Neil Martin: I'm rather used to the solitary existence of sitting at home alone at the piano, though I've fallen out with Joe Wicks

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: Belfast composer, cellist and uilleann piper, Neil Martin

Neil Martin: I'm rather used to the solitary existence of sitting at home alone at the piano, though I've fallen out with Joe Wicks

Neil Martin


Up and at it - what is your new morning routine? How has it changed?

I have always tended not to rise too early as I often compose late into the night, so I'm usually up around eight o'clock or 8.30am. I start the day with the obligatory pot of tea (loose-leaf, a mix of SD Bell's Natural Leaf and Earl Grey, ratio of 2:1). This is followed by a little Pilates and then I might play some music - a form of prayer for me - before heading into whatever the day demands.


What might you eat in a typical working day for...Breakfast?

Tea and toast.


A sarnie - nothing too much.

Evening meal?

Could be fish, pasta, veggie, chicken, beef... my children gave me a slow cooker for Christmas one year and I love being able to prep the food, hit the button in the morning and then forget about it for the next eight or nine hours. Siobhan and I have four children aged between 29 and 19, all busy in various ways and in various places and when we can all get to sit around the table together - a rare enough thing these days - the energy is palpable. Sacred times.


Have you been able to work from home - if so, how have you found it?

Regardless of Covid, as a composer I'm rather used to the solitary existence of sitting at home alone at the piano, writing.


Best/easiest lockdown meal?

At the end of May, my third daughter, Molly, arrived home unannounced from Budapest - a birthday surprise for her 'aul da. She'd been in quarantine in a friend's house just around the corner for 10 days and none of us knew anything about it until she arrived at the door. It was some celebratory meal that night - the first time in 10 months that all six of us sat down together.


Weekend treat?

Siobhan's poached eggs on toasted sourdough for brunch.


How have you kept physically and mentally fit during lockdown?

Physically, I engaged enthusiastically with Joe Wicks last year, but have fallen out with him several times since. Mentally, by writing music. Of course, composing is both a mental and an emotional challenge, but the solace, comfort and escape that it affords me outweighs all else. It is my lifeline.


What has been your daily outdoor exercise?

As a cellist, I find Pilates very beneficial and I find nothing more restorative than unhurried walks - no podcasts, no music... just strolling along with my own thoughts - emptying the mind is important exercise too.


How do you relax?

By watching a film, reading poetry, listening to music, cooking a meal and especially by playing music.


Teetotal or tipple?

Tipple - good wine I'm into, old world wines mostly, from France, Spain, Italy. There's such pleasure in matching wine and food. A heavenly pairing.


What book are you currently reading?

Cruising Paradise by the late Sam Shepard. Along with my dear friend, Stephen Rea, I worked with Sam on his last play, A Particle of Dread in New York 2014/15 and I love the authentic twang of his writing - he was such a gifted storyteller. The book was a present from the singer/songwriter Anthony Toner, another cherished ally.


Best Netflix?

Rather than Netflix, I went to the QFT recently and watched The Father with Anthony Hopkins - outstanding altogether. The experience of a movie theatre is so much better than a TV screen.


Most surprising thing you've learned about yourself?

That next year I'll be 60. Where did that all go?


On a scale of one to 10, where have you been in relation to cabin fever and where are you now?

At some point, maybe just a three - now, I'm grand altogether. Covid has been utterly savage and has impacted us all in different ways, but the way I look at it it, there's not much point in me driving myself nuts about something over which I have no control.


What are the three things you missed most during the beginning of lockdown?

Not being able to hug my late mother, not being able to meet family and friends and not being able to perform music to a live audience.


Where will you go and what will you do when restrictions are fully lifted?

Once things fully settle down, I won't be making any mad rush for the gate. I'd rather bide my time and be cautious. My great desire is to perform music again, to feel that audience reaction, to communicate via music. That reciprocal relationship between audience and performer is a fundamental of life.


Biggest gripe?

The shocking and devastating impact Covid has had on the lives of schoolchildren, students and the elderly. So utterly cruel.


Have your priorities in life or perspectives changed?

I better appreciate just how short, precious and very fragile life is and that we don't need to be running around the place like headless chickens.


Any new skills or hobbies?

Not a one - still trying to fine-tune the few skills I do have.


What would you like to see change for good when this is all over?

Humankind rethinking the mad pace at which we all believed we had to work to exist - bonkers. A little more decency in society would be good.


Has coronavirus changed your attitude towards your own mortality?

Certainly, at the beginning, I was frightened and conscious of my potential death from it. But I try not to overthink mortality. Live in the moment: carpe diem.

Neil Martin and The West Ocean String Quartet will perform on Sunday August 8 in St Patrick's Church, Newtownards Road, Belfast, as part of EastSide Arts Festival, This will be the the quartet's first concert in 18 months and will officially launch their new album, Atlantic Edge. More at