Irish singer Christine Tobin recently moved back across the Atlantic. After five years in New York, she and partner Phil Robson are now based in rural Northwest Co. Roscommon. She is looking forward to some concerts in England with completely contrasting programmes.
The first two concerts are on 29 April at the Pavilions Teignmouth and then in London at Jazz Cafe POSK on 30 April. Both evenings, Christine Tobin’s Tower of Song, are trio performances of her arrangements of Leonard Cohen songs alongside some of her own material. Both of these dates will be with longtime musical companions Phil Robson guitar and Dave Whitford double bass
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She will also be at Pizza Express Dean Street on 9 May, with pianist Liam Noble and Phil Robson in a programme entitled ‘You’ve Got A Friend’. This includes songs from her and Noble’s 2010 album ‘Tapestry Unravelled’, featuring favourites by Carole King, alongside originals from all three and some choice jazz classics.
She also talks about her new song project…. “There are many songs of leaving and farewell, this is the music of homecoming and return.” Interview by Sebastian Scotney.
LondonJazz News: How does it feel to be back on this side of the Atlantic?
Christine Tobin: It feels good! At first it was quite strange because it was an unexpected move that caught me like a wave and whisked me along but now I feel at home here. Also I had spent most of my musical years in London and later in Margate, so although I was coming back across the Atlantic I was heading to a different place, uncharted territory.
This probably sounds contradictory because I’m Irish and I was after all coming back to Ireland but I hadn’t planned, thought long and hard about it or done extensive research about where to make a home. The journey just kind of set off by itself. I clicked my heels and followed along. I’m originally a townie from Dublin where I grew up, went to school and took my first jobs before deciding to quit the Civil Service and become a full-time musician. I set off in my early twenties with my spotted handkerchief over my shoulder and like many before me, took the ferry to Holyhead, sailing from one city to the Daddy of them all, London.
So, fast forwarding across the decades, here I am back in Ireland but in a rural location among the wetlands, bogs and lakes of Northwest Roscommon. I didn’t realise I was coming home or being ‘called home’ but that’s what happened. Reconnecting with my roots has been a profound experience and it is an absolute joy to discover and explore the vast cultural wealth that is thriving in the music scene and right across the arts here. It is deeply inspiring.
LJN: Your Leonard Cohen programme resulted in the album 1000 Kisses Deep in 2014. But how did you first get interested in his songs?
CT: My eldest sister Deirdre had some of his albums so I was listening to him from an early age. She was ten years my senior and used to take care of me a lot when I was kid. Much of our time was spent listening to the music she was into on the family box record player. I see they’re selling vintage style versions of these now in Lidl. The world goes round in a circle for sure!! Even as a kid I really liked Cohen’s voice. I loved the depth of his sound and I could hear kindness in his tone. I thought the words were amazing but hadn’t a clue what they meant. I thought of him as some kind of mysterious, older friend.
LJN: Has your view of him changed
CT: My affection and respect for him has only deepened. He remains one of the great poets of our time and many of his songs such as in ‘Everybody Knows’, ‘Democracy’ and ’The Future’ are prophetic and so relevant today.
LJN: And your programme is called “Tower of Song” what’s the story there?
CT: That’s the programme we’ll play at Jazz Cafe POSK and Pavilions Teignmouth. The title is taken from one of my all time favourite songs of his, ’Tower of Song’. I love it because it describes with such wit Cohen’s devotion and responsibility to his calling as a songwriter. You get a great sense of his journey on this path and it’s very humorous. Other Cohen songs included in this programme will be Famous Blue Raincoat, Everybody Knows, Dance Me To The End Of Love and many more. We’ll also play some originals so I think ’Tower of Song’ is a good title to honour the art of song.
LJN: Tell us about the Carole King Programme “You’ve Got a Friend’
CT: That’s the programme I’ll play at the Pizza Express Jazz Club on May 9 with pianist Liam Noble and guitarist Phil Robson. The title is taken from the beautiful Carole King song which was on her iconic 1971 album ’Tapestry’. In 2010, Liam Noble and myself released our own version of that record called ’Tapestry Unravelled’. I wanted to make a recording of those songs to honour the memory of my sister Deirdre who sadly passed in 2009. ’Tapestry’ was an album we listened together over and over and I knew every song by heart. I used to sing them to her so these songs are full of good memories of the great times we spent sharing and discovering music. On May 9 we’ll play a selection of songs from ’Tapestry Unravelled’ alongside some originals and jazz classics.
LJN: And this will be a sort of reunion with Liam Noble?
CT: Yes! It certainly will be. I worked closely with Liam over many years touring and recording but I think it’s about five years or more since we played together. I’m really looking forward to reuniting with a dear friend and great musician. I’m very excited about it.
LJN: Are you currently writing songs?
CT: I’ve just finished writing a suite of new music called ‘Returning Weather’ and will be recording it in the summer for release later this year. This is is a collection of new music and songs that I was commissioned to write by the Dock Arts Centre in Carrick on Shannon. They were given a Music Commissions Award by the Arts Council of Ireland for me to write the music. The idea & concept for Returning Weather was triggered by my unexpected return home after having lived abroad since the late 1980’s. It’s been a profound experience and has churned up a lot of stuff for me around belonging, finding home, a sense of identity, reconnecting with where I’m from and my cultural background. I think I felt these issues all the more intensely because I moved to quite a rural area and up until then I’d always lived in cities. That contrast threw everything into sharp relief. So these are the themes running through the music and they are all set in & inspired by the enigmatic landscape between Frenchpark, Boyle and Ballaghadereen in Co Roscommon. There are many songs of leaving and farewell, this is the music of homecoming and return.
LJN: And you are involved in a work including poems by Eva Salzmann…who is she?
CT: Eva Salzman is a wonderful poet and a dear friend. Originally from Brooklyn, she lived for many years in the UK where we met and I’ve set some of her poems to music going way back. The songs ‘Muse of Blues’ and ‘Bye-Bye’, from earlier albums are originally two of her poems. In my new work ‘Returning Weather’, all of the words are self-penned except for one poem by Eva, ’Still, Life’. This is a long poem about a big old, empty house that Eva happened to stay in once. It had no electricity and was an abandoned property.
A feature in the landscape where I’m living now is the presence of derelict & abandoned houses. Often, they are old family homes left behind after all the inhabitants have emigrated years earlier, a testament to a difficult economic past. They have an eerie & dark quality, disturbing but also strangely reassuring with their mix of decay and fragments of ordinary things from family life. For example, there might be a hole in the roof and a gaping wound where the window used to be but there might also be a fine lace curtain still flapping there in the wind and a cup on a half-broken table beyond in the kitchen. In a strange way when I see these dwellings, I feel like I’m looking into my childhood, my early life & family home, only in the sense that, that time has long passed now and all that remain are fragments. It evokes the same feeling as looking at old family photographs. In both cases I’m wondering who those people were. I guess I’m reminded that my past is deeply rooted in this country. I thought Eva’s poem captured the strangeness of these dwellings and that it would be good to set to music as part of this collection.