Paddy Nash and the Happy Enchiladas
Garbhan Downey speaks to the Derry singer-songwriter about Billy Bragg, his late father’s love of Jimmy Cagney and his return from far-too-early retirement. Click Play Audio to listen to 'Billy Bragg Jeans'
When We Were Brave, the new album from Paddy Nash and the Happy Enchiladas is a thumping return to centre-stage for the former Whole Tribe Sings vocalist. But why did he leave it so long?
Ten years ago, Paddy Nash came back to Derry from an American tour, threw his guitar into a closet and got himself a counter job at a well-known video-store.
His band, the Whole Tribe Sings, had been right on the cusp of greatness – his song ‘Happy’ was the soundtrack for Harp Lager’s stateside ad campaign, and the Tribe had signed a US album deal. But backstage problems, and unlucky timing, meant that the big break repeatedly eluded them.
'We hit the crossbar five or six times,' says Nash. 'But we weren’t making money, and life on the road could be very rough. I ended up coming home skint. I’d had a complete sickener of the business, and it was five years before I lifted a guitar again.'
His exile was cemented by a move to the wilds of County Derry. Not the far side of the moon, granted, but for a man who only passed his driving test a few months ago, it might as well have been.
But some itches never go away. Not even after five years. And in 2005, Nash dusted off his guitar again, assuring himself: 'Just because I’m back singing doesn’t mean I’m happy'. But, even if he wasn’t, he was on the road there...
He bought himself a computer and a mixing desk, and it wasn’t long before he became a mainstay of Limavady’s burgeoning live music scene. Gigs at Flo’s Bar and the Alexander Arms were followed by sell-out, all-star nights at the Limavady Showgrounds, and before long Nash was back gigging on home turf, in Sandino’s and Mason’s in Derry.
Then, in an unusual move for an established musician, Nash began a course in Contemporary Music Practice at the Nerve Centre, where he hooked up with a boatload of old friends and new talents. The comradeship was just what he needed, inspiring him into action again - and into recording.
Along with his partner Diane Greer, he formed the Happy Enchiladas, and last year the band won rave reviews for their storming acoustic set at Glasgowbury.
Many of those Nash met on the Nerve Centre course (which, incidentally, was run by Greer) now feature as players or guests on his new album, When We Were Brave. The credit roll for the album, indeed, reads like a who’s who of the Derry music scene and includes: Liam McGuigan and Jonny Nutt (both band members), Eddie O’Donnell, Frankie Robinson, Ciaran Duffy, Philip Wallace, Junior Johnson, Connor Kelly, Robert Peoples and Stephen Carlin.
The album was co-produced by Nash and Rory Donaghy of Blast Furnace Studios. 'And every song,' insists Nash proudly, 'was recorded live. Even if some of them did need a few takes.'
The decade-long sabbatical, if anything, improved Nash’s writing – a tough ask for the man who brought us ‘Happy’ and 'Model Family Man’. He still does a very nice line in pop songs, such as the upbeat ‘Barefoot in Verona’, which he wrote for Greer to perform. But he shows an insightful, sensitive side too, tackling the issue of suicide in ‘Martin’ – in a non-sentimental, non-judgemental way.
'I lost three people very close to me to suicide in the space of a few weeks. And I was just trying to evoke the loss I felt, without trying to judge. I don’t think it was the coward’s way out.'
Greer, meanwhile, gives a new dimension to Nash’s work. And her bluesy choirgirl vocals - part Kirsty McColl, part Jacqui Abbott – are particularly strong on ‘Barefoot in Verona’.
She’s also the group’s resident tambourine player. Nash explains: 'When Diane was eight, she set up a girls’ tambourine team which made it to the finals of Opportunity Knocks. But Hughie Green didn’t want the little fat girl in the line-up, and she was dropped before they appeared on TV. So, a few years ago, I bought her a tambourine with ‘Get over it’ written on it...'
Nash began his singing career as a teenage solo act, singing Christy Moore songs in a local bar for £30 a night and free beer.
In 1991, he teamed up with the renowned Derry songwriter Deccy McLaughlin, who weaned him off cover versions and persuaded him to try out his own material. The pair then formed the Screaming Bin Lids, which later transmogrified into The Whole Tribe Sings.
The Tribe are often cited as the greatest Northern band that never made it big. And ‘Happy’, Nash’s euphoric anthem, celebrating his reunion with Diane Greer, is (for this critic’s money) the greatest single never to buy its author an e-type Jag. ''I actually wrote it while I was sitting under a tree in San Francisco trying to learn a Billy Bragg song. I couldn’t master it at all – so I gave up and wrote ‘Happy’.'
Bragg is still a big influence on Nash’s music – indeed the first single from When We Were Brave is entitled ‘Billy Bragg Jeans’.
But where Bragg’s lyrics are overtly political and sharp, Nash’s tend to be sardonic and humorous. In ‘Jeans’, for example, he ruthlessly sends up his (and Greer’s) leftie pretensions, writing: 'Now we’re together in a house down by the quay/Growing our own vegetables and hugging the odd tree/We’ve got a plan, we’re buying a van and starting our own band/Going on tour, all over the world, for the message to be heard.'
Nash’s sound also is a lot less fierce prophet than Bragg’s. Rather, you hear influences ranging from John Prine to the Beautiful South to Johnny Cash – the singer’s father’s old favourite.
The late Nash Senior was also a major Jimmy Cagney fan and had adopted the actor’s catchphrase from Angels With Dirty Faces – ‘What do you hear? What do you say?’ – as his own. And today, Nash the Younger uses this line to powerful effect in his warm and heart-rending tribute to his father, ‘Cushialitee’ - a song already marked out as the album’s 'standout' track by BBC Radio Foyle.
'What do you hear? What do you say? My Da said it all the time – even to the priest...'
Interestingly, Cagney’s character in Angels With Dirty Faces is called Rocky Sullivan. And The Enchiladas will be playing in Rocky Sullivan’s Bar in New York as part of a mini-US tour in September.
Prior to that, they’ve an Irish tour in June, taking in Sligo, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Dublin, Belfast and Derry. And they’re also hoping to appear at the Glasgowbury Festival later in the summer.
For those of you who can’t wait that long, When We Were Brave is available on itunes, and the Enchiladas' debut single ‘Billy Bragg Jeans’ is available free from paddynash.co.uk.