Laura Nolan

First Published January 2021

THE MOMENTS THAT MAKE US

Part 1

Far too often there are far too many people who make the mistake of judging others – especially celebrities – based on the now, what they see of them today, without ever giving a moment’s thought to how they actually got to where they are today. To say it’s an easy mistake to make is too lenient a verdict to settle upon where such folk are concerned. Because what it really is, in fact, is a lazy mistake to make. And there’s a big difference between an easy mistake and a lazy one. Dubliner LAURA NOLAN – world champion dancer, one of the pro-dancers on Dancing With The Stars Ireland, and as such, among the most famous faces in Irish entertainment – knows all about such rushes to judgement. 


Some people would have you believe that Laura was somehow just dropped into the world of celebrity out of nowhere, and that her life has always been as glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled as it appears when we’ve seen her on our screens on DWTSIrl. But here’s the thing, you see, moments like that really are just ‘the now’, they’re not the whole story. They never are. Everything is glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled NOW all right, because Laura is one of the very best in the world at what she does. But once upon a time – and for a long time – things would have been anything but perfect by anyone’s measure. 


But those moments – and this is crucial because, as you will discover, it gets to the very heart of who Laura is as a person – the hours and hours in rehearsal studios, the aching limbs, the bleeding feet, the travel, the living far away from home, the sacrifices made in so many ways – those are the moments that made Laura the star we know today. 


Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with Laura for a chat about those same moments, the ones that nobody else might ever see or even know about, but without which, Laura’s story would not have been possible. And as far as her story goes, while we don’t have DWTSIrl to look forward to in 2021, Laura at least, has still managed to make it back onto our TV screens by teaming up with RTE Kids recently. So, that’s where we began our chat…


“They contacted me a little while back asking me to do a little dance class for children as schools aren’t open and there’s not much activities going on for them. So this was something that they could do that would be a little bit enjoyable, and also, it would help to keep dancing alive as it’s not on our TV screens this year. It’s very popular with children as well. So they wanted me to do an easy kind of class that would keep children interested and just, you know, keep them occupied for a half an hour [laughs]. I said absolutely, that was something I was really interested in doing and hopefully it’s going to become a regular thing. It went really, really well, it was very successful and the feedback was great. Positivity all round, really.” 

And Laura’s own dancing career began at a very young age, too, dancing competitively from the age of just five years old, I’d once heard. So if she began dancing competitively at five, I wondered, did that mean that she first began learning to dance even earlier? 


“Yes! I started to dance when I was three years old. My Mam was a dancer. So the minute she could, she put me into dancing. So I started ballet, ballroom, and latin all in the one week. And it kind of went from there. I know that for my first competition I was actually only four, but I’d say competitively from five because that was when I did a proper, proper competition. But my first competition was solo, and it was just  asic routine that I had to do. Now, this story has been told to me so many times, and I do remember parts of it [laughs], but I wouldn’t have a recollection of all of it. However, everyone reminds me of this story all the time [laughs]. So in my first competition, I was out on the floor. And I was obsessed when I was younger with diamonds and fluff! So I saw a diamond on the floor, and I stopped in the middle of the competition when all the judges were looking, and I started biting the stone on the floor! [laughs]. It was very popular at the time to have a boa of feathers at the end of a dress, so I saw this girl sitting down and I ran over to her and I got the fluff and put it up to my nose! [laughs]. So that’s how my competitive career started!” 

Was there a long line of dancers in Laura’s family, or did it just begin with her Mam and move on to Laura? 


“It just started with my Mam and it moved on to me. She was the one who really guided me through my career. She understood what it took to become a top dancer. It was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of dedication, not only on my behalf, but on my parents behalf. They really pushed me, and understood my career choice. And it was really because of them that I got to where I am now.” 

One thing I never realised about competitive dancing is that people can be in a partnership for so long. Laura had been partners with Stanislav Wakeham for about four years, and then with the brilliantly named Alessandro Bosco for about four more. I asked Laura what, from her point of view, makes someone a great partner? 


“I think trust is a huge part of any relationship, not just in dancing, but also in life. So you need to be able to trust your partner, and you need to be able to work as a team. A man has a huge role in leading the partnership, you know, when you’re on the floor and there’s many couples around he would guide you into the open space. You have to have that trust that you know you’re on the right path together, and that you have the same dreams and you have the same goals. I also think it’s important that the two characters get on. If you’re two different types of characters and you keep bashing off each other, it’s very difficult because you spend so much time together, especially in the studio. I had that last experience where the two of us were very different characters and it is very difficult. You need to be able to manage how you are as people together. And I suppose in dancing, it’s important that they have the same amount of commitment and drive as you do. You have to have the same goals, and the same wants, and the same determination, because if you don’t it can be very difficult. And I’ve also experienced that in other partnerships throughout my career. Especially in dance, because not everyone has the same goals as me. Everyone used to think my goals were ridiculous and unachievable, but I always had that determination needed to get there, and I did. But that meant needing to work that extra bit harder. A lot of people will just see dance as a hobby, I didn’t. So you definitely need to have the same level of determination to work the hours that are required to reach the top.” 

So Laura obviously found all of those positive qualities she mentioned when she teamed up with Stanislav in 2009? 


“Yeah, it was late 2008, I think. I’ve had many partners here in Ireland. My first partner, his name is Luca Mastropietro, he was an Italian living in Ireland, he was my longest ever partner. We danced as children together through the juvenile ranks, and we were together for like seven or eight years. I switched from partner to partner because people were stopping to dance, or just different circumstances and stuff. My coach was very well known around the world of dance, and he used to have a lot of people coming over to take lessons from him from other countries. And there was this couple staying in my house at the time, and it was actually Joanne Clifton, who went on to be on Strictly [Come Dancing], and she actually won Strictly. She was staying at my house at the time, and obviously she was English, and her and her partner at the time, Marco Cavallaro, they used to teach a lot in England. Everyone kind of knows each other around the world of dance, and it just happened that I was looking for a partner at the time and I mentioned it to them as they were staying in my house, and they said, ‘Yeah, we know this boy.’ And it just so happened that he had actually approached my coach as well at a competition a few months before that. So I went over to try out a few weeks later and we started dancing together. And when we started, I was only fourteen at the time, but he was already seventeen at the time, so we were in the adult ranks. There was a competition seven days later, the British Closed Championship, we danced it and we actually came second after just seven days dancing together. That was Under-Twenty-Ones, so even to make a final of that was a huge thing, never mind to place! Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s after happening?’ [laughs]. 

Laura continued, “That partnership went really, really well. For the first six months of that partnership I was actually travelling over every weekend to England because we had a lot of our coaches in England at the time. And we were doing the English circuit competitively. So, what I used to do was I used to leave school on a Friday at one o’ clock, dad would collect me, I’d get changed in the car, and he would drop me off at the airport. I had to fill out this cert to say that I was allowed to travel by myself, because my parents used to just drop me and I’d get collected on the other side. Once I got collected on the other side, it was straight to the dancing hall, have lessons, the competition practise, then on a Saturday I’d have a full day of lessons,and a full day of practise. Sunday, competition. Monday, I’d get on the first flight back to Dublin, my dad would collect me again on the other side, I’d get changed back into my uniform, and go straight into school! And that was my life for around six and a half, seven months. Then we realised, look, we need to be able to practise during the week as well. So he ended up moving over here and living in my family home. So yeah, that was a very successful partnership in that it got me to a different stage of my career. We were the first ever couple to make the final of a World Championship from Ireland. That happened in 2009. We were also the first ever to make an International Open Final, that was in 2010. We made the final of a British Open Championship, so really, that launched me in my career. I was still really young at the time, so I should have been dancing junior, but I was dancing adult. Youth is from sixteen to eighteen, but I was out of that by the time I was fifteen because of my partner. But I should have still been in junior. So it went really well. We were teaching over here, we had a huge school over here, but it got to the stage in 2021 where he had grown very, very tall! And it was actually too much then if we wanted to reach the next level. So we were like, look, this isn’t working height-wise, so we need to think of something else. So we went looking for different partners and we just went down different roads. He moved back to Moscow where he was originally from, and I went on to dance then with somebody from Italy. So yeah, he left first, and I was left without a partner for a couple of months. But then I started dancing with this Italian, and went and lived in Rome for three months. Big, dramatic story! [laughs]. Ended up coming home after three months, I wasn’t mad about it over there, and a few months later then I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco and moved down to the south of Italy.” 

I had been planning to ask Laura about some of the reasons why partnerships might come to an end, but literally, in one instance for her, it was just because her partner became too tall??


“Yeah! Everything was going quite well, and our results were going quite well, but in that case we decided to stop because of our height difference. We knew that if we wanted to get to another level, which would be in the amateur-ranks the final of the World Championship. We were in the final of the World Championships for Under-18s but then when you move into amateur, you’re against people who are in their thirties. So we were in the Top Twenty-Four, sometimes the Top-Twelve, and we wanted to get to the Top-Six. To do that, we knew that height was having a restriction on how we were dancing. So we just made a mutual decision to move on. In other cases, I’ve been in partnerships where I just didn’t get on with a partner, it just wasn;t working as people to people. Then you’d have some people who were like, ‘Look, I’m just not committed to this role, it’s not what I want anymore.’ Every partnership is unique. And every relationship you have with a person is unique. So they can end for different reasons.” 

When a partnership like Laura’s one with Stanislav comes to an end, especially after being so successful both on and off the dancefloor, is that a very difficult time? 


“Yeah, it is difficult. But that was a unique case for me, in the sense that we had already made that mutual decision that it was done. So I was almost ready for it and expecting it. But it is difficult, because you have to readjust your life, you know, after spending so much time with somebody. I remember being heartbroken at the time that it was over, but in the end, it ended up being the best thing for me. You don’t always realise these things when they’re happening at the time. But afterwards, looking back on it with hindsight, it was the best thing that I ever did. Once I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco, I would say that was probably the most successful career partnership that I’ve had. That launched me into a different part of my life in the amateur ranks, which is professional almost. And that was my longest as well, I was there for five and half years in Italy. In 2014, just two days after Christmas, I moved over to the south of Italy. We were representing Ireland, but the reason why I was living over there is because he had a massive studio beneath his house, and our coach – who was his coach as well – had his school set up in Alessandro’s studio. All of our lessons, all of our practise with the whole club was in his studio. So it just made much more sense [to be there]. Over here, it’s difficult to find studio-space to practise the hours of the day that we need. A lot of studios over here wouldn’t be only dedicated to ballroom and latin, it could be dedicated to hip-hop or ballet, and then you’d have your classes in the evening and stuff. So it’s just difficult to find what you need here. Whereas over there, it was his own so we could spend as long as we wanted in there.”

Fast-forwarding a little bit to 2019, Laura and Alessandro had retired from ballroom as a partnership, and Laura had joined the Dancing With The Stars Ireland team. When DWTSIrl first reached out to her, I wondered if Laura had been surprised to hear from them, and if it had taken her long to say yes? 


“A couple of years before 2019, in my partnership with Alessandro, I would have been one of the most successful dancers that ever came from Ireland, because of that partnership. I was doing really well in the competitive world, I was one of the top dancers in that world, I became World Open champion in that time, and International champion as well. And DWTSIrl actually reached out to me for the very first season. And I said no because I was competing at the time. A lot of my friends, a lot of my colleagues from Ireland, had gone through the audition and that’s how I got news of it [their interest], but I was like, no, I’m in my competitive career at the moment and I wouldn’t be able to dedicate my time to it. So, season-one went on, season-two went on, and then I got contacted for season-three by the producers and I turned it down again because I was still competing. Then, it came to January 2019, a huge event happened [in my life] and I ended up back home. I said to myself, right, I’m after being put in this position where I’m now after splitting from my partner, and I started looking at my life in a little bit of a different way. I was like, you’re after achieving all of your goals, you’ve become World Open champion, you’ve become International champion, so now it might be time to actually try something new. The producers reached out to me again…and I was like, it’s time, it’s time for me to go on the show. It’s time for me to change things up [in my life]. So because I’d been contacted a few times before, I was almost ready for it, I was expecting it. And yeah, it went from there. It was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, that little switch over. Because I’ve now opened doors that I would never have thought even possible.”


~ Stay tuned for Part 2 of our chat with Laura – including her memories of working with Big Brother legend Brian Dowling on DWTSIrl and much more – coming your way in the next few weeks! 

ENDS 

Brian Cunningham

First Published January 2021

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

In order for there to be ‘stars’ of any show, there must first, of course, be a show. And for the last twenty years Donegal man BRIAN CUNNINGHAM has been making sure that stars from all around Ireland – both established and rising – have had stages to perform on. As an agent, a manager at times, an MC, and a radio presenter too, there are few men around with a greater depth of inside-knowledge on the Irish country music scene. And, thanks to Brian’s close ties to Tullamore based menswear store Guy Clothing and its owners Anthony and Kara Kearns, there are definitely few around who are as consistently sharp in their appearance as they are in how they go about their business. 


And indeed, it’s that sense of business and music acumen which has seen Brian’s Country Shows prove so successful over the last twenty years. OTRT had the pleasure of catching up with the man himself last week, and we began our chat by talking about the fact that he has a brand new album in the shops right now celebrating those twenty years of his famous Country Shows. The album is called TWENTY YEARS OF COUNTRY SHOWS, and as the shows themselves always tend to as well, it features a brilliant combination of household names and rising stars, so I asked Brian to tell me all about it…


“Well, I suppose I’m very lucky in that we’re the twenty years doing the Country Shows now. And many of the artists that we’ve worked with over the years, as you mentioned there, are household names. So this album is one of four albums that we’re releasing in 2021. This first one has twenty-two tracks, and of course it features some of our regular people who are seen at our shows; we have Dominic Kirwan, Philomena Begley, Louise Morrissey, Ray Lynam, and all of those acts have been with me for the twenty years. Then there’s been newer acts that have come on-board as well, and other acts that have joined along the way too. Over the years it’s been an incredible journey. There’s been good days, there’s been bad days, happy days and sad days. But out of everything, music has – I know in my case – helped me to get through many difficult times and hard times in my life. All of the albums we’ll be doing will have a country theme, but one of them will focus on the Irish acts that we’ve worked with. And when I say Irish, there’ll be a bit of traditional music, as well as country. It was only when we went to write down all of the acts that we’ve worked with over the years, or that we currently represent, that we realised that putting them all together would mean four, if not more, albums. And as well as the well-known household names, there’ll be some other acts that people may be less familiar with, and then, like we’ve always done, there’ll be some of our younger acts as well.” 

For anything to last twenty years in the music business is an achievement. But from what I know of Brian personally, and indeed of his shows from having the experience of some of my own acts taking part over the years, there’s always been something that stands the Country Shows brand and event apart from similar nights. I asked Brian to tell me about how the Country Shows first hit the road, and also about the importance of what he tries to make sure his audiences take from those wonderful nights…


“It’s very much about the audience with us. And it’s very much a family-orientated thing too, and you know that from having experienced it with us. When we go and do shows, there’s a great atmosphere between ourselves (the entertainers), we’re a very close-knit organisation. We have a great team on the road, but we have a great backroom team as well. We love entertaining people. We love having the craic ourselves. We love showing that craic on the stage in a professional manner. And in terms of the acts who have been with us for twenty years plus, you know, you have the likes of Philly and her son Aidan Quinn, Aidan would always be in charge of putting the shows together with me. And we all enjoy people. We enjoy seeing the people who come out to our shows. We enjoy hearing their stories, and we’ve made so many friends over the years. And we’ve been with them in the good times and the happy times, and we’ve been with them in the sad times and the harder times that people have had in their own lives. I’m a big believer, from a mental health perspective, in music giving people a wee bit of solace, and being a distraction for a while. When people come to our shows, we want them to sit back, relax, forget what’s happening in their own personal lives, and enjoy themselves! Every act might not be to their satisfaction, they might have their favourites…and we always hear who their favourites are [laughs]. But what we want them to do is to take that time, at the shows, for themselves. Music is a great comfort for people. Everyone has enough pain and hurt going on in their lives, but music can heal that in a large way.” 

Brian is a country boy from Donegal, and pretty much like down here in Offaly – certainly once upon a time anyway, maybe not so much anymore – ‘showbiz’ was hardly top of the list (if it even made the list at all!) of career choices for most people. So, how did an innocent, wide-eyed country boy like himself end up in the world of ‘showbiz’? 


“[Laughs]. Well, I suppose I started off when I was quite young. I was born in, and grew up in a place called Teelin, in south-west Donegal. How it all started was I was doing a Leaving Certificate vocational programme in Carrick Vocational School. I wanted to do something for the local hospice, because basically the Donegal Hospice at that time was looking for money. So I decided to do a project around that. Now I’d always had a fondness for country music, even when it wasn’t cool and your friends were saying at the time, ‘What the hell is he listening to?!’ [laughs]. I’d be going listening to country, and they’d be off to discos or rock nights or whatever. There was a fellow at home called John Bosco O’ Donnell, many people will know him as the brother of Daniel O’ Donnell. I knew John, and I said to him that I wanted to do a CD, and John Bosco turned around and got me Daniel. Then we got some more local acts like Seamus & Collette, and Rebel Hearts. Then we said you know what, we’ll go for the jugular. We’ll go and ask some of the other popular names, the Jimmy Buckleys, the Louise Morrisseys and acts like that. And consequently, out of all that, the CD came out and raised vast sums of money. We couldn’t believe it. That CD ended up making a substantial amount of money for the hospice. My mother would have went door-to-door selling it, and we all did our bit promoting it here, there, and everywhere. And out of that, we used to do some functions and events to promote. Through that I met a fella called Jim White, the late Jim White who owned the White Hotel Group, and he asked me to come and do a few events for him. Now I was still at school at this stage. But I went and did some events at his hotel, the Abbey in Donegal town, and he had other hotels right around the country at the time. Those shows became popular, all different ones, but one of them was an Evening of Country Music. Then in September twenty years ago – well, twenty-one years ago this year – An Evening of Country Music became known nationally and we decided to tour it. Consequently from that again, some of the artists decided to ask me would I do some PR for them, would I do this, would I do that, would I do the other, ya know. And it just went on from there. When you got one, you got the next one, and then someone else would be ringing you as well.” 

We could hardly have discussed the business we’re both in without reflecting on the fact that only a few days before our conversation, the milestone of three-hundred days since ‘live’ music in Ireland came to a sudden halt. Three-hundred days of silence that we would have once imagined impossible. Before talking about the music industry and the effects of that silence on the artists Brian works with, I wanted to know how the last almost a year now had been for him? 


“It’s been dreadful. It’s been a horrible experience. I remember when this initially happened, with Anne in our office, we closed up shop and we said ah look, we’ll be closed for two weeks, maximum. And then we’ll be back in and all will be right as rain again. Little did we think! We haven’t done an event, we haven’t done a function [since then]…we’ve done various things online or for different radio stations, or on television or whatever, but all of that is freebie stuff. It’s not paid-for stuff. We have an events management company, we look after a lot of hospitality awards, other various awards as well. We have a travel business, and obviously we have the music business. And all three of those have been affected because they all involve people. From our point of view, we haven’t done a proper paid-for show since the 12th of March last year. Any bit of savings or money that would be in the background is dwindling down for everyone.” 

Brian’s role with the artists he works with is that of an agent rather than a manager, something I asked him to explain in a little more detail…


“Yeah, I’m an agent for many of the acts and I look after them when they’re looking for stuff. And it’s basically every day that there’s something needed for some of them. But yeah, I’d be an agent rather than a manager, and I opted for that. You might manage certain acts for a small period of time and then pass them on to someone else who will move forward with them. But again, we’ve very lucky with the acts that we work with, many of them for the twenty years or more, many of whom have gone on to do great things. And some acts who have been found on the shows too. You have to remember that the likes of Nathan Carter was sitting with a lovely lady called Gill Marseilles who had brought him to one of our shows. Gill, who was a regular visitor to our shows, ended up saying that this young lad could sing. So we decided that Philomena Begley would bring him up on stage that night, and lo and behold, that gentleman blew the house down! And that gentleman was Nathan Carter. So over the years we have launched new acts, some of them have worked, some of them haven’t worked. But it’s a tough industry, so it is, at the best of times. And even tougher now because of everything that’s going on.” 

And with everything that’s been going on since March of last year, how has Brian been able to help those artists that he works with. I’m sure many of them would have been turning to him for advice and guidance on what steps to take? 


“Yeah, a lot of them have done that. And a lot of them have recreated new things in their lives. Some have gone into radio, some have gone back to study with adult education. A number of them have young families and have said look, we have no choice, we have families to support, we have to gp and get another job. And it’s very difficult for them to make that move from when you’re on stage and you’re doing something that you love, to going into a job that – listen, you might enjoy it – you may not love as much as being on stage, and getting that sense of adrenalin or whatever. There’s so many people affected: from lighting engineers, to sound engineers, the bands themselves, the backroom teams, the media teams, PR, road managers, there’s so many. And everything is affected. From my point of view, the phone calls all of a sudden stopped. The people who were looking for us about shows and events and all the rest of it, all of that stopped. And the phones have become silent. But those same phones will come right again. We’ll have another challenge when this is over, though, the challenge of getting people back out. Some people will have become accustomed to staying in now, and not going out. They feel safer at home. So we have to make shows a safe and inviting place for them to come back to again when that time comes.” 

But Brian’s sphere of influence isn’t restricted to just this side of the Irish Sea. As many midlanders will remember, one of the special guests at last year’s annual charity fundraiser, The Show – organised by Brian’s good friends Anthony and Kara Kearns, owners of Guy Clothing and KODE – was Coronation Street star Samia Longchambon, who plays the character of Maria in the hit soap. And how exactly did Samia find her way from the cobbles of Corrie to the town of Tullamore? You guessed it. Only thanks to Mr. Cunningham himself…


“Yeah, we do, we have many people [that we work with], and in fact we’re making a big announcement in March of this year. We’ve obviously looked after a lot of singers and musicians, and we’ve always looked after some television and radio personalities, sporting personalities as well. And that’s all going to increase from March. Well, it’s supposed to be March! [laughs]. We’ll hope that it is anyway. Certainly, by the second half of this year, we’ll hope that things will be much improved and we’ll be doing it. And that announcement will be connected to people in the UK, and it will also be connected further afield as well, in America and in Australia. We’ve brought in new shows to Australia, we have The Face of Australia, like we had The Face of Ireland here many years ago. So yeah, we’ve got some very well-known names that are joining the agency as well, that will open it up in a new and exciting direction. And again, that’s down to our staff too. I have probably the best staff going. They’ve stuck by us through thick and thin, through a lot of difficult times, and less happy times in our lives. And they’re a real credit to the work that they do, coming up with new ideas and fresh ideas on a daily basis to make sure the acts get something, and to keep us busy.” 

I wondered how does Brian see 2021 playing out? We’ve had the hope of the vaccine first on the horizon, and now here, but it arrives at the same time as case-numbers sky-rocket. It’s so important, even in the best of times, that the flames of hope are always fanned and kept alive. But part of doing that responsibly, of course, means being realistic at the same time. So with all of those factors taken into consideration, what did Brian think of where we are, and where we might be going? 


“I think we’re very slow in where we’re going. Listen, there’s positives. And there are positives in that the vaccines are there. But I’m disappointed that the vaccine is not being rolled out quicker, more effectively, more efficiently. We’re a great country, even though there’s only the five-point whatever million it is of us living here. So it should be relatively quickly to vaccinate people, should they wish to do so. Some people will opt for it, some people won’t. We’ve lost some amazing people in this country because of Covid in the last year, many people who have come to our shows and who have become friends, great friends of ours over the years. There’s a lot of things that I get very angry over, and this is just one of them. They [the government] need to be pushing this. There needs to be a plan in place that makes these vaccines readily available. It’s like hand-picking certain people in our hospitals that are getting the vaccine first, or in our nursing homes, yes, it’s a welcome decision, but surely we should be in a position to do this a lot more quickly, and a lot more efficiently? There’s so many people suffering from various illnesses, and they’re having their operations cancelled. There are people this very morning who are waiting on serious life-changing operations, and those operations are being postponed, cancelled, transferred, you name it. And that is not right in this day and age.” 

Going back to the music side of things again, twenty years is a long time to be involved in any business. It allows for plenty of opportunities to observe how things and people work, and how both change – or don’t – over time as well. If Brian was to somehow wake up tomorrow morning and find that he had the whole of the music industry in Ireland in his charge – but with country music foremost in his thoughts for the sake of this particular question – are there two or three things that come straight to his mind that he would make sure were done differently? 


“100%. I think the first thing is that I would love to change our national broadcaster. I would love to see that when RTE are doing country specials that it’s not limited to the same acts [all the time]. I would love to see a situation where fairplay is given to all individuals in the country music industry, not just to some individuals. And I’d be even more encouraging to young acts. Because if we don’t have young acts coming up, then when our older generation are no longer fit to do it, then our industry is dead. We have to encourage, we have to embrace, we have to give advice to people as well to try and encourage them into the industry. But what’s happening now at the minute is, as it currently stands – in my opinion – is there’s a limited number of people getting all the coverage. And fair play to them. But, it’s not a fair and equal system. And I’m saying that all the time. But, on the other side of it, we have a lot of artists out there starting off and they need to remember that they need to work in the industry, and start off where all the acts started off, in a one-piece. they’re not all going to become superstars overnight. You have to work at this industry. And you have to work for this industry. You have to get to know it inside out. Many acts, in particular younger acts that I see coming through our doors at meetings, when you ask them what they are hoping to achieve in the next year, they’ll turn around and they’ll tell ya they want to be as successful as Nathan, or Derek, or Mike, or whoever. They want to have that success. And you try to explain to them that you have to work at this industry to get that, and that sometimes it’s about luck, too. Sometimes, you can be lucky and get a great song. And sometimes you just have to work hard to get to your end goal. And when you put the effort in, it’s like everything: sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t. Something else I would say to people is this. There are many, many good singers out there. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to be on a stage every night of the week. Sometimes other people might be encouraging artists which is great in itself, but they can become almost delusional and end up, many of them, with depressions of all kinds because they’ve failed, But it’s not that they’ve failed, it’s just that there’s so much competition, and strong competition, out there.” 

As Brian looks back over the last twenty years, what would he say his proudest moment has been? 


“There’s a lot of them. I’ve been very lucky to work with incredible names that I grew up listening to, in particular people like Phily, and Dominic, and Louise, Kathy Durkin as well. I’m very lucky to be able to work with younger acts as well, like Chrissy [Mac] and Stacey [Breen], and to progress them. And there’s so many more too. Cliona Hagan, Barry Kirwan, so many. I’m very lucky that we’ve made a difference to many organisations, many charities. And I’m very lucky to have met some of the people I have. I’ve met some great people over the last twenty years, like Anthony and Kara [Kearns] there in Tullamore. And I’m very lucky to work in radio there in Tullamore too, at Midlands 103 with Albert [Fitzgerald] and Will [Faulkner]and Joe [Cooney]. And I’m very lucky to have come through some bad health battles as well. I’d never take that for granted. By losing people in my life, I never take anything for granted anymore. Your health is your wealth. And indeed Philomena Begley has that very song on this album, ‘Your Health Is Your Wealth.’ You have to go out there and smile, and sometimes it’s not easy to do that, to put the smile on. But you do it. And I’m extremely proud of the team I have, and of the people that we represent, who have all embraced the other acts that have come in. I’m really grateful to be in this position where we’re twenty years later in Country Shows.” 

And his biggest regret? 


“Loads of regrets! I have so many regrets, where do you even start?! Biggest regret, I suppose, is that there have been acts we haven’t been able to help, or acts that have chosen not to continue with Country Shows, which is equally fair enough. My biggest regret in music is when you see someone who is trying, and trying, and trying, and you can’t wave a magic wand to help give them the kind of success that the effort they put in – and their talent – deserves. You’d love to be able to do that when they’re working extremely hard night and day. My attitude in life is to try and help people. I got it from my mother. If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” 

I suspected that Brian might just have answered my next question right there…the best piece of advice to have come his way along the way? 


“Yeah, my mother! I’m very lucky to have two great parents, but I suppose I’m a mammy’s boy [laughs]. And the best bit of advice is exactly what she said, that if you can’t say something good about someone, then don’t say anything at all.” 

His toughest lesson learned? 


“That you can do everything you possibly can in life, and try your hardest at helping people, but then people will still talk behind your back. That’s very difficult. They’ll see one side of a story, and they won’t ask for the second side, they’ll just feel that they know it.” 

To wrap things up, we decided to put Brian’s crystal-ball to the test by asking him to throw our way the names of some artists – new and emerging – who he feels people should be keeping an eye on because they’re likely to make breakthroughs of note in the next two to three years? 


“From outside of my organisation, Claudia Buckley. I think she’s a very fine singer, and she’ll go on to do good things. From our own organisation, I think Stacey Breen will go on to do good things too. I think there’s a very bright future for the industry…provided…that they get fair play. Going back to the national broadcaster again, I remember knocking on doors within RTE for many years and we were being laughed at about country music. In the last twenty years I’m talking about now. Now listen, I’m delighted that they are now promoting country music. But next, they have to go one step forward and start promoting our young acts, and our new acts. Not just the same acts that it always seems to be. Because there’s an abundance of talent in this country, good singers who need to be encouraged because when the stars of today, the acts who have been around for so long, are no longer there, well who’s going to replace them? For the industry to survive, you need new blood [coming through].” 


TWENTY YEARS OF COUNTRY SHOWS, the celebration album from BRIAN CUNNINGHAM, featuring Philomena Begley, Dominic Kirwan, Louise Morrissey, Stacey Breen, Simon Casey, Sean Keane, and many more is OUT NOW. The album is available to order from TRAX in the Bridge Centre, Tullamore, and from all good record stores nationwide. 

ENDS

Nadia Sayers

First Published January 2021

A NEW QUEEN REIGNS

Ever since model and entrepreneur BRITTANY MASON took the helm at the organisation, the annual crowning of the new MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND has become one of the most glamorous events on the Irish social calendar. Up until this year, the event has always been held in the famous Round Room at Dublin’s Mansion House, where the first Dáil Eireann met in 1919, and which has also been graced by the presence of Pope John Paul II and Princess Grace among others. In August of 2019, under that same spectacular domed roof, FIONNGHUALA O’ REILLY was crowned Miss Universe Ireland, taking over from the 2018 Queen, GRAINNE GALLANAGH.


Fig, as Fionnghuala is affectionately known, made history that warm summer’s night by becoming the first woman of colour to take the Miss Universe Ireland title. Little did anyone know back then that perhaps the strangest of all possible years lay just up ahead. When the time eventually rolled around to crown her successor, Fig had gone on to make more history by becoming Ireland’s longest serving Queen, being an elegant, inspirational, and always amazing ambassador for Ireland for an incredible 508 days. However, on December 21st – in a magnificent virtual ceremony for which Brittany, Jscot Reid and their team must be commended – Miss Universe Ulster, NADIA SAYERS, was finally announced as MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND 2020, the fourth Queen of Brittany’s Moxie Era (CAILÍN TOBIN was the first in 2017).


Only a few days later, on New Year’s Eve morning, we had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with Nadia. And, as you would expect, we began by saying good morning to Nadia, but equally so, of course, we could just as easily have said, ‘Good morning, Miss Universe Ireland’, because that is officially Nadia’s new title. But, is that fact something which Nadia has started getting used to yet, and is her family under orders to only address her as such from now on? 


“[Laughs] Oh I’m so not used to it at all! [laughs]. I think because of the lockdowns obviously, we haven’t been seeing people as much. But all of my family did have great fun writing me cards that said Miss Universe Ireland, and that was really strange to see, and it gave me butterflies. So I’m still not used to hearing it, not yet [laughs].” 

I wondered if Nadia felt like it’s something that she will ever get used to? Because, whatever about right now, it’s definitely  going to get to a stage where she will be hearing it a lot. But might it always feel something like an out-of-body experience of some kind? 


“I don’t think I ever will [get used to it]. The day after I was announced as the winner, I was messaging some of the past winners, because thank goodness, they all took the time to send me a message and congratulate me. And I was just saying to them that this all feels so strange. It feels like a dream, but I don’t know if it will ever not feel like a dream! And every one of them said that you’re in a bubble right now, but it will never ever not feel like a dream [laugh].” 

As if to prove that you should never give up on a dream when it’s something that you really want in your heart of hearts, this was actually Nadia’s second time to enter Miss Universe Ireland, having also finished in the Top Ten – alongside eventual winner Fig – in 2019. But before we came back to why she decided to enter a second time, I wanted to find out how her Miss Universe Ireland journey had first begun…


“Miss Universe Ireland had always been a goal that I had looked at. But in all honesty, when I was younger I thought it was a goal that I was never going to achieve. Then it kind of died down for a few years here as well. But then whenever Brittany and the Moxie team took it over, I straight away bought tickets and went and watched it that first year, the year that Cailín won (Cailín Tobin, Miss Universe Ireland 2017). And it was just because I had always seen the likes of Joanna Cooper and other Miss Universe Irelands who had always done so well, not only within the pageant, but they seemed to grow so much as a person throughout and then afterwards. And I really respected how much was invested into them, and how much people reached out to support them. So obviously, to cut a long story shorter [laughs], whenever I saw that it was coming here, I bought tickets straight away, me and a few friends, to watch Cailín that first year. And I was in complete awe. Of one, the range of girls who were in the Top Thirty. They were not, by any means, carbon copies of each other or moulds of what a particular pageant girl should look like, which is sometimes dictated by society. They were all backgrounds, all ages, all shapes and sizes, all their own unique beautiful. And that was the first thing that really struck me. Then obviously the production of it all. You really got a feel for the family that was Miss Universe Ireland, even from just sitting in the audience. So I became very attached to it then. When Cailín was crowned, I followed her journey that year. And again, I saw how she had grown as a person. And at no point did it seem that they had tried to put her into a mould. They just simply helped her to embrace herself more. That really just struck me. And I thought that again then the next year with Grainne. So, I just sucked it up eventually, and I thought I have to apply! Cos’ I’m never gonna get there if I don’t give it a go!” 

So it sounded very much like Nadia had probably made her mind up that first year, even just sitting in the audience watching Cailín, that she was going to enter herself some day? 


“Yes, it was more like a goal. Like, I would love this, but I don’t know if I’ll get there. If that makes sense? But it was definitely something in my head, I’m gonna try this. I need to. Because otherwise I’m gonna regret it.” 

In 2019 Nadia did enter, and it obviously lived up to her expectations. I asked her to tell me what that first year was like…


“It was great! I’d seen, again, how much Grainne had come on as a person because I’d actually competed with Grainne the year before, so I’d known her before she became Miss Universe Ireland. Again, the same kind of thing had happened, I’d seen how much she had grown, but how much she had stayed true to herself, but highlighting that and embracing it. So whenever I applied – I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was – of how much time Brittany and the rest of the team actually give to you one-to-one to try and teach you on all aspects from interviews to styling, even just having check-ins with you to see how you are and what you want to achieve. It was phenomenal the amount of personal growth I went through in that time-period. It was surprising to me. The team were so welcoming and friendly, and all of the girls were lovely. It really did seem like a little community.” 

Until just a few years ago, I have to confess that I was never aware that you could enter a pageant like Miss Universe Ireland twice. So what prompted Nadia to go for it again in 2020? 


“After last year, I kind of took a step back. I was like, ok, I’ve done it…am I done? [laughs]. My family were like, well give it a month or two and have a think about it. Have a rest first. But as the time was going on, and especially coming into 2020 and how the year was presenting itself, I kept seeing the Miss Universe Ireland stuff popping up on my social media. And every time I saw it I got a little bit of butterflies in my stomach. Do I go for it? I very much live along the lines of am I gonna regret it more if I try it, or if I don’t? Because who wants to pile on the regrets?! Obviously we’ll all have some, but you want to try and have that amount be as little as possible [laughs]. So I just went for it. I actually applied and I told nobody! It wasn’t until I found out that I’d made it into the Top Twelve that I actually told anybody [laughs]. I kind of said to my fiance, ‘So, what would you think if I thought about doing this…’, but I’d already applied [laughs]. My mum actually found out on Facebook! [laughs].” 

Right now, of course, with the way everything remains due to Covid and all of the health restrictions associated with it, making plans of any kind is quite the challenge. So have Nadia, Brittany, and the Miss Universe Ireland team been able to put any shape on what might be happening next? 


“Well like you said, it’s just so difficult. Because even with the competition, there were four, five, six, seven versions of everything because things kept changing and restrictions kept changing. We have had a few initial meetings, brainstorming ideas and the goals we want to reach before the end of my reign, and what we want to reach before going to Miss Universe too. So we have a few things in the pipeline, but again, we’re just having to be flexible, and roll with the punches as Brittany always says, because we don’t know what’s coming around the corner. There’s nothing else you can do at the moment. So it’s just about keeping the goals clear, and keep moving forward.” 

Although Nadia isn’t actually in possession of the Miss Universe Ireland crown just yet, as the official crowning by and handover from Fig has yet to take place, this won’t be her first crown either, as Nadia was Miss Intercontinental Ireland in 2017…


“Yeah, I held that title in 2017. And there was one before that, the Miss Earth Water crown, which was a runner-up title. They crown Miss Earth, and then three runners-up. That was the first pageant that I’d ever come across that was kind of available to me. So I decided to enter because someone had said, ‘Sure imagine you up there on stage in a big sparkly dress, you’d look ridiculous!’ So I said ok then…and I went to my Uni room and applied! [laughs]. Yeah, cos’ I wasn’t always the girliest of girls, and I would still be the same. That goes along with that stereotype that if you’re gonna be a model or gonna do pageantry, then you’re going to love everything that’s pink and sparkles, and that’s that. So yes, that little bit of stubborness kicked in and that’s what started me in pageantry! [laughs].” 

My next question was going to be just that: what had actually got Nadia started in pageantry in the first place, but according to herself…it was basically stubbornness?!


“Basically, yeah! [laughs]. I’ve been modeling since I was sixteen, and I come from Tyrone, so none of my friends had really come across anyone who was going out to try and do modeling at that time. I had a lot of friends who were guys as well, and I was quite…tomboyish. Well that’s what you would have said then, but I just like my Converse! [laughs]. And I like my rock music. So yeah, they were just like, imagine you up there in a big sparkly dress, you’d be ridiculous up there! And I was like, right, well I’m just gonna show you that I would NOT be ridiculous! [laughs].” 

Going back to what Nadia had said about knowing Grainne since before she was crowned Miss Universe Ireland in 2018,  I asked her about when the pair first met…


“We actually met in that Miss Earth competition. In that year, a girl called Maire Lynch won, and Grainne was I think the first runner-up, and I was the second runner-up. So we had met while we were competing there and had just kind of kept in touch ever since. So obviously when I saw that she was competing in Miss Universe Ireland, I was very excited to follow her journey in that. And even still, her Instagram cracks me up every day! [laughs].” 

Having seen what Grainne has gone on to do since her time as Miss Universe Ireland, and indeed, everything that Fig achieved during her reign and everything that’s about to happen next for her, how excited does that make Nadia feel about the opportunities and the challenges that could be about to come her way? 


“It’s unbelievable. And that’s a part of the whole I still can’t believe this is really happening thing [laughs]. Like you said, I competed with Fig, and I knew Grainne beforehand, and both were amazing girls, lovely girls. And now I’ve seen how far both have come in a relatively short space of time. It seems like a phenomenal jump and phenomenal growth. So I just cannot wait to meet the team in person and get working as soon as we can, and especially after the holidays, because with Christmas and New Year’s and everything they all deserved a break too! [laughs]. I cannot wait to see what comes along. I was actually writing out a little list of goals and stuff before our call.” 

Nadia had mentioned that a lot of people assume that pageants are all about pink, and all about sparkles, and how there are just so many assumptions like that which exist. Something that most people probably wouldn’t put pageantry alongside is psychology, but Nadia is actually a psychologist-in-training and working with the Hope 4 Life charity. Part of the work Nadia is involved in centres around comics and what I think is one of the most fascinating , innovative, and praiseworthy concepts I’ve ever heard of. I’ll let Nadia explain…


“Hope 4 Life is, in basic terms, a mental health early intervention charity. So they specialise primarily in training in early intervention projects. They aim to give people the skills to support themselves and help themselves to look after their well-being, so they don’t get to the stage where they’re in crisis. One of the projects that they do is around youth work because after my boss had met with teachers from all over the country to see what would help them, their primary issue was that they were worried about the mental well-being of our students. And we can’t do anything about it because we’re not trained to. We don’t know what to do. They had basically said that the best thing we could do for children across the country was to develop something for the children that can help them. The team was amazing, and before I joined them they had come up with this concept. They got a group of young people together into a forum, and said look, this is what we aim to do, how best should we do it? Go away for a few weeks and think about it, and come back. The Hope 4 Life team, as well as these young people, both came back and said superheroes! Superheroes will work because kids agree that superheroes represent good things. They represent justice. They represent saving the day. And supervillains represent all these negative, external things that aren’t a part of you, but are an external influence that affects you. So they took that then and decided well, if we’re going to do comic books and superheroes, we want them to actually be relevant. Because even me, at twenty-six, I can’t tell a thirteen year old I know exactly what they’re going through, because I don’t. Society and life is constantly changing. So when I was thirteen is very different to when someone is thirteen now.”

Nadia continued, “So basically, they decided they’re going to use real stories. So people who have maybe been through their own difficult times, and come through it, or who are coming through it, and want to share their stories – because sometimes it’s closure for them, sometimes it’s cathartic, sometimes it’s to know that out of a tough time – they’re drawing a silver lining which is giving hope to other people that they will get through their tough times too. We developed a comic, and there’s thirteen now. The most recent one is a lockdown comic. What we do, and what I do, is we go into primary schools and secondary schools and community youth groups, and we’ll go through the comic. In non-Covid times, kids would get up and they’d role-play the comic and then we’ll talk about some of the issues that might have come up in it, and come to solutions and find tools that will help the kids in the future should they come across these problems. Now, normally you could break up into little groups and have a more intimate conversation, but because of  Covid we can’t do that. But it tends to work really well. One of the key things that the charity always does is we never put a child on the spot when we’re talking to them. So for instance, the lockdown comic – which is all about lockdown and was written by young people for young people – is based on their experiences of lockdown, their fears, anxieties, confusion. Instead of asking them, ‘Why were you scared during lockdown?’, which, in the middle of a classroom can be terrifying for a child to have to answer, we say – the lead character is called Sophie – so we say, ‘Why might Sophie be scared? What might have been goin’ on in the comic that might have been making her scared?’ And so often then, the kids come forward with THEIR answers, but in their mind it’s just what Sophie might have felt.” 

One of the things that Miss Universe Ireland director Brittany Mason always puts a very strong focus on is that each year’s winner uses their platform to highlight a cause or an issue that’s very personal to them. With Fig in 2019 it was about concentrating on women in S.T.E.M. With Grainne the year before, it was about womens’ health. It sounds like Nadia’s focus in this regard will be on mental health, and if indeed it is, does she have any ideas on what ways she might be able to use her platform over the next year? 


“I would say mental health, and in particular, early intervention [will be my focus]. There’s amazing people working out there in mental health at the moment, and they’re saving lives. But waiting lists are still growing. Services are still feeling the pressure. So we need to start putting in the foundations now for the future, by teaching people how we might be able to stop you from getting to that stage. This is what we might be able to do ourselves, and then, if you still need to get more help, obviously go and get more help. But it’s just about trying to be pro-active as opposed to being constantly reactive. That’s something that I want to highlight a little bit more. I think, again, this stigma [that exists] around talking if you’re not feeling ok, and just saying, ‘You know what, I’m not having a great day.’ And the stigma around journaling and mindfulness, the way people find them a bit airy-fairy but no-one really understands them practically or how to do it. I want to have meetings with some of the smaller grassroots charities that are there that can provide help, and highlight what they’re doing, and create awareness for them so that people can go to them if they need to. But also to spread the word and learn more about what is going on in your own area for young people, and what can we provide or what can we teach to help them in the future. And as well, I think, just in general creating a little bit of hope that if you are struggling – like we all have, like I have, and I talk very openly about it – that’s not going to be your struggle forever. So I’m working my way through a potential check-list of things that are fully dependent on restrictions, but we’re very lucky to at least have the technology that means I can still reach out to people and to organisations, and start having those conversations.” 

Even though we’re all back in another lockdown right now, I think it’s fair to say that Nadia probably has happy enough memories of the first one last year seeing as how she mentioned her fiance a little earlier in our chat. She said yes back in May…


“Yeah [laughs], he’s called Calvin, and bless him [laughs], he’s doing really well! His phone blew up as well, with people kind of having a joke with him. I think he’s very proud and he’s very excited. To be honest, I was at one of my lowest points whenever we got together, so he’s seen me come through that, to where I could say I want this, and this is what I’m gonna go get. And now I’ve done it! He was a bit speechless, as much as I was, after it was announced, but I think he’s just proud. And God bless him, now he has to take on more wedding planning responsibility because I’m a busy bee! [laughs].” 

As it was New Year’s Eve morning when we spoke, I had to ask Nadia what kind of a New Year’s Eve person she usually is, and what were her plans for later that night?


“I’m very big on traditions, and sticking to traditions, and trying to make my own. I’m a real sucker for them! So, typically, in every other new year for the past…maybe ten years…, myself and a group of friends that I went to school with – I’ve known them since I was ten – we all would get together at one of our friends houses and just have a little new year’s party, because that way we actually got to spend time together. And every year on New Year’s Day, we set out what we think is going to happen. We make predictions for the next year. That means that every New Year’s Eve at 11.50pm we read out the predictions, and you have a good laugh at them because some of them are just ridiculous. And some of them might have come true. We make the predictions for each other, for our wee group as a whole. So it could be that someone is going to meet someone, or someone is going to get a house, and there’s always some random ones in there. But it’s always funny to look back and think what were we thinking a year ago at this time?! [laughs]. Tonight is going to be a lot quieter than every other year [laughs]. We’re just going to get in some indian food, and me and Calvin are just going to chill out in the living room with our cat, Espresso, and just ring in the New Year together and be grateful for what we do have, even though this year has obviously been so unprecedented! Nobody could have imagined what it was going to be like, but I know I’ve taken in and learned and reflected a lot this year. So yeah, I think we’re just gonna sit-in, chill-out, and be grateful for everything that’s happened, and all the little things that we have, and hope that next year we can…go out and have a cup of coffee! [laughs].” 


~ You can follow Nadia’s Miss Universe Ireland journey by following Nadia and Miss Universe Ireland on Facebook and Instagram.

ENDS

Cassadee Pope

First Published December 2020

ALWAYS RISING HIGHER, SHINING BRIGHTER

It’s said – and more often than not it’s true – that you can tell a lot about a person by knowing who their friends are. Likewise, for an artist, you can tell a lot about someone by paying attention to who they’re often spoken about in the same breath as. 


Floridian singer/songwriter CASSADEE POPE has one heck of a crossover of folk who show up in both those two groups. There’s guitar wizard Lindsay Ell. There’s the runner-up from season ten of American Idol, Lauren Alaina. There’s RaeLynn, whose 2017 debut album Wildhorse introduced itself to the world by way of the Top Ten on Billboard’s All-Genre album chart, whilst also debuting in the top spot on Billboard’s Country album’s chart, which made RaeLynn the first female country artist to do so since Maren Morris with her major-label debut long-player, Hero, in 2016. And there’s Maren herself, one of the Highwomen, a Grammy winner, and thanks to collaborations with Niall Horan and Zedd and Grey, a name known worldwide as well as being one of modern country’s superstar names. 


If Cassadee happens to be a name new to you, then knowing such artists are both her friends and contemporaries should be your first clue to her greatness. And not just as an artist, by the way, but as a person, too. And let there be no doubt, that greatness runs deep, and exists independently of anyone she might know. 


Cassadee was the winner of The Voice US back in 2012, when she was coached by country mega-star Blake Shelton. That same year, her version of Over You from the show became an iTunes #1, knocking Gangnam Style back into the #2 spot. In 2017, Cassadee became the first ever contestant from the show to be nominated for a Grammy, thanks to her duet with Chris Young, Think Of You. She’s also toured with Chris, with her friend Maren, with Tim McGraw, and with Dierks Bentley, to name but a few of the marquee names who have invited her on the road. Funnily enough, though, Cassadee’s musical journey began in what might be described as a world away from country, in a pop/punk band called Hey Monday whose big break came when Pete Wenz – bass player with Fall Out Boy – discovered the group’s demo in his manager’s office. Hey Monday’s single, Candles, even featured on an episode of Glee. 


Quite apart from her list of achievements as an artist, however, what always stands out about Cassadee – certainly to this writer – is her authenticity. She is, to put it simply, real to the bone. That was always how she came across to me before I actually had the pleasure of spending some time in her company. And, wouldn’t you know it, a little time in conversation with Cassadee proved that hunch to be right on the money. 


There were so many reasons why I was looking forward to chatting with Cassadee, and when that opportunity came my way a few weeks back, there was nowhere better to start than with the remix to her single Rise And Shine, from her EP of the same name. Now, for those who may not know, remixes in country music are generally more the exception than the norm. So when I first heard about the Rise And Shine remix, what made me most curious was why Cassadee might have wanted to present that particular track in a different light. But then, I heard Cassadee talk somewhere about when she heard that Dave Audé wanted to do the remix, which made it sound more like the idea might have come from outside of her camp. So, I asked Cassadee how, in fact, it did all come to happen…


“Well, my manager, Daniel Miller, texted and said how would you feel about a remix of ‘Rise And Shine.’ And at first, I was like, this doesn’t sound like a song that would lend itself well to a remix [laughs]. I’m thinking, you know, of it being turned into a Calvin Harris kinda remix – uuugh! – and that doesn’t seem like it would make sense. And then they said that Dave wanted to do it. Obviously I know his work, but I looked into more, and I was like ah, ok, he’s got a different vibe and it’s not super-clubby all the time. So I said ok, let’s try that. Then I got sent a verse and chorus of what he was thinking for the song. And that was so exciting, because it really just added this whole other anthemic level to the song that I wanted the song to have. But it being acoustic obviously, it only could go so far. I really felt like he took it to the next level, with a lot of the kinda big 80s snare sounds, and it was very ambient. I just felt so excited about it, I said yeah, definitely, let’s go ahead. And he was really great to work with, he was open to some tweaks. I wasn’t sure because I’ve never done a remix with somebody, so I wasn’t sure how the process would go. But it was really collaborative and I’m super happy with how it turned out.”

As Cassadee mentioned there being some tweaks involved, I wondered if it was a case of Dave sending her along some different versions as he worked on them to see what she liked and make sure she was cool with the direction the track was taking? 


“Yeah, definitely. And like honestly, there weren’t that many things. There were two little notes that I had, and they were really minor changes. For instance, the beat was coming in a little later on the second verse, and I wanted it to come in a little earlier. He sent me what he had, kind of the first round of what he felt comfortable sending me, then I had a couple of tweaks, and he did it in like an hour! And that was that [laughs]. That was the extent of the back-and-forth as far as tweaking the song [went].” 

Cassadee has described her Rise And Shine EP as being, “emo-country, acoustic record”, a description I happen to really like. As an acoustic collection, it’s obviously going to be quite different to a full-band affair anyway. But coming so soon after her album Stages (February 2019), it seemed clear to me that Rise And Shine is also a record she values just as much as her Stages long-player, and creatively-speaking, is a side of herself that Cassadee thought important enough to share with her fans right now…was I right? 


“Yeah, definitely. This album was a product of the pandemic, it was me really wanting to release something – not just for the fans and hopefully helping them out – but for myself. It was a tough year, you know. I’ve felt a big jolt in my lifestyle in not travelling and meeting fans, playing shows. So I was thinking about what I could do that would be safe, but that I could still get new music to people. And I also felt like the world at that time [early in the pandemic] was in such an acoustic state, of there not being a lot of things to be able to distract us from our problems, with not being able to go to shows, and not being able to go to house-parties or to clubs or whatever. So, I felt like it was a kind of parallel to where we were in the world, and I was really happy to see that people were appreciative of some new music and were connecting with some of the lyrics, too.” 

I wanted to move on to ask Cassadee about her songwriting. In speaking about her song How I Feel Right Now, she described going into that writing session that day with no real ideas about what to write, but then telling her co-writers on that session about a relationship she was in, and in doing so saying something like, “…and that’s how I feel right now.” And in that moment, there was their song! How important is it for Cassadee – as a songwriter – to be able to allow herself to open up like that about her personal life? And also, and perhaps more importantly, the importance of having co-writers with whom she knows she can be so open? 


“I’ve definitely learned that unless you’re willing to completely open up and share things, you’re not gonna get the depth that you want to get in a song. When I first came to Nashville, that was a really weird thing for me. I wasn’t completely trusting in the process. Telling people about my personal life felt really odd. I mean, at that point, I hadn’t been to therapy ever, so I just wasn’t used to opening up to people to that extent. But once I started, and I started to get the songs that are still my favourites – some of the songs on my first record, ‘Frame By Frame’ – I realised, well, that’s what you have to do in a session. Now, going into the sessions – and this year I’ve been writing on Zoom a lot – I’ve really been super, super intentional with the direction. I’m definitely going more pop/rock for the next full-band record. I’ve been going into these sessions with a clear, focused idea of that sound. And then also, I’ve had so many ideas that have just come up for me, maybe like two seconds before a session! Then I’m like I want to bring this up in the session. So it really depends on the day, but I’ve definitely felt so inspired, especially with the year we’ve had. Socially inspired, but also with this new approach that’s pop/rock and heading in that direction. It’s opened my mind up to a lot more ideas. If I feel a certain way that day [of a session], but someone says something that makes me want to write a different idea, then I’m being open to doing that.” 

Something else Cassadee once said is that, “I will probably never stop writing about my first love and my first heartache.” As a songwriter, I wondered if what Cassadee meant by that is that she returns to old relationships a lot to almost mine those memories for songs, looking at things from slightly different perspectives, or focusing on a slightly different emotion each time? 


“Yeah. I mean, I think that first love and your first heartbreak will stick with you, it will be so vivid, and it will be the first time that you’ve felt that thing, that deep, deep pain or that deep, deep obsession with someone. I think the first time is always the most vivid in your memory. Obviously now, fast forward to being thirty-one, and I’m writing about all relationships I’ve been in, so I’m not discriminating against the other ones [laughs]. The first time of anything is so vivid in your mind. For me, it’s so easy to go back to that feeling and write from that place. I think that’s always going to be something that people can relate to as well. I don’t ever want to just write love-songs, or just write life-songs or whatever. I want all my projects to be pretty well-rounded as far as the lyrical content goes.” 

Cassadee had mentioned this year in the context of what’s been happening socially, so I wondered if she found herself taking on any of those subjects in her lyrics? Not necessarily in a protest song style, but still directly relating to what’s been happening in the world this year, on the socio-political side of things as well as with Covid…


“Yeah, I’ve basically got a song where I’m calling people out who are basically being judgemental about someone’s lifestyle as if it’s affecting them. The actual hook-line is, ‘If you were happy, you would mind your own business’, [laughs]. I just was so frustrated with seeing my friends who are gay, or who have a new baby and posted a picture only to have people commenting saying ‘you’re not holding it right!’, or whatever! I just got so fed-up with people that were so invested in someone else’s life, especially my friends. So I just wrote a song that day and it’s turned out to be one of my favourites actually! It’ll be something people hear, for sure.” 

On Cassadee’s song Distracted, she’s joined by Lindsay Ell, Lauren Alaina, and Raelynn, all of whom Cassadee said came in to record their parts during CMA Week in Nashville, which is, of course, one of the craziest times of the year for country artists. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsay a couple of months back and what I noticed about her – not just during our chat, but in other interviews I’ve seen with her too – is that she always takes every chance she gets to give a shout-out to her friends who are also artists. And I’ve noticed that same trait in Cassadee. I asked her to tell me about the importance of that community of friends who are also artists.


“Oh man! I mean, it’s really saved me in so many ways. I remember really not leaning into it until three, maybe three and a half years ago. I had gone through a really weird year of transitions, getting out of a long-term relationship, getting out of a record deal, really doing all of those things at the same time. And I needed friends to really help me through that. So I leaned on my friends because I just wanted to connect with them on a level I just hadn’t been able to yet, just because of my own mental capacity I wasn’t able to really lean into those friendships as much as I could have. And also, just having someone that I was with for so long, who was my person to go to for everything, and now all of a sudden I was single, so I had to lean on my friends. The friends that I felt like I had the most common ground with are my artist friends. And it’s really the best decision I’ve ever made because now there’s just this group of girls and women that are there for each other, even when I just need to vent. Or if I just need to have a drink with someone and have it be light and easy. It’s a group of women that are going to be whatever we need to be for each other in whatever moment they need us. Lindsay and Raelyn, and Lauren, and Maren [Morris], those are the friends that I’ve really connected with over the last few years that have helped me through some pretty tough times.” 

Speaking of character traits and personality traits, from her time on The Voice on Cassadee has had some amazing opportunities to work with some equally amazing artists; Blake [Shelton, her mentor on The Voice] obviously, Chris Young, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Maren, and of course, Sam Palladio. In working with and being around those guys, what did Cassadee learn from watching how they do things that she’s been able to apply to her own career or take into her own life? 


“I think there’s a certain level of confidence that all of those guys that you mentioned have. There’s confidence, and there’s also humility. I’ve noticed that most of the people I’ve come into contact with – especially in the country world – are so humble, and so family orientated. They just want to be your mentor. Somebody that I’ve been really lucky to work with on a personal level, but also on a music level, is Karen Fairchild, from Little Big Town. She’s kind of been like a ghost-mentor for me [laughs]. It’s not like when we hang out there’s a slew of selfies and stuff. When I see her, I’m like a sponge. I’m like ok, tell me everything! [laughs]. When I had that year that I was talking about earlier, when I was really transitioning and not having a team around me, she was the one I called and I was like, can you meet with me and can I pick your brain about stuff? I asked her about a manager I was thinking of hiring, and she knew about him and was able to tell me things. And she has that humility. She has the confidence, but she has that humility. I think that’s something that is kind of a constant in the biggest country artists. There’s that relatability. And when you see them and meet them, and hang out with them, I think they all have that thing in common. And I’m lucky to have people like that that I can look up to and ask questions.” 

And speaking of Sam, with whom Cassadee is in a relationship – and who duets with her on the song California Dreaming on Rise And Shine – the pair had an actual show at the City Winery in Nashville just the week before we spoke. I asked Cassadee how it felt to be able to perform again.


“I haven’t had a full-band show since December [2019], so I was really excited to get a full-band show! [laughs]. I had done a couple of acoustic things this year, but yeah, nothing like that. We had a really good time! But it also made us realise, hey, we could do this! You know, if we want to do a co-headlining tour someday or something like that. It felt so good to be up there in general, but to be up there with him was really fun. He sang harmonies on my songs, I sang harmonies on his songs. It was just a really fun collaborative night, it was amazing.” 

Did Cassadee and Sam have an audience there with them to enjoy the show? 


“Yeah. So City Winery basically had a big outdoor tent with tables, two-tops, four-tops, and six-tops. So if a household had six people in it and they wanted to come to the show, they were taken care of. The crowd was set up…gosh…like a good twelve feet from the stage, so we were never exposed to anyone. The crowd had to wear masks, too. Sam and I, we’ve been pretty on the cautious side of things this year, and haven’t really gone anywhere or done anything. We went to a friend’s show, that was kind of a big deal for us, and we hopped up for a couple of songs at City Winery. And that’s when we realised that they were doing such a good job. So we actually said to them that if they had any open dates we’d really love to do a show because we thought they were doing such a good job. And then yeah, fast-forward to it happening and we sold it out, and it was awesome.” 

Cassadee is an independent artist now, coming from a pop/rock background from her time with her band Hey Monday, and she has the most magnificent arm tattoo that’s both beautiful and hard to miss. Plus, Cassadee and Sam live over on East Nashville, somewhere I learned all I know about from listening to the brilliant singer/songwriter Todd Snider. So it’s probably fair to say that Cassadee is far too free and independent a spirit to fit nicely into the kind of categories and products that country radio often seems to prefer. Only the actual music itself should ever matter, of course, but has Cassadee ever found that country radio can be a battle for an artist like her? 


“Oh yeah! I mean, I’m at the point in my career – and especially this year – where I’m just writing the stuff that makes me really happy. Like, my next full-band record, I’m going more pop/rock and I’m not focusing on making sure I tick all the boxes that country radio has. There has to be a country accent in the voice, you know, and there has to be a banjo, there has to be steel [guitar]. I’m really not focusing on any of that, because I know deep down that I’m a country artist and that my sensibilities lean country. But I also love pop/rock, and I don’t want to ever feel like I have to compromise who I am to fit in a box, or in a format. Just because I would love a country radio hit, that can’t be what drives my creative process, I know that now. I know that if it does, I’m not gonna get the song that stands out. Yeah, it’s definitely been a struggle over the years. I’ve had success, and I’m proud of that for the things I’ve accomplished. I definitely think if I were a little bit more what country radio is used to from a female, I would maybe get better attention and radio-play. But I also know there are women that are seemingly the perfect country-radio female specimen, and they still don’t get played. I think that’s all I really needed to realise this year. Like, wow, why am I really trying so hard and giving things that I think are perfect for country radio…and they still don’t play it? So why don’t I just do what I want, and just do the most authentic thing I can think of and just see what happens? It’s a lot more creatively rewarding that way, so it’s been nice to just do that this year.” 

Cassadee had a very special virtual Thanksgiving planned with her fans, so we wrapped up our chat by talking about that, and also her hopes for what 2021 might hold in store…


“The meet-and-greets have been so fun. I’ve been doing them through an App called Loop, and it’s basically I think twenty-five or thirty fans at each meet-and-greet. Everybody is in a line but they get to go into a chat-room and talk to each other, and I popped in there as well. It’s really kind of fun and casual. I did a Halloween one where I wore my Halloween costume, being a ghostbuster [laughs]. And I picked a few fans whose costumes I loved and I sent a little merch-bundle to them. You get a merch-bundle when you purchase a meet-and-greet anyway, but I threw in a couple of extra little things that I thought people would like. Then for the Thanksgiving one, it’s just gonna be more of a conversation, with the theme of what we are grateful for, trying to take the positive from all of the heaviness that’s been going on. Talking about the silver lining of this year and what we’ve learned. That’ll be nice. I’ll probably do a Christmas one [laughs]. I’ve just really loved being able to connect with the fans, even though I haven’t been able to in person. Then the rest of the year, I mean, I’m going to continue to write but I have a pretty solid group of songs to start recording a record, getting into a studio that’s big enough so that we can do it safely, all socially-distanced and with temperature-checks. It’ll definitely be a different recording process than what it’s been in the past, but I want to get started and also keep everybody safe. So that’s on the horizon, for sure. Then just enjoying the holidays. My mom and sister are in Nashville, so I’ve been able to see them. I want to lean into the fact that there’s a new year looming and we can all exhale after this past weekend [of the US Presidential election], and just take comfort in next year being a different year!” 

RISE AND SHINE, the brand new EP from CASSADEE POPE, is out now on all platforms. 

ENDS

A Christmas Catch-Up…

A Christmas Catch-Up…

First Published December 2020

As much as we’d love to, there isn’t always the time or the space to cover everything we’d like to in this column sometimes. But every now and then, along comes a week like this one, where a little gap in the normal schedule of things appears and presents us with the perfect chance to have a little catch-up…! 

Given the time of the year it is, we couldn’t but cast an eye in the direction of some festive favourites to begin with. And in doing so, we need look no further than one of Irish country’s greatest servants of song, the gentleman that is singer/songwriter JOHN HOGAN. John has just released his version of the old Christmas carol, the Little Drummer Boya  superb reworking of the Bing Crosby and David Bowieclassic. This festive number has been a big favourite of John’s since he was a young lad. And whatever age you might be yourself, dear reader, hearing John perform this classic – in the way that only John can – will leave your heart all a-swirl in the spirit of the season. What a gift, indeed. 

Following his recent appearance on the Today Show with Daithi and Maura on RTE 1,John is now looking forward to joining a host of artists on the HOT COUNTRY TV Christmas Special – An Irish Country Christmas – which will be aired worldwide on December 24th. John has also been busy writing new material and laying down tracks for this forthcoming new album, with part of that process including the shooting a video for his recent self-penned recent hit, The Old Dance Hall.

Speaking recently about that very release, John said, “I wrote this song some time ago, and looking at a non-existent entertainment scene over the last number of months, I felt the time was now right to release it. The song is all about the good old days when people flocked in huge numbers to the dances from far and wide. Being a lively number, I hope it lifts people’s spirit during these uncertain times and brings back great memories.”

Like many entertainers over the last number of months, John has missed the live entertainment scene. But to keep in touch with his many fans and followers, the Offalyman regularly uploads (to his Facebook page John Hogan Singer/Songwriter) acoustic videos of himself singing songs from his large catalogue of recordings, with the count of such performances standing at wellover 70 to date. And  needless to say, they’re going down a treat with his many fans all over the world, from places such as St. Lucia, UK, Canada, Australia, and Sri Lanka.

Staying with the Christmas theme, here’s another lady who we’ll be bringing to the OTRT pages for a proper introduction sometime in 2021, the brilliant GRACE FOLEY from Kerry. As well as writing one of the best – and I think by far and away the funniest – letters of introduction that I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving, Grace is also a classical crossover singer with what is perhaps the rarest female voice type; a contralto. According to the lady herself, “This basically means I have a classical style of singing… but a dark edge!” Grace said she’s made her way through this challenging year with music as her guiding light, and I have a feeling that her presence in the lives of those who know her has been every bit as much of a guiding light, too. 

With luck on her side, Grace confessed to being, “Blessed to get my music videos for the year recorded the day they announced the school closures back in March. I quickly turned to online platforms like Facebook and Instagram for performances, and this really was so important as it allowed me to continue to reach my audience to keep singing.” She wrote the song Together Apart about the lockdown back in the spring, recording it in her wardrobe, which, not surprisingly, she described as being,“… a new experience!” One of Grace’s favourite experiences of the year was when she performed Songs of Hope and Healing in an empty St. Mary’s Cathedral Killarney, a performance which was broadcast via Parish-Cam and which was, according to Grace, “…the most beautiful experience.” Like John, Grace also performed on RTE’s Today Show with Daithi and Maura, live from her living room with her little dog for company! 

Grace was also granted Arts Council funding to write and record her own music earlier this year, heading for Balbriggan to record two songs in back in September, just before Dublin went into lockdown. One of those songs – Goodbye To Dublin – was a Christmas one, so Grace decided she would release a Christmas EP. That collection, A Time For Christmas, Volume 1 – which features her own song and four festive favourites – met the world for the first time on November 27th, with the video, which was funded by the Arts Council, recorded literally on the day the Dublin lockdown was announced. As Grace remarked,“Basically, I’ve been creating a lot and narrowly avoiding lockdowns all year!”

We can’t wait to catch up with her in 2021, but in the meantime, add some Kerry flavoured cheer to your Christmas by adding Grace’s EP, A Time For Christmas, Volume 1, to your collection. 

Next up is HUBERT MURRAY is a Galway-born, Tullamore based folk and roots musician, best known as front man of two genre bending old time bluegrass bands: the Hot Rock Pilgrims – who have mostly seen action in the UK – and Lands End, who will be a name well-known on the ‘live’ circuit here in Ireland. He has toured the length and breath of Ireland, the UK and Europe, playing some of the most prestigious venues and festivals out there along the way, such as the Cambridge Folk Festival, Isle of Wight Festival, The Royal Southbank Centre in London, and the Wilderness Festival, to name a few. His discography to date includes three EPs and one album. Hubert’s newest musical adventure saw him departing the familiar territory of old-time and bluegrass sounds, choosing instead to further develop his voice as a singer-songwriter. 

That adventure, entitled Heaven Cried and released back in mid-November,is a song for those who sway on the balance of life, lost, as Hubert points out, “…in a never ending search for meaning.” Heaven Cried is a metaphorical idea about a person trying to help those who are having a hard time, who perhaps feel lost, or whose heads are not in the right place. It’s a caring soul reaching out to someone in need, to someone being held captive by the infamous ‘black dog’. The song asks the listener to slow down their thoughts and remember a time when they felt peaceful, and to grasp that positive memory. “Peace of mind”, declares Hubert, “will happen, there is someone out there who will help, unconditionally. You must not lose hope.”

Interestingly, Heaven Cried was recorded on digital-tape at Hellfire Studios in the Dublin mountains, and featured some of Ireland’s crème-de- la-crème when it comes to musicians, including; Pat Daly on Violin (has also worked with Ham Sandwich, Fionn Regan), Robbie Walsh on bodhran (Daoiri Farrell Eleanor Shanley), folk musicians Paddy Kiernan on banjo and Niall Hughes on double bass (both of Navá). The song was produced by Tony Byrne (Julie Fowlis, Danú) and mastered by Josh Clark (Kate Rusby), with artwork created by Tullamore native Claire Guinan.

Meanwhile, HALLE KEARNS is an emerging artist quickly making a name for herself in country music over stateside. As a songwriter, Halle differentiates herself through her controversial storytelling, melodic sensibilities, and authenticity. As a performer, she has over three-hundred shows under her belt resulting in an undeniable ability to captivate her audiences, instantly connecting them to her passion for music. Despite only being in Nashville for a year so far, Halle has already had the opportunity to open up for legendary country acts such as Trace Adkins, David Nail, Eli Young Band, William Michael Morgan, Tracy Lawrence, and The Oak Ridge Boys, to name but a few.

By all accounts, Nashville has been a-buzz with this young ladies name since her debut release, Pick Me Up, back in July. That track was featured as Song of the Week on a number of stations, including Radio Disney Country and Country Hits Radio UK. Follow-up singles I Drink Whiskey and Shoes To Fill have certainly kept that buzz going, leading to a huge – and justified – sense of anticipation around her debut EP, Finally, the five-track collection which dropped on December 11th. We’re looking forward to catching up with Halle and introducing the lady herself to OTRT readers in the new year.

Also back in November UK pop-country duo, EMMA & JOLIE, announced the release of their sophomore single, Cry For You, on, of all days, Friday 13th! November 2020. But given the huge few months for the new duo had just had – with a performance at the C2C Festival’s Country Music Week under their belts, along with the release of their debut single – I Don’t Need A Man – that shot to the number one spot on the iTunes country chart, and number thirty-two all genre charts, plus a feature on Apple Music’s Today’s Country and Country Wide playlists – a little matter like superstition was hardly likely to slow their groove. This second single again saw the duo partner with long-time collaborator and producer Johnny Douglas, and was a Nashville co-write with Lena Stone, during the duo’s first trip to Music City, one that has proved to be a formative part of Emma and Jolie’s journey. 

The tune was one of the girls’ quickest writing sessions, taking only about an hour to get out this raw, emotional ballad that speaks universally to the healing process post-breakup. Of the track, Emma said “Everything we write about has always stemmed from personal situations we’ve both been in. This song comes from a place of pain we have both experienced. The two of us, and a lot of people we know have felt this way after breaking up with somebody, and so we just want to say that if this is you we see you and you’re not alone, you can’t always shut it off because it’s so difficult.” Jolie continued, “There’s also an element of frustration in the song, when you see your ex seemingly moving on no problem but you’re still finding it difficult to keep going. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that things can take a bit longer when you have a big heart and you love deeply. It’s okay to still cry for them.”

Cry For You very much shifts gears in production when compared to the anthemic, fun summer track that was their I Don’t Need A Man debut hit. This go -round producer Douglas has created an emotional, yearning sound complete with a strings section that puts the duo’s stunning harmonies at the forefront of the song. The duo – whose full-names are Emma Walker and Jolie Harvey – met back in 2015 at music college and have been singing together ever since. Influenced by the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift, the pair bring together a mix of storytelling and modern country with sensational harmonies. A universally heart-breaking track, Cry For You will quickly become a song you return to again and again. Expect even more and bigger things from Emma and Jolie in 2021! 

After recently receiving international acclaim with a number one on the Ignition Country Charts for previous single, Thinking About Last Night back in April, UK country star HAYLEY McKAY returned with another uptempo country-pop banger, Breathe, in November.

Written in lockdown in May, and co-written and produced with Newcastle based Hattie Murdoch over Zoom, the song features pulsating rhythmic guitar, flowing drums and big melody with slick production, and deep backing-vocals. Inspired as it was by the lockdown, Breathe is about being able to enjoy the smaller things in life and taking that all-important breather that we all need sometimes, and something that was very much needed in 2020.

Hayley is an accomplished and insightful songwriter with an incredible vocal range. Blessed with a distinctive all-round style, she can effortlessly leap from earthy and soulful raw emotion, to soaring and ethereal angelic tones, which, not surprisingly, have seen her likened to Eva Cassidy, Joni Mitchel, LeAnn Rimes and Kate Bush. Over the last few years Hayley has been co-writing songs with award winning songwriters such as Nashville’s twice Grammy-nominated Jan Buckingham who has written for Whitney Houston amongst others, and Bill DiLuigi and Claire Hamill, who have written for Eva Cassidy and Wishbone Ash.

Hayley decided to release Breathe after the great international response to her previous single, the aforementioned Thinking About Last Night, which garnered radio support in Ireland and the UK, and was voted in the Top 10 Valley FM Indie charts in Australia. That track also earned support via BBC Introducing, and saw Hayley named artist of the week on various international radio stations in the US and the UK, earning features with Country Line TV, BMCA and the ISSA (International Songwriters Association). 

With the big day itself now only hours away, there’s another few Offaly artists with releases that should be on everyone’s holiday playlists. For the traditionalists out there – for all of us really, given the kind of year that it’s been – the news that Clara woman NOREEN RABBETTE had recorded a very special version of one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time, O Holy Night, brought not only excitement and expectation, but immeasurable levels of comfort as well. The Glór Tire finalist from 2019 – who hopefully has an album on its way to us next year – has what is unquestionably one of the most beautiful voices Ireland has ever produced. Whether her name eventually graces billboards around the world, or whether Noreen remains one of our best kept secrets just doesn’t matter. None of that changes the fact that her voice is golden, and will forever be so. And be assured if you haven’t already heard it for yourself, it makes her version of O Holy Night an epic moment. You could leave aside presents, trees, movies, turkey, nights-out…anything else that you might normally associate with the Yuletide season, and as long as you could hear Noreen – who, I should point out, is joined in a beautiful video for the song (filmed in Clara Church) by her brother Joe and her sister Claire – sing O Holy Night…you would still have Christmas in your heart, and all the Christmas feels. 

Another Offaly family who you need to check out at some stage over this festive season are the fabulous ROSNEYS! Headed up by my good friend Stephen Rosney – who also fronts the Irish/Americana outfit The Back Axles – the Rosneys have released an original from Stephen himself, entitled Come On Santa. And whereas Noreen’s wonderful rendition of O Holy Night slows the world to a standstill and is deeply reflective, Come On Santa really lets the reins off Santa’s reindeers and cranks the Christmas cheer right the way up to eleven in the most joyously playful expression of the kind of fun that Christmas should always be. Stephen is majestically assisted on this track – as indeed he is on his current single, Something We Can Work On – by his wonderful wife Helen, and the couple’s three children, Mark, Luke, and Jade. Rosneys…take a bow, one and all, and may there be many encores like this in the years to come! 

And last, by no means least, a long-player that should be on every music fan’s Christmas wish-list, This Kinda Love, from the brilliant SIMON CASEY. It’s not a Christmas album, but it’s clearly been a labour of love for Simon, and it’s definitely a collection that is – as the title suggests – full of heart. Featuring a title-track written by Simon himself, and which was recently play-listed by RTE Radio 1 and has been receiving extensive air-time all around the country, This Kinda Love sees Simon turn in what might well be his most accomplished vocal performances ever. At this stage in his career, Simon, with nothing to prove to anyone when it comes to his talent, and fast approaching the horizon beyond which lies the title of ‘national treasure’, is simply a joy to listen to, no matter what he’s singing. But as it happens, this collection is filled with songs you’ll simply adore him singing. From the magic of the Extreme chart-topper More Than Words, where Simon is joined by his Take It To The Limit bandmate, Johnny Brady, to the Lady A crossover-classic, Need You Now, where a delicately stripped back version of the song sees Simon and Irish country star Cliona Hagan ramp things up to an emotional high that even the American super-group couldn’t match, to the achingly beautiful Elliott Park and Walt Aldridge penned, I Loved Her First…every song is a gift in itself. Perfect for right about now really! 

ENDS