Life of Surprises: An Interview with Patrick Barrett of The Hedge Schools

Darling it’s a life of surprises
It’s no help growing older or wiser
You don’t have to pretend you’re not crying
When it’s even in the way that you’re walking
– Paddy McAloon, ‘Life of Surprises’

Jesus, please
Make us happy sometimes
No more shout
No more fight
Family life
– Paul Buchanan, ‘Family Life’

Come the day of forgiveness
Come the hour and the time
When you wonder what’s enough
Try holding on to love
– Patrick Barrett, ‘April 10’

The Hedge Schools are Patrick Barrett and Joe Chester, who have been friends and collaborators for twenty years. Once bandmates in Ten Speed Racer, they re-convened as The Hedge Schools for 2008’s Never Leave Anywhere. In 2015, with Kevin Murphy and Donagh Molloy, they released At the End of a Winding Day, which touched a chord.

Hotpress called At the End of A Winding Daya triumph of minimalist beauty“. Myles O’Reilly made them a film. Numerous radio luminaries got behind Hedge Schools, and they played the National Concert Hall, which was, Barrett told me, “the most amazing experience I’ve had on stage, in all my years of making music”.

Magnificent Birds is their warm, graceful, pained and pristine new record. Again it is principally Barrett on voice and guitar and Joe Chester on guitar, piano and production, but Vyvienne Long adds cello recorded in the Wicklow Mountains to ‘Magnificent Birds’, ‘The Flood’, ‘Navigate’ and ‘Golden’. I say to Patrick somewhere here that Hedge Schools songs have about them a “pointed simplicity”, and what I meant was that the words and music do just what they need to do. Here, minimalism is concentrated emotion and you can rest your attention in the space between the notes.

Barrett is wont to quote Bill Withers saying “I write and sing about whatever I am able to understand and feel”, and Magnificent Birds is manifestly drawn from life. It is both a reluctant reckoning with the waning of a long-term relationship (‘April 10’, ‘Oncoming’) and a celebration of new love (‘Golden’, ‘The Morning Bird’). It is written from the perspectives of a son (‘The Flood’) and a father (‘Navigate’, ‘Lighthouse Lights Out’). The song I most immediately connected with was ‘Navigate’, which Barrett wrote for his daughter. They live apart now. A father’s prayer and promise (“Wishing for a safe passage / All your dreams coming true / Know that someone is waiting / Just for you”), it beats in time with my heart. But my wife’s favourite is ‘Golden’, and I take her point. Any of these songs could hook you the way ‘Navigate’ caught me.

Replete with imagery of the sea, Magnificent Birds is also a meditation on impermanence. We are supposed to be OK with impermanence now, but we’re really not, and when Barrett sings “I wish things didn’t change / I wish they stayed the same“, in ‘Oncoming’, it is easy to identify with him. But there is an oceanic equanimity in these songs too. Listening to Magnificent Birds I’ve often thought of The Blue Nile’s ‘Family Life’, with its humble acceptance of everyday turmoil. I have thought too that with all the struggle and sadness that this record recounts, but offset, as it concludes, by hope and resolve, the tone of Magnificent Birds is best captured by another Blue Nile phrase — peace at last.

Patrick Barrett and I met in January and covered art, friendship, family, cormorants, creativity, and the late Willie Meighan: “He was a monument, that man”.

 

NC: Pat, I’m interested in talking about the record itself but I’m interested in the whole process, how you put together the record, how you let it go. The relationship that we have with music in general and what it is to be an artist.

PB: There are occasions over the last couple of years where even I have questioned it, you know, why do I keep doing it? Why do people keep doing it, the industry that it’s become. You aren’t spinning an income from it. You’re just not. So I’ve always been curious: what is the driver for me? Why do I keep going? You know. Constantly questioning the fact that you do it and still having that niggling thing: I need to finish this. And collectively I think that Joe and I, we’ve always started at the same point when it comes to making Hedge Schools records. We’ve always gone: OK, this needs to be the best we can make it. If it’s going to cost me X amount of money to print, to put out, to do the press, we need to be sure that it’s going to be a record that we can sit down and listen to in five year’s time.

What is that niggling thing?

Well I’m an avid music collector. Within everyone’s collection, they have ten, fifteen records that they go: that was an incredible record. And the drive to make a glorious record still excites me. I still want it to matter.

So that’s about the end product. But I was thinking about the beginning: the itch of an idea, when there’s something just annoying you.

Yeah. For me, certainly with this record, it was cathartic process, where I’d gone through a relationship breakup, a nine-year relationship where there’s a house involved and a kid involved. So that wasn’t easy. The process of the record in my head started at that point. But yet, midway through writing the record, I moved to Kilkenny, met an incredible woman and I fell in love and we’re getting married next year.

So that niggling thing with me was: OK I need to sit and write this. I’d been through a really crap time, at the end of a relationship, where it was falling apart, it was just two people drifting. And I’ve had the outlet of being able to sit at a piano or pick up a guitar or a blank page. I find it easy to sit with a piece of paper and a guitar and write. Joe would say the opposite: he would say “I can’t write about stuff like that”.

He said something like that the last time I interviewed you.

Yeah. We would openly talk about it. There’s one or two tracks where Joe looked at me after I’d put down my vocal and said “I’m not going to ask you to do that again”.

As in: that was a particularly raw performance?

Yeah. I mean I think there’s an emotional core to everything I write. There has to be. It’s like, I think if it matters to me, then it’s going to matter to somebody like you, and it’s going to matter to somebody over there who listens to it. But there was at least two or three moments on that record when I was in front of a microphone where Joe just kind of went “I won’t get you to do that again”.

Was one of those moments ‘Navigate’?

Yes! It was. How did you know that?

I don’t know! There is something in the grain of your voice.

That song – it’s about what it was, really. My ex-partner and I have an eleven year-old daughter. So we’re at a point where I’m like OK, I need to go, or one of us needs to go. It’s not healthy any more. And I was very aware of the fact that I’ve a beautiful kid. And she knew what was going on, kids know – she was nine when it all started to drift away. She’ll be twelve this year. That song is just about her always knowing I’ll be there.

I come up once a week from Kilkenny just to pick her up from school and hang out and go home late that night, but she knows that I’ll come up every week. We made the decision that she stays with her mother in the family home and that’s what that song is about. However she navigates through life, I’ll always be there. I’ll always be the anchor. ‘Lighthouse Lights Out’ is exactly the same thing. Where somebody who’s been there all your life, who’s been that beacon, in a certain way when I was moving away I was switching that off. But it’s always going to be there. I think I wrote a lot of that record sitting out the end of Dun Laoghaire pier.

It comes across.

Does it yeah?

It’s all ocean, it’s all seagulls. There’s that pun in ‘April 10’: “the gulls, the buoys”.

Yes. It’s all birds. And freedom. But the record is in two parts. The relationship is a part of it, and then the second part became the second part of it.

I moved to Kilkenny and in the bizarre circumstances that that happened was just one of those things. The back story is, when we put the last record out, Willie Meighan, who owned Rollercoaster Records in Kilkenny, was the only person in the country who I went to with the record. We were selling it on the Bandcamp page only. Dave O’Grady said send it down to Willie in Kilkenny. And I said to Willie, look, let’s do something. We’d made handmade copies of the last record, and I said, let’s do something special with it. So I said to him, if I give you down fifteen copies of it, will you sell them, and give the money to The Good Shepherd, the homeless centre in Kilkenny? And Willie was going yeah, of course I will. So my connection with Willie happened through that.

And that man, he passed away recently, but he sold more copies of that record than any other human in this country. And Willie asked me to go down and do a solo show in Cleere’s, and it just so happened that the week I decided up in Dublin to move out of home was the week that Willie asked me to go down. So I played in Cleere’s to forty or fifty people, gorgeous gig, and I had one of those moments on stage, where the whole weight of everything I’d left in Dublin, and everything that was going on, came across in a performance. He pulled me aside afterwards and he said “What’s going on for you?”

So he said, stay down here for the weekend. So I stayed down for the weekend and he introduced me to my partner now, Ashley. He had given her a copy of the record in the shop, and she had fallen in love with the record, and she met me that weekend. I went down on the Friday, stayed there till the Tuesday, the bank holiday weekend, and three months later just decided to move down. But that man: he was a monument.

Tell me more about him. I’ve only come across him online.

He passed away there recently of bowel cancer. He was 48 years of age. But everything that happened in Kilkenny, in terms of music, Willie Meighan made it happen. From a little shop on Kieran’s Street. When you’ve people like Bonnie Prince Billy, Calexico – everybody knew him! There was a humanity and an empathy about him that’s very rare in the industry these days. And he introduced me to Kilkenny, and the arts community there, and there’s an incredible community there. No bullshit, just everybody doing what they do because they care about it. It’s a great little city. But it all happened because of Willie Meighan and he brought me down there. So I owe the man that little tributary or that little turn in my life. When I was at probably the lowest point in my life.

 

I wanted to ask you about vulnerability. When you sing, your emotions are right there. And when I listen I think about maleness and how unencouraged you can be to be vulnerable as a man, and that one thing it sounds like you are doing is almost to show people on purpose that it is OK to feel these things.

I wouldn’t say I’m doing it on purpose. It is what I am. I suppose that comes from if you’ve grown up in an environment where it was OK to show emotion. I’ve three siblings, two brothers, John and Dermot, and a sister, Bernadette. But we grew up in an environment where it was OK to show emotion, or it was OK to have a cry.

When you say it was OK: who set the tone?

My mam and dad probably did, yeah.

So it was OK with them. How did you know it was OK?

It was very visible; it was OK! It was never a case of, don’t be doing that, or go into the corner and hide it if you’re going to be doing that. I think it was a healthy environment to grow up in. We were never told “No”, we were never told “No, you can’t do that”. And I think as a parent it’s probably the ultimate gift that you can give a child is that little bit of freedom to go, right, OK, we’ll let you make mistakes.

I have three kids and I would say it must be very difficult as a parent to do that.

Yeah, God, yeah! Especially in this era. Maybe when we grew up. We grew up in Kilbarrack, which was a rough enough place to grow up in, you know what I mean, but Dad, anything that happened around Kilbarrack, Dad was responsible for it, whether it’s parks being built or football pitches being put up. So we had a good grounding in an area like that. We were never told no. We were told: if you’re going to do that, go and do it.

When I think about that I think about the fear that you have for your kids, that if you just let them off, it won’t work out for them. All you want is for them to be happy and … I was going to say secure, but that’s me. I was always terrified of insecurity. That’s real Philip Larkin there: “I’m afraid of this so now you’re afraid!”

Mam would have been the one who’d worry, but Dad’d be laid back. And they’re both still alive, thank God. Mam is 87, Dad is 92, both still alive, and still kicking. In the last year, year and a half, Mam has begun to fade a little bit, and I wrote ‘The Flood’ from a point of view of me looking at her, and watching her get that little bit older, and a little bit more frail, but yet, being able to look at a picture of her in the 1940s and 50s when she was beautiful, and you’re still that person. Although you’ve got that little bit more old and a little bit not with it, you’re still that beautiful person.

Has she heard the song?

No, she hasn’t heard it. She might hear it at some stage (laughs). Ah no she will hear it. I don’t know is it important for people to know that songs are about them, is it?

I imagine it’s a big moment when you know that there’s a song about you.

There’s two songs on the record that are about Ashley, who’s my partner at the moment, and they were written around her. Like I’d be noodling away in the evenings on the piano or the guitar and she would’ve been around me when I was writing them, but when you play them, when I brought the final mixes home from Nice a couple of weeks ago and we listened to them together, she was crying her eyes out on the sofa.

Earlier on you were saying it’s easy for you to pick up the guitar and write songs. And when I listen to your songs, there’s a pointed simplicity about them.

Well that really matters to me.

But if I know anything about making art, it’s that to arrive at that simplicity takes a lot of work. No matter how easy you say it is to write, I can’t imagine the songs start life so winnowed down. They’re hardly first drafts.

A lot of them are first drafts. They’re on voice memos on my phone. I write in a songbook that, when I’m starting a record, I buy a nice paper-bound book that just follows me for a year. And this one was the same. I just fill it with – there’s a lot of it you don’t use. But I’ll tend to open up the voice memos and noodle and throw a line down, but when I start to write something, I tend to finish it in one sitting.

Do you.

Yeah. Now that’s – it’s different for every songwriter, Niall. Take Joe. His Easter Vigil record was, I think, his greatest work. And his process was he sat at the typewriter for three or four months, just writing lyrics. Didn’t put music near it. The only instrument was the typewriter. I can’t work like that. I’ll have the guitar, will put a couple of lines together, put the words on the page, and will generally finish – I might go back and change a few words, but I will generally finish a piece in one sitting. Everything that’s on this record was finished in one sitting.

Do you set up your week to give yourself space to create?

No. I generally will just let it happen. Maybe I’ve tuned myself and my body into some sort of structure so that I know I need to do it. I’ve worked in retail for 15, 20 years, and it’s what I do, I work about a 40 hour crappy job, but it’s effectively paying for me to make records. But I do deliberately make that space in the evening.

So you are disciplined about that. Every evening you pick up the guitar?

Yeah, but it’s not a discipline, it’s more a case of “What might happen here?” But Joe was playing up here recently, and he had my guitar, so for maybe a month I had no guitar in the house, and I didn’t miss it. I may not even try to start writing again until we’ve sent this record home. I probably won’t start again until I feel the need!

But I can’t wait for people to hear the record, cos I think we managed to make a quieter record than the last record. We were laughing about it – if we even thought it was possible to make a quieter record; but we did. And we recorded piano for the record in about three or four different places, all in little villages in France, up in the foothills of Nice. Joe went to a church in Avignon and he got a lend of a piano for a day inside the church. The piano in ‘Oncoming’ is recorded in the church.

You said you can’t wait for people to hear the record and I’m interested in how you let it go. Is there also anxiety? How do you know it’s ready?

I suppose the letting go of a record for me means I can start on a new one. Willy Vlautin played Kilkenny the other night. He is an author and singer and he strings the two bows equally beautifully. I loved a quote from him the other night “Writing is just one really long puzzle”. I think the letting go for me means I’ve dealt with what I needed to say, what I wanted to express. It’s gone now: let it to the wind.

You mentioned ‘Oncoming’. There’s a vocal change in the third verse that is subtle but in the context of a quiet song sounds big. There’s something about minimalism and the quality of the attention that you pay to musicians that you trust.

Yeah. And I think the less that’s going on, the more easy it is to pay attention. Whereas if there’s bells and whistles, you’re probably missing the point a little bit. And we both come from that space, Joe and I, where we’re going “OK, this is what should matter with this song”. Like: we’ve an incredible understanding between the two of us. It’s not a Hedge Schools record until he’s in the room. When the two of us are sitting in a room together, that’s when it happens. We have this connection, you know.

Well there’s that respect that comes across. I remember that lovely thing he said about you: “When Pat starts to sing, a state of grace descends”.

Yeah! I loved that as well. And he’d never say that to me, that’s the thing, Niall! I’m looking at him going “What do ya mean?” He’d never say that. And it was funny because the day before he sent me mixes of this record, a couple of weeks ago, the day before, he sent me an email, five words: “Your voice on this record”. That was it.

 

I wanted to go back to what you said about the drive to make art, and the struggle to sustain yourself as an musician. It seems like it’s getting more difficult.

Well yeah. And one think that doesn’t get talked about very much is the mental health of performers or musicians. People who are constantly just struggling from record to record.

I think we’ve probably figured out that me making this record was cathartic, it was a process I needed to do for myself, and we’ve made a beautiful piece of art, which is even more the bonus. But there’s so many like me all across the country who are just doing the same thing. Who are going “OK, how am I going to make another record?” or “How am I going to afford to make another record?” Or: “Will I make another record?”

Like a great friend of mine, Tim Smyth, he was in Hidden Highways, gorgeous band. He moved to Kilkenny about six months ago, him and his wife. And we struck up a musical thing. We had started working on some ambient drum tracks and stuff, and then all of a sudden he decided he doesn’t want to do music any more. He’s an incredible songwriter. But himself and his wife are expecting their first baby and they’re buying a house. And in the balance of that, he doesn’t want to do music any more. And it’s that great question of: where do you put that creative energy?

Do you think that’s a decision that it’s possible to make? Would you be able to make that decision: listen, I’m just going to stop writing.

No. Ha! No. It’d always come back. Or it’ll always be around some corner.

You said “mental health”: Have you had difficulties?

No: I don’t think I’ve ever suffered with what you might call a depression or anything. But I think people struggle from record to record. And there can be that constant battle of what you should be doing – getting a house and getting a car and what everybody else is doing around you – but you still want to make records.

So it’s the insecurity of the life, and poverty, really.

Working from record to record. I spoke to Carol Keogh about a year ago, and Carol was in the same boat, having to crowdfund her record and wishing she didn’t have to that. And there’s that insecurity about that, the fringes of the art where it just gets forgotten about, and yet a lot of what’s beautiful and doesn’t get played on the radio comes from there.

What kind of supports are there here?

I don’t think there are any. I’ve never even tried to go looking for them because any of the kind of bursaries, like the Arts Council bursaries, it’s all about if you’re writing classical pieces, it’s not geared towards people who are making records. The Canadian government model is another example of where the arts is funded. There’s a fund that’s run in all the provinces in Canada. A lot of the funding comes from its National Lottery. But in this country it’s not funded. It’s only talked about when someone wants somebody to play up in Áras an Úachtarán. To be fair, Higgins was a champion of the arts for years. But there needs to be more of it. On the fringes there needs to be more. Imagine the millions spent in this country on the National Lottery. Imagine giving people a choice of where their lottery money goes; charities, arts would all benefit.

There seems to be an expectation now that if you make music you’re not going to get paid for it, and we’re going to insist that you do it out of a sense of vocation.

And should that be the case, is that fair? If I have a vocation is it fair that I’m not – I would rather spend forty hours a week sitting at the piano. It was the exact same discussion that I had with Carol, where she was saying I would love someone to pay me to be a musician for forty hours a week, and imagine the art we could make?

I’m a little preoccupied right now with this point. With the lack of attention and respect that we give to music. It’s something I’ve thought of from a different angle, with the perspective of 25 years as a music writer, with my dismissive moments myself, but also, now, when you’re a consumer who’s flooded in music, you don’t give it respect. You don’t attend to it properly at all. We don’t respect the process, we’re not hearing everything that goes into a record, we’re taking it for granted, and we’re missing out. And I know that’s sad for musicians, but who it’s really sad for is us, as listeners.

Yeah. A total by-the-by and it’s nothing to do with music, but I was coming up here today, and I was walking up by the Old Kilmainham Road and there’s a veterinary hospital? A woman was walking out with a dog under her arm and she was in floods of tears. And her husband was with her, and I overheard her saying to her husband: “I can’t believe that he’s going to be alright”. And I was going: shit like that, we miss it every day. If you’re not looking for it, you’ll just walk by it. I’m very much aware of the beautiful things around me. I try and spend as much of my life as I can appreciating them. But I was walking up and going: Yeah. That’s a slice of that woman’s day, walking out of that veterinary hospital, and that’s a beautiful thing. We don’t sit with things any more.

We don’t think things are worth our attention so we don’t pay attention, so we don’t ever figure out if they were worth our attention. We readily dismiss things.

Like, the whole theme of this record is, like you said, it all revolves around the sea and all around birds and stuff, and like I said I sat – for pretty much a year I would walk every evening, walk the dog, and try to figure out what was I going to do in this situation.

But I’d sit at the end of the pier writing, watching the cormorants diving for fish and, you know, appreciating them. Thinking, OK, this goes on around me all the time no matter what shit I’m going through. This kind of stuff goes on around you every day of the week so you have to be able to just breathe it in and go: this is what actually matters.

Those images are both so powerful in their own way. There’s something archetypal there about the diving bird and freedom and escape, and the ocean, which is your classic permanent yet impermanent thing.

It’s always different, yeah. And the process: it wasn’t a deliberate thing, but it became the recurring theme of this record. Just about the beauty of watching birds, and that they can escape, and that in the middle of it all, I moved out of Dublin and left a ten year relationship. Probably the toughest decision I ever made. But it had to be made.

And we have an incredible eleven year old daughter, who I think, who I know understands what was going on, and who I know understands what goes on now, and who has remained I think remarkably unaffected by it. Because I’ve always been really open about it – it was important for me that communication was open. She knew what was going on every step of the way, that I was moving out of home, that I was going to be living somewhere different only a bus ride away. Making that a physical thing – putting her on the bus, showing her where I’m living, all that sort of stuff. But then ended up living in Kilkenny.

But she knows the geography of Kilkenny now; she knows that I live there, she comes down on the train, she comes down on the bus, so there’s that comfort of like, OK, I know you’re there, and I know where you are now, and I have the geographical surroundings, so that was really important to me. The permanence of me being her parent doesn’t change. The physical surroundings may change, but I’m still there. It’s like that permanence of the sea. It’s always there. It’s always going to be different, but it’s always there.

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