Although he’s lived in Dublin for 25 years, internationally renowned guitarist Bill Shanley tells Mary O’Brien that Clonakilty is where his roots are.
“People look at you and talk to you in Clon – it’s a very, very sociable town. You walk up town and you always get a good sense of that – there’s a great atmosphere in the town.” Bill Shanley.
It’s a busy year ahead for Bill Shanley, whose skill as a sideman is no less than revered. He’s just back from playing a headline festival with Ray Davies in the UK. He has some recording and production work lined up (Bill is co-owner of the prestigious Cauldron Studios in Dublin), after which he’ll travel to France to play with Murray Head and then it’s straight into doing an album with Ray Davies and American band the Jayhawks. He is also part of the line-up in this year’s Clonakilty International Guitar festival.
With a young family – Bill has three children age three, five and seven – the guitarist who works with Ray Davies and also artists like Mary Black, Paul Brady and Gilbert O’Sullivan, tries to keep his work as streamlined as possible, successfully juggling family life with touring. “You just manage your time well and get in and out as quickly as possible. I recently did three concerts in Japan and was in and out in five days,” he explains. Like his own upbringing, Bill doesn’t force music on his kids. “They’re around music all the time, they listen to it in the bar when we’re back in Clon and and I bring them to sound checks. Our house is full of instruments but I don’t force music on them.”
Born in the early 70s, Bill grew up in Shanley’s Bar in Clonakilty immersed in music and surrounded by world-class musicians. He performed on regular occasions with Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell, Tom McGuinness and Eric Bell. His teachers and mentors were his father, the late Moss Shanley, a piano player and Noel Redding of The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“I was so lucky to have all this music around me, I kind of just absorbed it,” he says.
Bill first picked up a guitar when he was nine. “I performed just half of a ‘C’ chord, thought it sounded pretty cool and I just took off from there. I don’t remember a struggle with learning the guitar – in the environment I grew up in, you just played music. You didn’t have to become a concert pianist. It was very much… you learn a chord, you learn five chords and after that you play a song. Playing the guitar was a very easy and natural thing to do and every day I’d spend hours sitting with the instrument, but only because I wanted to.”
The young musician started off with a session on a Sunday morning, which progressed to gigs every Friday and Saturday night and by the time he was 12, Bill was playing six or seven nights a week at Shanley’s during the summer months. Our bar wasn’t a traditional music bar, it was real rock n’ roll and I enjoyed that aspect of it. Noel Redding played there all through the 80s.”
After finishing school, Bill did an audition in Cork for Liam Reilly’s newly formed band Bagatelle. He got the gig and started a week later, which prompted his decision to move to Dublin in 1990. He studied business for a while at college but once he found his feet in Dublin, Bill naturally drifted into the music world. “I knew college wasn’t for me but it was about finding my feet and it in a way it gave me a bit of time to figure things out. It gave me a breather.”
In 1992, Bill hooked up with Eleanor McEvoy and recorded some demos (one of the songs was ‘Only a Woman’s Heart’). “When Eleanor signed with Geffen Records, I remember thinking that no matter what happens, this is what I’m going to do.”
Bill was 23 when he joined Mary Black’s band. “ I kind of hit the ground running. I still play with Mary all the time. We’re good friends and have a lot of history playing together.”
Some of Bill’s best memories over the years are playing at Shanley’s. “I remember a great session in 1983 with Paul Brady who was down in Clonakilty on holidays. He came into the bar one night over the summer and played with Moss Shanley and Noel Redding. I was a young kid playing there at the time. Paul had a very successful album out then called ‘Hard Station’ and the track included the song ‘Crazy Dreams’, which was becoming a really big hit then. He played ‘Crazy Dreams’ at the bar and about an hour later Moss asked him to play that song again. Paul initially declined but of course ended up playing it for a second time that night. I don’t think he ever did that anywhere else. It was really good fun and myself and Paul laughed about it years later. He told me that my father had made a big impression on him!
“There were lots of magic moments like that,” recalls Bill nostalgically. “When you play music and you have a bar full of people enjoying it, singing along and moving along tapping their feet and all the musicians are enjoying it too, it’s a success and there is no greater feeling.
“We had a great weekend of music in Shanley’s just recently with some fabulous musicians. I was playing in Cork with Mary Black on the Friday night and she came down to Clon with us for the weekend. You have to keep generating good sessions. They happen with a little bit of a push – getting musicians together – and people forget that.”
Bill says Clon is teeming with really great musicians. “Two of my favourites are John Fitzgerald on bass and Anthony Noonan on drums – they’re my A-team really.
“I recently got John on a Gilbert O’Sullivan tour, which is quite a big deal. He played really well and Gilbert was really happy. It wasn’t an easy gig to do and not everyone could pull it off.”
Speaking of musicians and Clonakilty, this month sees the return of the Clonakilty International Guitar festival, one that Bill says although differs from the Clonakilty busking festival of old, has that same spark he remembers.
“I remember the first year of the busking festival in Clon really well. I was sitting with Moss when word came through that the festival had the go-ahead from the council; I remember him being so delighted. You had dozens and dozens of musicians and artists come to Clonakilty for that festival. I remember the crowds and the variety. The idea was that there were people on every corner playing all types of instruments. The people that organised it put the musicians first and when the musicians are looked after and treated well, you get the return and you get that spark.
“I think that spark is there in the Clon Guitar festival too even though it’s a different sort of festival – more performance and concert based.”
Bill is looking forward to the daytime sessions at this year’s festival. “You get to follow a music trail and see these amazing artists who are masters at what they do and have never been to Clon before; you can just go for 45 minutes and get a wonderful gig.
“The other aspect I really like about the Guitar Festival is the social one where little fringe gigs pop up and musicians meet up and jam together. It’s a real community of musicians on that weekend.”
Bill puts his own success down to “working at it”.
“A lot of what I do is accompanying in a supporting role and I love doing that. When you accompany someone, it’s a piece of music in itself and there’s no limit to what you can do. I’ve always developed that and had fun with it.”
Bill’s inspirations are in the hundreds, but most notably Jimmy Hendrix, Chet Atkins and Django Reinhardt all get a mention.
He’s always on the lookout for new talent. “A guy gave me some music last week, JD McPherson – he’s very classy, very good. I also produced a wonderful artist from Clonakilty, Míde Houlihan – her album is brilliant.”
Bill says the music business is in the control of the artist now more than it’s ever been. “You don’t need a big record company to release an album. If you work on your songs, your composing, and then deliver them well, you’ll get people’s attention. And as well as talent, you have to have stamina…”