Working towards the Magic
Kieran Goss talks songwriting, performing and finding balance with ICE
Interview: Franziska Kast / Danny O’Connor, Irish Culture Events Berlin
Kieran, you lived in Cologne in the past. Does that help to connect you with your German audience?
I was busking in Cologne, yes. I’m into languages, so I did an hour every day of the dreaded German grammar! Together with what I picked up from talking to people, that amounted to a reasonable level. When I came back to Germany years later, I was able to do a lot of TV and radio promo, so I slowly built an audience in Germany, but mostly through touring. Promotion obviously helps but it has mainly been about the live shows.
2016 saw legends like David Bowie, Merle Haggard, Prince and, most recently, Leonard Cohen pass. Who were your earliest musical heroes? Is there anyone you would like to play with today?
Loads. Some are obvious, others aren’t. What inspired me was just great music before I knew the difference. Something internal makes you realize that Willie Nelson means something to you but so does a lot of music. I come from a big family, so I heard loads of music. My father’s traditional Irish music, the Stones from my brothers or the Beatles from my sisters. My two older brothers were into Country. So I was a big Johnny Cash, Willy Nelson and Kris Kristofferson fan. As I was playing the acoustic guitar, I was also drawn to James Taylor and Paul Simon. And my younger brothers were into The Cure and Prince. All of that becomes influence, and that’s brilliant. The challenge is to acknowledge all the influences while working towards your own voice. Some days I’m better at it than others. There are possibilities if you are prepared to work hard. There’s magic out there. But you gotta work to get to it. I love what Leonard Cohen said about songwriting: “If I’m lucky, in a day I’ll get a line.” You’ve got to work towards the magic. And if you get enough of that, you get a legacy of being a writer, or a legacy of being a great performer. And great performers don’t drop onto the planet fully formed.
So becoming a performer or writer is a process?
I toured with Christy Moore for about two years. And I always said to him “God, I don’t know how you do that, that connection with the audience, that ease on the stage!” And he said: “It’s 5.000 shows! That’s what it is! So, go out there and do 5.000 shows!” Once you realize that and start enjoying the journey, you’re onto a winner. It’s commitment, but also seeing the whole picture and that it’s all commitment. The art is in everything around it. It’s the songwriting, the performing, turning it into a lifestyle that feeds you. Annie [Kieran Goss’ wife and fellow performer Annie Kinsella] and I have toured together for 20 years.
What is it like to be both a professional and a private couple? How do the different spheres of your partnership inspire or inform each other?
It’s natural. The most important thing to say is that Annie was an artist before I met her. She’s a great drummer and has played in Funk and Soul bands. She was in an a cappella band called The Fallen Angels, so she’s a world class harmony singer. She was booked to do harmonies on an album I was recording, that’s how I met her. We’ve been together since. But we were being realistic about spending our lives together and being artists. If she’d be off touring for six months, then she’d come home and I’d be off touring for six months, there wasn’t much hope. So it was natural to get on the road together.
So you compliment each other.
We love each other for a start. Love and marriage is often about mutual respect more than anything. And we believe in what we do, which leaves us with a very pure, very honest art form. It’s not contrived, it’s not created to suit a market. I think ultimately, that’s what the world needs now. With the forces at work, people need beauty. And honesty. And art. Things that enrich them rather than take from them. And that’s what we have decided our tour should be. If it’s 15 or 15.000 people, our job is to go out and give as much as we can on that day to those people. And hopefully, that enriches their lives. I would say what people need is for artists to articulate what they feel but haven’t had thirty years of songwriting to articulate. I often feel songs are at their best when people think “God, I could have written that.”
You once said a song shouldn’t be therapy but something more universal. How do you balance personal experience as a source of inspiration and the universality of songwriting?
Experience. You get it wrong. You write songs that sound like a teenager with a guitar in a bedroom. But that’s where you start. Experience then teaches you that just because you wrote it doesn’t mean you have to inflict it on the world. Also, there’s a difference between writing songs for yourself and writing songs to sing to people. If you want a song to touch people, you develop a kind of radar that gives you objectivity from it. Some songwriters are born fully formed. We are all born with different things, and because you are not quite there doesn’t mean you can’t go there. For me, melody is easy, what I have to work for is lyrics. Paul Simon is considered one of the great lyric writers. But he said, “ask someone to sing The Boxer, and they’ll go [sings from The Boxer] “Nah na na, nah na na na na na na…”. The bit that he didn’t write any lyrics for is the hit. Ask someone to sing Hey Jude, and they’ll go [sings] “Nah nah nah na na na na…”. Songs aren’t poems, and they are not tunes, they’re a magic mixture of the two, and sometimes the magic bit is the nah nah nah na na na na.
Is there a particular song you would say changed your life?
Different songs at different times. A thing I realised about songwriting is that it doesn’t have to be ‘out there’. At home, there was a family just down the road from us, The Sands Family, and Tommy and Colum were songwriters. So I realised that I could meet someone who wrote songs while waiting for the bus. It doesn’t have to be on TV or on a record. It was important when that penny dropped: I can write songs… anyone can, it doesn’t have to be someone on the TV. When you can say aloud you’re a songwriter, it’s a big day in your life, as opposed to carrying that secret around for five years. “Here’s one I wrote myself!” You know that famous line? That ownership is important.
You’re co-writing songs with other artists. Can it be difficult to reconcile the ideas and visions of two strong artist personalities?
It can. It doesn’t always work. I spent the first 20 years of being a songwriter writing all songs on my own, and I think that’s the best training. If a young songwriter comes to me looking to co-write, I say “come back in five years, when you’ve written on your own for five years.” But I think co-writing is a good thing. If you want to get good at tennis, play with someone who’s better or who has other skills than you have so you can learn. I think we can all burn out on what we do as artists, and it’s important to find new momentum and new directions all the time. Even when you’re having success you need new inspiration.
Do you find that in Sligo when you’re not touring? What made you choose that region for a home?
We wanted to live on the Atlantic coast and my wife is from that part of the world. The clearest definition of that thing in my head I call Irishness is the west coast of Ireland. Annie and I love cities and meeting people with different backgrounds, but we also love talking to the farmer next door to us. Even after twenty odd years, when we get home we’ll be asked: “how was your holiday?” And we say “well, it wasn’t actually a holiday, we’re musicians, and we’ve been on tour…”. I tried to explain once what that means: a different hotel every night, play a show, sleep, get up, drive to the next town… He stood there, listened and went “aha, yeah, right”, and when we said goodbye he said, “but I’m glad you had a good holiday”. It keeps you in your box. If you begin to believe your own myth, you’re in big trouble.
Your 2009 studio album I’ll Be Seeing You was co-produced by Gabriel Rhodes, son of country singer Kimmie Rhodes who produced not only his famous mother but country giants like Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson…
Yes, Gabe Rhodes is Kimmie Rhodes son, but although I’ve co-written songs with her, the connection was through Joe Gracey, her husband, who recorded that album. He sadly passed away since, but he was an important person to me. So I met him and Gabe Rhodes in Austin, and I realized Gabe was a wonderful musician. We both had an honest appreciation of each other. We could play songs together, and it would be neither an Austin record nor an Irish record, we were just trying to create something beautiful. Joe Gracey recorded and Gabe Rhodes co-produced the album. It’s one I really like. But it takes an album a year to come out after it’s recorded, and the music world had changed by then, the radio had changed. Songs I thought could have been big hits weren’t getting radio exposure. That was a crossroads. You had to ask yourself, do you change what you do to keep having hits? Or do you try to hone what it is you think is good about what you do? I took the latter. But today, we are performing artists. If you had asked me ten years ago, I would have said I’m a songwriter who tours.
That’s how the music industry has changed.
It has. But part of your job as an artist is to keep evolving. I don’t want to sit and hope for one big hit. On this tour, we’ve far more reviews and coverage because the show speaks for itself – it does when people are ready to hear it. You can’t rush that. If you ask me what’s the most successful song I’ve written, I would say it’s Reasons To Leave. I played shows in New Zealand, Australia and Chicago where the whole room knew that song. How did that happen? I don’t need to know the answer, all I need to know is that it did and that it can happen again. I became more Zen-like about how songs get out into the world. They just do.
Your live shows are known for being a lot about songs, but also about stories, anecdotes, background info. The art of storytelling seems to be a bit of an Irish craft. Do you think it’s crucial to connect with your audience?
I do. The artists I admire – I mentioned Christy Moore earlier – are great performers because they realise that the part of you that’s on stage has to be a real you, or maybe an amplified version of you. The whole thing comes from a position of respect for your audience, and gratitude for the fact that they bought a ticket, got a babysitter and traveled to get to your show. It’s a beautiful thing. But you can go too far and become a cliché or a pastiche of what you actually are. We all walk that line. Your show stands and falls by the energy that you can bring to it.
Is that easier to achieve when you’re a solo performer as opposed to playing with a band?
No, it depends on the type of artist you are. I’m enjoying the spontaneity of solo shows. Spontaneity can work, or it can go disastrously wrong. If you’re prepared to walk that high wire and to fall off sometimes, you get the rewards of it. I like to fill the audience in on the background of songs. I like to have a bit of craic with them; a thing that the Irish do naturally. It comes from a history of small communities where entertainment was about people talking to each other and meeting up. It comes from a place where community was valued.
Did being a lawyer help to survive in the music industry?
Yes and no. Everything helps. Coming from a big family in Ireland helps. Doing law helps. Running away and living in Germany for a year and being a busker helps. Going back home again and trying to raise money to make an album helps. Everything counts. Even if it was a wrong turn and you turned back, you actually haven’t really turned back, you’ve gathered some stuff along the way that gives you more ammunition for later. Without being coy about it, it’s no harm to be a lawyer. And I practiced in intellectual property, so copyrights and trademarks are my area of expertise.
Was that what motivated you to have your own label?
No. It didn’t come from a business point of view. It came from getting to a point where I was tired of trying to persuade other people to believe in something I believed in. I had that piece of paper that allowed me to walk into a bank and get the money because I knew how to play the game a little. The most important thing that legal education did for me was that it gave me discipline. You need that discipline as a songwriter… it’s a big part of what it takes. Part of the discipline is also inherited. All of my family are hard working, all of my friends are hard working.
You have 14 siblings, is that right?
I do. I’m the tenth of 15. My parents knew that keeping us busy meant keeping us out of trouble. There’s a time for dreaming and there’s a time for working hard. As a songwriter, if you allow room in your life for inspiration and for dreaming, and you recognize and craft them, you’ve got a real song. That’s what great songs are. They’ve got magic and craft. But you can’t force inspiration. And that’s the bottom line.
You sound very balanced…
It changes. Like everyone, I get frustrated with things that don’t happen quickly enough. You have to realise that where something’s at today is the best it can be today, and tomorrow is another day. I’m a big believer in making every day as beautiful as I can make it. And that’s part of being an artist as well.