ARTS AND FEATURES — 15 January 2015
Ronan McManus is midway through his first full year as a mentor to students in Stanmore College, as he helps them develop their song writing skills for three hours once a week after being asked to help out by a friend.
“They’re so talented and confident. I was very surprised at how open they are to just start singing a song in front of each other,” he says.
“When I was that age I don’t think I could have done that, but I suppose maybe our generation were a shyer.
“I think it’s this X Factor generation, they just burst into song. They see people do it on the telly so it seems really natural to them.
“It’s so infectious, and I find it really refreshing. You find yourself inspired by them when doing your own personal thing.”
The extra-curricular group, consisting of about ten regulars, with others dropping in and out around their lessons have use of the recording studio and they are working on having an album by the end of the year.
“We have three songs down already and more to come. Because they’re so open as well, they take criticism really well.
“They’re so harsh with each other! Sometimes I have to tell them to tone it down as they’re brutally honest! But everyone just gives it a go and takes the flak. They all choose to be there so they’re really enthusiastic.
“They don’t take anything to heart. I’d expect them to be sensitive but they’re so resilient.”
Ronan has also opened up to new kinds of musical styles from the diversity of tastes from the cultural mix of students.
“It’s funny, being a 38-year-old white guy I didn’t expect to have much in common with them. I had previous ideas of what they would consider to be cool, but they’re open to everything.
“They’ll be talking about Dr Dre or Beyonce and then all of a sudden they’ll go ‘I love Elton John’s music’ and I’m like ‘what? How do you know his stuff?”
“It’s quite a culturally diverse college and they’re so interested in their backgrounds. Where someone comes from is one of the first things they talk about when people join.
“They are from the Caribbean or Africa or Romania or Asia. There’s one kid from Ghana and he raps and switches between English and his own language Twi.
“Sometimes the session will be on the computers with them flicking through YouTube and afterwards they’ll play a song that they found and liked. The musical discovery is all part of the process and I try not to stifle that. You want them to discuss their likes and dislikes.
“It helps me learn more about them and helps them express themselves to each other.
“My musical background is working in acoustic music like folk or rock stuff. But these kids come in and say ‘I’m a rapper’ or ‘I’m a drummer’ and I see them freestyle.
“For me, I’ve always had to write things down and hone songs. It’s as much of a learning curve for me as them. The project has really just hit the ground running.
“Every week is different. Sometimes I’ll have a one-on-one session with a student who has the beginnings of a song and I’ll help them develop the lyrical side of things and help them draw it out.”
The class is optional so all are really passionate about their music, but it means that their class work takes priority.
“The other day one guy participated in the whole class and came to me afterwards asking me to write a note for his teacher explaining why he wasn’t in class. I was like ‘you can’t do that!’
Ronan has since got offers from two ex-Stanmore College staff members who have asked him to take on the role at their new schools and he has ideas for future workshops after seeing how his background made music the natural progression for his career.
Ronan’s late father Ross was a singer and his older brother Declan, otherwise known as Elvis Costello, released his first album when Ronan was just one.
“It’s a bit unexpected to be honest. If the other jobs come through then I will be doing this kind of thing on a regular basis, like a day job which is a bit of a dirty word when you’re a musician! You play music so you don’t have to have a day job!But if I can do it and stay creative then great.
“My dad being a singer as a job made it very normal for me. While other people would see it as a hobby and not a career, it was more natural for me to get into especially with Declan singing in his career for as long as I can remember.
“It made it accessible. It wasn’t a distant dream it was something you could do. They certainly influenced me.
“A lot of people think oh I can’t do that and close the door before they’ve even have a chance. I’ve been writing songs since I was 10 or 11 years old and people ask me for advice. It’s not like I’ve had a massive hit but I just get the structure of songs.
“I have designs on more workshops to get people into it in a way that it’s doable and achievable. People are very negative about their own abilities sometimes and I believe that everyone has a song in them.
“Everyone is passionate about something and that’s all you really need to write a song.I’d really like to encourage creativity and the fact it is achievableas it’s a good outlet for any kind of angst.
“Over the years anything major in my life, good or bad, I wrote a song about it and I think it’s important to have that outlet. I don’t think enough importance is put on the arts.
“A lot of rappers and musicians have troubled backgrounds or have had hard times but the music helps them to get it out of their system and talk about it. It’s almost like therapy really.”
Outside of his mentor role Ronan is busy touring, and has found that bookings this year have coincided with a personal journey.
“I’m calling this the Following in the Footsteps tour. I’m doing my Elephants in the Room album which is out now with a couple of the BibleCodes and Luke Dolan.
“But at the same time I am researching my family tree. My dad started doing it before he died and I want to finish it. He found the birthplace of his grandfather, but there’s other unanswered questions.“We’re trying to find the birthplace of my great-grandmother Elizabeth Costello, who Declan took his name from.
“She was born at just at the cusp of when the records were coming out but we don’t even know what county she’s from.
“The MacManus side are from Tyrone so I have a Tyrone jersey so I’m hoping it might be Kerry because they’re really good, but I’ll probably end up with Louth!
“I really hope Costellos in Ireland will help us, because really we are trying to trace the birth of Declan’s stage name. So we have a little tour coincidentally around Ireland in April where I’ll be trying to do that.
“Then I’m going to Belgium and stopping off in northern France on the way. My granddad was shot there in the First World War when he was in the Royal Irish Regiment so I’m trying to track where that happened.“Declan is on tour in June and I’m hoping to get to work with him. He has a date in Carlisle where my Mum is originally from so all of her family are coming down for that so it’s looking like I’ll at least get that. I loved being with him at Kew Gardens last year and with the BibleCodes in America before.”
With all this touring it would seem that it’s difficult for Ronan to also do the school run for his family.
“I have a very understanding wife! I’m such a cliché! She’s a nurse in Northwick Park and I’m a musician who met her in the Shawl!
“I do the school run for my two boys and look after my two-year-old daughter and niece during the day and then gig at night.
“She then has to take time off work when I’m touring but at least we’re always with the kids. It’s funny as my mum was a childminder growing up and my dad a musician so I’ve got their two jobs!
“It can be challenging if I’ve got a late kid and an early start but you can’t moan about it – just get on with it!
And are the children showing any signs of following the footsteps of the McManus’s?
“I’m trying to tell them to get a real job! I see them singing and showing signs of basically showing off and go ‘oh oh!’
“My eldest is ten and he’s learnt off and has himself filmed reeling off Daniel Radcliffe’s alphabet aerobics which is a real tongue twister.
“Now he’s learning the elements of the periodical song. I’m just like ‘this is worrying, I was hoping at some point there would be a MacManus who gets a real job!’ But it’s all part of the family business really.
“My granddad used to play on the boats to and from New York, about ten, fifteen years after the Titanic. Then my dad moved down to London and played jazz and things like that and then Dec.
“I see signs of it in my kids and there’s a certain pride that obviously goes with it. But then there’s that ‘uh oh’ will we ever escape this? Probably not!”