Murray Leith & Jo Laing
THIS month, we talk to the well-known Irish musician, who lives and works in Glasgow, Karl Byrne (above). From Ireland to Glasgow to Santa Ponsa, we get an insight into his musical journey so far.
You’re an Irishman currently living and playing in Glasgow. How would you describe the differences between the Scottish and Irish music scenes?
When I left Ireland in 1996, the Irish music scene was vibrant and almost every pub in Dublin hosted live musicians seven nights a week. There was no shortage of work and—as a young musician starting out—it was a great platform to cut your teeth on, as it were. I stayed in Tenerife for almost two years and heard that the music scene at home had begun to wane. I moved to Glasgow and found a vibrant and flourishing Irish music scene. There were many Irish students at university in the city and so there was plenty of custom for these establishments. I was quickly enrolled as one of the Irish musicians performing around Glasgow and have made it my home.
What first got you into music? Who or what inspired you?
Both my parents were amateur singers and my mum sang in local competitions when I was growing up. My grandmother was also a chorus-line dancer in Dublin’s Sunshine Girls Troupe. I guess being brought up in a time before the internet and Zoom parties helped to form my interest in music and song. Christmases, birthdays and other special occasions would usually culminate in a family gathering in someone’s house and singing would be the adopted form of entertainment. Every family member had their own particular party-piece and everyone took their turn. My debut came at the tender age of four when I could belt out Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy much to my family’s delight. From that point, I was hooked.
Who would you most like to collaborate with on a live stage?
If I had the chance to collaborate with anyone on stage it would have to be Christy Moore. I have been very fortunate over the years to have met and performed with some very talented balladeers and musicians, but Christy inspired me and has influenced my style of play, performance and indeed my understanding of how cathartic music can be.
If you could turn the clock back is there anything you would change? If so, what would it be?
If I could turn the clock back and change anything, I would probably have learned to play an instrument earlier than I did at the age of 20. All I ever wanted to do from a young age was to sing for a living and, thankfully, I have been able to do that.
What was the best advice you’ve been given or would give a new musician?
I suppose the best advice I was given was to enjoy every performance, as the artist’s enjoyment permeates their audience. I would offer the same advice to new musicians, as long as you have one person listening, you’re achieving a bond and creating a sense of escapism, even for a few minutes. It’s important to understand that music and song feeds the creativity in all of us.
What have been your favourite venues to perform at and why?
I would say there a few venues that have become favourites. Returning to Dublin to play The Button Factory in 2016 for the Easter Rising Centenary celebrations was an extremely emotional homecoming for me and an honour to be a part of. I have had long-term residencies in two pubs in Glasgow, which have become the catalysts for my journey in music. I played for 13 years in Jinty McGuinty’s in Ashton Lane and The Tollbooth Bar on the Saltmarket for the last 12 years. These two bars have shaped both my musical development and helped me to immerse myself in my adopted home of Glasgow.
In addition to these, I cannot leave out a venue I have played in for 11 years every summer—The Celtwell in Santa Ponsa. This pub has been fantastic both for myself and my family. We have enjoyed our summers out there. My son loves his dad working in Spain as he gets to spend his entire school holidays there and we have also made life-long friends there. I am currently writing a book about my first 10 years out there.
There’s a venue in Glasgow that all musicians dream of getting to grace its stage though. The Barrowlands Ballroom is the Mecca for musicians all over the world. There’s almost an unwritten rule that once you’ve played there, you’ve been accepted by its patrons. Finally, in 2016, I got the nod. Jim Scanlon from Charlie and The Bhoys invited me to join the line-up for the 1916 Easter Rising Centenary gig. I cannot explain the sense of pride and belonging I felt when I stepped out on to its hallowed stage to be greeted by the inimitable Glasgow audience. Thankfully, I have had the opportunity to do this twice more since, so I must have been okay.
Lastly, playing in Stuttgart in front of 19,000 people in support for Andrea Berg has to be one of the ultimate experiences for a singer. The adrenaline rush when you can command such a crowd to join with you in unison is immense and an unforgettable experience.
How do you feel the Internet has impacted the music business?
We could look at the internet’s impact on the music business both negatively and positively I suppose. The structure of having to place our music through various platforms for distribution with miniscule returns from some of these, makes it difficult for most aspiring musicians to earn a living from downloads. On the plus side, the internet has allowed us to maintain a modicum of contact with our audiences throughout the lockdowns via live streaming. This has certainly made these difficult times a little easier to bear knowing I can still entertain and take someone’s mind off their own troubles for a short period of time.
I must also add that the internet has allowed musicians around the world to come together during these lockdowns. We are all feeling the same sense of anonymity, questioning our lost place in a society which no longer functions as we once knew it. One of the numerous social media pages structured to keep us going has been Glasgow Irish Bands and Gigs. The guys behind this concept have managed to encourage musicians to develop new mediums for performance, realise that we are needed and are an integral part of people’s social interaction. They have also succeeded in creating a new support network for fellow musicians. New friendships have been formed, collaborations have been created across the Atlantic and the world of music—via social media—has united performers and listeners alike to continue to enjoy Irish music and culture.
You have come into the Glasgow Irish scene with Live Gigs during lockdown how have you found that?
I have been treading the boards in Glasgow now for 24 years and would like to think that I would be considered an integral part of the Irish music scene here. The lockdown has been extremely difficult for everyone involved in hospitality, but I think performers have been particularly affected—both mentally and financially. Venues have been grateful for the continued support of their resident musicians who have streamed live from their pages in order to maintain the venue’s profiles as well as their own.
What is the most useless talent you have?
My most useless talent would possibly be that I can run backwards at quite a pace. That’s great when you’re six years old in the park with your friends, but not very handy for a 51-year-old singer.
What are your plans for the future?
Hopefully we will see an end to the lockdowns, illness and the unfortunate loss of lives through this horrible pandemic. I would like to get back to work, singing, entertaining and having fun with people as soon as is humanly possible.
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