First Published September 2019
TENOR MATT TALKS, TULLAMORE, McCORMACK & MORE
On October 6th the world-famous CELTIC TENORS will bring their captivating ‘live’ show to the Tullamore Court Hotel. I had the pleasure of catching up with tenor MATTHEW GILSENAN the other week for a chat about that show and much more.
Now the Tenors, through Matthew, have a long-standing and deeply personal connection to Tullamore that a lot people will know about, but still more might not even be aware of. Because the late and much-loved SISTER VERONICA was Matthew‘s gran-aunt…
“Well some people may have been aware of that connection”, explains Matthew, “because we did a number of shows over the last ten years or so to help fund-raise for her housing project. So some people might have known because of that alright, but maybe the larger Tullamore or midlands area may not have been aware of it.”
Matthew continued, “Sister Veronica was my gran-aunt, so my grandad was her brother. Grandad was the eldest in the family, and Sister Veronica was the next oldest. She was my Aunty Rosaleen really, and she was an absolute firecracker of a woman! She had so, so much energy. She started off as a midwife in the hospital so lots and lots of people who were born there passed through Aunty Rosaleen’s hands. As far as the local politicians went, be it Brian Cowen or anyone else, I think she was one of the few people who, when she came in, people hid! [laughs]. She’d be wanting money, and she’d get it [laughs].”
And even in her passing, Sister Veronica was providing reasons to smile as Matthew recalled….
“One of the things that was really touching for me around the time of her funeral when she passed away a few years back, was the the number of people who had really wonderful things to say about her. Just ordinary people who she had helped out in the quietest way. She’d never say a word to anybody about helping certain people. The nuns, as you’ll know, have a vow of poverty and all that stuff, but she’d find a way to help. She’d sell a bit of clothing, or some other extraordinary thing to give money to people. There was one particular family, and the nuns were full, they just didn’t have the ability to help out. So this woman arrived with her two children, and this lady actually came to me at the funeral and told me this story. She told Aunty Rosaleen that she didn’t have any money, and she didn’t have anywhere to go. Aunty Rosaleen said to her, ‘Now, don’t you worry. Come with me, and don’t say one word to anyone else.’ And she brought them by the hand to the school, to a classroom that wasn’t being used. And she said, ‘Right, now you stay here. There’s no space officially, but don’t worry.’ So she brought her breakfast every day to them and any money that she had, she gave to them. Now this was something that Aunty Rosaleen would never say to anyone”, stressed Matthew. “But all of these people had these kinds of stories after she passed away, serious acts of kindness. She was the real deal. And for me, she was like a Mother Teresa type person. I’m not particularly religious myself, and I totally understand the nightmare that many religious caused many people. But my Aunty was an extremely kind and lovely lady. But politicians’ faces would always run cold when she’d turn up because she’d always be looking for funds [laughs], particularly for housing for people who fall through the cracks in the Tullamore area. She helped out a lot of people.”
I once read something about Matthew that said while there can be many style tools at the singer’s disposal, Matthew works just as hard on his natural, untrained sound. I wondered what exactly did the writer mean when he wrote that?
“That’s actually a bit of a bee that I have in my bonnet. We all know people who have gone and have had their voice trained. So think about the chronology of things. Why does someone go and have their voice trained? Because you have a beautiful voice. And I’ve seen this, people, boys and girls who’ve had beautiful voices, they go and get their voice trained and they leave that process with a voice that is…a trained voice. And nothing like their beautiful, natural voice that they had at the beginning. In my opinion, that’s really short-sighted. A human is capable of holding loads and loads of tools in their tool-box, and they’ll all still work. So I think there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a natural sounding voice. If you need to do something that’s taking you into the really difficult, super-high stuff like Pavarotti or whatever, then you need a little bit of technical assistance for that. And there are certain times when that style is required. There’s all sorts of different types of singing within the operatic styles, but that can be expanded out, and should be. If you’re a sean-nós singer, and you go and get your voice trained, please remember how to be a sean-nós singer, and don’t erase that from your tool-box.”
So basically, Matthew is saying that the beauty of a voice that gets peoples’ attention in the first place, don’t lose that by trying to over-train it and turn it into something else?
“Exactly. That’s a travesty. It would be replaced by something that would be very manufactured sounding. An absolute travesty. And it still happens to this day. But a responsible singing teacher won’t let that happen. Even the whole idea of singing in a healthy, natural way is something that should include all of the ways you sing. We all sing in different ways. You’re going to sing an AC/DC song different to the way you’ll sing a hymn. The same goes for the way you sing Nessun Dorma. It’s grand to sing it in that way. But if you’re singing The Fields of Athenry, sing it in the right style [for that song].”
On a more light-hearted note, I’d also read somewhere that Matthew could be a little bit superstitious, sticking to the same pre-show routine, for example, if shows are going well. Has Matthew‘s pre-show, or show-day routine, changed much over the years or remained more or less the same?
“It’s developed. The madness has developed and become even more stringent! [laughs]. I don’t know if it’s superstition…yeah, it probably is superstition [laughs]. It’s like how an athlete will always warm up in the same way, pretty much. So there’s a few things with me. I don’t really buy the whole ‘don’t whistle backstage’ thing [because it’s bad luck…I whistle back-stage! [laughs]. But if I see two magpies, I will wave at them! I think we’re a superstitious lot in this country. Like a lone bush in a field, I’d probably be annoyed if a farmer uprooted that and took it away, ya know. In terms of my own warm-up routine, it’s something that gets me in the zone. And if I don’t do it, I get very annoyed [laughs], and not necessarily comfortable before the show begins! But once the show begins, I’m grand!”
Is there much difference between Matthew and his Tenor comrades, James and Daryl, in how they each prepare?
“We all have a kind of similar set of things we do, yet different. James has a vocal routine that he goes through and it’s really quite a feat of energy usage before doing a show. His warm-up routine is huge! Mine is much more gentle, and simple. Because different things work for each of us. And Daryl will hardly warm-up at all! [laughs]. He’ll be on-stage for soundcheck with his guitar, singing U2 songs! [laughs]. And that’s interesting from a tenor who used to work in Zurich Opera, but what actually floates his boat is U2 songs, ya know! We all have very different ways of doing it, but then, in the same breath you could say that we’re all from very different backgrounds as well.”
Matthew did a solo show in February of 2018, and I wondered if that was something he might want to do more of, in parallel with the Tenors, of course?
“Yeah, I’m glad you asked me that. When I was an engineer – in a previous life – I was still a fairly young graduate and I was asking my manager for advice. And he said, my only advice to you is to never live the same six months more than twice. Try and have colour and variation in your life and in what you do. With the Celtic Tenors, life is absolutely brilliant. And we’ve found now a kind of a pattern in the year. There are certain times when we’re not as busy as other times. So in the last couple of years we’ve given ourselves permission to do other things, to explore other things that we might want to. I have two other projects going on at the moment, one is just me with singing a concert of songs that I truly love. And in the future that might also include original songs and songs that I grew up with and that I really, really love still, ya know. And they could be songs by Beck, or Ann McGarrigle, or Phil Coulter, whoever. Just great songs. We often, as a group, bring new songs to the table when an album is being recorded, and while one person might like the song, another one might not. It can be so hard to get your song – or an idea that you have – into the set. For every five you bring in, maybe one will make it. Sometimes maybe none make it. So this is my chance to sing the songs that I believe in, and that I love. That’s one show. And the other, which I’ll be doing in Athlone actually, on September 21st, is the story and the life of John McCormack. He was a fairly local man, from Westmeath, Athlone. And at the beginning of the 20th century, he was the most famous Irish person in the world, certainly in the western world. He sang to tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands in America in his career. He was a huge star. So I’m doing a one-man show on his life. It’s a pure labour of love for me. I just love listening to his songs. They’re a little old-fashioned, some of them now. Some of them have perhaps stood the test of time. But his story is brilliant! I mean, this is the guy who was paid the equivalent of seven-and-a-half million dollars in 1929 to be in a movie. And ya know, there was a young lad who was mixing sound for us – a music student from Maynooth, actually – and he said to me, ‘What’s that song that you sang there?’ And I said it was a John McCormack song, one of his favourites. And he said, ‘Oh wow, that’s amazing.’ But then a little later, he came back to me looking a little embarrassed, and he said, ‘Who’s John McCormack?’ So, ya know. We all have influences, from the pop tenors, to John Denver, to Bob Dylan, to Pavarotti, it goes on. We all have a huge set of sources of influence. It’s a melting pot!”
So somewhere in the back of Matthew‘s mind, is there a plan for a solo album at some stage as well?
“Yeah, that’s going to happen, definitely. Definitely. I think each of us will probably do something along those lines. I have a real fire in my belly now at the moment because of what I do with the Celtic Tenors, it’s inspiring. And it inspires me to do more, and more, and more. I get serious withdrawal when I’m not on stage! I feel like I need to get more ways to get on stage.”