In the fabulous surroundings of the Round Room of the Mansion House in Dublin last Thursday evening, Donegal’s Grainne Gallanagh was crowned the new Miss Universe Ireland, by her predecessor Cailín Toibín. Twenty-four year old Grainne, a nurse who’s based in London, will now go forward to represent Ireland at the final of the Miss Universe pageant in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 17th.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Grainne for a little bit of a chat in the days just after she received her crown and sash. And before we even spoke, I got a measure of just how sound Grainne is. We were originally scheduled to chat on Saturday evening, but the day passed without anything happening. Now that can often happen from time to time when you’re hoping to speak with someone who’s in demand, and as of last Thursday evening, Grainne is VERY much in demand. So you take it in your stride and just see what happens. On Sunday morning, however, I woke up to a text from Grainne, sent at 1.50am the previous night (so right at the end of a very long few days), offering her apologies for not being in touch, explaining that the day had just been hectic (as you’d expect), and offering to chat instead on Sunday at whatever time suited me. Now keep in mind that this Sunday just gone was pretty likely to be one of Grainne’s last days to herself, of any kind, for about the next year!
But there she was, thinking about others. I guess that comes with being a nurse. But like I said, sound. With beauty, brains, a huge heart, and a sun-bright soul – and this top-level sense of soundness – put your money on this young lady to do us proud when December comes, folks.
I began our chat by asking Grainne how she was feeling, just a few days after being presented with the crown and sash of her new role? Had she begun to get a sense yet of how much her life was going to change for the next year or so?
“Do ya know what? I’m absolutely still on a high! I don’t think it’s even sunk in yet at all, to be honest with you. I’m so, so happy that my face is sore because I can’t stop smiling! [laughs]. I just got home here today from Dublin, to my hometown in Buncrana in Donegal, and when I got out of the car all my cousins, and my aunties, and my friends, and all were all down to surprise me. And everyone’s so happy, so it’s lovely.”
What went through her mind at the moment her name was announced?
“We were just standing there holding hands, me and Aoife [Rutledge] the first runner-up, and I was just praying please, please let it be me! [laughs]. But then I just couldn’t believe it [when she was announced as the winner], and I think I just stood there thinking, did I hear that wrong? I stood there for about ten seconds with my hands on my face. I don’t even know what I was thinking, it was just a blur. But it was so exciting, and everybody was screaming, but I was crying. It was so, so nice, such a lovely feeling.”
This year’s Miss Universe pageant will be held in Bangkok in December, where Grainne has actually been before on her travels. But what’s in store for her between now and then as the new Miss Universe Ireland?
“Well I’ve met up with Brittany [Mason], the director of Miss Universe Ireland, and we briefly went through things like what do I want from Miss Universe Ireland. And there’s gonna be an awful lot of photo-shoots, modelling, travelling. But obviously I don’t want to give up my job as a nurse, because that’s who I am. It’s part of me. And I just don’t feel that if I was to give up nursing that it would be being true to myself. So I’m going to continue that. And because it’s a flexible job, I’ll be able to do less hours and focus on Miss Universe Ireland as well, and keep both of them as a priority. But I’m definitely going to work so hard for Thailand, I can’t wait. Like, I’m so, so, so excited! [laughs]”
Grainne works as a nurse in London, so how will she balance and integrate those responsibilities and duties with her new role?
“Well I didn’t expect to win, so I didn’t have any kind of a set plan for what I was going to do when I won, ya know. I just didn’t expect this. So I think now I’m just going to have to go day-by-day, and prioritize what I’m going to do. I can do agency work as a nurse, so I can book my shifts when I’m available and that way I’m not letting anybody down if I can’t go to work. And if an opportunity with Miss Universe Ireland comes up, I’ll be aware that I’ve got that and so I won’t be able to work this week, or whatever. I don’t want to be letting anybody down by not showing up to work, as such. So it’s good that it’s so flexible. If it was any other job, it might not be. So I feel like I’ll be o.k. in that sense.”
Grainne has already stated that she wants to use her time as Miss Universe Ireland as a platform to promote and raise awareness and education for female health. Aside from the obvious reasons, I asked Grainne why this is something so close to her heart…
“I suppose with me being a nurse and being a woman, it’s very noticeable in the country, in Ireland, that women’s health issues do take a back seat. Obviously with the recent scandal around the smear-testing, being one example. It always seems to be that women’s health is never on the forefront, there’s always some publicity around it where something’s gone wrong, or the way it took so long for the Repeal the 8th amendment to finally happen, ya know. I just feel that in this country there could be more done to highlight the problems in women’s health. And obviously then with me being a nurse, and being a woman, all of these factors are the reasons that I chose that platform. I really do feel that it’s one that’s needed. There’s so many women in Ireland that need encouragement and support in that sense. And with me being a professional, I feel that I know what I’m talking about. I’m not just saying things off a whim, or while uneducated in those areas. So there was loads of reasons, but I’m definitely glad I chose that platform, and hopefully now I’ll be able to do more charity work around it now that I’ve got this title.”
From working as a nurse in England, has Grainne noticed differences in standards towards women’s health care between the two countries?
“That’s a good question. I suppose there is a bit of a difference. I suppose in Ireland, it [women’s health] does take more of a back seat. Whereas in England, it is a bit more to the forefront. It’s just that you’ll notice kind of little things that are different in your day-to-day job. We’re not very bad, obviously. Women’s health is very important in this country, but I just feel it could use a little bit more encouragement with everything.”
As we mentioned earlier, Grainne has already been to Bangkok before, and indeed, has done a fair bit of travelling – spending time in Boston, San Francisco, and Spain – and with plenty more air-miles sure to be clocked up during the year ahead. But she’ll have to be careful not to have a repeat of what happened to her last Christmas! We’ll let Grainne explain…
“[Laughs] Is this the passport situation? [laughs]. I was going home for Christmas, and I was so excited about getting home to see my family. I was packing all my things, and packing all my presents, and didn’t realise that I didn’t have my passport! And I also didn’t have any photo i.d. at the time, because my purse had actually been stolen a few months before. So I got to the airport, realised I had no passport, it was Christmas time, so there wasn’t any other available flights to get home. So I started to panic, and I started to cry, and I was ringing my family saying I wasn’t going to get home, and that this was the most awful thing in the world! [laughs]. But then one of the girls that was working at the airport took pity on me and she checked my bag on herself, and took me up to the flight herself, and made sure I got on o.k. and everything. So it was great in the end. She was really, really nice.”
The Miss Universe Ireland pageant 2018 wasn’t Grainne’s first venture into contests of this kind. She was actually crowned Miss Donegal in 2016, and was also the first runner-up in Miss Earth Northern Ireland in 2017. So I wondered when did Grainne first think about taking part in competitions like these?
“Yeah, my very first one was when I was Miss Donegal for Miss Ireland World in 2016, and I just entered that last minute. It was something that I’d always been interested in. Everybody told me it would be great for me to do that, so I just kind of thought well, why don’t I just go for it? And actually, Miss Universe Ireland was the first contest that I ever entered, but it didn’t actually end up happening that year. So Miss Universe Ireland was always my first dream, and my biggest dream. But before Brittany Mason took it over it was quite disordered, and disorganised. So it didn’t end up happening that year and that was when I decided to enter for Miss Ireland World instead, as Miss Donegal. It was a great platform, it was brilliant, but it just wasn’t to be the year for me. And again, Miss Earth, when I entered that, I think it finished the way it did for a reason, and that was because this one this year is the one I was supposed to get, ya know.”
For people who won’t know much about her yet, how would Grainne describe herself?
“How would I describe myself? I kind of like everything! [laughs]. I like all different types of music. If you were on my phone you’d be thinkin’ what is this girl into?! Because I have everything from rap, to country, to pop, to Irish folk music! With t.v., I don’t get to watch much, because I’m quite busy. But if I’m free I like to sit in and watch some Netflix. And I love to run as well, and to swim in the sea when I can. Those are some of the things I like to do. As for my personality, well I’d like to think I’m quite bubbly, I’m definitely hard-working, I’m ambitious, I’m determined. And I feel like those are all good traits for me to have for being Miss Universe Ireland, and going on to compete in Miss Universe. And I suppose I’m quite talkative, too [laughs].”
If, through being Miss Universe Ireland, Grainne could have the chance to meet anyone in the world, who would she want that to be, and why?
“Who would it be, and why? Hmmm. I don’t know actually. Oh my God, there’s so many people. I’ll have to think longer about that one! I don’t know. I’ll come back to you on that one [laughs].”
As we came to the end of our chat on what I imagine will be Grainne’s last free Sunday for quite a while, I asked her if she had any kind of personal motto or mantra that she did her best to live by?
“I do. What I live my life by is this: Anything worth having doesn’t come easy. And I’ve said that since I was very young. I just feel that if you work hard for something, that it’s always going to be worth it in the end. Because anything that you’ve worked hard for, is going to be something that you’ve really wanted. So it’s going to be something that you’ll look back on and be proud that you achieved. That’s definitely my motto, and it’s definitely something that I’ve stood by.”
Not only will Grainne stand out when it comes to beauty, brains, charm, and style in Bangkok next December, I don’t think there’ll be a sounder contestant there either. Maybe Buncrana should set aside December 18th for one hell of a party.
The hit U.S. tv show NASHVILLEran for six hugely successful seasons, winning fans all around the world in the time between when its first episode aired on the ABC network on October 10th, 2012, and the grand finale which came our way via CMT on July 26th, 2018. Based around the lives of several country music stars and stars-in-the-making, Nashville quickly became more than just a tv show. With all of those cast in leading roles blessed with musical as well as acting ability, Nashville took on a life of its own away from the tv screen, with each season also bringing to life several albums of original music from the show.
It was almost inevitable that this music would eventually take to the road, and indeed it did, beginning with tours in America in 2014 and 2015, before eventually finding its way to these shores in 2016, 2017, and again in 2018. If what happened on our tv screens made stars of the cast (even bigger stars in the case of Hayden Panettiere, ‘Juliette Barnes’), the magic that was made in the recording studio (overseen firstly by T-Bone Burnett and then by Buddy Miller) and then recreated on-stage, made them superstars. And none more so than the man who walked in the boots of ‘Deacon Claybourne’, CHARLES ESTEN. A singer/songwriter in real-life too, Charles quickly became one of the show’s most beloved figures, thanks to the intrigue, romance, and ultimately no small measure of sadness involved in his relationship with ”Rayna Jaymes (played by Connie Britton), and as the uncle of ‘Scarlett O’ Connor (played magnificently by Clare Bowen, whom we’ve been lucky enough to interview twice for OTRT). Nashville may have come to an end, but for Charles Esten, the music plays on. And how thankful we all are for that. In fact, Charles has just recently released his new single, SWEET SUMMER SATURDAY NIGHT, and I had a chance to sit down with the man himself to have a chat about it all the other week.
Amazingly, the day of our chat was also his birthday. So I began by first asking Charles why on Earth he was spending part of his birthday talking with some random Irish guy?!
“[Laughs] That’s my present! That’s what I asked for! I said, I would like to speak to a random Irishman on my birthday, and here we are [laughs]. I’m very grateful that you knew that [laughs]. And I’m happy to talk to you, don’t worry about it.”
On then to that new single, Sweet Summer Saturday Night. There’s a lovely kind of bittersweet, end of summer but all is well kind of vibe about the song. I asked Charles what he wanted to give to his fans with this one…
“Well, I think, if we’re gonna be honest, we haven’t had that many sweet summer Saturday nights this summer. So before this all happened, I cast my mind back to what that meant to me. And for me, when I was younger, and when I was growing up in high school and getting together with my friends and going out to find where the girls were! And getting to sort of hang out with them. This tries to evoke that as much as possible. And like all songs of that nature, it tries to do it in a bit of a watercolour way, with some particular details here and there, and some other ones that maybe you share. So it might not be exactly my sweet summer Saturday night that you’re remembering, but you’re hopefully drawn back to one in your memory as well. It’s an odd time to be releasing music, because you’re either gonna be dealing with the complexities and difficulties of all this, or I think you want that other kind of song, the escapist song, that takes you somewhere else. And this is the latter, for sure. Music’s been able to do that for me during all this, so I’m hopeful that maybe I can help someone else do that as well. Take a little trip back in time!”
Because it is such an odd time to be releasing music, I wondered if Charles faced any kind of dilemma over what type of song to put out there?
“Well that’s it. I knew I was either going to do something that gets right – in as much as I can – to the heart of this, it’s such a hard thing to decipher. Initially when all this started happening, all the lockdowns, it takes a second to even process how you’re feeling about something. Sometimes the writing comes before the processing, and is part of the processing. But in other times, there was just something about this [‘Sweet Summer Saturday Night’] that I thought really was a breath of some fresh air in the midst of all this. It was an outdoor song, it’s by the water, it’s being with friends, she’s sippin’ on a beer…it was just all of these things, so I thought let’s get out of the house! Let’s go somewhere special, and just be with some old friends. It was either or, and that’s where I landed, for sure.”
Staying with birthdays, and going back to an earlier part of Charles’s career, the amazing Buddy Holly, had he lived to be with us still, would have been eighty-four the Monday before we spoke. Charles, more than many, having been Buddy for a couple of years in his own life, knows the significance of Buddy Holly’s legacy on modern music. I asked him when he first became aware of the man from Lubbock, Texas?
“Well I had a father that was a huge fan of rock ‘n’ roll, that was when he had grown up. He was rather proud that he was right in the sweet-spot of early rock. I think he was probably fifteen years old in 1956. And he would tell me, even long before I got that role, that you can’t even imagine the impact of lowering the needle onto the record that played the introduction to That’ll Be The Day. Nor could you imagine the impact when everybody heard about the tragic plane crash that took Buddy, and the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. I had known a fair amount about Buddy, more perhaps than some of my friends of a similar age, but it wasn’t until I got to start researching to play the man that I really got to do a deep-dig on his career, and on the things that made him spectacularly meaningful to rock ‘n’ roll, so crucial, so pivotal, so foundational. If you think about it, one way to explain how young he was when he did all this, is by…what age did you say he would have been, eighty-four? Many people would guess that he would have been much older because you tend to forget how young he was at the time. He wasn’t much older than my father at the time. He was a very young man doing all these hits, and also he did them in such a short span of time. From the time That’ll Be The Day went number one to the time of the plane crash itself, was eighteen months. That’s amazing to me. Especially when on top of that, you go ok, so what was the catalogue that basically came out in that window? And then you go, well ‘That’ll Be The Day’, ‘Maybe Baby’, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘It’s So Easy To Fall In Love’, ‘Everyday’, ‘Rave On’, ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’, ‘True Love Ways’…it just goes on…and on…and on! It’s like how is that even possible?! You talk about a supernova really just exploding onto the scene and just changing music. Also, the other thing that people forget, is that that time, well who was on the charts? Who was big? It was Elvis Presley, it was Chuck Berry, it was Little Richard, it was The Everley Brothers, all absolute superstars, all Mount Rushmore type rock ‘n’ roll characters. But none of them were their own band. None of them were writing all their own songs. I’m sorry, Chuck Berry, obviously was the prototype guitar player writing his own songs too, there’s not a better songwriter than Chuck Berry. But I’m talking about the prototypical garage band, where a couple of friends get together. You play drums, you play bass, I’ll play guitar, you play rhythm guitar, that thing that is essentially the blueprint for every rock band that came after it…is Buddy Holly and The Crickets! It’s kind of unbelievable when you think about it.”
One of the things that I’ve always loved about Buddy Holly is the beautiful simplicity of his lyrics. And I guessed that lyrics are important to Charles too, as his website displays a wonderful selection of the words to some of his songs, something I don’t recall seeing before with any other artist. In one of his most recent quarantine live-stream videos, Charles spoke about a song of his called That Song, and how a particular part of its lyric lets you “touch the pain” in the song. So would lyrics be his favourite part of the songwriting process? Or his biggest strength as a songwriter, perhaps?
“Wooh! That’s a wonderful question. It’s sort of hard to picture them like that. It’s almost like asking a pilot, do you prefer the left wing or the right wing? [laughs]. I think you know what I mean. But, having said that, I think the fact that I love lyrics so much – and I don’t want this to be misconstrued – is why I like country music so much. Country music, the lyric, the story, obviously always has been a part of it. And early rock ‘n’ roll, for sure. But later rock can be more bleak, more symbolic, less literal. I love something about the literal. Even if it’s representational. ‘That’s when I saw her walking on the water / Sippin’ on a Michelob Lite/ And she looked right at me/ Ooh she knew she had me/ Sweet summer Saturday night…’, that’s literal. I mean, it’s symbolic of other nights and other things, but I do like something about that. And a well-turned phrase, man, you’re right! There’s just nothing like it! But, the only thing I can say is a well-turned phrase with the right tune behind it…! Let’s go back to Chuck Berry real quickly. There’s so many of them, like ‘a coffee-coloured Cadillac.’ Man, I could almost write a little book! I would love that. You just turn the page and here’s another phrase, whether it’s from a Springsteen song or something like that, there’s so many. Here’s one, ‘Screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves’, that’s the beginning of ‘Thunder Road.’ That’s why a lot of times I do country covers of songs you don’t think of as country. You don’t necessarily think of ‘Thunder Road’ as country, but man, what’s more country than the screen door slammin’! [laughs]. I do love a great, great lyric, very much so. I have to cop to that, you’re right.”
When Charles took on his Every Single Friday project a few years back [beginning on July 15th 2016, he released a brand new original single – which he wrote or co-wrote – every Friday until July 21st 2017, totalling fifty-four songs, and earning him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the achievement], did that in any way change his style of, or approach to songwriting? As each Friday rolled by were there any instances where, for example, he might normally have spent more time on a song – not rushed them, given them a few weeks or months to come fully to life – but for that project found himself finding ways to get where he needed to with a song, while still being happy with his work and not damaging the integrity of the song, a lot sooner?
“I would say only in a broad sense, never in a specific sense. I never said, ‘Oh I need a song by tomorrow. Finish this thing, even if it’s not ready or done.’ Never said that. But what it did do, is there’s something about deadlines that inspires creativity for me. I can have a thing called paralysis of analysis, where you’re just overthinking. You don’t have to turn it in, so you wait. There’s something about saying it has to be done by, or it’s gotta be done soon at least, that, to me at least, it sort of unclogs the pipes. I found that writing begets writing. For years, I had all the time in the world to write a song, because I wasn’t in Nashville, I was just an actor in L.A. and if I had an idea for a song I’d start to write it. I didn’t need to finish it that day. That’s generally not the Nashville way. Generally, you go do a co-write down on Music Row, you’re there four hours, five hours, maybe six. But you walk out with something that definitely resembles a song. Maybe it’s not finished, but it’s well on its way. I’ve always like that. You can always keep going back to fix ’em. And I do have songs like that, that I’ve written, literally over the course of years. It’s sort of like the way compression works with power. Compressed energy. Whether it’s a steam engine, or any kind of turbine, that when you compress that energy you end up getting more motive force out of it. And it pushes the song forward. Pushes you to get to that place that you might not have gone otherwise. It really was tremendously inspirational to the creative process to just go out there and say I’m going to do this. If you think about it, I never said to anybody I’m gonna write fifty-four songs and produce them. What I said was I’m gonna keep releasing them for as long as I can, and for as long as it makes sense. I might have stopped at twenty, and I would have been fine with that. But it just opened up the floodgates. What it really did to me, is I always felt like I was starting late in Nashville. I didn’t even come here to play Deacon until I was forty-six. So I always felt like, aaw man, what if I’d come earlier? So that was my ten-thousand-hours. I just wanted to immerse myself in it. I never like to feel like I’ve left anything on the table. If it was gonna turn out that Nashville didn’t get all those seasons and I had to go back to L.A. and get another job, I wanted to look back and say I did all that I could, which is one of the Nashville songs, that exact line. I want to look back and say I did all that I could, is in the song A Life That’s Good. And I sort of live my life by that. So I can look back now and say that musically, and during that period of time, I definitely did all that I could.”
Speaking of Nashville and ‘Deacon‘, I told Charles that I’d been very lucky in that I’d had the pleasure of chatting to his friend and colleague on the show, Clare Bowen – who is, as Charles will know well, one of the loveliest people there is – on two occasions. When last we spoke, in talking about Nashville, Clare said she was happy for her character ‘Scarlett’ and how her time on the show came to an end, because ‘Scarlett‘ probably has the happiest possible ending to her Nashville story. How did Charles feel about walking away from his character of ‘Deacon’ when that moment finally arrived?
“I have to say that, number one, I agree with you, Clare is just lovely and wonderful and an ethereal spirit. I enjoyed all of our scenes together. The ‘Deacon’/’Scarlett’ connection was one of my favourite things on Nashville. The arc that ‘Deacon’ had, the road that he walked…there were three things that we knew about ‘Deacon.’ He desperately loved ‘Rayna’, and he desperately loved music. It was just part of who he was. And he was an addict in recovery, an alcoholic. There was a lot of damage underneath all that we knew about early on. So it was really special to me that, even in the final seasons after we lost ‘Rayna’, where it’s a little bit like, ‘Well now what? What happens?’ And that question is, she meant so much to him, I just wanted to explore the nature of the fact she was so strong and such an important part of his life, that maybe she might have made him a strong enough man to even go on without her. That’s the kind of love that you want to aspire to. Not a love that makes you cripplingly reliant on somebody, but that makes you so that you can even go on without them. So we explored that the final couple of seasons. And the, the final piece of the puzzle that I’m so glad they touched on, was well what are the original wounds? What are the original wounds that led to that darkness? And for ‘Deacon’ it was his relationship with his father. So to bring that in, right down the stretch, and to sort of bring that to as healthy and as processed a close as possible on the final moment of the final episode, to me there’s a real perfection about it that lets me walk away and feel good about where ‘Deacon’ started, and where he ended up. In some weird way, those characters in my mind are out there in the world living their post-Nashville lives. Not literally, I’m not a crazy person [laughs]. I’m saying to think of that now, ‘Deacon’ had somewhere to go that was much more healthy. Maybe, even a lot less interesting to watch! That’s how you want to end a show. We saw the interesting parts [laughs], that’s what I would think! [laughs].”
Going back to birthdays again, and a very special young lady in Charles’s life has a very special birthday coming up in October. And his daughter, Addie, who will be celebrating her 21st, is a huge part of the reason that Charles has been performing his Quarantine ‘Live’ Streams over the last few weeks and months. I asked Charles to tell me about his very important work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society…
“Thank you for giving me that opportunity. You’re correct, my daughter Addie is nearly twenty-one years old, and that is as great a blessing as I can imagine. I just got off the phone with her, she called me to wish me a happy birthday on Face-Time. When she was two-and-a-half years old, she was diagnosed with leukemia. And when I was a kid, I remember seeing those newspaper stories about how that was a death sentence, pretty much. By the time Addie was diagnosed, they were able to tell us that there was an 85% survival rate. Now to a parent, that 15% on the other side of that is massive. But, she went through two years of chemotherapy and went into remission rather quickly. Because of all the discoveries made between our youths, she was able to survive. So now she’s happy, she’s healthy, she’s cancer-free, she’s in college, she’s a division-one soccer player. And we are just so grateful to have her healed and in our lives. The blessing of that is just infinite. The least we can do is to turn our attention towards helping further fundraising for further discoveries to help others who are going to find themselves having to face the road of blood-cancer. That’s what L.L.S does. The Light The Night campaign is massive and a great part of that. That’s why we’ve been using these quarantine ‘live’ streams to still try and raise a little bit of money. Just because this massive Covid crisis is around, it doesn’t mean that blood-cancer goes away. So many charities are having difficult times because so many fundraisers are ‘live’ events, that’s how you make your money. So we’re doin’ what we can. And we’re so grateful for people to give and help us out on that, and I’m so grateful to you for asking about it.”
While Addie will be giving the Esten household plenty to celebrate in October, Charles’s daughter Taylor was giving the family loads to cheer about right now as she made a name for herself in the Music City Mayhem event, obviously having picked up a trick or two from her dad along the way! But as a dad, how did it feel for Charles to be seeing Taylor step into the limelight like she’d been doing?
“It’s just thrilling for me. I have to admit, being an artist, whether it’s an actor or a singer/songwriter, there was never anything that I was afraid of doing. I was rather invulnerable, sort of leathered up, you can’t hurt me [laughs]. But when it’s your child, that’s when you’re vulnerable! I just want all the best things for her, and I want her to be able to do her music at the highest level that she wants. What I’m so proud of is to see her life as an independent artist. Her songwriting is just fantastic. The group of people she’s surrounded with, to create her videos, to create her ‘live’ performances, or as it is now, her virtually ‘live’ performances, or the music she’s making right now, it sort of blows my mind. I’m so proud of her. It’s leaps and bounds beyond where I would have been, or even could have been, at that stage. For those who don’t know, her name is Taylor Noelle, and her latest song is ‘West End’, which obviously could have a London reference but it’s actually about Nashville’s west end. But man oh man, it’s my favourite of all her songs! And it’s sure something to see people enjoy it. She spent a little time in London as well, and loved it very, very much. She actually got to do a small performance there, and I know she would love to get back.”
I’ve only been to Nashville once myself (waaaaaaaay too long ago now), but on that occasion I was lucky enough to visit the Grand Ole Opry, and luckier still to be invited backstage. I know how excited and awestruck I was that night, and yet, Charles has performed upon that famous stage over one-hundred times. I asked him what it feels like to sing on such hallowed ground, and does that experience change the more often it happens?
“It’s hard to describe it. It’s hard to overstate it, for sure. The same father that raised me up on early rock ‘n’ roll, raised me up on early country music also. By the time I went there, none of it was lost on me. I understood the centrality, not just of the Grand Ole Opry, but of that circle on the Grand Ole Opry stage, that all the greats have stood in and performed their classics. I knew why I was there, and why I got to sing there was because I was playing this guy, ‘Deacon Claybourne.’ The only way I was able to do that at all was by the people that are surrounding you there, the musicians. They’re just as top-notch talented as it gets. And they’re all so kind. And the artists who I was surrounded by, whether it was Little Jimmy Dickens, who at that point was ninety-three years old, or Jeanie Seely, one of the great female singers as well. Vince Gill was around. And these people made me feel welcome. And without feeling welcome, I don’t think I could have even stood in that circle. My knees were already knockin’ [laughs], my mouth was already a little dry [laughs]. It was because that kind of support was there, that I was able to do that. And there’s still always a frisson, an energy, an electricity, especially now that it’s been so long since I’ve been on that stage, I just miss it so dearly. I remember suddenly I went, ok, this is still wildly exciting, but now I can finally sort of BE HERE, and enjoy it and do it! For a time, it felt like sky-diving and it was over before you knew it [laughs]. That’s one of the hard things about very exciting moments, whether it’s being on the Royal Albert Hall stage or doing improv on TV, there’s so much of it where you want to calm your nerves, but you also want to BE THERE. It’s a combination of things. That’s why so many artists or people drink, or try different ways to calm themselves down! But I was always like, well, why would I want to do that? I’m in this business TO FEEL these moments. The trick is feeling them in the right measure, without letting them overwhelm you. Or, without controlling them so much that you weren’t really there, and didn’t really wholly enjoy it. So there’s a real sweet-spot now when I’m on that Opry stage, where I still feel it, but now I can enjoy that feeling!”
~ SWEET SUMMER SATURDAY NIGHT, the brand new single from CHARLES ESTEN, is available now on all platforms.
It’s not an unusual occurrence in life that we sometimes get so used to seeing certain people from one particular perspective, that we forget about – or perhaps fail to notice at all – other aspects of who they are which are equally, if not more important. And this may well be the case with Kerry singer/songwriter CAITRIONA O’ SULLIVAN. Caitriona, of course, is no doubt best-known as a long-term occupant of one of the judges’ chairs on TG4’s hit show, Glór Tire, having been part of this successful team from the get-go over a decade and half ago now. But if you ever thought that’s all there is to Caitriona, oh how wrong you would have been!
When you see Caitriona offer contestants on the show words of support and encouragement, she’s not simply going on gut-instinct, or reading from a script, or – as is often the case on many’s a show like this (but never this one, in fairness) – talking for the sake of talking, and hoping that something she says will sound like it makes sense. No. What Caitriona provides is the benefit of her own knowledge as a student of music, but not just that, either. She also shares a reservoir of hard-won wisdom from her own experiences as a performer, something she’s been since way before the TV spotlight first fell upon her face. And, given her deeply held affection for both singing and the craft of songwriting, one suspects Caitriona will be a performer until the end of her days.
If you follow Caitriona on social media, then I’m sure you, like myself and many, many more, will have listened in quiet fascination as the beauty of her voice entertained us so splendidly over the last number of weeks and months of this very strange year. If you don’t follow Caitriona yet, then you should start doing so today. Your heart will thank you. Let me put it this way…I don’t know exactly how many hours of Glór Tire have been recorded in its sixteen year lifetime, but if each one of those hours was just of Caitriona singing, I’d wager you that the show would still be the favourite it is today, with not a single viewer lost along the way, and lord knows how many extra gained.
Caitriona has a brand new single out right now, a stunning duet of SUMMER WINE with Desi Egan. But we begin Part 2 of our chat on the subject of Glór Tire, with Caitriona telling us more about why it holds a very special place in her heart…
“The other thing I really like about the show is that a lot of the contestants do go on to have proper, great careers out of it. A lot of the contestants who have got to the semi-final or the final, the likes of Chantelle Padden, Lisa McHugh, all of these artists who have been through the show. With a lot of talent shows on TV, that doesn’t happen, it’s a bit of a flash in the pan and is short-lived.”
Among the other artists who have been through the Glór Tire process and have gone on to become some of the finest voices in Irish country music are Olivia Douglas, Sabrina Fallon, and John Molloy, just to name a few, all first coming to national attention through the show. But yet, Glór Tire has seldom had winners who have progressed to become big names on the country scene. I wondered if that was something that ever frustrated Caitriona in any way?
“Well John Rafferty did now alright. I suppose a lot of it does come down to the contestants’ campaigns then as well, and that’s beyond the control of the production team or us as judges. There is an aspect, as there is with any competition, of the contestants organising their campaigns, that’s a big part of it. And then it does come down to the votes of the public. But at the same time, I think whether a singer wins or not, the exposure they get from being on the show twice a week, aired on TV for a period of four to five months, it gives them a great chance, I think, to get that national attention, and to build up their following. And the fact that it’s repeated during the week is important as well. If someone misses it one night, they can get them to tune in again four or five nights later. I’d be listening to a lot of the country stations myself now as well, and it’s very gratifying to hear how many former contestants would be on those play-lists, ya know. Between the mentors and the contestants, very often the majority of the country shows I’d be listening to would have some association with Glór Tire. That adds a sense of realness to it, that it’s not just being on television with all this hype to it for a couple of weeks, and then lacking any longevity after that. I remember Lauren McCrory, who won Glór Tire, winning a country music award for Best Newcomer the year after. Shauna McStravock had a #1 single there just a couple of months ago too, and that’s all great to see. And that’s what sets the show apart, and people know that.”
This year’s series, of course, has been cut short for the moment, also falling victim to Covid. But hopefully there’s still a chance that it will be wrapped up in the coming weeks. Forgetting about Glór Tire for a moment, though, I wondered how had Caitriona herself – both as a regular, normal human being like the rest of us, and as someone who has that creative instinct of the the songwriter about them – how had she been dealing with life since the world changed so much last March?
“To be honest, music has been a saving grace for me. To have that focus, and to have a project, and to have that passion, has definitely helped me to keep my own head straight. The world has become a different place, and it’s been difficult for people, and myself as well. Our social interactions are so curtailed. And definitely, during the intense lockdown when we weren’t allowed to see our friends and family, I definitely, like everyone else, found that very hard. I’d be very much a sociable creature, and enjoy interacting with people. So music was a saviour really. I think the two things that were the saving grace for me personally, were sitting down at the piano and writing songs at home, and going for a walk in a beautiful place by the sea. I’m lucky enough to live in the countryside and be able to go for a walk on the beach. That helped to keep me feeling positive. Making the music videos for Facebook was lovely because it was another focus and an escape for myself, but you also felt like you were offering other people a bit of an escape too. Your own little contribution to providing some sort of entertainment to people when they couldn’t go out or go to gigs. I have two children as well, and it was very tough on them not being able to see their friends and have their little play-dates. When restrictions eased and were lifted, I was delighted, mainly for my children so that they could mix with other children again. I very much felt for them. I suppose us adults, we can talk on the phone, talk on Facebook, that type of thing. Children, young children, don’t really have that. It’s important for them to see each other face-to-face, for their development socially and emotionally, and every other way.”
Caitriona is probably uniquely positioned as someone who is an artist herself, but also a central figure on one of the nation’s longest-running music shows, a show which plays a huge importance on how an artist performs ‘live.’ But the ‘live’ music scene in Ireland has been at a stand-still for months now, something no-one could ever have imagined only a short time ago. And, no-one really knows what’s going to happen next, or when, or how. What were her thoughts on how the ‘live’ music scene, and indeed the music business in general, can make a comeback?
“I’d be hoping that the idea people had where people could drive to concerts in their cars, that that would be something that could get off the ground. Even in our own local town here, the circus was on there a couple of weeks ago and people would go to watch. Obviously that’s not as enjoyable as the normal way that we’d attend a concert, but I think something like that is worth looking at. A lot of artists have been performing online and on Facebook, and friends of mine have gone down the line of setting up links whereby people can make a small donation if they want to. Full-time musicians have to find a way of being able to earn some bit of a living through their performing as well, if this is going to go on and on and on into the long-term. People have to live. And maybe putting on some larger scale concerts, with a few acts together, and then people driving to watch that concert from their cars. Those are kind of the only avenues I see at the moment in which artists might make a little bit of money.”
As our chat came to an end, we’d spoken a lot about what Caitriona is doing now, about her new single, Summer Wine with Desi Egan, and what she’s been doing over the last few years with Glór Tire. So as we prepared to say our goodbyes, I wanted to go right back to the beginning of Caitriona’s life in music. When, I wondered, did she know that music was indeed the life she wanted to live?
“I can pin it down! There’s one specific occasion that stands out in my mind. For a number of years I didn’t know that I could sing, when I was a small child. But I used to be down in my bedroom playing tin-whistle, and my grandmother had an accordion lying around the house, so I taught myself the accordion. So I used to just be down in my room teaching myself these things. And I remember our national school teacher used to teach us tunes on tin-whistle, and I always really enjoyed that. But I didn’t actually know I could sing until one day when my mother had a Nanci Griffith record – ‘From A Distance’, I remember was the song – and I learned that song at home and my mother heard me singing it. And she must have picked up that I could hold a tune [laughs]. Then in school, there was a big occasion coming up where our national school in Farranfore, where I was going to school at the time, was celebrating a hundred years. It was a really big event in the community, with people coming from all the local villages and the surrounding hinterlands to celebrate. There were a couple of hundred people at it, in the school-yard and car-park, so quite a big event. I was ten years old at the time, and I got up and sang ‘From A Distance’, and I was completely surprised by the reaction. I’d never sung in public before. I didn’t even know that I could sing [laughs]. Because as a child, you’re not really aware of yourself like that. It got a really, really strong reaction from the people that were there. And I suppose, that was THE moment when I realised, oh…I can sing! [laughs]. Playing the tin-whistle and the accordion down in my bedroom was just something that I naturally did. But at that moment, on that occasion, my teacher turned around to my parents and said they should really look into getting me some singing lessons, and maybe learn the piano. We moved into Tralee then the next year, where my parents bought a bar called The Munster Bar, and living in the town then it was a little bit more accessible for me to start going to lessons. And that was another big turning point. I was very lucky to be able to do that. Growing up in the bar then from ten or eleven years of age onwards also contributed to my musical training, because there was no shortage of opportunities where my dad might want entertainment! [laughs]. So very often you’d be called down to, ‘play a couple of tunes there on the piano’ for so-and-so, ya know. loads of opportunities to perform, loads of opportunities to get feedback. Then he would have had musicians in every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night so you’re listening to all these different genres of music, from pop to country, all of these different styles, and you’d be absorbing all of that.”
Can Caitriona trace the beginning of her songwriting back to a similarly specific moment?
“Yes. Yes, yeah. I think at sixteen, I had started sort of messing around on the piano with chords and lyrics and things. But again, there was one specific event. There was a competition during the Rose of Tralee called Garvey’s International Songwriting competition, and that was coming up in the August, so I set my mind to writing a song in the June or July, I was seventeen. I remember doing a little demo with a local musician in Tralee and performing that song along with a cover version, I think it was ‘Mustang Sally’, I did! The Commitments were big at the time [laughs]. And I always loved soul and Motown music as well. So yeah, ‘Mustang Sally’ and this little love song that I’d written at seventeen. That was on-stage, downtown Tralee, a nice crowd watching it. I came second in that competition in that, with an older lady winning first prize. But it was nice to get the encouragement from the judges about the song I had written. It kind of all came from there, that was the start of it. Then I kept writing and I would play different songs in the bar, testing out the reaction. What would often test it out to me is you’d play a couple of well-known songs that everybody knew, then you’d slot in your own song and see would it stand up with the others. That was always a good way of testing something [laughs]. We lived upstairs over the bar, and music was such a huge part of life growing up there. My dad loved music too, and he’d sing a few songs in the bar. It’s very much the tradition in Kerry that on a night-out everybody gets up and does their party-piece! It’s a very natural part of Irish society, I suppose, in general. So you’d be developing the whole time, unbeknownst to yourself from listening to other musicians and playing yourself. And even the social skills that growing up in a bar taught me were very valuable as well. It’s all about people. And what I love most about the music business is connecting with other people, making other people feel an emotion. And a huge part of music too, is the relationships you have with other musicians when you’re working with them, or your production team if you’re on a TV show. Social skills are a very important part of it, and connecting with people is a very important part of it. Growing up in a bar, it’s like a study in human nature. You’re talking to people all the time, you’re hearing peoples’ life stories. In terms of material for writing songs, and for empathising with people in different situations, it gives you a lot more food for thought than just your own life path when you’re thinking of what to write about. Connecting with people through music makes you feel bonded to them, and I love that feeling. Even growing up, if you played in the bar and someone shed a few tears if you sang a particular song, I loved that feeling, that kind of bond. That’s what makes it really special.”
~ Caitriona’s new single – SUMMER WINE, her duet with Desi Egan – is out now, available on all platforms and to request from radio.
It had been a memorable few days for country music superstar Michael English by the time we caught up for a chat last weekend. Just the previous Monday he had walked away with both the Entertainer of the Year and the Songwriter of the Year awards at the annual Sunday World Country Music & Entertainment Awards in the Mullingar Park Hotel (where his eagerly awaited Dancing Weekend will soon take place), followed by his appearance on the TG4 talent show, Glor Tire, with his contestant John Molloy on Tuesday night.
But on Monday, Michael had revealed on stage that it was actually his first time ever to be crowned Entertainer of the Year. Now, given the high regard Michael is held in throughout the country music world, and the array of various other awards he’s picked up in his time, that revelation certainly came as a surprise to me. So what better place to begin our conversation. How special was that particular achievement for Michael on a personal level?
“Well it’s a great thrill and a great feeling to win Entertainer of the Year, that’s the big one. And although I’ve won other awards before, winning Entertainer of the Year was really something that delighted me. And the Songwriter of the Year, too. of course. And I accepted both awards, but especially the Entertainer of the Year, on behalf of everybody who works with me. Because it’s a team effort from everybody in the band, and everybody in the office, and everyone behind the scenes who all do great work as well. I’m a firm believer, and I’ve always said it, that no entertainer is anything without the people he stands on the stage with. We all go out night after night and try to do our best. So I’m very thankful to the Sunday World, and everybody who voted, and especially everybody who comes to all the shows night after night.”
Having won so many awards over the years, does Michael still get a buzz from such occasions and achievements? Or is it a case of it being something he’s got used to?
“No, I wouldn’t like to think that I get used to it, no. Because there could come a day when we won’t be gettin’ any awards at all [laughs]. We work night after night, travelling and touring, and I suppose when you get an award it’s a little celebration to realise that all the work we’re doing is paying off. So I’d never ever take it for granted. Winning Male Vocalist of the Year was a great honour, too. And there’s just so many great entertainers out there, so winning that one this year, I’d never, ever take it for granted. Because you never know what’s down the road.”
The fact that Michael is such a talented songwriter – as well as a singer and musician – has always set him apart from a lot of other big-name performers. But songwriting is all about creation, and creation takes time. Yet Michael is one of the busiest men in the business. So how does he make sure he finds time to write?
“Well first of all I think songwriting is hugely important, particularly in the business today. Artists need to have their own songs and their own sound to create an identity. Even back in the showband days, The Mainliners were a completely different sound than The Royal Showband. And that’s still important nowadays, to have your own stamp on things. So it’s vital that you make time to write, and to create a sound that will separate you from other people. I mean, there’s no point in fans going out to shows if they’re all the same. So I make time really, whenever I have a bit of free-time I sit at the piano. But I also write in the car on the way home from a show. That’s a great time to be thinking. You’re just after coming off the stage, so it’s a time when you’re in a certain frame of mind [that’s good for writing]. I’m often found pulling the car into the side of the road and sticking a few lines into the phone, and then heading on again until I get home to the piano and can develop it from there.”
All songwriters, as they develop their craft, find a method and style of writing that works best for them, whether it’s everything beginning with a title, or maybe figuring out an entire chorus first and then building the rest of the song around that, or whatever it might be. Over the years, what approach to songwriting has become Michael’s natural preference?
“I find that every song that you write is different, and has a different approach. It can come from something as simple as somebody giving you a phrase, or a title, and then all of a sudden the juices start to flow and you come up with a verse or a chorus, so you might have the words first. But then sometimes you might be at the piano and a melody would come into your head and you might write the music first. Every song is different, and that’s what makes it interesting as well as everything else. It’s a labour of love for me. I often compare it to an artist painting a picture. Any that looked back at the very first ones they painted, would be hopefully saying now well I’ve improved anyway! [laughs]. It’s the same with songwriting. It’s a craft, one that you learn as you go. You’ll learn the pitfalls from other songs you might have written some time ago. You never really write any two songs the same.”
Because of Michael’s high-profile, he’s a natural choice as a mentor on a show like Glor Tire, and of course, he’s back there again this year with John Molloy as his contestant. To take Michael’s role as a mentor first, how important does he see that role being, and what has been Michael’s approach to it with John?
“Well I see it as a very important role. You have somebody’s career to think about. But for me, it’s not all about winning the competition, although that would be the icing on the cake! But for me, it’s about helping an artist to develop. I’ve been in the business for a while now, and I can see the different roads to take and the advantages of taking one over the other. So I suppose, as long as you’re honest in the advice that you give, as long as I give John the advice that I would take if I was doing it all again, that’s the thing. And John is a great artist. I have great time for John. And not just from a musical point of view, but from a personal point of view. John has that likeability factor. We watch the X-Factor, and everybody wonders, well what is the x-factor? I firmly believe that in the music business today, while of course you have to have some musical ability, and of course you have to be able to sing, but I firmly believe that the x-factor – for what of a better phrase – is likeability. It’s that people can relate to you, and you can relate to people. And certainly, people do like John, he has a great likeability factor. He makes a great connection with the people who support him, and he almost seems like one of the family to those people. And I think that’s vitally important. I’ve given John advice on songs, and on stage presence, and being on t.v. in front of six or eight cameras, and all of that kind of thing. But I don’t have to give him any advice on the personality side of his career. He has that in abundance. John is just a very nice, very humble guy. I don’t have to advise him on any of that. But any help I can give him, I have. You know, I often wake up in the middle of the night when an idea comes into my head, and I’ll send John a message. Then we’ll talk about it the next day. He’s a great man to listen and take advice. Advice, particularly in the music business, is only an opinion. I’m not telling John that I know it all, because I certainly don’t.”
Michael mentioned honesty in his previous answer, and as he and John had known each other for a few years and were no strangers to each other, I wondered if that helped with that sense of honesty and trust between them as mentor and contestant?
“It does, absolutely. We know each other very, very well. And we both know that from my side, as the mentor, I only have John’s best interests at heart. I’ve done my television spot now last week, and I was happy with that, but it’s John’s competition from here on in. We know each other well enough now to know that I’m certainly looking out for John, and certainly trying to give him the best advice that I can. As I said earlier on, it would be lovely to win the competition, and that’s obviously what we’re aiming at, but there’s much more to Glor Tire than being the winner. Sometimes we watch talent shows, whatever they might be, and if said to someone, who won the competition four years ago, well they mightn’t be able to tell you. But they would be able to tell you who gained the most out of it. Often there are people who come second or third who go on to have huge careers. So to use the competition as a tool to get you out there in front of a wider audience, in front of a television audience, that’s important. It’s about letting more people know about John, and television, and Glor Tire, will certainly do that.”
Michael English is one of those individuals who has that very rare gift of putting a touch of genuine class into everything he does. To anyone, not just those in the entertainment business, he’s worth studying and learning from. Because if you can be even halfway like him, you’ll be placing yourself well ahead of the field. When Michael picked up his Sunday World Award for Entertainer of the Year back in January, he made a point of saying when accepting the prize, that he was doing so on behalf of everyone in the band, everyone who works in the office, and everyone who works with him in any way, because without all of them, he wouldn’t be up there in the first place. So for those who might not understand the huge role played by everyone in the band and behind the scenes, I asked Michael to talk a little bit about it…
“Well, I often think, Anthony, if I walked out my front door in the morning and didn’t have the people in the office, and didn’t have a band to stand on stage with me, it would be a far different career, and a far lonelier career. Far more isolated, too, with much less support, apart from my family who’ve always been good, and my friends. When I walk out on the stage, there are seven of us on the stage. Obviously I have to lead it, obviously I’m the lead singer, the frontman. But it’s like baking a cake. There’s no point in pouring the flour into the bowl if you don’t have the milk and the sugar, and all of the other ingredients as well [laughs]. And it’s the same with a show. All of the elements have to come together, everybody has to be on top form. I’m very lucky that I have six guys in the band with me who are all on the same page as me, who all want the best for the show. And that goes right down to Paul, my manager, and the people in the office. Everybody is a vital cog in the wheel and that wheel is not gonna turn if all the cogs don’t come together. And I’m very lucky that all of those people do come together, and all strive to be at their very best every night, wanting the show to be the best that’s out there. So I think when you receive an award, you always receive it on behalf of the whole team.”
These days especially, younger artists or those just starting off in the business, want to be successful straight away. From Michael’s point of view as one of the biggest names in Irish entertainment, what advice about patience, and about working to a plan, and taking things in steps and stages, would he offer to those in a rush to get to the summit?
“When I started out, I had a one-piece, like John. Then a two-piece. Then maybe two years later, a three-piece. Then maybe three years later again, I had the big band. So it certainly took time for my career to take off. Until I had a hit single, I suppose, then it took off a little bit. Nowadays, young people, through the power of reality shows and these kind of things, they’re stars before they even realise it. And I don’t think that’s such a good thing. The real big stars out there, if you look back on them, they honed their craft for a good few years before they had that hit song, or became popular with the audience. And I think that’s really important. Because then when you do go out with your full, professional show, you’re more ready for it. Because you’ve done the groundwork, you’ve done the hard slog goin’ around with the gear in the boot of the car! You’ve seen the harder times. And that makes you appreciate all the more everything that happens when it finally does come together. I think sometimes, if it happens overnight, your expectations are totally different. I think for anybody starting out, particularly in this day and age, whether it be the music business or the acting business – I often compare the two – it’s no harm to finish the studies. Just to have a second string to your bow. Because you never know what’s down the line. The music business, and the entertainment business in general, is very fickle. I’m very lucky that I have people who have supported me since the day I started. But someday, because you never know what’s going to happen, you mightn’t be as popular. That’s always a fear that an artist has in general, and I include myself in that. So I never, ever, ever take it for granted. I never rest on my laurels and say, ah sure we had a great crowd last night, ya know, and just sail along. As with any business, you only get out of it what you put into it. When you’re successful, you have to work harder. For young people starting out, if they think it’s hard starting out, wait until you get going a bit! [laughs] Because it becomes a little bit harder to stay there [successful]! So have some sort of a second string to your bow, try and be different to the next person coming along, and try and have an original song. You want one where whenpeople turn on the radio, they know it’s you and not somebody else.”
At the time we sat down for a chat, Michael’s latest single, ‘Music In My Heart’, was all over country radio following its recent release, so Michael shared some background on the song, and also, on the possibility of maybe recording something someday with his Glor Tire contestant and good friend, John Molloy…
“I’ve had a lot of uptempo singles, and I suppose this is uptempo as well. I want to get the word out there that when you come to one of our shows, you’re going to have a ball! You’re going to enjoy it. It’s going to be up-and-at ya, bang, bang, bang, energetic. Because that’s what the dances are. Over the last couple of years I released a lot of stuff like ‘The Tuam Beat’, or ‘Baby, Don’t Leave Me In The Nightime’, or ‘Will Ya Dance?’, and they were all full of brass. And while we have brass on the concert tour, I also have steel guitar, banjo, fiddle, all of the instruments that are associated with country music. So this song, ‘Music In My Heart’, is a country song. It gives the guys in the band that play the steel, and the banjo, and the fiddle, the opportunity to play something that they’re good at. I wanted to take it back slightly to country music with this song. Which is an old song, by the way, something I don’t very often do. A lot of the songs, ‘Friday At The Dance’, that I wrote, ‘Joey On The Fiddle’, that I also wrote, they’re newer songs. But it’s also important for people who might not come to the shows every night – and I’m very lucky that I have a lot of fans who come all the time – but you do have new fans as well, so you can’t go in and listen to a whole new bunch of songs that you might not know. Like, if I went to see Neil Diamond tomorrow night, I want to hear ‘Sweet Caroline’, and I want to hear ‘Cracklin’ Rosie.’ New songs are good, but I don’t want to listen for an hour to all new songs. You have to have the familiar songs that people like. This is one of those songs, taking it back to old country music. It’s been released by a lot of people, including Charley Pride. And it’s a jive, which is important as well when we’re primarily doing dances at this time of the year.
Michael continued, “On the duet idea, I’d love to record something with John sometime. At the minute, our focus is totally on the competition, and we don’t want to take away from that. Sometimes when you release a song it can help, but sometimes, it can distract. So we’re just thinking carefully at the minute as to what the plan will be. Obviously, we’ll do something eventually. When the time is right we’ll release the song!”
If you’re a country music fan in Ireland then it’s a near certainty that you won’t have made your way through the last decade and half without enjoying the hit TG4 show, GLÓR TIRE. Kerry woman CAITRIONA O’ SULLIVAN has been a central figure in the show’s success, popularity, and longevity over that time, offering advice, reassurance, and encouragement to the new entertainers who have taken to The Quays’ stage in Galway, all dreaming of being crowned the winner on the show’s final night. Caitriona herself – as many will know – is a singer whose unique vocal gift is somewhat akin to the finest wine of summer. While you enjoy both, little else matters, a certain peace descends softly upon the soul, and in those moments, you find yourself gently reminded of life’s true beauty…
And, not only that, Caitriona is every bit as gracious with her time as with her words of succour and support to Glór Tire’s contestants. I had the pleasure of catching up with the singer/songwriter last week for a chat about the huge influence and impact Glór Tire has had on her life, and indeed, a chat about life in general, too. As it happens, Caitriona has a brand new single out at the moment as well, a pretty cool version of the old classic SUMMER WINE. The single is also a duet with another well-known artist around these parts – and in fact, beyond Irish shores also – the one and only Desi Egan.
So where better to begin. As it turns out, Caitriona and Desi didn’t actually know each other before they embarked on this project together, so I asked Caitriona to take us back to the moment when Desi first got in touch…
“Well sure basically during the lockdown I used to put up these videos of myself just literally playing songs in my kitchen. It was an escape for me, and it was nice to feel that you were putting up something for other people to enjoy when nobody could go anywhere, and peoples’ outlets were limited by being in the home so much. I suppose Desi was aware of me from judging Glór Tire, and I was aware of him because he’d worked with different bands, particularly some of the mentors that were on Glór Tire. But then he and his record company reached out off the back of seeing those Facebook videos and seeing me singing, they got in touch then. We were chatting a little bit initially just about different types of music and found that we liked a lot of similar types of music. So he mooted the idea then of us doing a song together. He sent me on some songs he’d done before, and he started looking into songs that might suit the two of us, ya know. When he chose ‘Summer Wine’ I was delighted with it as a choice. Being on Glór Tire, it has that little country flavour, but it’s also a really cool retro, pop kind of a song as well. So it was a perfect cross-over song for me to sing on. There’s been numerous great versions in the past as well, with Lana Del Ray, Bono and The Coors, and obviously the original one with Nancy Sinatra, too. It’s got those kind of James Bond string-lines going through it, and I love film music anyway. And I love the story of this song, and enjoyed getting into the character in the story as well.”
In this day and age it’s as much the norm for duets to be recorded in different sides of the world anyway. But given the way things have been over the last few months, I wondered if Caitriona and Desi had been able to actually get together in-studio to lay this down, or did they have to record their parts separately?
“Separately. Desi was doing a combination of things, he was working from home, and he was working out of a studio in Clara with Joe Egan, and then he had certain musicians in the UK work on it as well. Then I did my vocals actually down here in Kerry. I’m lucky that my husband is a sound-engineer. So we went off and bought a really nice quality vocal mic. Our own plan anyway was to do some recording over the summer and into the coming year as well. My husband has a what they call an in-the-box studio in a room in our house. And it’s great what you can do nowadays in a small space, if you get just a certain amount of equipment. He’s part of an online producers’ community, and apparently a lot of the huge producers now, they might get something recorded in a [traditional] recording studio, but they’ll go home then to record it ‘in the box’, as it were, their kind of little mini set-up at home. And it’s great that you have the flexibility, especially during lockdown, that you can do it that way. When we were recording it lockdown was still strict enough, back in May, June there, around that time. So you were still trying to keep your travelling to a minimum. So I did the vocals down here, and Desi got some people to play on it in the UK, and Joe Egan was mixing it then in Clara, where Desi did his vocals. So that’s how we did it. We were talking every day, though, so you’re still getting that ‘human touch’, I suppose, big long conversations about music and everything else [laughs].”
As someone who is a celtic soprano, and who has graced the stage of the National Concert Hall during her career, was Caitriona in any way surprised that it was Desi, a pop artist in many ways, who had reached out to her?
“Well do you know, in terms of my own background, I did start off training classically in the Royal Irish Academy, but my first album myself was actually pop. It’s a good many years ago now when I put it out, but I really love writing songs in the pop genre, and country-pop, and jazz-pop, I enjoy writing in all different styles. Probably what gives me my biggest thrill is writing a song like that myself, and delivering it. So I actually did spend a good many years songwriting and gigging with different bands and things around Dublin, I was there for about seventeen years. And I really enjoyed that. But I do have the classical training, so I have done a couple of concerts in the National Concert Hall, there was one in honour of Brendan Kennelly one night. I enjoy dipping in and out of different genres, I’d cover quite a wide spectrum, depending on the occasion that’s in it. But I think at heart what gives me my biggest thrill is writing songs and delivering them. And most of them would be in a pop genre. At the moment now, I have quite a body of songs written in a country-pop, indie kind of genre, along the lines of Kacey Musgraves. So that’s what I’m working on at the minute now. I have an upcoming collaboration where we’ve co-written a sort of a country-indie sort of a track. I have quite a number of tracks in that vein, so my plan is to release a number of them in that vein over the coming year, hopefully even get something out in the next two or three months. We’re just recording at the minute.”
That album Caitriona mentioned was intriguingly titled Fallen Angel. And I’m sure Caitriona’s many fans around the country are eagerly awaiting new music from her. Had working on this single with Desi reignited her desire to get back into the studio for herself?
“It definitely has. Definitely. Do you know what, it came at an amazing time in terms of my own life path. I’ve been wanting for a long time now to get back out recording and release more music. It was one of my goals for the year. Over the last number of years, ya know, I had two children, so there’s two or three years there out of your life where you just have to be at home and focus on that. I was also writing Irish textbooks, and contracted to write five of those, from first-year right up to sixth-year. I’m very passionate about the Irish language too, so I’m very lucky that all my work – in one way or another – is about Irish and music, those two passions. I was writing those books with a friend of mine in Mayo called Triona Geraghty, and they were quite labour intensive. It took a certain number of years, a year a book, if you like. And I was teaching as well, and we were buying a house, and I was having children and all of that. But I’ve been writing songs in the background the whole time, since that album, and yearning really to put out a second album for a long time. Finally now in my own life, that door is opening for me again, in the sense that I’m finished writing all the textbooks, I’m going job-sharing with teaching next year, my children are a little bit older…so there’s a little more time and scope for me to focus in on getting your machine up and running to release recordings again. So when Desi approached me, it was perfect timing. It was the end of the school year, I had it in my head that I wanted to record music for the summer, going into next year, and work on putting out another album. So when he approached me with this, I suppose it has reignited that desire, and it’s got me back out there again recording and out to radio. Desi had all of his machine in place to release it, and follow it up and everything, in Europe and in Ireland. It’s been played on the BBC now as well in England and doing well there, in Coventry and a couple of other stations. And Radio Europe in Spain, and in Belgium and Germany. It’s wonderful that he had all of that machine in place. It really did give me a great head-start. It all happened faster than I expected. It was wonderful timing. It gets you out there in touch with all the D.J.s again. Just prior to Desi approaching me, and again, off the back of the Facebook videos, a couple of D.J’s had got in touch from around the country and sort of said could I send them some of my songs, they’d seen me on Facebook singing ‘live’, so I sent them some of the tracks off my old album, like ‘I’ll Be There’ being the main single off it. That got a lot of airplay at the time. And it was lovely to hear that back on the airwaves again. Then Desi approached, which was really great timing because I could follow ‘I’ll Be There’ with the ‘Summer Wine.’ And now we’ll look forward to getting the next one out! I have all of these songs that I want to get out there, because I never stopped writing all the while. I wrote a lot of songs with a guy called Gavin Murphy who is the musical director with Celtic Woman at the moment, he produced my first album for me. So there’s a whole body of songs I wrote with him. Then I’ve been writing with country-pop singer/songwriters as well, so I’m looking forward to getting those songs out.”
Having mentioned Caitriona’s fans all around the country, one place they’ll know her well from is, of course, Glór Tire, where she’s been a fixture for many years as a judge. After being at the heart of the show for as long as she has, I asked Caitriona to tell me about the place the show has in her heart…
“It has a huge place in my heart, really. Even the whole way the journey started with Glór Tire is really, really special for me. Before the competition element to the series began, making it Glór Tire, there used to be a programme called Ceol Tire, which gave birth to Glór Tire, if you know what I mean?! [laughs]. I was on Ceol Tire, I remember, as a guest with country singer Gerry Carney. And that particular month, I remember it well, myself and my manager were trying to get a record deal and it was a tough climate at the time, because it was around the time that boybands were a big aspect of the music industry. And a lot of record companies didn’t have a lot of money at the time because the whole music industry was changing. A lot of music shops were closing down, and it was moving more to digital platforms, and a lot of companies had spent a lot of money on boy-bands and girl-bands, so didn’t have a lot of budget at the time. I went on Ceol Tire, sang my single, ‘I’ll Be There’ – which hadn’t been released as a single yet, but it was my original song – and another song that I’d written. And it was actually through performing on Ceol Tire that time in An Grianan in Letterkenny that I got the record deal with Rosette Records.”
Catriona continued, “There was an A&R guy there with another act who saw me. So it was through performing on that show that I got my record deal! And then, from having performed on that show also, I got asked to come back as a judge on Glór Tire at the start of the competition element of the programme. So it has a hugely special place in my heart. It really gave me my start in the music business with that record deal which funded making the Fallen Angel album at the time. And then, to be asked back as a judge was a huge privilege really. I suppose I was lucky as well to have the Irish language. It feels very sweet to me doing that show because it merges both my passions, music and the Irish language. It can’t get better than that for me. On top of that, to see wonderful young talent coming up through the show, from all different parts of the country, different demographics, different age profiles, different types of voices, I find that hugely interesting. Having got a very rigorous vocal training myself, I find it very interesting listening to different peoples’ voices. It doesn’t feel like a job to me at all. And often you’ll hear new songs that you might never have heard before. So I’ve learned a lot about country music from doing sixteen years on the show myself. It’s a really lovely job, and it’s a privilege to do it. The production team are a lovely bunch of people as well, and my fellow judges [Jo Ní Cheide and John Creedon], we’ve become great friends. It’s a pleasure going back to Galway every year.”
~ Caitriona’s new duet with Desi Egan, SUMMER WINE, is out now and available on all platforms, and to request from radio. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our chat with Caitriona, coming your way very soon!