One of the big lessons I will take away from Lessons of War is the recognition that how I grew up wasn’t exactly normal…
I’m from a small village in Co. Down, in a place sometimes referred to (even by myself) as Ireland, Northern Ireland, the north of Ireland… How I name it depends really on who I’m talking to. Sometimes it’s to make a point about who I am. Sometimes it’s to make the person I’m talking to feel at ease. Sometimes it’s just the easiest way to say it so it doesn’t require any further explanation.
And there was another lesson… When you grow up in an environment of conflict, it can lead you in a few ways. One way might be to make you hard; make you staunch and immovable. Your opinion is pretty much ‘the right way’, no ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’. I think I went a different way; I moved and shaped myself into my surroundings and adapted to suit whoever’s company I might be keeping. Was this the right thing to do? Probably not, but neither was the former. It was a matter of making life a little easier for myself. Survival, I suppose.
Don’t get me wrong, though; the little nook nestled into the Mourne Mountains was a lovely place to grow up, and was pretty sheltered from The Troubles compared to other parts of Northern (let’s just call it that for now) Ireland. I think it was my ability to adapt that gave me a keen knack for empathy. Empathy comes in handy for writing songs in general, but for this project –Lessons of War- I think it allowed me to access the experiences of other musicians and artists, from areas across the world, also divided or affected by conflict. That’s what Lessons of War is about.
I come from a family of hard workers and I realised that if I wanted to pursue something personal, it was probably best to involve it in my work, or else it’d forever find itself at the bottom of the list. I knew I had issues that I wanted to address and found that by connecting with artists facing similar issues across the world, it might help me learn a little about myself.
It was probably no coincidence that -around the same time- I had been feeling stirred-up by what was happening in Syria and with the Refugee Crisis. I had bought my first smartphone. Avoiding the six o’clock news all my life was my means of escapism. All of a sudden, world news was smacking me in the face thanks to social media. It awoke an anger in me that I hadn’t felt in quite a while. As international powers bombed Syria, I realised that people in power seem to never learn from the mistakes made by their predecessors. Listening to a radio show, a caller wondered “would it not be better to send in a negotiating team and figure it out”? The host of the show simply laughed at the caller’s suggestion as “unorthodox”. I was raging, but you know he was probably right. How many times have we witnessed the first act of a government entering conflict be ‘strong’ and heavy handed? Negotiation is often overlooked when it should be the first port of call.
…But then, I suppose to negotiate you need charm; and not the smarmy, sickly, schmoozey, charm of most politicians. Proper charm. The Irish have it. And I tell you what, the people of Liverpool have it. It’s the charm of the courageous. It’s the charm that allows you to stand in the middle of a knife-fight armed only with a smile and a gallon of wit. It’s the same charm that allowed four lads from Liverpool take over the world. It’s not something that’s taught. It’s a vibe…it shakes through a community. It’s a precious thing that I’m so proud to say we share.
So back to 2017. I took a simple idea to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The plan was to assemble artists from areas of conflict across the globe. We would create a music video, each of us performing to a song I would pen that spoke to the futility of war. After trawling through the internet for days most artists I approached were very open to the idea, namely Haris from Bosnia and Herzegovina; Seydu from Sierra Leone; Yazan Ibrahim from Golan Heights and The Citizens of the World Choir, based in London and made up of refugees and their carers. The easy part was now to write the song. Every time I sat down to write, I couldn’t. Fear stopped me each time as I knew it was opening parts of my brain that I thought I had welded shut, and in procrastination I wrote and released a full album titled The End of the Common Man.
I had to return to my original project, though, and get it finished. I had to get my eyes opened and so interviewed as many people as I could who knew conflict first hand. There was Tommy Sands, a man who has sung for peace for many decades. Richard Moore, lost his sight when he was hit by a soldier’s plastic bullet on the streets of Derry as a child (and as a result created the charity Children in Crossfire). Mark Kelly, a music manager and audio specialist who lost his legs to a UVF bomb in his youth (and helped develop the WAVE Trauma Centre in Belfast). Elke Rost, from a town in Germany called Mödlareuth that was split in two overnight by the Berlin Wall, cutting of a generation of families and friends.
I finally got the song written, Lessons of War. Each artist did their part amazingly. But now that I had opened the flood gates, the songs kept coming, and as word got out about the project, other Irish songwriters wanted to try their experiences. Before long I had a full album of anti-war songs with contributions from Mick Flannery, Ciaran Lavery, Malojian to name a few. Of all the musicians I had used on the first song, Yazan Ibrahim was incredible, a young virtuosi Flamenco Guitarist from the Golan Heights that borders Syria. I brought him to Ireland. We locked ourselves away for a week with some of Ireland’s best session musicians.
The album was finished, and with it a documentary; local film maker Colm Laverty shadowed us most of the way and created a very powerful short film as a result. Win!
I was so excited to be taking Lessons of War to Liverpool this year for the prestigious Liverpool Irish Festival. Some of the players I had gathered together were some of the most amazing talents I know. And with you people of Liverpool cheering us on, it would have been a glorious show. Unfortunately, as Covid-19 hit it was not to be. It’s the right choice, the safe choice, and we know we’ll meet again. Both you and I are very lucky that your festival is run by one of the most generous and hardworking people I’ve come across in my many years of playing music. We will work together to best whet your appetites for 2021 by giving you a unique online version of Lessons of War. Hopefully it means that we all can come over there next year and take the roof of the place. Until then, you beautiful people of Liverpool, keep yourselves safe and well.
When we land once again in your beautiful city, we’ll make sure to have a night off booked and have a proper session, too. Slan, Matt McGinn
As Matt alludes above, working with the Liverpool Philharmonic, we were all set to bring Matt and Friends over to do a Lessons or War live music night. Sadly, in 2020, this was not to be. Instead, we will watch his beautiful documentary (LINK), which covers the making process of the album, before joining him on Zoom (LINK) to discuss the music, the experience and the opportunities that can be found in sharing, collaborating and putting a little generosity out in the world. Fingers crossed, we can see him in person during #LIF2021.
Thanks go to Matt McGinn, Richard Haswell (Liverpool Philharmonic) and Terri O’Brien for a lot of behind the scenes work, that will never see the light!