JOHN COOK BIOGRAPHY
"I suppose you could say I've achieved what I set out to achieve" says John Cook when asked to summarise the tale of Tara in a recent interview with Colin Harper "Quiet simply, there are some high quality albums which will stand the test of time - and that's already proved itself. I like to push musical boundaries and I like to think we've produced material of Cultural merit - as well as great musical merit. I don't think there's an easy option - if we knew what the punters wanted we'd all be at it, that's the easy option! But in the long term a quality product will always last the course and that's what we've done - we've created our own niche and it is all about quality."
Which is just as well, because nobody could accuse Tara of quantity. But who is John Cook? Known in the record industry as the inscrutable, dobro-playing accountant, with a steady line in dry wit and nerves of steel. John has single-handedly built up the label from its origins as a modest offshoot of a Dublin record shop nearly 30 years ago. It's an ironclad outlet for quietly groundbreaking music based on the Irish tradition and has become a benchmark to rivals in standards of packaging, production and recording ever since. As for John himself, most of the artists he has worked with over the years see him with a mixture of deference and affection, as 'the enigma'.
A modest individual, John has chiseled out enduring and marketability for his artists with a knife-edge balance of vision, prudence and acumen. Not a man given to reckless enthusiasm or rash expenditure, he does occasionally confound expectations with the odd flight of fancy - like, signing a Limerick based pop band by the name of Treehouse Diner because he liked them and only afterwards worrying about how to market such an item. But upon such pragmatism has Tara's roster of world-class acts been built.
Born in Scotland, educated in England and Ireland, John worked in the hotel business as an internal auditor until the late-sixties when he combined his passions for music and accountancy and opened a record shop in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham. John later sold-out to a chain of stores which had just changed its name to Golden Discs, it was formerly known as Tara Records. And here the tale begins.
"Tara had existed at the retail end" says John, "but not as a label. It was set up by Jack Fitzgerald. He had one store on Tara Street in Dublin specialising in American imports. I knew Jack all those years I was in the hotel business, for no other reason than I was a particularly good customer, and after I sold him the store I started doing odd bits of administration work for him. Around this time there was an import album - from England this time - called Prosperous by a young Irish Singer 'Christy Moore', at that stage a lowly cult figure, traveling around the British folk clubs. Christy had released a previous album in England which sank without trace, but this one was where the great 1970's shift in Irish music began. The four individuals who went on to form Planxty, Andy Irvine, Liam O'Flynn, Donal Lunny and Christy himself - were on that album and to satiate demand from his customers Jack Fitzgerald bought the rights to this album and released it on a label of convenience entitled Tara Records".
There was quiet a gap between that album coming out and anything further being released. When Planxty reformed in 1978 it was with Tara that they signed and it was at this point that Tara started their record label in earnest. Quality, big-budget product followed at a steady rate, there were two albums from Planxty After The Break and The Woman I Loved So Well, two solo albums from Christy Moore The Iron Behind the Velvet and Live In Dublin as well as two albums from the Irish language group 'Clannad' and the first three albums from a promising new act called Stockton's Wing. All four acts are now legendary names in Irish music. It has been a trademark of John's modest empire that acts have left his label to bigger and better things - and several have returned, Stockton's Wing being a prime example.
Davy Spillane, bringing Irish pipes into a jazz fusion setting and more recently the esoteric and potentially lucrative new-age / film soundtrack area, built up his reputation with Tara before moving on amicably to a major deal - in his case Sony. Clannad set the trend in 1981, after four albums with various labels during the 70's and then two with Tara, using the bigger budgets available courtesy of Cook's 'maximise quality' philosophy to begin experimenting with studio techniques that led to the breakthrough UK hit single Theme From Harry's Game and subsequent international success. That success was soon mirrored elsewhere Clannad member Enya, whose sole recordings with the band, on 1981's Fuaim were bankrolled by John. In the Clannad case, John's involvement in their leap to the bigger league via RCA, meant he was in a position to reap his own modest recompense - in effect, the Irish rights to several subsequent Clannad albums on RCA and of course the rights to continue marketing and licensing his label's own Clannad product around the world.
In the late seventies, John took another big step with Tara when he recorded Shaun Davey's The Brendan Voyage a ground breaking album which featured Liam O'Flynn on uilleann pipes and a full orchestra. "I agonised for many days over that album" says John"but of course I don't regret it. It's still a great album". The Brendan Voyage launched Shaun Davey (who had previously worked mainly doing advertising jingles) as a contemporary orchestral composer of international standard and led to further commissions for work in a similar vein, several of which - The Pilgrim, Granuaile and The Relief of Derry Symphony, have been released on Tara. Most of Shaun's works feature the truly exceptional vocalist Rita Connolly and the universally recognised master of Irish piping Liam O'Flynn - both of whom have also recorded solo albums for Tara under Shaun's supervision as producer.
John's policy of 'Less is More', putting quality before quantity and aiming for only two or three recordings per year, has paid off. Almost none of the Tara catalogue has been deleted. In fact, as digital technology has become available in recent years, much of the Tara catalogue has been re mastered or even (in the case of Shaun Davey's magnum opus 'The Pilgrim) re-recorded for CD. It all adds to the notion that the sign of Tara on the spine of a CD is a guarantor of music in a class of its own. Nevertheless, quality doesn't automatically equal global sales and some markets, particularly America, have remained effectively out of reach for a relatively small label like Tara.