Writing A Song •
Introduction by Jim Liddane
Mick Hanly has been singing and performing for almost thirty years now and is best known internationally as the man who composed "Past The Point of Rescue". The American country singer, Hal Ketchum, recorded "Past The Point" in the early 1990s and took it to number two in the Billboard country charts. It was the BMI Award Winner for the Most Played Country Song Of 1992, and won a BMI MillionAir award a year later for one million radio plays in the United States.
His tracks have been recorded in Ireland by people like Mary Black, Maura O'Connell, Dolores Keane, Christy Moore, Frances Black and Mary Coughlan, but his name loomed large in the annals of contemporary Irish music from long before he ever actually started writing songs himself. Indeed, if one attempted to compile a quick hit-list of all that is best in Irish music in the last three decades, one would come up with names like The Bothy Band, Planxty, Moving Hearts, and Rusty Old Halo, and Mick Hanly has been either tangentially or intensively involved with all of the above during his career.
Mary J Murphy spoke with Mick Hanly for "Songwriter Magazine"
Could you tell me a little about your background?
Sure. I was born in Limerick City, Ireland, in 1949 into a working class family. We were all sent to the Christian Brothers School. There were six of us - I have two sisters and three brothers. None of us, apart from myself, plays any instrument, but my father is a singer. A very good singer. That was the only music we had in the family.
Did your Dad sing in public or for his own enjoyment?
Purely for his own enjoyment, and he was quite good. As good as Frank Patterson, let's put it like that. (Patterson is an internationally known Irish tenor, whose most recent success has been with the "Faith Of Our Fathers" compilation album). He could have made a career for himself, I don't know why he didn't. He always seemed to be nervous, doing stage work, as people will be if they're not used to it.
I grew up listening to Radio Luxembourg as a teenager and my mother used to play Ceilidh House (a traditional music show on Ireland's national radio station), so there was that kind of cross-pollination, if you like. I wasn't that interested at all in traditional music at the time and didn't know the first thing about it.
What was the first song that blew your socks off when you heard it?
The first one that blew my socks off was "Apache". It was an instrumental, by The Shadows. The sound of it got me in the gut, the sound of the guitar. I just wanted to make that sound. So obviously I went chasing after a guitar.
Who bought you the first guitar?
Well actually there was a guitar at home that had been bought for my brother, Noel, and when he discovered that you had to work hard to play a guitar he threw it aside. So, I was at home sick from school one day and I remember picking it up. The dog had been at it at this stage so it was in bits and it a wasn't tuned at all. I picked out a song called "The Boys From The County Armagh" (made hugely famous in Ireland in the mid-1950s by Donegal singer, Bridie Gallagher). Then a cousin of mine was visiting one night and when he saw me foothering (messing) he said 'I have an oul' book that will help you along the way'. When I read it, I discovered that a guitar had to be tuned, so "The Boys From The County Armagh" didn't make sense anymore. But by now, I was really bitten by the music and when I heard The Beatles for the first time with "Love Me, Do", I was kinda hooked from then on.
This would have been sometime in 1963?
Yeah, I suppose it must have been. I got myself a good instrument then - it cost sixty-three guineas, which was serious bread in the early 60s, and I got it in a place called Peter Dempsey's Music Store in Mallow Street in Limerick. He allowed me to pay for it at ten shillings a week - I don't know how I was paying for it, to be honest with you. It was a Hagstrom, which is the same make I'm playing here in GaIway tonight, but it was the 12-string version of it. I remember I bought it from a catalogue without even playing it. Dempsey wrote off to Waltons in Dublin for it and it came down on the train in a box! I brought it home on the bus and pulled it out. Suddenly, we were dealing with the real thing. I couldn't manage the twelve strings - I could barely manage on the six ! - so I took off six and that was my guitar from then on.
Mick moved to Galway after leaving school and worked with the ESB (Ireland's national electricity power supply company) for two years. There, he worked by day and sang in a pub called The Golden Key by night ("scaring off a few of the resident local alcoholics in the process"). He was pleasantly surprised to learn that he would be paid for his troubles ("the landlady, Mrs. Mclnemey, started me out on a pound") and he worked his way through cover versions of songs by people like Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliot. Eventually he was asked to join The Ronnie Burke Trio (with Burke and Gerry Macken) and ended up doing seven nights a weeks with them in the Sacre Coeur Hotel in the Galway seaside suburb of Salthill.
How did you turn professional?
I was being paid eight pounds by the ESB and twenty pounds by Ronnie, so I began to see the light and started thinking that maybe I'd be better off on the road. I didn't even know what the "road" was then and it was a risky thing that completely freaked my parents. I'd be freaked myself now if my daughter did the same thing and said that she was going to leave school or whatever. So, I went to Dublin, not even knowing what was there, but ended up playing in little folk clubs like downstairs in Slatterys in Capel Street and The Coffee Kitchen. It was real survival stuff but my brother, David (the well known journalist and presenter of current affairs programmes on the Irish broadcasting service) was living in Dublin so I kind of bunked down with him.
Then, when I was playing a little gig in Trinity College, I met Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, and they liked what they heard. A couple of months later they formed Planxty and had a big hit with 'The Cliffs of Dooneen'. Suddenly they were big-time and touring, and asked me to go on the road as their support act. I was singing folk songs then as was as green as they come. Very naive. I remember I used to do a song by Joni Mitchell called 'Carrie' and thought nothing of singing lyrics like 'I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne'. I'm sure all the gays in the audience went 'oooo' at that. While on tour with Planxty I met Micheal O'Domhnaill - a fluent Irish speaker and a beautiful guitar player - we were into open-tuning then which creates a much bigger sound because it gives you double notes, and went on to form the duo, Monroe, with him.
We made the album, 'Celtic Folkweave', together and toured to music festivals in France. We actually ended up on an album of a festival called the Kartalg Festival in Brittany where we became quite popular. I lived in Brittany for two years, revelling in the liberation I felt there and working for a spell as a casual docker in the local fishing port. I loved everything about Brittany but eventually started to miss 'the craic' at home. I returned to Ireland, came across a book by CoIm O'Loughlin called "More Irish Street Ballads", discovered that many of them hadn't be recorded, so I set about writing tunes for them. That resulted in the album, "A Kiss In The Morning Early" with O'Domhnaill.
Was this the beginning of your songwriting?
We're in the mid-70s now, maybe 74'ish, and I suppose that was probably the beginning of my writing, even though it was tunes I was doing, not lyrics although I did come up with a new traditional song called 'The Reluctant Pilot' or something like that. Anyway, it's senseless and totally meaningless as music. But there were a few nice things on that record and I used nice people like Matt Molloy (of The Chieftains), Peter Browne, Noel Hill, Triona O'Domhnaill while Donal Lunny produced it.
Had you yet set about the task of writing songs, or were you too busy?
No I wasn't awfully busy at all. It never struck me that I might be able to write a song.
Had you any awareness of things that were happening in American country?
Well, I had a vague ear to the ground with the country music, but I was very aware of writers like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and, later on, Randy Newman. I went to live on Templeogue Road in Dublin where Mulligan Records was set up at the time. While I was there I met Cathy Moore, who was Thom Moore's wife (he's now presenting a radio programme on RTE called "Thom Moore's Melodies") and she started playing stuff like Willie Nelson and Guy Clark. I was very taken with the Willie Nelson stuff and thought, wow, this sounds easy but in actual fact that takes a lot of skill.
But I wasn't thinking along those lines myself, in terms of writing music. I don't think of myself as a country music writer at all. I see myself as a contemporary writer, and a very Irish one at that, I would imagine. I suppose because I formed Rusty Old Halo, that country thing came about and indeed we had a very country style at that time.
Why are people so afraid of the term country music?
Well, there's so much shit in it basically. It puts people off. Of course, there's a lot of bad in everything, but some country music is gut-churning in its awfulness. But then there's about 15% of it which is absolutely wonderful. Guys like Lyle Lovett are real good song craftsmen, thinkers with original ideas - or original ways of ways of putting it over anyway.
The stuff that's coming out of Nashville now is very weak in terms of lyrical content. On the odd occasion you'll get someone that will turn up something decent but I can't hear them and haven't the time to go looking for them, to be honest with you.
What was the first song that you would have considered to have been of note?
The first one, that I really got my teeth into was 'The Crusader', which is recorded by Mary Black. It's a song about Robyn Davidson and it's on the current live album. The process of writing 'The Crusader' was as hard as it gets. They're not that hard anymore. It was the first one that had "teeth" but it was like pulling teeth trying to write it.
I was working from an article I saw in the paper and to cut a long story short, it was about a woman in the desert who was deserted by her camels. She knew if they didn't come back she was in deep trouble and the quote she used was that during those hours her sanity was held together by a silken thread. I had to do a huge editing job on it but got it down.to what I thought was a nice length. I remember I wrote it upstairs in my grandmother's house in Limerick.
I was married to my first wife at the time and we went to stay there because we had no money and nowhere to live. We stayed there for about six months. My whole notion of songwriting was very vague at that time. I didn't treat it with tile respect that the craft deserves. You've to give it your time, learn how to do it right, and have to put in a certain number of hours every day to make it happen. I wasn't doing that, and I knew that.
How would you describe songwriting - a gift, a craft, a skill of what?
It's a craft. One that you have to learn. Don't be put off too easily - that's important to remember. It's very easy to be discouraged if you think it sounds like something else, but if you have an idea, just keep chasing it. It will actually take on a life of its own and eventually you'll forget what it reminded you of in the first place.
Footnote: Garth Brooks has been quoted as saying that "Mick Hanly captures the essence of what we all feel about things like love, even if we all can't say it quite as clearly".
Copyright Mary J Murphy, International Songwriters Association & Songwriter Magazine. All Rights Reserved.
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