By Brendan Clay
John Byrne has music in his soul. He’s been singing since he was a young boy in Ireland, although he did not start doing it on stage until his late teens after giving up on his dreams of becoming a footballer. Starting with his band Patrick’s Head, Byrne has devoted much of his career to playing American folk music while always keeping an eye on his Irish roots. Following the John Byrne Band’s acclaimed debut album, 2010’s After the Wake, Byrne decided to go full Celtic and put out an album called Celtic/Folk in 2013. Now he’ll be putting on a Pogues tribute concert in the Ardmore Music Hall on June 7th, and playing the Philadelphia Folk Festival this summer. The following interview has been edited for length.
I wanted to start out asking you just a little bit about your musical history: how you got interested in music and your first band Patrick’s Head.
I suppose I’ve always sung a little bit. I grew up in a house in Dublin where there was a fair bit of singing went on. People would gather at our house a fair bit. And some drink would be taken out and someone would start singing and next thing you know the whole room would be singing. That’s probably my biggest inspiration for getting into music at all or getting into becoming a singer was I just wanted to be — I suppose I just wanted to be as cool as the people in the room, you know?
My grandfather would sing and my dad, and my uncles. From an early age you learned how to sing at least one song, ‘cause I’m sure you’ve been to Ireland and you know the whole thing. It comes around to your turn and you have to have a song. It wasn’t until much later on that I really started to learn the guitar and started writing. I was probably in my late teens or early twenties. And before that all I really wanted to was play football — play soccer.
It was later on then that I got into that, and really after I moved to America that I started playing like regularly on stages and it just sort of came about. When I first came over to America, I used to work down in Wildwood. My first summer there I think I was 18 years old. I became friends with Tom Brett and Fintan Malone and they used to let me sing between their sets at a bar. I won’t even name it ‘cause I’ll probably get it into trouble ‘cause I was only 18 at the time.
But that’s what got me started singing on stages. After I settled in Philly, I’d recorded some of my own material and released a couple albums. But then Patrick’s Head came about from those albums. I was putting a band together to play those songs I’d written and recorded. I met up with Patrick Mansfield and he was a songwriter, too. So we combined our songs and that brought about Patrick’s head and we had a pretty good successful run for about eight years. We released five albums and there was actually sixth one recorded but it never came out. We had some issues with the record label so the sixth album sort of stayed on the shelf.
You describe your music as Celtic and Folk. Can I assume that means a combination of Irish and American Folk music?
I think when I came to America first I really was in love with American folk music. As a kid back home I loved Bob Dylan and then I started getting into the people who influenced Bob Dylan really. And I started getting into Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and guys like that. So the old Irish folk music, that was kind of my dad’s music. So the American folk was more mine, so I thought it was cooler. And it’s probably since I’ve lived over here that — the first two songs I ever sang on the stage over here were Irish tunes. I think I sang “Irish Ways and Irish Laws” and “Monto” the very first time I got on stage.
Shane MacGowan said that he never would have really become successful if they hadn’t been playing Irish music in London versus playing Irish music in Ireland.
Yeah. I get that. I do remember — I was pretty young when the Pogues were out — but I do remember a backlash against them because they weren’t doing these traditional songs the way the traditionalists felt they should be done. I think they might have had a hard time getting off the ground in Ireland. But in truth I think they started such an enormous enormous resurgence in Irish music. And also led to so much more diversity within Irish music. Or Celtic music or just Irish influence in other genres that’s really incredible what they did.
Is that why you’re doing a tribute concert to them?
It’s one of the reasons. I’m a huge fan. They released five albums and I think three of them are in my top three albums of all time, probably. I’ve enjoyed playing their music for a long time. We did a Pogues tribute concert at World Cafe last year and it was a huge success and it was also a ton of fun. And we learned a whole bunch of Pogues tunes. I had a seven-piece band together to do it. And we really just had a great time doing it, so we wanted to try doing it again.
Do you have anything to say about the Irish Music scene in Philadelphia in general?
I’ve got great relationships now with bunch of bands that are playing in the area. Frank Daly and C.J. from Jamison are just a force of nature. We’ve done the Philadelphia Fleadh with those guys the last two years. That was a huge bump for us to get exposed like that to fans of Irish music in the area. We did the Session podcast with Joe [Kirschen] from The Hooligans. That was another wonderful thing, and he’s doing those now on a monthly basis. And he’s had great acts just sort of show up at his living room and really show what they can do. It’s just really showing how good the musicians are. A lot of people dismiss Irish music as just drinking music or sad songs. Joe has just these amazing musicians like Gabriel Donohue and the guys from Blackthorn, and you just get to see how fantastic they are. It was great. Doing the Fleadh the past couple years, there’s a lot of local bands playing at that. And the skill level is very high. I think this area has a lot going for it.