Phil Coulter performing in Trim, photographed by Enda Casey.

Bruised, not broken

Adapting to the new Covid-19 situation, Phil Coulter is performing three special concerts, including a livestream, from the Venue Theatre in Ratoath this week. He talks to John Donohoe about the effects of the coronavirus on the music industry, John Hume, and Van the Man’s views on masks.

At 78, Phil Coulter says he has lived through some strange times. But none as strange as the current Covid-19 public health crisis.

"I’ve never been in the one place for so long," says the Derry man who now lives in Bray, Co Wicklow, and whose song, ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ became an anthem for a troubled Northern Ireland. "Because of the nature of the industry, I’m generally travelling around, on tour."

But he hasn’t been letting it get to him.

"You have to stay positive and go forward. Looking at the news every evening, and seeing the numbers going up, you could decide you weren’t going to get out of bed in the morning.

"If you let it get you down, you could sit in the corner, feeling sorry for yourself and sucking your thumb. Equally, with no prospect of going back to work and performing on front of a live audience, you might throw yourself on front of a bus."

But Phil has decided to suck it up and get on with things, and has embraced social media as the new normal, streaming a live concert from the Venue in Ratoath this weekend.

"Our business fell off the edge of a cliff. Just stopped, stone dead," he says. He had a busy year lined up, an Irish tour, outdoor events, corporate events, and the 25th anniversary ‘Tranquility’ tour on a Caribbean cruise liner for American fans. His promoter, Pat Egan, says it could be November or December 2021 before he can resume an Irish tour.

"So, the only thing you can do, aside from feeling sorry for yourself and blaming everyone from the government to China or whoever, is to adapt," he says. "That is what I have been doing this past three months, by grabbing this social media thing by the horns."

Phil began performing an online ‘Lockdown Lounge’ about 12 weeks ago, which has gained over one million hits. This consists of 30 or 40 minutes of him sitting at the piano, telling stories or reading from his memoir, ‘Bruised, Never Broken’.

"My real concentration in going online and doing the Lockdown Lounge was to just maintain a connection with fans and followers, the believers," he says.

"But I’ve picked up new followers and believers I didn’t know I had – from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Malaysia, Namibia, South Africa, the Far East …. There’s a big world of people out there."

Online viewership has stabilised at about 5,000 every Saturday.

"People are hungry to listen to music. The challenge for people like us is to now bring it to the next level," Phil says. "To what we are doing next week in Ratoath, an online concert, to get people’s attention to the fact that they need to buy a ticket to get an online code to access the concert. To educate them to the next step is the challenge at this stage."

He says The Venue Theatre in Ratoath is one of his favourite venues, and one he has played on his Irish tour for many years. Many singers have been performing ‘concerts’ online from their living rooms, on paid platforms such as Stage It, with a backing keyboard player or musician sometimes accompanying.

"So I thought if I am going down that route of an online concert I need to take it to the next level. For a veteran like me, I needed to raise my game. The Saturday Lockdown Lounges are great, a lovely cosy domestic set up, but for a live stream concert, I thought that it was incumbent on me, if people are going to pay for the access, to do it in as professional a manner as possible, hence the theatre. There’s a set, lighting, multi-camera set up, while proper thing."

He says people have been starved of live entertainment.

"So we’re doing three nights in the Venue. Because of Covid, we are restricted to the size of the audiences we can have. We are doing 10 tables of four per table, 40 of an audience. They can socially distance and have the opportunity to get out and see live music. And know that it’s an exclusive sort of a thing too, with a small attendance."

Phil says that because the piano is level with the audience, it’s a much more intimate experience, although not too ‘Up Close and Personal’, the title of the series.

The livestream of Saturday night’s concert will stay up for 48 hours to allow ticketholders in faraway places such as Australia to see it.

A collaboration that has also kept Phil’s spark alive in recent months has been his songwriting with two members of the band, Picture This, Ryan Hennessy and Jimmy Rainsford.

"Again, it’s not in my nature to sit at home feeling sorry for myself doing a crossword. I have been co-writing with the two lads from Picture This.

"I still think of myself as a songwriter, he says. "Of all the up and coming bands, they caught my ear because these guys write pop songs with a good tune and a good hook and a good lyric, so I rated these guys very highly. It’s a very interesting collaboration. What I can bring to the party is a skill set that has taken me 50 years to learn, while they are a brimful of energy and new ideas – it’s been very productive and very enjoyable."

Phil had been friends with the late John Hume since they attended St Columb’s College in Derry, and John had entered the seminary in Maynooth with his classmate, Phil’s brother, Fr Joe.

Phil, who played at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo when John Hume and David Trimble received their honours, posted a short verse and chorus of ‘The Town I Loved So Well’ and some photographs of John and himself, which received over 150,000 views.

"Initially, we were disappointed John wasn’t going to get a State funeral, with the dignatories and all bells and whistles," he says. "But in the event, what he did get was a very dignified and low key farewell, from his home town, far more appropriate for John Hume which Pat (his wife) and the family could be far more relaxed with, knowing that the people in the cathedral were family, friend and associates."

Another Northern man that Phil has known for a lifetime is Van Morrison, who recently hit the headlines for his anti-lockdown song releases.

"While I can sympathise with the basic point he’s making, that we need to get back to performing live music, we can’t just write off the last six months and abandon the whole thing. There’s nobody on the planet that would be happier than me to see us back. However, you have to rationalise and equate that to the news that comes out every night with numbers going through the roof.

"That is the challenge – I hear of more creative and inventive solutions where there is talk of developing faster tests to check people before they go into a venue. There has to be more ingenuity and imagination used in trying to combat this thing.

"I’ve known Van for 50 years, and Van has never really cared what people think about him. I have long since learned that I judge Van on his music, not on his views on politics, religion, or indeed, public health. Van is about his music, and that’s it."

Phil Coulter says he is fortunate to be at an advanced stage in his career, where he has income coming in from his song catalogue and copyrights, but says that it is the younger artists in the industry who are suffering.

"We were the first to be stood down, we’ll be the last to be stood up," he says. "And we don’t know when that will be."

Living in Bray with his wife, Geraldine Branagan, he is also lucky to have the seafront to walk each morning, and a sizeable garden, but like many others, their family has flown the next to all corners of the world, with five of their six children living abroad. Phil and Geraldine have yet to meet their new baby grandchild, born in Australia six months ago, who, like many of Phil’s fans, is only able to reach them online in these strange days.

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