Lainey Wilson

First Published February 2021

FEELIN’ IT WITH HER WHOLE HEART

If you’re a country music fan who pays attention to what’s going on across the Atlantic, then you’ll already have been singing along to Things A Man Oughta Know by LAINEY WILSON for quite a while. The track was first released as part of her 2019 EP Redneck Hollywood, and to date has racked up in excess of thirty-five million streams, an achievement which earned it a place on Spotify’s Nashville Worldwide Hot 50. Things A Man Oughta Know was also featured in NPR’s (National Public Radio) Best Music of 2019, who referred in glowing terms to Lainey’s “honeyed, crystalline twang.” And as of last Friday, Things A Man Oughta Know and the gorgeous, warm, southern charm of Lainey’s vocals can be enjoyed on her brand new long-player, SAYIN’ WHAT I’M THINKIN’. 


Approaching the tenth anniversary of when she first rolled into Nashville in her camper, Lainey is a prolific songwriter and every song on this new collection has a piece of her heart running through it. Heralded as one of CMT’s (Country Music Television) Next Women of Country in 2019, and also featured on MusicRow’s Next Big Thing 2021 list, Lainey likes to call her sound ‘bell bottom country’, a style which blends traditional country with a funky but modern flair. In short, Lainey’s music, much like any encounter or experience with the lady herself, will leave you with a great big smile on your face, and with your world brightened immeasurably by the light she pours into life through everything she does. Am I a fan? Damn right, I am! And if you’re not one already as well, then you will be as soon as you hear Neon Diamonds – the opener on Sayin’ What I’mThinkin’ – kick in. Much like Lainey, it’s pure country bliss. 


Last week, I had the pleasure of spending some time in Lainey’s company when the release of Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ was just days away. With that personal and career milestone so close, and her schedule all kinds of crazy right now, I began our chat by asking Lainey what life was like as she counted down the hours until release day? 


“I am on cloud nine! I seriously cannot believe it that it’s about to be here, somethin’ that I’ve worked so hard for. My team have just worked their fingers to the bone for this, it feels good! I’m humbled and excited. This record is who I am, what I want to say, and how I want to say it. And it’s pretty damn cool that I can put something out to the world that is truly who I am.” 

I wondered how Lainey felt about her album coming into the world when the world itself is such a very strange place these days? 


“I think, more than ever, people need music. The power of music is really unbelievable, and the healing that it can really do. Music has always been that way. But clearly, it’s been a rough time for everybody around the entire world. And even though these songs specifically aren’t even talking about that, at least it’s a good place for people to kind of escape, or just kind of be in the moment.” 

As if an album release wasn’t enough for Lainey to be feeling excited about when we spoke, she was also getting ready to play the Grand Ole Opry again last Saturday night. The Opry not being somewhere that you can just rock up to on showday and wing it, I asked Lainey about how she was preparing for that big night…


“Oh absolutely it’s not! [laugh]. Honestly, when you just brought it up and reminded me, I got nervous all over again! [laughs]. It is so cool and I’m so excited that I’m being invited back, it really is an honour every single time. I dreamed about being up there when I was a little girl. I remember being nine years old, and I remember exactly where I was sitting in the crowd. We saw Bill Anderson, ‘Little’ Jimmy Dickens, Crystal Gayle, Phil Vassar…and I just knew, a crazy, crazy feeling came around me, that I was going to have the opportunity to do that. How do I prepare? [laughs] I don’t know if you can fully prepare, honestly [laughs]. It’s kinda one of those things where you just say a prayer, take a shot of whiskey, and do the thing! [laughs].” 

We’d only just gone past Valentine’s Weekend when Lainey and I spoke, and it was actually on St. Valentine’s Day last year that Lainey made her Grand Ole Opry debut. I asked her what was going through her mind just before she walked out on stage, and, after experiencing such a high, did she get any sleep at all when she got home that night? 


“[Laughs] It was truly unbelievable! And I was so nervous, and for weeks before it, leading up to my debut. But the crazy thing is that right when Terri Clark introduced me and I walked out there on that stage, I had this overwhelming feeling of peace and calmness all around me. It was a huge moment for me, but I felt like I was at home. That was just a reminder, ya know, that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. It makes me get emotional even talking about it, because it truly is one of the most magical places for country music. It IS THE most magical place for country music. To stand on that stage and be a part of it is…overwhelming!”

People often say that in some of the biggest moments of their lives everything seems to pass by almost in a flash and is over before they even know it. So I wondered if Lainey could actually recall being up on stage and in the middle of her performance that night? 


“Yes! As soon as I stepped foot inside that circle, it’s like the entire world just stopped turning, just for a second. And it was just like my dreams were seriously coming to fruition and that was just a huge step for me, and in my life. It made me feel like that nine year old little girl sittin’ out in the crowd wasn’t completely crazy [laughs]. It was just this weird, nostalgic feeling that this was what I was born to do. And damn it, I’m doin’ it! [Laughs].” 

Lainey has co-written every song on Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, and if anyone was to try and describe her in just one word, then I think ‘songwriter’ would have to be high on that list. Lainey has spoken before about how important a good hook is in her songwriting, and how that tends to be a starting-point for her more often than not. I asked Lainey how that songwriting process usually unfolds, and if she has a routine around her songwriting? 


“Ya know, the cool thing about songwriting for me is that it’s honestly different every single time I sit down in a writing room. Sometimes, the ideas fall out of the sky. Sometimes, the melodies fall out of the sky. Sometimes, you have to fight for it. I get a lot of my ideas just from listening to peoples’ conversations, just finding hools and words that draw me in and catch my attention. It’s so cool because I’ve been able to write with a lot of incredible songwriters here in Nashville who have just taught me so much. And I love being in the room with people who can teach me somethin.’ I want to learn somethin’ every single time I sit down. I’ve been able to learn how to put myself into the shoes of whatever it is that we’re writing. If we wanted to write about that tree outside or whatever, well, you put yourself into the shoes of that tree and write about how that tree is feelin.’ That’s so cool that you can do that with songwriting. It’s like acting for three or four hours or however long it is that it takes you to write the song. I will tell you the songs that end up sticking out for me, and the ones that I end up actually recording in the studio, are the ones that are the most real and true to me. The ones that I have gone through or experienced. It’s pretty cool. I mean, every single song on my record really is true to who I am, and down to my core tells my story.” 

Lainey had mentioned her nine year old self when we were talking about the Grand Ole Opry, and as it happens, there’s a particularly interesting line in her bio about how she also started writing songs at nine…about tequila and cigarettes! I reminded Lainey of that old writer’s adage, to write about what you know, and told her I hoped that wasn’t what she was doing back then! 


“[Laughs] That is so funny! Anthony, I’ve always been like an old soul, you could say. I sang that song when I was nine years old to my parents. And it definitely had tequila and cigarettes in and they were like, well first of all, we don’t have alcohol in the house and neither one of us smokes cigarettes, so we don’t know where this little girl picked this up! [Laughs]. But I’d been listening! I’m always super-aware. And I knew that I heard it in a few country songs, so I said hey, let’s put it in there! I don’t know what it means, but let’s put it in there [laughs].” 

What I, as a fan, love about Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’, is that it clearly matches who Lainey is as a person. It’s country, inescapably and unapologetically. Honesty pours out of every lyric. A sense of fun runs through this whole collection of songs. And, you can tell that Lainey just wants fans to enjoy listening to it every bit as much as she enjoyed recording it. And I know this matches up with who Lainey is as a person because in every interview I’ve ever heard with her she manages to laugh, and have fun, while always staying true to the importance of the songs from a songwriter’s and a musician’s perspective. So what I wanted to know was how has Lainey managed to maintain the positive attitude and outlook on life that she so evidently has? As she closes in on her tenth year in Nashville, and is now becoming that proverbial ‘overnight success’, there must have been times along the way that were tough to navigate…


“There’s been times when I probably should have packed my bags and moved home. But I’ll tell you the truth, and tell you that that really has never crossed my mind. I’ve always known that this is what I was supposed to do. And I knew it was goin’ to take me a long time. In August, I’ll have been here for ten years. But it’s just one of those things, I’ve known it deep in my heart and in my gut, this is it. There’s no Plan B. I felt like if I had a Plan B, then Plan A wasn’t gonna work! [Laughs]. So, the things that have kept me goin’, first of all is prayer, for me. The second thing is little bitty steps in the right direction. Those are the things that would keep me going. When I see progress, I’m like, ‘Alright, one step closer! What’s next?’ Those are the things that seriously just keep me excited and happy. And also, ya know, just seein’ the reaction and the connection that people are makin’ to the music. THAT is a songwriter’s dream, to see people really gravitate towards what you poured your heart and soul into. It’s pretty magical. And it just keeps me on my toes and makes me want to continue doin’ it every day.” 

Speaking of songwriters and dreams, I had to ask Lainey about Ashley McBryde. I have always believed that every dreamer needs a believer in their corner, and Ashley has certainly been that for Lainey. I asked her about a particular conversation I knew the two had about this subject on Ashley’s tour bus one night, and also what having that kind of support of someone like Ashley means to Lainey for the kind of person she wants to be as well? 


“Ya know, I have looked up to Ashley McBryde for a long time. And I’ve also seen that it has taken her a really long time to kind of break through. It gives people like me the courage to just stick it out. More than anything, Ashley McBryde is extremely talented. And it’s very rare that you’ll find somebody who stands in your corner that’s just as kind as they are talented. And that is the definition of Ashley McBryde, I’m tellin’ you right now. She wants to see me win. It ain’t this competition thing, I mean, truly. With everything in her, she wants to see me win. Talkin’ about that story on her bus one night, I believe we were in..maybe…Texas? Shoot, i don’t even know. But we were on the road. And we were drinkin’ whiskey [laughs], cos’ you know, the truth comes out when the whiskey comes out! [Laughs]. We had been playin’ music on the bus and she grabbed my hand, and she said, ‘Lainey, I love you, and I believe in you, and I want to help pull you over this wall. But you gotta promise me that whenever you find somebody that you love and believe in as much as I love and believe in you, you’ll do the same exact thing.’ And that right there, is it. That’s really it! I plan on doin’ that when I can. It’s about supportin’ people, genuinely supportin’ people, and lovin’ ’em. I mean, at the end of the day, we all moved to Nashville with the same dream and the same goal. And we know just how bad each other truly does want it. There’s nobody like Ashley.” 

From a little town called Baskin, near Monroe in Louisiana, Lainey opened for the great American country star Tracy Lawrence in Monroe when she was just eighteen years old. Fast-forward to last year, and Lainey was on tour with Tracy and Justin Moore before Covid brought the world of ‘live’ music to a halt. I asked Lainey to tell me about being on the road with those guys, and especially about something which most people might not appreciate the significance of, the fact that both men would regularly stand side-stage and watch Lainey open each night’s show…


“It’s so crazy, ya know, like, the artists that I grew up listening to, having the opportunity to go on the road for people like them was a huge moment for me. But the cooler part about it all was becoming friends with these guys. I had a twenty-five minute set on stage, and every single time I played, they were there, side-stage, watchin’ me and cheerin’ me on. And when I’d walk off they’d give me a high-five. That also shows the same [kind of] character that Ashley has. It’s one of those things like, wow…never in a million years did I think Tracy Lawrence would be sharing his whiskey with me! [Laughs]. But it does make me feel like when I have the opportunity to stand side-stage for somebody and really help boost their confidence, then that’s what I’m gonna do. Because they [Tracy and Justin] will never understand how special those moments were for me.” 

That particular tour, of course, was cut short due to everything that’s been happening with Covid 19. But since Lainey has been off the road, she’s become a mama to a little fur-baby, a French bull-dog named Hippie! I asked Lainey how Hippie was getting on, and if, when everything gets back to normal, she’ll be getting back out there on the road with her? 


“Hippie is rotten! [Laughs]. Hippie is so rotten. That’s the word for her! But she’s so sweet, she’s my girl! And I’m hopin’ that if she can figure out this whole potty-training thing that she will be on the road with me! [Laughs].” 

When Lainey first went to meet her album producer, Jay Joyce, a gentleman who has also worked his magic with the likes of Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and Brothers Osborne to name just a few, his two dogs were there to greet her that day. Just one of the stories I’d heard about Joyce was how he’d walk up to musicians literally while they were playing and slightly untune their guitars just to get a different sound. I asked Lainey to share a little bit about how her experience of working with the enigmatic producer had been…


“He really is a mad scientist! I knew, as soon as I went over there and hung out with him that first time, when he opened the door smokin’ a Marlboro Light in the middle of this sanctuary studio, I knew we were goin’ to be friends! He is just himself! And I feel like my best friends are the people who are unapologetically themselves. Those are the kind of people I gravitate towards. And we hit it off. It was one of those kind of kindred spirits moments. A lot of people told me, ‘Ya know, he’s scary! He wears a black trench-coat, lights his cigarette on a toaster!’ [Laughs]. I was like, oh gosh, I don’t know what to expect! [Laughs]. But truly, I just learned so much. I felt like I grew so much during that entire process. And I really did let Jay do his thing. It was just so cool seeing these songs come to life. He kinda like puts it all in a pot, puts a little fairy-dust on it, and voila!” 

Going back to Lainey’s songwriting and a link she has to a guy who has really been making a big name for himself amongst Irish country fans over these past few years, and that’s Luke Combs. Lainey was actually one of his first co-writers in Nashville, and Luke even cut a track they wrote, one called Sheriff You Want To. I asked her about her memories of those sessions with Luke…


“I knew from the get-go that Luke Combs has something special. I saw him play at Tin Roof Revival and he had not even moved to Nashville yet. But I knew that he had ‘it.’ At this point in time, I had absolutely nothin’ goin’ on. He had just started to get an underground following. We developed a friendship, and he would come over to my camper-trailer and we’d write songs. We were both really just learning how to write, and how to collaborate. And I’m a firm believer that two brains are better than one. I think it’s important to write by yourself every now and then, but it’s interesting to see all the different angles that come from two people being in a writing room. So like I said, we were just two kids in there tryin’ to figure it out. I’m so proud of how far he has come, and he truly is just also a great person. It’s so awesome to see him do so well.” 

In closing, I asked Lainey to share the best piece of advice she’s ever been given, or the biggest lesson that she’s ever learned when it comes to either songwriting or just life in the music business…


“The story that comes to my mind is this. I grew up riding horses. My daddy brought this horse home, and he was not ‘broke.’ Daddy was like, ‘Hey, Lainey, get on this horse.’ So I crawled up there, little Lainey! The horse started buckin’, and I was cryin’ to get down. I was like, ‘Let me off, let me off, I’m terrified.’ And he told me, hold on. And I held on. I’ve carried that with me into my adult life, and throughout this whole process. Because this really is a crazy ride! It’s got a lot of ups and downs, a lot of twists and turns. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. It’s about the ride. It’s about feelin’ it with your whole heart. And damn it, I’m holdin’ on! [Laughs].”

~ SAYIN’ WHAT I’M THINKIN’, the brand NEW album from LAINEY WILSON, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms. 

ENDS

Brendan Graham

First Published February 2021

THE UNIVERSAL CONNECTION

Brendan Graham Author and Songwriter at his home in Co. Mayo. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin

In August of last year eleven year old RUBY MAHER – appearing as RUBY M – took to the stage of hit show THE VOICE KIDS UK and proceeded to turn in a performance that wowed the room, and charmed viewers everywhere. Show judge WILL.I.AM knew he had to have the Newbridge youngster on his team. Ruby’s performance that night can only be described as that of a soul who was simply born to entertain.

Wrapped in the sheer joy of her performance was the unmistakable sense of absolute ease with which she commanded the stage, allowing her to instantly win over the audience. That moment spoke of a confidence both rare and fabulous, and pointed towards a future every bit as bright as the energy that exploded across our screens that summer’s evening.

And now, with her dad Dave and sisters Stacy and Robyn in tow, Ruby is back! And thanks to the most beautiful of songs from the pen of one of Ireland’s greatest ever songsmiths, BRENDAN GRAHAM, the next chapter of Ruby’s story is looking as radiant and ablaze with promise as the moment that made Will.I.Am turn his chair.

LULLABY FOR THE WORLD, co-written by Brendan and James McMillian, stormed towards the top of the Irish charts upon its release in January, giving THE MAHERS a #2 single on the Irish iTunes chart for their debut release as a family. And since going ‘live’, the official video for the song has already amassed more than 150,000 views on the family’s official Facebook music page.

Brendan Graham, as many will immediately call to mind, is a double Eurovision winner, having triumphed with Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids performed by Charlie McGettigan and Paul Harrington in 1994, and The Voice, performed by Eimear Quinn in 1996. He’s also the vessel through which the song Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears, entered this world, a song which, despite its relative youth in the larger scheme of things, has already entwined itself forever around our collective emotional memory as a nation. God knows, any of those achievements taken alone would be enough to secure a place in our musical and cultural history books.

But a writer of Brendan’s immense talent requires a chapter to himself, at the very least. And a song like You Raise Me Up is another reason why. It’s been made famous around the entire world by the likes of Westlife and Josh Groban, has been played more than one-million times on US radio, and has been covered more 1,400 times (according to the most recently available count!). There’s also  a spoken-word version of You Raise Me Up which Brendan himself has recorded in support of the wonderful work done all around the world by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The Tipp man’s class as a writer is matched in every respect by his class as a person. Brendan is a gentleman whose humility will always wave away assertions that he is a legend of his craft, as well as a master of it. Wave such declarations away though he well might, this truth, however, remains. And we – music lovers and students of the craft of songwriting – will ever preach this truth.

As well as celebrating The Mahers bringing Lullaby For The World to the world, Brendan has also been a busy man with several other artists too. There’s literally a list of noteworthy projects that Brendan has recently been involved with which are worth checking out post-haste. These include The Watchman, a single taken from Eimear Quinn’s new album, Eriu (and co-written with Eimear), recorded with the RTE Concert Orchestra, a track upon which Marty Whelan bestowed the title of ‘song of the year.’ Brendan had four other songs on that particular album too.

With another Tipp man Denis Carey, Brendan also co-wrote the Sean Keane single, The Coast of Labrador, penned Macy’s Widow as recorded by Irish Tenor Anthony Kearns; and co-wrote Cancion de Amor, the title-track from the new Eleanor Shanley and John Feeley album (the Hot Press Folk Albums Collaboration of the Year. There’s also a version of You Raise Me Up which was a pre-Christmas single from the Korean group Contempo Divo, and he had another co-write entitled Mary’s Lament on Secret Garden’s Sacred Night Christmas album, which featured Cathrine Iversen.

Known as a man who is content to do his work in the background while his songs speak for themselves, we were very lucky and honoured that Brendan agreed to have a chat with OTRT about the new single from The Mahers, his song Lullaby For The World.

Brendan has spoken before of the “philosophy of stone walls and bare fields”, and I’ve even heard that there’s a particular rock above Maamstrasna where he likes to go and just sits in contemplation from time to time. So nature and the natural world are clearly things that he feels very connected to. That he would, therefore, write a song such as Lullaby For The World should come as no surprise. But I asked Brendan to tell me what had led him to write the song, and in turn led him to The Mahers…

“I wrote it about fifteen years ago, when climate change was still a big problem. One of the upsides of Covid for me is, because you’re isolated, you have more time to think about things. So I started going back over some older songs that I thought had a bit of promise and dusted them off. It surprised me that basically what I was writing about back then, is even more relevant now. I have a long connection with the Mahers, going back to Ruby Maher’s grandfather, Joey Maher, who was a World Champion handball player. He had a group called the Maher Family, way back in the seventies. They won Opportunity Knocks, with Dave, Ruby’s dad in the band, and I wrote a couple of songs for them back then. From time to time I’d make contact with people I’ve known down through the years, and when I met Dave again he showed me what they were at and how brilliant young Ruby was. And I thought of this song which is basically a conversation between a young person and the world in a dream sequence, where the young person is talking to the world, telling it not to worry, we’ll fix things. And I thought it was very timely.”

“The melody”, observed Brendan, “was written by a wonderful English musician called James McMillan.”

The lyrics of Lullaby For The World are so beautiful that they easily stand alone as a work of poetry as well. And back in 2008, the late Con Houlihan, writing in the Evening Herald at the time, said, “Some of the best poetry being produced in this country today is in the form of song. Christy Moore and Brendan Graham and Jimmy MacCarthy are touched by genius.” People often debate whether or not poetry and lyrics are, or can be, the same thing. Generally speaking, I wondered about Brendan’s thoughts on this divide…

“Well I was very surprised to be included alongside the company of Christy and Jimmy, both of whom have songwriting skills that I have admired for years. They’re both master storytellers and painters of pictures in words. I don’t see the thing as a divide. There are common elements, and the most common is language. Lyrics, I think, are not poems, but they can be poetic, if I can make that distinction. You’d think of Cohen, Dylan, and Kristofferson, a lot of their lyrics are very poetic. A lyric is heard with music, it’s a fairly direct arrow to the heart, whereas poetry is seen – and can be heard – but probably is more of a direct arrow to the intellect. In a lyric, you’ve got three minutes, so you can’t really afford somebody to be wondering what all that was about! And poetry doesn’t have a hook generally, which is a big distinction, because the hook is meant to catch people in. And, as they say in Nashville, people listen backwards. Of course, whatever way you’re expressing your thoughts, the key thing is to connect to the listener or the reader. To me, that’s the most important thing.”

Brendan has described himself as being “a slow writer.” I wondered if he meant that in the sense that he tends to wait for some songs to come to him in the first place, or more so that he waits to get a song right once it has come his way?

“Well it’s all of those things. Sometimes you just get distracted. You get three-quarters of the way through the thing, and it just isn’t quite working. I have a barrel-load of unfinished songs. And as I said to you, what I’ve been doing is going back through them. Some of them are not worth finishing, others are. I suppose there are different ways [of writing], and I’m open to them all. Sometimes, it’s the phone-call, as Sammy Cahn answered once! Somebody rings you, and they need a song for a special occasion or event, or a particular album. The professional side of you as a songwriter responds to that, because people expect you to be able to come up with it, whatever it is. Other times, it’s inspiration, like Crucán na bPáiste, I just had to write that song. Other times then, like with ‘You Raise Me Up’, I’ll get sent a melody, I can hear a story in the melody. But over the years – and I suppose I’ve been writing songs for forty years – I haven’t actually written that many songs. Hence, I’m slow. And I always say to a co-writer, ‘Look, I’m really quite slow!’, so that they’re not expecting the Nashville speed-dating approach to songwriting where you go in at breakfast time and you have the song by lunch-time! And that works for some people. It just doesn’t work for me. If I’m co-writing, I like to retreat from the initial meeting, to get back into my own space and then let the idea germinate. So, the answer to your question is, all of that and everything else. It doesn’t matter to me how the song comes. Sometimes I’ll go to the piano and get a little riff, or sometimes I might hear an expression, or something out of history attracts me and I might make a note of that and then come back to it.”

Brendan mentioned that he’s been writing songs now for forty years, and he also once remarked that, “There’s a sense of magic about any creative process.” But at what stage in his life did he first become aware that this ‘magic’ of the creative process was actually a part of his own life, and would possibly play such a central part? When did he first know he was a writer?

“I suppose it started when, even as a teenager, I was always interested in not just the singer but who wrote the song. So I’d be down at the local chipper at the jukebox, waiting for the arm to pick up the 45 so I could see who wrote it! Don’t ask me why! I always liked English and language, and writing at school. I think it was in the sixties in London that I wrote my first lyric. And it was kind of in answer to Paul McCartney’s ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ I thought Father McKenzie should have had a song of his own, because he was an interesting, mysterious character. So I wrote this lyric called Father Dickens and sent it back to Tommy Swarbrigg, at the time we lived in Mullingar, so I knew Tommy. He and Jimmy [Swarbrigg] came up with a melody. Then, I went to Australia, and I got this album, Johnny McEvoy’s, ‘With An Eye To Your Ear.’ There were all these marvellous full orchestral arrangements on it, songs by Simon and Garfunkel, and The Beatles, and here in the middle of the whole lot of them, was ‘Father Dickens’! I still have the royalty-cheque, I think it was something like one-pound-one-and nine-pence, from Shaftsbury Music in London. That was a thrill.”

Brendan continued, “When I came back from Australia in ’72, I didn’t really know much about the Eurovision, but I saw it on in a shop window in Ballinasloe – we were living there then – and I thought to myself, God I’d love to write a song for that, without having any idea of how to go about it. But it was just a focus in my mind. That led on then to ’76, and ‘When’ for Red Hurley and even though that year I had two songs in Larry Gogan’s Top Ten. It took me a long time to understand the process, how you have to go into another part of yourself, and that’s where the magic lies. I don’t fully understand the process, but I know when I’m in that space. I suppose when you hit the touchstones in yourself, people around the world are not that much different so you hit the touchstones in them. Now obviously, it’s not just the inspiration, you then have to anvil out the song into something that makes sense to other people. And it’s a wonderful feeling when somebody walks up to you and says, ‘You must have been in my head when you wrote that song.’ You know then that you’ve done your job and that the universal connection is there.”

 LULLABY FOR THE WORLD, written by BRENDAN GRAHAM and James McMillan, and performed by THE MAHERS, is OUT NOW, available on all platforms and to request from radio. 

ENDS

Laura Nolan

First Published February 2021

A RELENTLESS SPIRIT

Part 2

In Part 1 of our chat with LAURA NOLAN, the World Champion dancer, tv star, model, reigning Miss Universe Leinster, and MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND finalist (Top Three) 2020, took us on a journey from the earliest days of her dancing career right up to being on our screen week-in and week-out on DANCING WITH THE STARS Ireland with her celebrity partner Brian Dowling in 2020. 


The duo certainly became one of the show’s iconic couples during their time on DWTSIrl, but their time in the spotlight came to an end waaaaay too early due to what can only be described as – at least in my opinion – some seriously dubious voting by the Irish public! That fact aside, I asked Laura to talk about the challenge of taking a non-dancer, who is also a celebrity, and trying to teach in just a week routines that they then have to perform on ‘live’ television…


“It’s a lot of pressure! Trying to teach somebody first of all who has never danced before, it’s a lot of work. I don’t think people realise the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes, the amount of hours a day. You’re talkin’ ten hours a day. And you know, when you have somebody who’s never danced before, you’re adding in even more pressure on their behalf. Somebody who has been in the public eye for so many years, and is loved by so many people, that’s an extra pressure on them. They’ve always been a certain type of person, always seemed very professional. Now all of a sudden, you’re taking somebody out of their comfort-zone and asking them to dance on ‘live’ TV. So, there is a lot of expectation, you know, to get this dance right. It takes a lot of courage on the celebrities behalf, and a lot of work. For me, as the professional, I’m there to try to encourage them, to really bring them out of their shell, and to be there for them through every step, to make them realise that this is ok, that they are doing well. It’s about nourishing them through an experience and bringing the best out of them each week. Because it is very difficult, and very emotional. I don’t think people realise that on the show people are exhausted. They’re after putting everything into it. And they’re being asked questions week on week that are actually very personal to them. And because of the exhaustion, because of the amount of work that they’ve put in, because of all the emotion that’s coming up, you do get very caught up in it. And it is a very emotional thing! And you [the viewers] can see that on the actual show. It’s not until you come out of the experience and you look back on it, you’re like…ok, that wasn’t half as emotional as I thought it was, but when I was actually in it I was just so engrossed in it AND it was so emotional [laughs]. Yeah, it’s a very unique experience, but at the same time, it’s an amazing experience. And it’s one that you’ll only get on Dancing With The Stars.” 

As Laura had mentioned, being on DWTSIrl brought her into the public-eye in a huge way, even more so than she had already been. To the extent, in fact, that talk of romance between her and hurling great, Kilkenny’s Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty, began to fill the nation’s gossip columns. I wondered if that sense of being in the public-eye in general was something that Laura found she enjoys, or is it more something that she just accepts as part of the job? 


“Well, I knew that going on the biggest show on TV I had to expect that. You have to expect people to want to know about your personal life, because they want to know a little bit extra about you. I knew that came with it, and was part and parcel of it. However…[laughs]…when you’re seeing people walking down the street after you, and you’re thinking ‘Ok, is that someone with a camera?!’…you do have to adjust your life slightly! It is something that you have to get used to. It’s not every day that you have somebody waiting on a corner to take a picture of you [laughs]. But I was very lucky that I did have Brian Dowling, because being so used to it, he almost helped me in that sense. He was helping me in one aspect, and I was helping him in another, so we worked together on it! Myself and Aidan thought it was so funny when speculation came out that there was romance between us! We were actually crying laughing because we were great friends. There were four of us that were very close; myself, Brian, Grainne Gallanagh, and Aidan. We’d been going out on nights-out together. Everyone on the cast knew that I was single at the time, and they also knew that I was single, and they were like, ‘Oh, you two!!!’ And we were like absolutely not! [laughs]. So it was being put to us from the beginning, but then when it came out in the papers the two of us just couldn’t help laughing. They were speculating about something that was just completely wrong. But sometimes you just have to take these things and laugh at them, because that’s all that you can do [laugh]. You have to just take it light-hearted and not take it personally.” 

Joanne Clifton, the 2016 winner of the show with her celebrity partner Ore Oduba, was one Strictly Come Dancing connection in Laura’s life which I wasn’t actually aware of until the day we spoke. But there was, of course, another connection between Laura and the show too, in the shape of Kai Widdrington, who had been Grainne Gallanagh’s professional partner on DWTSIrl last year. Kai went on to feature in the last series of Strictly as well. Would Strictly be something that’s also on Laura’s list of goals? 


“Oh, it absolutely is! Stepping into the world of Dancing With The Stars was completely new for me and I was keeping my options open. Everyone was saying, ‘Strictly, Strictly!’, but I said, you know something, let’s just see how I feel after Dancing With The Stars. I’d been in the world of competitive dance for years, and I just wanted to see how I’d feel after it. I wanted to keep my options open. But after experiencing Dancing With The Stars, I can say 100% yes, Strictly is something that’s a big goal of mine, and it’s something that I would absolutely love to do.” 

The reason we aren’t seeing Laura on Dancing With The Stars this year, of course, is because of the ongoing Covid 19 crisis, which has made the last year a pretty tough one for everyone. How had Laura been dealing with that side of things herself? 


“It’s very difficult to adjust, knowing that this time last year you were getting ready for a ‘live’ show. And you’re so caught up in, and so busy with something for a couple of months, to think this year that that’s just completely gone…I’ve been thinking, ok, yes it’s Covid time, and yes, things have been cancelled, but it’s not going to be like this forever. So I keep putting goals down for each day for what I want to do. And I’ve come up with a lot of creative ideas. Knowing that Dancing With The Stars wasn’t coming back, I knew I was going to have this time free, so I had to say, well what am i going to do now? So I started this Dance-Fit class, and even though that can’t happen in person, it’s going to happen online. I’ve also put something in motion that is an ultimate goal for me. I’ve really started thinking outside the box about contacting people and making things happen for summer time. That’s really all you can do. You just have to keep looking forward, and keep putting goals into each day for yourself, long-term and short-term, and try to make them happen. Even if it’s not happening right now, you have to believe that it will happen down the line.” 

Even with 2020 being as bad and as weird a year as it was, Laura still managed to end it on a high by being crowned Miss Universe Leinster, and by making it to the final three of Miss Universe Ireland, fantastic achievements both. What prompted Laura to enter the Miss Universe Ireland pageant and how did she enjoy the whole experience? 


“Back in 2012, I did a show for the final of Miss Universe Ireland. And since then, I’ve always been interested in Miss Universe Ireland, but I never really had the opportunity to do something like that as my whole career was based around dance. But then I came to a road where Dancing With The Stars had been cancelled, I was supposed to go on another show but that was also cancelled, so I thought well I now have time in my life to maybe explore different options. And also, of course, I was looking at Grainne’s role. I was very close with Grainne during DWTSIrl. So, as I did have an interest in that kind of pageant world, I was thinking to myself, right, I have these few months, a blank year…let’s try something different. Let’s try something that I haven’t tried before. And that was really what prompted me to do it. The experience was obviously unique and unusual because of Covid, it was all online. I know that usually it would be a one or maybe a two-day show, but this actually went on for four and a half months online. But it gave us the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t have usually done. As in creating videos, doing different types of interviews. And it also gave us the opportunity to get to know the girls a bit more even though we haven’t met in person. At this stage we all know each other for so long, and yet, we haven’t even met! It’s very unusual [laughs]. But I have to say the whole experience overall was amazing.” 

As we wrapped up our chat, I wanted to come back to something that Laura had touched on at the beginning of our conversation. Everything about Laura, from her ballroom dancing, to Dancing With The Stars, to Miss Universe Ireland, all of that screams glamour, and glitz, and showbiz. But, there’s simply no way that Laura could perform to the standards that she always does at everything without being a fiercely determined person. So I asked her to tell me about that side of her, the fighter that sometimes people might not see or acknowledge as much as is deserved…


“I actually love that question. People see that glitz, and see that glam, they see the final product. But they don’t realise the sacrifice and the dedication it takes to get there. And like in any sport, there’s always going to be ups, and there’s also going to be a lot of downs that people don’t see. They don’t see the times that you got knocked out [of competition] and you were standing on the side of the floor wishing you were in that final, after dancing twelve hours a day, dedicating yourself, and sacrificing so much. And after your parents sacrificing so much money-wise for you. And after all that, you don’t get the placement that you deserve. That’s heartbreaking, heartbreaking. Like in any competitive sport. But every time, you have to pick yourself up, pick yourself off the ground, and teach yourself that it’s just one competition, so you need to keep going. It’s not easy to get up every single day of the week – your feet would be hurting, your toes would be bleeding – to end up dancing ten, twelve hours a day. Yes, it’s very difficult, but you do it for the love of your sport. And in myself, I have this want to be the best. When I’ve had a goal in my head, I’ve always been like this until I reach that goal. Someone once said to me, ‘You’re the most relentless person I know.’ And when they said that, I was like, that’s exactly what I am. I just won’t quit until I actually reach the goal that I want. You’re dead right in saying that to be successful, you have to have that want inside of you, that competitive spirit. Because it’s not easy. It’s definitely not.

Laura continued,“The last few years of my dancing career were the most challenging for me. My partnership wasn’t this beautiful, easy thing that people see. They see that you’re World Open champion, or you’re International champion. But my partner was, unfortunately, not the best partner. And actually, I’m due to appear on a programme where I actually speak about this. I’ve done a lot of work in the last couple of months for Women’s Aid, and the reason why I’ve done that is because of my own history, and what I experienced. To do something that you love, but to have someone beside you who’s not 100% with you all the time, is very difficult. You do need to have that extra want in you to succeed. And that’s how I am as a person. I always try to look at the positive in life, and I try to never dwell on the negative. If things don’t go my way, if I get knocked back, I always just say to myself, ‘What’s your end goal?’ Everything in life is not going to go your way. You have to expect the ups, and the downs. Yes, there has been a lot more downs and difficulties in my career than there would have been in somebody else’s, maybe somebody else in another country who has a federation who supports them, and actually funds them. But at the same time, it makes the journey even sweeter when you reach your end-goal. Through my career, I had a federation over here telling me, ‘You won’t make it to an international final. You won’t make a World Open final.’ They didn’t believe in their own dancers, because it was never done before. So that’s also an extra thing that keeps that fire in your belly…well I’ll show you…!””

I’ve always had that inside me”, emphasised Laura, “that grit, the grind, the graft to succeed, to be the best. So yes, people see the glamour, and they see the glitz, but you have to understand that didn’t come without a lot of tears, a lot of sweat, a lot of blood, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of dedication. It’s like any sport, you have to prepare for it. If you want something enough, those are the things you’re prepared to do to be the best. And once you are the best, those sacrifices aren’t really sacrifices. They’re actually moments that make you, and make the journey that bit better.” 

You can follow Laura on Facebook and Instagram. 

ENDS

Emma Donohue

First Published February 2021

COUNTRY EVERYWHERE!

The EMMA DONOHUE you’ll see on-stage and the one you’ll meet off-stage can be summed up in one simple word. Real. When you hear her sing a country song – like any of her singles to date; Coat Of Many Colours, Rambling Man, or I Fell In Love – you can tell that she’s not singing those songs simply because she thinks they’re ones that people might want to hear (although they do!). She sings them because her connection to country music runs deep. These are some of the songs – and the kinds of songs – that she loves, and that have been a part of her life for as long as music has. Which is pretty much forever. That’s real. 


She’s singing those songs right now on the new season of TG4’s long-running hit show GLÓR TÍRE because she’s been singing them at home in the kitchen, down the yard on the family farm at home in Killoran, in her car…everywhere, for pretty much forever. That, ladies and gentlemen, is real. 


Off-stage, when she gets you chatting, you’ll find laughter floating easily throughout the whole conversation from minute-one. Everybody who meets Emma finds this out. And again, the main reason for this is simple. It’s because she’s real. As a farmer’s daughter, she has time and a word for everyone. That’s part of the creed of the countryside, after all. And as a student-nurse, her first instinct with everyone is to put them at ease and make them feel comfortable. If you met Emma a year ago, that’s how she’d be. If she happens to end up being crowned Glór Tíre’s victor for 2021, she’ll still be the same. Meet her five years down the road, and that side of her personality still won’t have changed a bit. Because she’s real. 


The first show of the new series, where all the contestants perform on the night, is done and dusted, and aired a few weeks back. Next up for Emma is her concert show with her mentor, country legend MIKE DENVER, on February 9th. I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat – and a fair few laughs, too – with Emma last weekend, and I began by asking her how it had actually felt to watch herself back on television when that first show aired, for what had, I presumed, been her first time on the ‘box’? 


“Yeah, it was the first time I’d seen myself on telly, and it was very weird, to say the least [laughs]. I suppose there was so much hype around it, ya know, because everyone around the town, they were all wishing me luck when you’d go in and do the shopping! Then seeing yourself on telly and knowing that there’s so many people behind ya and watchin’ ya, you’re thinkin’, janey, I hope I don’t mess up now here tonight! [laughs]. But yeah, it was brilliant. Lookit, it’s always goin’ to be a weird sensation to see yourself perform on telly, but it was a nice experience and it’s one that I hope to get a little bit more of as well.” 

Was it a family affair, with all the Donohue’s gathered around the television that first night? 


“Absolutely! We had myself, mam, dad, my brother Colin, and we even had Tiny – the Jack Russel – on the job as well! [laughs]. I was even getting messages from friends as far away as Australia from people telling me they were watching, so it was class.” 

As well as watching herself on television for the first time, the recordings of those first episodes of Glór Tíre would have been Emma’s first time working with cameras flying around about her, too. While everything always looks perfectly calm, polished, and professional by the time it hits our screens, how did Emma find that new experience of singing in those conditions? 


“Well I wouldn’t have been used to getting my hair and make-up done for me before singing, sure I felt like the Queen! It was a class experience. Yeah, it was busy, like, everything comes down to a schedule and you have to be there at a certain time, and you have to get it all done. But at the end of the day, I enjoyed every bit of it. I had my mam there for the first day with me, and then I had my dad with me for the second one, for the concert with Mike. I suppose having them there, they put me at ease. And they were encouraging me as well. It was good craic, everyone mingled well together as much as they could with the social distancing. It was a nice auld atmosphere, I enjoyed it.” 

Was that Emma’s first time performing with a band as well? 


“Yeah, that was my first experience with a band, but it was savage! It was very different now to when you’re singing to a backing-track! You kind of get the feel for it, the music, and the beat behind ya, it’s definitely different to a backing-track! [laughs].”

Emma’s mentor this year, Mike Denver, is not only one of the nicest men in the business, but also of course, a past winner of Glór Tíre. He guided Eunice Moran all the way to victory back in 2010. And last year he very nearly repeated that feat with his contestant Lisa Callanan making it to the final three. So there’s no doubt that Emma is in good hands, but how exactly, did Team-Donohue-Denver come to be? 


“Well, it’s actually a really random story! I got a phone-call one evening when I was coming home from work, and Willie Carty rang me, Mike’s manager. And I actually thought one of the lads was pulling my leg, ya know, saying will ya come on Glór Tíre. I think it took Willie about ten minutes to convince me it was him [laughs]. He just asked me would I come on it. He said I’d come across his books, is how he put it, a couple of times and that they were hearing me for the last little while when I was bringing out singles that they were hearing on the radio, and they were enjoying them. So did I want to come on the show! And lookit, sure I grabbed it with both hands. 2020 had taken a nose-dive in so many respects and there wasn’t really very much to look forward to, so when this came along, I just said let’s go!” 

What was the next step along the way after that first call from Willie? 


“We actually didn’t meet until down at the recording of Glór Tíre. Now I got a phone call from Mike after Willie’s one, and obviously I had a few more with Willie as well. So I had that one chat on the phone with Mike beforehand, and then it all kind of happened when we met down at the Quays in Galway. But sure we got on like a house on fire. I knew him from the dancing anyway. I wouldn’t have been too familiar say, like I wouldn’t have been one for going up to him the whole time after dances, but I would have said hello to him now and then in passing. And it was a great auld day when we did meet, great craic, I was itching to start jiving when I was listening to Mike sing! [laughs].”

Emma hasn’t entered Glór Tíre as a total newcomer to the country scene, far from it, in fact. She’s been paying her dues already with the release of three very well-received singles, and there’s a fourth in the works…


“Yeah, number four is actually recorded since…December? November, December. And that’ll be comin’ out shortly, maybe just before the ‘live’ shows, I think, or else after the concert show with Mike. I’m not quite sure yet, but it will definitely be in the next few weeks anyway. Hopefully everyone will like it. There’ll be no music video with it this time, but all the same, it’s still a good lively, rockin’, old-timer one, but we’ve put our own twist on it. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.”


Enda Dempsey, who Emma is working closely with, will be a name well-known to country fans as a member of Derek Ryan’s band. I asked her to tell me how they ended up in the role of artist and producer…


“The only way to describe him is that Enda is one of a kind! When I started dancing, I got friendly with a few of the band lads, and I would have met them at plenty of social dances. And Enda was just really friendly, no more than any of the rest of them. I was telling him that I was singing and he said sure if you have one recorded, why don’t you record another? And he was telling me about Paddy Jordan and how he records in the studio together with him. So I said, do you know what, I’ll give it a go and record another one. He ended up producing Rambling Man for me, and I think that was the one that really kicked me off completely, because it was a nice, upbeat, lively one. He’s great craic in the studio! I have this tendency, I suppose, to go a little bit American country sometimes with my voice, and the way Enda puts it is just plain and simple; ‘Will ya give me a bit of that Mullagh accent! [laughs]. That’s the way he says it to me! I get on with him like a house on fire too. I’m very easy-going that way. When I get to know people, they’ll know about it [laughs]. But yeah, we clicked, and we’ve been best friends now since I started in the country music scene, definitely about five or six years now. And working together, we’re definitely two years anyway now at it. And there’s a grand friendship there with Paddy Jordan as well. You gain all these friendships along the way and it’s brilliant. But when Enda is a producer, well look, we have the craic, but there’s a serious side to it as well.” 

While people are getting somewhat used to the idea of seeing Emma up on the stage now, for a very long time she was – as she hinted at – a very familiar face in front of the stage and out on the dancefloor…


“Growing up on a farm, I suppose country music is always going to be attached to it, with the horses and the whole lot. I grew up listening to Declan Nerney, Philomena Begley, so we were never short of country around. Then we went into secondary school and I suppose we’d have the nightclubs or whatever, but it was just never my scene. I like it, to a degree, but I knew there was something else for me! Then I came of the age where I could get into the social dances with one of my friends, and it went from there. The very first social dance I went to was Lisa McHugh in the Shearwater in Ballinasloe, and I loved it. After that, I think we went nearly every weekend. Either my mam or dad would bring us, or Kayleigh’s mam or dad would bring us. We’d travel the length and breadth of the place. And sure then when both of us got a car, there was no stopping us at all! We were gone every weekend [laughs].” 

So what about Emma’s move from being down on the dancefloor to being up on the stage? How did that come about? 


“Well it came about through a good friend of mine, and through the dancing as well, I got friendly with the singer John Molloy, who’s well-known now on the country music scene at this stage. John was performing after a Michael English show one night, and he knew that I was singing, I had kind of told him a couple of nights after the dances and he was encouraging me to pursue it. And I was saying look, I don’t know if I’d be able. So he says right, ‘Tonight’s your night! I’m not hearing any more excuses!’, and he handed me the mic! There must have been at least five-hundred people in it that night, and he said right, let’s go! And you know what, the buzz and the atmosphere of it all that night was brilliant. I said to myself this is what I want to do. It must have been two or three months after that – not even – when I recorded my first single, ‘Coat Of Many Colours.’ And what else gave me the boost that night was that Michael English actually came in himself, and Olivia Douglas was there as well, and when the three of them got together after and we were all chatting, Michael and Olivia both passed a comment like ‘Well done tonight’, and that gave me another bit of a boost. So yeah, I said lookit, I’m goin’ to give this a chance now and see how it goes. And sure it went from there!” 

Was that also Emma’s first time to sing in public? 


“No, it wasn’t actually. I performed in Kiltormer, there was a ceilidh night on in our local village over the road here. I performed on stage that night with a band. Well, it wasn’t a band as such, it was just three gentlemen who had formed together and they were playing a few tunes. I sang two or three songs that night. It was a kind of middle of the road job, but I did it. I think there was about eight-hundred people there down in the concert hall. And it was brilliant because when I came down all the neighbours were like, ‘Janey, I didn’t know you could sing! You kept that one quiet!’ [laughs]. I suppose that was my first time ever letting people know I could sing. And that was actually just shortly before John Molloy gave me my big break. But it was there in Kiltormer that I started to come out of my shell [laughs].” 

Moving away from the music side of things for a moment, it’s important to let people know that Emma is also a student nurse. Always a noble and honourable profession and calling, it’s one that brings even more intensity and pressure than usual with it in these times of Covid 19. I asked Emma to share that side of her life with us…


“It is difficult right now, and there’s no point in saying that it’s easy or that life is rosey. It’s a profession I went into knowing full-well the complications that could arise at any stage. And you always have to be very aware of these things. But I suppose these are unprecedented times as well, they’re very strange. There’s an awful lot of pressure on us at the minute. From being under-staffed, to under-paid…lookit, we’re not even getting paid. But you didn’t go into the job for the money side either. But it is, it’s tough times. And especially coming home to mam and dad. I’m in Athlone studying, so my hospitals are in the midlands; Portlaoise, Tullamore, and Mullingar. Travelling up and down, and getting stopped by the Guards at checkpoints, it all adds to the pressure of it as well. But I love what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t change it either for the world. It’s hard at the minute, but I suppose you just have to take the good with the bad. I came into 2021 with an attitude of take every day as it comes, and hope for the best. Hopefully we’re on the right road again with these vaccines coming out, and with the help of God they’ll have them all rolled out by the end of the year and we’ll be in a safer place.” 

Because of Covid, of course, it’s impossible for Emma or any of this year’s Glór Tíre contestants to get out in front of an actual ‘live’ audience. Otherwise, Emma would be on the road here, there, and everywhere with Mike right now! But, she is doing something very cool for country music fans every Sunday…


“Yeah, and I supposed I started it last lockdown, but between placement and everything, I didn’t manage my time wisely! But this time I kinda have everything off to a tee [laughs]. I’ve recorded songs at home, some of the country ones that I love and that have made me who I am today, and I’ll be putting them up online every Sunday. It’s something to build the momentum and keep things going, and keep everyone’s spirits up as well. Because this lockdown is harder, we’re in the winter months, the evenings are still dark, it’s just very dull and dreary. So I suppose if I can give someone a brighter Sunday and a little dance around the kitchen, then sure that’ll make my day! My second song went up last Sunday, and I have another one coming next Sunday. And I’ve been getting great feedback from it, so far so good anyway. I’m getting lovely messages and lovely comments, so look, I hope to continue it anyway for the next couple of months, even after Glór Tíre.” 

Speaking of the songs that have a special place in Emma’s heart and that have made her who she is today, I wondered if she happened to have an earliest country music memory? 


“The earliest country memory I have is back when we were only after having twin foals here! It was very rare to have twin foals! So everyone was coming up and they were all watching them and looking at them, all fascinated and whatnot. And the vet came out anyway, and I remember there were a few here the same day, a few farmers and a few of our friends. Didn’t Declan Nerney come on the radio anyway, ‘Stop The World And Let Me Off.’ And the craic was good here that day, we were all in good auld spirits, good auld form, there was even a local cameraman here, Gerry Stronge. So that song came on anyway, and everyone dropped tools and all started jiving! [laughs]. If anyone had come in on that scene, they would have been like, ‘What’s going on here at all?!’ But I remember that day so well. The craic was so good. And I knew from that day country music was always going to be in my blood!” 


So what age would Emma have been then? 


“Well, the twin foals are eleven now, and I’m twenty-two now, so I was only actually eleven that day. Everyone just dropped tools, I’ll never forget it, cameraman and the whole lot just grabbed a partner! Man, woman and child [laughs].”

I loved the way Emma referred to their ‘local cameraman’, something I suggested to her that not everywhere would have! 


“[Laughs] Well he’s a family friend too, like, he owns a photo shop at-in in town, Gerry Stronge Photography, he’s been a good friend of ours for years. That’s just what I call him, my local cameraman! [laughs].” 

So looking beyond Glór Tíre, and to when we get back to some kind of normal again, what plans does Emma have for her career in country music? 


“Well definitely I want to finish off my album. Myself and Enda and Paddy are in the middle of recording. So just to get that all sorted, and then to get on the road with it. We have a good bit of it done, it’s just down to finalising the rest of the songs now and get cracking on them. I’m hoping to have it out by the end of this year. But lookit, if all else fails, then by early 2022 will suffice. After that, I’ve already been getting messages about when music opens up again, asking will I play in different places around Galway. And indeed, I’d venture further afield as well, there’s a few festivals coming up too. There’s a lot of things in store after Glór Tíre. And I’m looking forward to it all. Any opportunities I get, I’ll grab them with both hands!” 


~ Emma and Mike take to the Glór Tíre stage for their concert performance on Tuesday, February 9th on TG4. Voting is now open for the show, so to put your support behind #TeamDonohueDenver, simply download the Glór Tíre App and follow the instructions from there. You can follow Emma at EMMA DONOHUE MUSIC – and enjoy her Sunday performances – on Facebook and Instagram. 

ENDS

Mike Denver

First Published January 2021

GALWAY BOY AND LUCKY MAN

It’s probably fair to say that there won’t be too many people who look back on 2020 with fond memories. But for country music superstar MIKE DENVER, even a global pandemic that brought the industry in which he’s worked so hard to build his name to a full-stop, hasn’t been able to stop the Galway Boy from feeling like a lucky man. The reason, of course, was because last year Mike and his wife Liz welcomed their baby girl, Mia, into the world. And what a year to make her entrance! Mia’s arrival, however, offered Mike the sense of perspective that we all need in times like these. Music, entertainment, and everything else that we’re all missing so much, they’re all important, and they’ll all be back. But they’re not everything, either. 


I had the pleasure of catching up with the GUY CLOTHING brand ambassador last week. One of the main reasons Mike and I were chatting was because he’s back as a mentor on the 2021 series of the long-running TG4 show, GLÓR TÍRE, lending the benefit of his years of experience in the music industry to rising star EMMA DONOHUE. Now the possible opportunities that can come the way of the contestants who take part in the show each year are many and fairly obvious. But for someone like Mike, already one of the biggest names in Irish entertainment, I wondered what was the appeal and attraction of being involved in Glór Tíre as a mentor? 


“Well I’ve been involved in Glór Tire for…oh it must be seventeen, eighteen years, maybe more at this stage. I think I’ve done every series of Glór Tire nearly that there’s been over the years, and even further back before that, when they were recording out in Connemara. So I must be close on nineteen or twenty years doing bits and pieces with TG4. I think they’re great for anything Irish. They’re definitely great for Irish music, and they’re great for country music which is a great thing for me. So it’s a great pleasure for me every year to be a part of Glór Tíre. There’s a great team there that puts it together every year; Christy and Marie, and Sally and all the gang, there’s a huge team that’s been working on it for as long as I can remember, Paula as well there. It’s a great show for me, it’s been great exposure for many years for bands, long before you had any other television programmes, before you had any of the country music channels, before RTE were playing us, you always had TG4 as a huge part of Irish country music. So for me, that’s why it’s so important to be involved with them, because they’ve been such a huge part of country music for us.” 

Last year, Mike’s contestant, Lisa Callanan, made it all the way to the final, and no doubt he’ll be looking to repeat that achievement – and maybe go one step further – with Emma this year…


“Emma’s a great singer, so she is. She’s someone I wouldn’t have been too familiar with, only in the last maybe twelve months, hearing her name on the local radio after she’d recorded a few songs. She’s a really good singer, and a really nice girl as well. This year has been different to other years, of course, because we don’t get to meet the contestants now as much. In previous years, if a contestant was on the show they’d really be travelling around with us if we were doing a concert or doing a dance. They’d come along and be handing out flyers, and you’d strike up a bit of a friendship with them, and you’d have them coming up singing a song or two here and there as well. So it’s totally different this year. It’s new for us all. The recording of the shows was totally different this year as well with no audience in to watch it all happen. But we still enjoyed it. And it was great for me to get out and be on stage with the band again.” 

As mentioned already, Mike is one of the biggest names in Irish entertainment, and as far as country music goes, he’s a superstar of the genre. From my own experiences of working with Mike and his manager, Willie Carty, through the years, I know both men are always willing to help new artists in any way they can. Obviously his own career has to be his own priority, but I wondered if, given his status in Irish country music, Mike feels a sense of responsibility in some ways to guide or advise new and younger artists in any ways he might be able to? 


“I think it’s a great thing for anybody to give anyone new or young or starting off an opportunity to sing in front of a crowd. Because it’s a tough time for anybody who is starting out. It’s an expensive time for anybody, between recording and different things. They have to put a lot of time, and a lot of effort, and a lot of money into it. So it’s great to be able to give the opportunity to people to be able to hop up and sing a song here or there, and help them get their names out to a different audience as well.” 

Going back to Glór Tíre, Mike’s concert show with Emma will be hitting the airwaves on February 9th. The recording of that show would have been one of the very few times in his career that Mike and his band experienced performing to a virtually empty room due to the current Covid 19 restrictions. So I had two questions for Mike. Firstly, what was it like just to get back to playing with his band again? And secondly, what was it like playing in that almost empty room scenario? 


“Yeah, it was different! It was a totally different experience, something we wouldn’t have seen much of over the years. Now we would have done some things over the years, with television programmes and stuff, where you would be playing to a near empty room. It’s difficult, I suppose, for certain songs. When you’re doing faster material you need an audience to participate. It wasn’t as hard when you were singing some of the slower stuff because you can interact with the camera. So that was the tough end of it. But it was great meeting up with the guys. There’s a couple of them living around home here now, so we do keep in contact. We do see each other around town, going in and out of shops. But some of the guys I hadn’t seen in six or seven months, so it was great to just meet up, so it was, even just to have a chat. Even being able to travel and get out of the house was a big part of it, because at that time [when the shows were recorded], I think we were allowed to travel a little bit further. I’m lucky with staying in the county.” 

Like the whole of the music business these days, Mike and his team have been looking at finding new ways of doing things. One idea Mike came up with and put into action was a concert which was first available to stream, and can now be enjoyed in its entirety on his YouTube channel. That concert featured Sabrina Fallon, Gerry Guthrie, Ray Lynam, and Brendan Shine as well as Mike himself. 


“It was part of an arts and culture funded project, they were putting a few different things together so we were lucky enough to be part of that. That was a great show. And for anybody who wants to watch it or catch up with it, they can check it out still on my YouTube channel there, as you said. It’s free to watch, so you can watch it as many times you want! You can put it on the laptop, or the phone, or on the television, whatever anybody wants [laughs]. Again, it was great to meet up with the likes of Ray Lynam and Brendan Shine, and Gerry and Sabrina as well, none of whom I’d have seen in a long, long time. It was recorded out at the Spain AV Soundstage in Nenagh, with David and Alan Spain putting it all together with Ed Hannigan and his camera crew as well. There was a lot of work and a lot of preparation getting ready for it, but again, like doing Glor Tíre, it was great to just be able to get out and do a few songs and meet up with everyone.” 

Staying on the subject of looking at different ways to do things at the moment, with there still being no clear line of sight to the end of the current situation for the music and entertainment industries, I wondered how are Mike and his team looking at the year ahead in as far as it might be possible to plan career-wise? 


“Well, the problem is, I think we’re like everybody, we’re sitting back waiting for Micháel Martin to give directions for us, which isn’t looking too promising at the moment. It’s a horrible time for music, and the arts, and I suppose anything to do with hospitality, we’re really the ones that have been hit majorly bad. So you can’t plan anything, that’s the problem, because you just don’t know. If you put a plan together for summertime or for the end of summer, restrictions could still be in, you just don’t know. So you just can’t make any plans, none of us can. We’re all just sitting here with fingers-crossed and praying and hoping every day that there’s going to be some restrictions lifted, and that we can get back out and get recording, and get back out on the road which is the main thing. That’s the one thing that everybody is looking forward to! We want to get the music back playing so that people can come out and see us. Again, that’s going to be a tough time too, because some people will be afraid to come back out. Until all the vaccines are out, it’s gonna be a hard time.” 

If there is a positive to be found from the situation the last year or so has found the world in, then for Mike at least, the timing turned out to be pretty good in his personal life, as he and Liz took in a little lodger named Mia! So one thing he probably wasn’t, was bored at home anyway! I saw somewhere that Mike said he was taking to fatherhood fairly easily, so I asked if he felt it was an experience he was well prepared for? 


“It’s been great. I suppose, we were very lucky that both of us were here at all times which made it easier on both of us. The timing was perfect for me. We did our last gig on Sunday, the 8th of March in Letterkenny, and Mia was born the following Friday week. So the timing was amazing for me. But we were like everybody else, when the restrictions were coming in we just thought it was going to be a couple of weeks here, maybe a couple of weeks there. We were thinking maybe four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, sure what about it. It’s gonna be a lovely break for myself and the band. But as we know now, of course, it’s been something that’s just been going on and on, and it might never end the way it’s looking at the moment! [laughs]. But personally, I couldn’t have timed it any better. For any dad to be off at a time like that, and to be able to spend time with the baby and to bond, and we were coming close to summer at that time too, so it was all great. We’re very lucky here living in Portumna, we’re right beside the forest, right beside the water, so it’s been very lucky for me that way.” 

Has having Mia around changed Mike at all, did he think? 


“Ahh, I don’t know if it’s changed me, but sure I’m enjoying it, as they say! [laughs]. I’m loving every minute of it. It’s a different experience, but it’s a great one.” 

When I spoke with Nathan Carter around the time of the release of his latest album last year, one of the things he told me he’d come to realise during the past year was that when things do return to normal again, he probably doesn’t want to spend as much time on the road as he had been doing. As one of a small number of artists who might have a schedule as hectic as Nathan’s tends to be, I wondered if any such thoughts had crossed Mike’s mind? 


“Well, when things go back to normal, we’ll have to look at it then. Life is for living, so it is. And I suppose this has all given everybody a different view of life. We can realise that it’s a huge thing to be able to spend time at home with our families. So yeah, I think everybody will end up looking at work from a different point of view.” 

With the things the way they are right now, it’s not just artists like Mike who are missing fans, the same is true the other way around as well, with fans missing out on seeing and meeting their favourite stars. Trudi Lalor has launched the Reach-Out Project, an initiative to try and address this by connecting stars and their fans. Mike is one of the already more than sixty country artists who have come on-board for the project…


“Even leaving that aside just for a moment, I would have found that over the last twelve months nearly since we’ve been off, that we’ve had people emailing us, texting us, sending direct messages looking for videos or for us to send get-well messages to people, ya know. Because there’s so many people who had country music as part of their daily or of their weekly routines. They’d go to a dance, or they’d go to a concert, or some form of a show. So they’re all missing that hugely, no more than us missing being on the road. It’s just a huge part of peoples’ lives, often maybe their only way out. You might have a lot of people living on their own say, and that was their way out weekly, to meet their friends at a dance. And that’s all been taken away from them. But going back to Trudi, it’s a great idea. She’ll be having the competition every week, and a certain amount of artists then will ring people every week just to say hello or keep in touch. There’s so many people who we would have struck up friendships with over the last number of years, because they’d be loyal fans and loyal followers. They’d come to us week-in, and week-out, and you’d be having chats with them all the time. That’s been taken away from them, it’s been taken away from us.”

While it’s not possible for Mike to perform for his fans at the moment, he has at least been giving them new music to enjoy, with a brand new single – Hey God, Are You Listening? – just recently released…


“Well for a good few months I didn’t really do much recording, I didn’t go near the studio. One of the last singles I had out was the ‘Neutron Dance’, then ‘Galway Bay.’ I suppose the one thing you hear week-in and week-out is that people are finding it hard, mentally, financially, in all these different ways. And then you hear so many charities on the radio and the television, and they’re all looking for help, and there can’t be any gigs on from the likes of ourselves to do fundraisers, that’s all put to one side for the moment. So when I heard ‘Hey God, Are You Listening?’, it really touches home right now.” 

And the great Al McQuilkin from Mike’s band also has a new single out right now, his Tribute to Charley Pride…


“I think Charley Pride would have been a major influence on everybody and anybody involved in country music, especially here in Ireland, because he was probably the biggest of them all here. Anybody who has anything to do with country music here in Ireland loved Charley Pride. So it was great to hear Big Al putting out his tribute with those classic songs from Charley Pride [‘Just Between You And Me’/ ‘All I Have To Offer You Is Me’/ ‘Kiss An Angel Good Morning’]. Al has been with me for many years, he’s a great musician, a great guitar player, and an amazing steel player, so it’s great to hear those famous songs of Charley Pride being played by him.” 

Joe Biden had just been inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States the day before Mike and I spoke, in a fantastic ceremony that included very special musical performances from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, and from the world of country music, the one and only Garth Brooks. As our chat concluded, I wondered if Mike had tuned in? 


“I didn’t catch Garth, so I didn’t, and I would have liked to because when it comes to music, Garth Brooks would probably be my hero. But I will look back on it and catch up on it, because he’s just one of the greats.”

~ Mike’s latest single, HEY GOD, ARE YOU LISTENING?, is out now, available on all platforms and to request from radio. Voting lines for Glór Tíre are NOW OPEN. And to vote for Mike’s contestant, EMMA DONOHUE, all you need to do is download the Glór Tíre App and follow the instructions from there. 

ENDS