Interview with Bill Shanley: Being an axe for hire

Guitarist Bill Shanley is a Clonakilty-born session musician, songwriter, performer, and bandleader. He has performed and recorded with Sinéad O’Connor, Mary Black, Liam Clancy, Black Francis (of The Pixies), Paul Brady and Roy Harper, amongst many others. Though he left his childhood home of Shanley’s pub in Clon for Dublin almost 30 years ago, he is never away for long. He regularly plays in the weekly sessions in Shanley’s, in which he has been playing since he was ten. 

WCP: Your upbringing of playing in Shanley’s with all those incredible musicians in your formative years must have influenced you greatly?

BS: “I think it was the volume of music played that set me up as a player. It was a magical time for me. It gave me an experience I wouldn’t have got anywhere else in this world! Moss, my father, was a brilliant piano player and he created and facilitated so many sessions and brought people in. Around Clonakilty there were always great characters, great musicians, and there was always great stuff happening. It’s a colourful town and people aren’t afraid to organise gigs and festivals.”

WCP: You play so many different styles of music on guitar and these can be heard on your latest album. What’s the key?

BS: “Once you have a grasp of the rules for each genre you can play in a lot of them. Back in the 90s I decided that, rather being just being a lead guitarist, I wanted to get into the engine room – to develop my acoustic playing and create my sound on that. That brought in work, or a demand for me to play in areas where that style of playing was wanted. It tied in with how records are produced. The most important part for me is movement. If the music doesn’t move properly, it doesn’t come across well. It’s the rhythm that creates the movement.”

WCP: How has the music industry changed over your professional lifetime?

BS: “It has changed a lot. Before, for bands it was about record companies and getting signed. There were a lot more record companies back then. Now you only have the three majors: Universal, Sony and Warner. Back then, there weren’t many artists self-releasing. Now, most people self-release. If you don’t get a deal, you can do it yourself or outsource it. You’re able to at least put it out there. But artists still need good business people behind them. 

“But it’s definitely settled a lot now compared with five or ten years ago. With streaming it has found its balance again. My view is: don’t ever underestimate the artist, because all it takes is for one great song to come out and people go, “Wow, that’s amazing!” and the currency of music has shifted up a few percent again, you know?”

WCP: Have you any advice for budding musicians?

BS: “For new people coming into the business you probably have to work harder and put more effort into it. You have to dedicate yourself and come up with bright new ideas to get your music across. You definitely have to work on your craft. If you have an attitude of ‘I’ll just do enough to get me by’, I don’t think that cuts it anymore. People will notice. It might have dropped off for a bit, but I think it’s back now where you have to be a good player. You hear it in pop music that the playing now is better. It’s not just about the image anymore, it’s about technique and the technical ability again. I think the standard has come up a bit.” 

WCP: Describe your performance at the Closing ceremony of the London Olympic Games with Ray Davies.

BS: “It was a very big billing and a very big event. The Olympics is a very humbling experience even to the biggest of stars, because in a way it’s bigger than them – than any band. You could see it – there was no egos – everyone was just delighted to be there. It’s the biggest event on planet earth, really, you know. It was all in a shroud of secrecy. Ray’s segment was particularly amazing because in modern music, that’s the most fitting song about London that you could have done there. It was just a beautiful moment never to happen again in their lifetime.”

WCP: I reckon you got more screen time than anybody else.

BS “Maybe, yeah. I remember getting e-mails from people all over the world for the next few days. It was amazing, it was a real moment! I have a great picture – I think it was my sister Emer that took it – of my family and some customers watching it in the bar. The expressions on people’s faces was fabulous!”

See my review of Bill’s new album, Midnight Mission below.

My gig of the month is the Kurt Cobain 25 Year Anniversary: with Paradox and Screenreader in De Barra’s on Friday April 12. Free entry.

If you have any comments or events, you can contact me by email

Gary Hannon

Gary Hannon is a DJ and Jazz musician based in West Cork.

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