Johnny Duhan – the sorrow and solace of winter

SINGER-SONGWRITER Johnny Duhan has been plying his trade for almost 50 years now and his new album, Winter, released in CD + DVD format, eloquently attests to the fact that his muse burns as bright as ever, undimmed by the passing decades.

To quote the sleevenotes: “The songs of this collection reflect on the struggles of ageing, drawing on winter as a metaphor for the grey season that my generation are now heading into. Ageing is painful - don’t let anyone tell you otherwise - and the pain intensifies the older you get, not just in physical but in emotional terms, as old friends, acquaintances, and even perceived enemies drop away to illness and death.”

The album opens with ‘Charity of Pain’ which includes the lines: “You break my heart to mend my soul” and “to heal my spirit you break my bone...to set me free, you nourish me/on charity/of pain.”

“It’s almost a contradiction isn’t it, the charity of pain?” Duhan observes over an afternoon phonecall. “I discovered over my life that when you go through very painful situations you often think there is no reason or rhyme to it but looking back on them it can be a building block.

“There’s a line in one of my old songs ‘The weight upon your shoulder will make you a stronger man”, and I think that is true.

“Physically that is true, the more weight put on you the stronger you become. So the song is in that vein but it’s a difficult area to really explain. That’s why I spent so long trying to condense everything into melodic and poetic form so it can explain itself.”

Throughout the album the instrumentation is spare and stark, and yet also warm and intimate. To quote the sleevenotes again: “Musical arrangements were deliberately kept as bare as the leafless trees in Barna Woods in December.”

Winter also features a co-composition credit for poet Emily Dickinson as Johnny puts an air to her poem ‘Slant of Light’:

“There’s a certain slant of light/On winter afternoons/That oppresses like the weight/Of cathedral tunes.”

“She is one of the poets whose work I admire,” Johnny admits. “I also love Robert Frost but it wouldn’t be so easy to put one of his poems to music whereas Emily is very easy to put to music, her poems are almost like songs in themselves.

“I remember going through her Complete Poems, there are nearly 2,000 poems in it. I started singing them even as I was reading them and I had the tape recorder beside me and I just sang into it as the verse would evoke a melody. I put one of hers on the last album I put out as well and other songs on The Burning Word. It suited the theme of this collection. She deals with the idea that in winter moments of depression come upon you that you have to deal with and she has a beautiful way of expressing it.”

While the songs express the ache of age, pain, and loss, they are also buoyed by the spiritual faith and uplift Duhan draws from the well of his Catholicism.

“In my thirties I had a bit of a breakdown,” he tells me. “After struggling for years to get a big deal, when I got it it went sour, and I was back to square one having spent the best part of a year recording an album in London. The direction of it had been taken out of my hands by the producer who’d worked with Cat Stevens and Art Garfunkel.

“I began to realise that I had to do what I wanted to do rather than what someone else did and that it was going to be a long hard slog. But I took that decision then and around the same time I turned back to organised religion but I’ve always written about spiritual concerns.”

‘Rising With The Sun’ carries a spiritual undertow but primarily evokes Johnny’s friendship with departed friends Gary Moore and Phil Lynott.

“I had this flat in Donnybrook,” he recalls. “Phil Lynott turned up one day and asked would I take him in. Soon after Gary Moore came down from Belfast. The three of us lived there for about a year before Phil went off to London. I have great memories of that time. I was walking around the park one day when word came to me that Gary had died it hit me like a brick.”

The album finishes with ‘In Defeat’ where Duhan says ‘I lost faith in myself/In that weakness I found strength.”

“It’s a total paradox,” he admits. “But in defeat is where I have found the real strength not in my big successes, they usually lead to presumption. What I am singing about is almost the opposite of what most people would want out of life, they think at the end of the rainbow there’ll be happiness but it’s rarely like that.

“I remember meeting Phil Lynott a few months before he died, and he wasn’t in a great place even though he had achieved much more success than Gary Moore or myself. He was very insecure. After 40-odd years of recording I myself have only got about 60 songs that I can sing without blushing!”

Johnny can sing all the songs on this album without a trace of a blush. It’s available from all good music stores.

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