It is no secret that Tony Wright, Belfast-based singer-songwriter and ‘wee ginger guitar playing p***k’ (his words, not mine) has been keeping busy since his departure from instrumental titans And So I Watch You From Afar.
Gigging unrepentantly and working on a new album under the name VerseChorusVerse, Wright is the very definition of the hardworking artist. It nevertheless came as a surprise to many when he unexpectedly released a brand new six track EP on his website last week.
Simply titled Six Songs, this collection of folk covers of punk rock staples by bands such as The Clash, The Undertones, Nirvana and Stiff Little Fingers arrived without fanfare. No pre-release press, no countdown, just one tweet, a heartfelt blog post and a link to the Bandcamp page where the EP can be listened to or purchased.
But the real story behind Six Songs is that all profits raised from sales will be donated equally to Action Cancer and First Fortnight, two charities close to Wright's heart.
Catching up with the diminutive frontman, he explains that the release date was far from arbitrary – it was 12 years to do the day that his mother passed away after struggling with cancer: the musician decided to honour her life through music.
'My mum taught me how to play guitar and was chairperson of Action Cancer Coleraine, so it just seemed right,' said Wright. 'When her anniversary came around before, I’d always been away with my previous band. This time I wanted to do something while I had the chance.'
Wright has worked with arts-based mental health charity First Fortnight for some time. Having appeared in promotional videos and performed at numerous concerts on the charity’s behalf, First Fortnight enthusiastically refer to him as ‘both an ambassador for the project and an inspirational person to have along the way’.
'I admitted my own problems with depression to the entire island of Ireland while appearing on Ray Darcy’s Today FM show,' recalls Wright. 'I was terrified about it, but afterwards I felt really liberated. A couple of months later, Darcy told me it was the biggest response they’ve ever had for any of their shows, which was really positive.
'It showed me the number of people out there who suffer with mental illness, and the more people talk about it and make it normal, the more that stigma disappears. Both charities are excellent and very dear to me.'
Six Songs is not just a charitable venture, however. It is also a great listen, fusing the intensity of acts like Sonic Youth and Fugazi with a heartfelt folk sensibility.
To Wright (who states that alternative music has long been his refuge), punk and folk share in sentiment what they lack in musical similarity, with both genres at their best being 'raw, honest, sometimes angry, sometimes wistful, sometimes funny and always true'.
'I’ve always been playing songs like this, Woodie Guthrie style versions of tracks like 'Bank Robber' by The Clash,' Wright continues, 'and I thought it would be cool to investigate that a bit further. I wanted to try and do songs that most people would not expect to hear acoustically.
'Take '100%' by Sonic Youth, I’m pretty sure I’m the first person to perform it in this style. Maybe those guys did it in a jam, but I think I’m the first to commit to it tape, at least,' Wright beams. 'Well, digital tape. It’s not quite as romantic.”
Wright recorded Six Songs himself, at home, in between sessions for his forthcoming VerseChorusVerse album. 'It was a good chance for me to teach myself digital recording, as I’d always worked with analogue on four-tracks,' explains Wright.
'The funny thing was I was desperately trying to get an analogue sound out of digital equipment. It turns out the secret is just to use crappy mics and EQ the hell out of them. Do that and you can make it sound like it was recorded at Abbey Road, underneath a bin.'
Once the EP was unveiled online, the response was huge, with fans expressing their admiration for the record and the intention behind it in large numbers. Understandably, Wright was thrilled and touched by the response.
'It was beautiful,' he admits, visibly moved. 'As a solo musician, I feel cut off a lot of the time – it’s easy to wonder if there’s anybody out there. I’m not ashamed to say that, after about an hour and a half, the phenomenal response led me to shed a few tears.
'From a selfish point of view it was a great morale booster and there were all these people I didn’t even know retweeting it and posting it on Facebook – a weird spiralling effect.'
For a man who’s bread and butter is the business of rocking hard, it speaks volumes when Wright states that 'in all my years as a musician, Six Songs is the most punk rock thing I’ve ever done'. Of course he means punk in the truest sense of word: a music and a mindset that is driven by a genuine sense of social awareness. It’s hard to disagree.
Individual tracks from Six Songs can be purchased for 50p each, or the full EP for a donation of your choice, via Wright's Bandcamp page.