James Keelaghan:

The Dark Side of the Road

by Jan Vanderhorst

March 1999


"The Greeks believe that there were only seven stories and it was all just in the telling that they differed. It's basically the same here."

Words across the telephone line from James Keelaghan, whose new CD "Road" tells very personal stories covering the last few years. Stories of endings, new beginnings and of carrying on. But for a songwriter whose reputation as a craftsman of historically-based songs has been built on four previous sole recordings, writing about personal tragedies was a new and scary proposition.

"Writing about your personal life, I think, is the hardest thing in the world," says James, "so writing comes a little bit harder for me. (But it's) a natural progression."

What helped in the progression was talking with other songwriters whose forte is documenting the personal struggles they face. One such person was singer-songwriter Lennie Gallant.

"I had been through a divorce and my father having a heart attack, and a whole bunch of weird stuff all within the space of a year. I said to Lennie, 'I don't know if I can write about this stuff'. Lennie looked at me and said 'You have to write about it. It's the most important thing going on in your life right now, and if you don't write about it now, you're going to regret it'. So I think friends like Lennie really pushed me to really try writing about this (stuff)."

I lit a fire on the hill
Winter snow had drifted high
I watched the smoke from letters spill
Into the ink black midnight sky
Your words were mingled with the stars
Every line you wrote that I'd adored
Reduced to ash and memory
I won't be your secret anymore

The new album "Road" also sees a slight musical change, a reflection of a different producer for James.

"All the previous albums I've done involved Don Pennington out in Vancouver. Don was going to be unable to work on this album at the time I was working on it. He was busy working on Oscar Lopez's new album. So I started looking around Toronto for the person who was my "Don Pennington" there, the person who I bounce songs off. Oliver (Schroer) and I lived around the corner from one another. I spent a lot of time over (there) and he spent a lot of time over at my place just jamming and playing and hanging out. And I realized he was that guy. I asked him if he would (produce the new album) and he consented."

"I've always totally admired the work Oliver does. I think he's adventurous, he's got the surest sense of melody of almost anybody that I know. He's an incredible musician and a great human being to work with." Besides the basic singer-songwriter backing of guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and fiddle, "Road" features the non-folkie instrumentation of saxophone and clarinet, a definite result of working with Oliver Schroer, an exceptional fiddler who's well versed in Celtic and World music. "The deal that Oliver and I had was that no suggestion was ever shot down until it was tried," says James, "so when he'd say something like 'a saxophone might sound nice here', I'd go 'Hmmm, I've never heard a saxophone in what I do before, but let's give it a try'.

"Most of it worked and a little bit of it didn't, but I loved the sounds he was coming up with, the ideas he was coming up with. So a lot of the creative ideas about the mix of sounds come from the collaboration between Oliver and I, and the willingness of the musicians to play it. "It is a bit of a different sound, but the great thing about it is that I find when I listen to it, I know that it's still me. It makes me feel a little bit more secure about the stuff that I write and the stuff that I do."

But in writing songs that deal with personal trials and tribulations, you have to deal with perspectives. Is it right or fair to write about an event in the heat of the moment or should you wait until everything has cooled down?

"As I get older, as I experience different things", says James, "my viewpoint on stuff starts to change a little bit. Certainly I feel differently now about the divorce and the near-death thing with my father than I felt a year ago. And I'll feel different again about it in another year. But as long as I keep faithful to writing about how I feel about it at the time I'm going through it, that should make a logical progression."

Then James like any other singer-songwriter, is faced with the prospect of performing these very personal songs.

"Singing is a different matter", according to James, "Writin' 'em: 'great'; recordin' 'em: 'fine, you're in a controlled environment'; but then you have to step out on the stage and you have to, as Liam Clancy would say, 'grab the song by the balls' and go out and sing it. When I go out and try and do that with the personal stuff, it's just a little bit harder, it takes a little bit more concentration. Because you now are totally naked up there on stage. You're saying: 'This is about me, it's not about a historical event, it's not a political commentary, this is my feeling about something really close to me'. That's again taking a bit of another step. It's a little nerve wracking at times, but think I'm getting better at that end of it as well."

While "Road" focuses on personal songs, there is one song which is based on a factual incident. "Captain Torres" deals with the sinking of a freighter in 1989. Before the ship sank each crew member was allowed a few minutes to phone their loved ones and say goodbye from the radio room. There are plans in the works for a suite of James' historical songs to be performed by a couple of symphony orchestras, so fans of those songs of James have something to look forward to. In addition, the recent recording of "Cold Missouri Waters" by Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky and Dar Williams on their "Cry Cry Cry" CD has garnered wider exposure of James' songwriting talents. "I'm tremendously excited by (the recording) and I love their version of (the song). I think that thing that I love the most, is just hearing that song sung with an American accent. It's a Yankee talking (in the song and) as much as I want to try, I'm never going to sound exactly like an American. But Richard does a brilliant job on it."

The recording of "Cold Missouri Waters" by Richard, Lucy and Dar has meant more people are trying to find out more information about James and his songs. The best place to go on the Internet is: keelaghan.com

Jan Vanderhorst can be reached at jan@hyperpeople.com