Irish Celtic music singing star MOYA BRENNAN talks to Trevor Raggatt about music, faith and family.
When I spoke to the Grammy winning artist Moya Brennan she was in the day-to-day throes of balancing a life which, to many of us, would seem both full of contradictions and challenges. How to create a healthy balance where studio and concert commitments pull against the bonds of hearth and home, where a woman of faith must work within a culture so much more accustomed to decadence and excess. Well, long and sometimes bitter experience has taught the Irish singer how to find a truer way and along that road faith and family take centre place.
The morning that Moya took time out to chat was characteristically busy - partway through rehearsals for a long anticipated reunion of Clannad which brought her to prominence and just about to jet off to the USA for promotional duties in support of her latest solo album, 'Signature'. However, among that necessary busyness the background sounds transmitted across the phone lines were those of domesticity. For all the world this could have been any neighbour or friend to whom I was speaking rather than an internationally renowned music star. Doubly refreshing, then, that our conversation showed that Moya was just as down-to-earth, grounded and unpretentious as she appeared. An inner peace hard won over years of experience.
She laughs as she admits to some workaholic tendencies, "You know people think that I just started my solo career when Clannad kinda stopped. but in my first year of marriage I did my first solo album and I had my first baby! So I think that gives you an indication - I like busyness!" However, amusing as she finds her hectic itinerary she is totally serious when it comes to what's really important. "Ach, well, I certainly wouldn't be able to do it without my husband, Tim, that's for sure. When we got married we talked about it a lot - and I'd put it down to him who encouraged me. And without him I don't think that . well he's been amazing!"
Brennan's life story is well documented, not least of all in her autobiography The Other Side Of The Rainbow, and it's no surprise that family is important to her. Raised in a prodigiously musical family - her father was a well known Irish show-band performer who bought the Donegal pub which he still owns more to provide a ready musical venue than anything else - and steeped in both traditional and modern music. Finding fame with the band formed with siblings and cousins she also fell prey to the darker side of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. culminating in drug addiction and the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. Her personal and spiritual epiphanies came as a result of a seemingly chance meeting with photographer Tim Jarvis at a photo-shoot. 20 years later and after 17 years of marriage they are a partnership in every sense of the word - Tim acts as Moya's manager - and they are settled into life as members of St Mark's, a Pentecostal church in central Dublin.
It's in this context that we find the songs which make up 'Signature'. The album is autobiographical but not in the usual sense. Says Moya, "It's just flashbacks of kinda moments, of sad moments and childhood moments and happy moments and that - significant events. I was brought up in the traditional style of Gaelic, my first language, and learning the old Gaelic songs. You know, they used to write in a sort of cryptic form so I suppose that's crossed over into my way of thinking. I sort of write it in a .erm .colour .in a mood. You know there is sometimes something within the lines."
An album which casts the mind back over a lifetime of experiences must be a bittersweet experience in many ways. Brennan agrees that there are ups and downs but all are equally a part of life. "'You know, it's nice to think that we've achieved without trying. You know, we didn't set out to try to but we're in the history books for developing that sound that's now thought of as 'the Celtic sound'. On the first of February we were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the kind of Brit Awards of Irish Music - and it's so nice to be acknowledged because I suppose that Clannad have a very significant musical history in the Irish scene. So you know in that way it is nice." But then are there moments better consigned to history? "Well, they've already been explored in the book so it's no big deal in a way. But you know, 'Black Night' is my favourite song on the record, I love singing it though it's very much the tragic part of my life. But you know, as I said, it's already been written in the papers, been in the news - a moment that looking back on it now wouldn't be the proudest moment of my life and it's a feeling I can still feel about the abortion that I had, I suppose it's like that sort of loneliness you feel during that time. And that's basically where that song comes from."
I remark that the beautiful cover art on the album - a collage of treasured memories - clearly has layer upon layer of meaning for her. This provokes a hearty laugh. "Oh yes, there's plenty in there! There's all sorts of pictures in there. my Mum and Dad, a picture of myself with my Mum when I was a little girl. And there's ballet shoes and little baby shoes of my first born and there's my old Dad's drum that I kinda painted up for one of my albums but it's from a showband. There's my Grandfather's pipe and my Grandmother's glasses, an abacus from my old school when I was little. So it was great fun going with all that, even just being on grass and using cloth to stand for the threads of my life and that. And things you'd never really see - ach, years ago with an LP you'd be able to see a lot more. I used to really love my albums, looking at them and going, 'Oh look at this, look at that there,' it was so exciting." Distracted only momentarily by a sense of reverie she comes back to focus, "But anyway, in front of me there's what just looks like a light but it's actually two very old Clannad pictures but it's difficult to tell because they're laid down with a projector in a long angle. I worked with an astonishing photographer - Mella Travers - she's amazing, she's a real artist as much as anything."
An interesting aspect of the album is that for the first time she's blended both aspects of her career on a single disc with some songs that are "secular" and others which clearly speak of her spiritual side. "Well, because of where I've come from in Clannad when I did a couple of contemporary spiritual/Christian records and I think a lot of people thought 'Oh, she's become all religious or something.' and you know some people didn't come to my gigs because they thought that maybe I was going to preach to them, and it wasn't that at all - it was just another part of my life. And the thing is, what fascinates me is that if I'd gone to Nepal and said, 'Oh, I've gotten into spirituality in a big way and I've got into Buddha and wisdom and everything!' then people would have been going 'Wow!' And I'm just going, 'Why? Won't you allow me to find God in my own way and on my own territory?' But I did and it's become really important to me because of my life and my faith and my family, the way I live - it's made me into a better person. And what's nice about 'Signature' is because it's snapshots of my life and this is a big part of it. it's like it's okay to include it!"
Continues Moya, "There are all sorts of mixtures that come to my gigs which is really what I wanted to achieve. And what I've also discovered is that people, well known people as well, are sometimes surprised that I don't kinda give them a lecture. But, of course, then they start asking me about it because we all search. And it's really important to realise that the spiritual side of your make up needs to be fed. It's also made me into a better person. And when young people are saying, 'Well, yeah, but I'm still not into it,' I'm telling them the story of, for instance, when Lady Diana passed away the amount of people who mourned for her was so amazing and it's because everybody wants today's 'saint'. They weren't mourning because she was a princess or because she had children and was divorced - it was because they loved her for all the humane parts of her. And isn't it amazing that you could see bikers, young people, old people. And that's really what we admire the most - the Mother Teresas of the world, the Nelson Mandelas, even the Dali Lama - people who strive towards it. So you know it's a giveaway and if you point it out in any way it makes them think about it. And I think that's why though Lady Diana was far from being perfect (and so are we all) it's a really good example. It was all part of that, you know, shaking hands with people who had AIDS which before nobody would, and being that person who stood up for the rights of people - and that's what people strive for, they're crying out for it.
"Being a Christian and living in a secular world it's very important not to segregate and not to put up barriers. I'm working in a world where it's no point me going on about 'Jesus this' and 'Jesus that' but if you talk about 'God' they understand that. For me it's more important to reach out to people than to tell them, 'Oh you're in the wrong place!' People will come to a gig and they'll hear 'In A Lifetime', they'll hear 'Harry's Game', they'll hear 'A Perfect Time', they'll hear 'Hear My Prayer'. and to me it's all part of it. And you know when I talk to people afterwards they say 'Bless you and I love your book' and 'I just felt like you were speaking to me.' I get all sorts, Christians and non-Christians coming and for me that's where I feel God has me so it's important for me to be there for that."
It is striking, looking at the singer's life, that it seems very much a modern-day parable of the Prodigal. Comments Moya, "Well, I think it is and that's important. You know I found the book was really difficult to write and I learned so much about myself while I was writing it. I refused to for so long because I wanted to be honest and I knew it would be painful. And I didn't want to hurt anybody in the family - particularly my parents. So I talked to them and it was so painful for them. The publishing company said, 'It's going to give hope to people.' so I said, 'Okay, if it gives hope to two people then it does a job.' And I didn't write it to make money or be famous with it but the amount of letters I've had, you know, from England, Australia, New Zealand, America - and it wasn't even released in America but people are getting it on Amazon or whatever! - and a lot from Ireland, like from priests and nuns. I'm totally humbled by it. I was stopped in the supermarket and some woman was saying, 'I read your book and. you're just like me, aren't you?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I am,' and she said, 'Thank you, thank you.' That just meant the world to me because if I'm on stage or when I'm at home and I'm part of the worship team at our church doing worship or if I'm singing 'Perfect Time' or whatever, it doesn't mean that I'm a better person or that I'm closer to God than anyone. People do kinda put you on pedestals and it's good for people to realise that they're as good, they're as important and everything. so it did more than I ever dreamed.
"And that's what I hoped for in a small way - and it's much more than I ever thought. So when the book was out in Ireland all the tabloids homed in on it and all the headlines were 'drugs' and 'abortion' so, like, I've already had all that. So having lived though it if somebody wants to look at this album and hack into it with the same thing again, well whatever."
Looking at Brennan's schedule for the coming year with touring and promotional duties looming large I comment that it must be hard to balance being a rock star with being a mother. The response is considered but heartfelt. "Hmmm. When Aisling came along (which is my first daughter - we have two kids, Aisling and Paul) we had to make a choice - who was going to be the breadwinner? That was the choice because we wanted one of us to be there with the kids all the time. It was a decision that we really had to sit down and work out. And we worked out that me carrying on my career would be more beneficial. And the first year or so until the second child came was really easy in a way because Tim travelled with me and we were able to travel as a family. Kids are very flexible with travelling when they're that young but when the second child came it was a bit more awkward. I was still doing Clannad tours and it was difficult - it really was. Usually nothing was more than three weeks but there was one time with Clannad - the last world tour that we did - which was harrowing. We were over in Australia, New Zealand, Japan. I was away for six weeks and it was very difficult to come back. That nearly killed me - Paul was two and Aisling was three and a bit. It was the hardest thing I ever did. I mean I talk to my family every day - no matter where I am or what time of the day it is I'll set my clock to wake myself up for their bedtime. But then when Clannad stopped and I was looking after my own career it was a bit different because at least I was in charge of my own career! And now Tim manages me, along with my brother and that's even more helpful - if you know what I mean.
"We don't often get to travel together but with Aisling being nearly 15 and Paul nearly 13 it means that Tim has been able to come with me on certain trips. We've got some really good friends from church who'll come and just live with the kids or my sister too - and that's really the only way." This provokes a laugh, "You know, I wouldn't leave them with just anybody! It's been really important to us as a family and it's been really important for the kids that one of us was there. Some people say, 'You must really miss the kids and it must be terrible for them growing up when you're going off all the time.' But actually I have MORE quality time with the kids. When I'm at home like for two or three weeks, I'm home 24 hours a day so somebody who has a job leaving seven o'clock in the morning and coming back at seven in the evening might have less time than I end up having with the kids. Or when I'm recording I'm in my own studio here and I'm here all the time. So I have more quality time with them that way, but in chunks!" Another chuckle, "So it's just a different way of working it all out. And I do so admire Tim. I think it takes a lot for a man to be able to do what he did. I think the strength of that is huge. It takes a lot because another guy might say, 'No, how can you let your wife go out and work?' and I think it was stronger for him to do what he did than actually be the person who goes out to work. But he's an incredible Dad and has allowed me to be the breadwinner for the family, I suppose. But Tim writes with me as well and it's a real partnership. And it all comes back to that centre of spirituality."
Summing up, Moya says, "You know, he's my best friend. Because when you're away travelling with a bunch of lads you need a huge amount of strength for trust and everything. And that comes from your spirituality - it really does - it doesn't come from material things or your heart. You know if you were just depending on your heart, well that throws pricks in you. So that's where the strength comes from. It gives you a sense of freedom - not having to worry about all that. But it's not like becoming complacent because you do have to check all the time but that check comes from our spirituality, from our trust and praying and that kind of thing. Believing that God is there protecting us, looking after us and giving us strength."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.