We were thumbing through a copy of ‘A child’s Garden of Verses’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of children’s poetry.
Line after line stood out as singer songwriter Anthony Toner discovered one after another poem that brought him back to his childhood. “I think this stuff entered me at the age of 7 or 8 and never left me,” he said, eyes still searching the pages. “It’s the rhythm and the sweetness I remember.”
As a schoolboy he used to save his pocket money and spend it in the local second hand book shop. “I had a tremendous desire to be well read. In the school library I was able to dip into anthologies. I would read say two poems by W. H. Auden, then three by T. S. Eliot, and what blew my fuses the most were the ‘Beats’. Beat Poets like Ginsberg and Bukowski. There’s a line from Bukowski “I was born to hustle roses down the avenues of the dead.” When you’re 13, and you read a line like that, you just think Wow!”
“On the A level syllabus we got onto some good stuff like Heaney. That stuff is directly relevant to your experience. My first Heaney poem, “Digging”, had this line in it:
“My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.”
“And I thought ah! My name’s on this book of poems”!
“Dylan Thomas completely floored me. Poems like “Under Milk Wood” and “Fern Hill” have an amazing sense of language. Kurt Vonnegut said we have the ability to change people lives by just the random rearrangement of 26 little symbols, and 8 pieces of punctuation, on a white piece of paper. And once you read “Fern Hill” there’s no going back. You’re changed by stuff like that. The power that words have over you is increased. It’s like tasting really good whiskey after drinking bad whiskey for years. If you enjoy dabbling in words it makes you want to be that good. I just want to be good, and that kind of writing showed me that there’s a standard here”.
Author Raymond Carver is another influence. “Where I’m Calling From” is a collection of his short stories, and they are so simple it appears that nothing has happened in them. I found myself reading them again to try and get the point and then I realised – what has just happened is the point. It’s the stillness and the simplicity. In terms of shrinking the world into a song and trying to get as much as you can in there, I’d love to write songs that feel like these stories”.
With all this talk of the literary, what music he is listening to at the minute? “A Rock band I saw at the Limelight called The Hold Steady, they sound like ACDC with Douglas Coupland writing their amazing sharp lyrics. And the recent slightly weird Tom Waits really gets under my skin.”
In February Anthony released a new album, Miles and Weather. Described in roots music magazine No Depression as “The warm and friendly end of Country-Folk”, the album is tranquil, and familiar and soft; almost like a Grown-up’s Garden of Verses.
A perfect example is “Great Big World” which typifies a 70s childhood. So, what was the inspiration for that? “I was trying to write something about being chased round a housing estate. I had a scene where a boy stopped and leaned against the wall in the heat, and he had a water pistol; he put it in his mouth and squeezed the trigger. Then I left it, I didn’t think too much more about it. When I went back to it I thought that’s too good an image not to use somewhere, so I put it into the song.”
“Songs are like Petrie dishes almost. You can put that chorus in there and come back a few days later and it’s grown. The line “the future smelt like factories” came from a totally different song. Kurt Vonnegut talks about all creative endeavours being like Model T Fords, if you’ve got a middle that doesn’t work, just unscrew it and get another one that does. Same applies to paintings, plays, movies, symphonies. Whatever you have, if the ending doesn’t work unscrew it and stick another one in there. Don’t be precious about it, they’re just working parts.”
The track “Walked Upon the Water” has a strong Jackson Browne feel to it, so I wondered if Browne was another influence. “I think so yes. I’m a guitar player who wanted to play paino. If I could, I would like to play it like him. There are a lot of those 70s guys that feed into what I do, like Randy Newman, James Taylor, Joni Mitchel, and Carole King”.
The song “Dear Amelia” was written for a relative of Anthony’s wife. “She had some mental health problems. I only went over to see her the once, but she really took to me. She was clearing the table one evening and leant over and kissed my cheek and the rest of the family went Wow! That never happens!
“The song goes “I hope you listen to the angels in your head, I hope the sun is steady on your bed.” It was a difficult, difficult life, and she was prone to very black moods and paranoia.” He pauses and stares ahead. “She died very young – I get emotional thinking about it.”
“I was also remembering myself as a very lonely youngster. You know that idea of coming home with nothing in your hands after being out at the beach. No buddies.” I ask whether that could have been something that Amelia identified with. “It could be that yeah,” he smiles. “Or maybe I was just polite – families are never polite to each other”.
Miles and Weather has a number of tracks that are obviously about travel, but there is also a yearning there. He wants home, or he wants his loved ones home. Is he getting tired of all this travel?
“These songs came out of a period in my life when a lot was happening – my parents were ill. The constant driving I was doing between Belfast and Portstewart seemed to be a waste of very valuable time. Time I could have spent visiting my mother or looking after my dad. I seemed to be constantly in motion between home-work-hospital-mum and dad’s house-gig; and that feeling of dislocation is the wellspring that these songs seem to come from. I wanted to be home physically, in front of the fire with my feet up, but also wanted to not have this sense of dread. I wanted to feel safe and free of that. So it’s as much about getting the heart home safely too”.
“Mum died at the end of November last year. I miss her and think about her every day, but wouldn’t have her go through anymore. My parents did everything together, so they decided to fall apart together. My dad’s condition became apparent just as mum’s condition was starting to worsen. He’s now living with Alzheimer’s. Luckily he’s quite content with himself, but, you know…”
Anthony wasn’t intending to put out a record this year. With all this going on he had enough on his plate. “The way the music business is nowadays, you are basically your own label. So I design the covers, book the photographers, book the musicians, do my taxes, write the press releases, organise the tour schedule, write the blog, ReverbNation, website and so on”.
“I was in the car one day and had to confront some pretty heavy stuff with mum and dad, and I just had to hear Andrea’s voice.” (Andrea is Anthony’s wife). “I rang her on the phone and it went straight to answering machine. I can remember saying “call me when you get this”, hung up, and carried on my journey. Then I started to think about that line, I thought that’s a good one. And by the time I got to Portstewart I had “Call me when you get this, and tell me everything’s going to be OK. I won’t believe it from anybody else today.” I thought there’s got to be a song there.”
“By the end of the week I had another song. Then “Dear Amelia” wrote itself in about 15 minutes, and so it went on. I thought to myself it looks like the universe has a different plan for me this year. So as soon as I had 10 songs I went to the studio; and the minute I went into the studio, it stopped, not a single line since then. It felt like the door opened, and then closed again. It was interesting too that so many of them are thematically linked – songs about travel, disconnection, love and being away from love, anxiety, things breaking down. They’re of their own world.”
Anthony’s present tour will give us all the chance to see this live. “About a third of the show will be from the new album; the other two thirds will be songs that people associate me with like “East of Louise” and “Sailortown”. But I’ll also be putting in a few covers, and because I also play in The Ronnie Greer Blues Band, a few of those people have migrated into my shows as well. So I throw in a couple of old blues tunes by people like Jimmy Reed”.
The tour runs right through to 30th May in The Ardhowen Theatre in Enniskillen – and as dates sell out, others are added. Most gigs will be solo, but one recent addition is an ‘In the Round’ session he will be playing with Matt McGinn and Nashville-based Canadian, Madeleine Slate at the Lansdowne Hotel in Belfast on 1st May. He will also be accompanied by non-other than Ciaran Lavery and John McCullough at his Ballymena gig in Braid Arts Centre on 24th April.
Fri 24 April: BALLYMENA: Braid Arts Centre
Thurs 30 April: BELFAST: SD Bells
Fri 8 May: LISBURN: Island Arts Centre
Sat 9 May: OMAGH: Strule Arts Centre
Fri 22 May: DOWNATRICK: Down Arts Centre
Sat 30 May: ENNISKILLEN: Ardhowen Theatre