Co Derry singer-songwriter Anthony Toner on his first ever covers collection Ghost Notes, Vol 1.

Having just released his first collection of cover versions, Ghost Notes, Vol. 1, acclaimed Belfast-based singer-songwriter Anthony Toner answers David Roy's questions about re-interpreting tunes by Van Morrison, Neil Young, Chrissie Hynde and others...

Anthony Toner has just released his first covers collection
Anthony Toner has just released his first covers collection Anthony Toner has just released his first covers collection

HI ANTHONY, how are you coping with the ongoing Coronavirus restrictions – it must be a nightmare not being able to play live at the moment?

I was lucky to get a little run of concentrated work, literally days before the shutters came down, and I'm grateful to have had that income – but yes, the diary has been emptied out, so the plan for late spring is a bit sketchy. As much as missing the earnings, I desperately miss the sociability of it – connecting with audiences, playing with other musicians. I'm finding that hard.

Congratulations on the new album, Ghost Notes, Vol 1. Where did the idea of doing a covers collection come from?

Thank you! I had started by thinking about re-recording some of my own songs – I look back on some of my older recordings and often feel that I over thought them in arrangement terms. So I wanted to simplify the songs and take them right back to their acoustic roots. And while I was contemplating that, I realised I had applied the same treatment to these songs, so I suppose this album could be a dry run, for a future 'unplugged' album of my own.

You canvassed your audiences last year on which songs they'd like to hear you interpret – was there much overlap between what the public wanted to hear you do and your own personal wish list, and were there any suggestions which took you by surprise?

There were definitely a few familiar names on the lists; Neil Young, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, John Prine etc. Some interesting ones I hadn't thought of, too – Phil Ochs, Janis Ian and so on. A couple of people suggested I do an entire album of blues songs. Recently someone suggested an all-Dylan album. It occurred to me early on that Ghost Notes could be an ongoing series of releases, which was why I added 'Vol. 1' on there.

How difficult was it to whittle it down to just 10 tracks and how did you approach the arrangements? Were there any particular tracks that proved difficult to 'nail' and which ones are the most enjoyable to play?

Another great question: some of them, like Van Morrison's She Gives Me Religion, I've wanted to do for ages. But every version I tried of that song sounded so ordinary. Then I was experimenting with dropped tunings – there's a lot of altered guitar tunings on this collection – and I found a new approach. So, happy accidents occurred like that. The same happened with Scarlet Ribbons [inspired by the Jim Reeves's version of this Eleanor Danzig and Jack Segal standard]

Overall, I wanted the whole thing to be as stark and as 'unplugged' as possible, so that dictated the song choice and the arrangements. But as your question would suggest, there are dozens of other songs I'd love to do in this way.

Things are looking up for Anthony Toner. Picture by Ken Haddock
Things are looking up for Anthony Toner. Picture by Ken Haddock Things are looking up for Anthony Toner. Picture by Ken Haddock

Where and with whom did you record these songs?

About 90 per cent of the album was recorded at home – guitars, percussion, drum loops and vocals. I hired the auditorium at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart and recorded their beautiful grand piano. Then I took all those tracks to Clive Culbertson's studio in Coleraine – where I've recorded all my albums – and we overdubbed some bass and harmony vocals from Clive, re-recorded some of my vocals, and mixed the whole thing in less than a week. And he's the only other player on there.

Can you remember the first song you learned to play off by heart when you first picked up the guitar, and how important was trying/learning to play the songs of others to your own original songwriting?

First song? Probably Kris Kristofferson, Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down. I played other people's songs around the house for years before I heard songwriters like Neil Young and James Taylor, and was inspired to try my own writing.

So by the time I started to write, I'd already been playing songs by Elvis, Chuck Berry, Kristofferson… I started to see how songs worked, almost as little machines. How they were structured, how rhyme schemes worked, what bridges were for. So to me that was a vital early stage.

I often urge emerging songwriters to listen carefully to songs, to pull them apart and see what makes them work – there's always something to be learned.

If you could choose one of your own songs to be covered by another artist, which song would it be and who would be doing their version of it?

I've never been asked that question before – I have a gospel-tinged song called Let the River, and it would be great to have one of those mighty gospel/soul voices on there. Gregory Porter? Mavis Staples?

You also play electric guitar in The Ronnie Greer Blues Band: is it fun to be part of someone else's musical project where you're a contributor rather than the driving creative force?

There's so much about that experience that I enjoy – the standard of musicianship in that band is pretty high, so it keeps me on my toes as a player. Also, after all my acoustic playing, it's a lovely opportunity to plug in an electric guitar and make noise. And it's great to be part of a band, and not the main attraction.

On top of all that, as I said earlier – it's the sociability. They're a lovely group of people to hang out with.

Any plans for a new album of original material in the near future?

I've been commissioned by EastSide Partnership to write an album of songs about east Belfast – I have an as-yet-unrecorded song about Templemore Baths called Six Inches of Water, and I've agreed to come up with a collection of songs like that. That's due to be launched during their EastSide Arts Festival in August – if we're clear of quarantine by then.

Finally, what's on your lockdown reading/watching/listening list?

I haven't really engaged with 'box sets' as such, or at least not yet, but there have been quite a few movies – we watched The Post the other night, Get Shorty, and quite a few documentaries… and I've been reading, of course. I'm about half way through The Plague by Albert Camus. I know it's probably not 'approved reading' in these strange times… but I've had a copy for years and I couldn't resist having a look!

Anthony Toner
Anthony Toner Anthony Toner

:: Ghost Notes, Vol 1. is out now, available via AnthonyToner.net