PHIL CALLERY INTERVIEW
MEMORIES FROM THE SHARP
On one occasion we were doing a gig with the Pogues somewhere in Kerry, I think it might have been Killorglin. This was a big gig and when we arrived in the town the whiff of Yamaha exhaust was in the air and the place was absolutely jammed tight with rivets, leather, heavyweight.
Boots, and the most fantastic collection of hairstyles you ever saw. We went up to the gate of the field where the gig was to take place and told the mountainous security man that we were the Voice Squad for the gig. He looked at us with a mixture of scorn and annoyance. "Yis're doin' the gig and yis has no gear wid ye. What do yis take me for? Beat it! (not quiet as polite as that). Being a Capella group can have it's own special difficulties" Phil Callery talking about some of his memories of the Voice Squad. Did they get in to the gig? "Yes eventually and the hush we got from the crowd was brilliant" He laughs long and loud at the memory, his normal serious face cracking into long established laugh lines.
The Voice Squad burst onto the scene at the back end of the eighties a wonderful blend of voices, Fran McPhail, Gerry Cullen and Phil Callery. How did they get started in the first place? "I wasnąt singing with the lads at the start. Brian Leahy was there around to establish a blend of voices and off we went."
Does he have a family background in singing? "No not really. My mother, while she knew what she liked when it came to singing, was tone deaf. Dad was a different proposition. He was a fiddle player and had a great love of words in general and poetry in particular. And when you think about it that's what a song is. Words and music." With your father being a fiddler were you never inclined to follow his lead and take up the instrument "Oh indeed yes. I played before I began to singing seriously. After all Sean Maguire was a family friend from the same part of Cavan as my father. I think fiddling was in the air there. But I always had a great love of songs and especially the words. The singing took over from the playing especially when got involved with the Voice Squad. In the last few years I have taken up the fiddle again and am playing like mad to make up for the lost time. It's great feeling to sit down with a bunch of musicians and play a few tunes."
How much work did it take to produce the faultless blend of voices that was the Voice Squad sound? "Oh we worked hard, very hard at it and, you know, there comes a time when you kid yourself that you've have got it right maybe with a particular song. But just then something jumps up and bites you and you realise that you don't have things quiet as well as you thought. The biggest kick in the backside we got was when we came to do our first album, Many's the Foolish Youth. This was recorded in very humble circumstances in close harmony. But what a fantastic learning experience. It forced us to construct a foundation we didn't have previously and it served us well when pressure came on. Some times after that we were in Florrie Batt's pub in Kenmare. You know the place, the only pub where the language was made up of facial expressions. One punter who's look told you he was the town critic was paying particular attention and I was dreading some comment from him before we finished. In a gap between songs he leaned in our direction and quietly asked 'hey lads do you fellas know each other?' I felt that was one of the most eloquent comments on our singing ever!"
What things in your life to date stick out and do you say to yourself about them I'm glad I did that? "Getting the idea of a Singers Club going on Dublin I suppose was a big thing for me. Back in the seventies I wanted to get something going like Ewan McColl's Listeners Club in London. It worked and gave a platform to the likes of Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Christ Moore, Paul Brady, the O'Domhnaill sisters, Triona and Maighread, Luka Bloom and a few more. The concept is still alive and well in the form of the Goilin Singers club which gets together regularly in Dublin to allow people the space to sing and listen and learn and just enjoy the privilege of singing together."
"Of course the Voice Squad thing was great but one tour I did with Donal Lunny and Davey Spillane and a few more gave me great satisfaction. We went to England to sing for the striking miners and one of the gigs was in Chesterfield. It turned out that the mayor was a Tipperary man and his council had told him that with this bunch of Irishmen coming to make music the day was his to virtually do as he liked. I never got a better welcome anywhere. The red carpet was literally rolled out and we were treated like kings."
What prompted him to launch a solo career? "The lads in the Squad got a bit separated geographically. Fran for instance is in Galway, but anyway I wanted to give it a go. One great thing that has come out of it is the fact that my daughters become involved. Rosa and Sarah sometimes came to our gigs with their friends but you know the generation thing of instinctively running away from what your parents do. No way could I visualise either of them standing on the stage with me doing the business despite the fact that they both sing well. But imperceptibly they got closer and closer until it seemed that I turned around at one gig one night and there they were beside me. Now they are a natural part of the band and I am very happy about that. We have been gigging around for a while now, the band is getting to be well known, and the reception has been good. Next month we are off to play in France for a couple of weeks."
Callery has just launched his first solo album 'From the Edge of Memory' (TARACD 4007). Calling it a solo album is maybe not quiet accurate. The line up of guest musicians reads like a who's who of Irish music, Steve Cooney, Ritchie Buckley, Liam O'Maonlai, Brian Kennedy, and a whole lot more. How did he pull it off? "It made me feel great that all these great performers would want to get involved in my project. It was a difficult time and I might not have made it without the enormous help they gave me. It is a wonderful experience to see how the inputs of everybody involved can have the subtlest effects upon the final shape of a song. The way it happened on this album made the project another one of those things I have done in music that make me very glad that I did it. As the poet said "the past is another country I don't live there anymore" but then so is the future and I love traveling especially if I can go to the lilt of a song.
Jim Kelly in deep conversation with Phil Callery on the release of his new album, 'From the Edge of Memory', Reproduced by kind permission of the Irish Music magazine.