Nine Songs: Andrea Corr
There’s no denying The Corrs wrote some absolute bangers. At the height of their fame the Irish siblings were one of the most instantly recognisable and adored artists on the radio.
Constantly across TV screens and magazines, they sold over forty million records worldwide. Last year Andrea Corr followed solo material with the release of her debut memoir, the honest and moving Barefoot Pilgrimage. This year, she’s got Christmas covered.
Corr waves down the phone from her Dublin bedroom. It’s early December and things are beginning to feel festive, even despite the on-going pandemic. She’s just released her Christmas Songs EP, a collection of covers and one original work ready for the holiday season, inspired by a visit she paid last year to Dublin’s Our Lady’s Hospice where she performed choice songs and carols. “It was inspired by a fundraiser for the hospice, which I was profoundly moved by,” she explains. “It was very moving remembering those who are missing at Christmas.”
Corr lost her mother when she was much younger, and her father passed away a few years ago. Her parents played music together and were instrumental in Corr’s cultural and emotional education, something that’s apparent and constantly revisited during our time discussing her song choices. However, loss is something that can feel more striking and poignant at Christmas. “Obviously this year is Covid, a lot of people have a lot to come to terms with and a lot of loss,” she says. “And my Dad used to say, Christmas is a time of absences, after Mum died, of course. I know it sounds a bit gloomy, but I suppose we have to recognise that too, that there are absences and honour them or pray to them or find some peace.”
The EP features the uplifting tones of the Giovanni Consort Choir from Perth, the only choir Corr and her team could find who were legally allowed to sing together at the time of recording due to coronavirus restrictions. “It was logistical, and then it felt fated,” she smiles. “It felt quite perfect at the time, because I got up at six in the morning to listen to them being recorded in Perth and the sun was just coming up here. The distance and yet the closeness, there was something about that, that we all have the same problem. It just felt really right for this, and then they just sang their hearts out. I think everybody feels such an appreciation for getting to sing. Getting to do work and getting to express themselves. You hear that when you listen to “O Holy Night” and the men singing on it, it floors me.”
It’s easy to dismiss Christmas songs as novelty, as vapid hooks wrapped in lyrical tinsel. But when you think about it, these songs hold real emotional weight. They’re the same three- minute ditties that track this annual occasion across your lifetime. “You’ve got the young ears listening to them and the old ears listening, you know, who you are now listening to them,” says Corr. “Recognising that the magic they had and the total open innocence they had isn’t quite there. There’s a lot of pain in them.”
Nowadays, Corr doesn’t listen to much new music, instead she tends to favour a good audiobook. ”Even watching Graham Norton or any of these interviews, can’t do it,” she laughs. “I cannot watch it, because that just makes me nervy and anxious. There’s total freedom in listening to the old stuff that I like. I’m not involved in it at all, I’m just listening.”
Corr’s Nine Songs choices are all taken from her past, events and experiences that still resonate with her. “Things that feel pivotal when I look back at them,” she explains. “You can remember the moment that you heard them, where you almost see yourself on the outside, in the room, listening to them at that moment. They have that kind of effect. Journeys and loneliness I think could be common in them. But I analysed that after the fact myself, really. And something that’s going to make you feel kind of OK, like, acceptance and forgiveness. That’s common in them.”
It’s almost like the exercise of choosing her favourite songs has acted like a therapy session for Corr. “When you heard them first you were younger and you were a different person, so there’s a freedom in these songs being sung and knowing that those aches are no longer,” she smiles. “Like, even for the songwriters. Like “Graceland”, I’m sure Paul Simon’s over that love. There’s something consoling about that.”
“I do think Paul Simon’s the greatest lyricist. It’s the way he can drag you into intimacy. You’ll suddenly be kind of comfortable where you are with it and then he’ll go, "Kathy, I'm lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping”. Like, you’re kind of on the bus, but then your head jumps. But you’re right with him on that bus and her sleeping beside him and him, full of hope and anticipation that they’re leaving something behind and it seems they’re saying goodbye to something, because they need to. So again, there’s that loneliness and journey and that lonely soul of his there whispering these words while he knows she sleeps.
“And Simon and Garfunkel’s writing, it’s just so musical as well. It does everything. The lyrics as poetry are beautiful and resonant, yet there seems no art to them, it just seems really natural. And then the music is so melodic and transcendent sometimes. So then together they’re perfect songs, if that’s possible.
“Our parents were a band so they played music and a lot of it was Simon and Garfunkel, so I absolutely loved them and you’d have to take one of their records onto a desert island because I think you could always keep finding in them as well. I wonder are there songs forever made now, like that? Songs you’ll always find something in them?”
“[On 2011 solo record Lifelines] I covered “Lifelines” because I didn’t wanna cover “Everybody’s Talkin’”, I think it’s the wrong thing to do. Well, for me anyway - everybody else go ahead, but it’s just so perfect as it is. And it was a cover anyway, and that’s the interesting story.
“Midnight Cowboy is my favourite film and I watched it again recently and it still is, which is pretty amazing because I was in my teens and watching TV with Mum and Dad. So the movie came on, and daddy was great at picking what was a good movie to watch. We watched Midnight Cowboy and we set record on it, so I actually have the videotape of this. After the movie - which had blown me away, which had really been a moment, as some moments are in your life - the presenter on the TV gets on and says, “I wouldn’t turn over yet. We have this rare recording of Harry Nilsson performing to a live studio audience, playing some of his songs.”
“He was such a brilliant songwriter and such a beautiful singer and the range, oh my God, and everybody loved him. But he had not much of that lead singer charisma thing going on, or whatever it is. He took the mick out of himself in it. He took the mick out of that he wasn’t affecting people at all, really, and I think he felt down that “Everybody’s Talkin’” was such a big hit and it was the one he hadn’t written. But Jesus, he’s plenty there. If I had a chat with him I’d say, ‘Just be happy to sing it.’
“So he plays “Lifelines” in it and I was blown away by the almost automatic pain of the sounds, the music, the feeling and the drowning, just the whole thing. There he is at the piano and it was really moving to me, like you’re about to cry watching it on the telly and then it pans to the audience and they’re all looking around. He could literally bleed up there and nobody’s interested, right? Anyway, so that was my introduction to Harry Nilsson and I love him.
““Everybody’s Talkin’” is just such a brilliant, brilliant song. The sound of it and everything. Obviously it is in line with the pictures of that movie in my head, which is that ‘all the lonely people’ thing, and the love and the hope. I think it’s almost a good funeral one to go down the aisle. I wouldn’t mind. It’s such a great song just because it feels like you’re going off into the soul. And he is, when he’s on that bus to go to Florida and he never gets there. I actually have Midnight Cowboy on vinyl, it’s a brilliant soundtrack.”
“Again, it’s that journey. “Graceland”, that was loved in our house and my parents actually played that song, but it’s the lyrics again are so good with the music. Have you read Salman Rushdie’s new book, Quichotte? It’s brilliant. There’s a character in it, he calls the sister ‘the human trampoline’ which is from that song.
“Anyway, what is it about it? The words, the words. “Losing love is like a window in your heart, everybody sees you're blown apart.” The exposure of it! He gets the exposure of being left or abandoned or lost and then such intimate moments that become the painful loss. “She comes back to tell me she's gone. As if I didn't know that.” I love that, first of all - Hi, I’m gone. “As if I'd never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.”
"They’re just chilling words, they’re so brilliant lyrics. It’s that - the intimacy and the simplicity of human love. They’re not the big moments. They’re not, ‘Oh her in her wedding dress’ and something like that, it’s the way she brushed her hair from her forehead.
“I used to always do that [indulging heartbreak with sad songs] and it was terrible. There was one time I kept listening to a Randy Newman one I think, “Real Emotional Girl”. And then I was obviously a very emotional girl as well. So yeah, I absolutely do, but then at the same time, you’re kind of in the therapy of that. You’re romanticising it. And you know you’re not alone. So it’s actually a good thing to do I think, because you go and listen, ‘Oh, Paul Simon’s heart’s broken too.’ And that’s just the way the world spins. You see the transience of the pain, even. So I think it’s a good thing to do, though it mightn’t be nice to be around.”
“Roy Orbison’s songs, they were so beautiful anyway, so that’s the thing with a lot of these, it’s hard to choose one. You could probably go for a lot of their songs, yeah, but they do shine supreme at the same time. Like “America” does shine supreme, and “Graceland”.
“Mum and Dad played that song [“Blue Bayou”] and Mum sang it and they recorded it once. They were very good and very talented, but they did covers, they didn’t write their own songs and they did go into a recording studio once. I suppose in a way, we as a band fulfilled that kind of thing for them, but in a lovely way. There was a cassette in the house from when they’d gone into the studio for a day and I was very, very young, but I remember that tape. I loved it, and Mum singing “Blue Bayou”. And again, it’s loss. It’s just a beautiful song.
“I suppose it did [influence me] in that I used to sit and listen and bump to songs and sing, like, I know it’s a crazy, silly thing to do, it’s weird with music. And I’d sing along and I’d be who it was in the story. And I did that a lot with these songs. So they’ve got to have done something. Do you know how there’s that Outliers thing? With all those hours, if somebody spends ten thousand hours on something… That’s the thing. I’m sure there’s ten thousand hours there, back then, listening to songs in our house. And that’s in there. And it’s so young. I don’t even know what year that is, so it probably is really formative.
“Mum sang for the first time on the stage with me while she was pregnant with me. That would have been because of them, because sometimes there’s lyrics in songs, I don’t know how I know them. And I look up and find, ‘God that’s very young.’ Probably with the amount that things were played.”
“Nina Simone is my favorite singer. It’s that she’s not really aware she’s singing. It’s like it’s nothing to do with the singing. It’s this story, it’s the sound, it’s the soul. You feel and you hear her essence and the pain of it. And “Little Girl Blue” I find so magical.
“The way it starts and it’s “Good King Wenceslas”, and that did kind of inspire me. If you listen to the EP, I did “Begin Again”, a song I wrote myself, but I put “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” on it. And in a way that was inspired by that song because it’s so strange, in a way, but beautiful. Just the magic of this almost nursery rhyme where she plays it, of “Good King Wenceslas” and then there’s unhappy “Little Girl Blue”. You just really see this lonely child that isn’t feeling loved, but with a Christmas song, it’s more painful and real. “Little Girl Blue” I just love, I’ve always loved it.
“This was from listening to her records by myself, actually. I don’t remember hearing a lot of Nina Simone. I remember hearing “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, I kind of got into that more after, once I became aware of her voice. My memory of Nina Simone was that hit she suddenly had, that’s the one when I was younger, she was this woman who had a hit with “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. I can’t actually remember, but I feel it was Nina Simone I got more into by myself in my house in Dublin. I had a little house here in a little mews and that would have been more around 1999/2000, it would have been then that I was getting into that. But it stayed with me.
“She’s really the most beautiful voice. It’s like an instrument, but not. A lot of the time you find with singers and singing and people even teaching how to sing, it’s actually all about the story and then the singing is just the vehicle, whereas you can hear a lot of people get attached to the singing and their own voice and then you’re out of the story.
“I absolutely understand that [people don’t listen to lyrics]. I mean, to be honest in the band initially they didn’t matter at all. We used to repeat verses. I wrote a book last year that has this, but they were a second class citizen in a song when we first were writing. But at the same time, by starting like that we did find our way. I’m not saying it continued like that, and the moments of inspiration are the ones that made the record. Jim, if I couldn’t sing something high enough, he’d just speed my voice up. It really didn’t matter. And that’s horrific, right? I sound like a chipmunk. So many people don’t listen to lyrics. A song can’t be great without great lyrics. It cannot be great.”
“I love him. And that was another, ‘What one do I pick?’ Again. Well, I love his sense of humour, but it just gets to you. It’s not a smiling knife, as if this all looks good from the outside. I love that, his ‘I love LA’, and people would take it on as ‘This is great, that’s what he means’, and he’s not. He’s totally slagging it.
“The one I picked, “Living Without You”, I really love it. I love the loneliness, I love the whole thing, and then I loved realising that there was something to it that I hadn’t gotten before. Because it’s a man in a bed and he says, “It’s so hard living without you”. It’s the morning time, so I think he’s waking up with morning glory and he misses his love, right? Apparently.
“So I used to listen to that innocently, well not innocently I think, as it should be listened to. When Dad lost Mum I said, ‘Dad you have to listen to this song. And honestly, I was leaning to that side of it. Because it obviously works without that. But I wasn’t aware of that when I just loved it, because it’s not important to it. But it is the physical thing, I think he is meaning that. The whole scene of the morning. The setting, the scene, and the pictures it evokes.
“And then I just love his piano playing. I love his piano playing, I love the touch of his hand on a keyboard, and the version of that that I love is Mitchell Froom made just a stripped down, a couple of records, Randy Newman Songbook Volume 1 and Volume 2. It’s just him singing with the piano and it’s done maybe twenty years ago, but it’s just the playing of the piano, even the sound of the pedal, and he’s so musical as well. His chords, his melodies and then with these really, what do they do to you? Penetrating lyrics. As in they make you look at yourself and go, “Ach...” In the way we should. Like, look at ourselves and go ‘Ah, this is great’, it’s not.
“He’s just brilliant. I love that, when there’s more to learn. But I don’t think that what he’s saying there takes away the ache of the loss. I think that’s real. I don’t think that diminishes it, turns it into some man that misses sleeping with his wife or having sex. It isn’t that, but the awareness of that being a real thing to miss.”
“There, I remember that moment and I remember the DJ playing it. So I was in my kitchen, and that little house in Dublin, the little mews, it had such beautiful light that would come in these windows. We put on an extension and there's this square sash window in between two rooms which was quite lovely, because we just kept that old window there.
“It was just me living there on my own, but I do remember around that kitchen - which was quite country looking, with lovely, bright, windows - it felt like this haven, and listening to the radio and Dave Fanning, this legendary DJ and music lover here in Ireland, playing it and talking about it. I remember having to stop what I was doing, because if we talk of therapy hitting music, well that’s it really; he really goes to the soul, I think he finds the higher self in his songwriting. And even if he stumbles upon it, I don’t mind. Maybe everybody only stumbles upon it in any case, and that’s what inspiration is.
“But I think it’s the self-reflection in it, and the acceptance and the forgiveness, to sit and confess and forgive yourself. Because I read the story of it, it’s actually lovely. I went to see him play the Montreux Jazz Festival once. I wasn’t playing at it, I went to see it, and that was another brilliant, best concert I’ve ever seen, which sounds mad but it’s true.
“He’s so modest, he says nothing never came as easy, like ‘I wasn’t that type of writer who’d sit down and write something and it’s done, but if the scene is set like this…’ He was, I think, in Canada, and there was a really big snowstorm and there were these two hitchhiking girls, they had nowhere to stay, so he invited them back to his hotel room. They went straight to the bed to go to sleep, and he sat in an armchair watching them. But when you listen to it, it’s a confessional, even though they were asleep. So again, it’s like “Kathy, I’m lost…” He’s confessing through her sleep. They’ve turned into something in his head that is a spiritual moment.
“Also, it’s that he wants to share it - “Oh, I hope you run into them, you who've been travelling so long.” That he wants to share that moment with the soul. Like, somebody else to find it if he finds it through them. And he goes, “We weren't lovers like that and besides, it would still be alright.” So again, there’s that acceptance. There’s that ‘I’m human and accepted’, but even if there was, that would still be alright. And there’s loads of that I think in the song - of mercy, forgiveness, acceptance and of being human. And just that moment of reflection. It’s just the most stunning song. What a man.
“Listening to his spiritual awakening? It kind of felt like that. That really is a stilling song, isn’t it? Even thinking about it. Whereas you think of the reaction of others, they’re heady and heavy, but that one goes ‘Ahhh. Alone with the soul.’
“[At the time I was] really busy with the band and in a way, quite lonely in the business. We worked so much. I never was really in a relationship. I look back at that now and I feel grateful for it, because I had a lot of time with Mum and Dad, and Mum died when I was young, so if I had been with somebody, whatever little holidays I’d have gotten I wouldn’t have spent it with them.
“So I look back and go, ‘It’s right and I’m glad of that.’ I was quite alone, but there was a beautiful magic to that house in a way, because I felt like at the same time I was alone but I felt exposed. I felt very self-conscious because of papers and stuff like that. But I could really pull these gates open into this house and into that light in the house, and it really did feel like my own haven. So it was the perfect place to reflect and listen to other’s reflections.”
“Again, a really musical piano player. I can’t help it, I love melodies, I love pop melodies and it’s what moves me and it’s what puts the hair up on my back. And when I say I can’t help that, I don’t know, this world, people apologise for liking something commercial and we should surely have the courage of our convictions and like what we like.
“And then lyrically again. I always used to think ‘I would love that to be written about me’. That somebody loved me like that, somebody would look at me like that. I think it’s just beautiful, beautiful how he looked at her in the lyrics of that song.
“When we went to make our first record in LA, we went from Dundalk to Malibu. It was very, very strange. And from just our little family house to Hollywood. Actually, it was when we were looking for a record deal, so we were sleeping on a girl called Julie’s floor, who was an artist friend of our manager John’s and I just listened to Billy Joel all the time back then. It makes me think of LA, and I like LA. It’s beautiful musically and beautiful lyrically.”
“I adore Prince and I cannot leave him off here, because again, what a brilliant lyricist, as much as my Dad did not appreciate it when he was not PG. But again, when you think about lyrics that aren’t PG these days, the kids understand them, right? Whereas Prince’s version of not-PG, we didn’t understand them.
“I didn’t know what I was singing. My Mother was singing stuff as well. It was like Regan from The Exorcist in the kitchen. So I just loved his music and I didn’t know, but daddy confiscated his records. But not Sign O’ The Times, he confiscated Lovesexy, but I found it, don't worry. I managed to get it back. I knew where it was.
“Sign O’ The Times and just how relevant it is now, still. Musically he really was inspired and genius, how could we not say that? His were amazing concerts I got to go to. One of his concerts was my first. Which would have been Lovesexy, actually, that record. I went to Cork to see him. He’s just so phenomenal on stage, what a lead singer and presence as well. He’s somebody that was really so gifted. Like nearly too gifted, crazy gifted. That really ‘in the blood feel’ is there.
“The Cross” again goes along with “Sisters of Mercy” and I suppose it’s a prayer as well and searching for the soul and the higher self. I don’t know, did he get really religious? “Don't cry, he is coming. Don't die without knowing the cross.” [He became a Jehovah’s Witness] “That’s what it is then, that’s what it is. Whatever way you find it, I think that everybody’s journey is to go up higher all the time. To get more in your soul, and that’s the moment he’s doing that and whether the vehicle is Hare Krishna or whatever, that’s immaterial really, it's the same as the confessional in the room with the two girls for Leonard Cohen.
“I feel I was like fourteen, fifteen. I saved up for his records. He was the posters on my wall and I thought we’d be a perfect height for each other. That he wouldn’t need to wear the heels he wore if he was with me. I loved every one of his albums. I’d get them and go through all the lyrics. I just loved all his records.
Would you convert and give up Christmas for Prince?
“No. I wouldn’t. No, I ain’t giving up Christmas. Not now I’ve done a Christmas EP, anyway.”