Barry McCormack: ‘After 20 years you’d imagine I’d get tired of writing about Dublin.’
For over two decades, Barry McCormack has been casting a critical eye on his hometown of Dublin.
First with his band, the Jubilee Allstars, and latterly with his six solo records, McCormack has been scathing of the city’s ills and celebratory of its charms.
Yet at no point, not even after taking a year out to live in Paris, has he gotten tired of commentating on the city from which he was thrust.
His sixth album, The Tilt of the Earth, is set for release this week and, for McCormack, its charms and intricacies remain the perfect setting for the more universal themes contained in his music.
“After 20 years you’d imagine I’d get bored of it,” McCormack tells Something for the Weekend.
“There’s an American crimewriter, one of the guys who wrote for the Wire, who said if you’re a crimewriter you have to ‘find the city and own it.’
“A lot of crimewriters, Dashiell Hammett in San Francisco, Raymond Chandler in LA, if it’s somewhere you understand it’s somewhere you can tell stories about.
“I spent a year living in Paris and after living in Paris, I realised I could never write songs about Paris. I don’t understand the people – it’s foreign to me.
“It’s a cliché – write what you know about – but I’ve never really stopped finding Dublin an interesting place to write about.
“You can write really universal things about from a local place. I think that’s obvious if you [read] Dubliners.
“If you read Dubliners, it’s explicitly Dublin, but the themes are universal. Not to be too pretentious and drop Joyce into the mix, but it’s an example of something local being universal.”
And while Dublin has that fantastic tradition, passed down through literature and song and the spoken word, it was one of the great London-Irish from whom he took particular inspiration.
While there’s scarcely a street or a landmark in Dublin that hasn’t had a canon of songs written about it, more often than not it’s tended towards celebration rather its tawdry underbelly.
Even famous songs like the Monto – written about Dublin’s infamous former den of misery and prostitution – comes out sounding as jolly as a day at the Galway Races.
Whereas, for McCormack, he was as interested in the city’s flaws as its plus-points.
Songs like ‘Guests of the Nation’ and ‘Do You What It Is, Sir, to Have No Place to Go?’ tackled anti-immigrant sentiment before it had even registered on many Dubliners’ radar.
“If you think of MacGowan, he wrote London in the Dark Streets of London, the Old Main Drag, etc.
“The Pogues are seen as an Irish band but they’re not really – they were a London band. He was a psychogeographer of the underbelly of London.
“Fortunately MacGowan didn’t write about Dublin, so I could write about Dublin and be influenced by the way he wrote about London.
“There was a tradition of Dublin street songs, and you go back to Zozimus, the guy who used to stand on the street corner and sing songs or read poetry about Dublin.
“Dublin is small as well so maybe it’s easier to have a connection. Maybe it’s a cliché, but if you go into Grogan’s there’s a connection to people who used to drink in McDaid’s, and that whole Baggotonia, you know Kavanagh and Flann O’Brien and stuff like that.
“This is a bit facetious, but a friend of mine always says ‘why do you always write about Dublin?’ And I say, if I was from Huddersfield I’d probably write about Huddersfield.
“Some people are like that. The guy who wrote V for Vendetta, Alan Moore, is he from Huddersfield? [He’s from Northampton].
“He’s kind of obsessed with his local area. Some people are inspired by local geography and things like that. It’s probably a mixture of those songs.”
A Tilt of the Earth, by contrast to his earlier records, is a somewhat more serene affair, both musically and in terms of its lyrical content.
The furious narratives of old are replaced by more neutral, perhaps more mature, descriptions of events like the Liffey Swim.
The presence of producer Stephen Shannon – who produced McCormack’s two previous albums – is particularly prominent, as McCormack notes it’s his most collaborative record to date.
It was Shannon, for instance, who prompted the complete re-working of lead single ‘All the Things You’ve Done’ from a jaunty alt-pop song to an altogether more dark piece.
“The first song on the album sounded like Teenage Fanclub and Steve wasn’t liking it at all.
“So we took everything off it except a banjo and he put down a sampled drumbeat and we rebuilt the song from that.
“He put on a bunch of Seventies synth sounds and a harmonium drone, so the song is completely different to how it was originally.”
“The best production I did on the whole record was when we decided to get a trumpet player in but I couldn’t go to the sessions because I had to work make the money to pay for it.
“When I turned up to the playback, Steve had done everything I would have wanted him to do, so I said to Steve: ‘the best production I did on this record was not to turn up to the session.’”
Musically, it wouldn’t sound out of place alongside some of Bob Dylan’s more mellow recent material – much of the album puts one in the mind of Dylan’s Time out of Mind album.
Which is no surprise, given that Dylan is another of McCormack’s key influence and another, like himself, who has been praised for the literary content of his musings – albeit by the somewhat loftier Nobel Committee.
“I’m a bit confused because I think it’s great that a lyricist got [the Nobel Prize].
“You can definitely argue that songs are not literature because they’re meant to be read, but Dylan is literary. It’s almost a semantic thing.
“There’s this Norwegian writer called Karl Ove Nausgard who said he was happy but Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon haven’t won it yet and probably should have got it first. And I wouldn’t disagree with him.
“People dismissing it, like as someone said ‘it’s like giving McDonalds three Michelin Stars, I think that’s rubbish.”
The Tilt of the Earth is out now. McCormack plays a launch show in the Conservative Club in Dublin tonight, October 21st.