'It's embarrassing to be thought of as a national treasure, I'm the sort of person who likes to sneak along in life, coming through the back rather than the front door'
With a career spanning more than half a century, veteran singer/songwriter Paul Brady has just released a new album. John Meagher talks to the Tyrone star about his highs and lows, and hears why he no longer cares what others think of him
Paul Brady's recording studio is to be found at the bottom of his leafy garden. There's a busy road outside, not far from Sandyford, in south Co Dublin, but when you're in his studio, looking out at a wealth of trees, shrubs and flowers and absorbing how quiet it is, you might as well be in the heart of the countryside.
The studio is called Kinine - the name of a townland in his native Tyrone - and he had it built shortly after buying the house in the early 1990s. Most of the music he has released since then was recorded here and the lion's share of Unfinished Business - his first new album in seven years - was written and recorded in this space.
He says the album has songs that represent all the strands of a career that has lasted for more than half a century.
And, he insists, it's exactly the album he wanted to make at this moment in time. "I'm proud of it," he says. "But it was a long time coming together."
After releasing the well received Hooba Dooba in 2010, Brady thought his run of albums had come to an end. "I wasn't planning on an album because I wasn't sure if albums were a thing of the past or not, and I suppose I don't see myself in the music business any longer, so I didn't feel any guns to my head or schedules.
"And there are other things in life besides music. I wanted to spent time travelling. My family, unfortunately - like most Irish people - are spread around the world. My son's in New Zealand with his family. My daughter is in England, in Epsom. We've been going down to New Zealand for a month every year for the past two or three years. I've been to the States a couple of times playing and Australia, Dubai - places like that. But also, I swim a lot. I like scuba diving. I like fishing. I like clay pigeon shooting."
"So," he adds, "there wasn't any need to make this record, except for my enjoyment of it."
While it may have been several years in gestation, Paul had fun with it. And one can hear that in a batch of upbeat songs, especially the three he co-wrote with the veteran poet, Paul Muldoon. He says he loved collaborating with someone whom, he feels, shares his irreverent streak.
"It was at the first Horslips reunion seven or eight years ago that we talked about doing something together. I had a few drinks on me and I said to him, 'Fancy writing a song?' because I know he had written with Warren Zevon.
"He's a very quirky writer and his lyrics take you into places that I've never gone. Paul was great to work with because some poets could be very precious, and he isn't at all."
The title song that opens Unfinished Business sounds as though it was written for Van Morrison. I ask him with we can expect the Belfast veteran to record his version. He's tickled by the suggestion. "Mark Knopfler said the very same thing to me the other day - he said, 'Van would eat this'. I haven't said it to him (Morrison) yet, but I've been meaning to do it and it's interesting that you came up with that too."
I interviewed Paul Brady back in 2001 and he cut a very different figure. He was promoting a 23-night residency at Dublin's Vicar Street and seemed to hate talking about himself.
Today, he's very different in his own back yard - there's no hint of truculence here whatsoever.
What it's like to be considered a national treasure? "I find it very embarrassing, to be honest. Look, I'm very happy that people appreciate what I've done over the last 50 years but I'm still the sort of person who's always liked to sneak through life, to sneak through the back door, rather than coming in the front door.
"It's mainly because I have a difficulty in explaining myself. Which is why I have a difficulty in approaching interviews like this - I get nervous because I don't know which of me will start talking … You know this idea that 'he's a nice bunch of guys'?"
Paul says he is far happier now than he was in the 1980s when he was at the height of his fame. "I know I'm unusual in that I'm multilingual with regards the music - I've a fluency with lots of different types of music and I'm delighted with that. But it was the ruination of my career with major labels because they never knew who I was and they always tried to push me into something I didn't feel comfortable with. But now that I'm free of all that, I'm happy."
How unhappy was he? "I was deeply unhappy as an artist from 1982 through to the mid-1990s, because I found the business so frustrating," he says. "And that was the time that I was with various labels. I felt I was inadequate for these people and I didn't feel good because I hate feeling inadequate - and deep down, I don't think I'm inadequate."
I ask was it a case of, 'We don't hear any singles, Paul?' And he offers a "yep" and a shrug of the shoulders.
"I always fantasised back in the 1970s that one day I'd be able to marry all the kinds of things I'd been into, because up to that you couldn't. The trad world was really 'holy' and really exclusive and I had a tough enough time from them when I went and did Hard Station (his second solo album, released in 1981). I now don't care about anybody, what they think of it, and I just go and please myself when I'm making music."
Brady has had quite a career, having been a member of trad stalwarts the Johnstons shortly after quitting college in Dublin and, then, in the mid-1970s, as part of the revered Planxty. His solo output has delivered several songs that are part of the great Irish songbook - not least The Island and Nobody Knows.
Long considered a master craftsman, he's seen by many as a 'songwriter's songwriter', a moniker he's content with. And the roll call of people who have covered his songs is remarkable - everyone from Phil Collins to Bonnie Raitt. "And it all kicked off in 82 when Santana covered one of my songs."
For years, people regarded him as a trad musician - an impression buoyed by his solo debut from 1978, Welcome Here Kind Stranger. Then came Hard Station and an excursion into sophisticated pop.
"That album is very important to my story," he says. "It was me bursting out of a cocoon. Look, I loved my time in trad music - I was 10 to 12 years in trad from the late 1960s though to '78 or '79. It was a good time. And, yet, I wasn't always happy in myself then. The Johnstons was difficult for me because there were a lot of internal tensions in the band, creatively and personally. I was kind of adrift in my 20s, I didn't know who I was.
"What Hard Station did for me, it was kind of telling me who I was because up to that I found it hard to nail anything down about myself. I mean, I got married (to Mary) in 1975 and had my first child, Sarah, in '77, and Colm came in '79. That was a big development period - you're married, you've children, you've a mortgage, you're trying to tour, you're trying to work and it's all 'uuggh'" - he waves his hands in the air - "it's like being in the tumble dryer.
"There was so much going on that a lot of tensions started to rise within me as a person, emotionally in terms of relationships. That's when I started to write - I wanted to be a writer, but I never felt confident. But I hung on in the trad world a bit longer than I should have. Maybe I was afraid I couldn't write pop songs.
"After I made Welcome Here Kind Stranger, I sort of had a notion that I had said all I had to say in trad music. I just didn't want to put any more energy into reinventing songs that had been written 200 years ago. I wanted to start to write about me as I was then." But he found himself stuck in a creative rut.
It all changed when he heard a new song from Gerry Rafferty, the Scottish journeyman he had known since his Johnstons days - both were on the same label. "When I heard Baker Street, everything changed. I mean, it was so, so good. When I first heard it, I sort of went, 'Jesus, where did that come from?'"
So he went away and deconstructed the song to work out how he could write something as good - note by note and word by word.
"The song, Hard Station, is very influenced by Baker Street," he says. "It's there in the intro and in the outro."
While the album remains the finest of his solo offerings, some were dismayed. "They wondered what I was doing making pop music," he says, "but I've always loved pop music, classic songs that have a memorable melody, that hook you straight away and don't sit around forever. Great songs, to me, have to have you captivated within the first 30 seconds."
Brady experienced his fair share of record industry woes throughout the 1980s and '90s, particularly when executives complained about a perceived lack of radio-friendly singles, or how certain songs didn't sound enough like Paul Brady "was supposed to sound".
The older, wiser Brady - who turned 70 this summer - has learned not to let such differences of opinion bother him - and he says he has little interest now in delivering what might be thought of as a Paul Brady-sounding song. And he can thank a certain Boyzone singer for that epiphany.
"A perfect example is The Long Goodbye (which was released in 2001). I wrote that with Ronan Keating and I put this music to it - a sort of slow hip-hop that was done to get it closer to the pop side of things - and when the song was finished I thought, 'I really like that song, but it's not a Paul Brady song' but then I played the demo to people and they kept saying, 'Why are you not recording that? Why are you not releasing that?' I said, 'People wouldn't take that kind of thing from Paul Brady' and they'd say, 'Why would you say that?'
"It was then that I accepted that it was as much me as anything else and then I realised I had been avoiding a whole slew of musical styles that I was fluent in because I had the notion that people wouldn't accept it from me."
He puts on a hoity-toity accent: "'Paul Brady is a serious songwriter, a hardcore track artist'. I slipped out of that prison and I haven't gone back to it."
And, he adds for good measure, "this record is me spreading my tentacles out and grabbing all the music I love."
There are several eyebrow-raising lyrics on the new album and a handful of songs with a fixation on sex.
"Unfinished Business is not me at all," he says with a chuckle. "I'm not lying awake at night thinking about another woman - in fact, that's my wife's favourite song. And it was her who picked the album title - she said it means 'I haven't gone away, you know!'"
He says he is thankful to have enjoyed such a long innings - and still adores the business of playing live. But regrets? There are a few.
"There were times where it was hard on the family," he says. "Moments where I wasn't happy doing things where my career was at, and I'd be hard to be around. It was particularly hard for my son when he was about 17. He takes after his mother in temperament - she's quite reserved - and I'm this big, blustery…
"And, you know, when they were growing up, you'd be away a lot, on the road. So, of course there are regrets, but I'm luckier than most (of his peers) in that now I have a very good relationship with them.
"But I'd be lying if I said it hadn't been rocky for a while."
Unfinished Business is out now. Paul Brady plays the Ulster Hall on November 23