ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON APRIL 22, 1983
By Steve Newton
His ability to tell captivating stories and to combine lyrical and musical nuances with easy effectiveness is what sets Ireland’s Chris de Burgh apart from a lot of today’s pop singer-songwriters.
On his latest album, The Getaway, De burgh weaves enchanting tales of destiny, revolt, peace, and love with words that reach out to the head, heart, and soul. One such song is the mysterious “Don’t Pay the Ferryman”, the album’s first single, which tells of a man on the run and his predestined ordeal with the sinister operator of a ferryboat.
De burgh’s vivid description of the scene gives the confrontation ominous overtones, and allows the listener to draw his own conclusions about the characters and their conflict. And as he confides in the following interview, that is precisely what Chris de Burgh aims at in his writing–to create stories that can be viewed in various shades of meaning.
I spoke to De burgh just prior to last Monday’s concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
On your latest album the songs “Light a Fire” and “Liberty” seem to me to be comments on Argentina’s claims to the Falkland Islands.
You know, that is a really interesting remark, because what I like to do in a song is to present a picture that individuals ’round the world can put their own meaning to. For example in Ireland, where I live, they think it’s about Ireland and getting rid of the British, and in Poland where this record’s very popular they think it’s an anti-Rssian song.
And it pleases me immensely because this is very much what I like to do. I don’t like to aim at the specific, because then you are excluding a lot of people by being specific about a particular place or event. But when you say a broad thing like that song, where I wanted to make it like it was a film, you can apply it to the Irish Revolution, to the 1798 or the French Revolution. That kind of thing.
Did the war in the Falklands have any effect on your songwriting?
It did on one song. There is one song on that record in which the war in the Falklands obviously slipped into my subconscious, although it wasn’t the primary reason. Usually I write a song accidentally rather than saying I want to write about this or that. In the song “Borderline” there’s a line about the border guards that goes “…these are only boys, and I will never know how men can see the wisdom in a war…”
That was very much inspired by seeing the young boys coming back from the Falklands. It’s incredible how young they were–17, 18, 19, a lot of them. And they’re blind followers those lads. The older men are the leaders, but it’s always the young men who get sent out.
Did your travels as a child–when your father’s job in the British Diplomatic Corps took the family to places like Malta, Nigeria, and Zaire, and finally Ireland–help bring about an artistic awareness and desire to communicate with different peoples?
Sure it did. I think that the overriding thing is the knowledge that, if you do live in one place, you do get a very insular attitude and then you forget there are other countries out there. And I see that very strongly in Ireland.
Even my friends, who don’t travel very much, have such a false view of their own country and its importance. And this is one of the interesting things about my early traveling and my current touring. I get a much more universal picture of the world and the way that people are affected by the same thing.
And curiously enough, the places where my records are most popular are places where they do not speak English. I just had a number-one record in Germany with this album, The Getaway.
On the title track you sing “This is our world too,” in German and French, as well as English. Is that song part of a universal plea for peace?
It is. It’s an effort to just draw people’s attention–as if they needed it–to the fact that we are in fact one world. It’s a globe, there’s nowhere you can run to. You can’t leave, and it’s a responsibility for all of us to attempt to live together.
I understand you studied French and English at Trinity College in Dublin. Who were your favorite authors, and did any of them influence the lyric style that you possess today?
I would say that the poets would be Robert Browning and the Irish poet W.B. Yeats–I love both of them very much. And in literature I’d say Charles Dickens, and basically the classic English writers, are what I really got into. And the French ones would have been Baudelaire and Rimbaud, people like that.
And all of them have one thing in common, which is something that I’ve only recently discovered as I sort of listened to all my favorite people and thought, “Why do I like these people?” And the answer is because all of them present in their poetry and writing a story, a picture, a sense of history, and a sense of movement within the piece itself. With Charles Dickens, it’s like looking at a very very rich painting. And I love to get that kind of visual detail in a song.
What is the message behind “Don’t Pay the Ferryman”? What would happen if the character in that song did pay the ferryman?
That tune was purely an exercise for me in creating suspense and drama. The man is rushing towards his destiny. If he did pay the ferryman, the ferryman would cut his throat and throw him in the river.
He has to reach the other side; this is his own particular destiny in life. And the final temptation is to give his money to the ferryman. It’s just a man being put under pressure, and at the last minute just as he is about to give in and pay the ferryman, he hears the voice coming from the other side saying, “Whatever you do, don’t pay him.”
The Getaway was produced by Rupert Hine, who has worked with Robert Palmer and Saga. Was there anything special about his production work that made the new album different from the others you’ve recorded?
Yes. I can definitely say that there is a lot of difference. He is a man who understands the mortar and brick of building a track musically. There are more subtle and complex inter-rhythms in the new album than I’ve had on any others.
And we blended wonderfully together. I could get on with the bits that I’m good at, and he could get on with the bits that he’s good at. It made for a very strong connection.
How did you come to get Steve Negus of Saga to play drums on The Getaway?
Rupert had produced Saga’s albums, and he liked the way Steve drummed and thought he would work very well with my records–which he did, on the tracks he played on.
Are the musicians who played on The Getaway the same ones that you’re touring with?
No, I have my regular band–the four Canadian boys and one American who played on the Eastern Wind album. On the new album I wanted to really go into the cream of the English session players. The bass player, John Giblin, played with Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins a lot, and Phil Palmer is one of the top guitarists in the country.
In my touring band there is Glenn Morrow on keyboards, Ian Kojima on saxophone, Al Marnie on bass, Jeff Phillips on drums, and Danny McBride on guitar. We’ve been playing together for about five years, and since we last played in Canada we’ve done over a hundred shows right around the world.
Which groups or artists are making big waves in the Irish music scene these days?
Well I suppose some of the best-known have been in the past–Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy, U2, and the Boomtown Rats–but nothing really since.
One of the real problems is that the English market, being so close, is the one that everybody wants to get into. And it’s very hard. If you don’t have a hit record in three weeks, they throw your single away, whereas everywhere else they give it a decent chance to break. And it makes people very short-term in their attitudes, which in the long term makes record companies have a lot of problems in building acts.
To hear the full audio of the interview I did with Chris de Burgh the following year, in June of 1984, subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 350 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:
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