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Declan Sinnott - It's never too late for backroom boy to move centre stage

Declan Sinnott has tale to tell that defies the general impression of the music industry’s twin fixations with youth and established stars. At sixty-one, the singer and guitarist from Wexford who has guided the recording careers of such Irish success stories as Mary Black, John Spillane and Sinead Lohan, and who for the past thirteen years has been accompanist and travelling companion to Christy Moore, had long since given up thoughts of starting a recording career of his own.

He’d had brushes with stardom. As the guitarist with Irish folk-rock pioneers Horslips, Sinnott managed to walk out on a point of principle – one of the band’s early songs was used as an advertising jingle – before they became one of Ireland’s most popular attractions of the time. Sinnott was also in at the start of Moving Hearts, whose album The Storm remains a benchmark of Irish music.

While he was content to be Moore’s foil, however, unbeknownst to Sinnott someone was watching him. The head of mighty Warner Bros’ UK classical and jazz division, no less, has a holiday home near where Sinnott and had been catching some of the low-profile gigs Sinnott plays in the local pub between tours with Moore.

“He said he’d seen me five or six times and wondered what I thought about making an album of my own,” says Sinnott with the air of surprise still noticeable in his voice. “I thought, I’m sixty-one, there’s a recession on and record companies aren’t doing very well. Everything’s against this. I have to say yes.”

As he began work on what would become I Love the Noise it Makes, Sinnott realised that he’d set the bar fairly high in working on other singers’ recordings and that people would be expecting a similar standard from him. He also hadn’t written a song in a long time.

“Songwriting had gone off my radar, to be honest,” he says. “With Mary [Black], I’d be looking for the right material from other sources. Mary also had her own ideas of what she wanted to sing and with Sinead and John, they were songwriters themselves. It was my job to find the musical picture, if you like, that set them off in their best light.”

Sitting down to work with Owen O’Brien, a friend with whom he’d written before, Sinnott soon began to feel that, yes, he could produce an album of his own that would stand comparison with his other production work. He and O’Brien, he says, inspired each other in a big way and with I Love the Noise it Makes creating a strong reaction, he’s already looking towards the follow-up.

“I was always fascinated by songs and how they worked,” says Sinnott. “I wrote a lot in my teens and early twenties and then I got heavily into American roots music and I started trying to emulate other people. I lost the idea of what I wanted to say, so there wasn’t the impetus to write and because I was working with Mary or Christy, I always had a gig. I didn’t need to think about making my own records. Lack of confidence played its part, too, but if I’d really needed to, I think I would have been able to do make an album.”

On recent tours Moore has been encouraging Sinnott to take centre stage in feature spots that have let the Christy Moore audience hear that the man who seems to unerringly find just the right guitar setting for whatever Moore has chosen to sing can deliver a song himself. Moore is on record as saying that, were it not for Sinnott, he wouldn’t tour any more. So what’s the view from the other chair on the stage?

“Working with Christy has been brilliant,” says Sinnott. “It’s hard to explain exactly what goes on when we’re up there. He has such presence as a singer and he hardly ever misses the target as an interpreter. No two nights are the same and that’s great because most situations I’ve been in, you get into a rut after a while and that hasn’t happened with Christy. Possibly it’s because we never have a set-list, and that’s the way I work on my own shows. I don’t have the history of songs that Christy does but I probably have twice as many as I need and I play them, sometimes very quietly, sometimes a bit more forcefully, the way that feels right in the moment.”

From The Herald, October 16, 2013.

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