Obviously not everyone knows who Christy Moore is. "I'll see if she's available" says the man at hotel reception when I ring Melbourne to speak with the great Irish folk singer.
A courteous and softly Irish voice greets me, seemingly at odds with his reputation as a radical and a political activist. Is this a case of the velvet-covered brick, or has the man mellowed? In very Irish fashion the answer is "yes ... no ... it all depends."
It's nearly 30 years since Christy Moore first took to earning a living by singing. The troubador's life has seen him find fame with legendary Irish folk group Planxty; stretch the limits of genre with cross-over group Moving Hearts; and perfect the role of a solo artist with a rare gift for communicating with his audience.
In between times he's been both a champion of causes outside of music, and a powerful advocate of Irish music. People as diverse as U2, Sinead O'Connor and the Pogues acknowledge a debt to Christy Moore. And a look at other songwriters he has performed - Jimmy McCarthy, Noel Brazil, Wally Page, to name just three - gives us a list of Ireland's finest in any genre.
His easy crossing of musical boundaries comes partly from an eclectic musical background. He started with old-time parlour and religious music, then discovered Bill Haley and Elvis. But for young Christy there was no fiddle or flute thrust into childish hands; no rounds of the fleadhs (music festivals); no youthful pub sessions with generations of traditional musicians.
When it came to traditional Irish music he confesses "I'd never even heard any". And even when he did "it went right over me. It sounded corny and it sounded boring. It was presented in a very hick way." It wasn't until he left to live in London that he truly discovered Irish music. "Suddenly I began to hear this Irish music in ghettos in London, where it was just so vibrant and so important. . . . I think I discovered a lot of my own culture in London."
I can't help reflecting on how familiar this sounds to a Tasmanian, and Christy is intrigued to find we refer to the rest of Australia as "the mainland", just as some Irish do Britain. He's interested to hear more about Tasmania. The coming concert allows him his first visit here. We find that the two islands have much in common, including ongoing environmental disputes. He updates me on the battle at Mullaghmore, where there are plans to develop a limestone quarry in an ancient and wildly beautiful part of Ireland called the Burren. He is dismayed at his government's "jobs at any cost" attitude.
The environment is just one of the key causes he lends his support to these days - musically and otherwise. While he's always been socially and politically aware, he's not always done much about that awareness. In the Planxty days he liked to sing songs that had a message, but he didn't necessarily get involved in the issues. "I played music that I liked . . . I played it for fun, and for carousal, and for partying." But now there's a deeper integrity to what he's doing. "I'd like to think that I practice what I sing now . . . My work and my life have become just completely intertwined . . . My only purpose for being in Australia now is to sing songs and to live the songs."
His recent song "Yellow Triangle" - based on a piece written by anti-Nazi church leader, Martin Niemoller - might almost be a credo for Christy Moore. In the song he rails against apathy, and urges the need to act against oppression, no matter who is being oppressed. He speaks of "the violence of silence" and "the terrorism of apathy" - strong words, but typical of how deeply he feels.
Deeper feelings still are aroused by the subject of child sexual abuse. The song "Strange Ways" from the latest "Graffiti Tongue" album began as Christy's response to a radio interview with a woman who'd been terribly abused as a child. At first the song was so horrific that he found it unsingable. Some changes in imagery and the addition of a deceptively sweet melody made it bearable to sing. The addition of his own daughter's voice gives the song added poignancy.
But not all is deep and dark with Christy Moore. Humour definitely leavens his live act, where he does a good line in parody, often at his own or his countrymen's expense. We begin to talk about the live act. The ingredients appear humble enough: a good if not great voice; some no-frills guitar; some beats on the bodhran (Irish drum). Yet add them together and, by a sort of alchemy, they find him acclaimed as "the greatest living folk singer" (The Sydney Morning Herald) and "above Bob Dylan as the ultimate folk musician" (The Australian).
When I ask him the secret of his live act; and the source of such high praise, he says simply "I don't see myself that way". Yet he can't deny that what he conjures between himself and his audience is something very special. "It's the time of my life ... when I'm in front of an audience, I'm very, very aware of everything to do with the song, with my voice, with what I'm doing. When I'm out there I become very lost in what I'm doing."
It seems the only way to divine this beguiling Irishman's secret is to take his advice to go and see his live act . . . "and then you'll be better positioned to answer your own question." I can only urge anyone with the chance to do likewise.
Photo credits and comments: All photos by the Mollis
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