Finbar Furey is a quiet kind of legend.
He will tell you about moving seats around at a sell out concert so he could fit in the President of Ireland, but does it in the same calm, almost detached Irish accent he uses while talking about leaving school at the age of 11, or showing his wife and mother in law around New York after playing Carnegie Hall.
One of Ireland's most loved musicians, the co-founder of The Fureys and one of the headline acts for this year's National Folk Festival is a kind hearted force whose need to keep moving, and desire to keep the scale humble has seen him change his set up numerous times throughout his career.
“For me, I don't like when I have to go out and I can't hear what I'm talking about,” Furey says about playing large shows.
“The biggest thing I want to do, I did a concert hall before I came over, in Dublin, and sold it out completely. So much so that the President of Ireland, poor old Michael D. [Higgins] couldn't get a ticket. I had to actually ask two of my kids to give their seats up, because he was running around the world to promote Ireland. He just said to me, 'I forgot'. So I said alright, and we got him there and we had a great night.”
With their trade mark combination of Uillean pipes and 12 string guitar, one of Furey's first hits was with brother Eddie in 1972 with a track called Her Father Didn't Like Me Anyway. The song was written by Gerry Rafferty, who had played in a band called the Humblebums alongside none other than comedian Billy Connolly.
Furey recalls he met Connolly and Rafferty at a party.
“When I got into the door, Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty were there, with another guy called Tom Harvey…My brother Eddie locked onto Billy and me and Gerry just hit it off. I couldn't get enough of Gerry's company because he was such a great musician,” he says.
Though the Humblebums had already released Her Father Didn't Like Me…, “it didn't have pipes on it,” Furey says.
“So we put pipes on this song and a 12 string guitar… then Gerry came down and played bass with us. And we got another guy in as well. We had a double bass and a little electric bass sliding in underneath it. It was never used in folk music before. It just took off. It was amazing. It was a massive hit all over, for the students you know.”
From fronting The Fureys, which he formed with his brothers in 1978, to appearing in film (The Gangs of New York, Strength and Honour, Paris Sexy) and television roles (Love/Hate) – Furey has packed more than a little into his 66 years. And maybe that's because, like his classic hits When You Were Sweet Sixteen or heart breaking Green Fields of France – there is a timeless quality to Furey that keeps his work in the hearts of many.
“Music is like me drinking a cup of tea. I just love it,” he says when asked if there was ever a time when music wasn't part of his life.
“I know nothing else. Ever since I was a kid I played music.”
Claiming “if it doesn't groove, it doesn't move,” discussing his set for the National Folk Festival the veteran vocalist and instrumentalist says he doesn't ever plan ahead. “I really don't work on a set list. I have so much material you couldn't put it on a set list. And then I want to change my mind so many times on stage.”
Given many are traditional songs two or three hundred years old, Furey says he does try and cycle through a few of the really important tunes, to make sure they stay fresh. “I bring them around now and then,” he says. “It's like a circle of music, you know.”
Headlining the National Folk Festival alongside the likes of Brittan's Seth Lakeman and fellow Irishmen Paul Brady and Andy Irvine, this might be the last opportunity for audiences to catch this international icon on these shores.
“I just wanted to have this beautiful tour of Australia because the last time my brothers toured on their own, Paul got sick and he couldn't enjoy it, and he died when he got home because he left it too long. He was nine weeks here touring,” Furey says.
“I'll always remember, Paul said to me 'Ah, you should have been with us'. He said, 'We had a great time.' So I said to meself, 'Alright, I'll do one last trip.' And I'm doing a lot of talking about the lads on stage.”
Furey's brothers Paul, George and Eddie continued on with the The Fureys after Finbar left, helping to keep the spirit of that famous Irish music alive.
“My brothers and I, we still keep in touch,” Furey says. “Like any family, we don't need to do it every week and go out dancing, because we play music. We cross each other's path every four or five months, which is nice. And they are still making great music.”
Discussing why he decided to move on from the family unit, Furey recalls the rise and rise of the band he formed after doing time in The Clancy Brothers, and later playing as a duo with brother Eddie.
“It just got bigger and bigger and bigger,” he says.
“And in the end we went over to London and filled the Albert Hall, but it was too big. The music just gets, it gets out of control. I just said to the lads, 'I'm leaving'. In 1997, we did the last convert in Carnegie Hall in New York and I shook their hands and said, 'We did great…We took it all the way here, but I'm going forward. I just have to move.'”
Finbar Furey plays the National Folk Festival which runs 28 March – 1 April. See www.folkfestival.org.au for information.