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.