NYC musical luminary JOE HURLEY’s collaboration with award-winning author Colum McCann strikes a chord with audiences across the globe

By: Erik Philbrook, August 2010

“I need to leave New York to clear my head a lot,” says singer-songwriter Joe Hurley. “Everyone should experience the glorioushappenstance that is everywhere.” Fortunately, Hurley has ample opportunity to do that these days. He recently performed at the opening night of Ireland’s West Belfast Festival, and in September he will appear as a “Musical Artist in Residence” at the International Berlin Literature Festival. A London-bred, Irish-blooded New Yorker, Hurley also recently basked in the glory of international audiences singing along to songs he co-wrote with Colum McCann, the National Book Award-winning author of Let the Great World Spin, a sweeping social novel set in 70’s New York City. The songwriter and the novelist collaborated on a “mini-album” of songs inspired by a character in McCann’s book, a prostitute named Tillie. The two writers then launched the book and CD, entitled The House That Horse Built (Let the Great World Spin), on a soldout tour of Europe, from London to Vienna, Paris to Berlin.

Written before McCann’s book was released, the CD (now available on iTunes), was produced by Don Fleming and features an amazing all-star cast of musicians. It is the latest unexpected twist in Hurley’s eclectic and prolific career. In addition to fronting two bands, Rogues March and The Gents, he has sung and/or recorded with a wildly diverse mix of artists, including Ian Hunter, Sam Shepard, Marianne Faithfull, Judy Collins and Jimmy Webb, Shane MacGowan, PJ Harvey, The Waco Bros, The Nick Drake Orchestra, Andrea Marcovicci, Nellie McKay, Steve Wynn and many more.

With J.J. Abrams (Lost) on board to produce a film version of Let the Great World Spin, Hurley and McCann’s unique collaboration should continue to garner great interest. Hurley recently spoke to Playback about the project.

How did this project come together?

It came about from a late-night phone call. My friend Colum asked me to read a chapter about Tillie, this 38 year-old black prostitute from the Bronx who was in jail in 1974. She’s reflecting on her tragic life. He asked me to write a song about her. Of course, I wrote it right away and it completely moved me. That lead to another song, and another song, and it became a bit of an epic, which became this mini-album.

What was Colum’s response to your songs?

I invited him down to hear the music and lyrics I had written. We were sitting in this East Village garden and I played them on guitar, and, luckily, he just loved them. When I sang the chorus to the title track, “Let the Great World Spin,” I don’t think I’ve ever seen him light up like that before. We then worked on the lyrics together, swapping lines and phrases until the incredibly complex emotions of this incredible character – her words, her raw ache, her voice – just locked. We both knew at once that we had captured the essence of her soul.

That must have been such a triumphant feeling

It was a relief. Colum is one of the world’s great writers. And this woman is such an extraordinary character. For him to tell me that I had captured her was a beautiful and truly humbling moment. Because we were fans of each other’s work, we had a shared vision of where we wanted to go with this. So, if a line was too pretty, if it didn’t seem to go with her character, we’d chuck it away into the wind until it came back more shattered.

Why do you think you and Colum click so well as writers?

We both have that outsider’s perspective. For instance, I’m a New Yorker, but I grew up in London, and I’m Irish. So, there’s an outsider’s perspective in me and that gives me a degree of empathy, an entrance into certain people’s souls, especially the ones that maybe fall through the cracks, who want to belong somewhere, but who are too broken to even know where that might be. We both love to tell their stories, and they deserve telling. I like to have my heart broken. I personally need the melancholy to soothe my soul. The ballads are in my blood.

Has entering the character of Tillie’s world changed your songwriting since?

Working with Colum was a whole new world. After we recorded, we did a European tour. Everywhere we went the songs struck an incredible chord with the crowds. We played ships in Hamburg, palaces in Paris, bookshops, 200 year-old theatres in Vienna. Colum would read from the book, and then I would immediately play, just me and a J-45, but, man, I had some great backing vocalists, some with French accents, some German, some Austrian, which was incredible to me because they had never heard these songs before. That told me that the songs proved to be universal in their understanding of the character. That truly moved me.

Tell me about the great group of musicians with whom you worked on recording.

The band for the recording included myself on guitar and voice; my band the Gents, including James Mastro [Ian Hunter] on guitar, Tony Shanahan (Patti Smith) on bass, Kenny Margolis (Cracker) on piano/accordion, Megan Weeder on violin; and special guests Matt Sweeney ( Bonnie Prince Billy, Johnny Cash) on acoustic guitar, Denis Diken (The Smithereens) on drums, the gospel choir of soul legend Tami Lynn ( The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, Dr John, Bob Dylan), soul-singing film star Antonique Smith (Notorious) and ingenue Faith Hahn, Joe Mcginty on organ, and six-time Grammy-winning Irish music legend Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains. It was produced By Don Fleming (Nancy Sinatra, Sonic Youth, Pete Yorn, Alice Cooper, Hunter S. Thompson). Don was great. He knew what Colum and I wanted, and he got it from everyone. What a cast of brilliant players from such diverse backgrounds. You’d never find a group like this again in a million years of recording sesssions. They were perfect, and they all got “it.” – the desolate dark mood we wanted to evoke, the sleazy streets and sirens of 1974, with just that glimmer of hope in the form of the “angels” – my gospel ladies.

As Tami Lynn said to me, “It was one of those rare, magical times when everyone truly lost themselves in the songs.”

In His Own Words: Joe Hurley on the Wild End of the Recording, Paddy Moloney and the Final Mix

{Editor’s note: Ah, the Irish! Storytelling courses through their veins like a mountain brook. My interview with Joe Hurley was a gushing well of funny, fascinating anecdotes about his experiences working with an incredible range of fellow writers and musicians. Unfortunately, I ran out of time and had to wrap up our conversation. He was so eager to tell me the story of the final recording of his “Spin” project, I suggested sending it to me in an email. Well, he must have poured himself another cup of espresso and got right to it. By the next morning, a “short” story appeared in my in-box. Below is Joe’s entertaining account of the completion of his CD, a highly-suspenseful story about artistic endurance in the face of modern recording techniques and punishing tour schedules. Spoiler: It does have a happy ending.}

At the end of the recording of the “Spin” songs, I wrote a gospel coda at the last minute. Tillie hung herself in the tombs, but she had worth and dignity, so I wanted her “sung home,” wherever that might be. She deserved that bit of hope. So I reworked the chorus of “Let the Great World Spin,” changed the chords to give it a simple gospel feel, wrote some new lyrics, and called in the tambourine, the organ and the ladies, Tillie’s choir, her angels. She never had a chance in this world, so lets give her one in the next. With those voices carrying her home, we left her in very good company

So it seemed we were done, but not quite. For the section “hanging from the pipes (let the great world spin without me)” I knew we still needed a little something extra, sparse but chilling, the sound of death coming for her. I’d recently been singing with The Chieftains and Paddy Moloney is a great gent. Top, top guy. I knew him playing his pipes here would capture that haunting mood, that tragic resignation when you know it’s time to let go. But we’d run out of time. The book launch was in three days in London, and it had been decided that this was to be the promo debut of the CD also. Yet we needed this part. So I called Paddy, and he picked up right away and sounded tired. He said “Hey Joe, how are ya? I’ll tell ya where I am. I’m stuck on a bloody plane at LA airport, supposed to be flying home to Ireland, but we’ve been on the bloody tarmac for three hours without moving, and I’m hungry. So what are you up to Joe?”

This was not an ideal time for me to ask him to record a part for an album in the next 48 hours. But I did, and incredibly, he graciously agreed to do so as soon as the plane landed in Dublin. If the plane landed in Dublin.

Then suddenly I heard the captain’s voice saying “we are now cleared for take-off.” So Paddy had only a few seconds to give me the name and phone number of his engineer at the Dublin recording studio to send him the tracks so he’d be prepared. He said, “Ah, jeez, I can’t find his number. Ah wait, here it is, Joe.” I could barely hear him with all commotion going on, but I just got the number before the phone went dead. I called the engineer in Dublin, left a message for him. Then I rung up Don Fleming in Cape Cod, where he’d brought his studio gear to finalize the mixes while on summer holiday with his family, (he’d been sending me mixes from the Cape and we were madly trying to agree on a final one) and told him that Paddy was a go and please send his engineer the tracks right away. I then dashed to the airport myself to fly to London. Perfect, I thought. Now the album would be completed the way I heard it and wanted it to be.

When I landed I was picked up by my friends and whisked home to Greenwich. I called the Dublin engineer, and he’d yet to recieve the tracks. And somehow Paddy was already in the studio, pipes at the ready, patiently waiting for the tracks to arrive, his luggage at his feet, jet lagged and shattered from the long journey home. LA to Dublin with a three hour wait on the tarmac. Dear God, the track wasnt there. So I called Don on the Cape and he said “The Internet’s crashed on the whole damn island. I’m driving to every damn cafe, every damn with all my studio gear, but no luck. It’s all down.” 36 hours to go before the London book launch, Don’s on Cape Cod with no Internet, Paddy’s in a Dublin studio with no track, I’m in London with no clue what to do, we’re all in different time zones, and on top of it all, Colum was apparently on a train from London to Greenwich to listen to the final tracks.

I called Paddy back, told him what we were looking for with the pipes, the storyline, the distant drone I wanted fading in and out, the chilling call of death, (which is what we all felt was imminent at that point), and just then, the landline rings. It’s Don: “Hey man, it’s all back up. I’m sending tracks right now to dublin.”

A minute later Paddy’s on the phone with me and was listening to the song! 40 minutes later, Paddy sent his recorded parts to me, played over the song. I listened and I was ecstatic, so ecstatic that I tripped & fell over my suitcase, hit my head on the stove, laid out on the floor. But it didn’t matter a bit, I’m a big Inspector Clouseau fan, and I was actually laughing. It was there. Everything I’d wanted and more, beautiful playing, gorgeous hint of darkness, death in the air, the pipes floating over the very still and soft vocal, exquisite. Paddy had travelled 5,000 miles, hadn’t slept in two days, and had somehow managed to record this stunning piece in 40 mins. What can you say to that? Pure genius. Pure class. The one and only Paddy Moloney.

I sent it on to Don who mixed Paddy’s parts in the songs, three mixes, and sent it back to me for my points and to choose which one to use. I’m not sure anymore if it was 6 am my time or 6 am Don’s time, or whose house I was in, what a pipe was, who was waiting for who, whether it was morning or night, and here I was in Greenwich, London, home of Greenwich Mean time, where all time zones around the world are sussed. You couldn’t make it up if you tried. And I’m sitting in a dark study, alone, playing the mixes over and over again, listening and listening…

Then there was light and chatter. Must be morning. It wasn’t. It was noon, and I was definitely in London, and it was definitely the day of the launch. The mix had to be chosen now. Or we woudn’t make it. So I went downstairs, and was given tea & breakfast. Lovely. Take it easy. This will work out. Then i looked up and saw everyone.

As i suspected, I’m at the home of my oldest friend Clive Selley. We’d grown up together, life-long mates and been through many mad times, but this day was clearly a circus in the making. Clive and his whole family were there, My musician pals from down the road who had somehow found a quick CD pressing plant, same day service, they were there, Colum McCann was there, myself, possibly the next door neighbour (who happens to be the agent of novelist Roddy Doyle, Colum’s pal),and we all went outside and sat round this huge picnic table in their beautiful English country garden, pots of tea pouring, sunshine and flowers everywhere, all eyes peeled to the boombox in middle of table. I hit play. So this is how the prostitute from the Bronx in 1974 in the novel came to be in London that summer day.

We listened intently to the three mixes. All of us, 14 opinions. None the same, all good points. More tea please. Colum and I hanging on every word. Is that a violin or a keyboard? Well, I always like guitars up in mix. Are the sausages all gone? Piano sounds good, leave it there. That’s the best one by far. No it isn’t, can’t hear acoustic guitar loud enough. Are you mad? No, but you must be deaf mate. Pipes should be louder. Pipes should be softer. There are pipes? Oh good, there are more sausages, thanks mum.

Everyone agreed they all sounded great. no one mix clearly the best one. All objectivity was gone by now. But I had a feeling…a good one. All the work that had gone into our creation was about to be finalized. People started milling around the house, pottering about the garden, they’d heard the mixes 10 times, given their opinions and I found myself alone with Clive’s 14 year-old son, Joe.

Just Joe and Joe. He’s a very sharp kid, a great listener, thoughtful, I love the lad, and so i asked him. “It’s up to you now, Joe. You decide please.”

He paused, and then said “Well, I’m not a musician, but…the third mix is clearly the best because your vocals blend with the pipes in such a way that I can see her. Tillie, is that her name? Yeah, Tillie in the prison cell, at the end, all hope gone, I really sense it, and i can almost hear her cry, but silently, the way they do in really old films on the telly, where nothing comes out, but you know she’s in terrible pain…and the stillness gave me goosebumps. so did the haunting pipes. Its very eerie and calming at once, makes it even sadder, and your voice, Joe, is so broken, and soft, you give her dignity,and theres a sense of everything ending… a life being over…yeah, definitely the third mix.”

I was amazed. 14 year old Joe had just verbalized everything I wanted and picked the track I liked the best. I hugged him. It was done. I called Don, the mix was sent from Cape Cod to the plant in London. Initial pressings arrived in Greenwich at 6pm via courier, we all caught the train to Charing Cross: Colum, myself, young Joe, everyone, and walked together in brilliant sunshine to the gorgeous Bloomsbury Houseboat on the Thames for Colum’s official UK book launch and our CD’s debut. 7.55pm. We were five minutes early. Jesus wept.

The boat was already packed, press, friends, Bloomsbury folks, fans and all of us. Colum read from the book, and got an ovation. Then he introduced me, & our CD project, and I sang the songs live. Then, we played the CD for the first time. The CEO of Bloomsbury was singing along. Everyone was. Colum and myself went to the back of the boat for a smoke. “Its a masterpiece Joe,” he said. “A fucking masterpiece.” “Look at them in there, singing along to choruses” We grinned, laughed hysterically for a bit. Then I said “You know you’re gonna win the National Book Award, don’t you? Cos you are.”

We looked at each other for a minute, hard and long and knowing.Then we both looked up at the twinkling lights of Waterloo Bridge over the gentle river. “I’ll bet Paddy Moloney’s sleeping right now,” I said. “Yeah and maybe Don too,” Colum added.

And the next night, the tour began in Paris…

For more info on Joe Hurley visit www.roguesmarch.com

Used with permission of ASCAP Playback. Playback Magazine is a publication of ASCAP, The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, http://www.ascap.com/playback/