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"When you're on your own, it's not the music that's the most frightening part... it's the talking to the audience and the relating… Never-mind the songs, that's all fun."

 

Going Solo
Helene Northway talks to John Doyle
about his old influences, new home and what scares him the most.

You can always spot a great musician by the quality of the musicians who come to see him play. And the crowd at John Doyle's solo CD release in New York's Blarney Star, peppered with much of the best of New York's local and visiting Irish traditional musicians, spoke volumes about his place in today's music scene. John's "special guest" fiddler Eileen Ivers, who joined him for most of the two sets was just one of those milling about. "It was good fun," says John of the evening. "I knew most of the audience and I think I've played with every one of them at one time or another."

Known for his distinctive style of guitar-playing and innovative tunings, John, formerly of Solas, has been backing Ivers and fiddler Liz Carroll. Yet his solo project, Evening Comes Early is comprised mostly of songs. "Making this album was a treat," exclaims John. "I've done those songs for years in one way or another."

Still, singing live, alone, is a different experience from being in a band. "When you're on your own," he explains, "it's not the music that's the most frightening part – it's the talking to the audience and the relating. I thought I'd have those horrible few moments of silence where I'd look at the audience and they'd look at me and I'd have nothing to say. Never-mind the songs, that's all fun." Those moments never happened and John, in his soft-spoken way, delighted those who came to hear his first solo gig in 15 years featuring his gentle voice and some blazing tunes.

"When you're on your own, it's not the music that's the most frightening part – it's the talking to the audience and the relating… Never-mind the songs, that's all fun."

Like many, performing is in John's blood. His father, Sean is a singer and appears on the album. "My grandfather was an accordion player and sang a few songs and my uncle's an accordion player so there's a lot of music in my family," says John. "When I was 4 or 5, I'd go to pubs in Sligo and see them play. You're not conscious of things seeping in but they do. I remember sitting there and wishing it was over. But then, from the age of 10 on, I wanted to play Irish music, with a short space in between of listening to Metallica and Motorhead. But there were always acoustic guitar players. Especially people that used a lot of tunings like Nick Drake, Paul Brady, Nick Jones, Martin Carty and Richard Thompson."

Influences absorbed, John developed a style all his own and is now inspiring a new generation of guitarists. "A lot of it had to do with stubbornness," he remembers. "I'd listen and go 'how're they doing that?' and then I would tune my guitar to whatever I thought sounded right. It probably was wrong but from there I got my own tunings for the guitar and started playing those. I just love the sound of low C on the guitar. I used to tune, break strings, get more strings, tune them down as low as I could and as high as I could. Do all of that experimenting and you develop a kind of rapport with the instrument."

That rapport allows John to remain an exciting and excited player. "You have to have the intensity and keep struggling with it because you're never going to learn an instrument fully. As soon as you learn something new and think you're cool, you listen to someone else and you're blown away again."

Moving from New York to Asheville, North Carolina has also influenced John. "Things tend to be such a big deal in New York; you've got that high strung mentality when you're there. People around you are constantly buzzing and you need to do this now and this now and before and yesterday and it goes constantly. I spent a number of years like that and then went to Asheville and it's not such a big deal – it's just music. And the main thing is to enjoy yourself and your life. I had to ask 'Am I going to be happy or not?' So I decided 'I'll be happy and relaxed.' I think Asheville is very like home. It has a bit of both worlds in it; the rebellious nature of the southern people as well as some of the peace they have."

In between being happy, shaping a new generation of guitarists and his busy schedule of backing gigs, John is working in a number of solo singing performances, including some around Ireland in September. "I'm going to do 6 or 7 gigs in that space of time, John laughs, "that'll be another nervous bender that one."
- Helene Northway


Photo: Cathy Peterson

John Doyles's new CD is Evening Comes Early

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