Renaissance man Phil Coulter is back with a beautiful and heartfelt new recording coming out on Shanachie Entertainment April 29th called ECHOES OF HOME. A master at creating lush tapestries and bringing to life haunting melodies, Coulter delivers gorgeous interpretations of some of the greatest Celtic melodies of all time. The visionary who has collaborated with everyone from Planxty to The Bay City Rollers and Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison and the recent phenomenon- Celtic Thunder–gets a little help from some friends on his new CD including Moya Brennan of Clannad, Paul Brady of Planxty, John Sheahan of The Dubliners, Finbar Furey of The Fureys and even comedian Billy Connolly. Just as ECHOES OF HOME was being concluded, tragedy struck. George Donaldson, one of the featured voices of Celtic Thunder who Phil had worked with closely, died at the too-young age of 46. A beloved character, George was mourned by not only a wide circle of family, friends and acquaintances but also by the legions of Celtic Thunder fans. Phil was moved to create a composition in George’s memory. His moving recording, “Lament For George,” unfortunately came too late for inclusion on the physical edition of the album but will be available on digital editions of ECHOES OF HOME.
Phil Coulter is a musical renaissance man. As composer, producer, artist, arranger and musical director Coulter seems to have done it all, from producing the seminal albums by Planxty that ignited the Irish traditional music renaissance to hits by pure pop group The Bay City Rollers to composing and directing the global sensation Celtic Thunder. Coulter has also worked with Sinead O’Connor and Van Morrison, among so many other notable artists. Having sold in excess of a million copies of his own recordings, most of them lushly orchestrated soundscapes, one wonders what could possibly be left for Phil Coulter that he has not already done. Ever inventive, even after fifty years of musical creation, Phil has succeeded on his new album Echoes Of Home in coming up with yet another fresh approach—radical simplicity. Working with just solo piano on some tracks and in duet format with extraordinary musicians (Moya Brennan of Clannad, Paul Brady of Planxty, John Sheahan of The Dubliners, Finbar Furey of The Fureys and even comedian Billy Connolly) on others, Coulter delivers gorgeous interpretations of some of the greatest Celtic melodies of all time. The resulting album, to be released on April 29, 2014 by Shanachie Entertainment, is a wonderful musical experience of sublime musicianship that anyone can enjoy.
“So many of today’s albums are not so much ‘produced’ as ‘processed’!” Phil notes. “I just wanted to get back to basics: great melodies, simply played, no bells and whistles! For me these tunes are so powerful, evocative and timeless that my job is just to let them sing out. My past albums have all been piano with orchestral accompaniment. This time I wanted something different. In the spirit of getting back to basics, the orchestra is stood down and we feature purely solo piano. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to invite some of my musical friends to duet with me on a handful of tunes. I was truly bowled over and immensely grateful when they each jumped on, in a heartbeat!”
It is a measure of the respect that Phil Coulter commands on the Irish music scene that so many revered and admired musicians in Celtic music were so eager to collaborate with him. But once again, there is a fresh twist. Phil asked them to play a different role than they would normally play. Moya Brennan, for instance, whose voice Bono described as the ‘most distinctive in Celtic music,’ was asked to play harp rather than sing, which he describes as “magical.” “I’ve known Moya, and indeed all her family, since they were kids playing in their father’s pub in Donegal. We have worked together in the past and it has always been a joy.”
Paul Brady is known as a guitarist, songwriter and vocalist both with Planxty and his acclaimed solo work; Phil asked him to play tin whistle on “Farewell To Inishowen!” “Paul, another old friend from college days, is a world class singer and songwriter with songs covered by an impressive number of A-listers.
This (tin whistle playing) is one of his lesser-known accomplishments but you just have to listen to his playing on Mark Knopfler’s classic score from the movie Cal to realize what a wonderful sound he gets out of such a small piece of metal.
Perhaps the most surprising collaborator chosen by Phil is the comedian turned actor Billy Connolly, who plays autoharp on “Rowan Tree. “What most folks don’t know,” Phil says,” is that Billy started his career in folk music, singing and playing alongside the incomparable Gerry Rafferty in a band called Humblebums. He has never lost his passion for folk music or for the banjo, just like his buddy Steve Martin. Having been Billy’s record producer at the very start of his career I remembered the lovely sound that he would coax out of the auto-harp so I made the call and he signed on!”
One of the great strengths of Echoes Of Home is the material, a selection of songs that deliver one great melody after another. Phil’s sense of melody, both as a musician and songwriter, is a major reason for his enduring success. So it is no surprise that his approach to recording this very different sort of album began with song selection. “As always, the first task was choosing the material,” Phil relates. “The aim was to come up with a collection of magnificent Celtic melodies that would be strong enough to stand up without any added layering of orchestral textures. The actual recording of this album was very different for me. For the majority of the tracks I was totally alone in the studio…just me and my piano! While I have recorded the odd solo piano track in the past, to approach a whole album like that was very different and felt quite strange. Apart from anything else, there were no diversions, no distractions. It certainly concentrated the mind. Then to be able to duet with some of the finest players in this idiom was a real treat. For a musician there is nothing to compete with the thrill of playing with someone who is on exactly the same wavelength.”
Just as the album was being concluded, tragedy struck. George Donaldson, one of the featured voices of Celtic Thunder who Phil had worked with closely, died at the too-young age of 46. A beloved character, George was mourned by not only a wide circle of family, friends and acquaintances but also by the legions of Celtic Thunder fans. Phil was moved to create a composition in George’s memory. His moving recording, “Lament For George,” unfortunately came too late for inclusion on the physical edition of the album but will be available on digital editions of Echoes Of Home.
One of Big George’s best qualities was his likeability, “Phil muses. “There was an openness and a genuine, wide-eyed enthusiasm about him and an honesty to his singing which everyone responded to. He stumbled through his first couple of auditions for Celtic Thunder but it was that very cheery demeanor that persuaded me that he should get the job. And for him it was his dream job. Having worked nine to five for twenty years building buses, he could barely believe that at the age of forty he was finally getting his shot. He will be irreplaceable.”
Phil Coulter grew up in Northern Ireland during “the Troubles,” the son of a policeman who also played fiddle; his mother played piano. Youthful piano lessons led to serious musical study in secondary school and college. As a young man he scored a position as arranger/songwriter for a London music publisher and worked early on with Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Jones and Van Morrison. With a songwriting partner, Bill Martin, he began scoring such major hits as Sandi Shaw’s “Puppet On A String” (1967), Cliff Richard’s “Congratulations,” glam-rock band Kenny’s “Fancy Pants,” The Bay City Rollers “Saturday Night” and many others. Never content to stay in one musical corner, in the Seventies Phil manifested his love of traditional Irish music by producing three seminal albums by Planxty that were major catalysts in the revival of traditional Irish music. He continued writing and producing hit records, with his music being recorded by everyone from Elvis to Sinead O’Connor. But in 1984 he conceived the idea of doing orchestrated instrumental renditions of Celtic music and launched his solo career with “Classic Tranquility,” in 1984. These became worldwide successes; Phil has scored 23 platinum, 39 gold and 52 silver albums on the way to selling millions of copies as an artist. In 2007 he joined forces with Sharon Browne, one of the originators of the Celtic Women production, to collaborate on a male version of the project entitled Celtic Thunder; this became a world-wide success, selling millions and becoming a mainstay of PBS programming in the States. Not content to rest on his laurels, Phil remains as vital and dynamic as ever, always on the lookout for new ideas, as ECHOES OF HOME demonstrates.
“I’ve often been asked ‘how can the man responsible for “Saturday Night” by The Bay City Rollers, who were the One Direction of their day, go on to produce landmark records by the iconic Planxty and then create a whole genre of orchestral Celtic music? Some folks think I must be schizophrenic! Well, although musically they are poles apart, they do have something in common. In each particular case they were the best in their field. So, for me there is no major difference in the way I approach each project. Before going near the recording studio I have to give a lot of thought to choosing or writing the material. Once in the studio, it’s my job to ensure the right creative atmosphere and get the best performances out of my musicians. It’s never easy and indeed can be very stressful at times but I still love it, even after all these years.”