Phil Coulter talks Ed Sheeran, Eurovision and being of the John Hume generation
Ahead of his concert at Clonard Monastery in Belfast, Derry singer-songwriter Phil Coulter reflects on his career and tells Jenny Lee how he never planned to be a singer, hated piano lessons and almost became a priest
FROM writing hits for artists as varied as Cliff Richard, Elvis and The Bay City Rollers to guiding the careers of Sinead O'Connor, The Dubliners and Liam Clancy and enjoying success as a performer and recording artist, Phil Coulter's life has been "far from boring".
Now aged 77, Coulter is showing no signs of slowing down. He is currently preparing a new album and proof reading his memoir, which will be out in the autumn.
Writing has made him reflect upon his momentous career. "It's not the kind of book that recalls all the songs I've recorded and accolades I've received. It's not all been beer and skittles," adds Coulter, whose first child was born with Down Syndrome and who endured the heartache of losing two siblings in drowning accidents.
"I grew up in Derry in the postwar era of rations. My dad was one of the few Taigs in the RUC and I grew up very aware of the 'them and us' culture. I was also among the first influx of scholarship boys from St Columb's College that went up to Queen's [university]. We were the guys who started to think that we could make a change – people such as Austin Currie and John Hume. It's been quite a journey, but I wouldn't change a thing."
Growing up in a simple terrace home, Coulter was delighted that music was not rationed. The one luxury in their home was an upright piano – but he admits that as a child he "hated piano lessons".
"I just wanted to play wee tunes and doing scales, arpeggios and finger exercises was not what I signed on for. I was actually taken away from piano lessons because I was making no headway. I went back when I was 11 and by then I had started to pick up melodies I heard on the radio and play them by ear and I wanted to know, what happens with the left hand?
"The difference second time around was I wanted to learn and my fascination with the piano and my search for musical experiences just never stopped," adds Coulter, who also contemplated joining the priesthood.
"St Columb's was what was known as a minor seminary. My eldest brother, Fr Joe, went off to Maynooth with six other St Columb's boys from his year. The notion of vocations and priesthood was constantly in the air and in my last year I went to daily Mass to wrestle with the idea. I think, between you and me, I made a good call," he laughs.
Within weeks of beginning his first term studying music at Queen's University Belfast, Coulter started his own band, playing the rock and roll tunes of the early 1960s.
But during his final year, his talent for songwriting came to the fore and after graduation in 1964 he secured his first job was as an arranger/songwriter with a music publisher in Tin Pan Alley Studios, London.
Between 1967 and 1976 Coulter and songwriting partner Bill Martin enjoyed much success, including UK number one hits with Sandie Shaw's Puppet on a String, Cliff Richard's Congratulations and Slik's Forever and Ever.
During this time Coulter also moonlighted as a pianist for the likes of Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis Van Morrison and even toured with The Rolling Stones.
"It was all part of the learning process," he says humbly.
Although he did appear as a judge in the early noughties in RTÉ talent show You're a Star, Coulter is not a believer in instant-gratification reality shows.
"These kids sing into their hairbrushes in front of the bathroom mirror and then go on these shows and think it's their turn to be a music star. But for every successful act these shows produce, like One Direction, the road is littered with carcasses of failures and people's lives have been destroyed because of that.
"In reality you need to put in the hours and I prefer to celebrate the likes of Ed Sheeran who has brought it all back to being about the songs. He doesn't go on stage with fireworks and bells and whistles – just his checked shirt, guitar and loop pedal."
Coulter also believes there is no magic formula for songwriting.
"There is no such thing as a born songwriter – you might be lucky enough to be gifted with some of the tools such as musical ear or a way with words, but then you have to start learning the craft."
During the 70s Coulter wrote songs that appealed to the emerging teeny-bopper market, while keeping his "sanity" by working in the "somewhat gentler pastures of Irish folk music". He produced three groundbreaking albums with Planxty as well as producing The Dubliners and The Furey Brothers, who recorded his songs Steal Away and The Old Man.
As his passion for Irish music grew, Coulter had the idea of making an instrumental album of his favourite melodies. The result was Classic Tranquility in 1984, which became the biggest-selling album ever in Ireland.
"It was never one of my ambitions to be centre stage. When you try to make a living as someone who writes melodies, you have a new found regard and respect for those great Irish tunes that have been there for generations. Honest to God, my hope was that I would just make the money back for making the album, and I was completely unprepared for it's success. It just seemed to strike a chord with audiences and propelled me in a different direction."
His highlights as a performer include a Grammy nomination, playing live to an audience of 600,000 outdoors on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, and heading the New York St Patrick's Day Parade.
But despite his global success, Coulter remains fiercely loyal to his roots.
"I'm as proud of my Derry accent as I am of anything I've achieved in life. Above all else I am a Derry man. The Town I Love So Well is the song I'm most proud of and the song I will sign off to, without a doubt," he adds.
Belfast also holds a special place in his heart and he is delighted to be performing at Clonard Monastery next week as part of Feile An Phobail.
"Belfast looms very large in my life. As well as my student days, my mother comes from a family of 10 Austins from the Markets area of Belfast and she spoke fondly of Clonard."
Surprisingly, he only performed there once before, at a charity fundraising gig earlier this year.
"I found it a very special place. When I stood on me atrium the reception I got was overpowering and I left very moved," says Coulter, who will be joined by his wife Geraldine Brannigan, whom he first met when he wrote the song Toi for her to perform in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, where she was representing Luxembourg.
And his views on Eurovision now?
"Personally and professionally Eurovision means a lot to me and of course I still watch it – sometimes with despair. But it's no longer about the song, it's just a TV extravaganza. There hasn't been a big global hit out of the Eurovision Song Contest since ABBA and that tells its own story," says Coulter, who will be doing an extensive Irish tour this autumn.
:: Phil Coulter Live at Clonard Monastry, August 6, 7pm, as part of Feile An Phobail. Limited availability at Ticketmaster.ie. For full Féile programme visit feilebelfast.com