms in the wake of AIDS. Homosexuality was illegal. Divorce was illegal.
We are all just waking up and saying, ‘This is ridiculous’ and people are moving on.
Is it not the job of a writer to put a finger in the air and taste the molecules and express what’s going on? The same can be said for our government.
I tackle these things in emotional terms on the album, not political barbs. I am being political in an un-political way.
You couldn’t have produced better reviews if you had written them yourself. What do you make of the critical praise the album has received?
I didn’t know what to think. I made it the way I wanted. Europe is strong for me. Fifteen years is a long time, and it’s going to be a hard slog to re-introduce yourself to the audience.
In talking to journalists, they are responding to the notion that a 51-year-old man made an album he wanted to make. That appears to be a unique concept now. Journalists are so sick of hearing the absolute s*** passing for music. There are a lot of people that are 40, 50 and 60 that like music.
You also have those middle-aged people bringing their parents or kids to shows, as I do with a band like U2. So, appealing to that group may mean getting three generations into your music.
Exactly. I brought my godson to Leonard Cohen and he was completely blown out. Cohen got critical success but never had commercial success and you wonder -- who makes that decision? Record companies? Music stores?
I mean, you go into an HMV store now and they don’t even sell albums -- they sell $200 headphones and iPods. I mean, what is going on with the music business now?
So, the house is on fire and you have to get your favorite album. What’s in your hand?
A David Bowie album. Hunky Dory or Low probably.
Friends are coming over for dinner and you have to hide the most embarrassing album. What’s in your hand?
I love kitsch, so that list would be long. For instance, I like this English singer Rumor. She sings like Karen Carpenter only not as good, so I went back to the Carpenters and rediscovered them. Even kitsch ages well. A Flock of Seagulls wrote some great stuff that I thought was terrible at the time. I love ABBA. Old glam rock. The list goes on.
When will we see you perform here?
I’m doing some festivals in Europe this summer and I would be there mid-to-late autumn. I’ll probably stick to the big cities -- not sure if all of America is ready for this!
(catholic is available on iTunes and other digital outlets. For more information log onto www.gavinfriday.com)