Coulter’s father, also called Phil, encouraged music in the house. He played the fiddle whilst his wife played the upright piano. The younger Coulter recalls this piano, made by Challen, as ‘the most important piece of furniture in the house’. ‘I always stayed away from the fiddle, having inflicted enough pain on my family with the piano,’ he laughed. Coulter confesses that he came close to abandoning the piano at an early age. ‘The truth is I hated the piano at first. I’d love to say I was a natural but I wasn’t. I hated playing it and I hated my music teacher. My father, who was a canny man, told me, ‘We have to scrimp and save to pay for these lessons, you might as well give them up.’ ‘It wasn’t long before I gravitated back to the piano, trying to play the songs that I was listening to on the radio. I always wondered what my left hand was supposed to be doing though. But after two or three years at St Columb’s College I began thinking of the piano as an extension of myself.’
One of Coulter’s most popular songs, ‘The Town I Loved So Well’, deals with the embattled city of his youth, filled with ‘that damned barbed wire’ during the Troubles. ‘It is the one I anguished most over, the one which had to earn respect and perhaps the most auto-biographical tune I have ever written’. ‘The roots of that song go very, very deep, it took time for it to win respect and integrity. That song defines an era and a place that is very dear to my heart.’
Despite his successes, Coulter has suffered several family tragedies. Coulter’s first marriage was to Angela Coulter, whose first child was born with Down’s Syndrome and later died aged four. He wrote the song ‘Scorn Not His Simplicity’ to help him get through the difficult time with the encouragement of Luke Kelly. Kelly recorded the song and it appeared on The Dubliners 1970 LP Revolution, becoming the definitive version. Coulter’s brother also died tragically in a drowning incident in Ireland, which briefly caused him to retreat from the music business. He recorded the anthemic ‘Home From The Sea’ with the Lifeboat Chorus as a tribute. Coulter’s production credits during the 90s have included work for Sinéad O’Connor and Boyzone. His lengthy career, as producer, arranger, songwriter and performer, is all the more remarkable for encompassing such contrasting musical areas from folk and orchestral to straightforward Tin Pan Alley pop.
In 1995, the Irish Rugby Football Union commissioned Coulter to write a politically neutral anthem for the Ireland national rugby union team, which represents both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The result was ‘Ireland’s Call’, which is played alongside, and in some cases instead of, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’. As well as being used by both the Ireland national rugby union team and the junior national teams, ‘Ireland’s Call’ has since also been adopted by the Ireland’s national hockey, cricket and rugby league teams.