First Published February 2021
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.