Walking Down The Line with Anthony Toner

Master composer releases compilation after five albums and countless notebooks

Coleraine-born singer-songwriter Anthony Toner is a masterful composer whose songs are meticulously crafted, poetic and suffused with compassion, warmth and wisdom.

His just-released compilation Walking Down The Line: Selected Songs 2002 – 2014 provides an opportunity for listeners to savour anew classic Toner songs like ‘Cousins At Funerals’, ‘The Duke Of Oklahoma’, ‘Me & John Lennon & You’ and ‘The Road To Fivemiletown’.

And indeed, preparing the album has also enabled Toner himself to gain a fresh perspective on his work, as he explains with reference to ‘Sailortown’, which he sings in the persona of a teenager.

‘I did see a concision in some of the writing that I didn’t notice before,’ he reflects. ‘I wrote ‘Sailortown’ after playing in [Belfast’s] Rotterdam bar. It was late August and there were loads of kids outside drinking and playing guitars and kissing. It was a lovely atmosphere but it struck me that soon it was going to be too cold for them to hang around down there and I had a sense of sadness that this late summer feeling would be over.

‘I felt the best way to express this was to get inside the head of one of the kids and, listening to the song now, there’s an awful lot packed into some of the lines. A line like, "Me, I can’t wait to be rid of school, But Elaine’s got a place in Liverpool", says an awful lot about those two characters, what his ambitions are and what her ambitions are is very clearly defined. I don’t do as much of that now as I used to and I thought, “Maybe I’ve got a little lazy. Maybe I should try and write tighter things".'

Over the course of his five albums, Toner has written dozens of high quality songs. To trawl through such a substantial body of work and select a mere 15 songs must, one would imagine, have been something of a nightmare. Toner disagrees.

‘A lot of them self-selected because of their popularity,’ he argues. ‘There are ones that have become live favourites like ‘Sailortown’, ‘East Of Louise’ and ‘The Road To Fivemiletown’, so those were no-brainers. And there are a few others that I thought deserved a second look, like ‘Wake Up Holding Hands’.

‘When I recorded that, [producer] Clive [Culbertson] and I both thought, “Wow, that’s a radio hit!” It had lovely harmonies and I double tracked a slide guitar solo and the lyrics were fun and kind of stood clichés on their head. But when we played it for people they just went [unenthusiastically], “Yeah, quite nice.”

'There’s something in that song that maybe didn’t catch the imagination first time around, so I wanted to put it on this compilation. But who knows? It’s very hard to tell with these things.’

Toner is a dedicated artist, constantly thinking of lyrical and musical ideas. He explains that he never leaves the house without a notebook. ‘I don’t care how nerdy it looks,’ he laughs. 'But if something occurs to me I scribble it down, whether it’s overheard snatches of conversation or a phrase from the radio or a line from a book or whatever. Before you know it, you’ve got a chorus or an opening line.’

In a former life, Toner was a journalist, indeed latterly the editor of the Coleraine Chronicle. He believes that his journalistic skills have benefitted his songwriting. ‘I think so, in the observational skills as much as anything,’ he says.

‘When you’re in that line of work it’s almost like your radar is on and you’re constantly picking up things that might make a good opening line for a story or a good headline, and songwriting is the same.’

His love of language goes back to his childhood. So infatuated was he with it, in fact, that he admits that he found himself out of step with his contemporaries.

‘I was a nerdy kid,’ he says. ‘I read a lot of poetry and was bookish and I used to copy out lyrics in my best handwriting in fountain pen and pin them up on my wall. When other kids my age were pinning up Debbie Harry pictures I was pinning up the lyrics to ‘American Tune’ by Paul Simon.’

Toner’s poetic gift for striking imagery is quite apparent on ‘Nashville Snowflake’, a poignant composition about a dispiriting visit to Nashville, hustling for a break. ‘Every song is a snowflake,’ he sings, watching the snow fall, ‘that wants to live forever.’

In Nashville, however, he did experience a career highlight, when he gigged with Guy Clark and Nanci Griffith. ‘I expected to be very nervous but I was asked to choose four songs, and I’m not arrogant but I thought, “I’ve got four songs that will work",’ he recalls.

‘It was an enormous thrill to be on stage, literally elbow to elbow, with Guy Clark. That’s an amazing thing for a songwriter to be able to say. And Nanci too, whom I think did as much in her generation as Joni Mitchell in the generation before, empowering women to get up and be intelligent with the guitar.’

Walking Down The Line is named after one of Toner’s songs. He explains why he felt that it worked as the album title: ‘It seemed to say something about the determination to keep moving forward,' he observes.

And, pondering the creative line he has walked, Toner is clear that every step was a lesson worth learning. 'The guy who wrote ‘Cousins At Funerals’ [on Eventually, 2002] is not the same guy who wrote ‘The Only Only Child In The World’ [on Sing Under The Bridges, 2012]. There has been a journey – but a journey in a straight line forward, so ‘walking down the line’ seemed to sum it up for me.’

Walking Down The Line is available from Anthony Toner's website now. Toner is currently performing with winner of the BBC's The Voice, Andrea Begley, on a tour of Northern Ireland.