About Anthony Toner - the SHORT version:
Anthony Toner is a singer songwriter based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He’s currently working on Our Lady of the Wind and Rain - his ninth album of original material, and hatching plans for an extensive run of tour dates in the first half of 2019.
Famed for his engaging between-songs patter and his accomplished guitar playing, he is one of Northern Ireland’s most popular live acts, chalking up dozens of live shows a year as a solo acoustic artist, ‘In the Round’ with friends, and also on electric guitar, playing slide blues in the Ronnie Greer Blues Band. In each setting, his command of the instrument and his voice are pressed into service to deliver some of the finest lyrics you’ll hear in contemporary roots music.
He’s been described as ‘James Taylor meets John Prine in a second hand book shop’, and that about captures his style – literate, warm, insightful and connected.
About Anthony Toner: the LONG version:
Music is a thread stitched through Anthony’s life from its earliest days. Born in Coleraine in 1965 and growing up in a house in Harpur’s Hill that was filled with the sound of rock & roll and country music, he picked up the guitar at the age of eleven and plucked out his first hesitant melodies, after being shown how to play ‘My Darling Clementine’ on a Hofner Vienna Spanish guitar (which he still owns) by his Uncle Tommy. It wasn’t long before he was trying Shadows tunes – all before he knew what a chord even was.
Eventually he mastered D, A and G, which at least allowed him to start singing Kris Kristofferson and Elvis songs around the house, but it was in his teens that he first started taking the instrument seriously – after hearing James Taylor and Neil Young for the first time. He graduated to steel-string acoustic (a K500 from his mother’s catalogue) and bought his first electric guitar, from Ivor Gordon’s music shop above the bakery in Long Commons in Coleraine – another Hofner, a cherry red Verithin (which he wishes he still owned).
(To this day, the smell of baking bread can suddenly bring back the memory of going up the stairs into a bright room full of guitars)
This was late 70s, early 80s - it was still a golden time for live music on the north coast – bands had places to play. Anthony’s favourite was Spuds in Portstewart, and weeks of pocket money would be saved for gigs like The Perfect Crime, Southbound Train, XDreamysts and The Mighty Shamrocks. After a few abortive attempts to form bands, he moved away from the area and by a circuitous route found a job with a country dance outfit – Trevor Dixon and the Dixie Band.
Marriage and parenthood followed. And years of playing dance halls, clubs, weddings and bars. An apprenticeship. Thousands of miles of road. After a couple of near-death ‘asleep at the wheel’ moments, he decided to quit, and began playing closer to home, switching to acoustic guitar duos with a number of friends around the bars on the north coast, some that were short-lived, others that went on for years.
And with a group of friends (initially Michael McGuinness, Don McAleese and Robert Wilson, later augmented by Paul Coates and Doc Doherty), he formed Big Ankles, a band that took up a Saturday night residency at Snappers restaurant on the outskirts of Portrush, and the band raised the rafters every weekend for about four years, at the end of one century and the beginning of another. Looking back it was another kind of magic time – the band played everything from ‘Teenage Kicks’ to ‘Mack the Knife’ and the customers danced on tables and jumped for joy. But after about four years, both the venue and the band felt that it was time for a break.
Anthony had brief spells with legendary Coleraine country rock band New Moon, and with a Big Ankles-meets-New Moon incarnation called Yap Yap Yap. But by this stage, in the middle of the Noughties, he was becoming more involved in his own solo material - and has pursued that direction since.
Anthony released his first album Eventually in 2002, a collection that was very well received – but it was six years later with the release of A Sky for Every Day (2008) that audiences began to take notice, especially of the single ‘Sailortown’, which has gone on to become one of the most requested songs on Northern Ireland radio.
Since then, Anthony has continued to release albums and tour constantly, along the way building a solid fanbase throughout Northern Ireland and beyond. In 2009 came The Duke of Oklahoma & Other Stories, which contained the much-loved title track as well as ‘Well Well Well’, featured in the Ulster Television weather bulletin for most of that year. He has played in Nashville on a number of occasions, once at the famous Bluebird Cafe and on another memorable occasion sharing the stage with songwriting royalty – Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark – at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. He has also been showcased twice at Austin’s famous SXSW and at Folk Alliance in Toronto.
A Light Below the Door (2011) contained more songwriting gems – ‘East of Louise’ and ‘Nashville Snowflake’, and Sing Under the Bridges (2012), which was shortlisted for the inaugural Northern Ireland Music Prize, yielded another couple of much-requested songs - ‘The Road to Fivemiletown’ and ‘The Only Only Child in the World’.
In 2014 Anthony released Walking Down the Line: Selected Songs 2002-2012, a retrospective collection, summarising the most popular tracks from the first five albums – the CD also included ‘Me and John Lennon and You’, a song that had previously only been available as a digital-only release. And the new albums kept coming – Miles and Weather (2015) saw Anthony’s songs showcased in much more stripped-back arrangements.
(Throughout all of that time - and until recently - Anthony held down a day job, working as a journalist (on a number of weekly titles in Northern Ireland) for 17 years, and subsequently as assistant manager at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart for 14 years. After leaving Flowerfield, Anthony was arts manager at EastSide Partnership in Belfast for almost two years. He now works as an independent artist, offering occasional assistance to arts organisations. In the last year, he has also appeared several times as guest presenter on BBC Radio Ulster’s The Late Show.)
Ink (2017) was his most personal album to date, a collection of songs that looked at childhood and memory with remarkable insight – the album contained one of his most moving and beloved recent songs, ‘An Alphabet’: ‘When I hug my father, we hold on tight – if he forgets who I am, well that’s all right: A is for Alzheimer’s’.
And earlier this year, Anthony stepped outside of his singer songwriter world, and released The Kiss of Light, a collaboration with the acclaimed poet Frank Ormsby. Anthony has been a longtime fan of Frank’s work, and wanted to respond to the poet’s work with some instrumentals inspired by the verse. He wrote arrangements for acoustic guitar, cello and flugelhorn and drafted in two wonderful musicians to play – Neil Martin on ‘cello and Linley Hamilton on flugelhorn. The results have attracted critical acclaim.
The Kiss of Light was supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, who also arranged for the quartet to play a one-off premiere at the Centre Culturel d’Irlandais in Paris in the spring of this year.
In the second half of 2018, Anthony will be writing and recording his ninth album of original music, under the working title Our Lady of the Wind and Rain. He is also planning an extensive run of live shows in support of the album, with dates throughout Ireland and in Scotland and England in 2019.