You could call it the Sharkey self-improvement Course. Three years ago, after quitting an Irish punk-rock band called the Undertones, Feargal Sharkey decided to take control of his life. He started writing songs and learning about engineering and production. He enrolled in a place called the Actors Centre in London and studied directing, lighting and the proper use of cameras. He even set up face-to-face meetings with the heads of all the British record companies. “I was terrified as shit,” he recalls. “But it did me a lot of good.”
So much good that as he strolls into the wood-paneled bar at a tony uptown Manhattan hotel, Feargal Sharkey no longer looks anything like the pimply punk of yesteryear. Instead, he could pass for a youthful entrepreneur who’s stopped by to rub elbows with other young men on their way up. His longish, peppery-black hair is sleeked back, and his Comme des Garçons suit hangs, loose and stylish, on his wiry frame. Once his shades are off, though, he reveals a quick set of eyes with a slightly demented gleam — the only hint that this sober young Irishman is indeed the same Feargal Sharkey who once sang songs about such teenage obsessions as chocolate and girls.
“One of the most frustratin’ parts of life was having things in your head and not being able to get them down,” Sharkey says, trying to explain his self-improvement program. “Or not being able to explain to people what you wanted. That is the pits!” But, he adds, all the hard work wasn’t really meant to impress anyone. “It was more for me own personal gratification than anything else. I don’t care if nobody pays attention to it in the least.”
So far, however, people have been paying attention. Great Britain and Europe are still reeling from the one-two punch delivered by his debut album, Feargal Sharkey, and the sold-out tour that followed its release. On this side of the Atlantic, Sharkey’s reception has been a bit cooler, though radio stations seem to be warming up to the new single, “You Little Thief.” A six-week tour late in the spring should also help.
Sharkey recorded the album in Los Angeles with Dave Stewart, whose AOR&B production lends Feargal Sharkey a thoroughly American sound, at least instrumentally, while the bit of brogue in Feargal’s hesitant tenor imbues the ten songs with an idiosyncratic buzz. Stewart’s contributions to Sharkey’s solo career can’t be underestimated; in fact, musical director may be a more appropriate handle than producer (the album credits list the bearded Eurythmic as “guru and mentor”). The two met in a hotel elevator in the late Seventies, when Sharkey was still in the Undertones and Stewart was a member of a band called the Tourists. They stayed in touch, and after Feargal Sharkey rejected several “name producers” for his solo album, he thought of Dave Stewart.
“Dave was the first guy I met who sort of talked intelligently about music,” Feargal says. “To me, seeing other producers working, it was always boring. And Dave, again, was the first person I sort of felt excited with.”
Their working relationship was such that the album came together in a rather haphazard, unpredictable way. For example, there was the night Chrissie Hynde came by for the Dave Stewart Guided Tour of Eurythmics’ London studio-church and, after sitting around playing some tunes, casually told Feargal he could have “Made to Measure,” one of her songs, for his LP. And Sharkey had never even heard Lone Justice when he was floored by a solo tape of Maria McKee singing the unflinching “A Good Heart,” the LP’s first single and a Number One hit in the U.K.
“I was really intrigued by the fact that anybody who’s twenty-three could have realized what it’s like to have had a dozen really sorry love affairs and written a song like ‘A Good Heart,’ which is like giving up all hope,” says Sharkey.
Though he used to leave the writing to others when he was an Undertone, Feargal had a hand in five of the album’s songs, three of which were collaborations with Tim Daly, a poet from Leeds. Daly composes on a personal computer, then wires the results to Sharkey via electronic mail. “Every week there’ll be enough lyrics for songs,” says Sharkey. “Tim just spews this stuff out.” Judging from the snippets Sharkey recites from memory, Daly’s poetry seems to deal with the human costs of urban violence and unemployment — “When you’re working-class and lonely/Things go from bad to worse” — problems that for the most part Feargal Sharkey put behind him when he left his native Northern Ireland for London three years ago.
Born and bred sixty-five miles north of Belfast, in Derry, Feargal was the second youngest of seven Sharkey offspring. “We were a bit of a rarity in that we owned our own house,” recalls Sharkey, who’s now twenty-seven. “My father was an electrician who worked six or seven days, 100 hours, a week. Pride wouldn’t let them live or raise a family in a council [government-sponsored] house.”
That sense of pride, and self-sufficiency, must have had some effect on young Feargal. The Undertones were the classic example of a do-it-yourself band, proud graduates of the Woolworth’s conservatory of music. When the teenage quintet first played Top of the Pops, the British equivalent of American Bandstand, their lead singer had to take two days off work. “I was deliverin’ TVs,” says Feargal. “That was my career. In that part of the world, jobs are few and far between — so if you get one, you hang on to it unless you want to join the ranks of the unemployed. And I did that for a while too…. It definitely gives you a perspective. One I hope I never lose.”
Yet pride was also the Undertones’ downfall. Their fourth and final album reflects the serious, soulful feel of solo Feargal, but The Sin of Pride received a frosty reception from their fans, who expected more bubblegum-thrash anthems like “Jimmy Jimmy.” “The group broke up simply because . . . well, I for one was bored with the whole business,” says Sharkey. “People still wanted us to rewrite the first album, and we weren’t prepared to do that.” Since the split, Sharkey has only seen his fellow Undertones “very, very rarely.” Though he’s not bitter, Sharkey has obviously made a concerted effort to leave the past behind.
In fact, when he returned to Ireland for four days during his U.K. tour, it was the first time he’d been back since moving to London in 1983. “Straaaaaaange,” he drawls sarcastically. “It was the Return of the Prodigal Son.” His reasons for leaving were as much professional (“Rock & roll, even now, isn’t that big an industry in Ireland — to say the least”) as political — though he adamantly refuses to discuss the turmoil in his native land. “You cannot talk about 400 years of history in 300 words. I haven’t found a good way of doing it yet, anyway.”
Still, he is willing to explain how Ireland’s troubles were a factor in his decision to leave. “On a personal level, the war was getting to the point where my son, in a very naive fashion, was starting to grasp, or become interested in, his surroundings. And I thought, ‘Okay, it’s time to get him the hell out of here.’ ‘Cause on the day he was born I vowed to do that — sort of stay on for a year or two until he was old enough to discover what was going on, then get him the hell out of there.”
Feargal and his son, who’s four, got another taste of the darker side of humanity on a recent trip to Germany, when they paid a visit to the former concentration camp at Dachau. “What it was … I was driving to Berlin, and I saw the sign TO DACHAU, and I went. I just found it the most humblin’ experience of my life. My son is old enough to understand, and I just wanted to take him there to give him a quick glimpse of what man is capable of doing. The whole point that somebody would pick up a gun and kill another human being for a piece of dirt or a bit of cloth called the national flag, it terrifies me to death. I’m horrified by the whole idea of it.”
But putting an end to all that, Feargal realizes, is beyond even his control. For the moment, he’s got more mundane goals in mind. “Ultimately, something I want to do is have ‘produced, directed, written, scored, engineered and everything else by Feargal Sharkey.’ “Somehow he doesn’t come off like an egomaniac reading off that list; he just sounds calm and self-assured. On top of things, you might say.