King of West Kerry
Early in February, music editor Kevin O’Reilly bagged a rare interview with a living legend. Read on to find out more about his chat with radio broadcaster and distinguished music and film producer Philip King on music, big ideas and Dingle.
Growing up in Cork in the 1960s, Philip King had relatively limited access to music. Primarily catching whispers of the world through RTÉ Radio 1, as he grew, his world opened up with access to BBC radio, Top of the Pops and even the American Armed Forces Network broadcasting from Germany.
These influences sparked a broad interest in music early on and whilst studying at UCC, he became fascinated with the connection between language and music. Philip explains that, as he sees it, music provides the soundtrack to history by not just detailing the facts of a givens time but by capturing the poetry and feelings of its people. Continuing, he lauds musicians as “the heralds of the future”.
His incredible knowledge of language, poetry and folklore shines through in the way he speaks. On his RTÉ show South Wind Blows, Philip’s voice is soft and low. But in conversation it is fuelled with a fiery passion and energy – yet he still finds time to pause and take brief moments to find the exact right word to be used in a sentence.
His gift in being able to pull quotes from the likes of Frank Hart and Seamus Heaney off the top of his head and to dispense anecdote after anecdote makes him a compelling speaker.
During our conversation, the topic soon shifted to his beloved West Kerry and Dingle, a place which he describes as idir eatarthu or “between two worlds, between the old and the new, between Irish and English.”
He says that this characteristic, apart from the astounding physical beauty of the place, is what makes Dingle and its people so special. South Wind Blows broadcasts from the southwestern tip of the country in Baile na nGall and it’s the remoteness of the Dingle Peninsula and the sensation of being on the edge of something that creates a certain wit and intelligence in the language and musicality of the community there.
It’s this spirit and how it is captured by Philip in his productions that has led to the stratospheric success of shows like Other Voices. The ability to draw both artists and audiences from all over the world into this serene and timeless location makes for a strikingly unique experience.
Dingle, he says, has a way of making artists feel a sense of comfort and belonging. One example I’m given is of how The National travelled through the night on an arduous journey only to arrive into the place as if they had come home because they felt it was a safe place for music and creativity.
He laughs; “sure look at me, I came here and I never left!”. Some, though certainly not all, of Philip’s vast wealth of artistic knowledge has come from working alongside renowned musicians such as Elvis Costello, Liam O’Flynn and Daniel Lanois and drawing on their insights and inspiration. The purpose of making these documentaries, he says, was about “celebrating, rather than explaining away, the magical mystery of creativity”.
Music and film however aren’t the only things on Philip’s mind. He envisions a unification of science and technology with arts and politics – a world where scientists and innovators can draw on the creativity of artists and politicians can learn to understand the importance of the arts to enriching our society and our culture.
This is something, he says, he is starting to see in the audiences of Other Voices.
Like all great thinkers, Philip King looks to the future. His mind plans prospectively and does not dwell retrospectively. He believes the future for a better Ireland lies in utilising our imaginative resources to integrate the different sectors of our society.
This can be achieved, he says, by changing our mindset in terms of how we fund primary activities. Cultural activities, for example, should not just be supported for the possibility of a quick return from tourism but rather fostered to ensure long term benefit.
“We need to nurture, cherish and feed that community, otherwise we are open-cast mining that resource which enriches us until it’s depleted”
Above all he emphasises that generosity, kindness and passion should underpin our endeavours and not be compromised by want of return. Things that are given without intention of receiving anything in return are of a different value.
Finishing our conversation, he recalls a line from Heaney’s ‘The Given Note’;
So whether he calls it spirit music
or not, I don’t care. He took it
out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
Still he maintains, from nowhere.
it comes off the bow gravely,
rephrases itself into the air.”