Interview with Moya Brennan

It's not easy to catch up with musicians in 2020 but we were lucky to be invited into the home of Clannad legend Moya Brennan for a chat.

Moya Brennan has been the voice and face of Clannad for 50 years. With the band’s farewell world tour on hiatus due to the pandemic, Moya invited Folk and Tumble into her Donegal home to discuss the highs and lows of the music industry, in a career that has seen the band awarded Grammys and Emmys, selling millions of albums, and become one of Ireland's most successful musical exports.

FT: The COVID pandemic has had such a huge effect worldwide and everyday life has changed for us all. The music industry has been badly hit, with gigs being a major casualty, and the knock-on effect for artists and so many others behind the scenes, lighting, sound engineers, venue staff, roadies, etc. Clannad was particularly caught short at lockdown too?

MB: We had just started our 50th anniversary and farewell world tour at the end of February, and it definitely is our farewell tour. The night before lockdown we had played Bournemouth, and the next night, we were due to play the London Palladium. It’s a venue we had played several times before but sadly wasn’t to be.

We started the tour at the end of February in Belfast, and it was great to have an Ulster gig to kick it off, and it was a great night.  We normally have a guest to start the gig, but we decided after 50 years, we have so much music, and 19 albums so you want to give the people what they want. BMG wanted to put out an anthology, so initially, we had 70 songs that had to be trimmed down, and that helped us focus on the programme for the show.

We do two parts to the gig, and it’s fairly packed, to be honest. Because, if you gonna do a concert, you might as will do it well, and give the people what they want.

It’s nostalgic for us as well. You know we been together for 50 years because we are a family and that’s what’s kept us together. We never broke up. We stopped for a while, and then we got on again. But we thought, rather than let the whole thing get tired, let’s do this, So we decided to do one last round, and we’re are all very happy with that decision. We’re really telling our fans that this is the final hurrah

It’s amazing that people who have never seen us, are coming to see us this time around, as well as people who have seen us loads of times, and they’re nearly in tears.  We might do the odd fundraiser or one-off gig, but this is the last tour. We noticed, just before lockdown, there were just a few more empty seats, people were wearing masks, it was beginning to get a little uncomfortable, or strange perhaps. The whole tour had been sold out, but we started to notice spaces in the audience.

The 16th was in Bournemouth, and the next day was going to be The London Palladium on St. Paddy’s day. We were so looking forward to it, but it was the right thing to do. What the agency has done is postpone everything for a year, all the dates are now 2021, instead of 2020, but still, nobody really knows. It’s dodgy grounds at the moment.

I have an underlying lung problem (pulmonary fibrosis) and basically, if you don’t look after it, you can go quite quickly. I look after myself, with a good diet, no sugar, and cutting down on grains and bread. I’ve had it three years now, but with COVID, it goes straight for the lungs, I don’t know how long I would survive. We had to stop the meet and greet events because of it. It’s sad, everybody is in the same boat, in the entertainment business, along with the crews and the backstage people who are really suffering at the moment. No concert would happen without their support, and they are really suffering now with no work.

FT: The magical Clannad sound emerged from a little folk band in the middle of Donegal. Around the time of ‘Magical Ring’, the “Clannad Sound” really began to emerge. Was that an organic move or how did it develop?

MB: We started off in my dad’s pub, just down the road from here, in 1968, for us, the stage in the playground.  And we really played just for the love of it.  Our sound was always a little bit different from other bands. Sometimes revolving totally around our voices. We were different. We won The Letterkenny Festival back in 1970, which was huge, and the prize was recording an album for Philips. Now to be honest they weren’t that keen at the time on recording a band singing purely in Irish.  It took them 3 years to record the first album. We recorded a Mick Hanley song in 1973 for the national song contest, and that got us some publicity and a bit of buzz. Philips then kinda thought, we have an album on option with this band!

FT: It’s strange that when the band sang in Irish, you were criticised, and then when ‘Harry’s Game’ broke you were criticised for singing in English.

MB:  That’s true! We were touring in Europe, in Germany in particular, and doing really well there, but playing Ireland, it was hard to get gigs at that time. The landlord would say, “would you play something in English?”. We were really kept going by what was happening in Germany, where they didn’t mind that we weren’t singing in English. The previous album before ‘Magical Ring’ was ‘Fuaim’, and by chance, Gerald Seymour, who wrote ‘Harry’s Game’ came across it and liked what he heard. We were very much a cultural band. We were never a political band, and we kinda liked the story of ‘Harry’s Game’. Nobody wins in war.

FT: The band won Grammys, Emmys, and an Ivor Novello Award, selling millions of albums all over the world, and yet life at the top wasn’t always that sweet.

MB:  It was a fantastic time, and we had a tremendous experience travelling the world and meeting incredible people but it did have its downside too. Just because we were a “folk” band, don’t think for a minute that we didn’t come up against all the evils of drink, drugs, and rock and roll, and that was everywhere. When we were touring Germany, we weren’t well off, so we were staying in cheap bed and breakfasts or sleeping on people’s floors, and they would have a big party for us. The next night, it was a different set of people, but the same big party and this went on for night after night.

You’d wake up the next night, and say, “I’m never doing that again”. But, the next night, you’d be in another party and it was just so easy to get on that roller coaster of excess, and of course, there were drugs there.

Lucky enough for me, I got scared. I had been offered a lot of different things, and it scared me.  The two things I did do were smoking cannabis and cocaine. But I never really went out looking it. It was a kinda social thing. People would give you a line at a party but it was creeping in and I was drinking a lot. So I kinda really lost myself.

On the outside, people would be saying, “she’s great craic”, and she’s always happy, but when you wake up in the morning by yourself, and you think, or you wake up with somebody and you don’t know his name. That was happening as well. I was in a bad way but it was well hidden. When I did write the book, even my sisters came to me and said, we had no idea how bad things were, and how much I had been hiding.

FT: Your autobiography is a fascinating and at times very difficult read. You talk about having to go to England for a secret termination as a lone young woman. How hard was it to open up publicly and tell your story given the conservative nature of the country? Were you worried about how you would be seen?

MB: I initially didn’t want to write the book. I got into faith first, but I was scared, because that was the life I wanted to leave behind at that stage. I was scared because I didn’t want to hurt my family, particularly my parents. I’d had a bad marriage and I thought, do I really want to bring it out?

But if you want to write about your life, you have to be honest. Tim [husband] was very much part of the decision to write the book, because he was, and is, very much part of where I was and where I am now. I spoke to my parents and told them what was going to be in the book. They asked me, do you have to put that in, and I said, if I’m going to do a book, the reason I do it, is if it helps one or two people.

That’s the reason I would do it. Letters arrived after the book was published, thanking me for my honesty, and that helped my parents. People didn’t know how to reach me, so they sent letters to the pub. They were embarrassed by it initially, but they saw the benefit that others found in it too.

FT: It’s an incredibly moving piece of writing, and so honest. Was it a happy coincidence that a time when you sought a renewal in faith that you met Tim?

MB: Oh it was amazing. Before I met Tim, I had come to the conclusion that I had to clean my act up but that didn’t happen overnight. I was praying. I found renewed strength in my faith. I had made a mess of my first marriage and I was accepting that I had made my bed and I was perfectly willing to lie in it. I really didn’t expect to find a great man, a guy who had faith and encouraged my faith, and it took a good part of three years of us coming together and learning about each other. He was brought up a conservative Methodist in England and I was a Catholic from Donegal so we had a lot of learning to do.

Tim came here to Donegal He came to do a photoshoot with Alan Jackson for NME. He fell in love with Donegal and me, and I didn’t realise, but I had fallen in love with him too. It certainly was far removed from what I thought would happen to me. But it certainly had a lot to do with me coming to terms with my faith, and looking into it a bit deeper. With writing the book, it cleared a lot of cobwebs away and really was quite cathartic. It really helped me move on with my life. When I wake up now, I’m not afraid anymore, I know I’m not by myself. So I take anything on.

FT: You have achieved so much through music, but you have given so much back as well, including your work with charity.

MB: Well I’m involved with a great charity called the Christian Blind Mission, which does amazing work all over the world, particularly in Africa. It’s truly inspiring the work that they do. I did a “Concert in the Dark” last year, in Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, to raise awareness and funds and that was fantastic. We put the show on with Patrick Bergin, The African Choir, Finbarr Furey, Paul Byrne, all singing or performing in the dark. Your senses were devoid of other stimuli and you just felt the presence of the artist and focused totally on the sounds. It was such an experience, and I’ll do it again next year hopefully

FT:  On top of your work with The Christian Blind Mission, you have developed an amazing platform for the young people and artists in Donegal through Clubeo in Leo’s Tavern on a Friday night.

MB:  I noticed so many young people and artists around the area, and nowhere for them to perform. I don’t know if Clannad would have existed if we hadn’t had the stage to practice on. You need that experience of being on stage. Seven years ago we said let’s try an open stage for the young people, in Leo’s on a Friday. I have been to open stages before and the problem I saw with them was, if there were 10 people going on stage, by the end of the night, the last person going on stage, only his friends and relatives were left.

So I thought it would be nice to have a professional act at the end of the night to keep people around. It’s always a good name, sometimes a big name too. And it varies in the genre of music; folk, singer/songwriter, rock, or Cajun, and every 3 or 4 months, I’ll call in a favour, and ask the likes of Damien Dempsey, or Brian Kennedy, Duke Special, or The Henry Girls to perform. When I told Phil Coulter about it, he said, “I wanna come”.

There’s no fee for the artists! They get a nice meal and put up for the night, but they do it as a favour. We break even. There’s no fee on the door either. And it’s important for these kids to see that, and share a stage with these artists.

FT: It lovely that you are putting so much back into your own community.

MB: Ah, sure it’s my dad’s pub! He always treated people the same. No one was treated any differently. We had a man call in every Sunday, “An fear an Cola” we called him, and he would sit all night over the one glass of cola, hence the name, and my dad would have as much time for him, as for John Hume, or John Hurt, and we get a lot of characters here now.

I think I have some of his nature. I hope I have. You know there’s a picture over the stage of my dad, made up of little pictures of Clannad, and I look up at the picture, and I feel it’s all good. Clubeo is still going – not now obviously with COVID – but as soon as we can, it will be back up and running.

FT:  It’s obviously such a hard time for artists at the moment but can I ask what’s next for Moya Brennan?

MB:  Well, as chance would have I go back down to Dublin tomorrow morning to start work on a new solo album!

FT: Moya, we look forward to the fruits of your labour with the album. Thank you so much for your lovely hospitality and for taking the time to talk to Folk and Tumble, it’s been a real treat.

MB: Thank you. It’s been lovely.