One of the many memorable passages in Johnny Marr’s recent autobiography, ‘Set The Boy Free’, recalls a visit the author made to Matt Johnson’s London flat in 1982, back when he was still in his teens and his band, The Smiths, had recorded what would become it’s first single, ‘Hand In Glove’. Johnson was a couple of years older, just twenty-one, but had already signed a significant deal with a major label and, writing and recording as The The, had released two fine singles. The pair had crossed paths in Manchester the previous year and had formed a fledgling friendship.
Johnson’s girlfriend, Fiona, answered the door. ‘She showed me into the flat’, Marr writes, ‘where Matt was crouched on the floor, wearing headphones surrounded by equipment that was strewn all over the carpet. A Casio keyboard and a black Fender Strat and drum machine were all plugged into a little four-track cassette recorder, and there was an electronic autoharp lying around and some microphones, one of which was plugged into an echo pedal. I hadn’t seen anyone working this way before. It struck me as incredibly modern and innovative’.
And to an ambitious but wide-eyed young musician taking his cues from a pointedly traditional view of the industry, basic home recording might well have looked peculiar. Because even allowing for the legend of Brian Wilson’s ability to record his own group, The Beach Boys, using sophisticated techniques on unsophisticated machinery as far back as the mid-1960s, self-sufficiency was still largely regarded as a delinquent form. And while Johnny Marr was having his head turned and his eyes opened in Matt Johnson’s flat, Duran Duran were busy pressing the flesh in support of ‘Rio’, the record that, in terms of the hoopla that surrounded it, become yet another by-word for industry excess. Another snapshot from a period during which record companies couldn’t spend quickly or recklessly enough, both inside the studio and outside on the tiles.
But while it took many years for the process and the technology to fully develop into the commonplace, the core conceit behind home-recording – doing it, literally, for yourself – was marking another important line in the sand for the music industry. Removing, as it could, many of the impediments – some of them fanciful – that surrounded the recording process and making it far more democratic, in theory at least.
Reading those paragraphs in ‘Set The Boy Free’ I thought, rightly or wrongly, of Joe Chester, the Dublin-born musician and songwriter whose most recent album, ‘The Easter Vigil’, has just been released and who, on any given day or project, can work as sustainably or efficiently as the best of them. His five solo albums – and they are, to all intents, entirely solo projects wherein our hero takes on the bulk of the creative lifting – are but one aspect of a wide and varied career spent as a musician, writer, producer and collaborator. Joe has long been as comfortable working alone as he is as part of a broader group ;- I first saw him in action many years back as one of Sunbear, an angular guitar band that regularly lit up many a dank evening in the belly of The Rock Garden in Temple Bar during the early 1990s. Someone who, depending on circumstance and mood, can pare it right back to the muscle too, as is certainly the case on ‘The Easter Vigil’.
Interestingly enough, my own copy arrived in the post after I bought it on-line from a record label based in Dublin 3, never previously regarded as a stronghold within the international music industry. Eight songs long, and softer and more spartan than much of Joe’s previous output, ‘The Easter Vigil’ is simply another chapter in a body of work that’s as impressive as that by any contemporary Irish artist. And the fact that he remains, outside of a small coterie of anoraks, fans and friends, a largely acquired taste, only adds to his lustre, of course.
Tall, thin and unlikely, he trades in uncomplicated, blue-chip songs that borrow their strokes from the best in show. His first album, ‘A Murder Of Crows’, for instance, features both Gemma Hayes on harmony vocals and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Bleed To Love Her’ that, by so doing, pretty fairly reflects the crease into which he pitches. In every conceivable respect, he’s as far from Duran Duran as it’s possible to get.
I met Joe once, very briefly, back when I was producing a tidy music television series for tweens called ‘Eye2Eye’ and onto which we’d invited Gemma to play a short live set to an audience of forty twelve year olds and to answer some of their questions. And she was as decent and elegant as usual, unfussily accompanying herself on acoustic guitar while Joe, to her right, camera left, played her reluctant foil, buried deep in the half-light and uneasy anytime he was caught unwittingly in the glare. They populate each other’s work freely but even so, I was still struck by the ease with which they so instinctively sat in concert.
It’s a rare and remarkable gift, this, and one I’ve been fortunate enough to see close-up over the years in pairs as diverse as Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Conall and John from We Cut Corners and Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott. And that Friday afternoon we spent in Studio Two in Montrose was every bit as visceral as it was heart-lifting :- my abiding hope was that, beyond the smoke and mirrors of television, the performers’ alchemy had rubbed off on some of the kids and that they left the campus more rounded than when they entered.
I’d been turned onto ‘A Murder Of Crows’ the previous year by Tom Dunne, the Something Happens singer who, back in the mid-2000s, hosted an excellent early-evening music show on Today FM. And not only was he wearing the record to within an inch of it’s life but he was using the title track – with it’s chintzy keyboard swivel – as a regular ident throughout his programme. My wife and myself had recently become parents for the first time and, on those many evenings spent stuck in the slow torture along The Coast Road in Sandymount and over onto The East Link, Tom’s impeccable play-lists would help me home to Dublin 3 and back to the general gormlessness that tends to be family life for first-timers. And for many months thereafter, I’d drive my daughter to crèche in the mornings to the sweet, sweet sounds of ‘A Murder Of Crows’ ;- it became an unlikely soundtrack and vital mental support to life as a bewildered new parent.
I’ve kept a keen eye on Joe’s various activities in the years since. And, as our family increased in size along the way, so too did the ambition and the wonder of his records. And it’s been onwards, upwards and varied ever since ;- in between various stints working as a hired hand with Sinéad O’Connor and The Waterboys, or as a producer du jour for practically every Irish act worth it’s salt, Joe would infrequently fetch up and quietly leave out another essential calling card of his own.
And by any stretch, ‘The Tiny Pieces Left Behind’, ‘She Darks Me’ and ‘Hope Against Hope’ represent a formidable decade of work, carefully hand cut, delicately produced albums that wear their influences openly and boast their impacts clearly. Each of them made, for the most part, by one man and his help, working discreetly to small budgets, off-Broadway, cost-effectively and without the fanfare.
It’s been five busy, varied years since he last released a long-player and ‘The Easter Vigil’ finds Joe in a reflective and sombre humour ;- in part a concept album of soulful reflection and mature observation that, thematically, is back-dropped by the Easter tenets of sacrifice, re-birth and renewal.
To anyone with even the most passing interest in the emotional power of music, religion can often be a bountiful – if unlikely – source. The Easter Vigil itself is one of the staples of the Roman Catholic calendar and, as a drama, is a remarkable affair, big on pomp, staging and imagery. The single most important celebration within the Catholic faith, Easter’s third act sees Jesus Christ rise from the dead hours after crucifixion on a cross on Calvary on Good Friday. And as such, it has provided numerous writers and musicians with ample symbolic ammo over the centuries.
Even as a non-believer, I’ve long found the use of music during the Easter ceremonies to be particularly impactful and just as interesting as the narrative it supports ;- as with most great films or stage shows, the soundtrack bulwarks the storyline and delivers several key punctuations and sub-texts across a week of ceremonials. As of Holy Thursday night, for instance, all instruments are de-commissioned and put beyond use and all music, until the resurrection during The Easter Vigil on Easter Saturday night, is plain and unaccompanied. Good Friday ceremonies, like The Stations of The Cross, are stark and wistful, powerful performance pieces played out in churches that stay dark and unadorned until faith is restored after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. After which, in simple terms, normal service[s] resume.
And in several respects, Joe’s album endures a similar catharsis using the same sort of dramatic tension. Only in reverse. From the peppy opener that takes place on ‘Spy Wednesday’ to the magnificent closer, ‘I’m Not A Christian Anymore’, located on Easter Sunday, the record’s central figure concludes a passage from confident believer [‘I know that my Redeemer lives’] through self-doubt, uncertainty and onwards into disbelief. When, over the album’s concluding bars, Joe sings ;- ‘that night in the sleeping house of God, I was a phantom walking in the corridor. I was a Christian then, I’m not a Christian anymore’.
But it had all been so different back at the beginning, seven songs earlier. ‘Spy Wednesday’ has an innocent Waterboys feel – appropriately enough, it could sit easily on ‘A Pagan Place’ – that springs to its capstone off of a saxophone solo by Anthony Thistlethwaite. Another packing considerable Waterboys history, Steve Wickham, lends the violin and viola parts while cellist Vyvienne Long decorates the room with deeper tones throughout. Elsewhere, ‘Dark Mornings’ – a first-class graduate from the Matthew Sweet/Ryan Adams/Lyndsey Buckingham finishing school – is still the closest concession to the all-out, Cars-inspired finish that’s distinguished much of Joe’s previous work. And after that it’s just the magic of the soft hush ;- and it’s beautiful. Because for all of it’s allegory and bespoke references [‘the feast of Corpus Christi’, ‘Swastika Laundry’ and ‘the valley of tears’], Joe still finds the real wonder in the smaller, far less abstract moments.
The first single, ‘Juliette Walking In The Rain’ is about exactly that, a chance encounter with the French actress Juliette Binoche as she makes her way across Meeting House Square in Central Dublin. While for all the swagger on ‘Dark Mornings’, the song ultimately – and maybe invariably? – finds itself dissecting matters of the heart as Joe points out that he’s ‘just looking out the window, waiting for you to wake up’.
And that’s where his gift lies. The devil may indeed always lurk amidst the detail but it takes the confidence of a master to allow the magic flourish deep inside the quiet.