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The Last Of The Troubadours – A Conversation With Freddie White

Freddie-in-concert

Freddie White has been around the Irish music scene through every peak and drop it has seen. As we swept through punk, rock, disco, techno and all the rest, he has kept constant with his own brand of acoustic blues/jazz/folk and all the rest barring trad, staying true to his style. Back in Ireland from his current residence in Australia, I caught up with him and his equally talented wife Trish Hickey ahead of their sold out gig in The Mill Theatre in Dundrum in April.

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IrishNewsReview: So Freddie, firstly let’s talk Australia and emigration. What prompted the big move?

Freddie White: Well I’ve actually left twice now, first time in the early nineties to the States, just at the tail end of the last recession before this one. It was fairly tough all over, in small towns and every county in Ireland. I’d go to a place that used to be packed with 100 people for a gig and the owner would be telling me that 80 of them were gone, got the boat. The States was the place to go at that time, they were handing out Morrison Visas and Donnelly Visas, so we applied and went to live over there. We came back in 2004 and I think the reason for that mostly was because my first two records had been re-released as “Lost And Found”, which is actually not available physically anymore, only via download, and people seemed to warm to them, so I said I’d pop back and see how the gigging would go, so that brought me back to Ireland between emigrations I suppose.

INR: My copy of “Lost And Found”is a collector’s item now so! You’re back now for a few weeks of a tour, how do you find the culture in Ireland at the moment towards music? Is the interest in live performance still there?

FW: Well from my own perspective I’ve probably come back too soon. On this tour I’ve played some venues with some empty seats alright, and being back over so soon since I last was could be something to do with that, but then tonight in the Mill Theatre is sold out which is great, and there’s been plenty of sell outs over the last few years. But I suppose times are hard and everybody’s suffering a bit you know?

INR: It does seem to be a regional thing too though, in the sense that it’s usually doable to sell out gigs in Dublin with the variety of people around and the accessibility etc.

FW: Yeah I know what you mean, that’s probably playing a part in it too.

INR: So the new album (“Better Days”) has come along, and for the first time ever you’ve brought out an album of entirely original compositions. Was that a conscious decision?

FW: Yeah definitely. I started writing about January last year (2013) and started getting good traction you know, the songs kept coming. I nearly always have a little bit of doubt about songs when I write them but these ones seemed to really stick so I was very pleased. Then I had that one recording I wanted to redo, “Down Without A Fight”, so that went in there too. All in all I think it’s a pretty good collection.

INR: Absolutely, and from a few listens I’m quite a fan. From the perspective of your own style, when singer/songwriters back in the seventies and eighties in Ireland seemed to be Christy Moore and not much else, how in God’s name did you end up listening to and playing Hoagy Carmichael and Tom Waits?

FW: (Laughs) I was never a ballad singer…  I grew up in a house where my father played classical piano, my mother sang things from John McCormack to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.  My older brother was in a skiffle group in the 50s and three older sisters who spent their teenage years screaming at the radio to Elvis… Not a sniff of Irish trad in that lot!  Then I met up with Jimmy McCarthy in 1st year secondary school and we formed a band called Beathoven!! Then later a band called The Krux heavily influenced by Cream and Jimi Hendrix, with me as the lead guitarist.  This lead to all the earlier Delta and Chicago blues guys. Then I started playing acoustic a little more and started going along to a folk club in Cork called Dr. John’s and I’d get up and play a few songs. Myself and a few friends who were all into folk would start meeting up and we’d play folk, sea shanties in the style of the Press Gang.  But always I came back to what is called “Americana” I suppose.  Mainly through listening to the great guitar players and songwriters from the U.S.

INR: It is a strange genre you’ve found yourself within because singer/songwriters generally tend to bring about a more stripped down performance whereas you do the opposite with the intricacies in the guitar playing, which seems to come from you covering songs that are very musically complex. Is this intentional?

FW:  I am first attracted to a song by the overall vibe … or heart …soul.  Basically the believability…if there is such a word. Then the music – and yes I am attracted to something that’s a bit out of the mainstream – a la Randy Newman for sure,  he would be number one on my list.

INR: So on a totally opposite topic to the new album being entirely original, you’re obviously famous for some of your covers particularly “Martha”.

FW: Yes, when I started it was all covers, even though I did write songs as a teenager, it all started in 1974 when I moved to Dublin and I started playing with Sonny Condell and Phillip King, out of which came the band Scullion. But when I was gigging solo I just played songs I liked, songs I wanted to play. It didn’t hurt that I was covering people that weren’t very well known at the time, people like Guy Clarke, Randy Newman, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. And people just came to see me, and all I could say was why fix it if it ain’t broken?

INR: Absolutely. And you’ve never had a problem where, whilst praise for performance is one thing, has it been an issue that you’re being praised for other people’s songs?

FW: It was always an issue really to be honest. For starters I made no money from royalties! So I suppose it would have been a lot smarter for my career to write a bit more.

INR: Very true, but from a personal perspective did it bother you to be praised for other artist’s work?

FW: Every now and then it would yeah, and that would spur me on two write a bit more. I did of course do one other album of originals based on the poetry of my late brother in-law Don O’Sullivan called “My Country”. It’s mainly all his words that I adapted to music then. But I did very little apart from that, until now.

INR: There has been some originals spread throughout your albums though, one particular favourite of mine is “Life After Love” from “Four Days In May”, and listening to it I could only think “Why isn’t he writing more?”

FW: Well I am now! (Laughs). And the plan is to keep at it now that I have the full album under my belt.

INR: This is a more personal question for myself as I’m a huge fan of his, but is there a certain resonance with Tom Waits for yourself? I know Randy Newman probably ranks higher but there seems to be a connection with yourself to Waits?

FW: More so Newman and John Hiatt would have stronger impacts on me I think. It’s maybe more coincidence that I’ve covered a number of Tom Waits songs, they just appealed to me at the time, and obviously “Martha” went on to become one of the songs I’m most associated with.

INR: Technology, you seem to be embracing it to a degree with the website, Twitter and Facebook pages, your music is on Spotify etc.

FW: I don’t really to be honest, it’s just the way things are done today. I use a crowd called CD Baby, they take my music and distribute it to Spotify, iTunes etc. and then I get a list back of the royalties I’m entitled to.

INR: So in Australia you’re keeping busy within the music scene there.

FW: A little bit yeah

INR: Are you finding a cultural difference in their attitude to music and live shows there?

FW: There’s a difference, but not much. I find once I get into a room and play the reaction is much the same no matter where I go. But I don’t play the sort of noisy pub gigs, which there is a temptation to do over there. It’s something I could do, but I’d rather not.

INR: When it comes to the type of song you choose to cover, I could be completely off track here, but there seems to be a running theme lyrically to a lot of them, such as “Martha”, “Long Distance Love” and “Marie” that they’re mainly songs about lost love?

FW: Lyrics are probably one of the least things that attract me to songs! That said I wouldn’t necessarily cover a song unless the lyrics did resonate with me in someway, but it’s music first always, interesting music, which I think all of those examples have and nearly all the songs I do are interesting or challenging to play and interpret.

INR: That’s quite interesting in itself because there certainly is a constant theme lyrically throughout your songs, but that’s all coincidential?

FW: Well it’s just that I wouldn’t identify with lyrics, but they will resonate with people listening to them. And then I do songs that don’t resonate with people, the Zappa songs and “The Torture Never Stops”, a lot of the time that one gets greeted with “Why the f**k did you sing that!”

INR: “In Germany Before The War” is one of that ilk that always stood out for me.

FW: That one freaks out a lot of people too. A lot of people will say don’t do that song!

INR: Indeed, there’s a lot of awkward shuffling in a theatre when you’re playing that one. But it is a very ballsy song that takes a nerve to play it live.

FW: And it’s beautiful musically too, again that was my main draw, before I even realised what I was singing about you know? (Laughs)

INR: I’m afraid we’re into the tabloid portion of the interview now Freddie.

FW: Oh yeah?

INR: Afraid so. Desert island, one song to sing for the rest of your time there, what is it?

FW: I don’t think it would be “Martha” anyway, even though for the later part of my life I’ve been singing it more than anything else!

INR: I have to laugh actually at your gigs when you open the floor for requests and everyone calls for “Martha” even thought if one song is guaranteed in your setlist it’s that one.

FW: I did a gig in Cork a few weeks ago, everyone was half pissed and I sang it. Then about three songs later someone in the crowd shouts “Martha!!”

At this point Trish kindly brought us back on track with the questions!

Trish Hickey: So what would you sing if you had to pick one?

FW: Ah this question is a hard one! I’m enjoying my own songs now more than I ever have, so probably one of them. But I’d never let myself be limited to one.

INR: That was a bit of a nasty one I suppose! If you could take one movie?

FW: L.A Confidential or The Godfather I would say. Or The Sopranos box set.

TH: Not The Wire?

FW: No I’d say I prefer The Sopranos, more laugh out loud moments

INR: I’m afraid I haven’t seen either…

Once Freddie and Trish had picked their jaws up from the floor I explained that I chose to watch Breaking Bad instead, think I earned back some brownie points there.

INR: One book?

FW: I read novels mainly. I have a friend who’s big into James Joyce and trying to get me to read Ulysses,  I still can’t figure it out! I’m reading Hillary Mantel at the moment, her book  “Bring Up The Dead”, I’m enjoying it a lot so probably that one. Particularly when it’s close to the fact based I really like historical fiction.

INR: I don’t doubt the answer would have been the same anyway, but with Trish here the answer is obvious, who are you bringing to this desert island?

FW: There is only one (Motions toward Trish with a grin)

TH: I’d be third to be honest, there’d be the guitar, the dog and then me! (Laughs)

INR: Finally then, any Irish bands or artists catching your attention these days?

FW: We went to see Villagers and I like them and their frontman Conor O’Brien, I think he’s really interesting. And of course my good friend Albert Niland, superb singer and guitarist and writer..

INR: Excellent, thanks very much both of you for your time

FW: No problem

———

And with that I made a quite frankly awful attempt to pay for a glass of wine (next one is certainly on me guys) and I was on my way. The gig that night was excellent as usual, and a few weeks later Freddie and Trish jetted off for the Australian sun once more. But he’ll be back, have no doubt about that.

Visit freddiewhite.com for info on tours, updates and to purchase albums and singles.

 Image courtesy of tipptatler.ie

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