When Luka Bloom walked onto a concert stage for the first time in Australia in 1992 there were 2000 fans looking back at him at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre.
“That was my first performance in the southern hemisphere – that’s never happened to me anywhere else in the world,” he said.
It’s a love affair that has continued. The Irish singer-songwriter has toured Australia every two or three years since that first trip, building a loyal fan base along the way.
“I’ve got a very unique relationship with Australia and it’s been unique from the very beginning. Australia is what I call my lucky country in the sense that I’ve never had a period of struggling or trying to build an audience,” he says.
While his early-90s profile benefited from his cover of LL Cool J’s I Need Love enjoying high rotation on radio (“I was even getting airplay on Triple J back then which would be unheard of now,” he says), most of his success stems from simple hard work and good songs.
“I think there’s something in the nature of my songs that Australian people connect with,” he says. “I can’t explain it exactly… [but] within a week or two of being in Australia I said to myself ‘I love this place, I love these people, I love the Aussie sense of humour, I love the tall poppy syndrome, I love the incredible irreverence for the English language’.”
Blue Mountains fans will get the chance to understand the relationship for themselves when Bloom performs at the Blue Mountains Music Festival in Katoomba from March 15-17.
It will be his fifth festival appearance and one he is eagerly looking forward to.
“There’s an intimacy about the Blue Mountains Music Festival that I really love,” he says. “I’ve done the Bryon Bay Blues Festival, and that has become a big monster of a festival, whereas Katoomba is very intimate and personal.”
He also knows to expect rapid weather changes in the Blue Mountains.
“I remember walking on stage [at one festival performance] and there was this incredible mist everywhere. It was actually a struggle to see the audience… I felt a bit like I was on the set of an Enya video,” he joked.
The Katoomba mist probably wasn’t too far removed from Bloom’s Irish childhood where he grew up the youngest of six children in County Kildare. Born Barry Moore, he changed his name to Luka Bloom in the late 1980s as his music career was in its infancy. The moniker was inspired by the Suzanne Vega song My Name Is Luka and the main character in James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, Leopold Bloom.
Bloom’s older brother is Irish folk legend, Christy Moore, and the younger sibling can proudly take credit for writing one of his most popular songs, The City of Chicago.
Telling the story of Irish emigration to America in the 1840s, Moore recorded the song in 1984 and his version is still probably the best-known.
“My brother learned it almost immediately after I’d written it and he saw much more in the song than I did,” says Bloom. “I thought it was an okay song but he saw something great in it. Being the larger than life person that he is, he created a version of it that went around the world… but I had this feeling for about 30 years that I was doing a cover version of my own song.”
Bloom revisited the song on his 2017 album, Refuge, recording a “completely different version to any I’d done”. “I felt like I was singing the song for the first time,” he says.
As the name suggests, Refuge is an album where music acts as an escape from the world’s current woes.
“I found 2016 to be a very difficult year,” Bloom says of the period preceding the album. “We lost some very great voices in the world – we lost Leonard Cohen, we lost Prince, we lost David Bowie. And in that year Britain decided to leave Europe and then America went and elected this orange monster [Trump].”
But Bloom’s approach to political issues has always been to come at people from the “heart”, rather than hit them over the head.
“I have a very simple philosophy about this stuff: I don’t want to fall into the trap of perceiving myself, or wanting to be perceived, as a political songwriter who walks on stage with a guitar in one hand and a manifesto in the other,” he says. “I think the main responsibility for any songwriter is really to be honest with yourself and to be true to yourself... It’s an emotional thing with me. I get emotionally involved with things that are happening in the world. I get emotional about climate change and very emotional about refugees and the inequalities that exist in our world. But I don’t want to hit people over the head.”
When the Gazette spoke to him from his Irish home, Bloom’s immediate thoughts were far more personal. He was about to visit his three grandsons – aged five, three and almost one – before flying to Australia for the 18-date tour.
The 63-year-old said being a grandparent is “totally different because when you are busy with children your life completely revolves around them – as should be the case – and then when your son goes off and has three kids it’s a completely different type of relationship”. “It’s very free, it’s very chilled out, it’s very relaxed,” he says.
Bloom says his two sons, Robbie and Tom, are both “wonderful singers” and songwriters but neither has chosen to make this a career path – yet.
“Whether I’m happy about it or not happy about it would make absolutely no difference because young men will find a way to do whatever they’re going to do,” he says of the possibility.
“[But] I know the kind of struggles in this life and I think the struggles are even more complex now than when I started out. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t be encouraging them but if they chose to go down that road I would obviously support them in any way I could.”