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It's the Music in Me
He may be better known as manager of The Corrs – but John Hughes has been a musician for well over 30 years. Besides, with a US top 50 album to his credit in the 1980s, his new record – the remarkable Wild Ocean – is just the latest instalment in an extraordinary journey that has taken him close to the edge and back. interview: Niall Stokes
Niall Stokes, 10 Jan 2005
Trouble, they say, comes in threes. But in John Hughes’ case, it’s worse than that, much worse. He’s got five headaches to deal with right now, all happening simultaneously, and there ain’t no Anadin that’ll take the pain away. It looks suspiciously like he’s going to have to grin and bear it.
John Hughes is, of course, the manager of The Corrs – still one of the most successful bands in the world, by the way – who released their fourth studio album in the shape of Borrowed Heaven earlier this year. The day I meet him, he is just back from a stint on the road with the band and is finding it difficult to remember the time of year, never mind what cities he’s been in.
“What month is it?” he says to me, his brow furrowing. For once, I know.
“Right. Well, with The Corrs, we started promotion on the first of March, the record came out in May, I think we’ve been touring since June… June, July, August – America – October, November – Europe. We’ve done France, Belgium, Northern Europe. We’ll work our way down to the UK and then back into Spain and then into Portugal and then we stop at Christmas.”
Hughes has been part of The Corrs set-up for so long that, when he’s not around, there’s a void. He spends a lot of time on the road with the band, mentoring and minding them and generally making sure that the mood remains positive. But right now, he has other fish to fry – and they’re already in the pan. In fact the gas is at eight, and rising.
For a start, there’s his own album Wild Ocean, his first record since the days of Minor Detail – a duo that also featured his brother Willie – who hit the charts in the US in the early ‘80s with their eponymous debut. Wild Ocean is a big record, symphonic in its sweep and ambition, which has been well received by media as diverse as The Observer in the UK, Billboard in the US and hotpress in Ireland, amongst others.
The voice, featured on two tracks on Wild Ocean, is that of Tara Blaize, a protégé of Hughes – who also happens to have her debut album on the way early in the new year. Hughes is the executive producer of that record and manages Blaize in partnership with Barry Gaster – who also handles publishing and merchandising for The Corrs.
If the inevitable pressures involved in that confluence of activities wasn’t enough, a track from Blaize’s album, ‘Fool For Love’, has already been picked up by BBC Radio 2, putting the spotlight prematurely on the ethereal talents of a singer who has all the ingredients necessary for success. Then there is the album Hughes produced for the Monks of Roscrea, entitled Salve, that has already achieved gold status.
And finally, there is Sweet T. Out of the blue, a potential new star has landed with a bright and breezy blast of a single entitled ‘I Love A Millionaire’. As it happens, Sweet T is Hughes’ daughter Marie, and the single – a cover of the old Mekons’ song – has already been playlisted by both Today FM and 2FM. Another batch of material is already in the can, produced by Olle Romo in Los Angeles – and the push on this too is already underway.
“It’s like playing five games at the one time,” he admits. “With Sweet T, I thought ‘this one’ll be easier’ because she’s my daughter – but it’s not. Each one takes the same level of concentration and of work. They all have the same set of problems and challenges. It’s never easy. I should have known that!”
Indeed he should. This is someone who has taken a beating from the music industry and come back fighting. This is someone who has already lived the proverbial nine lives.
“I was eight or nine when I saw television and music on it, and I said ‘That’s what I want to do’. And then The Beatles arrived,” he recalls. “Some of us were scarred for life by them. I was one of those. So I had this love affair with music, from as far back as I can remember, and it never waned. And I’ve been in bands of all shapes and sizes, most of them marginalised – they were too cool, too posh or too poor. I was in duos, trios, quartets, full bands, I played folk music in the street, did everything.
“I had a few jobs but I always wanted to be in music, even when it was painfully embarrassing, painfully shy, or painfully bad. I got married very young. By the time I formed a band with my brother, Minor Detail, I had four children.”
Not the ideal set-up for setting out on the road to stardom!
“Yeah, it just changes everything,” he says. “It was madness trying to be a musician, which was insanity back then anyway, with four kids before you start. It was never going to be possible to make it work, really, but I didn’t know that at the time – until I ended up penniless. Not just penniless, penniless and owing money. So that’s a different type of poverty I was confronted with.”
That said, up to a point, Minor Detail were a success.
“See,” he says, “that’s where I was able to berate The Corrs and say, ‘You may be big, you may have sold 27 or 30 million records’ – but up to recently, I had a higher chart position than them in the States. It was a single and album, both in the ’50s, which is something that can’t be taken away from you. It’s in the record books.
“Ultimately, where Minor Detail were concerned, I just think the stars didn’t line up. I just think it wasn’t meant to be. There was a better plan. I’d leave it at that – but it’s a backdrop to who’s writing Wild Ocean. You have to include that guy.”
What a difference thirty years makes. In the ‘70s we were isolated in Ireland, to some degree because of the Troubles in the North. No A&R scouts came here to listen to bands. They didn’t want to know. Too much hassle.
“Yeah,” he says, “I went from the extreme, of thinking ‘It can never happen, nothing can come out of this country’, to literally feeling, ‘Why not? What’s to stop us? People don’t want to come here? Fine, we’ll go there’. You had to take the bit between your teeth.”
So he did and US chart success followed. But Minor Detail imploded after one album and John Hughes went into a purgatory period, emerging from it almost a decade later with his involvement in putting the music together for Alan Parker’s movie of The Commitments.
“I was almost at the end of my tether,” he explains ruefully. “There were different types of bands, different types of music. I mean, there was a band that was all lutes and guitars and cellos, called Highway. I got a contract as a house writer with BMG, which paid rent and stopped eviction for a period. Obviously I worked, ‘cos I had to: got day jobs, worked on a farm, worked as a rep, I did the bits and pieces. But in terms of music, they were the wilderness years.”
During the 1980s, Hughes traipsed around with demos, to A&R guys with record companies in Dublin, London, New York and L.A. – desperately trying to get his music heard.
“Even, with Monor Detail, we just went over and back. When it all fizzled out, I ended up with cassettes – it wasn’t even CDs – cassettes of who we might have been. I kept writing new music and set about trying to sell it. And I bummed, scraped and went to L.A., got what I call my bus-stop tan, ‘cos I travelled by bus – thinking it’d be like taking a bus into Blackrock. Big mistake. I didn’t know how big L.A. was.
“Trying to sell Minor Detail, as a member of Minor Detail, to all of the executives in LA and New York – you don’t want to make it sound ridiculous, but the abiding memory was I was hungry. It was quite chronic. I stayed in a University in the Bronx and I stayed in people’s garages and I stayed in, not churches, what do you call them – presbyteries? With Irish priests, anywhere I could stay. We always seemed to find somewhere to sleep. It was that type of carry on.”
The rejection letters have all long been lost – but he still does have momentoes from that time.
“I do know I have eviction orders,” he says. “I still have those, from the sheriff, to quit my premises. That wasn’t funny, with four children. They obviously stung me so badly I said ‘this, I’ll keep’. The rejection letters were too many! I’d need a library to keep all the rejection letters that I had as a solo artist, as a Minor Detail artist, as manager of The Corrs. But it’s the one ‘Yes’ that matters.”
His involvement in The Commitments was a turning point.
“For the first time ever I had my own band called The Hughes Version. It’s interesting when you’ve always been in some friend’s band, or a band of friends, a brother’s band – when there’s always been a relationship in bands – and suddenly you’re in your own band and everyone else is a stranger.
“I remember Barry (Gaster) had booked a tour and I had done a few gigs. And I got the worst, worst throat infection imaginable and ended up at specialist after specialist. I couldn’t stand, I’d faint if I swallowed – really bad stuff. They were giving me steroids, anything. It was like ‘This is it, there’s nothing left to give, it’s over’.
“I was coming up to 38 years of age – nearly 40 – and I was still flirting with this music thing. Just at the last minute, my keyboard player left. And the bass-player said ‘I know a guy that can play keyboards, his name is Jim Corr’. I said ‘Get him in’. He came in and rehearsed and then the rest of the band – it was amazing, I could write a book about it! It’d be a farce! – someone ups and leaves, then another person leaves, it went on like that, till eventually it was John Hughes and Jim Corr.
“It was my band, so I said we’d do my music and he started recording my music, and then I got a phone call saying ‘Will you come down and help us on this movie The Commitments?’ So I agreed to do it. And, when it came to the auditions for the movie, Jim said ‘Can I bring my sisters along?’ And the rest, everyone knows…”
At first, not being in the band was a relief.
“Music is a tough taskmaster. If it gets into you at a young age, you’re hooked. And I had been. So now I felt, ‘Thank God I’m being left alone at last’. I was still talking about music, I was listening to music, I was dealing with musicians. But it wasn’t all up to me anymore.”
It was a marriage made in heaven. Time would prove that.
“They were getting this failed artist who had a passion for music and, I dare say, could be trusted because he’d just been down that particular route. And I was getting fabulous musicians, gorgeous people, and a chance to go back out.
“You’re not so aware of it at the time and maybe analysis would prove that completely false, but it just feels like our stars aligned. I never saw myself as a manger, and I never really saw the world through management eyes. But it was right.”
In fact, Hughes was always artistically involved with The Corrs. In many ways, working with the band satisfied his creative urge.
“I mean, you make suggestions like ‘Let’s use harmonies’ and the result would be incredible,” he says, “so you’d think ‘How bright am I? Let’s try something else!’ But I just think we’re well matched. Did it satisfy my music? Certainly. And if I was dead tomorrow and Wild Ocean never came out, I’d be very fulfilled.”
But he couldn’t resist the urge to get something down again himself. Why?
“It has nothing to do with The Corrs, forget The Corrs,” he says. “I started seven years ago. I’ve been managing them for 14 years, so the presumption is that for 15 years I did nothing, but for half of it, I’ve been doing this shagging thing. And as to ‘why?’ Well, why not? I’ve always wanted to do music. That hasn’t changed. I could be 80 and saying ‘I want to learn how to play Bach’.
“You have things that you want to do, and things that you don’t want to do, in life. I don’t want to play golf; I look at people who do and I say ‘Why do you put yourself through that every week? You hit a good ball, you think how great you are, then you hit a bad ball and you feel miserable’. Why would anybody want to do that?”
The point is that music is an obsession. If you’re an artist, it doesn’t leave you alone. Not ever.
“For me, without being on a crusade, without being on a throne this is music for music’s sake – hearing those notes, putting them together, playing with musicians again. And I think in my own way, because I started when I was eight or ten and I’m now 54, realising the value of music is an important part of what I have to offer.”
What about the view that it’s ivory tower music, that it doesn’t deal in the real politic of poverty and deprivation?
“Yeah, but I did all that,” he says. “I wrote a song called ‘Why Take It Again’ way back. To me Wild Ocean is a whole separate way of addressing the issue. I lived through a generation of people singing about poverty and unemployment for whom it didn’t mean a damn thing.
“Sometimes you meet guys who play lovely, lush music who are more concerned about poverty and are doing stuff that you can’t see. So I’ve lived through my protest days, I’ve written songs called ‘Why Take It Again’ and ‘Ask The Kids’ about my own generation. Maybe I’m more mature now, but it’s for the young to continue to do it. I would say to them ‘No that’s not what I do, that’s what you’ve got to do’.
“Nor am I supposed to play rugby at 54 – that’s what a young man does. So I’d say, ‘Nah just listen to it differently and go and make your protests. Don’t judge it as not making any protests just ‘cos you can’t see it’. There are different ways of achieving desired – and desirable – ends.”
The album is reminiscent of Chariots of Fire or Tubular Bells. These are the reference points – though there is a strong Irish influence running through the melodies and the instrumentation.
“I’ve always had a thing about Irish music. I was reared on a pop idiom. In a family context, there were certainly no fiddles or whistles, or uiléann pipes, there was none of that, except for the odd singsong at weddings. As I got more involved in music and formed different bands, I played with the Pecker Dunne, a tinker. We played on the streets of Ballybunion, it was fantastic. And then got influenced by the sound of the west of Ireland. And in the ‘60s, ‘70s, you’d hear Sean O Riada doing Mise Eire, and that was it. It was unique. It really tapped something in me.
“Then, fast forward to meeting Jim Corr, who said ‘We’re gonna do some Irish stuff’ and when I heard what they were doing I said ‘That’s It’. We bridged the gap. I’ve always wanted to do an Irish sounding record. Tubular Bells, Oxygen, Chariots Of Fire, these were records I loved. But I thought, ‘One of those with an Irish slant to it’. That was the thinking.”
He is naturally guarded about rationalising or explaining Wild Ocean. It’s largely an instrumental album and therefore open to any – and many – interpretations.
“It was a mystical kind of journey, I suppose. You hear the music inside you – but people can’t hear it, until you put it down. It’s that craving to get what you’re hearing out. And only by getting rid of it will you satisfy it. So I think I’ve achieved that. That’s what I set out to do.”
But there is more to it than that. You hear the voices, the rhythms, the melodies. But they are reflections of your inner being. They are reflections of what we think of as your soul.
“If you can express an emotion or trigger an emotion, that would be wonderful,” he says. “I think, at its best, that’s what music does. Music is there to avoid the silence. We need the silence. But music is also a vital part of what life is. Only with the absence of it, would we realise just how important music is.”
John Hughes’ Wild Ocean is out now on 14th Floor Records.