Coleraine singer/songwriter Anthony Toner on his collection of songs about east Belfast
Anthony Toner writes songs with wit and great heart. He drops you into compelling stories and he journals his own moments of loss, hurt and joy.
A good Toner playlist might include Sailortown, that post-ceasefire picture of love and looming gentrification down by the Belfast docks. We might add An Alphabet, a tender report on his father’s affliction with Alzheimer’s.
By rights, we should include a love song like Finally. The casual listener may be jolted by Well Well Well, a theme for the UTV weather in the days when Frank Mitchell started to shine.
Anthony has the eye of a novelist in The Road to Fivemiletown, a vision of broken hope and rural abandon. His literary sympathies then led him to partner up with the poet Frank Ormsby for some wonderful live shows and a lovely album, The Kiss of Light.
For all his skill with a pen, Toner insists that a great song must sound “good in the mouth”. This involves a process that he calls “the Paul Simon test”. By way of explanation he quotes a verse from the American writer’s song, Gumboots.
“I always say that the Paul Simon stuff sounds like he’s just thought of it,” Anthony figures. “If it sounds like it’s too self-consciously poetic, or descriptive, I get the fear at that point. That’s the thing that I’m always wary of. You go through pages and pages of it until it sounds more direct. It’s hard to describe, because everybody’s level of it is different. John Prine is a master of that as well.”
Now there is fresh evidence of Anthony’s art. A few months before lockdown, he was commissioned by the EastSide Partnership to write a collection of songs about Belfast’s old industrial heartland. The song that brokered the deal was Six Inches of Water, a homage to Templemore Baths, co-written with Brigid O’Neill.
The brief was loose, but possible themes included the Greenway and the Titanic legacy. An early plan was to spend time at various sites and research the songs in situ, but the pandemic halted that idea. So, Anthony went to his imagination instead.
The alternative scheme worked well. Anthony has emerged with a series of pocket dramas and rich sentiment.
Greenway Song starts with the death of the writer’s father and then he works out his grief with walks along the banks of the Knock, Loop and Connswater Rivers. The regeneration is actual and emotional. And, importantly, it doesn’t sound like a tourist board advert.
There’s a farewell to the actor and playwright Sam McCready called Curtain Call. It quotes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the cello part is graced by Neil Martin, playing with his daughter Maebh on violin for the first time on record.
Anthony is a Coleraine native, but he’s part of a creative influx of writers and artists that have set up in the east of the city. He’s happily established near Victoria Park with his wife, Andrea Montgomery, the theatre director and producer.
“We’ve been here about 10 years now,” Anthony says. “We actually rented in Hillfoot Street for a year-and-a-half before we bought the property to see if we liked it. We actually loved it. I’ve always felt really comfortable and kind of settled here — to the extent that we have looked at other parts of the city and then gone, ‘Nah, I like it over here.’
“To see the Greenway developing and the Eastside Arts Festival now happening every year: culturally, I’m quite happy. There’s a lot of things you’d change about it. That would be would be the same as if you lived in the north of the city, I suppose.”
So, now he’s writing about the nuances of life by the Short Strand interface plus the aftermath of the Belfast Blitz. Some of his best writing is free and fictional, like Recognised Codeword, a taxi driver’s intense feelings for a young woman that’s headed for harmful company.
The record will receive a live premiere during the Eastside Arts Festival on August 5. The gig — at Willowfield Parish Church — has already sold out and Anthony is looking forward to unwrapping the songs in their own vicinity. “It really took me by surprise,” he says of the box office success. “People are just hungry to get out.”
Anthony appreciates that the laureate of east Belfast is Sir Van Morrison. His record features a respectful version of the Van song Orangefield. But there’s another iconic presence that has challenged him.
The Titanic gets its dues with a rendition of Nearer My God to Thee.
He has created a new requiem for the ship by scoring the parts for the Arco Quartet, another moment when the musician pushed his own abilities.
“It was nerve-wracking when we recorded that, because you’ve not idea how it’s gonna go. There’s always that old joke: how do you get a guitar player to stop playing? Put some sheet music in front of him.”
I wonder if Anthony was ever put off by a mental picture of an unimpressed local, not taken with these new songs from a Coleraine boy. Anthony smiles.
“That guy’s always in my head, though. But I don’t think I’ve ever been made to feel like I’m a blow-in. You do skirt the line of, ‘East Belfast is wonderful, come and live here.’ You know what I mean? You’re conscious of it all the time.”