Kilburn singer-songwriter Sean Taylor told David Hennessy about his latest album, the moving funeral of his uncle Tony Birtill and when he was only a small child, seeing Donal Lunny play with everyone at the Fleadh in Finsbury Park.
Kilburn troubadour Sean Taylor has just returned from some gigs in the Netherlands when he chats to the Irish World.
Back on the road after some lean years for live musicians, he is looking forward to touring the UK with his acclaimed current album, The Beat Goes on.
The Beat Goes on was Mojo’s Americana album of the month. American Blues Scene said: “Sean Taylor is one of the UK’s most influential musicians of his generation and as close as we get to a Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan.”
Fatea Magazine said it was, “A romantic poet mix of Van and Jim Morrison.”
Folk London Magazine said it had, ‘Elements of Mark Knopfler, Dr John, Van Morrison and Tom Waits and his stylish, beautifully adept guitar playing, whose intrinsic musicality is perhaps most reminiscent of John Martyn.”
Sean told The Irish World he is delighted with the response to the album.
Sean said: “It’s been great.
“To get Mojo Americana album of the month- That’s hard to get. It’s very hard to get, and I’m an independent artist.
“I haven’t got any backing. It’s just me and I’ve built up some connections with people working tirelessly over two decades.
“I started when I was 17. I’m 38 now.
“This is definitely the most accessible album I’ve done.
“The last two records before were quite challenging to put it mildly.
“I’m glad I did them but they were difficult and this one is definitely more accessible.
“Hopefully the world doesn’t end before the gigs happen.”
The Beat Goes On covers the themes of love, beauty, hope and nature, and sets these in opposition to sadness, loss, fear, and hurt.
Lament for Dead and Nowhere To Hide were both written at the height of the Covid pandemic.
“Definitely there’s a couple of songs about COVID.
“Lament for Dead is a lament for all the people that died.
“Walking down to Westminster and seeing the remembrance wall with all the hearts and flowers was just heart breaking so that song very much came out of that.
“Same with Nowhere to Hide, that was also from COVID.
“But then a lot of the songs are trying to be optimistic.
“There’s a song called Better Days and Beat Goes On.
“Those two songs are very much about finding positivity in music and trying to find enjoyment in every moment you get the chance to perform and get a chance to hear music.
“I think in some ways COVID has made me enjoy gigging even more because it was such a nightmare when it all kicked off for everyone.
“It all just stopped.
“I was right in the middle of another tour.
“And I was thinking, ‘This is nothing’.
“Just a couple of days later, everything stopped and I had to rearrange everything.
“Initially I was freaking out and then when the dust settles, you try and find something to hold on to.
“The record I put out before this one was pretty dark.
“This is definitely a happier one.
“Some of it came from through COVID but some of the songs I’ve also worked on for a long time.
“The final song, the Heart of The Ocean, I worked on that for 15 years so that song finally made it.”
Why did that song take 15 years and why was this the time?
“I tried to finish it on loads of albums.
“I kept trying to push it and I find when I try and force writing, it doesn’t work for me.
“First it was a guitar song and then it was a piano song and then it was a guitar song.
“I was just constantly fiddling with little bits, moving bits here.
“I mean it was just really driving me mad.
“And then eventually it kind of settled and I made it a lot more simplistic than I was trying to go for before.
“And that worked, it definitely worked.
“That’s probably the longest I’ve taken for a song on an album.
“But there’s ideas I’ve got from when I was in my teens, so even longer.
“I’ve still kept everything. I’m a bit of a hoarder.
“I’m always looking through little notebooks and ideas and references.”
Was staying creative during the lockdown important for Sean? “It saved me completely.
“Creatively I have to confess I found it brilliant, but that’s just me.
“I quite enjoy writing in the darkness really.
“It’s just some weird thing.
“I’ve always found whenever there’s stuff going in my life which is difficult, it seems to just spur me to be creative.”
Having toured the world for almost two decades, Sean has an international audience and it was the sale of his music that sustained him in the difficult times.
Born in Kilburn to a mother from Navan, Sean says it was Irish music that inspired him from a very early age.
“My earliest recollection of being Irish was the Fleadh festival in Finsbury Park.
“It was Vince Power’s big thing.
“I got taken to that as a kid because my mum was working at it. I got taken to the first one when I was seven and I actually remember bits of that one.
“I remember seeing Mary Coughlan performing and The Pogues and there was one year I remember watching The Commitments just after the film had come out and seeing your man Andrew Strong backstage.
“I remember just walking around and hearing all of this music.
“I remember hearing all these Irish bands and seeing this one guy, who always stays with me, playing the bouzouki.
“I thought, ‘He’s playing with everyone. Why does that guy never leave the stage?’
“And I realized he’s Donal Lunny.
“I was watching him just play with everyone, Christy Moore, a whole bunch of people. It was a great time for Irish music then, just phenomenal acts.
“And that festival was incredible musically because I saw people like my hero for the first time, John Martyn.
“He’s one of my musical heroes.
“When I saw him the first time, I think he just knocked me over.
“And I remember seeing the last one, Dylan played it. Incredible. Ronnie Wood sat in with him.
“That was my first experience of Irishness really, that and growing up in Kilburn as well you know, the 80s and 90s it was still a very Irish area. Less so now.
“The first time I went away to Ireland was on holiday to Galway when I was about nine.
“I really loved that, fell in love with Salt Hill and all these places.
“And then I was taken back to mum’s family in County Meath at 14, 15 and that was very nice. That was very moving meeting people I’ve never met before.
“I was encouraged to drink Guinness,” he laughs.
“I was young but I did.”
“Skip forward about 10 years and then in 2009 I travelled to Dublin to record an album called Walk with Me with a guy called Trevor Hutchinson. He’s in Lunasa.
“Dublin completely knocked me over.
“I’ve been through Dublin lots of times on the way to playing gigs but it was great to spend two weeks in Dublin and see all the different cultural elements, the celebration of culture, the statue of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce.
“In England, we don’t really commemorate artists like that.
“Of all the records I have ever done, that’s probably the most enjoyable one because it just blew me away.
“It was Dublin, it was snowing, it was Christmas and it was really magical.
“Dublin’s a great city.
“I think Ireland is a fascinating country because for such a population, it’s got such a massive variety of people, accents but then also musical responses.
“There’s certain venues which are loud, the festival environment that I’ve experienced is much geared towards partying.
“Then I played the Monaghan Jazz and Blues Festival and they’ve got the acoustic room, which is a very serious listening audience.
“There’s a blues festival I play in Armagh. That was a completely different experience.
“I play a festival sometimes in Enniscorthy which is a beautiful little picturesque town but at night it’s incredibly wild and good fun, but it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and it really drags you along because it’s just wild.
“And I play a festival in Skibbereen, that was good fun.
“Ireland’s kind of extremities of character, personality, appreciation of culture and politics is quite incredible.
“For 4 million people, it’s quite staggering.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve had one experience of Ireland. I’ve had many and I’m sure every time I go there, it will be different.
“There’s so many different types of Ireland and Irishness.
“It’s a magical country, and I really love it.
“Ireland’s had a massive impact on me. It continues to. I’m glad about that.”
Originally from Navan, Sean’s mother came to Kilburn via Liverpool. Sean’s uncle Tony Birtill, who passed away last year, was a champion of the Irish language and a long serving board member of the Liverpool Irish Festival.
“The family went over to Liverpool first and then came to London.
“She worked for the London Irish Women’s Centre.
“My uncle Tony who has just passed away- Tony Birtill- taught Irish.
“He had a massive obituaries in The Guardian or whatnot.
“He wrote a book on the connection between Liverpool language and Irish language.
“He was a great person for when I went to Liverpool. He would show me the Irish pubs, the Irish culture and whatnot.
“And I played the Liverpool Irish festival via him.
“It was very important, Irishness, to him and my mum, it was a hugely important thing.
“I guess being Irish in the 80s and 70s was political as well.
“They impressed that on me as well.
“That was recently he passed away and I went to the funeral in Liverpool and that was incredibly moving. And incredibly Irish.
“It was Irish in the sense that it was people traveling over from Ireland. Beautiful, really beautiful.
“It was a beautiful send off in Liverpool. They had a band and they had the Irish music and it was in the Irish Centre.”
Sean mentions playing Liverpool Irish Festival. While he was there in 2014, he also did a special performance of You’ll Never Walk Alone for Liverpool FC Television.
Although he is a Liverpool fan, this was awkward as he is really more of a token supporter.
“That was a great thing to do. I was proud to do it. Do you know what? It’s weird. I’ve been telling this story at gigs for years and it’s true.
“When I was a kid, I used to play football from the age of seven to about 16 and I loved it. It was all I did.
“And the music came quite late. And then when I was 16, I went to Glastonbury Festival and in the space of three days, I lost all interest in football. It was just gone.
“I’m a Liverpool fan, but I don’t follow it.
“I remember when I played on Liverpool Football Club Television, I was so nervous if they asked me about the right back or something, I wouldn’t have a clue.
“I don’t follow it anymore.
“Football is a great game but you have got to know all the players and all these things.
“I’m a lapsed football fan.
“I think it’s probably the right word, ‘lapsed’.
“People say they’re lapsed Catholics, I think I’m a lapsed football fan.”
Sean is old enough to just about remember some great moments in Irish football history with Italia ’90 and USA ’94 being the first tournaments he can remember.
“My biggest memory of Ireland playing a World Cup was ’94 when Ray Houghton scored that goal against Italy.
“I remember watching that in bed. It was quite late. I was young.
“I jumped out of bed all excited. It was a great goal.”
What Irish music influences his work? “Definitely Van Morrison is a huge massive influence on me.
“I mean, incredible, that kind of Celtic soul. That’s just his own sound. I don’t know if anyone did that before him.
“I think this record, The Beat Goes On, it’s my Americana record.
“I was really writing a lot of blues my whole life and loved a lot of blues players, Rory Gallagher and whatnot but this one is much closer to Americana.
“And the Irishness is definitely in there, there’s a great saxophone player called Michael Buckley.
“He’s on the record and he’s from Dublin, plays with Glen Hansard, Mary Coughlan, and he’s got that great Celtic saxophone sound which I first heard in Moving Hearts.
“They had a great sax player.
“But Michael Buckley is the brother of Richie Buckley who was Van Morrison’s sax player for years.
“I made contact with him when I was in Dublin and he played on the record Walk with Me and then he is on this record and he’s just fantastic.”
Currently on a 30 date tour of the UK and Europe, what is it like to be back on the road? “For me personally, it’s just enjoying each show, every time I have an opportunity to sing, to stand on the stage and just do what for years I just took for granted.
“I just enjoy each one like it is the last time I’m going to play, you give it everything like it’s like it’s the last time you’re going to play because you know the way the world is.
“Whether it is wars, pandemics, mad weather, there’s so many things outside of music to contend with, that you just want to enjoy each moment.
“I also want to enjoy each show because it’s been a hard couple of years.
Sean was in Germany when the pandemic first hit. However, Sean was perplexed to arrive home and see the UK carrying on as normal.
“I was there and about three days after I left, the whole country shut down.
“But the UK carried on.
“We just carried on for a couple of weeks like nothing was happening, which was even more scary because you just knew people were getting ill, people were dying and it was not being taken seriously.
“So that that was all the more scary but I think at the beginning, it was just very overwhelming for everyone.”
The Beat Goes On is out now
Sean tours the UK and Europe March/ April/ May.
Sean plays Musica.Lanson in Launceston on 11 March, Under The Edge Arts Centre in Wooton Under Edge on 12 March, The Hub St Marys in Lichfield on 15 April, Hop Barn in Southwell on 16 April, The Balmoral Blues Club in Saltburn on 17 April, Blue Sky Cafe in Bangor, North Wales on 22 April, Tuesday Night Music Club in Coulston on 26 April, St Pancras Old Church in London on 27 April, Queens Head in Belper on 29 April, The Drawingroom in Chesham on 30 April.
For more information, click here.