Crafting songs is a complex creative process and the recent annual Belfast Nashville Songwriting (BelNash) Festival – so successful this year it expanded from 40 to around 90 events - not only offered excellent performances but also intriguing glimpses into the intricacies of the art form itself.
The kernels for lyrics and musical notes sprout from a myriad of situations and this year’s 10-day festival - the 10th in the annual series organised by hardworking duo Colin Magee and Anne Coulter, and Panarts, featuring 100 songwriters - revealed some intriguing ones.
Take for example Kris D. Marsden who launched his EP in Belfast’s cozy, downtown ‘Sunflower Bar,’ located in what was once a dangerous ‘No Mans’ Land’ between the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road, but now a thriving, two-floor contemporary and traditional music venue.
Kris suffers from the condition known as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD for short. In some people, the anxiety disorder manifests itself in compulsive needs, for example, excessive orderliness. In Kris’s case, the symptoms are more internal, sometimes called the ‘Pure O’ form, often exhausting him in a mind-consuming demand for the same thoughts to be turned over and over again in his head. Kris promptly turned his difficulty into an opportunity - “Ten hours straight trying to problem solve a troublesome thought” as he described it - and penned the song “Never Ending Loop,” which brilliantly captures the effects OCD has on him. Hopefully, he enjoyed a healthy dose of therapy at the same time. Interestingly, Kris works at the Armstrong Learning NI Limited, where he teaches literacy through the medium of music.
Other examples from performers at the festival’s various venues, such as the Holiday Inn and the Empire Music Hall, that reflected the diverse origins of songs included -
‘Homeless All My Life’ - by Steve Dan Mills, co-founder of Speed Limit 35, one of the first psychedelic-rock bands in the southern US. This song was inspired after the mustachioed singer, who now lives in England, exited a highway during the Reagan presidency - a time when funding for mental health projects was severely reduced - and saw a man holding a placard saying, “I’ll Work for Food.” The song is featured on his new CD entitled "Inside Out Lookin' In.”
‘If I Could Take Your Place’ - by Justin McGurk, a plaintiff, heart-rending song, written at a time when Justin’s child was just an infant and his wife suddenly developed breast cancer. Thankfully, she survived and is the musician’s greatest cheerleader (as is his child).
‘Faeries’ – by Wendy Jack. This song, which is light-hearted but also, strangely mysterious, some might even say, dark and foreboding. The Tyrone-based singer-songwriter became enthralled with a poem by Donegal–born writer William Allingham called ‘The Faeries.’ Promptly she penned this song honoring his literary work. At BelNash she also performed a song she wrote while boating beneath the steep cliffs of Slieve Liag in south Donegal, the highest cliffs in Ireland. It was entitled ‘Derrylahan Dream.’
‘Flowers’ – by Billy Yates. Born in Doniphan, Missouri, and an American country music artist with six studio albums under his belt and four singles on the Billboard country charts, Billy wrote this song about his father and alcohol abuse. A fine song.
‘It’s Your Song’ – written by Benita Hill (who performed it beautifully at the BelNash festival) and Pam Wolfe. Blonde-haired Hill said it is a song about her mother, also a singer, who helped her in her career. Upon hearing that Garth Brooke’s mother, also a singer, had throat cancer she sent it to him. He made it into a hit, releasing it in November 1998 as the only single on his live album, Double Live, which reached number 9 on the US Billboard country singles charts.
‘Smile’ – penned by 18-year-old Triona Carville, who relates how every morning her father would try valiantly to wake up herself and her seven siblings, relying on what he termed his ‘morning happy hormone bell’ to do so. “It would make us smile,” she said on-stage at the Holiday Inn during the festival.
Other songs performed at the festival emerged from subjects as diverse as the recent movie ‘Saving Mr. Banks' about the meeting between author P.L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins, and Walt Disney (by Una Bahn); the death of Hank Williams; and goings-on at the Galtymore, Irish dance hall in Cricklewood, London.
This year’s Belfast Nashville (BelNash) Songwriters Festival featured 70 concerts and showcases and 17 workshops and music industry seminars, including a new event - Belnash Songtech with Dawsons.
Among the many festival acts were Chip Taylor, who wrote ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Angel of the Morning;’ Lee Roy Parnell, who brought on stage Donegal-based Ian Smith for a set; the Simon McBride Band; Rachel Hegarty; Gareth Dunlop, Belfast’s answer to ‘The Boss who was named Young Songwriter of the Year at the festival three years ago (“Wrap your arms around me” is the soundtrack to last year’s movie “Safe Haven”);’ the multi-talented Sands family of Tommy, Colum and Ben; legendary Donovan who has written over 500 songs with thirteen of them as Top 40 hits; and Bagatelle, the enduring Irish band, whose 35-year musical journey has featured such hits as “Summer in Dublin’ and “Second Violin’ and Bap Kennedy.
Mention must also be made of Belfast-based Sean McAuley who was the main songwriter for the group, ‘The Long Stay’ and penned wonderful song such as ‘Being Easy,’ ‘Calling Hoping Forgiving,’ and ‘Moody Day.' At the festival he played ‘Can't Ignore What's Mine.’
This year, festival organisers also produced a one-hour TV special from Belfast’s Empire Music Hall in partnership with Music City Roots Show, Nashville, which goes out across the US on the national Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Together with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and United Airlines, organisers flew four singer-songwriters to Nashville this month where they met influential figures on the American country music scene and showcased their work, their concerts receiving high acclaim at the world famous Bluebird Café.
The lucky four were Wilfie Gilbert from Holywood; Peter McVeigh from Belfast; Stephen McCartney from Bangor and 18-year-old Triona from Crossgar, who launched her EP at a festival concert. Main sponsors of the festival were The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and United Airlines. Interestingly, Belfast has a city sister progamme with Nashville.