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Luke Daniels

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Luke Daniels was one of the first winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Musician award back in the days when Folk On Two came from the BBC specialist unit in Birmingham. He was the first of many - very young and an exceptional talent. Luke went on to become a significant ‘Irish’ folk musician, yet was born and raised in Oxfordshire and Reading.

For anyone wanting to explore the nature versus nurture discussion in respect to traditional music, Luke would be an interesting subject. His latest move has been to relocate his family to Hamilton, just south of Glasgow, announcing his arrival with a concert at Celtic Connections billed as The Luke Daniels Band. He has strong views on teaching, with plenty of experience to back it up and has set himself new challenges in his career path.

Luke’s early memories of folk music go back to when he was about seven years old. His parents were keen musicians, regularly going to folk festivals with Luke in tow. What was to have a profound influence on his future was contact with musicians from the Irish community who had come over to England to work in the building industry in Berkshire and Reading.

“I grew up in south Oxfordshire, but just across the border was Berkshire and Reading town. I didn't play English music, I played Irish music, because there were a lot of Irish musicians coming over in the mid-80s to work on the buildings - though not all of them, some of them would come and open pubs. There was a guy named Paddy Coyne, a six times Connaught button box champion, part of the Finbar Dwyer east Galway music tradition. He came to east Berkshire and opened a pub called the Kennet Arms. My musical education took off when I began pulling pints for him when I was about 9 or 10 and I began learning tunes from him. My dad would take me into the pub and he would record tunes for me. I remember the first lesson I had with him – he played a tune in two different keys and I spent the next week really worried that I wouldn't be able to play the two tunes at the same time, I didn't know enough about music to understand that you didn't combine the keys, you would play them in sequence. I would learn single row melodeon tunes like The Graf Spey and other tunes that use both the rows, like Rainy Day and stuff like that.”

So Luke didn't grow up through the standard streams, even for the traditional music. He wasn't involved in Comhaltas, the Irish teaching organisation, although he did get to the All Britain finals once, but was disqualified for playing Mrs MacLeod’s, because it was a Scottish tune. His parents were regulars at the Nettlebed Folk Club and visiting musicians would often stay with them, exposing Luke to more music including some of the legends of Irish music.

“I have some early memories. My dad had a live recording of Matt Molloy of the Chieftains. Various musicians would come through - either to play at Paddy Coyne's pub or to stay with my folks because we lived very close to the Nettlebed Folk Club. I remember Máirtín O'Connor would come to stay, and Mick Daly, Matt Crannitch and Dave Hennessy. I also remember the family band rehearsing downstairs and creeping down to listen to them.”

Luke was given a melodeon at the age of about eight and was told that by playing the box he could be the loudest person in the band. “Joe Burke was an extrovert player - if you were the box player then you were the main man, you were the centre of the party, always the loudest. And then I kind of disappeared behind this thing for about four or five years and no-one even bothered to listen to what I was doing, because I wasn't an extrovert.”

Hearing Dermot Byrne (recent winner of the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Traditional Musician Of The Year Award and box player with Altan) playing at a festival in Ireland proved to be a key moment for Luke. “I didn't really become obsessed about music until I heard Dermot Byrne play when I was about 14 or 15. Dermot would have been about 16 at the time. I went over to Ireland with my dad for two weeks and we drove around Ireland sleeping in the car. We went to Donegal and spent some time with the Campbells. They had close links with Slough and we knew them from Reading and the Slough Irish Centre.”

“We went down to Galway through connections we had with Paddy Coyne and went to the Galway Arts Festival - this would have been late 80s. Dermot Byrne was playing with Garry O'Briain on the mando-cello and Tommy Peoples. When I heard Dermot play, it was sublime and lyrical, and I just connected, because that was the kind of person I felt I was. I was a shy teenager and that was how I wanted to play. I had had a Máirtín O’Connor and a Jackie Daly phase - I had played like both of them - and then I had a very long musical period when I was just very keen to play as closely to Dermot as I possibly could. It is a credit to him that he was kind enough and open enough to say, ‘This is what I do, this is how I play,’ and it was a case of getting as many recordings of him as I could and just learning them off verbatim. And it was the best grounding you could possibly have as a box player, because even today, in my opinion, there is no-one who can even touch the way Dermot Byrne plays, it is just wonderful. I started the box when I was seven; Dermot started the box when he was three! It just falls out of him - it is lovely to see and it is a joy to hear him play.”

“But you can't play like someone else forever. If you have learned to play an instrument and you are playing like someone else then you are on the wrong road and inevitably you will be thrown off track. What happened with me to throw me off track was that I lost the ability to play. I had really bad problems with my fingers. It wasn't repetitive strain injury or tendonitis but something happened when I got to the age of about 17 and I could no longer move my fingers in the way that I could before, and it meant that I couldn't play all of the stuff that I had played when I brought out the first record, Tarantella. Tarantella was jam packed with ridiculously difficult accordion music, music that kind of made sense on the instrument that it was written for. There was a Paganini sonata that has a pattern and shapes that fit the violin. There was a Brazilian mandolin waltz as well, and again these arching shapes kind of fit and make sense on the neck of a mandolin, but I was playing it on a button box and it was like walking a tightrope without a tightrope. Doing these gigs with Frank Kelly, trying to play this stuff and at the same time trying to cut my teeth on the folk scene was so stressful. It was like your brain was being pulled in ten different directions.”

“I think that was partly what contributed towards the tension that developed when I was playing. I wasn't relaxed and inevitably that ended with problems and I damaged my hands to the point where they have never worked as they did when I was 16. It was awful because I couldn't play like anybody any more. So after two years lost in the wilderness, I ended up with a job in the Riverdance show. I thought this was good because I could take a step back from doing this solo box whizz kid thing, which I didn't think I was actually that comfortable with anyway.”

“So I went to the States for a couple of years and didn't play a lot of box. I didn't play a lot of music at all, although I was gigging every day. I got back from the States having had an amazing life experience. I had played a lot of guitar and was sneaking into the venues to learn how to play the piano as well. I was learning a lot about music theory and just building up other areas of my musicianship. I got back in the beginning of 2001 and started to look at the box again. I was going to have to learn how to play it again if I wanted to play music for a living, but I couldn't play any of the previous stuff because my hands didn't work in the same way. So that was really the point at which I started to become my own musician. It was forced upon me because I had to look at the tools that I had and the way that I could use my hands.”

“For instance, the standard way of playing the triplet is sensibly with two fingers - I have to use three fingers now. So it makes you play in a certain way and think in a certain way - and slowly and surely I was able to express myself in my box playing. I was able to write more music - more ideas came because they weren’t running through trenches that had been developed through listening to someone else's music. But I was getting all these interesting ideas so I was still developing and moving forward as a box player, which was good.”

“When I came back from the States in 2001, I had this roller coaster year - I learned to drive, got a mortgage, got married and had my first child in the space of 18 months and it took me a couple of years to realise what a mental explosion that had been. I had to re-assess how I was living and how I was earning a living. It was no longer feasible to go off on tour for three weeks at a time. You can do that, but you put everything at risk. When you have a family your whole life has to orientate around that central point, for the sake of your children and your marriage.”

“So teaching became the obvious way to go forward. I found that I was pretty good at it and I enjoyed doing it. When I began in 2002, I think I had about two or three years when I was incredibly effective because I had a lot of enthusiasm for it. I was in my early 30s. As the decade went on, I began to feel that I was becoming less effective. I set up a small charity at the beginning of the process and it grew and grew to the point where it became a relatively big organisation. As the organisation grew, I became less and less effective as an educator because I didn't have the same enthusiasm as I was doing more administration. By the end of it I was sitting on a strategic group setting up a governance model for a new education hub in Berkshire and it was difficult to find the enthusiasm to go and teach kids. Because what teaching is really about, the essence of teaching, is to connect someone with their unique special spirit, soul, or whatever you want to call it.”

“The most important thing you can do for anybody, if you have the chance to mentor them or spend time with them, is to connect them with the part of themselves that will enable them to do that to the best of their ability. I don't mean being able to play fast and clean - it is being able to play true and that is a life-long struggle, you just put them on the road. All musicians, even the most famous celebrated successful musicians, are on a constant journey to play true.”

“To turn someone into a musician takes five or six years of sustained involvement in their life. You have to know each other as people - there has to be a relationship with them and they have to grow as a person inside of their musical development. The two have to go hand-in-hand, otherwise you can end up with someone who can play well but at the age of 18 they don't know why - and they stop. That is what happens with 90% of kids who use the music services, and also 90% of kids who learn to play music through the standard route in Ireland and England as well. They learn to play, they put their fingers in the right place, but they don't know why they do it. And it is really hard to set up the situations where they get the experience of enjoying playing together with a group of people.”

“The grades are an effective way of keeping people learning because kids love targets and to achieve and feel valued, but a really effective way to do it is gigs and that is what we used to do. I would organise folk festivals for the kids to go to and play. Firstly it would give them something to work for, and also they would get up on the stage and show what they did, but it was a communal thing. The big part for them was getting together and hanging out for the day and having these mad events with lots of messing around. One of the most enjoyable gigs we did was playing at the Reading Salvation Army Christmas Concert in the big Hexagon Theatre in Reading. It was a straight-laced affair as you might imagine, but then all these kids came in with their folk instruments and ran amok through the back stage area for a whole afternoon and were getting into all sorts of trouble. But they had a fantastic time and they gelled more in that one day than they had done in six months of weekly classes.”

“There are a lot of people who go to weekly lessons because it helps them to maintain their enthusiasm for playing, but they are not learning to play through their lessons, they are learning to play by sitting down and playing their instrument for hours and hours and hours - that is how you learn to play music. It is a fallacy to think that musicians are created by teachers - they are not at all. Teachers make a living by offering support and guidance, but learning to play music is a personal experience and that is why it is so fundamentally important in terms of someone's individual development. That is why it would be great if everyone would play music, because everyone would have a personal connection with what makes them unique.”

Luke’s latest move has been to relocate his family to Hamilton, just south of Glasgow. He did this for a variety of reasons including educational opportunities for his children. “One of the things about being based in Glasgow now is the pure excitement of being so close to so many great players. I am really happy living in Scotland and it turns out I have got relatives up here. My grandmother was from Renfrew and my father grew up on Loch Lomond. I didn't really understand the extent to which the family tree does branch up to Glasgow.”

“It is a really friendly place, even a big city like Glasgow. In London, you go about your business and you are looking for that human interaction and often you don't get it, so it takes a little chunk out of you each time you open up and nothing comes back. In Glasgow, it is very subtle but when you stop to ask someone for directions, they don’t speak to you for any longer, but for some reason you take something away that buoys you up. It is genuine and at the end of the day you feel better. I just feel better up here!”

Luke ‘announced’ his arrival in Scotland with a concert at Celtic Connections billed as The Luke Daniels Band. Celtic Connections gave him the opportunity to hook up with his mate Tim Edey, who has also relocated to Scotland for family reasons, and allowed him to choose a line up of sympathetic musicians to create a unique concert. “I met Donald Shaw at Celtic Connections and told him I was moving up. I asked if I could have a gig because I thought it would be really nice to have a launch pad to do something. He said yes and gave me enough money to put together a nice band, so I just phoned people I knew and people I would like to play with. I had recorded on Lauren MacCall’s record a couple of years ago. Calum Stewart I had met through my work on The Hobbit movie last year - he reads music as well. Tim Edey – well, enough said - and Éamon Doorley on mandola as well. Having the body of the guitar and that nice top end stuff from the mandola - that kind of fairy dust - was a really effective way of creating a nice canvas on which the three front-line musicians could play.”

“We were Dropboxing stuff for a month before the gig and we met the day before as a group. We played the gig and it was really enjoyable. If you pick that calibre of musicians, it will always sound good from the start. It's a bit like making a recording; the less you do to it when it goes down, the better. You want it to sound right, you want a performance, but if you are forever tweaking it and tuning it, you have detracted from it. And in a live performance, if you get good players they play well together there is less to do. And you have a good time!”

“In the last 10 years I have been lucky enough to do lots of interesting projects with different musicians and I have been able to compose music and develop myself as a songwriter and singer as well, which is where I really want to move in the future.”

“Coming back to players like Dermot Byrne - he pulls out an accordion, plays a tune and people will listen because he has got something to say. I have said this to other people and they have vehemently disagreed with me, but I don't feel that I am speaking when I play the accordion. I feel that if I can develop myself as a singer (my mother is a singer) then I can express myself and actually say something and my music will mean more if I can do it through voice. So after nearly 20 years of playing professionally on the box, I feel as if I have got to the point that I know where I need to go. And it is not a safe road and not the easiest road, but it is the road that I am going to try and take in the future - and that is as a singer!”

“I have spent the last two years putting a lot of work into my guitar playing. From a practical point of view it will enable me to go out on my own and do gigs, which is going to have to happen to begin with. I would hope in 5 years time that I would have made a couple of records as a singer and guitar player and that I will have a small but loyal following - enough to keep me in bread and water anyway.”

By Pete Heywood
From Issue 96 of The Living Tradition