Coming to an understanding of myself – the Liam Ó Maonlaí interview

It’s not often that world-renowned singer-songwriters – not least those from Dublin – end solo tours on the outskirts of Preston, Lancashire. But Liam Ó Maonlaí’s rarely one to take a conventional route.
Hothouse Flowers frontman Liam’s Routes Music-promoted 11-date tour opened at the Tyneside Irish Festival, and has since involved dates in Bradford and Birmingham, with Sheffield and Penistone in South Yorkshire next, then briefly across into East Lancashire for a show in Barnoldswick before darting back over the Pennines and beyond to Louth in Lincolnshire then up to Hull and York, finishing at The Carlton Club, Manchester, and The Venue, Penwortham early next week, a musical journey in an intimate setting promised at every step.
One of the more talented, charismatic, soulful performers, musician’s musician Liam’s prowess goes well beyond his Dublin roots, impressive not just for that amazing voice, but also for his mastery of piano, flute, harmonica, penny-whistle, bodhrán, and more.
And while still featuring with Hothouse Flowers – the band taking off in the mid-‘80s after U2’s Bono labelled them the ‘best unsigned band on the planet’, their biggest chart hits being 1988 debut 45 ‘Don’t Go’ and 1990 Johnny Nash cover, ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, their first three LPs all UK top-10 hits – as a solo performer, Gaelic speaker Liam also continues to wow audiences with a bit of traditional Irish folk, gospel, blues, soul, country, rock … you name it.
He feels his foundation in music came first from his mother and father, letting on, “My mother’s people were all piano players. My father could make you cry with a song.”
Soon discovering his own path, by the age of nine he found himself in different towns by virtue of the strength of his whistle and bodhrán playing and later mastery of unaccompanied singing in the traditional Irish style known as Sean Nós, explaining, “Our style of singing is about taking the pain of the people, of your neighbours and yourself, and making beauty out of it to get you through. Blues is also this. I play to soothe myself first. When I reach that feeling, that feeling travels with me of its own free will”.
But how’s it been these past 18 months or so? Did the dreaded coronavirus change the way he worked?
“Yeah, everything was cancelled. But that was alright – that’s like a clean slate. I took to walking and got into the habit of getting up on waking. I wasn’t lying in. I got up early every morning and got out of the house and found that to be a game-changer for me – something I needed.”
Therapeutic?
“Yes, to say the least!”

Has it been a productive time for you, with regards to writing or making music?
“Yeah, I co-created a bit of theatre, I recorded an album, I set the wheels in motion for a project with the National Concert Orchestra … so, busy, yes! And there was a lot of artwork as well.”
Is that you with a brush, a pencil, or both?
“Yeah, multi-media. I like to use natural pigment and acrylic. I don’t always use brushes. I might use a roller or a hard edge – sometimes that’s good for abstract work.”
Is that a private affair, or something you’re happy to share with the world?
“Well, it’s not something I feel I need to hide. But at the same time, it’s not linked to any commercial system … although I did meet a person with a space in town and she’s interested in hosting me with a visual show that I might make into a multi-media show. So I’m excited about that.”
Recently, I went back and re-watched his performance on the splendid BBC Scotland/BBC Four/RTÉ Ireland joint production, Transatlantic Sessions from 2009, with cracking star band accompanied takes on ‘Worry Not’ and ‘Work Song’. More recently, there have been internet shows from his own patch, with home these days a 15-minute Luas tram ride from Dublin, ‘pretty close, but quite green and also close to the mountains’. Has he been out and about playing a few shows recently?
“Yeah, a few, and loads of online stuff. We were supposed to play London on St Patrick’s Day in 2020, but decided we’d pull that. Your side of the water closed things down a bit later than ours, so we feasibly could have done it, and in retrospect I might have gone for it.”
I think you may have made the right call. It was a bit of a scrum around then.
“Well, it was a bit. I suppose we’ll just appreciate doing it when we do it. But it’s a funny old thing. It seems to be just another political game.”

I always had an affinity with Hothouse Flowers. And we’re not just talking the Greenhouse Effect here, even though that’s become more and more of an issue as the years are passing. Flicking back through my diaries, I was reminded that I first caught Hothouse Flowers live in June 1989 at Glastonbury Festival. A special time for me. Within three weeks I’d met my better half on a Turkish holiday, we’re still an item 32 years down the road, and those first three LPs were definitely part of our collective soundtrack..

“Oh very good! That’s always good to hear. It’s good to find your mate.”

Do you recall much about that festival, also including the likes of Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, The Bhundu Boys, Fairground Attraction, and your pals, Martin Stephenson & The Daintees.

“Yeah, and {Martin} came on tour with us subsequent to that – that year or maybe the next. There was Fela Kuti also, Van the man, The Waterboys …”

Mike Scott too was a big inspiration on Liam and his bandmates back in the day, and I next saw them while on my backpacking world travels in February 1991, Down Under at Sydney St George’s RSL Club.

“Amazing!”

Have you special memories of those days? Were you good company as a band? Martin Stephenson suggested you were in our recent interview.

“Yeah, and just having the gift of music … music did all the talking for us. It was the consummation of our friendship, really. We weren’t always the best at talking, but a good gig … there’s nothing like it, to share an experience like that. And three of us are still together … and we’re very rich for having those experiences shared.”

Do you and your fellow Flowers tend to chat on the phone, or is it a case of turning up on the doorstep these days?

“Well, the friendship is on the stage actually, we don’t see much of each other bar significant life events these days. But when we do get to see each other, we’re really glad to. And that’s the way our friendship sort of works. There’ll be the odd phone call, alright, but …”

Does the conversation carry on where it last left off?

“Yeah, and there’s always great excitement when we get together. We’ve known each other for a long, long time now.”

To the point that you’re finishing each other’s sentences?

“Err, maybe … sometimes … or sometimes just stopping them dead in their tracks!”

And while I never got to see the three of them perform together, I loved your Alt band project in the mid-1990s with your Northern Irish housemate of the time, Andy White, and upstairs neighbour Tim Finn, of Split Enz and Crowded House fame. What’s more, my love for the resultant one-off 1995 LP, Altitude remains strong.

“Oh yeah! Well, that was something I … I always have this desire to create music from the moment, and I know I had it with the Flowers. But we were so tied with the formal side of recording that songs had to be ready before we went in the studio.

“That was all well and good, but I really hungered for a chance to go into the studio with some people and let the studio capture those moments of inspiration … instead of having those moments of inspiration and then trying to remember them.

“And they were willing to give us our space, and because we had spent a summer and a winter together – Andy, Tim and myself – and really had a fantastic time, we just had a great spontaneity with writing.”

It shows. And maybe it was the lack of pressure too. It sounded organic, and you were away from the record label ‘write, record, tour, and repeat’ treadmill, perhaps.

“It was just that the inspiration was allowed to happen in the studio. There was never too much pressure, even with the Flowers. It’s just that it had to be ready. And the idea of working with two other singers was great.”

Absolutely, and the diversity in your voices added something special.

“Yeah, I love to sing, and I love voices – no matter what shape a voice has. I really do love a voice.”

Well, I was going to say, I love your voice, and Tim’s work with his Split Enz and Crowded House and that special blend he has – in particular – with his brother Neil is amazing, but I also love the way you two and Andy gel. You head somewhere else completely, and it’s all great in different measures.

“Exactly!”

As a result of all that, I put on a compilation made in honour of the year 2000 arrival of my first-born, a song called ‘The Day You Were Born’ from that album. And it remains a personal favourite.

“Ah, great. A lot of people think that was written for my son, but it was written before he came along. I was very pleased with that song. That’s one of the few songs that I just wrote myself. I just sat down with an instrument and … carved it.”

Liam’s son, Cian, from his first marriage, is now 25, while his daughter with his French partner, Marion is now 15. Is that right the eldest has followed your career path?

“Yes, he’s great. I’m really proud of him. He’s got something … he’s got a little bit of what I have, but also has something from his mother’s side. His grandfather had a very quiet but like a volcanic presence, and my son has that as well.”

Cian is part of the group, Big Love, who this year released the impressive single, ‘Lily’. And once you know that association, there’s no denying it’s Liam’s lad. Not as if he’s taking advantage of that family link.   

“It’s great to see somebody making their way … in their own way … and watching. They released a single and it really did well for them, publicly. It got a lot of exposure … and didn’t have a publicity machine behind it, apart from what they could drum up themselves. Even on the strength of that … it got a lot of interesting breaks, and they went into the studio with the (Irish) Chamber Orchestra last week. And that just came from the strength of the song.”

It seems that the next generation has well and truly arrived. Only this summer gone, my youngest got to see an intimate show at The Continental in Preston featuring Inhaler, the band – selling out left, right and centre at present – fronted by Bono’s son, Elijah Hewson. Time truly flies.

“Oh yes! Time just doesn’t stop.”

Getting back to Alt, have you been in touch with Andy and Tim in recent times?

“I was. They sent me some stuff to see if I’d be interested in adding my bit to it. I never got around to it, but they ended up making a record, which they’ve asked me to do some artwork for. So that’s on its way.”

Is there a new record coming our way from you as well?

“Well, I went to Paris last year when there was a window of opportunity. We took a ferry over, my partner and daughter and I. We went over to see her family, but I was getting a lot in inspiration while I was here and was almost reluctant to go, as I felt this was where it was happening.

“But I couldn’t resist going over and contacted a woodwind player by the name of Renaud-Gabriel Pion, who plays bass clarinet, bassoon and a lot of medieval instruments. I just said, ‘Let’s make a record’, and he said yes.

“He had a little studio set-up in a little apartment at the top of a place in the middle of Paris, and we spent five days I think just playing together. And it was one of those records where a couple of musicians come together and just play … and that’s my favourite way of working, with no pre-arranged songs or melodies.

“A couple of times I had a few riffs I might add, but other than that we just played to each other, and came up with three hours or more of music. So that still has to be edited, and deciding what kind of a shape it’s going to take. It’s quite ambient and filmic. Trance-like, but we weren’t using any loops or beats, just our own rhythm.”

It sounds like it might even be a double album in the making.

“Well, if we decided to go with that formula, there might be a different way of releasing it. We’ll see. There’s also a folk magazine, RnR, and I put one of the tracks from that on to one of their monthly CDs.”

Going back to your own beginnings, dare I ask what your first band, The Complex, were like? Was it maybe fated that you’d go one way and your bandmates Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig would take a very different path with what became My Bloody Valentine?

“Only as much as …musically, it wasn’t. We got on really well. I think they liked what I was bringing. It was just that I was about 15 and my Dad just said, ‘You’re not allowed to be in that band anymore’. I would have kept going, probably. I’m a kind of person that if I land on something, I kind of stick to it.

“With the Flowers, similarly, I might have left for all kinds of reasons, but I stuck with it for some reason. Sometimes the reasons that might trigger you to leave can be very earthly or ego-based, and sometimes you can look at the bigger picture and realise you should hang in there, for some bizarre reason.

“Somebody said one time there are no bad decisions – some might land you in awful situations but … there’s always learning. And I’ve come to the understanding that the object of the game is just to learn about yourself and how to shine in your life … and make the most of it.”

When Bono told Rolling Stone magazine about Hothouse Flowers being the best unsigned band on the planet, was it a shock to you, and did it all happen really quickly from there?

“Yeah, it was. And a lot of things happened really quickly … which wasn’t always that easy. There was a scramble for management and a ruthlessness in the business I hadn’t expected to see, and I hadn’t expected it to affect me in such a way. But again … always learning from the experience.

“When I heard, I said, ‘No way! You’re joking’. I came in from somewhere, into some building or other to meet one of the lads, and they said, ‘Have you heard, there’s a photo-shoot with Melody Maker tomorrow?’. What! Then there was that Rolling Stone magazine quote. But there it is.”

Is there frustration in a sense that the wider world stopped listening after the last Hothouse Flowers hit, despite you carrying on making great records? Or does that not fit the character of this laidback performer we know and love?

“No, it’s beautiful to feel that the whole world was hearing something you had to say or play, but I knew that once we’d pulled away from the management we had and also parted company with our record label, that we didn’t have that machine behind us. And you’re competing with everything that’s up there on every billboard.

“I’d love to come up with something that would resonate, but to a degree it would have to be of its own terms. Not my terms or anybody else’s, but the terms of the music itself. Who knows. The beauty of where I’m at now is that I can say yes to so many things.

“And from Friday on, I’m going to be extraordinarily busy until – I think – March. Kind of crazy, but you know … I’m up for it, I suppose, because it’s of my own design, for better or for worse. There’s a few curveballs in there for me too. I’m not a comfort zone person. I do believe that music has a way of getting itself through … even through the most unlikely avenues.

“And I’m going to create a piece of dance theatre with a Basque company starting in November, so that’ll be something else.”

So you have these live solo dates, then you’ll be straight into that?

“Pretty close. I’m going to Sweden as well. I’ve a gig there … and I’m going to do a tour with some Belgian musicians I’ve never met in my life! You just say yes as many times as you can and see where it leads!”

And for me it’s almost come full circle, my children now moving on to their own university and career paths … and you calling on my own adopted patch in Lancashire, a few miles up the road from me on the last night of your solo tour.

“Ah, brilliant!”

Is that right you have (Irish traditional flautist) Jacquelyn Hynes accompanying you on stage?

“She’s going to maybe join me for a tune or two. I’m not exactly sure how that’s all going to pan out yet though. That’s a complete unknown. I do about an hour and a half, but it’s different every night … as are the Flowers gigs. We never write a setlist … and I never write a setlist.”

Will there be some new Hothouse Flowers shows coming soon then?

“Oh, there will. And we’re going to be in London on St Patrick’s Day. That could be the next one.”

And if you had a chance to go back in the time machine to early 1985 and give a little sage advice to 20-year-old Liam Ó Maonlaí, busking on the streets of Dublin with schoolmate Fiachna Ó Braonáin, what would you tell yourself?

“I probably wouldn’t listen, and I really don’t know. My Dad and myself, we had a tough enough relationship. I loved him – he’s gone now – but I suppose to look at the basis of that a bit more than anything else, or just to maybe make a few more mistakes. I made loads of mistakes, but probably should have made more.”

Well, it’s been good chatting, although I have to ask … that ticking I’m hearing now and again in the background – you’re either setting up a metronome for a recording session, or in a car, making occasional left and right turns or pulling over.

“Yeah, I find I can talk better when I’m in the car. And the phone works better in the car.”

I thought as much. I could hear the indicators going now and again.

“Yeah, I was negotiating the rhythms of the road!”

As well as Jacquelyn Hynes, Liam also has a tour support band in York-based trio White Sail, with his show on the final date in Penwortham also involving John Clayton, aka Hungry Bentley, whose fourth full-band LP, Exposition, produced by Nigel Stonier (The Waterboys, Fairport Convention, Thea Gilmore) is newly out.

Remaining October UK dates: Greystones, Sheffield (Tue 5th); Cubley Hall Hotel, Penistone (Wed 6th); Music & Arts Centre, Barnoldswick (Thu 7th); The Jazz Club, Louth (Fri 8th); Wreckingball Records & Books, Hull (Sat 9th); Black Swan, York (Sun 10th, 2.30pm); The Carlton Club, Manchester (Mon 11th); The Venue, Penwortham (Tue 12th).

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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