Interview: Cara Gibney | Photography: Michael Barbour
Seamus Heany himself, described Bronagh as “an indomitable Derry woman”. A letter he sent her, framed on her wall. Indomitable is Bronagh’s spirit which expresses itself so strongly and soulfully in her voice as she puts her whole heart and self forward in her music.
Cara Gibney interviews the singer and actress following her meritorious concert at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace as part of the venue’s musical strand, ‘The Home Key’.
We were having a short exchange of emails about Spike Milligan. “Yes Spike rules! Badjelly the Witch was my fav!”
Turns out that Bronagh Gallagher’s mother read Spike Milligan to her children. Spike Milligan, Roald Dahl, Raymond Briggs, Seamus Heaney and interestingly, Delia Smith, to name a few of their preferred bedtime reading choices. “She also had the best collection of Vogue magazines that I’ve ever seen,” continued the singer and actress who first sprang to our attention as Bernie McGloughlin in The Commitments, way back in 1991 when she was just 17 years old.
After The Commitments she was seen proudly sporting a Frames T-shirt during that infamous Pulp Fiction scene with Uma Thurman, the heroin overdose and the adrenalin shot. Then there was Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and over the years a myriad of roles shifting from TV, to film, to stage – from Holby City, to Sherlock Holmes, to National Theatre’s War Horse; however, acting is only one of the ships that Derry born and bred Bronagh Gallagher steers. She also runs her own record label, Salty Dog Records, on which she has released three albums, and likewise runs her own band as she follows a simultaneous music career.
Music was there from the beginning, and a visible thread runs from Gallagher’s introduction to music at home as a child, and the singing-songwriting that she performs and records today. The immediate soul of her voice channels country, R&B, gospel and much more. “It was soul records, country records, the Beatles, and rock ‘n’ roll records that dominated the family home rather than literature,” she told me, giving a clear insight into those earliest of influences that set her on her musical track.
Gather Your Greatness, Gallagher’s third album of original material, released last year, uses all of this mastery in a collection of songs that shines a light on the two ends of life’s spectrum – from the ideal, the happy, to the endurance needed when life rides roughshod over all of it. The album sources from events and situations happening around Gallagher, and while the causes, consequences, joy and disappointments of life unfold, Gather Your Greatness is grounded with a strong faith in the human being, in the capacity in each of us to endure, change, survive, and shine.
“The title Gather your Greatness came from working from within,” she explained “I believe the inner light is inner knowledge … Real happiness takes work, breaking bad habits. It can exist knowing that it doesn’t come from outside influences; they should only enhance and stimulate. [They] should not be the reason that you find contentment in your life, that comes from self-respect and self-love and self-acceptance … Life is trial and error. Knowing what works for you, being around the right people, creating your own internal security, knowing that it’s an inside job.”
The album title is also about looking at nature. “How brave it is, how economic it is, and how no matter what (bar killer frost), every year the bulbs in my garden will push through the cold earth there and show their glory. We are all connected and I continued to be inspired every day by nature”.
The seeds sewn by Gallagher’s mother reading Seamus Heaney to her kids resonate right through to today. “I love many of Heaney’s poems, but I love ‘The Ministry of Fear’. It reminds me of Derry, reminds me of growing up and the sense of inadequacy you had as a Catholic in Derry. But I was very lucky with my teachers and my family. They instilled the confidence to break the mould and move forward in the world of art.”
She still applies Heaney’s poetry as she navigates through life and puts it to words in her music. Bronagh explained, “Heany is a huge influence in my writing.” Indeed the beautiful ‘A Sailor Like You’ from Gather Your Greatness features Heaney’s title ‘The Ministry Of Fear’ in the lyrics. “Well, every artist’s experience is different, but I can certainly relate to many of the questions Seamus asked about authority and religion.”
Those questions are ever present in the hard hitting ‘Heal Me’, a blues-gospel testimonial that lists and berates us with humankind’s cruelty. “There’s no land worth fighting for or living on when you see babies washing up on the shore”.
The depth of feeling in ‘Heal Me’ is matched in her explanation of the song. “I think it’s important to speak out, to show support, but I always lose heart at the little effect you think you’re having in the world… We have certainly got it wrong as human beings across the board. It’s grossly upsetting that most of the world’sleaders don’t care about human life no matter what they say. I do believe there are also good people in government, but alas greed, the dysfunction of power, and lack of care continues to outdo the good.”
But there is hope, and Bronagh Gallagher hasn’t given up. “Artists can speak and give humanity a sense of confidence that we are all not f***ed up. And ultimately artists, musicians, and writers bring people together. That is why festivals and music situations are so unifying. It is the one language that we all can communicate with. The universal language of music, and love, and unity.”