Interview with Anthony Toner
FT: You’ve a new record on the way. Tell me a little about it.
AT: This is the most upbeat and uptempo record I’ve recorded in a long time. Subject-wise, the last couple of records have examined themes of loss, inspired by my mother’s death and my father’s decline. So there have been lots of songs about childhood and memory. To be honest, I kicked back against that this time, and decided I wanted to write some happy songs, some love songs. Some stuff that I wanted to hear (hopefully) on the radio. So I worked harder than ever on arrangements. And I’m delighted that it features a ton of people who I admire and regard as really good friends and collaborators – so I have my first ever co-write on a record, a song called ‘A Wheel and an Open Road’, a duet with Matt McGinn, I also have backing vocals from Gareth Dunlop and Eilidh Patterson, bluesy guitar from Ronnie Greer, cello from Neil Martin, trumpet and sax from Linley Hamilton and Dave Howell – and a core band of John McCullough on piano and Hammond, Matt Weir on drums and percussion and Clive Culbertson on bass and vocals.
FT: What would you say your main influences were when writing this record?
AT: That’s always an interesting question – sometimes it’s very obvious, but in this case, I’m not so sure. Looking back, it never seems to have mattered – no matter how hard I try to ‘break new ground’, whatever I put out always seems to sound like me… When I listen to the songs, I hear the usual stew of songwriters I grew up with.
FT: Last year you worked with the poet Frank Ormsby and together released ‘The Kiss of Light’ record. Were you surprised by how well received it was?
AT: To be honest, I had no expectations at all from the album, other than it represented a couple of things I wanted to do. I wanted to celebrate Frank and his work, and I wanted to write some instrumentals, and write for other instruments. I’ve always been interested in soundtracks and I wanted to stretch myself in some way. I was delighted that so many people seemed to really enjoy it – I had told myself it would be a struggle for some listeners, but actually, people do appreciate hearing unexpected things every now and then.
FT: You also got to take it on tour together. How was that?
AT: It was fun – I loved the fact that audiences got to hear songs, poems, semi-classical pieces, stories, Irish airs arranged for solo cello, all in one evening… There was something we all enjoyed about those worlds coming together so easily. And we got the chance to be international artists wandering the streets of Paris and Brussels, and Bangor and Portstewart, of course. So what’s not to like? The personalities involved helped a lot – a shared enthusiasm for the project and a genuine respect for each other’s work.
FT: You regularly tour the UK and Ireland with Barbara Dickson. How did that working relationship begin?
AT: I’d been a fan of Barbara’s since the ‘Two Ronnies’ days – and I was always aware there was more to Barbara than ‘I Know Him So Well’. I knew there were very deep roots in the folk world before Top of the Pops and the West End shows, and so on. Anyway, Barbara was coming over for some Irish dates about four years ago, and her promoter suggested she should use a local artist as support act. I heard that the promoter had sent her videos and links to three artists, and I was the one she chose (and no – I never asked who the other two were). Almost immediately, we hit it off and have remained friends since. Getting on with someone, temperament-wise, is often just as important as the musical connection, and her touring group – pianist, sound engineer, etc – are just a sweet group of people. And it’s a chance for me to get out and play to new audiences of four or five hundred people a night in… Bury St Edmunds, Sheffield, etc.
FT: Back in 2017 you sold out Belfast’s Lyric theatre for the “Ink” record launch. Was that a personal highlight in your career?
AT: Of course… That was a major milestone for me. It’s such a beautiful venue to play, in terms of sound, atmosphere, audience interaction. I had an idea that in partnership with David Hull Promotions, we could pull a respectable audience, having a new album and special guests etc. But to actually sell it out seemed like an impossibility for me, I couldn’t believe it.
FT: No doubt you’ll be touring to promote the new record. In what venues can we expect to see you in 2019?
FT: I’ve been lucky to get positive responses from just about every venue I approached this time, so at the minute there are something like 23 dates and a couple more to come in. And that feels good – I’ve worked hard to build audiences from Enniskillen to Portstewart, and it’s important to me that I keep working and connecting. Getting out there and playing live still feels like the best way to do that. So all the current dates are on my website.
Anthony will officially launch “Our Lady of the Wind and Rain” in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre on the 17th of February.