Interview | Anthony Toner
Anthony discusses his new album Ink and upcoming tour dates
By Cara Gibney • Photography: Michael Barbour
Singer songwriter Anthony Toner spent 17 years as a journalist whilst moonlighting as a guitarist and singer, travelling constantly, honing his skills, gathering characters, stories and experience for his songs. In 2002 he released Eventually, his first album, but it was his 2010 single ‘Sailortown’ that really started to capture our attention. There has been a series of roads well-travelled, and albums well-released, since then. With wry and perceptive words, and soulful delicate music, his songs cover the gamut of life’s events. From teenage loves to the most final of goodbyes, Anthony Toner is developing one of those back catalogues that has a song for whatever it is that is happening to you.
CultureHUB: So – the new album is called Ink… where did the name come from?
‘I is for ink’ is one of the lines in ‘An Alphabet’: ‘You write or you type it, but you get it down – it’s all there’ll be left when you hit the ground’, and that’s one of my abiding beliefs. You can talk all day about your plans, pump yourself up all you like on social media, but the WORK is all that matters eventually. And also… I’ve always been interested in printing, old typewriters, fountain pens, all of that.
CultureHUB: What inspired this album?
I had a full year of creative drought, and I was backstage waiting for showtime somewhere, footering with a chord progression – and an entire verse just came out of mouth, without me thinking: ‘When I hug my father, we hold on tight. If he forgets who I am, well that’s all right, A is for Alzheimer’s’. I have no idea where it came from, but I was suddenly off and running with new material. It happens like that sometimes – one song steps out of the shadows, and the others seem to… follow the leader.
The stripped-back approach of Miles & Weather is the same, but this feels closer to the way I want to express myself. At the time of the last album, I had just left Flowerfield Arts Centre, after nearly 12 years, and started with EastSide Arts in Belfast. My father had gone into care with Alzheimer’s the July before and my mother had passed away the November before. It was a time of enormous change, and that album just… got away from me. I was overwhelmed by everything. Since then I’ve gone freelance, working on my music and other arts projects. That is new for me after years of making music while having a day job. I’ve been lucky since then to have a pretty full diary, and I hope that continues. I still find myself running from one project to the next, and fitting songwriting in between meetings, but at least I’m doing it on my own timetable and at my own desk.
CultureHUB: Anything interesting about the recording?
All of the guitar parts were recorded at home, which was also a first – I played lap steel, banjo and percussion. It meant that the ‘shape’ of the project was in place really early. I recorded John McCullough at his own Piano Shack studio in Castlereagh. And then all of that material was taken to Clive Culbertson’s studio in Coleraine, where Clive played bass and sang harmonies. Peter McKinney came in and played drums on four of the songs, too. Otherwise it’s me and acoustic guitar a lot of the time.
CultureHUB: Tell us about the artwork…
When I was clearing out my parent’s house I found a couple of cardboard boxes full of my mother’s old papers and photographs. There was a movie magazine that had this fantastic green inkblot on the back page, so I featured that on the cover. I loved the random nature of that beautiful accident from half a century ago.
CultureHUB: Is there a theme?
Re-examining childhood is a recurring theme – there are several songs about my parents and growing up on a housing estate in the 70s. I also seem to hover around the ideas of how precious time is, and love and forgiveness. You know… songwriter stuff!
CultureHUB: Tell us the story behind one of the songs…
‘The Night Prayer of Saint Augustine’: My mother went through many major operations in her last three years, and at one spell she needed morphine to get through the pain. It gave her terrible nightmares. After one of these spells, I was teasing her that she was, you know… still in orbit, and asked her to prove she was coherent. She smiled and recited all of the books of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, in about fifteen seconds. It was extraordinary – a memory trick from childhood, and it stayed with me and was the starting point for that song.
Ink was launched at The Lyric Theatre in April, where he was joined by singer/songwriters Ciaran Lavery and Eilidh Patterson, with John McCullough on keys.
We’ll end this with one songwriter’s words about another – Ciaran Lavery on Anthony Toner: “Anthony is an artist who has single-handedly changed and inspired my own music and how I think about it. He’s an encyclopaedia of musical knowledge and one of the sharpest songwriters I have ever seen or heard.”
Anthony continues to perform live in support of the new album throughout 2017, with dates at Groucho’s Richhill (18 Oct) The Duncairn in Belfast (20 Oct), The Portico in Ards (03 Nov) – and a full UK and Ireland tour as special guest of Barbara Dickson this autumn 2017.