John McSherry - piping in the moment
John McSherry has been likened to a Jimi Hendrix of the pipes, a John Coltrane of the chanter even. Flattering comparisons, of course, but not perhaps the one the Belfast-born uilleann piper would chose himself.
McSherry, whose band At First Light begins its first Scottish tour tomorrow in a double header with Shetland fiddler Chris Stout’s quintet for the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune-up series, has just released an album of the year contender in Tripswitch.
Recorded in partnership with his At First Light colleague, fiddler Donal O’Connor, the album drops a big hint on its opening track about who McSherry might have wanted to be, if he hadn’t taken up the pipes. Two big hints, in fact: there’s the influence of Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love on the guitar part, but one particularly bluesy dragged note McSherry cheerfully acknowledges as his own Jimmy Page moment. There’s even a slight resemblance between the two musicians.
McSherry grew up in a household where traditional music albums and rock albums vied for turntable time.
"I used to listen to my dad’s Planxty albums and just feel the emotion in Liam O’Flynn’s piping, it was so soulful," he says. "Then Paddy Keenan came along with the Bothy Band and we had the Led Zep records, and it always seemed to me that the uilleann pipes were just as exciting as an electric instrument. We never compartmentalised the music, just took it all in, and actually there have been bits stolen from Led Zep on other records I’ve made too."
His first set of pipes arrived when he was eleven. By this time, he’d already been playing tin whistle for two years, essentially preparing for the pipes. The family all played musical instruments or sang. Later, the McSherry siblings would join together in the group Tamalin. Before that, though, young John had an obsession to deal with.
"When those pipes finally arrived, I practised like mad," he says. "Five hours a day was the norm and if I had to go through a day without practising, I’d cry. It’s sad, I know. But when I hadn’t practised properly, I’d go up to my room and just finger the chanter for an hour before I went to bed, playing tunes in my head. I’d do the same thing in school, doing the fingering on a pencil. The teacher must have thought I was away with the fairies."
His self-imposed regime paid off when after just six months, he entered the All-Ireland Championships and came third in the Under 12 section. He went on to win the senior title and at the age of eighteen became the youngest player to win the coveted Oireachtas piping competition.
By this time, he was on his way to a professional career that has seen him co-found the outstanding band Lunasa, join Irish music guru Donal Lunny in Coolfin and record sessions with Clannad, Sinead O’Connor and Nanci Griffith, among many others, as well as working in theatre productions.
"I pretty much gave up competing as soon as I’d won the titles I was after," he says. "But it was a great foundation for what came later and the social aspect was really useful too. I got to meet loads of people and swap tunes with them, but it also gave me the confidence to walk into a session, in both the informal music making and recording senses, and feel quite comfortable playing something totally spontaneously."
Spontaneity is a major part of McSherry’s game plan. With Coolfin, a group that otherwise sounded drilled to the nth degree, the solo spots he played were always completely improvised.
"There were times when it went horribly wrong and I’d think, what was all that about? But I preferred to leave it to chance because when it turned out right, that was such a great feeling," he says.
Since McSherry’s opposite number on the upcoming tour, Chris Stout’s music has a spontaneous element also, the two bands seem ideally matched.
"Some people in traditional music get a bit nervous when you use the word improvisation but it doesn’t mean you’re playing wildly all over the place," says McSherry.
"It might mean playing one note because on the pipes you can put a lot of different emotions into that one note. For me, it’s just the case that whatever embellishments I add to a tune are that day’s embellishments and reflect the way I happen to feel at the time, rather than playing the same thing over and over again."
From The Herald, May 17, 2006.