Fil Campbell:
working for a living

Fil Campbell has had "real" jobs in her life. But she never keeps them for long. "Along comes a gig, and goodbye to the job," she says with a hearty laugh.

Truly, she says, music "was so much in my blood, I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

Fil Campbell has certainly made a successful career out of music, both as a contemporary singer/songwriter and as an interpretor of old Irish standards. She's best known to date for Songbirds, both a CD and an RTE miniseries. It started for her in Belleek, a small town in Co. Fermanagh, Ulster, that's best known for its exquisite china. There, just a short stone's toss from the border dividing her native Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland to the south, Campbell learned Irish traditional songs at her mother's knee.

You know how that goes, she says, when you're a child with even a slight musical talent. "You were wheeled out as the precocious brat for every occasion -- granny's anniversary and auntie's birthday and stuff."

But Fil stuck with it, particularly after being shipped off to a Catholic boarding school in Enniskillen. There, she says, the nuns weren't shy about squeezing the musical gifts out of even the smallest potential. "If you showed any ability at all, you were handed instruments," she says. "I was given a harp to play."

She also learned piano and, later, guitar. "Somebody showed me three chords on the guitar," Fil recalls. "I thought I was made up and that was it, I was ready to go out gigging, no bother."

It didn't take her long, actually. She was performing in pubs by age 16, and she kept it up through Queen's University of Belfast -- although, she admits wryly, she did give it up briefly in her 20s for a boyfriend who didn't want her out singing in pubs. "I was madly in love," she says with a sigh, "for about six months, until I wised up."

Her current partner -- longtime husband Tom McFarland -- is a lot more supportive of Fil's music. In fact, Tom -- a percussionist and sound engineer -- often accompanies her on the road, along with mandolin/guitar player Brendan Emmett. He's not along this time, however; Fil, now on her fourth American tour, sat down to chat with Wood Stove House concert promoter and podcaster Jason Mundok and me shortly before her solo, girl-with-a-guitar performance at the Wood Stove. (Listen to Jason's podcast of the interview here.)

Fil admits, without regret or embarrassment, that her early influences included the likes of Michael Jackson and Donnie Osmond, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, as well as Mary O'Hara and Judy Garland. She boldly set out on a songwriter's journey, putting out three well-received albums of original material, but a showcase performance at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance in New York shifted her direction -- at least for a while.

She was one of about 750 artists at NERFA promoting their original work, she says. But people kept asking about her Irish album. "And I didn't have one," she says. "I went home with the idea that I would do an album of Irish songs, and then get back to my writing."

Songbirds changed all that. Fil began working on an album celebrating the lives of Delia Murphy, Margaret Barry, Bridie Gallagher, Mary O'Hara and Ruby Murray, all women who made an indelible impact on the Irish music landscape.

"It should have been done and dusted in two or three months," Fil says. "Here I am, five years later, still with it. It's been an amazing journey."

Those five ladies -- particularly Delia Murphy, the first Irish woman recorded singing in her own accent, at a time when "proper" women weren't supposed to sing outside the home -- were a big part of Fil's musical childhood. It wasn't until years later she learned that many of the songs she'd grown up singing had come from Murphy's ample discography. But that album project quickly led to a critically acclaimed, six-episode television miniseries for RTE, Ireland's public service broadcaster. A second album is in the works.

"It just carried on on its own," Fil says.

The lives of these five women are fascinating, she explains, from O'Hara, a classically trained soprana and harpist from Sligo, to Murray, an Irish pop singer from Belfast who ruled the charts in the mid-1950s. Gallagher, from Donegal, was the progenitor of Irish country music, while Barry was a tinker and street musician from Cork who spread the music far and wide.

"It was about the songs, first and foremost," Fil says. "They were a part of music history that had kind of been left by the wayside and rediscovered in traditional music. ... At the end of the day, none of these women were quite that well known."

But working with them for Songbirds has had a huge impact on her own outlook, Fil says.

"I haven't written an awful lot of stuff in my life. In fact, I've written nothing since I've started on Songbirds," she says. "I want to change that now. I got so absorbed in this, I find it really hard to pull myself out of it." The experience has altered her outlook somewhat, she says, and she thinks the original songs she writes in the future will be the better for it. "I'm looking forward to getting back to it," she adds.

"I'm very lucky to have had all these singers going before me, to allow me to come. I'm not sure I'd be a great trailblazer, but it's great following along after them."

The song traditions of Ireland and Northern Ireland overlap a great deal, Fil notes. In fact, the region where she grew up is surrounded on three sides by the Republic, and her mother came from the other side of the line.

"The border is only 90 years old," she says. "When I grew up, we didn't really know there was a border there." It was pretty common for farmlands to straddle the line, for instance -- and Fil said she knew of at least one house in Northern Ireland that had a single bedroom in the south.

The global appeal of Irish music is a little amazing, she says. "It stirs something. It's a lift. It's not sad music." Even the sad songs -- and yes, some Irish music can tear at the heart with its poignant lyrics -- lighten the heart. Paraphrasing her good friend and neighbor Tommy Sands, also from Northern Ireland, Fil says, "Sad music is not for making you sad. It's for taking the sadness out of you."

[ visit Fil Campbell's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

16 October 2010

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