Originally a Coleraine Bannsider, now firmly rooted in East Belfast, singer-songwriter Anthony Toner has just released his new LP – ‘Six Inches of Water’.
It immerses the listener in his love for this part of the city, which he now proudly calls home.
Belfast Live spoke to Anthony about the new release, covering ground such as The Greenway, Van Morrison’s ‘Orangefield’, finally being able to play live again and realising one of his dreams; writing the special orchestral closing piece, ‘Nearer’.
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Lee: Your new album ‘Six Inches of Water’ has just been released. What’s the reception been like so far?
Anthony: Very strong, thankfully. It feels like a good time to release something new, with the sense that things are starting to move a little. Time will tell, of course. But so far, some very positive reactions.
Lee: Where was the photograph taken that appears on the album cover?
Anthony: That’s in Templemore Baths, in the middle of the major renovations going on there at the moment.
I’m sitting on the steps that lead up to the old swimming pool, which has been out of action for some years. I wanted to mark the fact that the title track about the Baths was the song that started the whole project.
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Lee: The album is a dedication to the people and places of East Belfast. As a ‘blow-in’ yourself from Coleraine, how would you best describe ‘The East’ of the city in a few words?
Have you now ditched the Coleraine FC jersey in favour of the green, red & black of ‘The Glens’?
Anthony: I love this part of the city. I’ve always felt welcomed here (and by the city in general, I have to say), and the East seems to have become a haven for artists and media people in the last few years.
It has unique grit, heart and history – and where I live, I feel plugged into the Greenway, CS Lewis Square and the excitement of that neighbourhood. I haven’t been to a Glens match, I’m sorry to say… but then – to be honest, I was never the most dedicated Bannsiders fan either.
Lee: One of my favourite tracks on the album is ‘Greenway Song’. It speaks to me of the healing power of nature. Is it somewhere that you have often sought solace during a tumultuous 2020?
Anthony: The Greenway and Victoria Park have been a very important part of our world since my wife Andrea and I moved here. Lockdown magnified that importance, and the death of my father Leo in July of last year made me lean on it even more, as a space to clear the head, reflect and heal. It’s such a gift to the community, and I never take it for granted.
Lee: There are so many Van Morrison tracks that cover his home city. What made you decide on ‘Orangefield’ as the song to cover for the LP?
Anthony: Again, it’s that Greenway connection, to cycle across to Orangefield on a bright day is lovely. I love so many of his songs about this place, but the line “how I loved you then in Orangefield – like I love you now in Orangefield” has such power in it – the sense of time passing, and yet relationships & places retaining their hold on our hearts. It’s magical.
Lee: You work with Clive Culbertson on the album, who played on the original version with Van. How did this relationship with Clive begin?
Anthony: When I was growing up in Coleraine and going out to see local bands, Clive’s brother Adrian was my inspiration – a phenomenal guitar player who made me want to be a guitarist. Clive was in London by this stage, something of a missing legend – so I never saw him perform in the early ‘80s when he was starting out.
When he settled back in the area and was part of the country rock band New Moon, he had also set up a recording studio outside Coleraine, and it was the obvious place to record my first album. We hit it off immediately, and I’ve been recording there ever since. That was almost 20 years ago.
Lee: You’re going to get the chance to play the new tunes to a live audience at Willowfield Parish Church on 5 August, as part of the East Side Arts Festival. Describe your feelings about finally playing live again?
Anthony: I’m nervous, of course – brand new material? In front of a capacity audience? Playing live for the first time in a year and a half?
But I’m always keen to make a connection, and I have high hopes that we’ll all forgive each other – audience and performers – for any rough edges.
Lee: A week later you will perform at CS Lewis Square with Grainne Duffy, Gareth Dunlop, Rachel McCarthy and Nathan O’Regan. Any more hints on what songs you might treat us to that evening?
Anthony: I’ve been dragging my feet on this, I’m afraid. I’ve chosen two old favourites, ‘Dixie Chicken’ by Little Feat, and ‘Miss You’ by The Rolling Stones. But I really need to start thinking about the other two.
Lee: You have plans to play a musical evening in memory of the late John Prine, who we lost last year. Is it possible for you to name a favourite John Prine song and why would you choose this particular track?
Anthony: Wow, so many to choose from – and it often changes from night to night. It’s hard to go past ‘Hello In There’, but in performance, I tend to throw myself – body and soul – into ‘Angel From Montgomery’, so I’ll go with that one.
Lee: You love the arts industry Anthony and have always been and continue to vehemently support it, which is fantastic. What was it like to perform ‘The Kiss of Light’ in Paris with Irish poet Frank Ormsby?
Anthony: Unforgettable. To be a professional musician, and perform in a space like that with musicians like Neil Martin, Linley Hamilton and an artist of Frank’s stature, is something I’m immensely proud to have done.
That whole project was aimed at celebrating the work of Frank, so being part of that adventure with him felt a bit like…mission accomplished.
Anthony Toner has just released his new LP
(Image: Ken Haddock)
Lee: The new album follows up the 2020 collection of covers, ‘Ghost Stories, Volume 1’. Will there be a ‘Volume 2’ at some point?
Anthony: Yes indeed, I’m already halfway through it.
Songs so far by John Hiatt, John Martyn, Paul McCartney. Who knows when it will come out, but I’m ploughing ahead.
Lee: Another great little song on the new album is ‘God Look Down on Mrs Boyd’, about the Belfast Blitz in the early 1940s. How did that one come together?
Anthony: ‘God look down to… whoever’ was always one of my father’s expressions of compassion. I had read Stephen Douds’ Belfast Blitz: A People’s History , which is made up largely of letters and diaries from the time and was moved by the loss of life on Thorndyke Street, where the air raid shelter had actually collapsed.
I couldn’t use the story of any of the victims – that seemed disrespectful, somehow. So I imagined a survivor who had somehow been out of the street during the air raid, and who came back to find it all devastated. It took a long time to write, in terms of the lyrics, to get the facts of the raid established, tell her backstory and establish what had happened.
There are about nine pages of abandoned verses somewhere about my desk.
Lee: You once juggled being a musician with your day job as a journalist. How is it going now being in music ‘full-time’? Picking up your journalist’s pen again, briefly, what would you ask Anthony Toner the musician?
Anthony: Being a full-time artist is something I’ve dreamed about for years, of course. It’s a joy to be able to devote most of your time to creativity. But the reality is also that it’s a precarious way to live, no two months are the same.
So it’s fun but harder than it looks. There are no times when you can soft pedal for a few weeks – if you don’t hustle for work, you don’t pay the bills. And what would I tell myself as a young musician? I think I would tell myself not to worry so much about pleasing everyone all the time.
I wasted a lot of time worrying about how I was perceived, trying to get myself accepted by people – when I should have been concentrating on what I was trying to say.
Lee: Your wonderful ‘Sailortown’ is 13 years old this year. Have you ever been tempted to leave it out of one of your live sets and risk a full-scale rebellion?
Anthony: Never! Luckily I still enjoy playing it, and I’m still proud of it as a piece of work.
That song has made me a lot of friends over the last decade and a half – so it would be a kind of betrayal of my own good luck to abandon it now.
Lee: The closing track ‘Nearer’ is a quite sombre and moving finale to the album. What made you choose that particular track to bring down the curtain on ‘Six Inches of Water’?
Anthony: It was always said, although it’s probably apocryphal, that the band on the Titanic played ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ as the ship went down. So I thought that including it would include the story of the ship, without having to find something new to say about the story – it almost feels like it’s all been said before, don’t you think?
And also – I always wanted to write for strings, that’s something I’ve aspired to for many years. And lastly, I’ve always wanted to work with the wonderful Arco String Quartet. And I put it on the end of the album because. I thought it would be kind of impossible to follow something that sombre.
Any of those songs would sound kind of trite, and a bit lightweight, after that last big chord dies away – and you hear that sound of the ocean floor.
Anthony’s enthralling new album, ‘Six Inches of Water’ is out now. Available through the Bandcamp site https://anthonytoner.bandcamp.com/album/six-inches-of-water