Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher bemoaned the state of the music scene lately because modern bands just didn’t have that genuine feel to them anymore.
“If they weren’t in bands they’d all have great careers anyway,” he reckoned and when you watch Coldplay front ads for Greenpeace and Fair Trade you get the impression that early 90s fans had a much better time living it large with the Mancunians.
Does the same thing apply this side of the Irish Sea? Navan’s Simon Fagan, part troubadour and part rockstar, is the kind of guy who’d have a great career even if he wasn’t making records and playing live gigs in small Irish venues. Except that career would be in music as well.The Irishman has ticked a lot of boxes already in his career, he’s travelled to the States, lived it up in Australia and even spent his fair share of time working in bars. Now he’s 27, at one stage a full-time trumpeter in an orchestra, but now very much a songwriter gaining an audience and generating acclaim.
“The last big band to come out of Ireland, probably, was the Cranberries,” Fagan reckons. “Ireland is crying out for the next big thing.”
Will he be it? It’s not a question he can answer with any degree of certainty because the music industry has never had a set pattern about how to achieve things. Now that the way in which music is tasted and consumed – online and outside of record shops – it’s harder than ever to know how to make it big. It’s hard to even know what making it is.
Fagan is from Navan in County Meath, a place more usually associated with Irish Gaelic Football, the number one sport in the county. The actor Pierce Brosnan likes to talk up his tenuous links to the place whenever his Irish admirers come calling but Fagan is a creation of Navan as much as Brosnan is. Which is not a lot.
Fagan has always been looking for something bigger and deeper than playing football for his county. He didn’t realise it when he was younger because playing music was as natural for him as kicking a football was for other boys. In a family of six fellas and a dad that sang in a church choirs and showers, it was Fagan’s mother who guided his musical talents, lining him up with a music scholarship for secondary school.
The 12-year-old Simon knew little about the scholarship to a boarding school 40 miles away in a town called Mullingar, in County Westmeath. One audition and one interview later he was packing his bags for the boarder’s life, removed from home and friends.
Having played in a brass and reed band his world was now open to grand Steinway pianos and the academic rhythms of church music. After year three he was sent to the Royal Irish Academy for Music in Dublin to get trumpet lessons and by the time he was finished with his school scholarship he was signing on for a college scholarship at the Academy.
Two years studying trumpet his life was heading for tuxedos, grand halls and stiff upper lips. After a year in Scotland just out of the Academy he got a taste for the back of the orchestra but didn’t fancy it much.
“When I went to the Royal Scottish Academy of music and drama, I was 21. It was then that I realised that I wasn’t really cut out for the whole classical thing, sitting at the back of an orchestra in a tux, I felt myself restricted plus the job prospects weren’t great, there are only three full-time trumpeters in an orchestra but there aren’t that many orchestras. It’s pretty difficult, not that this isn’t but this probably comes a little bit more natural to me.”
When he first went to Mullingar he was always penning songs. It became habit and when it became second nature his pre-determined trumpet career sat uneasy. There would be no sense of fait accompli. He hasn’t looked back since he packed in the quiet choral life.”I did my fair share of crap jobs,” he says about the six years in between then and a now that has him credited with a song on a Hollywood movie (A Line in the Sand), a support slot for Lionel Richie and Smokie Robinson, and a run out as John Lennon in a Beatles tribute concert at the Irish National Concert Hall which spawned the Love album.
“Obviously the world is a lot smaller than it was 20 years ago, you have marketing tools like the internet. Everything is very readily available. On the other hand artists like Van Morrision, Lizzy, early U2, old Irish acts, they went out and learned their craft by being out on the road and being hands on. I’m getting there, I’m not doing as much as I want to but I think that’s where it’s at, on the road, particularly with the record industry in a transition period.”
He learned this new craft in six years having spent eight years dedicated to the study of a classical music that doesn’t attract the tousled hair and pierced ears of guys who look like Simon Fagan. The conflict seems apparent in his output, an intelligent sound that makes use of the vast amount of music that Fagan has learned since he took on his first scholarship, yet his success probably lies in the sensibilities and simple empathies he employs.
“It’s real music about real things,” he says of his own sound. “There’s something in it for everyone, it’s organic, it’s played by real musicians.
“You’d write about different situations. Someone might say one thing that could spark off a whole song. I find that if you get one lyric it would spark off an entire song, once you have one idea that’s a catalyst for the whole thing.
“Someone actually said to me a few weeks ago, �God Simon, where’s your smile gone lately?’ And I smiled and they said that’s better. That was bang, a song written in five minutes flat.”Despite the complexities he has learned, and mastered, he has discovered the beauty of simplicity. His songs are simple thoughts and ideas like the one he describes. Bring The Dance To Me is another effort made richer because it is just one idea extended and revealed in front of layers of sound that he can best describe himself because his musical knowledge gives him the confidence to know what’s good and bad in his own songs.
“You can show people different colours of the music,” he says.”I’d play a gig with a whole brass section, a set of 15 songs and then I’d play a smaller venue in and I used a string quartet. I’d play the same set but arrange the songs differently, everything else, the melodies, the rhythms are the same everything but the people who have been to the two gigs are going �wow’.”The audience can’t believe it’s the same song told a different way.
“There’s a certain element of manipulation. You adjust to different situations,” says Fagan, and he knows because he’s had to make allowances at times.”Take a song like Great Beliefs � it started off like a Kings of Leon tune and I always knew there were great lyrics and melodies but no one else seemed to get it. I reworked it, changed the whole feel of the song and people were absolutely blown away by it. People thought it was a completely different song. If you’re the only one that thinks this is a winner, it may have the right ingredients but not the right proportions or combinations.”
So far, so good, then and even though he’s back living in Navan, where he started, this is just a temporary resting ground while he establishes a firmer footing. He’s already been to LA, where he worked with Brian Byrne on his first group of 14 songs that will soon become an album, and spent an interesting three months travelling the coasts of Australia, playing free gigs in hostels for drink and board.
He’s achieved a lot, musically, but his background doesn’t count for anything in the world he’s now living in and that’s just the way he likes it.”I suppose coming from a classical background, I don’t like really emphasising my background though you can’t ignore it either. “It’s not as hard as it was to actually get your stuff out there, getting recognised and getting noticed is as hard if not harder. It’s a very different business from 20 years ago. No longer is all the power in the record companies, they are just major distributors now. You want to be in publishing and live music and merchandising. Now you record a record to promote a tour whereas 20 years ago you did a tour to promote your record.”
“I’d like to become international, I don’t think you’d survive if you weren’t international, you’re not going to survive just touring Ireland and the UK and a few European gigs.Touring Ireland has benefits from learning your trade but it’s vital that you get out of the place, travel and become global.”Navan is just the starting place for a new adventure.
Brendan Coffey writes the regular blog column ‘Between Boston and Berlin‘ for Three Monkeys.