First Published September 2020
THE SPECIAL BOND OF SONG
It’s not an unusual occurrence in life that we sometimes get so used to seeing certain people from one particular perspective, that we forget about – or perhaps fail to notice at all – other aspects of who they are which are equally, if not more important. And this may well be the case with Kerry singer/songwriter CAITRIONA O’ SULLIVAN. Caitriona, of course, is no doubt best-known as a long-term occupant of one of the judges’ chairs on TG4’s hit show, Glór Tire, having been part of this successful team from the get-go over a decade and half ago now. But if you ever thought that’s all there is to Caitriona, oh how wrong you would have been!
When you see Caitriona offer contestants on the show words of support and encouragement, she’s not simply going on gut-instinct, or reading from a script, or – as is often the case on many’s a show like this (but never this one, in fairness) – talking for the sake of talking, and hoping that something she says will sound like it makes sense. No. What Caitriona provides is the benefit of her own knowledge as a student of music, but not just that, either. She also shares a reservoir of hard-won wisdom from her own experiences as a performer, something she’s been since way before the TV spotlight first fell upon her face. And, given her deeply held affection for both singing and the craft of songwriting, one suspects Caitriona will be a performer until the end of her days.
If you follow Caitriona on social media, then I’m sure you, like myself and many, many more, will have listened in quiet fascination as the beauty of her voice entertained us so splendidly over the last number of weeks and months of this very strange year. If you don’t follow Caitriona yet, then you should start doing so today. Your heart will thank you. Let me put it this way…I don’t know exactly how many hours of Glór Tire have been recorded in its sixteen year lifetime, but if each one of those hours was just of Caitriona singing, I’d wager you that the show would still be the favourite it is today, with not a single viewer lost along the way, and lord knows how many extra gained.
Caitriona has a brand new single out right now, a stunning duet of SUMMER WINE with Desi Egan. But we begin Part 2 of our chat on the subject of Glór Tire, with Caitriona telling us more about why it holds a very special place in her heart…
“The other thing I really like about the show is that a lot of the contestants do go on to have proper, great careers out of it. A lot of the contestants who have got to the semi-final or the final, the likes of Chantelle Padden, Lisa McHugh, all of these artists who have been through the show. With a lot of talent shows on TV, that doesn’t happen, it’s a bit of a flash in the pan and is short-lived.”
Among the other artists who have been through the Glór Tire process and have gone on to become some of the finest voices in Irish country music are Olivia Douglas, Sabrina Fallon, and John Molloy, just to name a few, all first coming to national attention through the show. But yet, Glór Tire has seldom had winners who have progressed to become big names on the country scene. I wondered if that was something that ever frustrated Caitriona in any way?
“Well John Rafferty did now alright. I suppose a lot of it does come down to the contestants’ campaigns then as well, and that’s beyond the control of the production team or us as judges. There is an aspect, as there is with any competition, of the contestants organising their campaigns, that’s a big part of it. And then it does come down to the votes of the public. But at the same time, I think whether a singer wins or not, the exposure they get from being on the show twice a week, aired on TV for a period of four to five months, it gives them a great chance, I think, to get that national attention, and to build up their following. And the fact that it’s repeated during the week is important as well. If someone misses it one night, they can get them to tune in again four or five nights later. I’d be listening to a lot of the country stations myself now as well, and it’s very gratifying to hear how many former contestants would be on those play-lists, ya know. Between the mentors and the contestants, very often the majority of the country shows I’d be listening to would have some association with Glór Tire. That adds a sense of realness to it, that it’s not just being on television with all this hype to it for a couple of weeks, and then lacking any longevity after that. I remember Lauren McCrory, who won Glór Tire, winning a country music award for Best Newcomer the year after. Shauna McStravock had a #1 single there just a couple of months ago too, and that’s all great to see. And that’s what sets the show apart, and people know that.”
This year’s series, of course, has been cut short for the moment, also falling victim to Covid. But hopefully there’s still a chance that it will be wrapped up in the coming weeks. Forgetting about Glór Tire for a moment, though, I wondered how had Caitriona herself – both as a regular, normal human being like the rest of us, and as someone who has that creative instinct of the the songwriter about them – how had she been dealing with life since the world changed so much last March?
“To be honest, music has been a saving grace for me. To have that focus, and to have a project, and to have that passion, has definitely helped me to keep my own head straight. The world has become a different place, and it’s been difficult for people, and myself as well. Our social interactions are so curtailed. And definitely, during the intense lockdown when we weren’t allowed to see our friends and family, I definitely, like everyone else, found that very hard. I’d be very much a sociable creature, and enjoy interacting with people. So music was a saviour really. I think the two things that were the saving grace for me personally, were sitting down at the piano and writing songs at home, and going for a walk in a beautiful place by the sea. I’m lucky enough to live in the countryside and be able to go for a walk on the beach. That helped to keep me feeling positive. Making the music videos for Facebook was lovely because it was another focus and an escape for myself, but you also felt like you were offering other people a bit of an escape too. Your own little contribution to providing some sort of entertainment to people when they couldn’t go out or go to gigs. I have two children as well, and it was very tough on them not being able to see their friends and have their little play-dates. When restrictions eased and were lifted, I was delighted, mainly for my children so that they could mix with other children again. I very much felt for them. I suppose us adults, we can talk on the phone, talk on Facebook, that type of thing. Children, young children, don’t really have that. It’s important for them to see each other face-to-face, for their development socially and emotionally, and every other way.”
Caitriona is probably uniquely positioned as someone who is an artist herself, but also a central figure on one of the nation’s longest-running music shows, a show which plays a huge importance on how an artist performs ‘live.’ But the ‘live’ music scene in Ireland has been at a stand-still for months now, something no-one could ever have imagined only a short time ago. And, no-one really knows what’s going to happen next, or when, or how. What were her thoughts on how the ‘live’ music scene, and indeed the music business in general, can make a comeback?
“I’d be hoping that the idea people had where people could drive to concerts in their cars, that that would be something that could get off the ground. Even in our own local town here, the circus was on there a couple of weeks ago and people would go to watch. Obviously that’s not as enjoyable as the normal way that we’d attend a concert, but I think something like that is worth looking at. A lot of artists have been performing online and on Facebook, and friends of mine have gone down the line of setting up links whereby people can make a small donation if they want to. Full-time musicians have to find a way of being able to earn some bit of a living through their performing as well, if this is going to go on and on and on into the long-term. People have to live. And maybe putting on some larger scale concerts, with a few acts together, and then people driving to watch that concert from their cars. Those are kind of the only avenues I see at the moment in which artists might make a little bit of money.”
As our chat came to an end, we’d spoken a lot about what Caitriona is doing now, about her new single, Summer Wine with Desi Egan, and what she’s been doing over the last few years with Glór Tire. So as we prepared to say our goodbyes, I wanted to go right back to the beginning of Caitriona’s life in music. When, I wondered, did she know that music was indeed the life she wanted to live?
“I can pin it down! There’s one specific occasion that stands out in my mind. For a number of years I didn’t know that I could sing, when I was a small child. But I used to be down in my bedroom playing tin-whistle, and my grandmother had an accordion lying around the house, so I taught myself the accordion. So I used to just be down in my room teaching myself these things. And I remember our national school teacher used to teach us tunes on tin-whistle, and I always really enjoyed that. But I didn’t actually know I could sing until one day when my mother had a Nanci Griffith record – ‘From A Distance’, I remember was the song – and I learned that song at home and my mother heard me singing it. And she must have picked up that I could hold a tune [laughs]. Then in school, there was a big occasion coming up where our national school in Farranfore, where I was going to school at the time, was celebrating a hundred years. It was a really big event in the community, with people coming from all the local villages and the surrounding hinterlands to celebrate. There were a couple of hundred people at it, in the school-yard and car-park, so quite a big event. I was ten years old at the time, and I got up and sang ‘From A Distance’, and I was completely surprised by the reaction. I’d never sung in public before. I didn’t even know that I could sing [laughs]. Because as a child, you’re not really aware of yourself like that. It got a really, really strong reaction from the people that were there. And I suppose, that was THE moment when I realised, oh…I can sing! [laughs]. Playing the tin-whistle and the accordion down in my bedroom was just something that I naturally did. But at that moment, on that occasion, my teacher turned around to my parents and said they should really look into getting me some singing lessons, and maybe learn the piano. We moved into Tralee then the next year, where my parents bought a bar called The Munster Bar, and living in the town then it was a little bit more accessible for me to start going to lessons. And that was another big turning point. I was very lucky to be able to do that. Growing up in the bar then from ten or eleven years of age onwards also contributed to my musical training, because there was no shortage of opportunities where my dad might want entertainment! [laughs]. So very often you’d be called down to, ‘play a couple of tunes there on the piano’ for so-and-so, ya know. loads of opportunities to perform, loads of opportunities to get feedback. Then he would have had musicians in every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night so you’re listening to all these different genres of music, from pop to country, all of these different styles, and you’d be absorbing all of that.”
Can Caitriona trace the beginning of her songwriting back to a similarly specific moment?
“Yes. Yes, yeah. I think at sixteen, I had started sort of messing around on the piano with chords and lyrics and things. But again, there was one specific event. There was a competition during the Rose of Tralee called Garvey’s International Songwriting competition, and that was coming up in the August, so I set my mind to writing a song in the June or July, I was seventeen. I remember doing a little demo with a local musician in Tralee and performing that song along with a cover version, I think it was ‘Mustang Sally’, I did! The Commitments were big at the time [laughs]. And I always loved soul and Motown music as well. So yeah, ‘Mustang Sally’ and this little love song that I’d written at seventeen. That was on-stage, downtown Tralee, a nice crowd watching it. I came second in that competition in that, with an older lady winning first prize. But it was nice to get the encouragement from the judges about the song I had written. It kind of all came from there, that was the start of it. Then I kept writing and I would play different songs in the bar, testing out the reaction. What would often test it out to me is you’d play a couple of well-known songs that everybody knew, then you’d slot in your own song and see would it stand up with the others. That was always a good way of testing something [laughs]. We lived upstairs over the bar, and music was such a huge part of life growing up there. My dad loved music too, and he’d sing a few songs in the bar. It’s very much the tradition in Kerry that on a night-out everybody gets up and does their party-piece! It’s a very natural part of Irish society, I suppose, in general. So you’d be developing the whole time, unbeknownst to yourself from listening to other musicians and playing yourself. And even the social skills that growing up in a bar taught me were very valuable as well. It’s all about people. And what I love most about the music business is connecting with other people, making other people feel an emotion. And a huge part of music too, is the relationships you have with other musicians when you’re working with them, or your production team if you’re on a TV show. Social skills are a very important part of it, and connecting with people is a very important part of it. Growing up in a bar, it’s like a study in human nature. You’re talking to people all the time, you’re hearing peoples’ life stories. In terms of material for writing songs, and for empathising with people in different situations, it gives you a lot more food for thought than just your own life path when you’re thinking of what to write about. Connecting with people through music makes you feel bonded to them, and I love that feeling. Even growing up, if you played in the bar and someone shed a few tears if you sang a particular song, I loved that feeling, that kind of bond. That’s what makes it really special.”
~ Caitriona’s new single – SUMMER WINE, her duet with Desi Egan – is out now, available on all platforms and to request from radio.