Nadia Sayers

First Published January 2021

A NEW QUEEN REIGNS

Ever since model and entrepreneur BRITTANY MASON took the helm at the organisation, the annual crowning of the new MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND has become one of the most glamorous events on the Irish social calendar. Up until this year, the event has always been held in the famous Round Room at Dublin’s Mansion House, where the first Dáil Eireann met in 1919, and which has also been graced by the presence of Pope John Paul II and Princess Grace among others. In August of 2019, under that same spectacular domed roof, FIONNGHUALA O’ REILLY was crowned Miss Universe Ireland, taking over from the 2018 Queen, GRAINNE GALLANAGH.


Fig, as Fionnghuala is affectionately known, made history that warm summer’s night by becoming the first woman of colour to take the Miss Universe Ireland title. Little did anyone know back then that perhaps the strangest of all possible years lay just up ahead. When the time eventually rolled around to crown her successor, Fig had gone on to make more history by becoming Ireland’s longest serving Queen, being an elegant, inspirational, and always amazing ambassador for Ireland for an incredible 508 days. However, on December 21st – in a magnificent virtual ceremony for which Brittany, Jscot Reid and their team must be commended – Miss Universe Ulster, NADIA SAYERS, was finally announced as MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND 2020, the fourth Queen of Brittany’s Moxie Era (CAILÍN TOBIN was the first in 2017).


Only a few days later, on New Year’s Eve morning, we had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with Nadia. And, as you would expect, we began by saying good morning to Nadia, but equally so, of course, we could just as easily have said, ‘Good morning, Miss Universe Ireland’, because that is officially Nadia’s new title. But, is that fact something which Nadia has started getting used to yet, and is her family under orders to only address her as such from now on? 


“[Laughs] Oh I’m so not used to it at all! [laughs]. I think because of the lockdowns obviously, we haven’t been seeing people as much. But all of my family did have great fun writing me cards that said Miss Universe Ireland, and that was really strange to see, and it gave me butterflies. So I’m still not used to hearing it, not yet [laughs].” 

I wondered if Nadia felt like it’s something that she will ever get used to? Because, whatever about right now, it’s definitely  going to get to a stage where she will be hearing it a lot. But might it always feel something like an out-of-body experience of some kind? 


“I don’t think I ever will [get used to it]. The day after I was announced as the winner, I was messaging some of the past winners, because thank goodness, they all took the time to send me a message and congratulate me. And I was just saying to them that this all feels so strange. It feels like a dream, but I don’t know if it will ever not feel like a dream! And every one of them said that you’re in a bubble right now, but it will never ever not feel like a dream [laugh].” 

As if to prove that you should never give up on a dream when it’s something that you really want in your heart of hearts, this was actually Nadia’s second time to enter Miss Universe Ireland, having also finished in the Top Ten – alongside eventual winner Fig – in 2019. But before we came back to why she decided to enter a second time, I wanted to find out how her Miss Universe Ireland journey had first begun…


“Miss Universe Ireland had always been a goal that I had looked at. But in all honesty, when I was younger I thought it was a goal that I was never going to achieve. Then it kind of died down for a few years here as well. But then whenever Brittany and the Moxie team took it over, I straight away bought tickets and went and watched it that first year, the year that Cailín won (Cailín Tobin, Miss Universe Ireland 2017). And it was just because I had always seen the likes of Joanna Cooper and other Miss Universe Irelands who had always done so well, not only within the pageant, but they seemed to grow so much as a person throughout and then afterwards. And I really respected how much was invested into them, and how much people reached out to support them. So obviously, to cut a long story shorter [laughs], whenever I saw that it was coming here, I bought tickets straight away, me and a few friends, to watch Cailín that first year. And I was in complete awe. Of one, the range of girls who were in the Top Thirty. They were not, by any means, carbon copies of each other or moulds of what a particular pageant girl should look like, which is sometimes dictated by society. They were all backgrounds, all ages, all shapes and sizes, all their own unique beautiful. And that was the first thing that really struck me. Then obviously the production of it all. You really got a feel for the family that was Miss Universe Ireland, even from just sitting in the audience. So I became very attached to it then. When Cailín was crowned, I followed her journey that year. And again, I saw how she had grown as a person. And at no point did it seem that they had tried to put her into a mould. They just simply helped her to embrace herself more. That really just struck me. And I thought that again then the next year with Grainne. So, I just sucked it up eventually, and I thought I have to apply! Cos’ I’m never gonna get there if I don’t give it a go!” 

So it sounded very much like Nadia had probably made her mind up that first year, even just sitting in the audience watching Cailín, that she was going to enter herself some day? 


“Yes, it was more like a goal. Like, I would love this, but I don’t know if I’ll get there. If that makes sense? But it was definitely something in my head, I’m gonna try this. I need to. Because otherwise I’m gonna regret it.” 

In 2019 Nadia did enter, and it obviously lived up to her expectations. I asked her to tell me what that first year was like…


“It was great! I’d seen, again, how much Grainne had come on as a person because I’d actually competed with Grainne the year before, so I’d known her before she became Miss Universe Ireland. Again, the same kind of thing had happened, I’d seen how much she had grown, but how much she had stayed true to herself, but highlighting that and embracing it. So whenever I applied – I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was – of how much time Brittany and the rest of the team actually give to you one-to-one to try and teach you on all aspects from interviews to styling, even just having check-ins with you to see how you are and what you want to achieve. It was phenomenal the amount of personal growth I went through in that time-period. It was surprising to me. The team were so welcoming and friendly, and all of the girls were lovely. It really did seem like a little community.” 

Until just a few years ago, I have to confess that I was never aware that you could enter a pageant like Miss Universe Ireland twice. So what prompted Nadia to go for it again in 2020? 


“After last year, I kind of took a step back. I was like, ok, I’ve done it…am I done? [laughs]. My family were like, well give it a month or two and have a think about it. Have a rest first. But as the time was going on, and especially coming into 2020 and how the year was presenting itself, I kept seeing the Miss Universe Ireland stuff popping up on my social media. And every time I saw it I got a little bit of butterflies in my stomach. Do I go for it? I very much live along the lines of am I gonna regret it more if I try it, or if I don’t? Because who wants to pile on the regrets?! Obviously we’ll all have some, but you want to try and have that amount be as little as possible [laughs]. So I just went for it. I actually applied and I told nobody! It wasn’t until I found out that I’d made it into the Top Twelve that I actually told anybody [laughs]. I kind of said to my fiance, ‘So, what would you think if I thought about doing this…’, but I’d already applied [laughs]. My mum actually found out on Facebook! [laughs].” 

Right now, of course, with the way everything remains due to Covid and all of the health restrictions associated with it, making plans of any kind is quite the challenge. So have Nadia, Brittany, and the Miss Universe Ireland team been able to put any shape on what might be happening next? 


“Well like you said, it’s just so difficult. Because even with the competition, there were four, five, six, seven versions of everything because things kept changing and restrictions kept changing. We have had a few initial meetings, brainstorming ideas and the goals we want to reach before the end of my reign, and what we want to reach before going to Miss Universe too. So we have a few things in the pipeline, but again, we’re just having to be flexible, and roll with the punches as Brittany always says, because we don’t know what’s coming around the corner. There’s nothing else you can do at the moment. So it’s just about keeping the goals clear, and keep moving forward.” 

Although Nadia isn’t actually in possession of the Miss Universe Ireland crown just yet, as the official crowning by and handover from Fig has yet to take place, this won’t be her first crown either, as Nadia was Miss Intercontinental Ireland in 2017…


“Yeah, I held that title in 2017. And there was one before that, the Miss Earth Water crown, which was a runner-up title. They crown Miss Earth, and then three runners-up. That was the first pageant that I’d ever come across that was kind of available to me. So I decided to enter because someone had said, ‘Sure imagine you up there on stage in a big sparkly dress, you’d look ridiculous!’ So I said ok then…and I went to my Uni room and applied! [laughs]. Yeah, cos’ I wasn’t always the girliest of girls, and I would still be the same. That goes along with that stereotype that if you’re gonna be a model or gonna do pageantry, then you’re going to love everything that’s pink and sparkles, and that’s that. So yes, that little bit of stubborness kicked in and that’s what started me in pageantry! [laughs].” 

My next question was going to be just that: what had actually got Nadia started in pageantry in the first place, but according to herself…it was basically stubbornness?!


“Basically, yeah! [laughs]. I’ve been modeling since I was sixteen, and I come from Tyrone, so none of my friends had really come across anyone who was going out to try and do modeling at that time. I had a lot of friends who were guys as well, and I was quite…tomboyish. Well that’s what you would have said then, but I just like my Converse! [laughs]. And I like my rock music. So yeah, they were just like, imagine you up there in a big sparkly dress, you’d be ridiculous up there! And I was like, right, well I’m just gonna show you that I would NOT be ridiculous! [laughs].” 

Going back to what Nadia had said about knowing Grainne since before she was crowned Miss Universe Ireland in 2018,  I asked her about when the pair first met…


“We actually met in that Miss Earth competition. In that year, a girl called Maire Lynch won, and Grainne was I think the first runner-up, and I was the second runner-up. So we had met while we were competing there and had just kind of kept in touch ever since. So obviously when I saw that she was competing in Miss Universe Ireland, I was very excited to follow her journey in that. And even still, her Instagram cracks me up every day! [laughs].” 

Having seen what Grainne has gone on to do since her time as Miss Universe Ireland, and indeed, everything that Fig achieved during her reign and everything that’s about to happen next for her, how excited does that make Nadia feel about the opportunities and the challenges that could be about to come her way? 


“It’s unbelievable. And that’s a part of the whole I still can’t believe this is really happening thing [laughs]. Like you said, I competed with Fig, and I knew Grainne beforehand, and both were amazing girls, lovely girls. And now I’ve seen how far both have come in a relatively short space of time. It seems like a phenomenal jump and phenomenal growth. So I just cannot wait to meet the team in person and get working as soon as we can, and especially after the holidays, because with Christmas and New Year’s and everything they all deserved a break too! [laughs]. I cannot wait to see what comes along. I was actually writing out a little list of goals and stuff before our call.” 

Nadia had mentioned that a lot of people assume that pageants are all about pink, and all about sparkles, and how there are just so many assumptions like that which exist. Something that most people probably wouldn’t put pageantry alongside is psychology, but Nadia is actually a psychologist-in-training and working with the Hope 4 Life charity. Part of the work Nadia is involved in centres around comics and what I think is one of the most fascinating , innovative, and praiseworthy concepts I’ve ever heard of. I’ll let Nadia explain…


“Hope 4 Life is, in basic terms, a mental health early intervention charity. So they specialise primarily in training in early intervention projects. They aim to give people the skills to support themselves and help themselves to look after their well-being, so they don’t get to the stage where they’re in crisis. One of the projects that they do is around youth work because after my boss had met with teachers from all over the country to see what would help them, their primary issue was that they were worried about the mental well-being of our students. And we can’t do anything about it because we’re not trained to. We don’t know what to do. They had basically said that the best thing we could do for children across the country was to develop something for the children that can help them. The team was amazing, and before I joined them they had come up with this concept. They got a group of young people together into a forum, and said look, this is what we aim to do, how best should we do it? Go away for a few weeks and think about it, and come back. The Hope 4 Life team, as well as these young people, both came back and said superheroes! Superheroes will work because kids agree that superheroes represent good things. They represent justice. They represent saving the day. And supervillains represent all these negative, external things that aren’t a part of you, but are an external influence that affects you. So they took that then and decided well, if we’re going to do comic books and superheroes, we want them to actually be relevant. Because even me, at twenty-six, I can’t tell a thirteen year old I know exactly what they’re going through, because I don’t. Society and life is constantly changing. So when I was thirteen is very different to when someone is thirteen now.”

Nadia continued, “So basically, they decided they’re going to use real stories. So people who have maybe been through their own difficult times, and come through it, or who are coming through it, and want to share their stories – because sometimes it’s closure for them, sometimes it’s cathartic, sometimes it’s to know that out of a tough time – they’re drawing a silver lining which is giving hope to other people that they will get through their tough times too. We developed a comic, and there’s thirteen now. The most recent one is a lockdown comic. What we do, and what I do, is we go into primary schools and secondary schools and community youth groups, and we’ll go through the comic. In non-Covid times, kids would get up and they’d role-play the comic and then we’ll talk about some of the issues that might have come up in it, and come to solutions and find tools that will help the kids in the future should they come across these problems. Now, normally you could break up into little groups and have a more intimate conversation, but because of  Covid we can’t do that. But it tends to work really well. One of the key things that the charity always does is we never put a child on the spot when we’re talking to them. So for instance, the lockdown comic – which is all about lockdown and was written by young people for young people – is based on their experiences of lockdown, their fears, anxieties, confusion. Instead of asking them, ‘Why were you scared during lockdown?’, which, in the middle of a classroom can be terrifying for a child to have to answer, we say – the lead character is called Sophie – so we say, ‘Why might Sophie be scared? What might have been goin’ on in the comic that might have been making her scared?’ And so often then, the kids come forward with THEIR answers, but in their mind it’s just what Sophie might have felt.” 

One of the things that Miss Universe Ireland director Brittany Mason always puts a very strong focus on is that each year’s winner uses their platform to highlight a cause or an issue that’s very personal to them. With Fig in 2019 it was about concentrating on women in S.T.E.M. With Grainne the year before, it was about womens’ health. It sounds like Nadia’s focus in this regard will be on mental health, and if indeed it is, does she have any ideas on what ways she might be able to use her platform over the next year? 


“I would say mental health, and in particular, early intervention [will be my focus]. There’s amazing people working out there in mental health at the moment, and they’re saving lives. But waiting lists are still growing. Services are still feeling the pressure. So we need to start putting in the foundations now for the future, by teaching people how we might be able to stop you from getting to that stage. This is what we might be able to do ourselves, and then, if you still need to get more help, obviously go and get more help. But it’s just about trying to be pro-active as opposed to being constantly reactive. That’s something that I want to highlight a little bit more. I think, again, this stigma [that exists] around talking if you’re not feeling ok, and just saying, ‘You know what, I’m not having a great day.’ And the stigma around journaling and mindfulness, the way people find them a bit airy-fairy but no-one really understands them practically or how to do it. I want to have meetings with some of the smaller grassroots charities that are there that can provide help, and highlight what they’re doing, and create awareness for them so that people can go to them if they need to. But also to spread the word and learn more about what is going on in your own area for young people, and what can we provide or what can we teach to help them in the future. And as well, I think, just in general creating a little bit of hope that if you are struggling – like we all have, like I have, and I talk very openly about it – that’s not going to be your struggle forever. So I’m working my way through a potential check-list of things that are fully dependent on restrictions, but we’re very lucky to at least have the technology that means I can still reach out to people and to organisations, and start having those conversations.” 

Even though we’re all back in another lockdown right now, I think it’s fair to say that Nadia probably has happy enough memories of the first one last year seeing as how she mentioned her fiance a little earlier in our chat. She said yes back in May…


“Yeah [laughs], he’s called Calvin, and bless him [laughs], he’s doing really well! His phone blew up as well, with people kind of having a joke with him. I think he’s very proud and he’s very excited. To be honest, I was at one of my lowest points whenever we got together, so he’s seen me come through that, to where I could say I want this, and this is what I’m gonna go get. And now I’ve done it! He was a bit speechless, as much as I was, after it was announced, but I think he’s just proud. And God bless him, now he has to take on more wedding planning responsibility because I’m a busy bee! [laughs].” 

As it was New Year’s Eve morning when we spoke, I had to ask Nadia what kind of a New Year’s Eve person she usually is, and what were her plans for later that night?


“I’m very big on traditions, and sticking to traditions, and trying to make my own. I’m a real sucker for them! So, typically, in every other new year for the past…maybe ten years…, myself and a group of friends that I went to school with – I’ve known them since I was ten – we all would get together at one of our friends houses and just have a little new year’s party, because that way we actually got to spend time together. And every year on New Year’s Day, we set out what we think is going to happen. We make predictions for the next year. That means that every New Year’s Eve at 11.50pm we read out the predictions, and you have a good laugh at them because some of them are just ridiculous. And some of them might have come true. We make the predictions for each other, for our wee group as a whole. So it could be that someone is going to meet someone, or someone is going to get a house, and there’s always some random ones in there. But it’s always funny to look back and think what were we thinking a year ago at this time?! [laughs]. Tonight is going to be a lot quieter than every other year [laughs]. We’re just going to get in some indian food, and me and Calvin are just going to chill out in the living room with our cat, Espresso, and just ring in the New Year together and be grateful for what we do have, even though this year has obviously been so unprecedented! Nobody could have imagined what it was going to be like, but I know I’ve taken in and learned and reflected a lot this year. So yeah, I think we’re just gonna sit-in, chill-out, and be grateful for everything that’s happened, and all the little things that we have, and hope that next year we can…go out and have a cup of coffee! [laughs].” 


~ You can follow Nadia’s Miss Universe Ireland journey by following Nadia and Miss Universe Ireland on Facebook and Instagram.

ENDS

Cassadee Pope

First Published December 2020

ALWAYS RISING HIGHER, SHINING BRIGHTER

It’s said – and more often than not it’s true – that you can tell a lot about a person by knowing who their friends are. Likewise, for an artist, you can tell a lot about someone by paying attention to who they’re often spoken about in the same breath as. 


Floridian singer/songwriter CASSADEE POPE has one heck of a crossover of folk who show up in both those two groups. There’s guitar wizard Lindsay Ell. There’s the runner-up from season ten of American Idol, Lauren Alaina. There’s RaeLynn, whose 2017 debut album Wildhorse introduced itself to the world by way of the Top Ten on Billboard’s All-Genre album chart, whilst also debuting in the top spot on Billboard’s Country album’s chart, which made RaeLynn the first female country artist to do so since Maren Morris with her major-label debut long-player, Hero, in 2016. And there’s Maren herself, one of the Highwomen, a Grammy winner, and thanks to collaborations with Niall Horan and Zedd and Grey, a name known worldwide as well as being one of modern country’s superstar names. 


If Cassadee happens to be a name new to you, then knowing such artists are both her friends and contemporaries should be your first clue to her greatness. And not just as an artist, by the way, but as a person, too. And let there be no doubt, that greatness runs deep, and exists independently of anyone she might know. 


Cassadee was the winner of The Voice US back in 2012, when she was coached by country mega-star Blake Shelton. That same year, her version of Over You from the show became an iTunes #1, knocking Gangnam Style back into the #2 spot. In 2017, Cassadee became the first ever contestant from the show to be nominated for a Grammy, thanks to her duet with Chris Young, Think Of You. She’s also toured with Chris, with her friend Maren, with Tim McGraw, and with Dierks Bentley, to name but a few of the marquee names who have invited her on the road. Funnily enough, though, Cassadee’s musical journey began in what might be described as a world away from country, in a pop/punk band called Hey Monday whose big break came when Pete Wenz – bass player with Fall Out Boy – discovered the group’s demo in his manager’s office. Hey Monday’s single, Candles, even featured on an episode of Glee. 


Quite apart from her list of achievements as an artist, however, what always stands out about Cassadee – certainly to this writer – is her authenticity. She is, to put it simply, real to the bone. That was always how she came across to me before I actually had the pleasure of spending some time in her company. And, wouldn’t you know it, a little time in conversation with Cassadee proved that hunch to be right on the money. 


There were so many reasons why I was looking forward to chatting with Cassadee, and when that opportunity came my way a few weeks back, there was nowhere better to start than with the remix to her single Rise And Shine, from her EP of the same name. Now, for those who may not know, remixes in country music are generally more the exception than the norm. So when I first heard about the Rise And Shine remix, what made me most curious was why Cassadee might have wanted to present that particular track in a different light. But then, I heard Cassadee talk somewhere about when she heard that Dave Audé wanted to do the remix, which made it sound more like the idea might have come from outside of her camp. So, I asked Cassadee how, in fact, it did all come to happen…


“Well, my manager, Daniel Miller, texted and said how would you feel about a remix of ‘Rise And Shine.’ And at first, I was like, this doesn’t sound like a song that would lend itself well to a remix [laughs]. I’m thinking, you know, of it being turned into a Calvin Harris kinda remix – uuugh! – and that doesn’t seem like it would make sense. And then they said that Dave wanted to do it. Obviously I know his work, but I looked into more, and I was like ah, ok, he’s got a different vibe and it’s not super-clubby all the time. So I said ok, let’s try that. Then I got sent a verse and chorus of what he was thinking for the song. And that was so exciting, because it really just added this whole other anthemic level to the song that I wanted the song to have. But it being acoustic obviously, it only could go so far. I really felt like he took it to the next level, with a lot of the kinda big 80s snare sounds, and it was very ambient. I just felt so excited about it, I said yeah, definitely, let’s go ahead. And he was really great to work with, he was open to some tweaks. I wasn’t sure because I’ve never done a remix with somebody, so I wasn’t sure how the process would go. But it was really collaborative and I’m super happy with how it turned out.”

As Cassadee mentioned there being some tweaks involved, I wondered if it was a case of Dave sending her along some different versions as he worked on them to see what she liked and make sure she was cool with the direction the track was taking? 


“Yeah, definitely. And like honestly, there weren’t that many things. There were two little notes that I had, and they were really minor changes. For instance, the beat was coming in a little later on the second verse, and I wanted it to come in a little earlier. He sent me what he had, kind of the first round of what he felt comfortable sending me, then I had a couple of tweaks, and he did it in like an hour! And that was that [laughs]. That was the extent of the back-and-forth as far as tweaking the song [went].” 

Cassadee has described her Rise And Shine EP as being, “emo-country, acoustic record”, a description I happen to really like. As an acoustic collection, it’s obviously going to be quite different to a full-band affair anyway. But coming so soon after her album Stages (February 2019), it seemed clear to me that Rise And Shine is also a record she values just as much as her Stages long-player, and creatively-speaking, is a side of herself that Cassadee thought important enough to share with her fans right now…was I right? 


“Yeah, definitely. This album was a product of the pandemic, it was me really wanting to release something – not just for the fans and hopefully helping them out – but for myself. It was a tough year, you know. I’ve felt a big jolt in my lifestyle in not travelling and meeting fans, playing shows. So I was thinking about what I could do that would be safe, but that I could still get new music to people. And I also felt like the world at that time [early in the pandemic] was in such an acoustic state, of there not being a lot of things to be able to distract us from our problems, with not being able to go to shows, and not being able to go to house-parties or to clubs or whatever. So, I felt like it was a kind of parallel to where we were in the world, and I was really happy to see that people were appreciative of some new music and were connecting with some of the lyrics, too.” 

I wanted to move on to ask Cassadee about her songwriting. In speaking about her song How I Feel Right Now, she described going into that writing session that day with no real ideas about what to write, but then telling her co-writers on that session about a relationship she was in, and in doing so saying something like, “…and that’s how I feel right now.” And in that moment, there was their song! How important is it for Cassadee – as a songwriter – to be able to allow herself to open up like that about her personal life? And also, and perhaps more importantly, the importance of having co-writers with whom she knows she can be so open? 


“I’ve definitely learned that unless you’re willing to completely open up and share things, you’re not gonna get the depth that you want to get in a song. When I first came to Nashville, that was a really weird thing for me. I wasn’t completely trusting in the process. Telling people about my personal life felt really odd. I mean, at that point, I hadn’t been to therapy ever, so I just wasn’t used to opening up to people to that extent. But once I started, and I started to get the songs that are still my favourites – some of the songs on my first record, ‘Frame By Frame’ – I realised, well, that’s what you have to do in a session. Now, going into the sessions – and this year I’ve been writing on Zoom a lot – I’ve really been super, super intentional with the direction. I’m definitely going more pop/rock for the next full-band record. I’ve been going into these sessions with a clear, focused idea of that sound. And then also, I’ve had so many ideas that have just come up for me, maybe like two seconds before a session! Then I’m like I want to bring this up in the session. So it really depends on the day, but I’ve definitely felt so inspired, especially with the year we’ve had. Socially inspired, but also with this new approach that’s pop/rock and heading in that direction. It’s opened my mind up to a lot more ideas. If I feel a certain way that day [of a session], but someone says something that makes me want to write a different idea, then I’m being open to doing that.” 

Something else Cassadee once said is that, “I will probably never stop writing about my first love and my first heartache.” As a songwriter, I wondered if what Cassadee meant by that is that she returns to old relationships a lot to almost mine those memories for songs, looking at things from slightly different perspectives, or focusing on a slightly different emotion each time? 


“Yeah. I mean, I think that first love and your first heartbreak will stick with you, it will be so vivid, and it will be the first time that you’ve felt that thing, that deep, deep pain or that deep, deep obsession with someone. I think the first time is always the most vivid in your memory. Obviously now, fast forward to being thirty-one, and I’m writing about all relationships I’ve been in, so I’m not discriminating against the other ones [laughs]. The first time of anything is so vivid in your mind. For me, it’s so easy to go back to that feeling and write from that place. I think that’s always going to be something that people can relate to as well. I don’t ever want to just write love-songs, or just write life-songs or whatever. I want all my projects to be pretty well-rounded as far as the lyrical content goes.” 

Cassadee had mentioned this year in the context of what’s been happening socially, so I wondered if she found herself taking on any of those subjects in her lyrics? Not necessarily in a protest song style, but still directly relating to what’s been happening in the world this year, on the socio-political side of things as well as with Covid…


“Yeah, I’ve basically got a song where I’m calling people out who are basically being judgemental about someone’s lifestyle as if it’s affecting them. The actual hook-line is, ‘If you were happy, you would mind your own business’, [laughs]. I just was so frustrated with seeing my friends who are gay, or who have a new baby and posted a picture only to have people commenting saying ‘you’re not holding it right!’, or whatever! I just got so fed-up with people that were so invested in someone else’s life, especially my friends. So I just wrote a song that day and it’s turned out to be one of my favourites actually! It’ll be something people hear, for sure.” 

On Cassadee’s song Distracted, she’s joined by Lindsay Ell, Lauren Alaina, and Raelynn, all of whom Cassadee said came in to record their parts during CMA Week in Nashville, which is, of course, one of the craziest times of the year for country artists. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindsay a couple of months back and what I noticed about her – not just during our chat, but in other interviews I’ve seen with her too – is that she always takes every chance she gets to give a shout-out to her friends who are also artists. And I’ve noticed that same trait in Cassadee. I asked her to tell me about the importance of that community of friends who are also artists.


“Oh man! I mean, it’s really saved me in so many ways. I remember really not leaning into it until three, maybe three and a half years ago. I had gone through a really weird year of transitions, getting out of a long-term relationship, getting out of a record deal, really doing all of those things at the same time. And I needed friends to really help me through that. So I leaned on my friends because I just wanted to connect with them on a level I just hadn’t been able to yet, just because of my own mental capacity I wasn’t able to really lean into those friendships as much as I could have. And also, just having someone that I was with for so long, who was my person to go to for everything, and now all of a sudden I was single, so I had to lean on my friends. The friends that I felt like I had the most common ground with are my artist friends. And it’s really the best decision I’ve ever made because now there’s just this group of girls and women that are there for each other, even when I just need to vent. Or if I just need to have a drink with someone and have it be light and easy. It’s a group of women that are going to be whatever we need to be for each other in whatever moment they need us. Lindsay and Raelyn, and Lauren, and Maren [Morris], those are the friends that I’ve really connected with over the last few years that have helped me through some pretty tough times.” 

Speaking of character traits and personality traits, from her time on The Voice on Cassadee has had some amazing opportunities to work with some equally amazing artists; Blake [Shelton, her mentor on The Voice] obviously, Chris Young, Tim McGraw, Dierks Bentley, Maren, and of course, Sam Palladio. In working with and being around those guys, what did Cassadee learn from watching how they do things that she’s been able to apply to her own career or take into her own life? 


“I think there’s a certain level of confidence that all of those guys that you mentioned have. There’s confidence, and there’s also humility. I’ve noticed that most of the people I’ve come into contact with – especially in the country world – are so humble, and so family orientated. They just want to be your mentor. Somebody that I’ve been really lucky to work with on a personal level, but also on a music level, is Karen Fairchild, from Little Big Town. She’s kind of been like a ghost-mentor for me [laughs]. It’s not like when we hang out there’s a slew of selfies and stuff. When I see her, I’m like a sponge. I’m like ok, tell me everything! [laughs]. When I had that year that I was talking about earlier, when I was really transitioning and not having a team around me, she was the one I called and I was like, can you meet with me and can I pick your brain about stuff? I asked her about a manager I was thinking of hiring, and she knew about him and was able to tell me things. And she has that humility. She has the confidence, but she has that humility. I think that’s something that is kind of a constant in the biggest country artists. There’s that relatability. And when you see them and meet them, and hang out with them, I think they all have that thing in common. And I’m lucky to have people like that that I can look up to and ask questions.” 

And speaking of Sam, with whom Cassadee is in a relationship – and who duets with her on the song California Dreaming on Rise And Shine – the pair had an actual show at the City Winery in Nashville just the week before we spoke. I asked Cassadee how it felt to be able to perform again.


“I haven’t had a full-band show since December [2019], so I was really excited to get a full-band show! [laughs]. I had done a couple of acoustic things this year, but yeah, nothing like that. We had a really good time! But it also made us realise, hey, we could do this! You know, if we want to do a co-headlining tour someday or something like that. It felt so good to be up there in general, but to be up there with him was really fun. He sang harmonies on my songs, I sang harmonies on his songs. It was just a really fun collaborative night, it was amazing.” 

Did Cassadee and Sam have an audience there with them to enjoy the show? 


“Yeah. So City Winery basically had a big outdoor tent with tables, two-tops, four-tops, and six-tops. So if a household had six people in it and they wanted to come to the show, they were taken care of. The crowd was set up…gosh…like a good twelve feet from the stage, so we were never exposed to anyone. The crowd had to wear masks, too. Sam and I, we’ve been pretty on the cautious side of things this year, and haven’t really gone anywhere or done anything. We went to a friend’s show, that was kind of a big deal for us, and we hopped up for a couple of songs at City Winery. And that’s when we realised that they were doing such a good job. So we actually said to them that if they had any open dates we’d really love to do a show because we thought they were doing such a good job. And then yeah, fast-forward to it happening and we sold it out, and it was awesome.” 

Cassadee is an independent artist now, coming from a pop/rock background from her time with her band Hey Monday, and she has the most magnificent arm tattoo that’s both beautiful and hard to miss. Plus, Cassadee and Sam live over on East Nashville, somewhere I learned all I know about from listening to the brilliant singer/songwriter Todd Snider. So it’s probably fair to say that Cassadee is far too free and independent a spirit to fit nicely into the kind of categories and products that country radio often seems to prefer. Only the actual music itself should ever matter, of course, but has Cassadee ever found that country radio can be a battle for an artist like her? 


“Oh yeah! I mean, I’m at the point in my career – and especially this year – where I’m just writing the stuff that makes me really happy. Like, my next full-band record, I’m going more pop/rock and I’m not focusing on making sure I tick all the boxes that country radio has. There has to be a country accent in the voice, you know, and there has to be a banjo, there has to be steel [guitar]. I’m really not focusing on any of that, because I know deep down that I’m a country artist and that my sensibilities lean country. But I also love pop/rock, and I don’t want to ever feel like I have to compromise who I am to fit in a box, or in a format. Just because I would love a country radio hit, that can’t be what drives my creative process, I know that now. I know that if it does, I’m not gonna get the song that stands out. Yeah, it’s definitely been a struggle over the years. I’ve had success, and I’m proud of that for the things I’ve accomplished. I definitely think if I were a little bit more what country radio is used to from a female, I would maybe get better attention and radio-play. But I also know there are women that are seemingly the perfect country-radio female specimen, and they still don’t get played. I think that’s all I really needed to realise this year. Like, wow, why am I really trying so hard and giving things that I think are perfect for country radio…and they still don’t play it? So why don’t I just do what I want, and just do the most authentic thing I can think of and just see what happens? It’s a lot more creatively rewarding that way, so it’s been nice to just do that this year.” 

Cassadee had a very special virtual Thanksgiving planned with her fans, so we wrapped up our chat by talking about that, and also her hopes for what 2021 might hold in store…


“The meet-and-greets have been so fun. I’ve been doing them through an App called Loop, and it’s basically I think twenty-five or thirty fans at each meet-and-greet. Everybody is in a line but they get to go into a chat-room and talk to each other, and I popped in there as well. It’s really kind of fun and casual. I did a Halloween one where I wore my Halloween costume, being a ghostbuster [laughs]. And I picked a few fans whose costumes I loved and I sent a little merch-bundle to them. You get a merch-bundle when you purchase a meet-and-greet anyway, but I threw in a couple of extra little things that I thought people would like. Then for the Thanksgiving one, it’s just gonna be more of a conversation, with the theme of what we are grateful for, trying to take the positive from all of the heaviness that’s been going on. Talking about the silver lining of this year and what we’ve learned. That’ll be nice. I’ll probably do a Christmas one [laughs]. I’ve just really loved being able to connect with the fans, even though I haven’t been able to in person. Then the rest of the year, I mean, I’m going to continue to write but I have a pretty solid group of songs to start recording a record, getting into a studio that’s big enough so that we can do it safely, all socially-distanced and with temperature-checks. It’ll definitely be a different recording process than what it’s been in the past, but I want to get started and also keep everybody safe. So that’s on the horizon, for sure. Then just enjoying the holidays. My mom and sister are in Nashville, so I’ve been able to see them. I want to lean into the fact that there’s a new year looming and we can all exhale after this past weekend [of the US Presidential election], and just take comfort in next year being a different year!” 

RISE AND SHINE, the brand new EP from CASSADEE POPE, is out now on all platforms. 

ENDS

A Christmas Catch-Up…

A Christmas Catch-Up…

First Published December 2020

As much as we’d love to, there isn’t always the time or the space to cover everything we’d like to in this column sometimes. But every now and then, along comes a week like this one, where a little gap in the normal schedule of things appears and presents us with the perfect chance to have a little catch-up…! 

Given the time of the year it is, we couldn’t but cast an eye in the direction of some festive favourites to begin with. And in doing so, we need look no further than one of Irish country’s greatest servants of song, the gentleman that is singer/songwriter JOHN HOGAN. John has just released his version of the old Christmas carol, the Little Drummer Boya  superb reworking of the Bing Crosby and David Bowieclassic. This festive number has been a big favourite of John’s since he was a young lad. And whatever age you might be yourself, dear reader, hearing John perform this classic – in the way that only John can – will leave your heart all a-swirl in the spirit of the season. What a gift, indeed. 

Following his recent appearance on the Today Show with Daithi and Maura on RTE 1,John is now looking forward to joining a host of artists on the HOT COUNTRY TV Christmas Special – An Irish Country Christmas – which will be aired worldwide on December 24th. John has also been busy writing new material and laying down tracks for this forthcoming new album, with part of that process including the shooting a video for his recent self-penned recent hit, The Old Dance Hall.

Speaking recently about that very release, John said, “I wrote this song some time ago, and looking at a non-existent entertainment scene over the last number of months, I felt the time was now right to release it. The song is all about the good old days when people flocked in huge numbers to the dances from far and wide. Being a lively number, I hope it lifts people’s spirit during these uncertain times and brings back great memories.”

Like many entertainers over the last number of months, John has missed the live entertainment scene. But to keep in touch with his many fans and followers, the Offalyman regularly uploads (to his Facebook page John Hogan Singer/Songwriter) acoustic videos of himself singing songs from his large catalogue of recordings, with the count of such performances standing at wellover 70 to date. And  needless to say, they’re going down a treat with his many fans all over the world, from places such as St. Lucia, UK, Canada, Australia, and Sri Lanka.

Staying with the Christmas theme, here’s another lady who we’ll be bringing to the OTRT pages for a proper introduction sometime in 2021, the brilliant GRACE FOLEY from Kerry. As well as writing one of the best – and I think by far and away the funniest – letters of introduction that I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving, Grace is also a classical crossover singer with what is perhaps the rarest female voice type; a contralto. According to the lady herself, “This basically means I have a classical style of singing… but a dark edge!” Grace said she’s made her way through this challenging year with music as her guiding light, and I have a feeling that her presence in the lives of those who know her has been every bit as much of a guiding light, too. 

With luck on her side, Grace confessed to being, “Blessed to get my music videos for the year recorded the day they announced the school closures back in March. I quickly turned to online platforms like Facebook and Instagram for performances, and this really was so important as it allowed me to continue to reach my audience to keep singing.” She wrote the song Together Apart about the lockdown back in the spring, recording it in her wardrobe, which, not surprisingly, she described as being,“… a new experience!” One of Grace’s favourite experiences of the year was when she performed Songs of Hope and Healing in an empty St. Mary’s Cathedral Killarney, a performance which was broadcast via Parish-Cam and which was, according to Grace, “…the most beautiful experience.” Like John, Grace also performed on RTE’s Today Show with Daithi and Maura, live from her living room with her little dog for company! 

Grace was also granted Arts Council funding to write and record her own music earlier this year, heading for Balbriggan to record two songs in back in September, just before Dublin went into lockdown. One of those songs – Goodbye To Dublin – was a Christmas one, so Grace decided she would release a Christmas EP. That collection, A Time For Christmas, Volume 1 – which features her own song and four festive favourites – met the world for the first time on November 27th, with the video, which was funded by the Arts Council, recorded literally on the day the Dublin lockdown was announced. As Grace remarked,“Basically, I’ve been creating a lot and narrowly avoiding lockdowns all year!”

We can’t wait to catch up with her in 2021, but in the meantime, add some Kerry flavoured cheer to your Christmas by adding Grace’s EP, A Time For Christmas, Volume 1, to your collection. 

Next up is HUBERT MURRAY is a Galway-born, Tullamore based folk and roots musician, best known as front man of two genre bending old time bluegrass bands: the Hot Rock Pilgrims – who have mostly seen action in the UK – and Lands End, who will be a name well-known on the ‘live’ circuit here in Ireland. He has toured the length and breath of Ireland, the UK and Europe, playing some of the most prestigious venues and festivals out there along the way, such as the Cambridge Folk Festival, Isle of Wight Festival, The Royal Southbank Centre in London, and the Wilderness Festival, to name a few. His discography to date includes three EPs and one album. Hubert’s newest musical adventure saw him departing the familiar territory of old-time and bluegrass sounds, choosing instead to further develop his voice as a singer-songwriter. 

That adventure, entitled Heaven Cried and released back in mid-November,is a song for those who sway on the balance of life, lost, as Hubert points out, “…in a never ending search for meaning.” Heaven Cried is a metaphorical idea about a person trying to help those who are having a hard time, who perhaps feel lost, or whose heads are not in the right place. It’s a caring soul reaching out to someone in need, to someone being held captive by the infamous ‘black dog’. The song asks the listener to slow down their thoughts and remember a time when they felt peaceful, and to grasp that positive memory. “Peace of mind”, declares Hubert, “will happen, there is someone out there who will help, unconditionally. You must not lose hope.”

Interestingly, Heaven Cried was recorded on digital-tape at Hellfire Studios in the Dublin mountains, and featured some of Ireland’s crème-de- la-crème when it comes to musicians, including; Pat Daly on Violin (has also worked with Ham Sandwich, Fionn Regan), Robbie Walsh on bodhran (Daoiri Farrell Eleanor Shanley), folk musicians Paddy Kiernan on banjo and Niall Hughes on double bass (both of Navá). The song was produced by Tony Byrne (Julie Fowlis, Danú) and mastered by Josh Clark (Kate Rusby), with artwork created by Tullamore native Claire Guinan.

Meanwhile, HALLE KEARNS is an emerging artist quickly making a name for herself in country music over stateside. As a songwriter, Halle differentiates herself through her controversial storytelling, melodic sensibilities, and authenticity. As a performer, she has over three-hundred shows under her belt resulting in an undeniable ability to captivate her audiences, instantly connecting them to her passion for music. Despite only being in Nashville for a year so far, Halle has already had the opportunity to open up for legendary country acts such as Trace Adkins, David Nail, Eli Young Band, William Michael Morgan, Tracy Lawrence, and The Oak Ridge Boys, to name but a few.

By all accounts, Nashville has been a-buzz with this young ladies name since her debut release, Pick Me Up, back in July. That track was featured as Song of the Week on a number of stations, including Radio Disney Country and Country Hits Radio UK. Follow-up singles I Drink Whiskey and Shoes To Fill have certainly kept that buzz going, leading to a huge – and justified – sense of anticipation around her debut EP, Finally, the five-track collection which dropped on December 11th. We’re looking forward to catching up with Halle and introducing the lady herself to OTRT readers in the new year.

Also back in November UK pop-country duo, EMMA & JOLIE, announced the release of their sophomore single, Cry For You, on, of all days, Friday 13th! November 2020. But given the huge few months for the new duo had just had – with a performance at the C2C Festival’s Country Music Week under their belts, along with the release of their debut single – I Don’t Need A Man – that shot to the number one spot on the iTunes country chart, and number thirty-two all genre charts, plus a feature on Apple Music’s Today’s Country and Country Wide playlists – a little matter like superstition was hardly likely to slow their groove. This second single again saw the duo partner with long-time collaborator and producer Johnny Douglas, and was a Nashville co-write with Lena Stone, during the duo’s first trip to Music City, one that has proved to be a formative part of Emma and Jolie’s journey. 

The tune was one of the girls’ quickest writing sessions, taking only about an hour to get out this raw, emotional ballad that speaks universally to the healing process post-breakup. Of the track, Emma said “Everything we write about has always stemmed from personal situations we’ve both been in. This song comes from a place of pain we have both experienced. The two of us, and a lot of people we know have felt this way after breaking up with somebody, and so we just want to say that if this is you we see you and you’re not alone, you can’t always shut it off because it’s so difficult.” Jolie continued, “There’s also an element of frustration in the song, when you see your ex seemingly moving on no problem but you’re still finding it difficult to keep going. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that things can take a bit longer when you have a big heart and you love deeply. It’s okay to still cry for them.”

Cry For You very much shifts gears in production when compared to the anthemic, fun summer track that was their I Don’t Need A Man debut hit. This go -round producer Douglas has created an emotional, yearning sound complete with a strings section that puts the duo’s stunning harmonies at the forefront of the song. The duo – whose full-names are Emma Walker and Jolie Harvey – met back in 2015 at music college and have been singing together ever since. Influenced by the likes of Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift, the pair bring together a mix of storytelling and modern country with sensational harmonies. A universally heart-breaking track, Cry For You will quickly become a song you return to again and again. Expect even more and bigger things from Emma and Jolie in 2021! 

After recently receiving international acclaim with a number one on the Ignition Country Charts for previous single, Thinking About Last Night back in April, UK country star HAYLEY McKAY returned with another uptempo country-pop banger, Breathe, in November.

Written in lockdown in May, and co-written and produced with Newcastle based Hattie Murdoch over Zoom, the song features pulsating rhythmic guitar, flowing drums and big melody with slick production, and deep backing-vocals. Inspired as it was by the lockdown, Breathe is about being able to enjoy the smaller things in life and taking that all-important breather that we all need sometimes, and something that was very much needed in 2020.

Hayley is an accomplished and insightful songwriter with an incredible vocal range. Blessed with a distinctive all-round style, she can effortlessly leap from earthy and soulful raw emotion, to soaring and ethereal angelic tones, which, not surprisingly, have seen her likened to Eva Cassidy, Joni Mitchel, LeAnn Rimes and Kate Bush. Over the last few years Hayley has been co-writing songs with award winning songwriters such as Nashville’s twice Grammy-nominated Jan Buckingham who has written for Whitney Houston amongst others, and Bill DiLuigi and Claire Hamill, who have written for Eva Cassidy and Wishbone Ash.

Hayley decided to release Breathe after the great international response to her previous single, the aforementioned Thinking About Last Night, which garnered radio support in Ireland and the UK, and was voted in the Top 10 Valley FM Indie charts in Australia. That track also earned support via BBC Introducing, and saw Hayley named artist of the week on various international radio stations in the US and the UK, earning features with Country Line TV, BMCA and the ISSA (International Songwriters Association). 

With the big day itself now only hours away, there’s another few Offaly artists with releases that should be on everyone’s holiday playlists. For the traditionalists out there – for all of us really, given the kind of year that it’s been – the news that Clara woman NOREEN RABBETTE had recorded a very special version of one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time, O Holy Night, brought not only excitement and expectation, but immeasurable levels of comfort as well. The Glór Tire finalist from 2019 – who hopefully has an album on its way to us next year – has what is unquestionably one of the most beautiful voices Ireland has ever produced. Whether her name eventually graces billboards around the world, or whether Noreen remains one of our best kept secrets just doesn’t matter. None of that changes the fact that her voice is golden, and will forever be so. And be assured if you haven’t already heard it for yourself, it makes her version of O Holy Night an epic moment. You could leave aside presents, trees, movies, turkey, nights-out…anything else that you might normally associate with the Yuletide season, and as long as you could hear Noreen – who, I should point out, is joined in a beautiful video for the song (filmed in Clara Church) by her brother Joe and her sister Claire – sing O Holy Night…you would still have Christmas in your heart, and all the Christmas feels. 

Another Offaly family who you need to check out at some stage over this festive season are the fabulous ROSNEYS! Headed up by my good friend Stephen Rosney – who also fronts the Irish/Americana outfit The Back Axles – the Rosneys have released an original from Stephen himself, entitled Come On Santa. And whereas Noreen’s wonderful rendition of O Holy Night slows the world to a standstill and is deeply reflective, Come On Santa really lets the reins off Santa’s reindeers and cranks the Christmas cheer right the way up to eleven in the most joyously playful expression of the kind of fun that Christmas should always be. Stephen is majestically assisted on this track – as indeed he is on his current single, Something We Can Work On – by his wonderful wife Helen, and the couple’s three children, Mark, Luke, and Jade. Rosneys…take a bow, one and all, and may there be many encores like this in the years to come! 

And last, by no means least, a long-player that should be on every music fan’s Christmas wish-list, This Kinda Love, from the brilliant SIMON CASEY. It’s not a Christmas album, but it’s clearly been a labour of love for Simon, and it’s definitely a collection that is – as the title suggests – full of heart. Featuring a title-track written by Simon himself, and which was recently play-listed by RTE Radio 1 and has been receiving extensive air-time all around the country, This Kinda Love sees Simon turn in what might well be his most accomplished vocal performances ever. At this stage in his career, Simon, with nothing to prove to anyone when it comes to his talent, and fast approaching the horizon beyond which lies the title of ‘national treasure’, is simply a joy to listen to, no matter what he’s singing. But as it happens, this collection is filled with songs you’ll simply adore him singing. From the magic of the Extreme chart-topper More Than Words, where Simon is joined by his Take It To The Limit bandmate, Johnny Brady, to the Lady A crossover-classic, Need You Now, where a delicately stripped back version of the song sees Simon and Irish country star Cliona Hagan ramp things up to an emotional high that even the American super-group couldn’t match, to the achingly beautiful Elliott Park and Walt Aldridge penned, I Loved Her First…every song is a gift in itself. Perfect for right about now really! 

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

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