Sonny Condell

TrackAlbum
MoondustCamouflage
Down In The CityCamouflage
Movie Of YouCamouflage
BackwaterawhileCamouflage
Forever FrozenSomeone To Dance With
Wishful ThinkingFrench Windows
Dust Of FrostFrench Windows
Falling Apple SoundSwallows And Farms
Don QuixoteSeize The Day
Seize The DaySeize The Day

Sonny Condell photo 1

Leo O’Kelly and Sonny Condell (right) – Tír na nÓg in 1973

 

 

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm
Sonny Condell playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

I checked while researching this piece and the TV programme aired on 31st October 1977. It was a long-forgotten show on RTE (the Irish national broadcaster) called Me And My Music. The artist on it that night was Sonny Condell (a picture from that show can be seen here). I was so impressed by his music that night that soon afterwards I bought his debut solo album, Camouflage. For me, at least, this remains one of the great ‘lost’ albums by an Irish artist. There is a magical quality to the record, one where all of the various elements that had influenced Condell’s music up to that point – classical, folk and jazz music – come together to create a unique fusion. Its distinctive sound-world means that the benchmarks against which the album should be judged are the best ones produced by Condell’s contemporaries such as John Martyn and Nick Drake. So …

 

Who is Sonny Condell?

He was born in Newtownmountkennedy in County Wicklow in the east of Ireland in 1949. He grew up in a musical household where his mother played the piano and sang and his father collected classical records. As a teenager, his interest in music was further fuelled through hearing Bob Dylan’s early work. He was also influenced by other artists like the Beatles, Donovan and Joni Mitchell; from Mitchell’s work he developed an interest in open guitar tunings, one which continued for the rest of his musical career.

After briefly forming a band, Tramcarr 88, with his cousin, John Roberts, Condell eventually joined forces with the Carlow-born songwriter, Leo O’Kelly, to form the band, Tír na nÓg (Irish for land of the young). After playing a few gigs together in Ireland in 1969, they decided to try their luck in England and moved there in the following year. Through a chance meeting in a pub with someone who worked in a recording studio, they got the opportunity to record their first demo. They then brought the results around to Island Records who passed on the group but suggested that they should go to Chrysalis Records to see if they were interested. After doing so, they were offered a contract by the company which they duly signed.

Over the next three years, Tír na nÓg made three albums, which were characterised by a kind of infectious freshness and innocence. They also featured excellent close harmony singing by Leo and Sonny. Here’s a live clip from 1970:

The music of Tír na nÓg also fitted in well with the hippy ‘peace and love’ ethos of the times. Throughout this time, they also toured extensively, often supporting well-known bands like Jethro Tull and Procol Harum. They also played with some more unlikely headline acts including the Who and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In their early days, John Peel also regularly championed them. Indeed, he featured them on his radio show on several occasions in 1972 and 1973. Sadly, however, while the band become very popular as a live act, they never achieved any real commercial success beyond a relatively narrow ‘cult’ audience. The financial difficulties that this caused – and which were further exacerbated by the strain of almost incessant touring – eventually led Tír na nÓg to split up in 1974.

Following the breakup of the band, Condell moved back to Ireland. There he met a group of other musicians including Greg Boland, the guitarist, Fran Breen, the drummer, and Jolyon Jackson, the keyboardist and cello player. This group introduced him to the improvisatory jazz-fusion music then being pioneered by artists like Miles Davis and Weather Report. Their music encouraged Condell to take a more free-form approach to his own songwriting. In his own words, he now aimed to “write songs that could give freedom to the band to paint within a structure”. As a result, when he came to make his first solo album, Camouflage, in 1977, Condell was fortunate enough to work with a group of musicians who were keen on this kind of musical exploration.

 

Where I came in – Camouflage and beyond

There was a unity of mood and consistency of artistic vision to Camouflage which means that it bears comparison with earlier masterpieces like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. There was also a new depth and soulfulness to Condell’s songwriting throughout the record, which made it his most impressive achievement up to that point. One of the reasons for its sustained excellence was the high quality of the musicians who played on it. These included Boland, Brennan, and Jackson along with the superb double bassist, Ciarán Brennan from Clannad, and the brilliant flautist, Brian Dunning. At times, there was also a clear John Martyn influence on the record, although given the fact that they were contemporaries and had absorbed many of the same influences in their early days on the music scene, this was hardly surprising.

The gentler songs on Camouflage also have some echoes of Nick Drake (indeed Tír na nÓg that been one of the first groups to record a cover of one of his songs, Free Ride. This was also long before the cult around Drake began to grow. Despite these influences, however, it was always clear that Condell had an individual style of his own and a distinctive poetic voice.

Moondust – my first choice from the record – is a lovely mellow jazz-influenced song. By contrast, Down In The City is one of Condell’s distinctive rhythmically driven songs. It is also beautifully atmospheric and evocative (Sonny talks about how he came to write it here). Through the later version he did with the group Scullion, it is also probably his best-known song in Ireland.

For comparison sake the original version is here.

Condell’s taste for unusual rhythms is also evident on the next selection, Movie Of You. This is a superbly free-flowing song, which also features some brilliant bass playing by Brennan with Breen on drums. Condell’s other career as a graphic artist may also have influenced the ‘flashing chain of images’ which appear in the song.

My last pick from Camouflage, Backwaterawhile, is one of my favourite Condell songs. It has a beautifully laid-back feel which is vaguely reminiscent of some of Nick Drake’s early work. Although it is over 40 years since I bought the LP, when I listen to it still retains the same magical quality it had when I first heard it.

Since the release of Camouflage, Condell’s solo work has appeared quite sporadically. This is because he has fitted in around his other work – mainly with the group Scullion but also with the reformed Tír na nÓg. My remaining selections are drawn from the best songs on those solo albums. These remain relatively obscure even in Ireland. The first of these, Forever Frozen, comes from his 1994 CD, Someone To Dance With. It is one of his most beautiful love songs. It also features some nicely atmospheric harmonica playing by his Scullion bandmate, Philip King. There is some fine viola playing from Máire Breatnach, who also provides an excellent backing vocal.

 

French Windows – Condell’s third solo album, first released in 1999 – is in my opinion his best after Camouflage. It has a harder edged ‘rockier’ sound than most of his other work and features an excellent backing band, including Neil MacColl (Ewan’s son) on electric and acoustic guitar. It also benefits from the production skills of Graham Henderson, who has also worked with bands like Dervish. My first choice from it is Wishful Thinking, the punchy opening track.

Dust Of Frost (see live clip above the links below) is another of Condell’s trademark gentle ballads, with some of the unexpected chord shifts which give his music bite. It also evokes the rural landscape in County Wicklow where he grew up. It does so in a way that is vaguely reminiscent of some of the works of the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh. My next choice – the Nick Drake-esque Falling Apple Sound from his 2013 album, Swallows And Farms – also celebrates country life It also displays his keen powers of observation and his ability to evoke a keen sense of a particular time and place in his songs.

 

My final picks come from the 2017 album, Seize The Day, a collaboration with the poet, Patrick Kehoe. Despite the fact that he is setting someone else’s words to music, the album displays that seamless marriage between the two which has been a hallmark of Sonny’s work. My first selection, Don Quixote, has a vaguely Leonard Cohen-ish feel. The song itself, however, is strong enough to bear this comparison

The last selection, Seize The Day, is one of my favourite of Sonny’s later songs. Like much of his work, it has a deceptive simplicity on the surface which hides of the complexity of its musical structure. It also has that lovely – slightly melancholy – mellowness which characterises his best work. Indeed, the whole album displays Condell’s continued excellence as a songwriter. The sustained quality of his work over close to 50 years means that he deserves to be far better known than he is.

 

 

Conor O’Hara’s 2010 documentary on the life of Sonny Condell

 

 

 

Sonny Condell photo 2

 

Sonny Condell bandcamp

Tír na nÓg official website

Scullion official website

Tony Clayton-Lea interviews Sonny Condell (Irish Times, 2010)

Conor O’Hara chats with Sonny Condell
(Meet the Songwriters at IMRO’s Culture Night, January 2011)

Tír na nÓg (Record Collector, 2016)

My cultural life: Sonny Condell (Irish Independent, 2017)

Sonny Condell biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

Here are just some of Andrew’s other posts on Irish musicians on this site:
Willie Clancy, Clancy Brothers, Dubliners, Johnny Duhan, Séamus Ennis, Joe Heaney, Horslips, Seán Keane, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Seán Ó Riada, Planxty

TopperPost #928

4 Comments

  1. Conor O'Hara
    Jan 16, 2021

    Thank you Andrew for this lovely article, and thank you for sharing the link to my student documentary. I also played drums in Sonny’s band in 2005/2006 with Garvan Gallagher & Paul Barrett. Fond memories and good times – we did some improv and flew high with the audience on many occasions. Sonny is a sweetheart. Best wishes from the Scottish Highlands.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jan 18, 2021

    Thanks for the kind words Conor and for making the excellent documentary. Found it very useful when researching this piece. Lucky you – getting to work with Sonny. Thanks again.

  3. Breffni Scally
    Oct 1, 2021

    Condell is the greatest songwriter Ireland has produced in 50 years. Yes, he is. Tho’ he is by himself produced, d’ye see?

  4. Andrew Shields
    Oct 3, 2021

    Breffni – thanks for comment – agree that Sonny is a unique talent.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓