Martin Hayes: “Spirit, energy and soul always trump technical ability”
Ralph McTell had something very different in mind when he penned the lyrics, “It’s a long way from Clare to here,” but for one of the country’s biggest music exports, life in Madrid must feel a far cry from his childhood days in the East Clare townland of Killanena .
Artin Hayes has been a Madrileño for six years and he loves life there. This is due to his Spanish wife Lena, whom he met at a concert – he was on stage, she was in the audience.
“I had never lived in continental Europe before,” he says, “and I was always drawn to the idea of, you know, what it would be like to live in one of these European cities. It is wonderful. We can live in Madrid without driving a car – we walk to the cafes, restaurants and the park. And being here during the pandemic really helped – there’s such an outdoor lifestyle here.”
When he chats via Zoom evaluation, he and Lena are in Asturias, a mountainous region in northern Spain. “We come here to the country from time to time.” It’s a kind of reminder of his rural childhood and the simple, leisurely way of life offers him the opportunity to invent new music and artistic collaborations.
Hayes has shared stages with many other musicians over the years – it’s the lifeblood of his craft – and he will play two shows with his newest band, the Common Ground Ensemble, at Dublin’s National Concert Hall this weekend.
The violinist, who has long been considered one of the country’s greatest exponents of this instrument, is no stranger to this place. Among his many performances are gigs he played as one-fifth of the traditional “supergroup” The Gloaming. “I have great memories from those shows,” he says. “This energy… not only on stage, but also in the audience. That’s what you feed on as a musician.”
He’s hoping for more of the same tonight and tomorrow. “They’re all incredible musicians,” he says of the Common Ground Ensemble, whose members include pianist Cormac McCarthy and cellist Kate Ellis. “When I’m in the room with them or sitting around with them, I have to deal with my own insecurities, musically, but I’ve always found that good for getting high.”
He likens the group to a house band capable of “embracing other forms of music” but also one that allows him a degree of “indulgence”. He’s embraced the make-it-up-as-you-go-long approach and believes that great music can be made when the shackles are thrown off. “I just enjoy the fact that they improvise boldly at every opportunity,” he says. “I love the fact that every time someone does a solo, it’s a different experience.”
Hayes released his memoir last year and it was widely acclaimed. His openness made the book compelling. “The publisher talked to me about doing a book. I like to talk about music and philosophize about it, so on that basis I agreed without really thinking that I would write a memoir. That wasn’t on the agenda at all. But I procrastinated endlessly and signed this deal…so I ended up getting it done in just over two months.”
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Shared Notes: A Musical Journey touches on everything from his upbringing in Co Clare to his drinking problems when he immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. In one memorable passage, he recounts the moment he broke a violin over the head of one of his bandmates, Paul McHugh. It’s hard to imagine this kind, gentle character doing such a thing – but it was an incident that encouraged him to make a concerted effort to quit drinking.
There are moments that also touch on philosophizing. One of his longstanding beliefs is that soulfulness trumps technical ability. “Sometimes we get carried away by the musicality, and while musicality is valuable, it’s not the be-all and end-all,” he says. “I’ve been listening to this Ukrainian band, DakhaBrakha, for the last week or two and here’s a band without a red hot musician or a great, great player, but my god it’s a fantastic band. It’s elemental and true and real.
“There are many other qualities that go into making music than just intellectual or technical ability. Many other things make music meaningful.”
Hayes says he would always prefer “spirit and energy and soul” to those who are highly competent but lack those qualities in any band. “I would still prefer a committed punk band to an advanced jazz band that still doesn’t say anything. It’s about the emotional expressiveness inherent in music.
“If someone has a genuine musical desire or desire to communicate, there is an absolute possibility for them, regardless of their technical ability, to make it happen. And there are people who might not matter much individually, but when they come together in a band, they can share and communicate and grow together around an idea and they can make great things happen.”
Hayes grew up in a family steeped in music. “My father [PJ] played violin and played in a band and he was connected to all these other musicians in Co Clare of his own generation and older. There was a constant flow of musicians into the house and a large part of the social fabric of our lives was with other musicians. This has been a constant throughout my life and I was very attracted to it.
“I mean, my father was a relatively well-known musician in traditional music circles since the 50’s and 60’s, so I had an open door for all these other great musicians like Tony MacMahon or Ciarán Mac Mathúna or Tommy Potts – they went on to be a big influence to me. As a kid, I had a real sense of that privilege.”
Like many young Irish people entering adulthood in the 1980s, he was forced to emigrate to find work. He ended up in Chicago and worked on construction sites. For a while, life and work got in the way of music, but the lure of playing the violin for others never waned.
“In my early 20s, it was about getting an income, getting a job, getting on with life, doing something sane.” He chuckles. “Music never seemed to fit into that matrix. I had no concept of being a professional traditional musician, but in America I drew on it. To just survive, I played gigs in bars and stuff like that.”
While playing tourist-friendly fares helped him pay the bills, he soon reached a crossroads. “I got to the point where I was like, ‘I have to make something real and serious about this. I can not play Black velvet ribbon and DannyBoy until I drop dead.’ I was bored with it, but it also felt demeaning. It was totally detached from the richness of my musical past.”
Meeting Irish-American guitarist Dennis Cahill in the Windy City changed everything for him. “It was a relationship of great trust and vulnerability, and great generosity on Dennis’s part. He’d say, ‘I don’t care about the limelight. I don’t care if I get credit for it. The question was always, “What would be a beautiful musical sound between the two instruments?” This could mean that he plays a note for two minutes, something utterly minimal and yet utterly beautiful and essential in its own way.
“I had a very special interpretation of traditional music that he focused his entire style and technique on. You don’t get an opportunity like that very often in your life and we had a tremendous impact on each other’s lives.”
For Hayes, it was the long collaboration that instilled in him the need to seek other creative partnerships and continually step outside of his comfort zone. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what’s creatively possible, and I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my own ideas,” he says. “Without theoretical music training, I didn’t have that. But over the years I realized that it wasn’t necessary – it was just knowing what you like and just trying.”
Martin Hayes and the Common Ground Ensemble play the National Concert Hall in Dublin tonight and tomorrow.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/martin-hayes-spirit-energy-and-soul-always-trump-technical-ability-41483650.html Martin Hayes: “Spirit, energy and soul always trump technical ability”