- Cold Light of Day
- Taking It Back
- Leonard Spoke to Me
- No Footprints
- Who Them Saints
- Two Hands on the Handle
- Hold Up the Sky
- My Own Devices
- Random Strangers
- Lang Syne Or Lili Marlene
- BONUS TRACK: The Raven Who Stole the Sun
“It’s raining in Belfast they’re counting the kill / when the hour comes around I swallow my pill / raise my hand up with a light in my eye / I am the man here who holds up the sky”
Hold Up The Sky is the follow-up album to 2016’s Seeking The Assassin which met with very positive critical acclaim, multiple airplays and media syncs.
Sky was recorded again at GrooveShack Studios, Ramelton, Donegal, Ireland with the irrepressible spirit, creative and technical excellence of Billy Robinson at the helm.
Sam says, “I’ve twice been lucky to be able to take my songs to Billy who is one of the most accomplished bass players, sound engineers and producers in Ireland. I call him “The Groovemeister”.
Seamus Devenny, Percy Robinson and Peadar Coll again play on this album. In addition, Pat Crowley (from Kinsale, Co. Cork), one of Ireland’s leading keyboard players and a mainstay of Mary Black’s band, features prominently and leaves the distinctive mark of exceptional musicianship. “Pat is someone who is hugely talented but modestly understated. It was a great pleasure to work with him and get to know him better” says Sam.
Kate O’Callaghan and Lorna McLaughlin (a member of The Henry Girls) feature on vocals on three tracks with Lorna also contributing an accordion part on Two Hands On The Handle. Sam says, “I was very fortunate to have these two first-rate musicians and singers on three tracks of the album. Also without Kate’s husband Seamus Devenny, a multi-talented musician/teacher, Sky would have been a far lesser thing.”
The bonus track The Raven Who Stole The Sun features Memphis-based guitarist and singer-songwriter Rev Neil Down. Sam says that “working with Rev was a whole lot of fun. The man is a musical force of nature; a big positive spirit bubbling over with inspirational mojo. Check out Neil’s extraordinary album “Eire of My Ways” recorded in 2017 with Percy Robinson in Donegal and his funky infectious performances with Lahna Deering, available on YouTube as Deering and Down.”
Once again Donegal singer-songwriter Jonathan Smeaton adds backing vocals on three tracks. Sam urges everyone to check out Jonathan’s new album Drawing To The Light which was also recorded at the GrooveShack. “This album typifies all that it best about Jonathan’s work; honest, raw, soulful, thought-provoking, often heart-melting songs from one of Ireland’s finest – at the top of his game.”
The title track Hold Up The Sky was inspired by a man Sam used to see whilst driving home in Belfast during the years of violent political conflict.
“I saw him regularly during a period of particularly foul weather, walking distractedly by the side of the road near the George Best City Airport with his right hand raised up high, as the commuter traffic went by. Years later, Maura Lynch (who contributed the superb inside cover artwork on Sky) told me that he was known in Belfast as “The Man Who Holds Up The Sky”. I imagined that he was driven to mental illness by a world gone mad around him. I never saw him again or discovered who he was. I hoped that he and Belfast would find some sort of peace. The song is also meant as a kind of tribute to all those who sought to unite rather than divide during the Troubles.”
Cold Light Of Day is the repentant testimony of a gunman.
“I had this originally as a fairly straight up-tempo country song, but under the influence of Pat on Hammond and Billy’s bass it developed in a rockier and more effective direction,” Sam explains.
The song opens the album with the clean electric guitar phrases of Peadar Coll. Sam says, “Peadar is a remarkable young multi-instrumentalist who follows his own star and makes marvellous music in Donegal where he is based. He typifies the richness of young musical talent in Ireland’s most northerly county – recently declared the ‘coolest place on the planet’ by National Geographic. Musicians like Ruari Friel, Sarah Cullen, Declan McClafferty and the band In Their Thousands are part of that culture.”
Sam dedicates this song to the memory of Ireland’s Miami Showband whose members were victims of sectarian murder in 1975.
Taking It Back addresses the issue of immigrant children facing expulsion from a place of refuge. It was inspired by the post-Trump “Dreamers” situation in the USA. The song features a dialogue between a government official and deportees. At the Belnash, i.e. Belfast/Nashville Songwriter Convention 2018, Jason Blume – the highly-successful American songwriting guru described Taking It Back as “emotionally very powerful; successfully striking home its message, whilst avoiding preachiness.”
Leonard Spoke To Me is described by Sam as his attempt at “a surrealistic tribute to Leonard Cohen”.
“It imagines me running into him in Belfast. Leonard had been with his fans a long time and along with Dylan meant a lot to me as a songwriter’s songwriter. I once found his old house on Hydra – the Greek Island – and put my hand against a wall in the hope that a good song might come through! Maybe this was it.”
The Reggae fiddle stabs by Peadar Coll are entirely down to the creative brilliance of Billy Robinson.
“No Footprints was hard to write and perform,” says Sam. It was inspired by the tragic descent into memory loss by my old friend Charlie Whisker – a talented artist who worked with U2, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Kelly Joe Phelps. It is dedicated to Charlie and also Maraid, Domino, India, Julia and Ruby-Mae. Sam says that everyone interested in this subject should read Julia Kelly’s moving account of her relationship with Charlie in her memoir Matchstick Man published by Head of Zeus in 2018.
Two Hands On The Handle – the most Country-inflected song on the album – tells the true tale of an aunt of Sam’s from Northern Ireland who met and fell in love with an American serviceman during World War Two. As Sam tells it, “and their hands came together like some destinies do.”
Some ten years ago Sam’s friend John T Davis, the widely-acclaimed film-maker and singer-songwriter, visited Sam’s aunt Margaret Gibson in a nursing home on Trail Of Tears Avenue Marshfield Missouri and filmed an interview with her for his feature documentary film Tailwind. She told John T to tell Sam “to get his ass over to see his old aunt,” but sadly Margaret died soon after the interview.
“She was one of that generation who played their part, when very young, in the war against fascism. They should never be forgotten,” says Sam.
Who Them Saints is a driving, Cajun-flavoured road trip number; a bittersweet reminiscence of a journey from New Orleans to the heart of hardcore Cajun country.
“I took that trip a long time ago,” says Sam. “I was fascinated by the rich musical heritage of Louisiana and its folklore and brought back a book called “Gumbo Ya Ya” that I still delve into. It was a magical trip and though much has changed since, I am still inspired by it.”
The Raven Who Stole The Sun (the bonus track) is a playful retelling of the Haida North West Native American creation myth.
“I had this Beat-type poem about the revolutionary Raven and when Rev Neil Down and I went into the studio it all came together very quickly, especially when The Rev sprinkled sonic stardust and Billy pulled it all together. I suppose in some ways it channels a little of the anarchic spirit of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) who was a big favourite of mine when I was experimenting with things in my younger days. It also led me to read more about the significance of ravens in various cultures.”
My Own Devices is a humorous take on the dangers of becoming consumed by addiction to social media.
“I was emailing, messaging and browsing one day when my partner Amanda said, “I’m away now. I’ll leave you to your own devices.” Sam put down the iPad, picked up the guitar and the song came to him. Unlike the woman in the song, Amanda returned!
Lang Syne Or Lili Marlene is a song, which according to Sam, tips its hat to the influence of Tom Waits.
“I saw him in a huge circus tent in Phoenix Park Dublin and it was one of the most riveting performances I have ever witnessed. In an ideal world, Mr Waits would come back to Ireland and include this melancholic song of a clown’s better-days-gone-by, in his set – in a circus tent of course!”
Random Strangers, like several of the songs on Sky, features the melodic pedal steel of guitar maestro Percy Robinson.
Sam says, “I was a big fan of Percy’s for many years and to have him on two albums means a lot to me.” The lyrical interplay between Pat Crowley on piano and Seamus Devenny on fiddle is another major feature of this song. Sam says, “Seamus beautifully follows Pat, as if in a slow dance.”
“Random strangers all danced out / Take your partners one last time is what it’s all about.”