Christine Tobin told David Hennessy why she is looking forward to performing in memory of her friend of many years Frank Murray, paying tribute to her late sister with Carole King reworkings and being inspired by Gabriel Byrne to pursue performance when he was her teacher.
It may be a poignant return to London for Dublin jazz vocalist and composer Christine Tobin this week.
Christine made her name in London after, originally from Walkinstown, she moved across the water to pursue singing in 1987.
She would go on to become part of the London jazz and improvising scene and be lauded with awards.
In 2012, Sailing to Byzantium, her settings of WB Yeats poems featuring actor and her former Spanish teacher Gabriel Byrne, won a British Composer Award.
The following year she won a Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh Festival for her show, A Thousand Kisses Deep, which were her reworkings of Leonard Cohen classics.
Christine has also been honoured with Jazz Vocalist of the Year at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, Best Vocalist at the BBC Jazz Awards and has performed in concert halls, clubs and international festivals all over the world.
It may be poignant for Christine to sing at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this week as the concert is in memory of someone who gave her much support when she was first trying to make it.
This Friday’s concert, featuring the Christine Tobin Trio and The Lost Brothers, is in memory of Frank Murray.
Frank Murray was a major figure in the music industry in London and in Dublin.
He was manager of The Pogues, The Frames, The Mighty Steff, Kirsty McColl, The Lost Brothers and he was also production manager for Thin Lizzy and Elton John to name but a few.
Frank passed away in 2016.
Christine described to us how she used to call into Frank’s offices in Camden Town and that he even put her forward for a song with the Pogues that would eventually become Fairytale of New York.
Christine told The Irish World: “There’s a personal element in it for me because it’s a celebration of Frank Murray, who was a really good friend of mine for many years.
“When I moved to London, he was the only contact that I had over there.
“He actually came from the same street that I grew up on, my family knew his family.
“A friend of mine told Frank about me. That was when the Pogues were really doing very well and really coming up to the height of their fame and success.
“I told him I wanted to move to London and he said, ‘Well, I’ll try and help you if you come over’.
“So I used to see him a lot. I would go over to their offices in Camden most days when I first got there to see what was going on.
“He was in a different kind of music than I was because I went down the jazz route in a big way, but we were always friends.
“And then ten years later, when he was living back in Dublin, I would come over to see my mother and I’d always give him a shout.
“We’d meet up and hang out together and have really good times and I saw him in New York, about a month before he passed. So it was really a shock.
“Although I’m dying to get back onstage and performing and all that, it is as much about Frank’s memory for me because I was away in New York at the time when he passed.
“I wasn’t able to get back (to the funeral) so in a way, this is great to be able to pay tribute, and be able to sing to him really and to his memory.
“I’m sure he’s around there somewhere.
“He was always very encouraging, helped me out loads.
“He would get my records played on the radio, tell people about me in the press. He was always in my corner and very encouraging.
“As I say, I used to go out to their offices and I remember him saying to me, ‘I might have some work for you. The Pogues are looking for a female singer to record a song with them’.
“I remember thinking, ‘God, that’s really different kind of styles’.
“Very young, instead of thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a great opportunity’, I remember thinking, ‘That sounds interesting’, but I had no idea what it was.
“He put my name forward and there was quite a good chance that that might come to pass for me.
“Anyway, what it turned out to be was A Fairytale of New York.
“So there you go. That could have been me.
“It’s a nice little story to tell.
“But that was Frank putting me forward for that.”
To honour Frank’s memory, there will also be a sculpture.
Named Scaradh, it depicts Oisín, son of Fionn, falling from his horse, Embarr.
The sculpture will be unveiled at the ICC at 2pm on Friday 4 February.
The work is by sculptor Michael Quane (RHA), with lettering by John Fitzpatrick and words in the. Irish language, by poet Declan Collinge.
The sculpture has been given by Frank’s brother Brian on permanent loan to the ICC and it will be displayed , for all to see, in the foyer gallery.
Preceding the unveiling, there will be a chance to see the premiere of a new film Scaradh about the Sculpture and Frank Murray directed by the acclaimed Dublin film- maker Sé Merry Doyle.
Christine says of the concert that evening: “I’ll be doing some original material, some of the arrangements of Leonard Cohen songs and I’ll probably throw in a couple of the Carole King as well.
“It’s going to be quite a mix of tunes.
“I’m quite excited.
“I’ve never played at the Irish Cultural Centre.”
Christine became an integral part of the London contemporary scene for many years.
She studied jazz at the Guildhall School of Music before singing with the band Lammas for ten years.
“I had heard mixed reports from Irish people going over: Some people saying English people are really unfriendly and all this kind of thing.
“But as soon as I found where the jazz clubs were and got in touch with some musicians, it’s almost like you’re going into this little community who have a common love of something, a shared interest that everybody’s very passionate about.
“I hate the expression sometimes but- I found my tribe, more than I had it in Dublin in some ways. So it was really exciting.
“I was living very close to The 606 Club and I used to go there, you’re immediately into a circle of friends.
“And then I applied for a scholarship to go to the Guildhall to do their music course there. And I got that. So I did that.
“So pretty soon I was able to fit into a scene.
“I loved it.
“Within six months, it felt like home.
“I just loved going to see loads of live music and things like that, and the buzz.
“And I loved London probably for about 20 years.
“And one day I just woke up and thought, ‘Oh my god. I think I need to move. I want to be by the sea’.”
After spending many years in London, as well as Margate and New York, Christine is now back in Ireland living in Roscommon.
“I relocated here in 2020.
“I had planned to be spending a bit more time in Ireland. But I didn’t realise I was going to moving back here and that’s kind of what’s happened.
“It’s been amazing. It’s been an amazing experience coming home after all these years, you know?
“It was like they were calling me home and I didn’t know it.”
With live gigs out of the question, Christine has been working on new material.
“We did get some Arts Council award to write new music which was commissioned by the Dock which is fabulous arts centre in Carrick on Shannon.
“So I actually wrote a whole new programme of new music with a completely different style of line-up.
“It draws on some of the folk tradition.
“I don’t know how to describe it really, but it’s definitely got more Irish music in there than would have had in the past.
“So that was something that I didn’t see coming, that came about being here.
“I just kind of fell in love with this place and the peace and all that kind of thing.
“Having said that, having no live gigs for almost two years, it’s been hard.
“But then I got this new programme of music together that I’m not going to be able to tour until probably early February ‘23.
“And it’s all about coming home and finding home and a sense of belonging and what that means, because I have had plenty of time to think about that thing,” she says laughing.
Irish music was always in Christine’s home as a child with two older sisters playing the accordion.
Christine’s first professional performance when she was eleven and got to sing some songs alongside the late comedian and actor Cecil Sheridan. This was produced in The Eblana, the theatre that was once under Busáras.
Someone else who inspired her to pursue performing was Usual Suspects star Gabriel Byrne when he was her teacher.
“I didn’t really come across jazz in my house, but there was music in my house.
“My two older sisters played the piano accordion.
“So I squealed until my parents bought me a little accordion. And then after having the accordion for about a month it was like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t really like it’.
“But I knew l could sing so we used to do little charity events, myself and my two sisters, the three of us together.
“The first proper thing I ever did was in a theatre in Dublin.
“I was only 11 but that was a big thing.
“It was fabulous. I just found this whole world really interesting, magical.
“I just liked the idea of having that purpose in that world.
“And then I just became a teenager and forgot about singing and everything like that until I went to a brilliant school called Ardscoil Éanna which is in Crumlin.
“Gabriel Byrne attended the school at some point and he was there then as a Spanish teacher.
“He was our Spanish teacher and after school he used to run drama classes, or basically working towards putting on a play and some entertainment at Christmas.
“Anybody who was interested from any year could stay back and work on that in your own time with him.
“That also made me feel I wanted to be in that world somehow, and singing.
“It was always my thing, singing.”
It was somewhat of a happy accident by which Christine discovered jazz. When she went looking for a Joni Mitchell album, she took her latest not knowing it was a collaboration between Joni and legendary double bassist Charles Mingus.
“That happened to be the first Joni Mitchell record I bought. And I thought I was getting something different.
“I had gone into Golden Discs on Grafton Street and said, ‘Have you anything by Joni Michell?’
“That was the latest album, so I got that.
“Then I heard this music that was really different and just fell in love with it.
“A few weeks later, I went back into the record store, ‘Have you got anything by this guy Charles Mingus?’
“I just thought, ‘This is jazz. This is great’.
“Then somebody said to me, ‘Have you heard of Billie Holiday? Sarah Vaughan?’
“Then I got into all that.”
While her style is rooted in jazz, Christine has taken inspiration from influences as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Carole King and poets WB Yeats and Paul Muldoon.
“I love really good words.
“Of course, I learned WB Yeats at school, and I loved the poems then.
“It was great to go back and I took 13 poems of his, set them to music and then Gabriel Byrne was a guest on that, read some of the poems on that record, turned them into songs.
“I think it worked out okay.
“And then after that, I decided to find my own versions of Leonard Cohen’s songs.
“I think his lyrics are amazing.
“They’re so serious but they’re also so witty, there’s so much humour in there and something like Tower of Song, his words are actually quite prophetic.”
For her 2010 album Tapestry Unravelled, which was mostly reworkings of songs from Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry.
This was personal to Christine as it was an album she had enjoyed with her sister Deirdre. Deirdre passed away in 2009 from cancer aged 56.
Deirdre Tobin was one of those responsible for major advances in equal pay legislation. As a member of the Women’s Committee of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions, she campaigned for the equal pay laws that are now part of legislation.
She was one of the founders of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) as a faction in the Labour Party.
She was a stalwart of the Crumlin branch of the Labour Party when it was one of the party’s most left-wing.
“It’s a tribute to my sister, Deirdre.
“We were very close especially when I was a child because we were ten years apart.
“I was the youngest, she was the oldest and sometimes your elder sister is a bit like your mother in the way she ends up looking after you a lot.
“And that was my memory with her, and she had the record, Tapestry.
“When she moved out of the family home, I used to go and visit her a few times a week.
“Once a week, I’d have dinner there and after dinner, we used to sit and listen to a record.
“And one of the records that we always listened to and absolutely loved was Tapestry and I learned all the songs from it.
“She was a very prominent figure in the trade union movement in Dublin years ago.
“She would have been going to Labour party meetings and things like that.
“After the meeting, there would be a bit of a session maybe.
“I would always be asked to sing a song or two and I used to always sing Tapestry.
“When Deirdre passed away the beginning of 2009, of course I wanted to sing something and I thought I would sing the song, Beautiful.
“It’s a really positive song. I sang that at her funeral service.
“Then I just thought it’d be really nice to do a version of that whole record.
“Myself and pianist Liam Noble, who is a great pianist in London, just did it as a duo and we recorded it in one day.
“And I think of it as a tribute to my sister.
“It just felt really strong actually you know, because in one way, I didn’t want to change the songs too much because they’re so perfect and so beloved by so many people.
“Sometimes you don’t want to alter things too much.
“I did alter the Leonard Cohen songs.
“With these they were associated with hearing them at a very young age, and sharing the love of them with my sister.
“There was an emotional attachment to them.
“The most radical thing to do was not to do them with the band, just to play them with piano.
“It really pares the song down to its most exposed form if it’s just voice and piano.
“In a way, it felt like a good thing to do and I felt like my sister was listening. It felt like a strong connection.
“And it didn’t feel like a sorrowful thing. It felt good. It felt real.
“I think when you’re close to someone, you still feel their presence in some way. She’s looking out for me.
“She was an incredibly strong person: A fighter.
“She was just one of those iron-willed people.
“I think she just thought she could best it (cancer) and get over it.
“But it just kept coming back. And then there were complications and things that followed on and it just wouldn’t go away.
“It’s just incredibly sad because she was a really good person, wanted to do things, wanted to make an impact.
“She was a good person.”
Christine Tobin and The Lost Brothers play The Irish Cultural Centre in memory of Frank Murray from 8pm Friday 4 February.
For more information, click here.
For more information on Christine, click here.