First Published July 2022
“I WEAR MY HEART ON MY SLEEVE”
MARGO O’ DONNELL, simply put, is a poet. If you think of her as only being a singer, then you’re guilty of only seeing what she does on stage. When I call her a poet, I’m talking about the way in which she lives her life, how she sees the world, and – thanks to an effortlessly beautiful turn of phrase in conversation – in the way she talks, too.
But more than that, Margo is a prophet as well, when it comes to life in general, certainly. And most definitely when it comes to life in the music business. With fifty years in that industry behind her, there probably isn’t a side to things that she hasn’t experienced somewhere along the way. And this is where younger or newer artists should be listening up and listening well whenever they have a chance to hear Margo speak. If they pay attention, they’ll come away a better person and enlightened as to some of the ways of the music business and a life in entertainment.
Later this month, on Wednesday July 20th, to be exact, Margo returns to Tullamore when her 70th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION CONCERT TOUR rolls into the Tullamore Court Hotel.
And luckily for me, I had the pleasure of catching up with Margo for a chat ahead of that show. So, I wanted to begin that chat with a very simple question, simple, but important. On the first day of July in 2022 – as it was when we spoke – how was Margo? How was she feeling about life, and music, and everything in between?
“I’m good! I probably look on the music now, as something where I can look back on an awful lot of things. Music, to me, is always a cry from the heart. It’s the music of our souls, that’s the way I sort of look at it. I’m doing things now because I want to do them, not because I have to. That’s where I’m situated. I love music, I’ve always loved music. I sing the songs now that I want to sing. I do the shows that I want to do. And I’m only doing a few this year, I’m not doing a whole pile. So I’m feeling good. But I feel sad in a way for a lot of the young acts coming up. I feel sad about that part of our music, because they were struck down by Covid [when it happened], and there’s a lot of them that didn’t get back. I feel sad that the music has taken a dip like that. But I’m hopeful, too, that everything will come back and be good again. For everybody, but for all the young ones especially.”
Something I noticed about Margo in her answer to my first question, and I’ve actually noticed it every time I have the pleasure of talking with Margo, and that’s how very poetic she is in how she speaks. And indeed, Daniel has the same trait as well. I remarked to Margo that I wasn’t sure if it was a family thing, or a Donegal thing, to which she laughed. But, in all seriousness, I wondered if perhaps she had ever considered the possibility of using her beautiful turn-of-phrase for songwriting?
“Well, ya know, back when I was out there singing full-time, I never really did anything about writing songs. I wrote one song, and I co-wrote some other ones with different people. But the first song I ever wrote was for my mother’s 90th birthday. I wrote a song called ‘Happy Birthday, Mother’. Mam [Julia] was special to us all because we lost dad [Francis] in ’68 when he was only forty-eight. Mam sort of ruled us all from the chair. She was the kind of person, as the years went on, we wanted to spoil her and love her, and we left ourselves that we could never buy her a present. So I was here in Monaghan, and I was thinking what could I get her for her 90th birthday? We were havin’ a bit of a party. And I was here hoovering [laughs], and I started thinking about my mother. Words started coming. I would stop and I’d put down a line here and there, and before I had the hoovering done, I had a song written. I got a little dictaphone then and I put music to it. That’s what I presented her with, and it was the first song I ever wrote. I sent it over to a very good friend of mine who was Liz Anderson. And Liz Anderson was Lynn Anderson‘s mother. I was very, very friendly with Liz and with Casey Anderson, they’re both gone now. Liz was the lady that wrote the big hits for Merle Haggard like ‘The Fugitive’, and ‘All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers’, and I sent it over to Liz. I said, I wrote this today, and she came back to me on the phone when she got it and she said, ‘That is a beautiful song’. I put it on a cd afterwards and I presented it to my mother the night of her birthday, and I sang it the night of her birthday. And Daniel said to me when he heard it [laughs], he said, ‘Is that the first time you’ve ever tried to write?’ And I said, yeah, and he said, ‘Well you’re not too bad!’ [Laughs]. I think my mother had a great way with words, but my father was the singer. He was a lovely ballad singer, and it was from him that I learned all the folky ballads that I used to sing in the beginning when I started out. Then I ventured into the simple country songs. But it’s nice of you to say that. But I never did [any songwriting] when I was on the road, I never did. I always thought, I suppose, that writing was for a writer, and I was a singer. I never got above my station. And do you know what? I’m happy that I didn’t. When I look back on things, I suppose I could write about a lot of different things. I’ve had a very, very interesting road!”
I offered my opinion that writing was for anyone who has a heart, and Margo most certainly has a big one! So maybe there’s some more songs in her yet…?
“Well, you never know, you never know! I work a lot from my heart. I was just talking to Daniel a couple of minutes ago, and we were just talking about something like that, in the way that we feel. We were actually talking about it because I’m going down to Waterford to record Opry Le Daniel on the 7th, that will be transmitted in the autumn. I’m doing that show with Foster & Allen, Declan Nerney, and Daniel. So we were talking about that, about the music business, and Covid, and different things. And let’s not fool ourselves, Covid has had a terrible effect on our genre of music, it really has. The age group that comes to hear the likes of our music, I know there’s a lot of young people that have got switched onto it now as well, but there’s a lot of older people who are still very, very scared of Covid, and of going into crowds. And I suppose that’s why I sort of pulled back from concerts. As you know, I only do a few per year. But music is something that should be happy, and should help people, I believe that. There’s nothing like walking out on the stage and seeing all those familiar faces that I’ve got to know all down through the years. The people that come to see me now, I nearly know them all. They’re great people. As I say, and I always say it to Daniel: never forget that we wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for the people. I wear my heart on my sleeve when I go out on the stage. And I love those people, the fans. They’ve given me everything that I have. God gave me a voice, and he’ll take it when I go. But the people – the fans – gave me my life. They did. And I will always be eternally grateful to them, they’re the greatest people in the world. I really mean that from the bottom of my heart. And Daniel took that same train of thought, and I’m so glad that he did. And I’m so glad that his audience is so important to him too. That’s why I’m so proud of him.”
Because Margo has that special relationship with people who come to her shows, how much of a joy was it for her to be able to perform again after Covid had put a stop to everything for so long?
“It was wonderful. The first night was theLyrath Estate in Kilkenny, and honest to God, it was like turning the clock back. People say it’s a drug [performing], it is. To see all those wonderful people again, for them to be so happy in your company. To just look down [from the stage], and think, they’re all here because of me. They couldn’t pay me a bigger compliment. So how did I feel? I felt about ten–foot tall. And everytime I walk out and I see the people, it’s the same thing. There’s no other feeling like it.”
It won’t be long, of course, before we get the chance to welcome Margo back to Tullamore again. But I wondered what is a typical day like for Margo when she has a big show that evening? Does she have a special routine for days like that? And if she has, is it something that has changed much over the years?
“It has changed over the years. Back when I was at this full-time, we would travel to the gigs on the day. We would play maybe in Donegal one night, and in Dundalk the next, and maybe down in Kerry the next. And we travelled on the day of all these shows. Now, what I do is I tend to go the evening before and stay over, then have a soundcheck and a run-through. I like to be there to try and see the people when they’re coming in. I like to see them before they sit down if I can at all. I remember I did it in Tullamore the last time I was in it, I met them along when they were queuing, and I did it in the Lyrath. I do it mostly everywhere. Some people think that you shouldn’t be seen before you walk out on the stage, but I don’t think that that’s true. I think it’s nice to go down and meet people and say I’ll see you later or whatever. And I’ll meet everybody in Tullamore too. I’ll be down there in Tullamore the night before, I’ll get up in the morning, have my breakfast, maybe try and go for a little walk. Then have a soundcheck and run through anything we need to. Then I’ll meet the people as they’re coming in. Obviously I’ll miss some of them because I’ll have to go up and make myself presentable [laughs]. That’s what I do. On the day, it’s all about the people. From the beginning, to the very end.”
Margo also has a super new album out now, entitled, Margo – 70 Songs, featuring hits everyone will know Margo for such as Shanagolden, Bonny Irish Boy, and Pocketful of Dreams, not to mention duets with Daniel and Dolly, among others. But in those 70 songs, are there some that have a particular place in Margo’s heart, perhaps for reasons even her fans may know nothing about?
“Yeah, there are. When I was picking those seventy songs, they had to hop out at me and have a reason for being on this collection. It was for my 70th birthday, so seventy songs for seventy years. And all of those songs have a real reason for being there. From ‘Bonny Irish Boy’, and ‘Shanagolden’ which was a huge song for me. And it was only an album track, I didn’t release that as a single. But everywhere I go, I have to sing ‘Shanagolden’. There’s also a song on there called, ‘My Dear Father, I Loved You’, and it’s a song that Joe McShane wrote about dad. There’s a lot of songs on this album that people have never heard. The people who buy albums, of course they’ll know the songs. But as you know, if you send an album to a station, they’ll pick out some [songs], maybe the title-track or whatever, and all the other songs get lost. I wanted to pick out all these songs that meant something to me, so as the people could hear them, the songs that meant something to me all down through the years. Recording with Dolly, for example, was so, so, so special. I spent six weeks in Nashville with all her family and with her. There’s a song on there, ‘Silver Sandals’, that I recorded with her uncle Bill. And ‘In the Shade of the Family Tree’ with Lewis Owens, her other uncle. And with Dolly herself, and a duet with Maura O’ Connell as well. And then of course, Larry [Cunningham], he was the very first person I ever recorded a duet with, and that will always be special. The things I did with Daniel are a very personal, lovely thing that we were able to do together. And there’s songs with Philomena, and a lot of people that I recorded with, John McNicholl too. They all have a special place. They’re songs from the heart. Country music is about teardrops, heartache, and makin’-up. And I wanted to include all of them. There’s some new songs on it too, that have never been released before. I sat and I picked every one of those songs myself and I gave them to the record company. So let the people out there know that these songs are for them. They’re songs that people have asked me about somewhere along the line, down through all of my years in music. And I wanted to feature some of those songs that weren’t probably heard all that much.”
Now a very young 71, and with over 50 years of experience in the music business to look back on, what are the most important character traits that Margo has come to value in people – be it in life in general or in music – as the years have passed by?
“Honesty. Absolutely. Honesty and loyalty. If you haven’t got those two things, I mean forget it. I will always be loyal to people. Sometimes, it’s not good, because you can get hurt easier, ya know. But I’m not gonna change now. I’m still going to be loyal. Have I been hurt along the road? I have. I’ve had relationships that have broken up, and I’ve had my heart broken a number of times. But that’s life. But it’s the loyalty and the honesty that’s so, so important to me. That’s why I have such a relationship with the people who come to see me. They’re good people, with great, big hearts. And I wouldn’t hurt a hair on any of their heads for all the tea in China!”
Margo spoke recently about how – for an artist – competing all the time and hoping your songs will be a #1 hit was a pressure that used to pull her down. But now, because she’s learned to sing just because she enjoys it, she doesn’t feel that pressure anymore. What advice would she have for younger artists to help them avoid that kind of pressure in the music business?
“Well, people might say that there’s more opportunities now for young people to come into the music business, but it’s harder for them. It’s really, really hard. We have an awful lot of talent in this wee country of ours, we really, really do. And yous have a girl down there that I love to listen to, and I love to watch her, Olivia Douglas. She gets me every time. She’s warmer than heat! She’s very loyal to the kind of stuff that she’s recording, and the stuff that she’s singing. She doesn’t try something else just because something didn’t work. And that’s the one thing that I would say to young artists. If they’re out there and they’re making any kind of waves, stick to what you believe you love. Don’t go changing from country to pop just to get a hit record, because you’ll never be happy. I never changed. I never, ever changed the songs. I can’t sing the new country. I don’t want to sing it. That’s for somebody else to do. I can only sing the songs that I can sing. The three chord trick, and the good chorus. Things that people can sing along with. That’s what I’ve always believed in. I didn’t change or deviate one way or the other. That’s what I’ll say about an artist. An artist that goes out there, and the very first thing that they do…if they’re noticed, stick to it. Don’t move because somebody wants to change you. Stay the way you are. You will make it. If you make a ripple in the water with the first type of song, or type of music, stick to that type and the ripple will become a tide! It will happen!”
As we prepared to say our goodbyes until we catch up again at her concert in Tullamore on the 20th of this month, there was one more question that I wanted to run by Margo. Towards the end of the 1990s, the late and great Joe Dolan released albums called Joe’s 90 and 21st Century Joe, featuring his versions of songs by artists such as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bruce Springsteen, REM, and David Bowie. I wondered if Margo had ever given any thought to recording an album of songs from outside the country genre?
“There are songs I would love to record. I love the songs of ABBA. I loved ABBA. And I always will love them. But I don’t try those sort of things. But if I were to go in a direction where I would record an album as a tribute to somebody, ABBA would be for me. I love listening to them. And I love listening to the blues. I love the blues. And that’s really because Patsy Cline had a kind of a bluesy thing in her voice. I love the Irish music, I love the ballads. If I were to change from the old country and the ballads, and if I were to record something, it would be songs like the songs of ABBA. And actually, in the Blue Ridge Boys that I toured with, in ’76 to ’78, I used to sing a selection of ABBA songs on stage, it was in our repertoire. We were doing dances all the time that time. So I would have sang ‘Mama Mia’ [laughs], and all those songs for the dances. I loved ABBA.”
And has Margo heard the new ABBA album, Voyage?
“I’ve heard some of it, and I’m absolutely very enthusiastic to hear the lot of it!”
~ MARGO’s 70th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION CONCERT TOUR comes to the TULLAMORE COURT HOTEL on JULY 20th. Margo’s special guests on the night will be TRUDI LALOR, MICK FOSTER, MOYRA FRASER, and ALEX ROE. Tickets are available now from hotel reception or by calling 05793-46666.