IF he was born 100 years ago, Jack Lukeman believes it’s most likely he would have ended up earning his living wandering across Ireland, door to door, singing folk songs, or reciting poems in the old bardic-troubadour tradition.
“I know that singing and performing is the only thing that I was put on this earth to do,” says Lukeman with fierce enthusiasm when we begin chatting.
“And even long before there was a music business, I’m sure I would have found some way to make singing a full time job.”
Growing up, music was a constant presence at home, he explains.
“My earliest musical memories are of my mother having the radio on. Even as a kid, I remember hearing Tom Waits’ The Piano has Been Drinking, and thinking, wow: you can actually do that with music?”
“Then there would have been the parents coming back from the pub, having a session on a Saturday night, and everyone singing songs. So those were my first gigs really. And even in that small setting you could see the effect music had on people’s emotions.”
Back in 1991, when he was just 15, Lukeman already had serious notions of building a musical career. Figuring out how he might actually pull it off, though, was another matter entirely.
Dropping out of school seemed like the right way to go about it.
A four-year apprenticeship in the family-run mechanic garage in Athy, Kildare, felt like two steps forward and one step back though.
With just one year remaining to become a fully qualified tradesman, an obsession with another trade pulled him in a completely new direction.
“Myself and a friend went over to Holland to work in the bulb factories at the time; something a lot of Irish people did back then,” Lukeman recalls.
“But I copped on fairly quickly that I could actually make far more money busking with a guitar on the street, than I could working in the factory. So that was a revelation: knowing that you could actually pay your own way and earn a living, just by doing music. Because when you start out, you’re not so sure it’s going to be possible. ”
When he returned to Dublin, Lukeman was a confident performer who knew how to handle an audience. Within a few months, he had formed an eclectic eight-piece band called The Black Romantics.
Most of their set list included songs by Jacques Brel: an artist who has continued to influence Lukeman to this day. But playing relentlessly on the live circuit was a great learning curve he says: “Just to keep getting on stage, night after night was crucial: it made you better and better at performing all the time.”
The Black Romantics cut their teeth on the Dublin gig circuit in The DA Club: taking up residency there several nights a week. Other rising stars at the time included Damien Dempsey, Mundy, Paddy Casey and a host of others.
“It was a great time to be a musician in Ireland,” says Lukeman, with a tint of nostalgia: ”There weren’t as many rules for performers that there are now. We used to go on at midnight most of the time. So it was almost like this late night speakeasy scene we were all a part of.”
Dublin was a real fertile place for music too, and it had a kind of innocence about it. Temple Bar was where all the hippies hung out. Obviously things have changed significantly over the years, and you do miss the organic way of how things used to be. Nowadays everything seems that little bit more manipulated. That said, Dublin is still a great place for music and a really vibrant scene, even now.
If those formative years in the early 1990s were all about grafting and learning his trade as a singer, the two decades since have been mostly been about reaping the rewards of success.
With six platinum albums now under his belt— including a Greatest Hits— Lukeman has sold out shows in prestigious venues like the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Lincoln Centre in New York, and Glastonbury. He’s also worked alongside artists like U2, the late Ronnie Drew, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and Elvis Costello.
Presently, Lukeman is in the middle of trying to mix and master his latest album, provisionally titled, The King of Soho: A record he claims is his most ambitious yet.
“The themes of my albums have always varied over the years,” he says.
“On records like Universe, everything was electronic and sample based. And then on records like Broken Songs,things got stripped down acoustically. But this new collection of songs feels like it’s going to be one of my more epic albums, and certainly a step beyond anything else I’ve previously recorded.
“It’s very lyrical, and there is a lot of stories going on where the songs are character driven too. So I’m very happy about that. Even in these earlier stages I’m pleased with the sound that’s materialising.”
These days, given his hectic never ending live schedule, finding the time to commit to recording songs isn’t an easy task, says Lukeman.“I have to designate a strict timetable to record material, otherwise I will just procrastinate. You are always accumulating songs. And the good thing about technology nowadays is that you can put things on your phone moving around. I find travel a great inspiration for songs actually. I always have done.”
“Years ago, you had a notebook and a Dictaphone. Or you used to be ringing up your phone answering machine and be putting melodies on it. Sometimes you can be just sitting in a hotel room somewhere and a song just comes to you.That’s the mad thing about songs really. They don’t send you an email telling you they are coming: they just arrive. I’ve accumulated a great bunch of songs over the last while, so the new album is kind of building up the best of those really.”
Lukeman’s recent live tour has included a string of dates supporting Jools Holland across the UK, as well as a number of solo shows, from his Northern Lights — Songs of The Winter Solstice tour, which includes a performance at the London Irish Centre in February 2016.
“First and foremost I see myself as a singer, and then as a writer. So I never tire of doing live shows,” says Lukeman.“And this current show is a way of doing winter songs: Stuff like Nick Drake’s Northern Skies. I also love singing those old Nat King Cole Christmas songs too.”
“I guess I’m just interested in that idea that we evolved by being able to share stories and ideas. And the great thing about music is that it doesn’t need to have a strict narrative. But by the same token it can really affect people too. You can get as scientific and psychological as you like about music, but it’s still a very odd thing.”
“I believe that songs are the one bit of magic left in the world to ignite the imagination. I’m really interested in folk songs that come from an older time. And I’ve always been fascinated by that lineage between mythology and history.”