The Late Late Show Country Special 2020

First Published December 2020

HO, HO…NO!

It’s honestly hard to know where to begin when it comes to talking about another Late Late Show Country ‘Special.’ And it’s nothing short of frustrating in the extreme to actually need to talk about it again. But I have to. To not do so would be to simply ignore the fact that, at this stage, I believe this yearly event – as it is and as it has been organised and presented nearly every year so far – is actually doing more harm than good to the country music scene in Ireland. 


Look, if all you were expecting, looking for, or hoping for from last Friday night’s show was an evening’s entertainment, then sure, your expectations were probably met and similarly your hopes fulfilled. But, if you’re someone who works largely in or around the Irish country music scene, then this show will have left you lost in feelings of deja-vous and despair. If these ‘Specials’ are being billed as the biggest night in Irish country music, and they’re taking place every year, then they have to be viewed in a context much wider than just one night, and not just on how well they fill two or so hours of television every twelve months. One of the most important questions that has to be asked is this; Do they serve well the Irish country music scene as a whole? And the answer to that, certainly in my opinion, is, after five years of these shows (going back to the inaugural – and so far only – RTE Irish Country Music Awards in 2016), a resounding no. 


For one thing, this is not the biggest night of the year in Irish country music, nor should it for even a moment be considered as such. In terms of its potential audience reach, then yes, of course, that fact alone rightly places it amongst what can be considered the biggest nights – plural – of the country year. But it seems to have been created – and certainly year on year it has been maintained – as something much more akin to an exclusive members-only affair than anything that even attempts to be truly reflective of the Irish country music scene. It is not inclusive of the many artists – older and younger – and other important players who have helped to make the country scene what it is, and who tend to have been around well before RTE and The Late Late Show deemed country music worthy of any serious attention in 2016. 


Of the artists who were featured on last Friday’s show, and I make it twelve (counting The Three Amigos as one act, and not counting the six artists who were asked to be their backing-singers and who were only on-screen for about five seconds, if even that!), EIGHT of those were on last year’s Special as well. Cliona, Sandy, Philomena, The Three Amigos, Margo, Mike, Daniel, and Nathan. And most of those eight have featured on every Country Special. Many of them are also guests on The Late Late at some stage during the rest of the year too. 


Of the remaining four artists from last week’s show; Una Healy, Claudia Buckley, Trudi Lalor, and Barry Kirwan, Una and Claudia have appeared on regular season installments of The Late Late Show as well. Trudi was part of the opening sequence of last year’s Country Special, but didn’t have a chance to perform in her own right. In fact, I’m not sure if Trudi has ever been invited to appear on The Late Late Show. And as one of the greatest female voices the Irish scene has been blessed to have, how can that be right? So, of the twelve artists featured on this year’s show, only TWO did not feature last year as well. Only two. 


This is NOT – I repeat NOT – a negative commentary on ANY of those artists. I’ve interviewed most of them for this column. I admire all of them as artists in their own right. I know how hard EVERY artist in this business has to work. I know many of these artists very well and hold them in high regard not just as entertainers, but as people. 


But, this IS about the fact that RTE and The Late Late Show keep bringing back the same guests on these ‘specials’ every year, as if there were no other artists on the Irish country scene. That is simply not true. Now of course, it’s impossible to feature every single artist out there in one-go. Common sense. But no-one has ever asked for that to happen. However, it can’t be denied that since 2016, The Late Late Show has made zero effort – never mind tried and failed, they haven’t even attempted it! – to present the Irish country scene in any kind of way that truly reflects it. If they had, then over the last five years, the Irish public in general would know a lot more about many of the amazingly talented artists and great people who make up the scene. 


There are so many artists who have helped to set the standard for today’s stars, who made them dream and inspired them, and helped them to embark on their own musical voyages. And to be clear…Margo, Philomena, Sandy, Daniel…they all fall into that category too, and they absolutely deserve every word of praise and credit that comes their way. But what The Late Late Show either doesn’t seem to know or is unwilling to recognise, is that there are several more artists who have made today’s stars dream, who have inspired them, and who have helped them on their way. To name but a few; John Hogan, Shawn Cuddy, Mary Duff, Dominic Kirwan, Paddy O’ Brien, Mick Flavin, Ray Lynam. And yes, some of those have been spoken to for a minute or so when in the audience during previous shows, but never given the attention that their careers and their contributions to Irish country music have deserved. And as well as those who I’ve mentioned, I’m sure there are many more whom those with the benefit of more wisdom than I could also – and rightly – point to. 


So, why would The Late Late Show bring back some artists as guests several times over, and ignore other artists completely? It’s not because their judgement on Irish country music is definitive or deeply insightful, because it most certainly is not. They prove that fact year on year. It’s not because no-one involved in the Irish country scene has tried to make them aware of other artists that should be considered, or other ways that things could be done, because people have tried to do both those things.


And just as those older artists need to and should be remembered and acknowledged for having blazed the trails that today’s stars now travel, so too do the younger and newer artists of today need to be remembered and acknowledged when shining a spotlight on the country scene. Because today’s dreamers will become tomorrow’s stars. And I stress the younger AND newer aspect of that, because one of the great things about country music, is that for the most part, age is no limit. New artists can emerge or first come to public attention in their forties, fifties, sixties or beyond, just as easily as in their twenties or thirties. Nobody is a ‘big-name’ from day-one of their careers. Nobody. Even the biggest names of today began with little more than just their dreams. 


With a little imagination and a little vision – and that’s all this would take – there is absolutely no reason why a show that happens every year could not feature a different selection of heritage or legacy artists ( which are terms that are probably more honourable and respectful than ‘older’) each year, plus up-and-coming rising stars, and some of the biggest names of the moment. 


If we take twelve guests as a benchmark of sorts, then there’s no reason why three artists – or musicians, songwriters (more on songwriters in just a while!), promoters, journalists, etc – could not be honoured for their contributions to country music, and why three artists could not be highlighted as ones to keep an eye on over the coming year or years, and yet still be able to feature six more ‘big-name’ artists in some way. An approach such as that would easily offer a better overall view of the Irish country music scene as it is, how it came to be this way, and where it might be headed. If an approach like that had been taken or considered, then since 2017 (leaving 2016 aside as that was the year of the RTE Irish Country Music Awards), up to twelve artists (or other influential contributors to the country scene) could have been honoured, and up to twelve new artists could have been introduced to a national audience. 


And don’t let anyone tell you that there are no new artists coming along who deserve some attention, or none who are worth hearing other than those who are regularly featured on The Late Late Show. If you ever hear that from anyone, then all that’s just happened is you’re witnessed a confession that that person doesn’t know enough about the Irish country music scene to even be passing such a comment. Simple as that. 


Again, to name but a few; there’s Sabrina Fallon, who has one of the most popular songs anywhere on Irish country radio right now in Candlelight And Wine with Shane Moore, and is constantly releasing top-class material. There’s Deirdre Keane who, like Sabrina, has a voice that would fit right into place on anything being recorded in Nashville, and whose latest release, I Just Want To Thank You, Lord would have been a perfect fit for last week’s Circle Of Friends segment instead of Christmas songs that were the laziest and most predictable choices possible. There’s Alex Roe, a guy who has been performing – as in gigging, as in out on the road, as in earning his dues – all around the country for years already and is yet to even face a cake with twenty-two candles on it. There’s Colin Kenny, not just a man with a voice who can effortlessly take on any style of music, but also a songwriter of fantastic ability who is recording and releasing his own material and getting serious airplay on country radio. There’s Stephen Rosney, another songwriter of immense talent who has been adding to the canon of Irish country music culture for years by releasing original material. Likewise with Justin McGurk, whose new song, You Are, would also have been an ideal choice for the aforementioned Circle Of Friends segment. You can add Jordan Mogey and Niamh McGlinchey to that list of artists and songwriters as well. And as far as guitarists on the Irish country scene go, there are very few with as much talent as Ciaran Rosney. 


As well as all of those artists, you can count in John Molloy, Alanna Maher, Caitlin, Pamela Gilmartin, Kerry Fearon, Aoife McDonagh, Aishling Rafferty, Larissa Tormey, Patricia Maguire, Lisa Stanley, Norman Borland, Joe Moore, John Rafferty, Noel Boland, Brian Mullen…and again, these are just a few of the names that could and should be considered and given more attention. Most people who are in any way aware of the Irish country scene know who these artists are. How can The Late Late Show, when organising yearly country ‘specials’, not be? These people are not in hiding, their music is out there to be heard. And their music is worth hearing. I’ve worked with almost all of these artists at one time or another, and in one way or another. They are more than deserving of being in with a chance of having their talents, and what they bring to the Irish country music scene, recognised on the national stage at some point in time. Right now, it’s just more than clear that there’s no hope of such a chance as things stand. 

Going back to last Friday’s show, something that seemed to confuse a lot of people this year was the actual theme of the show. Was it an actual Dolly Parton tribute show? That impression was certainly given, and you could forgive people for understanding that to be the case. Was it just the annual Country Music Special, except at Christmas this year? Or was it an actual Christmas country special, where Christmas itself would be central? As it turned out, it was a little bit of everything, which made it feel a little bit messy. And to be honest, it also felt like the show was built more around the interview with Dolly than anything else, and that the Irish artists were filling in the gaps between the opening tribute to her and the actual interview at the end. 


Dolly Parton is literally a living legend. Her life and her career have more than earned her the right to be honoured on any show anywhere, be it The Late Late Show or anything else. That’s without question. And Dolly’s appearance on the show, her involvement with it in any way, or the tribute to her are not being questioned either.


It’s also without question that the opening sequence of the show, featuring Una, Cliona, and Claudia, was outstanding. It was spectacular, and hearty and sincere pats on the back are due to everyone who made it happen. It’s also true, however, that artists like Olivia Douglas, Sabrina Fallon, and Deirdre Keane for example – none of whom have ever featured on The Late Late Show before – could also have stepped into those roles and done Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. To be absolutely and unequivocally clear, Una, Cliona, and Claudia DID do Dolly, her songs, and Irish country music proud. Personally, I’m a massive fan of all three ladies, as artists and as people. My interviews with each of them on the OTRT website will clearly show that. I’m just further reinforcing the point that The Late Late Show relentlessly turns to the same artists all the time. 


Having mentioned Olivia Douglas above, I cannot for the life of me understand why she – and five other artists – were asked to sing backing-vocals for The Three Amigos. First of all, there was no need for backing vocals. Robert, Jimmy, and Patrick were more than capable of giving their version of From A Distance everything that it needed, as they proved. And there was certainly no need for six artists to provide backing-vocals (seven, if you count both Ennis Brothers, together with Olivia, Clodagh Lawlor, Marc Roberts, Niamh Lynn, and David James). They got about five seconds on screen. There’s hardly any other way to see that than as a token gesture, simply a way to say six more artists were involved in this ‘special.’ And yes, involved they were. But included? That’s a different story. And a different question. And the answer is no. 


Olivia was invited to be part of the grand-finale of last year’s ‘special’ as well, another segment that is little more than a token gesture, involving people – as you would involve a prop in something – but not genuinely including them. At least they got more screen-time out of it last year. But of what worth to any artist is a camera panning past you a few times? 


Olivia is one of the most exciting new artists to appear on the Irish country music scene for years. She has another of those voices that you could put on any record that comes out of Nashville and it would sound like it belongs there. And by that, I don’t mean that she sounds American – an accusation often levelled at Irish country artists – I mean she would sound perfectly, authentically country. She has multiple awards to her name, has toured with both Nathan Carter and Derek Ryan several times, and as a musician is in a league of her own on the accordion. 


Not only that, but Olivia’s most recent release, A Hug Or Two, has racked up over ELEVEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March of 2019, made up of 2,185 plays. Thats TWO-THOUSAND-ONE-HUNDRED-AND-EIGHTY-FIVE PLAYS. One of the songs Olivia is perhaps best known for now, Leaving Tipperary (released in March 2018) has amassed an equally phenomenal EIGHT MILLION PLUS IMPACTS on Irish radio, made up of  2,442 spins. That’s TWO-THOUSAND-FOUR-HUNDRED-AND-FORTY-TWO PLAYS. So that’s just two of Olivia’s songs that have clocked up over NINETEEN MILLION IMPACTS on Irish radio since March 2018, made up of 4,627 – that’s FOUR-THOUSAND-SIX-HUNDRED-AND-TWENTY-SEVEN PLAYS. On just two of her songs. That’s a reflection of both Olivia’s talent and her standing within the Irish country music scene. The Late Late Show’s interpretation of that talent, however, has led them to place her in a chorus-line once, and as a backing-vocalist once. 


So, either they don’t recognise her talent, or have no interest in acknowledging it. Either of those options is a terrible, yet realistic possibility. What isn’t, is that they are unaware of her talent. I can state this for a fact, because I myself have made them aware of it on numerous occasions. And not because I thought she’d be great as part of a group-finale or as a backing vocalist, I assure you. 

One last point as far as newer and younger artists go where The Late Late Show is concerned. The show – and rightly so – never seems to have any problem with giving opportunities to new and younger pop acts, or rock acts, and more recently, to hip-hop and rap acts to perform on the show. That’s as it should be. Newer and younger acts, whatever their genre, deserve those breaks. However, such opportunities never come the way of country artists. Not even on shows that are supposed to actually focus on country music. 


Last Friday’s show opened with that wonderful tribute to Dolly, and went on to include Christmas songs during the Circle Of Friends segment. So you can see again why some viewers might have been confused about what the central theme of the night was. On the subject of songs, and leading to the subject of songwriters, it was surprising to see that while Dolly’s songs got the night underway, and the artists involved in the Circle Of Friends segment had to perform Christmas songs, The Three Amigos were performing their new single, From A Distance. Would something from Dolly’s extensive songbook, or perhaps a Christmas medley, not have been better suited to the night for their performance as well? 


Christmas covers always tend to work best with artists who are already well-known, because then hearing a Christmas tune from them becomes something that’s a little bit different and that has a fun and novelty side to it. But singing Christmas tunes essentially just for the sake of it, man…that was an idea that definitely should have been pushed back on by somebody somewhere. Margo’s turn in that round worked well, because her song choice, An Old Christmas Card – written I think by Vaughn Horton and recorded by Jim Reeves amongst others – was perfect. Country, with a Christmas theme. And anyway, ladies like Margo – and Philomena too for that matter – can sing whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. I’ve seen Margo sing acapella to full houses of seven or eight-hundred people and hold the room in the palm of her hands, with everyone so absolutely captivated that not only could you hear your own heartbeat, you could nearly hear that of the person next to you as well! 


Mike can carry off a Christmas tune too, because we’re so used to hearing him sing anyway, and because he’s an entertainer of immaculate talent. But a little thought from someone could have turned up a choice similar to Margo’s, something that was country in style and would also have fitted in with the Christmas theme. The same goes for Barry Kirwan, who is an absolute gent, and a really talented musician and performer. For someone who was being featured on the show in any meaningful way for the first time, to ask him to just sing any random Christmas song was terribly unfair. Barry has three great albums to his name; New Beginnings, Moments, and most recently – as in just weeks ago – Walk With Me. I’m absolutely certain there was a song of his own that would have been ideal for that segment. For a man to be as humble and open about how this year has affected his life and career, the very least he deserved was to be able to sing a song that also had some personal meaning or connection to him. If it wasn’t set in stone that everyone had to sing a Dolly or a Christmas tune, then this should easily have been possible…right? 


And then there was Trudi, which brings us back to songwriters again. Or rather the lack of Irish songwriters anywhere in these ‘specials.’ Trudi was asked to sing Rockin’Around The Christmas Tree, and as Trudi does with every song she sings, she put her heart and soul into it. An example to every young artist out there, Trudi is the ultimate professional in everything she does. Always has been, always will be. But here’s the thing…just last year Trudi released a beautiful original Christmas song written by her husband, Billy Morrissey, another terrific Irish country songwriter, called The Old Christmas Waltz. In other words, in her own song-catalogue, Trudi has a Christmas tune tailor-made for a segment like the Circle Of Friends at this time of the year. And as well as highlighting Trudi’s impeccable voice, it would have showcased an original song from an Irish country songwriter. Who could have not thought that this was a perfect scenario? And why would they think like that? 


And if you think that doesn’t matter, well then think again, and look at it like this. There were eleven songs performed last Friday night. Not even one of them was written by an Irish songwriter. Go back twelve months to the previous ‘special’, and there were sixteen songs performed over the course of the show, including two medleys and a group finale. Again, not one single song from an Irish writer was involved in that bill. In fairness to Margo, though, she did make sure to mention the great Shunie Crampsey (as she remembered to draw everyone’s attention to the late Brian Coll last week). Shunie is the man who penned another Olivia Douglas hit, I’m Off To Lisdoonvarna In The Morning. That song has over FIVE MILLION impacts on Irish radio, made up of almost 2,500 plays – that’s TWO-THOUSAND-FIVE-HUNDRED PLAYS – since its release in September 2018. That’s a fact that should matter. 


The fact that not one of twenty-seven songs performed on the last two Late Late Show Country Specials came from the pen of an Irish songwriter is something that should matter, too. 


And it does. All of this does. At least to some of us. 


But to others, clearly, not so much. 


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is exactly where the problem lies. 

ENDS

Eímear Noone

First Published December 2020

A BRIDGE FROM IRELAND TO THE WORLD

Part 2

It’s a rare privilege indeed to have the honour of interviewing someone who you know – without even the slightest shadow of a doubt – has already written themselves into the cultural and artistic history of your country. And make no mistake about it, Galway woman EÍMEAR NOONE, one of the world’s most esteemed, respected, and phenomenally talented conductors and composers, has done just that. And in no small way, either. 


Eímear is many things, all of them fuelled by a fierce passion, a soul that has the deep, instinctual wisdom of many lifetimes, and a creative spirit that is in constant, poetic motion. In time, when her name graces the pages of histories of Ireland, it won’t be reserved simply to the sections on culture, art, music, or entertainment, although none of those will truly be complete without acknowledging her impact on and legacy in all of those areas. 


Eímear Noone is a trailblazer. A pioneer. A leader. A teacher. A superhero who walks among us, as one of us, but as an inspiration to all of us. She is, as I pointed out when Part 1 of our chat was published back at the beginning of November, a real-life Wonder Woman. Her gift to Irish society as a whole, but especially to young girls and women of all ages, will be deep and lasting. It will, I’m sure, provide the spark that ignites passions and the self-belief and faith that weaves a fearlessness to be worn as armour around the heart for dreamers to come who will either whisper to themselves or scream at the top of their lungs: “Eímear Noone did it! So I can, too!” 


Perhaps the most brilliant of all the many brilliant things about Eímear Noone, however, is that she carries this destiny as if it were  but a feather upon her shoulder. 


Never, for a moment, believe that ridiculous myth so often rehashed that just because someone might possess a fantastic talent in some particular area, that it gives them free-license to be rude, or disrespectful, or ignorant, or arrogant in any other areas of their life. It does not. Anyone with some great talent but who is also all or any of those other things, is just an nasty human being with their talent being perhaps their one redeeming feature.


Eímear, however, from the village of Kilconnell in the land of the Tribes, perfectly balances the brilliance of her musical gifts with a generosity of spirit and a humanity so wonderful that it slays forever the myth referred to above. We’re all flawed in our own ways, but those who possess a capacity for genius that carries within it the force of a supernova, can also be human beings whose capacity to bring light, laughter, love, and kindness to others is potentially endless. And this we know in large part because Eímear Noone walks the earth, among us, and as one of us, while inspiring each of us to be more, be better, be authentic.  


Today, Part 2 of our chat begins by taking us back to 2011, when Eímear put together a St. Patrick’s Day concert in L.A. called This Is Ireland. Given the monumental amount of work that goes into putting on any ‘live’ event, I’m sure this is something she wouldn’t have done without a genuine love of her country. But Eímear has also spoken about how at the start of her career, she “couldn’t even get a chance to screw up in Ireland.” And remarkably – and somewhat disturbingly – how one lecturer in Trinity College even referred to her once as, ‘Little Miss No-One.’ If Eímear was beginning her career in Ireland today, I wondered if she thought the country had grown up enough to love her back in a far more positive way than back then? And also, did she think she would be afforded those chances – to even screw up – today? 


“Well, I’m excited to do some things at home soon. We just released a film called Two By Two: Overboard!, and we recorded the score here in Dublin, and it was just an absolute blast to do it here at home. There were players in the orchestra that I haven’t seen since music college, ya know. It was just way too much fun. It was a massive, massive dose of positivity, and I loved every second of it. And I do have some concerts coming up here that I’m excited about, but I can’t really speak about because they’re a moving target at this point [laughs]. But I see a lot of wonderful green-shoots [in Ireland]. I see a lot of old attitudes being dropped. They’re just not appropriate in 2020. And the other thing is, I’ve been very frank about these things because I feel like the younger ones coming up behind me, by me being vocal about it…it’s not a weirdness or a bitterness or anything like that. I look back on these things with a kind of curiosity at this point, because they almost feel like they’re something out of a movie. I’ve been vocal about how inappropriate those things are. When I told my brother about that lecturer saying, ‘Well if it isn’t Little Miss No-One’, my brother goes, ‘Well No-One’s perfect!’ [laughs]. And I was thinking well why weren’t you there?! [laughs]. So I can joke about it. Everything like that, I’ve always turned it into a joke or a gag, because it’s so ridiculous. I’d be initially stung by it, but then I’d go, well hang on a sec. This is just mental! So I’m vocal about it purley so that the ones coming up behind me, when they find slings and arrows coming their way, they know they can say that’s inappropriate. Or just that it’s irrelevant! I was told that I didn’t have a chance at a career because of my gender. And someone from The Irish Times asked me that recently, what would I say to a young woman who was told that today. And I said, actually, you can’t tell that to a young Irish woman today! Because there are already a few of us out there doing it. So it’s no longer relevant [to say something like that]. And that’s wonderful, where something like that is no longer relevant, or has no basis in fact. It never did have any basis in fact. Those are energy-drains to me, those kinds of things. They drain a creative person’s energy. And that’s not helpful to anybody. That’s not helpful to the audience. You want a young artist putting their energy into creating beautiful things for the audience. By draining their creative energy, that’s just a complete waste of energy on every level.” 


Eímear continued, “Now I have to say there are certain things that I love that are happening in Ireland right now. I absolutely love that the National Concert Hall has a female conductor’s program, which I’m very proud to be a part of. They have a wonderful colleague of mine, Alice Farnham, they brought her in to set up the program. I’m thrilled about that. And also, I have to say IMRO does amazing work, and Screen-Skills Ireland in terms of preparing people to work in films and video games. We have some amazing groups of people doing wonderfully positive work  here. And I’m getting to know more about that since we came home. We came home for a year so that I could do all my European tours, but also to work on that Irish animated film, Two By Two: Overboard! I became reacquainted with the industry here, especially in the world of animation in Ireland. It’s just stunning what people are coming out with, the level that they’re creating at. I feel like the attitudes in the music world are changing. I feel like we need a bigger platform to get the work of female Irish singer/songwriters out there onto the world stage. I feel like that’s an area that needs a big kick in the pants. Because you’re no longer competing in Ireland, you’re competing with the whole world. When I’m in L.A., I see my colleagues from Finland and Iceland and they have such a massive presence for their population size. But they definitely work together to build together a bridge from home to the world for their artists, in a very consolidated way, and a very targeted way. It’s absolutely amazing, the kind of penetration they have in both arts and entertainment. I feel like we have more of that in the film industry, than we do in the music industry at large. And that’s not the fault of the music industry, it’s that the music industry as a whole has been taking a massive hit since the early 2000s, so it’s a smaller industry in general for us to play in.” 

Eímear had mentioned in her answer to my previous question the people who would be coming up behind her, and that reminded me of something she had said about Oscars producers Stephaine Allain and Lynette Howell-Taylor. She said, “They’re amazing producers and when they’re having their moment in the sun, they’re reaching back to pull somebody else up – like me – and then I have my arm out for someone else, and that’s a chain of events that they’ve set in motion.” One of those for whom Eimear has reached out her arm, bringing her and her work to an even wider audience, is the incredible Irish designer, Claire Garvey. I asked Eímear to tell me about the connection she and Claire share…


“Claire and I met through a photographer friend called Frances Marshall, he specialises in photographing classical musicians. She just felt that we’d hit it off. At the time, I was sort of sick of the black jacket, I wanted to do something better. Especially for video game audiences, half the audience were showing up looking like they were going on stage! And here I was, I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough to meet the support that they were giving me. So I wanted to do something extra. And also I wanted to break out as an artist. I wanted to express who I am on the inside as well. So I met Claire, and we just hit it off instantly. She has a way of getting into my mind that is just a little bit scary [laughs]. So we’ve worked together many times over the last few years, so much so that when I got the call about the Oscars – after letting my mother know – the next person I called was Claire Garvey! I was like, ‘Claire, we’re going to the Oscars!’ [laughs]. I really felt a responsibility to her work that when I was there – because basically what Claire creates is a piece of art – and I really, really felt that I was the stick inside the piece of Claire Garvey art walking on the red-carpet [laughs]. And we had this weird moment, Claire and I. I was talking to a producer friend in L.A., and my friend said, you know what, it has to be gold, you have to wear gold. And I’d never done that before. I don’t think I’ve ever worn anything gold in real-life. But my friend said, ‘No, no, no, it has to be. It’s a symbolic moment…’, and all of this, and she convinced me. And this is the thing that Claire always does with me, she pulls me a little bit more out of my shell all the time. Classical musicians, sometimes it’s hard for us to do that because we feel so much in service to the music. So I called Claire, and I said, ‘Claire, you’re gonna think this is a mad idea, but my friend Juliette said it has to be gold.’ And Claire started laughing on the phone, and she said, ‘I can’t wait to tell my husband!’ She said, ‘I’ve started it on a mannequin in the living-room…and it’s gold!’ So she had already picked that up from the universe, which is typical Claire. I brought my aunt Marian with me for the first fitting, and my aunt just put her hand to her mouth and gasped when she saw it. Claire had outdone herself again. It was just the right person, ya know. Designers were offering me things from all over the world, but this was the right person for this moment. It wasn’t because she was Irish, it wasn’t because she was a female designer. It was because she was the right designer for this exact moment for me. When I tried on her work, I felt like I could embody that moment. I felt strength from it. I felt strong when I was wearing it. And the other thing is that we’re both influenced by Grace O’ Malley. So there was a little bit of that in there as well! [laughs]. Claire is amazing. There’s only one Claire Garvey!” 

For Warcraft, Eímear created a piece called Malach, dedicated to her son Aaron, whom she sadly lost in 2012, and she described it as being, “the epic adventure he might have had”, a most beautiful and tender way of explaining Malach and why it came to be. I wondered if her work often presented the kind of space or opportunity to put as much of herself into what she creates as Eímear did with Malach?


“Well, I think, like a lot of creative people, I work through things. Through psychologically and emotional hurdles. I work through it in music. Artists from every discipline do this. Sometimes for me, it’s the only way I can work through it. One of the things that came up recently is for the film that we just did, there’s an end title song. And writing in lockdown, and creating in lockdown, was like trying to create with weights on. It was just so hard. The negativity around this awful pandemic, to any sensitive person it was overwhelming. I found that the end-titles song, the lyrics, all of it – everything pertained to the film and the story of the film – but every single line was about the situation that we were in as well. I’ll give you an example. And I can tell you because the film is out in the UK and it’s out in Germany, we’re waiting for the cinemas to open here. We have the beautiful Sibéal Ní Chasaide singing, and Frank McNamara on piano, and we have a music video to go with it. But the chorus goes, ‘When all around us has come undone/ Our dreams on hold, and our songs unsung/ We can’t go back to what we knew/ But I stand for hope when I stand with you.’ That last line is absolutely 100% inspired by us standing on the doorstep and clapping for our frontline workers. And for us, that was extra hilarious because we were out in the middle of the countryside and the only people who could hear us clapping were the crows in the trees! [laughs]. But we did it anyway. And that’s where that line for the song came from. Even the music video for it, for the big choruses, we couldn’t get a choir together. So I said to Moe Honan, the producer – our fearless leader [laughs] – I said, ‘Listen, why don’t we have everyone who worked on the film be the choir?’ So our choir is all our animators and their families, and our director and our producers. All of us that worked on the film, we all recorded ourselves at home with our families, and our dogs, and our babies, singing the chorus of the song. Because it really is a gift from us to everybody. We all went through the wringer to get it done, because getting locked-down delayed the film by months, of course. Strangely enough, the writers captured the spirit of the zeitgeist, and there’s this unbelievable correlation between the theme of the film and what’s going on right now. It’s incredibly hopeful and uplifting. It’s kind of one of those things where this giant metaphor is unmissable in the film, but it came before the pandemic, and before all of this political turmoil and the stuff that’s going on. The political turmoil in the U.S. of course, I mean. Yeah, that’s my way of working through what’s going on. And I couldn’t believe it took me like two days to write every line of the lyric. It was just so hard to create in that time. But then, I had this song, and every time I played it on the piano, I felt like I was expressing what I was going through, what I couldn’t really find the words to describe or adequately convey what I was thinking. But I worked it out in the song. It’s called ‘Stand For Hope.’ And the theme from the chorus is throughout the movie. When we were writing the score, myself and Craig [Stuart Garfinkle], my husband, I wrote this theme we called ‘The Hope Theme.’ And we didn’t know there was going to be a song at the end, it just came out of the Hope Theme. It was a very organic process. And then we called our beautiful friend Sibéal, who we’ve worked with since she was fifteen. And of course I called Claire…that’s just a hint, that’s all I’m gonna say [laughs]. She gets dragged into everything around here. But you’ll see everything when it comes out.”

One of the things I noticed when preparing for my chat with Eímear was that she says so many things that are worth paying attention to, and giving serious thought to. Again speaking in relation to the Oscars, Eímear had said recently, “Little girls everywhere will see this and say, ‘I think I’ll do that.’ And that’s what we want.” So, I put it to Eímear that she’s obviously aware of how big a role-model she is, and that being so, I asked her how does she carry the weight of that responsibility? 


“I think if you’re in the public domain, if you’re out there in public doing what you do, you have to be aware of the repercussions of how you carry yourself. It’s not that I want to be a role-model, or that I’m looking to be a role-model, nothing like that. It’s just about [having] an awareness of how you carry yourself in the public domain. When I was growing up…and I love the expression -which isn’t mine – ‘if you can see it, you can be it.’, and that’s especially poignant for me, because when I was growing up I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me doing what I wanted to do in Ireland, in my home country. And what I didn’t know, was that she had existed! And it wasn’t even that she’d been written out of history, but she hadn’t even been acknowledged in Irish music history in the way that I think she should have been. A woman called Alicia Adélaide Needham. I posted something on Facebook when I was putting together a program of women composers, and one of my brothers teachers from Garbally College in Ballinalsoe, Johnny Johnston, said ‘Don’t forget about Alicia Adélaide Needham’, and much to my shock, I had never heard of her! I thought have I just been completely blinkered, what is this?! So I asked some other composers that I know, and none of them had heard of her either. She was the first woman to conduct at the Royal Albert Hall, and she’s from Dublin. She won a massive international composition competition, that was championed by King George. But if I want to study her work, I have to go to Oxford to get a hold of it. So, all the while that I was growing up, there she was! And when I was told that I didn’t have a chance of a career because I was young, Irish, and female, I could have said well if Alicia Adélaide Needham did it as a suffragette in the early 20th century, why on Earth wouldn’t I do it now? But I couldn’t say that, because I didn’t know she existed. And that really hits me in the heart. So being out there, and being visible, is important purely because I don’t want that to ever happen again to a young Irish girl who has this mad imagination, and this mad dream. Because if you can see it, you can be it. But also, if you’re very visible out there, it takes away the power of the naysayers as well.” 

~ The animated movie, TWO BY TWO: OVERBOARD!, from Moetion Films, and featuring Eímear’s song Stand For Hope, is out now. The official music video for Stand For Hope, performed by the magnificent SIBÉAL NÍ CHASAIDE, and showcasing yet another awe-inspiring creation from CLAIRE GARVEY, is also available to enjoy now on YouTube. 

ENDS

Joe Cooney

First Published October 2019

THE MAN BEHIND THE MIC

Hundreds of thousands of radio listeners and country music lovers around Ireland know and admire JOE COONEY as the voice of the Country Roads show on Midlands 103. And if there’s a country music event happening, then chances are Joe will be there too, up on stage holding it all together as M.C. And that’s a role he’ll be taking up once again on November 4th when the IRISH ENTERTAINMENT AWARDS take place in the Tullamore Court Hotel. 


At any event of this size – with star names such as CHARLIE McGETTIGAN, TOMMY FLEMING, FOSTER & ALLEN, MIKE DENVER and many more performing – the master of ceremonies is one of the most important roles, and needs to be in trusted hands. So what exactly does Joe’s job on nights like these entail, and how does he prepare for them? 


“Well thankfully this is something I’ve been doing for quite a number of years, so it’s pretty easy now in terms of preparation. But there’s a lot of things to do. You need to know your subject matter, which is each of the recipients of an award so that you know their history and when you introduce them you’re not bringing someone on stage who you know nothing about. That’s very, very important. So I always do my homework on everyone. I make sure I’m at the venue three, four – maybe even five hours – before the event, to make sure everything is where it should be and nothing is amiss from my point of view. There’ll be so much going on, you’ll have the sound-engineers there, the lighting guys, the band, and they’ll all deal with their own stuff, so I have no need to worry about that. But it’s important that each of them know where I am, and when I’m coming on stage during the night, who will be calling me on, who’s taking me off, little things like that which are all so important. But it’s something I love to do. And when it is, it doesn’t become a job, it becomes fun, ya know.” 

I wondered what’s Joe’s favourite part of nights like these? 


“The most important thing for me, and my favourite part of any night, is seeing the people who have paid their hard-earned money to come in, actually enjoy themselves. To see them clapping, and singing along with smiles on their faces. That, to me, more than just presenting special awards to different people – who deserve those awards, of course – is the most important part of the night. That the people who come along have a good night, and are happy, and are showing that happiness in their faces.”

Many artists have little routines that they always go through before going on stage each night, from finding a few moments to spend just by themselves, to sometimes having to do a certain few things in the same particular order. Does Joe have a routine that he tries to stick to when he’s hosting an event like the Irish Entertainment Awards? 


“Well my routine is kind of a weird one really! [laughs]. A lot of people need a few moments to compose themselves, but for me, I just go into the Green Room and mingle with the stars, and chat away with them. Because you never know, you see, you might get some new angle on someone just by talking to them. There might be something that just comes up on the night, and it becomes something that you can then add into your introduction. Or it might become a question you might put to the star on stage. So that’s what I do, I just mingle with the stars. That way, I’m familiar with everyone. I mean, I’m familiar with everyone I play anyway, of course. But you don’t actually see them that often during the year. So it’s always good and nice to go in and catch up with them, so to speak.”

The Awards on November 4th boasts a phenomenal line-up of star performers, including a few who Joe knows well, including Mike Denver, Sabrina Fallon, and Stephen Rosney and The Back Axles…


“Aah, Mike Denver in my book is one of the finest guys in the business. Lovely, friendly, down to earth, very thankful, very obliging. And definitely, as a live performer, is one of THE best I have seen in many years. And how he treats his fans is something else. He treats everyone with the same respect. From the people who play his songs, to the people who listen to his songs, to the people who go to his gigs, and every ordinary man and woman. Mike comes from a very nice family as well. Good stock! And you can’t beat good stock!” 

And Joe has great time for Sabrina Fallon as well, as he explained…


“Yeah, Sabrina and I, we’ve known each other since she started really, since she first sent in a cd and I listened to it. I’ve always liked her voice. But I didn’t know for a long time that she was related to Mike, so she’s played purely on merit, on the basis that she’s a great singer and the songs she brings out are terrific. My first involvement with Sabrina apart from playing her songs, was the song we recorded together. I found the song, ‘Stumblin’ In’, and I was looking for someone to do that duet with, and I picked Sabrina. And I’ve always been so happy that I did, because I couldn’t have picked better. And I’m looking forward to singing that on the night with Sabrina.”

Singer/songwriter Stephen Rosney and his band, the Back Axles, are also held in high regard by Joe…


“Again, I know all of these lads and girls through music. There isn’t really anybody that I would have known outside the business, except for Keith and Lorraine McDonald, I would have known their family long before I came into work on radio. But yeah, Stephen and the lads. He was playing with another band called Rsolyn, and that’s how I knew Stephen, from getting his cds sent into me and playing them. I met him one night then, it must have been at a gig somewhere, and he handed me a couple of the songs he had written himself. I played them on-air, and I’ve been playing them ever since. Stephen did the video for Sabrina and myself, for ‘Stumblin In’, too. And since then we’ve been involved in different bits and bobs together. I’d certainly use Stephen’s company, Rosney Media, when I’m doing the videos for any of my songs. And lots of people I know use them as well. Stephen is a lovely guy. All the lads in the Back Axles are lovely guys. And they have this great down to earth – I call it earthy music – bluegrassy type music. It’s so homely. It’s like sitting around a fireplace, or sitting around a camp-fire somewhere in America when you’re singing those songs. I have great respect for the lads. And especially as Stephen is a songwriter as well. Because you know what? There’s not a huge amount of songwriters. There’s lots of guys who are singing other peoples’ songs, but there are not many writers producing songs at the rate that Stephen is. And along with, of course, Derek Ryan as well. Stephen’s songs are songs of the earth. They keep you grounded.” 

In the last year or so, Joe’s music career has expanded from being the man behind the mic while presenting, to being the man behind the mic while actually performing, as a series of singles and a debut album have changed the trajectory of his musical journey…


“Well ya know, it’s kinda weird [laughs]. My mum sang when I was a kid, and I used to love singing along with her for the craic. But I never went out and sang publicly. But I decided when I reached sixty years of age that one of the things on my bucket-list was to go out and record a single. And that’s what I did with Sabrina. And ya know what? It’s a disease, and I mean that in the best possible way [laughs]. And people who know what I mean will laugh at that [laughs]. My end was always playing the artists, and listening to them, picking out good songs, always showing their best side on my show. But I’ve gone from that, to going out and recording an entire album myself, which I did about six months ago. ‘Stumblin In’ was the start of the bucket-list. Just record a single. And that one did it nicely. But once I recorded the single, I started to get a grá for it. Then I decided to do a ten-track album! And I have to say a big thank-you to Seamus Cullinane in Roseland Studios for guiding me along the way as well. I mean, what a great guy to go and record with. And with Stephen then, I’ve got videos for ‘Stumblin In’, as I mentioned, and ‘A Thousand Miles From Nowhere’, and ‘She Believes In Me’. So there’s a few videos running around out there on the internet, so there is, all produced by Stephen, and great job he’s done on them all. Look, you get the bug. I didn’t expect to get the bug! But I got the bug [laughs]. And all you want to do then is sing! It’s mad, isn’t it! [laughs].” 


Joe is a man of more than one passion, though. His wife and family are definitely at the top of the list, but after them, as well as music, cars and Liverpool FC also have very special places in the presenter’s heart…


“Yeah, I’m very much a family guy. If I had nothing else in this life, and if I died having nothing more in this life, then I’ve had everything in having my wife, our three children, out three grandchildren, and a fourth on the way! They are the rocks of my life. That’s what I build everything on. Cars, well I’ve always worked on cars since I was a young lad. I remember working as a sales-trainer/teacher with a company where I was training and developing people for four and a half years. A lovely clean job, earning good money, a briefcase, a suit, in at 9am in the morning, home at 4.30pm in the evening. And I still just had to roll up the sleeves, and get oil on my hands, and oil on my face and my hair, working and playing with cars! My latest thing now, that I’ve been doing for a few years, is I buy 1950s cars and restore them. Now if you could just see a photo of a couple that I have there, people would think that I was stone mad [laughs]. Most people say when they see them that they should be dumped. But I love it! It’s hard work, and it’s very labour intensive, but at the end when it’s done and you’re looking back on the finished products, it gives me such heart. Even if the car ends up being owned by someone else, as long as I get to drive that car and feel that I’ve made this – from start to finish – it gives you great pride.” 

And Liverpool? 


“Liverpool have been a part of my life since before I had my family, and always will be. I’m a passionate Liverpool fan. I just love the team. But I hate the way things go for them sometimes in so many situations. So many Premier League titles have gone-a-begging because of silly draws, struggling to get more goals. The one game that really broke my heart was the Crystal Palace game, where we were 3-nil up – 3-NIL UP – and we let Palace come back to draw. I think we lost the league by two points that same season. They kept pushing for more goals to get a better goal-difference, but they ended up drawing, and could even have lost in the end. You would not want to be beside me when I’m watching Liverpool play, because I go ballistic. Even my missus goes, ‘I’m going off to visit your mother, I’ll leave you alone to your battles!’ [laughs]. And that’s what it is, it’s an emotional roller-coaster, I don’t know how I don’t get a heart-attack. In fact, Will Faulkner recorded me – and I didn’t even know he was doing it – one time I was in one evening and Liverpool were playing. They were playing so bad that my language was…my language was choice! [laughs]. He recorded it and played it back with the expletives bleeped out and it was very funny. He caught me at my best! [laughs].” 

Probably hundreds of thousands of people around Ireland will know Joe as the presenter of Country Roads on Midlands 103, one of the most popular country music shows on Irish radio. Now I’ve met Joe many’s a time going into studio to present his show, and every time with armfuls of cds keeping him company for the night ahead. I asked Joe how much preparation goes into each show, because that’s something that a lot of people might not appreciate…


“Well for me, and number one, it’s very important that new artists get airplay. Now, in saying that, there is one little condition that I put on things. That’s that they can sing and that they’re single, or album, is recorded professionally. Sometimes people send stuff in, and they can sing alright, but the recording is awful. Or the other way round, the recording is brilliant, but they’re out of key, out of tune. So I won’t play those. I have to be very careful. I go through every single and album that’s sent to me, and I pick the very best of them. So even if I get in, let’s say for example, an EP of four tracks. I won’t just listen to the first one. If the first one is awful, I’ll still listen to the second and the third, ya know. I won’t be dismissive of anyone. And sometimes some of the people, the artists, who are around a long time, will send in a song that I think doesn’t suit them, so I won’t play it. I need to make sure that I put their best foot forward, so to speak. For them, and for me, and for the listeners as well. Sometimes too, people will ask me to give my honest opinion about a song, and I will. And I think I’ve only had one person who gave out about something I said. But, they did go ahead and change the way they were doing things after that and they improved a lot.”


“And it’s not just because I’m a professional”, Joe continued, “but look, I listen to all of the songs and all the singers. So who better to offer a comment as to whether something is good, bad, or indifferent, than the person who is playing them year-in, and year-out, for the past twenty years. Not all of those with Midlands 103, I started up in Dublin in 2000. So this year I’m actually twenty years in broadcasting. It’s not about insulting anyone, you never want to do that. It’s just about playing the very best of what’s sent it. So yes, there is a lot of preparation involved. Say Michael English brings out a new song, while I’ll play the bones out of that until it’s stuck in peoples’ minds and it’s branded as Michael English’s song, if you know what I mean. So what happens then for Michael, is people will say to him at a gig, oh will you play such and such a song, I heard it on Midlands 103. And that’s why they’ll ask for him to play it, because they’ve heard it. If they don’t hear it, they won’t know that any singer – be they old or new – have a new song out.”

Who, I wondered, is Joe’s own favourite country artist? If he was to do a one or two-hour special on someone, for instance, who would it be? 


“Well now…,that’s a very difficult question to answer! Because I want to be fair to everyone who’s sending me their records. But, I’m a massive fan of Mike Denver, and of Robert Mizzell, and Michael English, too. Derek Ryan, as well, Cliona Hagan, Lisa McHugh. Who would I go to to listen to as a fan? Well all of those artists. And The Back Axles, I’d sit all night and listen to those boys playing! If I was to look at this like making a cake, putting a few different ingredients in, and then making a decision as to who I thought was one of the very best in the country…I would say Mike Denver. Why would I say Mike Denver? Well let’s talk about those ingredients. There’s a lot of things. Mike is very approachable, a friendly guy. He could be away in Spain or somewhere when I play one of his songs, but a bleep will come on my phone, either from Mike or his manager, Willie Carty, to say listen, we heard you played the song there, thanks for the airplay. Now nobody has to do that, nobody. But Mike does. He’s so humble. He’s one of the biggest names in entertainment in this country, and yet, he carries himself like he’s just another ordinary guy. And I absolutely love that about him. So answering your question, it’s by adding all of those little things into the blend that I get Mike as my answer. I mean look, there’s so much competition out there. Michael English is off this planet, he’s brilliant. Robert Mizzell has that real American country voice, brilliant. Derek Ryan, in my opinion, is one of Ireland’s finest songwriters. And so can Michael English, for that matter. But Derek Ryan has album after album of self-penned tracks, and lots of other people are using his songs, too. Daniel O’ Donnell has recorded them, Michael has, Robert has, Mike has, all of these people have recorded songs Derek has written. An amazingly talented young man from Carlow. So I’d go to all of these lads. And Rosie Flanagan, there’s a local girl who is an absolutely superb singer. She had a duet out with Johnny Brady, which was gorgeous. Their voices blended so well together.”

Of the newer, and younger country artists on the scene, who has Joe been impressed by? 


“Eoin Mac, I don’t think anyone else will pass him for his vocal talent. He’s unbelievable. Well there’s lots of local talent around who have been catching my ear. There’s Colin Kenny from Banagher, there’s Alex Roe from Clara, who is starring on Glór Tíre at the moment. And it’s funny with Alex, when I first got his record in, there was one song I really liked so I kept playing it. So I said to him one day, Alex, will you send in more country songs to me, you have a great country music voice. I met him then at a fundraiser over in Banagher recently, one that I was singing at as well. Alex was on before me, and I was blown away by his Kenny Rogers, and his Merle Haggard, and his Willie Nelson songs that he was singing, songs that he hasn’t recorded yet at all. So that young man, in my opinion, he has massive potential. On the female artist side, there’s Olivia Douglas, of course, and Sabrina Fallon. Rosie Flanagan, too. Olivia is absolutely amazing. Herself and Sabrina. But they’re two different singers, but two powerful singers. And well able to get a crowd going, something that’s very important in the business. I was at another fundraiser recently – because I like to do some when I can, to give something back – and I was only meant to sing three or four songs, but they asked for one more. And that’s brilliant for a singer, to be asked to do another song. But what I loved even more was that the floor was full with people out dancing, and singing every word of the song with me. And that meant they must have been listening to the record that I released, my album. That’s the same kind of audience connection that I see with Olivia, that I see with Sabrina, with young Colin Kenny, who is a great little songwriter as well. Colin has written some songs that are very, very powerful. One of them was for Darkeness Into Light, Let’s Step Together, fabulous song.  And John Molloy is another man like that. A very talented guitar player, and a great ballad singer. There’s so many, many more out there that I could name. I love all the new people out there that are coming on board with country music, because they’re making my job easier. New people are refreshing my show all the time. There’s so many extremely passionate and talented young people, and new artists, out there. Not only making my job easier, but making it a pleasure. You have to have something new to play. I’ve never been bored in this job because of the amount of new, up-and-coming Irish talent that has kept coming along over the last twenty years. And of course, as a presenter, it’s also important for me to keep in mind the lads who trail-blazed over the years, like Larry Cunningham, Gene Stuart, Mick Flavin, Shawn Cuddy, Louise Morrissey, Susan McCann, Philomena Begley, people like that from way back in the day, but a lot of whom are still out there doing to this very day. You can’t forget them.” 


“And you know what”, concluded Joe, “I just want to give a mention to my mum, too. She’s eighty-six years of age now, her name is Patricia Cooney, but she’s known as Bernie Cooney. She sang all around the midlands years ago to keep us alive, and that’s exactly where I got my inspiration from to sing. She got the name Bernie – because she wasn’t Bernadette – years and years ago, I remember her telling me this story, when their dresses had to be down around their ankles! But Mammy wore dresses that were at her knee. This is a funny story, but it’s a fact. The dress was down to her knee, but when she’s sit down it would come up above her knee, and she got the name ‘bare-knee’! [laughs]. And that eventually became Bernie!”

~ You can tune into Joe on his show, Country Roads, every night of the week at 8pm on Midlands 103.

ENDS

Sal Heneghan

First Published December 2020

YOU CAN CALL HER SAL

Imagine, if you will, this scenario. You’re already a highly respected and extraordinarily blessed young musician, but it’s 2020, so your world has been pretty much turned on its head. One particular day starts off just like any other. Exactly like all the others, in fact! And you have no reason to think it will be any different to any of those that have gone before it, either. Because it’s 2020 after all, and there’s not exactly much happening on any given day.


But, what you don’t know is that on this particular day, your phone is about to beep, and that beep will make it one of the most memorable days of your whole life… !


Well that’s exactly the kind of day that Mayo woman SAL HENEGHAN had earlier this year. And it’s just one of the many reasons why she’ll always be able to look back on 2020 with a smile on her face. 
Sal is an incredibly talented musician, and those gifts have won her multiple All-Irelands, ensuring that she’s already a well-known name and face on the Irish trad scene. But thanks to a certain NATHANCARTER, who cast her as the main character of SARAH JANE in the video for his recent single of the same name, Sal has become a name and a talent that pretty much all of Ireland now knows of. And rightly so.


Nathan gave us the low-down from his side of things about how he ended up working with Sal when we spoke to him a few weeks back. And last week, we had the absolute pleasure of catching up with Sal herself. Out chat began with her sharing how it all unfolded from where she was standing…


“Well basically, I was out walking with my mum, Maura, one day, as all good stories start [laughs] – and within the five-kilometre radius that we can go in – and I received a text from a man called Peter Maher, who knows me because of a show I do in Galway, called Mise Eire. It’s a traditional Irish music show which I play fiddle and harp in. Peter co-writes some songs with Nathan, and he had mentioned my name to Nathan at some stage. So he gave me a text that one day and said, ‘Would you like to be in Nathan Carter’s new music video?’ And to be honest, at first I thought it was a joke [laughs]. I was a bit shocked! But then it all happened very fast. I met up with Nathan in two weeks’ time, after having a listen to the song, ‘Sarah Jane’ – which was absolutely fantastic – so I was definitely on-board with it all!” 

And of course Nathan didn’t just want Sal to play in the background, she was very much front-and-centre to the song, as the character of Sarah Jane herself. How did that feel?


“It was a weird feeling. I mean, I’ve never been in a music video before. When I met Nathan we had to make loads of eye-contact obviously, and we were falling in love and everything [laughs]. So it was very different, but it was so much fun. We did the video on Grafton Street. Nathan is such a big name, and the amount of people that just crowded around, even though it wasn’t a busy day at all, people just gathered around him. And he was so nice to all of his fans. It was such a fantastic day.” 

Had Sal ever met Nathan before they filmed his video together? 


“No, I’d never had the pleasure of meeting him properly before, but we did actually do one event, a charity concert for Virgin Media One, just a bit before the video in August this year. So that was the first time I met him.”

Everybody knows that Nathan is one of the biggest stars in Irish entertainment, but anybody who has actually got to work with him will always tell you that he is one of the soundest and most down-to-earth people that you could ever meet. So how did Sal find actually working with Nathan? 


“Absolutely fantastic. As you said just there, he is soooo down-to-earth. He made me feel so relaxed and so comfortable. We honestly had such a good laugh as well, it was such a brilliant day. He was just so warm and welcoming.” 

But it’s not just one Nathan’s new album (The Best of The First Ten Years, which features Sarah Jane) where people can find and enjoy Sal’s talent, because she’s the star of her own album as well – Sal – released recently, too. Now there’s no doubt that it’s been a strange year for anyone involved in the music business. And you can double, if not triple the strangeness factor for anyone who has been able to go ahead and release an album. So I was wondering if an album was something that Sal always had planned for 202 anyway, or was it more a matter of when Covid came along she decided that even though she might not be able to play ‘live’…she could still get into the studio and record? 


“Well back in March when everyone was at home and we couldn’t record anything, when we were just twiddling our thumbs in the sitting room [laughs], mum and dad had mentioned to me that I should make a cd, because I am currently doing music in college. At first, I wasn’t totally on-board, because I was only nineteen at the time. But then I kind of thought about it, and I picked out a few of my favourite tunes, and I thought, yeah, I definitely should do one. Why not? I’m not doing anything else [laughs]. So I started picking out all my tunes and I got in contact with a guy, Stephen Doherty, who is also from Mayo, and I was just asking him to help me with a few of my sets, and arrangements, and harmonies. Then he mentioned that he actually had a recording studio in Foxford, in Mayo. So that was just really handy. We went down every day to his studio and he was absolutely fantastic. It was great fun. My sister, Kate, who also plays music, and my mother, they both helped me totally along the way, they came to the studio with me the full time.” 

I wondered exactly why Sal had been initially reluctant to record her album when her parents first mentioned the idea to her? 


“Well basically, I’m a bit of a scared person, I must say! [laughs]. I just thought I should probably wait until I’m finished college. But then I was like, no, I’m young, I should do it now. I’m literally not doing anything else, so why not?” 

I asked Sal if her sister Kate had been involved with the Mayo based country-rock outfit Hurricane Highway [Ed Holland and Kevin Collins], as I seemed to recall her name showing up in a lot of press coverage about the band? 


“She was! Aaw, they were so good to her , she had so many lovely gigs with them. And they’re still in contact with her, actually.”

Sal has released two singles from her album so far, the gorgeous Farewell To You and Siocán Sneachta /The Gold Ring. I asked her to tell me about choosing those tracks for the album, and indeed, as her first singles, too. 


“So, the first track on the album is ‘An Siocán Sneachta’ and ‘The Gold Ring’, which are two jigs on the fiddle. I chose the first tune because a Mayo man actually composed it. His name is Joe Carey, from Belmullet. I just really liked it because it’s a very groovy tune. And following that, I played ‘The Gold Ring’, and that’s actually my dad TJ’s favourite tune, so I had to put that in as well [laughs]. That’s just a really nice traditional tune. ‘Farewell To You’ then is actually a song, I think it’s the third track on the album. It has lovely lyrics, and it’s written by a guy from Carlow called Eric Butler. It’s really nice and simple, and I just love the lyrics.”

Sal is not alone in loving that Farewell To You. It’s easily one of the most beautiful I’ve heard in a long, long time. But I couldn’t figure out if it was a really old song, because it kind of has that feel to it, or something penned more recently, because there are moments in it that indicate that as a possibility too…


“Yeah, I know. Eric Butler, a guy from Carlow wrote it, so it’s actually a very modern song, if anything! But it definitely has that old feeling to it. And the male voice that you hear on that song – now that you mention it – is my brother Paddy. He’s a fantastic singer, he does Fleadhs and everything like that. He has such a good sean-nós voice, so I just had to put him somewhere on the album. And his voice fits in really well there, because the song is a love story.” 

Not only does Sal have the most angelic of voices, she’s also gifted on the fiddle – as we know – and the violin, and the harp as well! And all at just twenty years of age. I could only assume that her folks had handed her her first instrument on about her second day on Earth! I asked Sal to tell me about her love for these different instruments, and to clear up that age-old area of confusion about the difference between a fiddle and a violin!


“[Laughs] Well that’s a great question! So a fiddle is for traditional Irish music, and simply a violin is for classical music. But they’re the same instrument. It’s just the genre of music that’s different. I play both of them, and I love them both. But I have to say the fiddle is the love of my life [laughs]. I also play the harp, which I took up when I was twelve. My two sisters – Kate and Maggie, who are older than me – played the harp before me. I just loved the way it sounded. so I took it on after them. We actually get lots of gigs on the harp, like weddings and stuff, it’s very popular for three harps.”

Before this year came along, as well as being busy with weddings, Sal also toured the United States with a group called The Young Irelanders…


“The Young Irelanders started out in or around 2014, I think, they’re a great group. I got offered that tour in January 2018, and I was absolutely delighted because I’d never done a tour before. It was a three-week tour around the U.S., and it was amazing! Lots of travelling involved, but we got to see everything. It was just unbelievable. And unfortunately because of Covid and everything, I haven’t done one since. But I’m really hoping that next year will be a great year for the tours.”

Did Sal tour with The Young Irelanders at the same time that country star Clodagh Lawlor was involved with the group, I wondered? 


“Yeah, she was there when I was touring. And she actually knows Nathan as well, of course. Clodagh is absolutely fantastic, she is so talented. She would just light up when she was on the stage. The Young Irelanders line-up does change a little bit, I think, like last year when I couldn’t go to Canada, for instance, my sister Kate took my place.” 

In speaking of times before this year came along, we can’t really ignore the fact that THIS year did come along. And with it, so many challenges for everyone. As a musician, what has been Sal’s experience of 2020…


“I suppose, yeah, to everyone this year has been a huge shock. I had loads of plans for 2020 but a lot of them were cancelled. I was meant to move to Inishbofin just to play a few tunes for the summer and work in the bar there. And I was meant to be going on an Erasmus to Sweden next January, to Gottenberg, but that got cancelled just this week, so it did. It’s been a difficult year for absolutely everyone, but I suppose we’re all just hoping that next year and 2022 will be amazing years for music and for performing.” 

Going back to Sal’s album, now that it’s been recorded, has been released, and is out there, what does she plan to do next with that? Will there be another couple of singles coming from it? Is it something that she’d like to tour in 2021 or 2022? 


“Well first of all, I’d love to have a launch for it! [laughs]. It was a pity I couldn’t have one, but I’ll definitely have one whenever I can. I did launch my website just after I released the album, so that people could buy it there, that’s just salheneghan.ie. And I’d love to tour around with it if I could. I know my sister Kate, who helped me with the album, she’s definitely be on-board with that. But we’ll just have to see how it all goes.” 

With so many amazing songs to choose from in the traditional Irish music genre, what was Sal’s process for actually selecting the songs for her album? 


“They’re just tunes that me and my family play at gigs. They’re sentimental and nostalgic. A lot of them are tunes that I’ve been playing for years. And there’s also a few that I’ve just recently learned in the Irish World Academy in U.L. (University of Limerick), that I just really loved. And my tutor, Siobhan Peoples, taught me a few of the jigs and reels. I just loved the melodies of all the tunes I put on the album. They’re all completely my own style.” 

Does Sal have a favourite track on the album? 


“Well…there’s a song on the album called ‘The Cabin With The Roses Round The Door’, and originally my brother sings that song. And he does such a wonderful job. I’ve always had a soft spot for it. So I definitely think that’s one of my favourites. Again, I just love the melody. That’s an old sean-nós song.” 

As Sal had mentioned, she’s currently doing her studies in the University of Limerick (she’s also studying for a Diploma in Classical Music from the Royal Irish Academy of Music at the same time). I asked her which area of music she was studying in U.L., and what direction she was hoping to take her life in when her time there comes to an end.


“So, I’m completely following in my sister’s footsteps, Kate [laughs], I decided to do the course Performing Arts in U.L. It’s basically about making you a better performer, and you also learn music theory, and you study world music as well. So it’s a fantastic course. Now with the direction I’m going, I’m actually really not sure. I mean, I never thought I’d feature in one of Nathan Carter’s music videos [laughs], so you never know where life is going to take ya! [laughs]. We’ll just see how it turns out! I’d love to just tour for a while, for as long as I can if I get that opportunity again. And yeah, just see where it goes from there!” 

I don’t think Sal will ever be short on opportunities to tour, given her outrageous talent, that’s for sure. 


Onto our last question, and as we move ever closer – hopefully, and fingers crossed – to a moment in time where the ‘normal’ we know once again is a world removed from what the normal of 2020 has been, I wondered what would be the first thing Sal would do tomorrow if we were back in a world where it was like Covid 19 had never existed? 


“Oh, it would be travel! I said it once, and I’ll say it again, touring. That’s what I’d love to do. And I really thought now, because I’m in third year and I’m on work-experience at the moment, I really thought my work-experience would involve touring. So if you told me there was a tour going tomorrow, to anywhere in the world, I’d be on that plane in one second, there’s no doubt!”

SAL, the beautiful debut album from SAL HENEGHAN, is out now and available on all platforms, and from Sal’s official website, www.salheneghan.ie You can also enjoy Sal’s talents on the track Sarah Jane, which features on the brand new album from NATHAN CARTER, The Best of The First Ten Years.

ENDS

Sandy Kelly

First Published March 2014

WARM, WITTY, AND WISE

They say you never forget your first time. And I can vouch for that. I mean, how could anyone forget a first time that involved a lady like Sandy Kelly?

Now before those of you with wayward minds drift somewhere you shouldn’t, I guess I should be just a little clearer on what I mean! What I’m talking about is the first time I realised that Ireland – our very own little country – could actually boast of stars so talented that even Johnny Cash wanted to hang out with them! Sandy Kelly was a household name when I was growing up and so was Johnny Cash. But Sandy was an Irish girl and Johnny was…JOHNNY CASH! And if he was so interested in singing with Sandy, then whatever she was, Sandy Kelly was not simply another Irish girl! She must have been something special. So I reasoned a way back when. And, as it turned out, I was right.

I had the pleasure of first meeting Sandy some years back when she appeared in the Bridge House on her Patsy Cline – Music And Memories tour and she was something special, a true lady of Irish music. As she prepares to perform in Tullamore again towards the end of the month, I had the pleasure of catching up with her again last week for a quick chat!

To get things under way, I asked Sandy how this tour with Mike (Denver) and Marc (Roberts) happened to come about in the first place, and if she was enjoying it so far?

“Well, how it came about, Anthony, is I met Mike, oh I suppose quite a few times at various concerts, and we always got on very well. So there was a friendship there anyway. Then Marc Roberts and I would be friends for years too. So I just got a phone call one day from Mike’s manager to ask if I’d be interested in guesting on his tour and I was thrilled to be asked. And then doubly excited when I heard Marc was going to be on the tour as well. It’s going great so far, I think everybody is delighted and amazed at how the three formats of music seem to really, really mix well. Marc, of course, is doing the songs of John Denver, while I’m doing the songs of Patsy Cline, and then of course Mike has his fans regardless of what he does, you know. So there’s a mixture of everything and for all age groups, children right up to grandmothers. It’s amazing so far.”



I wondered if Sandy’s early start in the business – she often used to appear on stage singing and tap-dancing from when she was just 3 years old, while touring with her father, Frank Ellis, who was part of the Duskey Family Show – has played a major role in helping her establish and maintain such a successful career over such a long period of time?

“Yeah, absolutely. The fact that I started in showbiz so early has actually, I think saved me, in many ways, Anthony. Because showbusiness can be a tricky enough business if you start believin’ your own publicity. I mean, if you start reading things in the newspaper about how great you are and you start believin’ it, then you have a problem! So because I was always surrounded by my family, whom were in the business, as a child and growing up, I just thought of it as being something normal. Rather than something extremely superhuman or super-special, ya know! It was always just what we did. And I think in a way, that both helped me to perform to my best, and hopefully I’m still learning to do that, and secondly, to survive a lot of the pitfalls that would be in our business.”



Certainly it sounds like it was better preparation for a life in music than is offered by so many of today’s reality based tv shows, where people are so often cast aside and left to fend for themselves as soon as this year’s ‘newer’ model steals the spotlight away. Would Sandy agree?

“I suppose in one way it’s nice that they’re given a chance and a platform to sing or perform or whatever their act is, that they wouldn’t otherwise get, you know, the tv coverage and audiences of hundreds of thousands in some cases. And yeah, that’s a good thing, I suppose. But as you say, Anthony, they are television shows and usually there’s only one winner. And even if you win, sometimes you’re not the winner! [as in, often times the acts that finish second or even third go on to greater success than the act that comes first]. And then everybody else is just cast by the wayside to go back to their normal, everyday lives. And that’s kind of what I said to you, about my family. If I was plucked from a ‘normal’ family and environment and put on the X-Factor and surrounded by all these people and media, then how would you go back to your ‘normal’ life if it didn’t work out?”



Sandy’s career has been intertwined with some of the biggest names in country music history. As well as recording with the likes of Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell, Sandy has played Tammy Wynette in the musical Stand By Your Man, and most famously perhaps, she has played the role of the late and so, so great Patsy Cline in the West End show Patsy Cline – The Musical, a show in which the fabulous George Hamilton IV also starred. But it’s impossible to talk about Sandy’s life without eventually getting around to the Man In Black himself, the one and only Johnny Cash.

When Sandy takes in the music scene of today, does she see anyone out there who might leave the same kind of legacies as Patsy and Johnny, her Woodcarver duet partner?

“Well country music has changed so much from the days of Johnny Cash. It’s gone almost mainstream poppy! There’s very little difference between a pop tune and a country tune because it’s all about the industry of selling records, Anthony. I think in Johnny Cash’s day it was more about the music. The real country music. So it’s difficult to say if anybody could directly follow in their footsteps. You’re still going to have huge artists, obviously. Garth Brooks is one, who’s amazing in his own right. But to me, it’s a different type of country music. And I don’t see anybody coming up that’s that traditional [as Johnny Cash]. Now, maybe there is and I just don’t know about them. That’s in mainstream country. Now in Ireland, I think the Irish country singers are sometimes more traditional than the Americans at the moment! I mean, you’ve got people like Mike Denver, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Mike sing live, Anthony (I have!), but he’s a fabulous country singer (he surely is that!). Marc and myself are probably more mainstream than traditional country, so you can’t count that. And I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Gerry Guthrie, have you? I would consider Gerry to be very contemporary, but having that traditional country feel. And also, like the Glen Campbell thing, he plays the guitar extremely well. So to me, Gerry would be someone I’d like to see going on [to success] if he’s given the chance.”



When she says ‘a different type of country music’, does Sandy mean that’s a bad thing? Or just the way most forms of music naturally evolve in some way or another over time?

“I don’t think you can actually say it’s bad, Anthony, it’s just the way music evolves, you’re right. And if that’s what it takes for it to survive and capture a younger audience, well, then that’s the way you have to go, isn’t it. You find all the young people in America, whereas they’re only catching on here, but for years and years in America they’ve been following all the country bands. And line-dancing, and wearing cute, hip country clothes which were seen as being totally uncool here! My son, Willie, is in a band called ‘Rackhouse Pilfer’, they’re a bluegrass, alternative American country band, and they’ve just come back from Nashville with their new album. And they’re a 6-piece, original band, Anthony. Totally 100% original music and that’s something new, I think, for Ireland. RTE Radio 1 play-listed them this week even though they’re unsigned. Actually, would you believe it, Anthony, they won an award at the Bluegrass festival down in Tullamore last year.”


For many involved in the arts, what they do often feels much more like it’s a vocation rather than just being ‘a job.’ What they do is just something they absolutely have to do, no matter what! That being said, of course, there are also people involved in the arts for whom what they do – unfortunately! – is little more than just a job! I wondered if this was something Sandy had experienced during her life in music? People who were involved from their heart first, and those who are never more deeply involved than their head tells them they need to be?

“I think both, Anthony. There are some people that, even though they should probably get out of show-business [for their own sake] a lot sooner than they do, and get a real job, don’t! But there’s just something in them that drives them. Nearly like an addiction. An audience and applause and the spotlight, that can become like an addiction for some people. I think there are a lot of people in show-business who shouldn’t be in it. But they’re just driven. Then you’ve got people that are exceptionally talented; singers, songwriters, musicians, whom are driven as well, but for a different reason. That’s their lifetimes’ ambition and their passion. And then I think there’s a small percentage of people who just see show-business as a quick-fix to stardom and money, and big cars! Which is something totally false. But I think because of all these reality shows and that…., I mean, have you ever seen as many kids in music, dance, singing and acting classes?! I mean they’re nearly auditioning for egg and spoon races now, you know! They all want this quick-fix, ‘discover-me’, x-factor thing.”



Having had the honour of representing Ireland at Eurovision with the Duskey Sisters (Here Today, Gone Tomorrow) in 1982, I couldn’t but ask Sandy for her thoughts on our Eurovision…ahem, ‘troubles!’, of more recent times! What does she think of the mentor system currently favoured for the selection process of our entry?

“Well, obviously I’d be very friendly with Louis Walsh and Linda Martin, and Aslan! And all the people that are fighting, so at the moment I’m keeping my head down, haha. I don’t want to be in the line of fire, Anthony! But joking aside and on a personal note, I do think they need to change it and go back to the more traditional way. So that it’s not so ‘in-house’, you know. I don’t think anybody meant any harm by trying to get these people [Louis, Linda, etc] together on panels or whatever, because after all, I suppose they are experts. But I think the old way worked best.”



Lastly, but by no means least, we came to my favourite question of all because it has the potential to offer the best insight into the lessons learned along the roads travelled by genuine stars of the stage and studio, of which Sandy is most definitely one. From everything she has experienced herself, what advice would she offer to anyone just starting out in show-business today, or to someone who is already involved, but perhaps struggling to make a breakthrough?

“Well Anthony, my advice is always very boring! But obviously, I’d say if you’re very young to not discontinue your education, because an education is very important. And no matter what line of work you’re in, but especially in show-business, Anthony. You have to be able to present yourself very well, be it at a dinner table or standing on stage, you have to be able to speak properly, you know. And you have to be able to count money, assuming you make some! So I think an education is the first thing. I think at a very early stage if you think you want to be an actress or a singer or a dancer or whatever, you have to take lessons or classes from the best possible people available to you. And then, like an athlete, you have to make that the number one priority in your life. Nothing else. That’s what I did. My singing was my number one priority in my whole life. You have to do without a social life and do without all the other normal things a teenager would do, and dedicate your life to it [singing, performing, etc]. Research it, work on every aspect of it. Because it’s difficult, honestly. If you’re struggling, if you’re already in the business but struggling, then persistence [is the key]. When I was in Nashville recording with Johnny Cash, there was a sign on the wall, in a frame. And it said, ‘Talent alone is not what helps you succeed, but persistence.’ So you must have talent, Anthony, but you must also have the persistence to keep trying. And then never give up!”



Would Sandy agree that many people have no idea about the level of sacrifice demanded of anyone who wants to be successful in the music business?

“I think most people don’t know about that at all, they really don’t. You know, that’s the one thing that’s really stood by Willie, is that he grew up around us and it certainly wasn’t a glamorous lifestyle by any stretch of the imagination! It was a lot of hard work. And a lot of people don’t get that chance, to witness that, when they’re growing up. They just see people on tv, in nice clothes, with people applauding them and records and stuff. But that’s really just the end result. If you’re lucky, that’s the end result! And that then is only part of the journey you’re about to begin. But fame is like a bubble, Anthony, it only lasts a certain amount of time and you have to be able to cope with it. You have to remember, too, the word ‘business’ in show-business. Surround yourself with good people; a trustworthy manager and solicitor and stuff like that. Because I was in court more times than I was on stage probably! So I wish somebody had given me the advice that I’ve just told you, haha. And you can tell everybody I’m not a beacon of exceptional knowledge; I’m just speaking from all the mistakes I’ve made myself!”

ENDS