‘I was an only child who loved books and poetry’
Singer/songwriter Anthony Toner is back with his ninth album and an extensive tour. He talks to Helen McGurk about growing up in Coleraine and why he has realistic ambitions about his career
As an only child, Coleraine-born singer/songwriter Anthony Toner was a devout bookworm, spending hours escaping into make-believe worlds.
‘‘I was very bookish as youngster,’’ he says.
‘‘My parents really encouraged me to read. I would disappear into a book and my imagination would run riot; a by-product of that is you come out the other end with this huge vocabulary.
‘‘I was always really into poetry. The songs that I really admired when I started writing were by Paul Simon, Don McLean and Joni Mitchell, and I remember thinking these people don’t really say ‘oh, baby, baby’ all that often, they have something quite interesting to say and they’ve got stories to tell. Another big influence is Randy Newman, he’s terrific at writing songs in character point of view.’’
Toner’s love of words and lyricism is evident on his new album, Our Lady of the Wind and Rain, a finely crafted collection of songs, with sparkling wordplay that tumbles over catchy melodies.
This is his ninth studio album and sees Toner in upbeat mood on a selection that ranges from up-tempo blues to late night torch songs.
‘‘It’s the biggest sounding album I’ve had in a while,’’ says Toner of the new collection of songs, written and recorded during the summer and autumn.
‘‘The last few albums have been kind of quiet, introspective affairs. With this one, I wanted to go back to making some noise again.’’
The songs on the album exist like poems or short stories that cut to the core of human existence, giving an insight into human frailty and vulnerability.
He sings of cul-de-sacs and middle age, divorce, drowning his sorrows with supermarket vodka - capturing moments in life with a subtle acuity, set to flowing melodies and comforting hooks.
‘‘I’m 53 now and those issues do start to circulate - marriage breakdowns, kids growing up and moving away, that’s the age group that I am in now - those are the stories that we tend to hear. There’s no point in me trying to write younger, I could do that but it would be dishonest. I want to say something, I want to reflect in a song.’’
In the track One for the Black Box he sings: ‘‘On the Hill Street it’s raining hen nights and high heels as well.
‘‘They go clacking up the cobblestones like new born gazelles.’’
The song creates a full sensory event - pictures form in your head and you are taken to place he sings about.
Another memorable, mellow and beautiful song is Night in the Drowned House, one of the most personal on the album.
He says: ‘‘A lot of that is looking back on my parents - my mother died a few years ago and my father is in care with Alzheimer’s. It’s about me looking back on childhood.’’
Rather than singing with some phony mid-Atlantic accent, Toner’s Coleraine accent is there in all its unadulterated glory.
‘‘You can’t take it out of the boy,’’ he laughs.
‘‘I played in bars for years and I sang cover versions in an American accent all night.
‘‘When I started to do my own thing I wanted it to feel different from that.’’
Growing up, Anthony was immersed in music, although neither of his parents played an instrument.
‘‘My parents were really into country music and rock ‘n’ roll - and quite old rock ‘n’ roll. I was born in 1965 and you would think that I would grow up with the Beatles and the Kinks, but actually I was growing up with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Fats Domino.
‘‘My father bought me a guitar when I was 10 and it lay in the corner of a room and I had no idea what to do with it for many years. My uncle Tommy showed me how to play Oh my darling Clementine on it and I started to play a little bit. But it was really when I hit the age of 16 and I heard James Taylor and Neil Young, the first time I heard acoustic guitar being really interestingly played. Then I started buying little instruction books and really taking it seriously.’’
At the minute Toner, who lives in Belfast with his wife Andrea, is in the middle of his most extensive tour yet, taking in a string of dates across Ireland and some new venues in Scotland and England, which are new territory for him.
He enjoys playing live and admits to having a glass of wine before a show to calm and give him confidence.
‘‘I find the songs take on a new life when you go out there and play them in front of people. Also you start to work out which songs really work and which don’t - and it’s been interesting for me to try that out.
‘‘Plus I am always a storyteller. I tell anecdotes in between songs and explain where the songs came from and I try to be as humorous as I can and people seem to really react to that as well - so it’s an evening of songs and stories. I genuinely do love the connection - it’s probably that only child thing.’’
Toner is realistic about the music industry, saying his ambition is just to keep on doing what he’s doing.
‘‘Genuinely, I have no illusions about stardom or making a fortune; I really enjoy the act of writing the songs and recording the album and putting it out. I enjoy going out and playing the songs and meeting audiences and connecting with them.
‘‘Don’t get me wrong, if somebody came and offered me a deal where I could retire to the Bahamas I’ll happily give it consideration, but I don’t think it’s likely the way the music business is now.’’