Brendan Power:
Power to the Harmonica

An interview by Bree Delian,
May 2000

Brendan Power is one of those musicians with a transformative power on stage. Off stage he is a shy, slightly nervous man with a gentle round face. On stage he seems almost rebellious in his black jeans and t-shirt framed by a suede vest -- a reminder of his rock 'n' roll past. He is at ease and confidant with the crowd and at moments of extreme intensity moves his hips seductively in time to the music.

Originally from Nelson, New Zealand, Brendan has lived in London since 1992. His stylistic innovations and breathtaking ability on the harmonica have led to numerous appearances and recordings with other musicians such as Altan, Arty McGlynn, Mary Black, Ray Charles and Sting. Venturing into the film world, Brendan has composed the sound track of the Irish feature film Guiltrip and was recently featured on the new Jackie Chan soundtrack.

All this from a man who only started playing at age 20 after hearing blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. "I went out and bought a harp the next day. But it was only after three years of obsessional practice that I thought I'd like to try and make a go of it as a career." Brendan started playing "down home blues" using both acoustic and the electric Chicago styles. He quickly moved into other musical genres, from country to traditional Irish, and the fourteen albums to date reflect this diversity. "I enjoy switching between styles, as it keeps a concert fresh and exciting. ... There's beauty and excitement in any style of music if you have the ears to listen to it."

Brendan entered the All-Ireland Championships "just for the crack" in 1993. "Winning was nice, but I was a bit put off by the fact that the chromatic harmonica wasn't considered a mouth organ. Try telling that to Larry Adler who insists on giving it that name! I was put into the miscellaneous instruments category, so I was up against bouzoukis, hammered dulcimers, you name it. A bit bizarre, really."

From someone who defines success as "playing something as beautifully and sweetly as you possibly can," Brendan's views on musical competitions reflect this simple and philosophical musical outlook. "I am pretty dubious about the whole business of judging artistic achievement. It's not like the 100 metres, where there is an obvious winner. The criteria of what go to make up good playing vary so much."

With the subsequent recording and success of the album The New Irish Harmonica, Brendan caught the attention of the Irish music world. Folk Roots picked it as one of their top albums in 1994 and the Irish Times described Power as a "master player" and the album as "electrifying."

However Brendan finds his image as an Irish musician "a bit strange to me, as it's only one aspect of what I'm interested in. ... It's kind of a double-edged sword, as it's nice to be known for playing Irish music, but it means I have a label now that doesn't really reflect the diversity of what I'm into."

Brendan joined the worldwide stage sensation Riverdance in 1998-99. "It was scary to start with, and extremely boring after a few months." Far happier at home in "humbler circumstances" Brendan found the "bureaucracy and petty in-fighting" of the show difficult. "It was the first time I'd been part of such a big enterprise, and to be honest the regimentation that is necessary for such a show didn't suit me much at all." Meeting Bulgarian musician Georgi Petrov over "copious quantities of Rakiya and red wine" was the highlight for Brendan during his stint in Riverdance. "He (Georgi) tried to teach me something about his country and its music, I ended up going to Bulgaria and recording with him and his friends, which was an incredible experience."

Brendan's curiosity about the limitations of the harmonica has led him to experiment with modifications, design and different tunings. "If I like the sound of a particular piece and style of music, I'll wonder if it can be played on harmonica -- even if it means chopping up and returning the instrument to get the correct flavour of that style." In the late '80s Suzuki manufactured one of his models, The Power Reed and Valve System. Talking about definitive moments in his life as a musician Brendan again speaks of his harmonica modifications. "It's sad, but I lie awake at night dreaming up these kinds of technical things. ... When I get a good idea, I spend days in my workshop trying to put it into practice. If it works then it's a real buzz and leads to a bunch of new tunes or recordings."

Brendan is in the forefront of the burgeoning wave of traditional style composers. Brendan's diversity in style is reflected in the difference between his own compositions. "Lament for a 21st Century" is a soulful, moving piece, at times utterly heartbreaking yet offering the audience a tantalising glimpse of hope with its whale-like trance. "Sweet Bulgarity," in comparison, is a fast, uplifting and ornate tune based upon his experiences with Georgi Petrov. "Often they'll come about through a stint (all too infrequent) of practice I'm doing in a new style or tuning, so they might come out as a bunch of licks that I then craft into a proper composition. Or else it will be a snatch of melody that I start humming for no reason. When that happens, it's important to get it down roughly on tape straight away, as otherwise you'll lose it."

At the moment Brendan is deliberately cutting down on touring, instead concentrating on session work and teaching himself about computers; his aim is to record future albums directly in that medium. "The computer is a great music learning tool ... it's a really empowering machine in many ways, and I must confess to becoming a bit of a geek." Brendan also sees the Internet as a positive tool for communication. "You can increasingly live in more isolated places but still be hooked into the cultural interchange of the wider world."

It will be interesting to see how this unquenchable pursuit of the "new" develops into further musical innovations from master harmonica player Brendan Power. Little more could be expected however, from someone who says "you never reach your goals, or rather, they keep changing once you do."

[ by Bree Delian ]

Visit Brendan Power's website.