First Published February 2019
A MAN OF HIS WORD
It had been a memorable few days for country music superstar Michael English by the time we caught up for a chat last weekend. Just the previous Monday he had walked away with both the Entertainer of the Year and the Songwriter of the Year awards at the annual Sunday World Country Music & Entertainment Awards in the Mullingar Park Hotel (where his eagerly awaited Dancing Weekend will soon take place), followed by his appearance on the TG4 talent show, Glor Tire, with his contestant John Molloy on Tuesday night.
But on Monday, Michael had revealed on stage that it was actually his first time ever to be crowned Entertainer of the Year. Now, given the high regard Michael is held in throughout the country music world, and the array of various other awards he’s picked up in his time, that revelation certainly came as a surprise to me. So what better place to begin our conversation. How special was that particular achievement for Michael on a personal level?
“Well it’s a great thrill and a great feeling to win Entertainer of the Year, that’s the big one. And although I’ve won other awards before, winning Entertainer of the Year was really something that delighted me. And the Songwriter of the Year, too. of course. And I accepted both awards, but especially the Entertainer of the Year, on behalf of everybody who works with me. Because it’s a team effort from everybody in the band, and everybody in the office, and everyone behind the scenes who all do great work as well. I’m a firm believer, and I’ve always said it, that no entertainer is anything without the people he stands on the stage with. We all go out night after night and try to do our best. So I’m very thankful to the Sunday World, and everybody who voted, and especially everybody who comes to all the shows night after night.”
Having won so many awards over the years, does Michael still get a buzz from such occasions and achievements? Or is it a case of it being something he’s got used to?
“No, I wouldn’t like to think that I get used to it, no. Because there could come a day when we won’t be gettin’ any awards at all [laughs]. We work night after night, travelling and touring, and I suppose when you get an award it’s a little celebration to realise that all the work we’re doing is paying off. So I’d never ever take it for granted. Winning Male Vocalist of the Year was a great honour, too. And there’s just so many great entertainers out there, so winning that one this year, I’d never, ever take it for granted. Because you never know what’s down the road.”
The fact that Michael is such a talented songwriter – as well as a singer and musician – has always set him apart from a lot of other big-name performers. But songwriting is all about creation, and creation takes time. Yet Michael is one of the busiest men in the business. So how does he make sure he finds time to write?
“Well first of all I think songwriting is hugely important, particularly in the business today. Artists need to have their own songs and their own sound to create an identity. Even back in the showband days, The Mainliners were a completely different sound than The Royal Showband. And that’s still important nowadays, to have your own stamp on things. So it’s vital that you make time to write, and to create a sound that will separate you from other people. I mean, there’s no point in fans going out to shows if they’re all the same. So I make time really, whenever I have a bit of free-time I sit at the piano. But I also write in the car on the way home from a show. That’s a great time to be thinking. You’re just after coming off the stage, so it’s a time when you’re in a certain frame of mind [that’s good for writing]. I’m often found pulling the car into the side of the road and sticking a few lines into the phone, and then heading on again until I get home to the piano and can develop it from there.”
All songwriters, as they develop their craft, find a method and style of writing that works best for them, whether it’s everything beginning with a title, or maybe figuring out an entire chorus first and then building the rest of the song around that, or whatever it might be. Over the years, what approach to songwriting has become Michael’s natural preference?
“I find that every song that you write is different, and has a different approach. It can come from something as simple as somebody giving you a phrase, or a title, and then all of a sudden the juices start to flow and you come up with a verse or a chorus, so you might have the words first. But then sometimes you might be at the piano and a melody would come into your head and you might write the music first. Every song is different, and that’s what makes it interesting as well as everything else. It’s a labour of love for me. I often compare it to an artist painting a picture. Any that looked back at the very first ones they painted, would be hopefully saying now well I’ve improved anyway! [laughs]. It’s the same with songwriting. It’s a craft, one that you learn as you go. You’ll learn the pitfalls from other songs you might have written some time ago. You never really write any two songs the same.”
Because of Michael’s high-profile, he’s a natural choice as a mentor on a show like Glor Tire, and of course, he’s back there again this year with John Molloy as his contestant. To take Michael’s role as a mentor first, how important does he see that role being, and what has been Michael’s approach to it with John?
“Well I see it as a very important role. You have somebody’s career to think about. But for me, it’s not all about winning the competition, although that would be the icing on the cake! But for me, it’s about helping an artist to develop. I’ve been in the business for a while now, and I can see the different roads to take and the advantages of taking one over the other. So I suppose, as long as you’re honest in the advice that you give, as long as I give John the advice that I would take if I was doing it all again, that’s the thing. And John is a great artist. I have great time for John. And not just from a musical point of view, but from a personal point of view. John has that likeability factor. We watch the X-Factor, and everybody wonders, well what is the x-factor? I firmly believe that in the music business today, while of course you have to have some musical ability, and of course you have to be able to sing, but I firmly believe that the x-factor – for what of a better phrase – is likeability. It’s that people can relate to you, and you can relate to people. And certainly, people do like John, he has a great likeability factor. He makes a great connection with the people who support him, and he almost seems like one of the family to those people. And I think that’s vitally important. I’ve given John advice on songs, and on stage presence, and being on t.v. in front of six or eight cameras, and all of that kind of thing. But I don’t have to give him any advice on the personality side of his career. He has that in abundance. John is just a very nice, very humble guy. I don’t have to advise him on any of that. But any help I can give him, I have. You know, I often wake up in the middle of the night when an idea comes into my head, and I’ll send John a message. Then we’ll talk about it the next day. He’s a great man to listen and take advice. Advice, particularly in the music business, is only an opinion. I’m not telling John that I know it all, because I certainly don’t.”
Michael mentioned honesty in his previous answer, and as he and John had known each other for a few years and were no strangers to each other, I wondered if that helped with that sense of honesty and trust between them as mentor and contestant?
“It does, absolutely. We know each other very, very well. And we both know that from my side, as the mentor, I only have John’s best interests at heart. I’ve done my television spot now last week, and I was happy with that, but it’s John’s competition from here on in. We know each other well enough now to know that I’m certainly looking out for John, and certainly trying to give him the best advice that I can. As I said earlier on, it would be lovely to win the competition, and that’s obviously what we’re aiming at, but there’s much more to Glor Tire than being the winner. Sometimes we watch talent shows, whatever they might be, and if said to someone, who won the competition four years ago, well they mightn’t be able to tell you. But they would be able to tell you who gained the most out of it. Often there are people who come second or third who go on to have huge careers. So to use the competition as a tool to get you out there in front of a wider audience, in front of a television audience, that’s important. It’s about letting more people know about John, and television, and Glor Tire, will certainly do that.”
Michael English is one of those individuals who has that very rare gift of putting a touch of genuine class into everything he does. To anyone, not just those in the entertainment business, he’s worth studying and learning from. Because if you can be even halfway like him, you’ll be placing yourself well ahead of the field. When Michael picked up his Sunday World Award for Entertainer of the Year back in January, he made a point of saying when accepting the prize, that he was doing so on behalf of everyone in the band, everyone who works in the office, and everyone who works with him in any way, because without all of them, he wouldn’t be up there in the first place. So for those who might not understand the huge role played by everyone in the band and behind the scenes, I asked Michael to talk a little bit about it…
“Well, I often think, Anthony, if I walked out my front door in the morning and didn’t have the people in the office, and didn’t have a band to stand on stage with me, it would be a far different career, and a far lonelier career. Far more isolated, too, with much less support, apart from my family who’ve always been good, and my friends. When I walk out on the stage, there are seven of us on the stage. Obviously I have to lead it, obviously I’m the lead singer, the frontman. But it’s like baking a cake. There’s no point in pouring the flour into the bowl if you don’t have the milk and the sugar, and all of the other ingredients as well [laughs]. And it’s the same with a show. All of the elements have to come together, everybody has to be on top form. I’m very lucky that I have six guys in the band with me who are all on the same page as me, who all want the best for the show. And that goes right down to Paul, my manager, and the people in the office. Everybody is a vital cog in the wheel and that wheel is not gonna turn if all the cogs don’t come together. And I’m very lucky that all of those people do come together, and all strive to be at their very best every night, wanting the show to be the best that’s out there. So I think when you receive an award, you always receive it on behalf of the whole team.”
These days especially, younger artists or those just starting off in the business, want to be successful straight away. From Michael’s point of view as one of the biggest names in Irish entertainment, what advice about patience, and about working to a plan, and taking things in steps and stages, would he offer to those in a rush to get to the summit?
“When I started out, I had a one-piece, like John. Then a two-piece. Then maybe two years later, a three-piece. Then maybe three years later again, I had the big band. So it certainly took time for my career to take off. Until I had a hit single, I suppose, then it took off a little bit. Nowadays, young people, through the power of reality shows and these kind of things, they’re stars before they even realise it. And I don’t think that’s such a good thing. The real big stars out there, if you look back on them, they honed their craft for a good few years before they had that hit song, or became popular with the audience. And I think that’s really important. Because then when you do go out with your full, professional show, you’re more ready for it. Because you’ve done the groundwork, you’ve done the hard slog goin’ around with the gear in the boot of the car! You’ve seen the harder times. And that makes you appreciate all the more everything that happens when it finally does come together. I think sometimes, if it happens overnight, your expectations are totally different. I think for anybody starting out, particularly in this day and age, whether it be the music business or the acting business – I often compare the two – it’s no harm to finish the studies. Just to have a second string to your bow. Because you never know what’s down the line. The music business, and the entertainment business in general, is very fickle. I’m very lucky that I have people who have supported me since the day I started. But someday, because you never know what’s going to happen, you mightn’t be as popular. That’s always a fear that an artist has in general, and I include myself in that. So I never, ever, ever take it for granted. I never rest on my laurels and say, ah sure we had a great crowd last night, ya know, and just sail along. As with any business, you only get out of it what you put into it. When you’re successful, you have to work harder. For young people starting out, if they think it’s hard starting out, wait until you get going a bit! [laughs] Because it becomes a little bit harder to stay there [successful]! So have some sort of a second string to your bow, try and be different to the next person coming along, and try and have an original song. You want one where whenpeople turn on the radio, they know it’s you and not somebody else.”
At the time we sat down for a chat, Michael’s latest single, ‘Music In My Heart’, was all over country radio following its recent release, so Michael shared some background on the song, and also, on the possibility of maybe recording something someday with his Glor Tire contestant and good friend, John Molloy…
“I’ve had a lot of uptempo singles, and I suppose this is uptempo as well. I want to get the word out there that when you come to one of our shows, you’re going to have a ball! You’re going to enjoy it. It’s going to be up-and-at ya, bang, bang, bang, energetic. Because that’s what the dances are. Over the last couple of years I released a lot of stuff like ‘The Tuam Beat’, or ‘Baby, Don’t Leave Me In The Nightime’, or ‘Will Ya Dance?’, and they were all full of brass. And while we have brass on the concert tour, I also have steel guitar, banjo, fiddle, all of the instruments that are associated with country music. So this song, ‘Music In My Heart’, is a country song. It gives the guys in the band that play the steel, and the banjo, and the fiddle, the opportunity to play something that they’re good at. I wanted to take it back slightly to country music with this song. Which is an old song, by the way, something I don’t very often do. A lot of the songs, ‘Friday At The Dance’, that I wrote, ‘Joey On The Fiddle’, that I also wrote, they’re newer songs. But it’s also important for people who might not come to the shows every night – and I’m very lucky that I have a lot of fans who come all the time – but you do have new fans as well, so you can’t go in and listen to a whole new bunch of songs that you might not know. Like, if I went to see Neil Diamond tomorrow night, I want to hear ‘Sweet Caroline’, and I want to hear ‘Cracklin’ Rosie.’ New songs are good, but I don’t want to listen for an hour to all new songs. You have to have the familiar songs that people like. This is one of those songs, taking it back to old country music. It’s been released by a lot of people, including Charley Pride. And it’s a jive, which is important as well when we’re primarily doing dances at this time of the year.
Michael continued, “On the duet idea, I’d love to record something with John sometime. At the minute, our focus is totally on the competition, and we don’t want to take away from that. Sometimes when you release a song it can help, but sometimes, it can distract. So we’re just thinking carefully at the minute as to what the plan will be. Obviously, we’ll do something eventually. When the time is right we’ll release the song!”