illustration: Andrea Montgomery
Northern Ireland singer songwriter Anthony Toner has just released an album of covers called Ghost Notes Vol 1. It is an excellent piece of work and I had the privilege to ask Anthony how he chose the songs and what a covers record might teach a writer about his own work.
So why now for a covers record?
I’ve been recording at home a lot over the last few years – I have a rudimentary set-up at home, so I’ve been putting down basic things like acoustic and electric guitar, some percussion, etc. And the first thing that struck me was that I’d like to do an album of some of my own songs, stripped right back. I think I’ve over-arranged a lot of my songs in the studio over the years – that’s been a lack of confidence, I think. And I wanted to re-work some of them, take them back to the place where they started. So… that’s been a project on my list, and I think this collection is maybe a ‘dry run’ for that, I don’t know. I’d also love to do an album of all blues, maybe an all-Dylan album, I don’t know… the possibilities are endless. I called it Volume 1, thinking I would hopefully be able to put a few of these out as the years go by!
There must be 1000 songs. What is it in a song that draws it out of the batch for you? For example, of all the Morrison songs why ‘She Gives Me Religion’, of all Neil Young's why ‘Sugar Mountain’ and of Rickie Lee Jones', why ‘On Saturday Afternoons in 1963’?
Songs jumped out at me for the strangest reasons. I de-tuned the guitar quite a bit when I was working on this collection, and found that in one particular tuning (for guitar nerds, it’s Dropped C Dropped G) I could play the little two-chord introduction to ‘On Saturday Afternoons in 1963’. Otherwise, that song wasn’t even on my mind. I’d always liked it, but it wasn’t on the list until that fell under my fingers. ‘Sugar Mountain’ I’ve been playing for years, originally as a lullaby for my daughter… and some of the songs were tunes I would have played for my parents, if we were having a few drinks and a sing song – the Charley Pride track, the Steve Earle song, for example.
The range of genres is obviously intentional?
Not really. Actually, in musical terms I’ve always loved everything, with the possible exception of death metal, musicals and free jazz – and even then, I’ll give it a go. I grew up listening to my mum and dad’s rock and roll and country records as a small child, before discovering pop, hard rock, disco, singer songwriters, rap, jazz, folk, soul and classical in my teens and young adulthood. I once got slagged off for buying AC/DC’s Highway to Hell and Bach’s Violin Concertos on the same shopping trip. With this project, I think I wanted to test that old saying that a good song will survive any treatment, so I was trying to reduce everything to its barest bones.
Were these all favourite songs at different parts of your life?
Not all of them – some of them just worked in this context, but others have been big songs for me for various reasons. ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ still breaks my heart the way it did when I first heard it in the early 80s - I was already nostalgic at the age of 22 – where does THAT come from? ‘She Gives me Religion’ was such a stately, beautiful thing when I first heard it, and I just loved the chorus. Loved that whole Beautiful Vision album. And I always adored ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ – I first heard it as a devil-may-care dancefloor classic, and then one day, listening to the lyrics, I saw what a heartbreaking message lay behind it. I always love it when songs work on a couple of levels like that.
Were there any songs that you wanted to do that just didn't work?
That’s an interesting question. I had an idea that I would do some ‘proper’ acoustic folk thing, like ‘The Parting Glass’, but I abandoned it pretty quickly. It just sounded really corny – it used to be an interesting choice, but it feels like everyone does ‘The Parting Glass’ now, and my approach wasn’t very exciting. I also considered some James Taylor – but he’s such an influence on my playing and delivery that it just sounded like… James Taylor. And there’s no point in doing that – he already does that, better than anybody else.
As you begin to live with these songs a little deeper did you find anything out about them that you didn’t know?
Songwriter Chris Smither has a great riff that he shares about ‘sturdy’ songs – songs that will survive any kind of treatment (he sings Chuck Berry’s ‘Maybellene’ in a minor key, for example, and it works wonderfully well) – and I realised how sturdy these songs are. In some cases the melody is where the strength is, in other places it’s a lyric – it’s interesting to see where the supporting walls are, from song to song.
Do you find anything out about your own writing that you didn’t know?
Following on from that last question, it struck me as I went over them and over them, that I need to think about those structures and strengths when I sit down to write my own songs – Does this song hang on the melody? Does it hang on this chorus? Am I giving that melody enough room to breathe? Are the lyrics strong enough to support that chord progression? All too often, we follow instincts in the songwriting process, and it pays sometimes to also have construction in mind, to be aware of the techniques at work, the same as joinery or cookery. You know… the really good painters look at a million paintings by the masters before they start on their own work. The great poets tend to have absorbed a million pages before they grab hold of their own masterpieces.
Again spending such time with these songs, in your writing just now are their influences from the songs seeping in?
I don’t know – is the short answer. It will be interesting to see if that happens – I’m always struck by how simple the really good songs are, so it also reminds me not to be too clever. I'm also certainly encouraged by how much everyone likes the ‘stripped back’ sonic approach on this album, the lack of layers and overt ‘production’. I take that very much to heart as I move onto the next project.
At 4 Corners Festival you sound checked with McCartney's ‘My Love’. I was surprised it wasn't on here. Vol 2?
Yes, I think so – it’s a beautiful song, and I’ve been playing it for years in a kind of folky, quickstep sort of approach, so it was such an obvious one to do, and I’m not sure why I didn’t include it.
As an independent songwriter how will Coronavirus impact you?
Well the immediate impact is that the diary empties out, and you start to scramble to get things postponed, pushed back in the year, rather than cancelled altogether. But I’m lucky that I’ve just come back from a short tour, so I had a chance to bring in a little bit of income before the shutters came down. And I have this project to talk about for a while, and reactions have been good. The enforced isolation is perfect for getting some work done of course, but I miss the sociability of playing live, connecting with people, meeting other artists and so on. But there are new original songs in the pipeline for hopefully another album in the summer, so I’ll be happy to sit down with the guitar and the terrifying empty page for the next few weeks.
Is there anything a fan can do to help you?
Of course – just making a connection is always helpful. The new album is available as a physical CD for mail order from the website at anthonytoner.net/store, and orders are very much appreciated – most of the back catalogue is also available there. You can also sign up for my mailing list on the website, to receive the regular newsletters. And if you feel like contacting any of your favourite radio presenters and requesting any of my songs, that would be most useful. Otherwise, feel free to share, stream, download or just spread the word. And hopefully we’ll get the chance to physically share some space together again in the near future.