“These guys were all from the ghetto, and that’s where we were too” – Don Baker on life, death and the blues
Fresh from his reprisal of gangland figure Thomas Flynn on RTE’s Fair City, Don Baker is eager to return to his first love – the blues – with the release of his star-studded album, My Songs My Friends.
My Heart My Songs features a plethora of guest singers, ranging from legends of Irish music like Finbar Furey and Sinéad O’Connor through to respected contemporary musicians like Gemma Hayes, Declan O’Rourke, Mick Pyro and Brian Kennedy.
The Dubliner’s thirteenth album was two years in the making, Baker having been thrown of his original course by a chance meeting with singer Clara Rose. The impression Rose left was enough to convince Baker to change tack and record the album as a series of collaborations, rather than the straight band album that he had originally planned.
Baker explains that from that point on, the album took on an entirely new character: “It came about as an accident. I met a girl called Clara Rose when I was recording – I was using the songs for myself to perform – and she said she had done support for me years ago. I didn’t even remember, but she gave me her CD and we had a chat.
“I went home and I didn’t listen to it for a couple of weeks, and I eventually put it on and I thought she was brilliant so I invited her in to sing on a song I thought would suit her, Fergus: The Healing Song.
“I just thought she changed the song completely – it was brilliant. The engineer, Stuart Gray, who I was working with in Jealous Town Studios, said ‘what do you think about getting some other people to sing your songs?’”
The project soon began to gather shape under its own momentum, as some of Ireland’s best known musicians got wind of the project and asked to be involved.
“We got Damien Dempsey, Paddy Casey and then the phone started ringing with artists wanted to get on the album. Brian Kennedy happened to walk into the studio while Billy Farrell was working on one of the tracks and made enquiries about who is it, and Billy told him ‘it’s one of Don Baker’s tracks’ and he asked Billy to ask could he sing on the album. It just bloomed from there.”
Baker fell in love with the delta blues as a teenager growing up in the north inner city, and had earned himself a reputation as one of the best harmonica players in the business before landing the role of fictional IRA man Joe McAndrew in Jim Sheridan’s Guildford Four biopic In the Name of the Father, alongside Daniel Day-Lewis.
By then, he had toured Europe and the United States – he laughs as recalls touring with a gospel choir around the Deep South and being the only white man in the group – but it wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he recorded his first album – and twelve more in 23 years since shows how eager he has been to make up lost ground.
While his native Whitehall could never be described as a blues stronghold, Baker recalls how he felt an instant emotional connection with the music from the moment he was first introduced to the likes of Leadbelly and Howlin’ Wolf.
He says: “I was introduced to the blues by a guy called Richard – who now drives a taxi in Belfast – and he lived on Foley Street and I lived in the Corporation Buildings at the time. I was around 16 or 17 – I can’t remember exactly – and the first track he ever played for me was called Dust My Broom by Elmore James.
“I thought ‘wow, that’s something else.’ I just loved the 12-bar blues. These guys were all from the ghetto, and that’s where we were too, so there was a big emotional connection to it – it didn’t matter about the colour of your skin. Some of the best blues players ever were white guys – Johnny Winters, Sid Atkins, one of the best harmonica players is Charlie McCoy. That’s often overlooked.”
My Songs My Friends is a celebration of all of those influences and the subject matter is equally varied. While the album contains its fair share of ballads – and another standout track is the angry polemic entitled ‘Politician’ with John Spillane – there is a sombre, reflective tone to much of the album, something that came as a surprise to its creator.
Baker says: “A lot of comments were made by the artists, like Finbar and Brian, that they thought it was a very spiritual album. I didn’t think that but they seem to think there’s a spiritual element. Lord Have Mercy – the song I sing with Eleanor McEvoy – is a spiritual song for sure, and Fergus: The Healing Song.
“Each Day Today – the song with Gemma Hayes – I suppose you could say is a spiritual song and the one Liam O’Riordain sings, about an alcoholic friend of mine who’s since died. He was a millionaire but he drank it all and wound up on the streets with wine in the pocket and all that. The songs are all autobiographical. They’re all from things that happened to me.”
Fergus: The Healing Song is a track that holds particular significance for Baker, having been written following the tragic death of his wife’s brother.
Baker says: “That was written for my brother in law – his name was Fergus O’Reilly. He died in Tenerife three years this Christmas – it was on St Stephen’s Day. He was on the beach and a wave dragged him out to sea and he subsequently drowned as his two kids were watching him on the beach. We were at home on Stephen’s Day when we got the phone call and that’s where the song starts. Hopefully, people who are suffering bereavement can listen to that and have a hope and find some kind of solace or healing in it.”