Anthony Toner on his new east Belfast-inspired album Six Inches of Water
David Roy chats to singer-songwriter Anthony Toner about his new album Six Inches of Water, a collection inspired by east Belfast, the Co Derry-born musician's adopted home...
WHEN Anthony Toner co-wrote Six Inches of Water with Brigid O'Neill in 2017, he quickly realised that this new song about an east Belfast landmark resonated with audiences.
"There's a video of me performing it for the first time ever at the Opera House with a little string quartet from the Ulster Youth Orchestra," explains Toner of this musical eulogy for the days when Templemore Avenue Baths were frequented by local shipyard workers and their families, originally written for a musical project on 'buildings at risk' sponsored by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.
"I liked the song but I was really amazed by the number of people who came up to me afterwards and said things like, 'Oh, I used to go to Templemore, I know exactly what you're singing about'. Someone even told me 'I used to be the guy who turned on the taps'.
"Then people kept mentioning that they'd seen the video and hoped that I was actually going to record the song, so I knew at some point I would put it on the next record."
However, the Co Derry-born singer-songwriter still had no idea that the evocative Six Inches of Water would end up becoming the title and opening track of an entire album of songs with their lyrical roots in the east of the city.
Written and recorded last year, Six Inches of Water features seven other original compositions inspired by real places and real and imagined characters in the east Belfast beyond Toner's own doorstep in Sydenham, plus a great cover of Van Morrison's Orangefield (with bass laid down by album producer Clive Culbertson, who played on the original) and an Arco String Quartet-performed arrangement based on the hymn Nearer My God to Thee, the tune said to have been performed by the band on the Titanic as the east's most infamous export sank in 1912.
"I'd been very friendly with EastSide Partnership and EastSide Arts for about seven years now," Toner explains of how the album, the follow-up to his well received 2020 covers project Ghost Notes Vol 1, came about.
"In fact, I ran the EastSide Arts Festival in 2015 and worked with them for about a year-and-a-half, and it was from there that I went full time with music.
"Their chief executive, Maurice Kinkead, loved Six Inches of Water. We were chatting over coffee one day when he suggested they could come up with a budget for me to do a whole album of songs like it about the east.
"I said 'yeah, sure, that would be great' – and it ended up becoming a real lifeline for me, because almost as soon as I said yes we went straight into Covid."
The first year of the pandemic was particularly hard for Toner: in July 2020, his father lost a long battle with Alzheimer's, a subject previously explored in his poignant song An Alphabet with its arresting opening line "when I hug my father we hold on tight / if he forgets who I am, well that's alright".
However, as Toner explains, for some reason his dad's death actually seemed to help kickstart his creativity in the wake of a fallow spell.
"I wouldn't say I had 'writer's block', but nothing seemed to work during the first lockdown, when I knew that I still had three or four songs that I needed to get finished," admits the singer/guitarist of the album, which also features drummer Matt Weir, keys man John McCullough, cellist Neil Martin and viola player Maebh Martin.
"I don't know whether it was my father's death or not, but after that it was like the doors opened again. So, in a way, the pandemic allowed me to make it a better project than it would have been otherwise.
"I'm really pleased with how it sounds – all the instruments are audible, everybody played really nicely and we'd a really nice experience of putting it together."
The aforementioned Titanic-inspired piece, Nearer, closes Six Inches of Water in a fine, accomplished style which belies its origins in an off-the-cuff remark Toner made during the album's planning stages.
"Maurice asked me if I wanted to do something about the Titanic," he explains.
"Almost as a joke, I said I could write a string quartet based on Nearer My God to Thee – and he said, 'Oh, that would be great'. Suddenly I thought, 'Oh s***, I actually have to do it now'. As a musician, that one was probably my biggest stretch – to actually sit down with sheet music and work everything out."
He adds: "I kind of thought everything had been said about the Titanic in one form or another, so I thought I would just use that as a little oblique commentary on it."
Elsewhere on the record, Toner has included a tune called Curtain Call, a touching tribute to the late, great east Belfast-born playwright/actor and Lyric theatre co-founder Sam McCready, whom Toner was lucky enough to get to know a few years before his death in 2019.
"I was very saddened when Sam died and I knew that I wanted to do something very short, sweet and simple for him," he tells me.
"I got to know Sam way too late in life when he played the EastSide Arts Festival in 2015. It was the first time I'd really met him and he just was an inspiration – he was always working on something new.
"I was tremendously impressed by he and his wife Joan, the energy that they had. Even though they were a lot older than me, there was no sense that they were ever going to stop. I loved that about them.
"So that one was a hard one to write, because it was about a real person. You want to be respectful and to not over-sentimentalise."
Six Inches of Water is out now in digital form via Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music and other platforms and will also be available as a limited edition CD. Its release is being marked with an already sold-out launch gig at Willowfield Parish Church on the Woodstock Road during – you guessed it – the EastSide Arts Festival on August 5, which will be Toner's first post-pandemic live performance.
"I'm looking forward to it but I'm kind of bracing myself for the fact that it's going to be slightly strange," he admits of the show.
"I think the church regulations at Willowfield demand that people have to be masked. So it's going to be strange to stand up on stage and, first of all, look down at an audience for the first time in so long, but also to look down at everybody wearing masks.
"But I think actually one of the things that I feel comfortable with is being able to make people feel connected. So if I can find the right sort of 'banter' I think it will probably be alright."