Laura Nolan

First Published February 2021

A RELENTLESS SPIRIT

Part 2

In Part 1 of our chat with LAURA NOLAN, the World Champion dancer, tv star, model, reigning Miss Universe Leinster, and MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND finalist (Top Three) 2020, took us on a journey from the earliest days of her dancing career right up to being on our screen week-in and week-out on DANCING WITH THE STARS Ireland with her celebrity partner Brian Dowling in 2020. 


The duo certainly became one of the show’s iconic couples during their time on DWTSIrl, but their time in the spotlight came to an end waaaaay too early due to what can only be described as – at least in my opinion – some seriously dubious voting by the Irish public! That fact aside, I asked Laura to talk about the challenge of taking a non-dancer, who is also a celebrity, and trying to teach in just a week routines that they then have to perform on ‘live’ television…


“It’s a lot of pressure! Trying to teach somebody first of all who has never danced before, it’s a lot of work. I don’t think people realise the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes, the amount of hours a day. You’re talkin’ ten hours a day. And you know, when you have somebody who’s never danced before, you’re adding in even more pressure on their behalf. Somebody who has been in the public eye for so many years, and is loved by so many people, that’s an extra pressure on them. They’ve always been a certain type of person, always seemed very professional. Now all of a sudden, you’re taking somebody out of their comfort-zone and asking them to dance on ‘live’ TV. So, there is a lot of expectation, you know, to get this dance right. It takes a lot of courage on the celebrities behalf, and a lot of work. For me, as the professional, I’m there to try to encourage them, to really bring them out of their shell, and to be there for them through every step, to make them realise that this is ok, that they are doing well. It’s about nourishing them through an experience and bringing the best out of them each week. Because it is very difficult, and very emotional. I don’t think people realise that on the show people are exhausted. They’re after putting everything into it. And they’re being asked questions week on week that are actually very personal to them. And because of the exhaustion, because of the amount of work that they’ve put in, because of all the emotion that’s coming up, you do get very caught up in it. And it is a very emotional thing! And you [the viewers] can see that on the actual show. It’s not until you come out of the experience and you look back on it, you’re like…ok, that wasn’t half as emotional as I thought it was, but when I was actually in it I was just so engrossed in it AND it was so emotional [laughs]. Yeah, it’s a very unique experience, but at the same time, it’s an amazing experience. And it’s one that you’ll only get on Dancing With The Stars.” 

As Laura had mentioned, being on DWTSIrl brought her into the public-eye in a huge way, even more so than she had already been. To the extent, in fact, that talk of romance between her and hurling great, Kilkenny’s Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty, began to fill the nation’s gossip columns. I wondered if that sense of being in the public-eye in general was something that Laura found she enjoys, or is it more something that she just accepts as part of the job? 


“Well, I knew that going on the biggest show on TV I had to expect that. You have to expect people to want to know about your personal life, because they want to know a little bit extra about you. I knew that came with it, and was part and parcel of it. However…[laughs]…when you’re seeing people walking down the street after you, and you’re thinking ‘Ok, is that someone with a camera?!’…you do have to adjust your life slightly! It is something that you have to get used to. It’s not every day that you have somebody waiting on a corner to take a picture of you [laughs]. But I was very lucky that I did have Brian Dowling, because being so used to it, he almost helped me in that sense. He was helping me in one aspect, and I was helping him in another, so we worked together on it! Myself and Aidan thought it was so funny when speculation came out that there was romance between us! We were actually crying laughing because we were great friends. There were four of us that were very close; myself, Brian, Grainne Gallanagh, and Aidan. We’d been going out on nights-out together. Everyone on the cast knew that I was single at the time, and they also knew that I was single, and they were like, ‘Oh, you two!!!’ And we were like absolutely not! [laughs]. So it was being put to us from the beginning, but then when it came out in the papers the two of us just couldn’t help laughing. They were speculating about something that was just completely wrong. But sometimes you just have to take these things and laugh at them, because that’s all that you can do [laugh]. You have to just take it light-hearted and not take it personally.” 

Joanne Clifton, the 2016 winner of the show with her celebrity partner Ore Oduba, was one Strictly Come Dancing connection in Laura’s life which I wasn’t actually aware of until the day we spoke. But there was, of course, another connection between Laura and the show too, in the shape of Kai Widdrington, who had been Grainne Gallanagh’s professional partner on DWTSIrl last year. Kai went on to feature in the last series of Strictly as well. Would Strictly be something that’s also on Laura’s list of goals? 


“Oh, it absolutely is! Stepping into the world of Dancing With The Stars was completely new for me and I was keeping my options open. Everyone was saying, ‘Strictly, Strictly!’, but I said, you know something, let’s just see how I feel after Dancing With The Stars. I’d been in the world of competitive dance for years, and I just wanted to see how I’d feel after it. I wanted to keep my options open. But after experiencing Dancing With The Stars, I can say 100% yes, Strictly is something that’s a big goal of mine, and it’s something that I would absolutely love to do.” 

The reason we aren’t seeing Laura on Dancing With The Stars this year, of course, is because of the ongoing Covid 19 crisis, which has made the last year a pretty tough one for everyone. How had Laura been dealing with that side of things herself? 


“It’s very difficult to adjust, knowing that this time last year you were getting ready for a ‘live’ show. And you’re so caught up in, and so busy with something for a couple of months, to think this year that that’s just completely gone…I’ve been thinking, ok, yes it’s Covid time, and yes, things have been cancelled, but it’s not going to be like this forever. So I keep putting goals down for each day for what I want to do. And I’ve come up with a lot of creative ideas. Knowing that Dancing With The Stars wasn’t coming back, I knew I was going to have this time free, so I had to say, well what am i going to do now? So I started this Dance-Fit class, and even though that can’t happen in person, it’s going to happen online. I’ve also put something in motion that is an ultimate goal for me. I’ve really started thinking outside the box about contacting people and making things happen for summer time. That’s really all you can do. You just have to keep looking forward, and keep putting goals into each day for yourself, long-term and short-term, and try to make them happen. Even if it’s not happening right now, you have to believe that it will happen down the line.” 

Even with 2020 being as bad and as weird a year as it was, Laura still managed to end it on a high by being crowned Miss Universe Leinster, and by making it to the final three of Miss Universe Ireland, fantastic achievements both. What prompted Laura to enter the Miss Universe Ireland pageant and how did she enjoy the whole experience? 


“Back in 2012, I did a show for the final of Miss Universe Ireland. And since then, I’ve always been interested in Miss Universe Ireland, but I never really had the opportunity to do something like that as my whole career was based around dance. But then I came to a road where Dancing With The Stars had been cancelled, I was supposed to go on another show but that was also cancelled, so I thought well I now have time in my life to maybe explore different options. And also, of course, I was looking at Grainne’s role. I was very close with Grainne during DWTSIrl. So, as I did have an interest in that kind of pageant world, I was thinking to myself, right, I have these few months, a blank year…let’s try something different. Let’s try something that I haven’t tried before. And that was really what prompted me to do it. The experience was obviously unique and unusual because of Covid, it was all online. I know that usually it would be a one or maybe a two-day show, but this actually went on for four and a half months online. But it gave us the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t have usually done. As in creating videos, doing different types of interviews. And it also gave us the opportunity to get to know the girls a bit more even though we haven’t met in person. At this stage we all know each other for so long, and yet, we haven’t even met! It’s very unusual [laughs]. But I have to say the whole experience overall was amazing.” 

As we wrapped up our chat, I wanted to come back to something that Laura had touched on at the beginning of our conversation. Everything about Laura, from her ballroom dancing, to Dancing With The Stars, to Miss Universe Ireland, all of that screams glamour, and glitz, and showbiz. But, there’s simply no way that Laura could perform to the standards that she always does at everything without being a fiercely determined person. So I asked her to tell me about that side of her, the fighter that sometimes people might not see or acknowledge as much as is deserved…


“I actually love that question. People see that glitz, and see that glam, they see the final product. But they don’t realise the sacrifice and the dedication it takes to get there. And like in any sport, there’s always going to be ups, and there’s also going to be a lot of downs that people don’t see. They don’t see the times that you got knocked out [of competition] and you were standing on the side of the floor wishing you were in that final, after dancing twelve hours a day, dedicating yourself, and sacrificing so much. And after your parents sacrificing so much money-wise for you. And after all that, you don’t get the placement that you deserve. That’s heartbreaking, heartbreaking. Like in any competitive sport. But every time, you have to pick yourself up, pick yourself off the ground, and teach yourself that it’s just one competition, so you need to keep going. It’s not easy to get up every single day of the week – your feet would be hurting, your toes would be bleeding – to end up dancing ten, twelve hours a day. Yes, it’s very difficult, but you do it for the love of your sport. And in myself, I have this want to be the best. When I’ve had a goal in my head, I’ve always been like this until I reach that goal. Someone once said to me, ‘You’re the most relentless person I know.’ And when they said that, I was like, that’s exactly what I am. I just won’t quit until I actually reach the goal that I want. You’re dead right in saying that to be successful, you have to have that want inside of you, that competitive spirit. Because it’s not easy. It’s definitely not.

Laura continued,“The last few years of my dancing career were the most challenging for me. My partnership wasn’t this beautiful, easy thing that people see. They see that you’re World Open champion, or you’re International champion. But my partner was, unfortunately, not the best partner. And actually, I’m due to appear on a programme where I actually speak about this. I’ve done a lot of work in the last couple of months for Women’s Aid, and the reason why I’ve done that is because of my own history, and what I experienced. To do something that you love, but to have someone beside you who’s not 100% with you all the time, is very difficult. You do need to have that extra want in you to succeed. And that’s how I am as a person. I always try to look at the positive in life, and I try to never dwell on the negative. If things don’t go my way, if I get knocked back, I always just say to myself, ‘What’s your end goal?’ Everything in life is not going to go your way. You have to expect the ups, and the downs. Yes, there has been a lot more downs and difficulties in my career than there would have been in somebody else’s, maybe somebody else in another country who has a federation who supports them, and actually funds them. But at the same time, it makes the journey even sweeter when you reach your end-goal. Through my career, I had a federation over here telling me, ‘You won’t make it to an international final. You won’t make a World Open final.’ They didn’t believe in their own dancers, because it was never done before. So that’s also an extra thing that keeps that fire in your belly…well I’ll show you…!””

I’ve always had that inside me”, emphasised Laura, “that grit, the grind, the graft to succeed, to be the best. So yes, people see the glamour, and they see the glitz, but you have to understand that didn’t come without a lot of tears, a lot of sweat, a lot of blood, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of dedication. It’s like any sport, you have to prepare for it. If you want something enough, those are the things you’re prepared to do to be the best. And once you are the best, those sacrifices aren’t really sacrifices. They’re actually moments that make you, and make the journey that bit better.” 

You can follow Laura on Facebook and Instagram. 

ENDS

Emma Donohue

First Published February 2021

COUNTRY EVERYWHERE!

The EMMA DONOHUE you’ll see on-stage and the one you’ll meet off-stage can be summed up in one simple word. Real. When you hear her sing a country song – like any of her singles to date; Coat Of Many Colours, Rambling Man, or I Fell In Love – you can tell that she’s not singing those songs simply because she thinks they’re ones that people might want to hear (although they do!). She sings them because her connection to country music runs deep. These are some of the songs – and the kinds of songs – that she loves, and that have been a part of her life for as long as music has. Which is pretty much forever. That’s real. 


She’s singing those songs right now on the new season of TG4’s long-running hit show GLÓR TÍRE because she’s been singing them at home in the kitchen, down the yard on the family farm at home in Killoran, in her car…everywhere, for pretty much forever. That, ladies and gentlemen, is real. 


Off-stage, when she gets you chatting, you’ll find laughter floating easily throughout the whole conversation from minute-one. Everybody who meets Emma finds this out. And again, the main reason for this is simple. It’s because she’s real. As a farmer’s daughter, she has time and a word for everyone. That’s part of the creed of the countryside, after all. And as a student-nurse, her first instinct with everyone is to put them at ease and make them feel comfortable. If you met Emma a year ago, that’s how she’d be. If she happens to end up being crowned Glór Tíre’s victor for 2021, she’ll still be the same. Meet her five years down the road, and that side of her personality still won’t have changed a bit. Because she’s real. 


The first show of the new series, where all the contestants perform on the night, is done and dusted, and aired a few weeks back. Next up for Emma is her concert show with her mentor, country legend MIKE DENVER, on February 9th. I had the pleasure of sitting down for a chat – and a fair few laughs, too – with Emma last weekend, and I began by asking her how it had actually felt to watch herself back on television when that first show aired, for what had, I presumed, been her first time on the ‘box’? 


“Yeah, it was the first time I’d seen myself on telly, and it was very weird, to say the least [laughs]. I suppose there was so much hype around it, ya know, because everyone around the town, they were all wishing me luck when you’d go in and do the shopping! Then seeing yourself on telly and knowing that there’s so many people behind ya and watchin’ ya, you’re thinkin’, janey, I hope I don’t mess up now here tonight! [laughs]. But yeah, it was brilliant. Lookit, it’s always goin’ to be a weird sensation to see yourself perform on telly, but it was a nice experience and it’s one that I hope to get a little bit more of as well.” 

Was it a family affair, with all the Donohue’s gathered around the television that first night? 


“Absolutely! We had myself, mam, dad, my brother Colin, and we even had Tiny – the Jack Russel – on the job as well! [laughs]. I was even getting messages from friends as far away as Australia from people telling me they were watching, so it was class.” 

As well as watching herself on television for the first time, the recordings of those first episodes of Glór Tíre would have been Emma’s first time working with cameras flying around about her, too. While everything always looks perfectly calm, polished, and professional by the time it hits our screens, how did Emma find that new experience of singing in those conditions? 


“Well I wouldn’t have been used to getting my hair and make-up done for me before singing, sure I felt like the Queen! It was a class experience. Yeah, it was busy, like, everything comes down to a schedule and you have to be there at a certain time, and you have to get it all done. But at the end of the day, I enjoyed every bit of it. I had my mam there for the first day with me, and then I had my dad with me for the second one, for the concert with Mike. I suppose having them there, they put me at ease. And they were encouraging me as well. It was good craic, everyone mingled well together as much as they could with the social distancing. It was a nice auld atmosphere, I enjoyed it.” 

Was that Emma’s first time performing with a band as well? 


“Yeah, that was my first experience with a band, but it was savage! It was very different now to when you’re singing to a backing-track! You kind of get the feel for it, the music, and the beat behind ya, it’s definitely different to a backing-track! [laughs].”

Emma’s mentor this year, Mike Denver, is not only one of the nicest men in the business, but also of course, a past winner of Glór Tíre. He guided Eunice Moran all the way to victory back in 2010. And last year he very nearly repeated that feat with his contestant Lisa Callanan making it to the final three. So there’s no doubt that Emma is in good hands, but how exactly, did Team-Donohue-Denver come to be? 


“Well, it’s actually a really random story! I got a phone-call one evening when I was coming home from work, and Willie Carty rang me, Mike’s manager. And I actually thought one of the lads was pulling my leg, ya know, saying will ya come on Glór Tíre. I think it took Willie about ten minutes to convince me it was him [laughs]. He just asked me would I come on it. He said I’d come across his books, is how he put it, a couple of times and that they were hearing me for the last little while when I was bringing out singles that they were hearing on the radio, and they were enjoying them. So did I want to come on the show! And lookit, sure I grabbed it with both hands. 2020 had taken a nose-dive in so many respects and there wasn’t really very much to look forward to, so when this came along, I just said let’s go!” 

What was the next step along the way after that first call from Willie? 


“We actually didn’t meet until down at the recording of Glór Tíre. Now I got a phone call from Mike after Willie’s one, and obviously I had a few more with Willie as well. So I had that one chat on the phone with Mike beforehand, and then it all kind of happened when we met down at the Quays in Galway. But sure we got on like a house on fire. I knew him from the dancing anyway. I wouldn’t have been too familiar say, like I wouldn’t have been one for going up to him the whole time after dances, but I would have said hello to him now and then in passing. And it was a great auld day when we did meet, great craic, I was itching to start jiving when I was listening to Mike sing! [laughs].”

Emma hasn’t entered Glór Tíre as a total newcomer to the country scene, far from it, in fact. She’s been paying her dues already with the release of three very well-received singles, and there’s a fourth in the works…


“Yeah, number four is actually recorded since…December? November, December. And that’ll be comin’ out shortly, maybe just before the ‘live’ shows, I think, or else after the concert show with Mike. I’m not quite sure yet, but it will definitely be in the next few weeks anyway. Hopefully everyone will like it. There’ll be no music video with it this time, but all the same, it’s still a good lively, rockin’, old-timer one, but we’ve put our own twist on it. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.”


Enda Dempsey, who Emma is working closely with, will be a name well-known to country fans as a member of Derek Ryan’s band. I asked her to tell me how they ended up in the role of artist and producer…


“The only way to describe him is that Enda is one of a kind! When I started dancing, I got friendly with a few of the band lads, and I would have met them at plenty of social dances. And Enda was just really friendly, no more than any of the rest of them. I was telling him that I was singing and he said sure if you have one recorded, why don’t you record another? And he was telling me about Paddy Jordan and how he records in the studio together with him. So I said, do you know what, I’ll give it a go and record another one. He ended up producing Rambling Man for me, and I think that was the one that really kicked me off completely, because it was a nice, upbeat, lively one. He’s great craic in the studio! I have this tendency, I suppose, to go a little bit American country sometimes with my voice, and the way Enda puts it is just plain and simple; ‘Will ya give me a bit of that Mullagh accent! [laughs]. That’s the way he says it to me! I get on with him like a house on fire too. I’m very easy-going that way. When I get to know people, they’ll know about it [laughs]. But yeah, we clicked, and we’ve been best friends now since I started in the country music scene, definitely about five or six years now. And working together, we’re definitely two years anyway now at it. And there’s a grand friendship there with Paddy Jordan as well. You gain all these friendships along the way and it’s brilliant. But when Enda is a producer, well look, we have the craic, but there’s a serious side to it as well.” 

While people are getting somewhat used to the idea of seeing Emma up on the stage now, for a very long time she was – as she hinted at – a very familiar face in front of the stage and out on the dancefloor…


“Growing up on a farm, I suppose country music is always going to be attached to it, with the horses and the whole lot. I grew up listening to Declan Nerney, Philomena Begley, so we were never short of country around. Then we went into secondary school and I suppose we’d have the nightclubs or whatever, but it was just never my scene. I like it, to a degree, but I knew there was something else for me! Then I came of the age where I could get into the social dances with one of my friends, and it went from there. The very first social dance I went to was Lisa McHugh in the Shearwater in Ballinasloe, and I loved it. After that, I think we went nearly every weekend. Either my mam or dad would bring us, or Kayleigh’s mam or dad would bring us. We’d travel the length and breadth of the place. And sure then when both of us got a car, there was no stopping us at all! We were gone every weekend [laughs].” 

So what about Emma’s move from being down on the dancefloor to being up on the stage? How did that come about? 


“Well it came about through a good friend of mine, and through the dancing as well, I got friendly with the singer John Molloy, who’s well-known now on the country music scene at this stage. John was performing after a Michael English show one night, and he knew that I was singing, I had kind of told him a couple of nights after the dances and he was encouraging me to pursue it. And I was saying look, I don’t know if I’d be able. So he says right, ‘Tonight’s your night! I’m not hearing any more excuses!’, and he handed me the mic! There must have been at least five-hundred people in it that night, and he said right, let’s go! And you know what, the buzz and the atmosphere of it all that night was brilliant. I said to myself this is what I want to do. It must have been two or three months after that – not even – when I recorded my first single, ‘Coat Of Many Colours.’ And what else gave me the boost that night was that Michael English actually came in himself, and Olivia Douglas was there as well, and when the three of them got together after and we were all chatting, Michael and Olivia both passed a comment like ‘Well done tonight’, and that gave me another bit of a boost. So yeah, I said lookit, I’m goin’ to give this a chance now and see how it goes. And sure it went from there!” 

Was that also Emma’s first time to sing in public? 


“No, it wasn’t actually. I performed in Kiltormer, there was a ceilidh night on in our local village over the road here. I performed on stage that night with a band. Well, it wasn’t a band as such, it was just three gentlemen who had formed together and they were playing a few tunes. I sang two or three songs that night. It was a kind of middle of the road job, but I did it. I think there was about eight-hundred people there down in the concert hall. And it was brilliant because when I came down all the neighbours were like, ‘Janey, I didn’t know you could sing! You kept that one quiet!’ [laughs]. I suppose that was my first time ever letting people know I could sing. And that was actually just shortly before John Molloy gave me my big break. But it was there in Kiltormer that I started to come out of my shell [laughs].” 

Moving away from the music side of things for a moment, it’s important to let people know that Emma is also a student nurse. Always a noble and honourable profession and calling, it’s one that brings even more intensity and pressure than usual with it in these times of Covid 19. I asked Emma to share that side of her life with us…


“It is difficult right now, and there’s no point in saying that it’s easy or that life is rosey. It’s a profession I went into knowing full-well the complications that could arise at any stage. And you always have to be very aware of these things. But I suppose these are unprecedented times as well, they’re very strange. There’s an awful lot of pressure on us at the minute. From being under-staffed, to under-paid…lookit, we’re not even getting paid. But you didn’t go into the job for the money side either. But it is, it’s tough times. And especially coming home to mam and dad. I’m in Athlone studying, so my hospitals are in the midlands; Portlaoise, Tullamore, and Mullingar. Travelling up and down, and getting stopped by the Guards at checkpoints, it all adds to the pressure of it as well. But I love what I’m doing, and I wouldn’t change it either for the world. It’s hard at the minute, but I suppose you just have to take the good with the bad. I came into 2021 with an attitude of take every day as it comes, and hope for the best. Hopefully we’re on the right road again with these vaccines coming out, and with the help of God they’ll have them all rolled out by the end of the year and we’ll be in a safer place.” 

Because of Covid, of course, it’s impossible for Emma or any of this year’s Glór Tíre contestants to get out in front of an actual ‘live’ audience. Otherwise, Emma would be on the road here, there, and everywhere with Mike right now! But, she is doing something very cool for country music fans every Sunday…


“Yeah, and I supposed I started it last lockdown, but between placement and everything, I didn’t manage my time wisely! But this time I kinda have everything off to a tee [laughs]. I’ve recorded songs at home, some of the country ones that I love and that have made me who I am today, and I’ll be putting them up online every Sunday. It’s something to build the momentum and keep things going, and keep everyone’s spirits up as well. Because this lockdown is harder, we’re in the winter months, the evenings are still dark, it’s just very dull and dreary. So I suppose if I can give someone a brighter Sunday and a little dance around the kitchen, then sure that’ll make my day! My second song went up last Sunday, and I have another one coming next Sunday. And I’ve been getting great feedback from it, so far so good anyway. I’m getting lovely messages and lovely comments, so look, I hope to continue it anyway for the next couple of months, even after Glór Tíre.” 

Speaking of the songs that have a special place in Emma’s heart and that have made her who she is today, I wondered if she happened to have an earliest country music memory? 


“The earliest country memory I have is back when we were only after having twin foals here! It was very rare to have twin foals! So everyone was coming up and they were all watching them and looking at them, all fascinated and whatnot. And the vet came out anyway, and I remember there were a few here the same day, a few farmers and a few of our friends. Didn’t Declan Nerney come on the radio anyway, ‘Stop The World And Let Me Off.’ And the craic was good here that day, we were all in good auld spirits, good auld form, there was even a local cameraman here, Gerry Stronge. So that song came on anyway, and everyone dropped tools and all started jiving! [laughs]. If anyone had come in on that scene, they would have been like, ‘What’s going on here at all?!’ But I remember that day so well. The craic was so good. And I knew from that day country music was always going to be in my blood!” 


So what age would Emma have been then? 


“Well, the twin foals are eleven now, and I’m twenty-two now, so I was only actually eleven that day. Everyone just dropped tools, I’ll never forget it, cameraman and the whole lot just grabbed a partner! Man, woman and child [laughs].”

I loved the way Emma referred to their ‘local cameraman’, something I suggested to her that not everywhere would have! 


“[Laughs] Well he’s a family friend too, like, he owns a photo shop at-in in town, Gerry Stronge Photography, he’s been a good friend of ours for years. That’s just what I call him, my local cameraman! [laughs].” 

So looking beyond Glór Tíre, and to when we get back to some kind of normal again, what plans does Emma have for her career in country music? 


“Well definitely I want to finish off my album. Myself and Enda and Paddy are in the middle of recording. So just to get that all sorted, and then to get on the road with it. We have a good bit of it done, it’s just down to finalising the rest of the songs now and get cracking on them. I’m hoping to have it out by the end of this year. But lookit, if all else fails, then by early 2022 will suffice. After that, I’ve already been getting messages about when music opens up again, asking will I play in different places around Galway. And indeed, I’d venture further afield as well, there’s a few festivals coming up too. There’s a lot of things in store after Glór Tíre. And I’m looking forward to it all. Any opportunities I get, I’ll grab them with both hands!” 


~ Emma and Mike take to the Glór Tíre stage for their concert performance on Tuesday, February 9th on TG4. Voting is now open for the show, so to put your support behind #TeamDonohueDenver, simply download the Glór Tíre App and follow the instructions from there. You can follow Emma at EMMA DONOHUE MUSIC – and enjoy her Sunday performances – on Facebook and Instagram. 

ENDS

Laura Nolan

First Published January 2021

THE MOMENTS THAT MAKE US

Part 1

Far too often there are far too many people who make the mistake of judging others – especially celebrities – based on the now, what they see of them today, without ever giving a moment’s thought to how they actually got to where they are today. To say it’s an easy mistake to make is too lenient a verdict to settle upon where such folk are concerned. Because what it really is, in fact, is a lazy mistake to make. And there’s a big difference between an easy mistake and a lazy one. Dubliner LAURA NOLAN – world champion dancer, one of the pro-dancers on Dancing With The Stars Ireland, and as such, among the most famous faces in Irish entertainment – knows all about such rushes to judgement. 


Some people would have you believe that Laura was somehow just dropped into the world of celebrity out of nowhere, and that her life has always been as glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled as it appears when we’ve seen her on our screens on DWTSIrl. But here’s the thing, you see, moments like that really are just ‘the now’, they’re not the whole story. They never are. Everything is glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled NOW all right, because Laura is one of the very best in the world at what she does. But once upon a time – and for a long time – things would have been anything but perfect by anyone’s measure. 


But those moments – and this is crucial because, as you will discover, it gets to the very heart of who Laura is as a person – the hours and hours in rehearsal studios, the aching limbs, the bleeding feet, the travel, the living far away from home, the sacrifices made in so many ways – those are the moments that made Laura the star we know today. 


Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with Laura for a chat about those same moments, the ones that nobody else might ever see or even know about, but without which, Laura’s story would not have been possible. And as far as her story goes, while we don’t have DWTSIrl to look forward to in 2021, Laura at least, has still managed to make it back onto our TV screens by teaming up with RTE Kids recently. So, that’s where we began our chat…


“They contacted me a little while back asking me to do a little dance class for children as schools aren’t open and there’s not much activities going on for them. So this was something that they could do that would be a little bit enjoyable, and also, it would help to keep dancing alive as it’s not on our TV screens this year. It’s very popular with children as well. So they wanted me to do an easy kind of class that would keep children interested and just, you know, keep them occupied for a half an hour [laughs]. I said absolutely, that was something I was really interested in doing and hopefully it’s going to become a regular thing. It went really, really well, it was very successful and the feedback was great. Positivity all round, really.” 

And Laura’s own dancing career began at a very young age, too, dancing competitively from the age of just five years old, I’d once heard. So if she began dancing competitively at five, I wondered, did that mean that she first began learning to dance even earlier? 


“Yes! I started to dance when I was three years old. My Mam was a dancer. So the minute she could, she put me into dancing. So I started ballet, ballroom, and latin all in the one week. And it kind of went from there. I know that for my first competition I was actually only four, but I’d say competitively from five because that was when I did a proper, proper competition. But my first competition was solo, and it was just  asic routine that I had to do. Now, this story has been told to me so many times, and I do remember parts of it [laughs], but I wouldn’t have a recollection of all of it. However, everyone reminds me of this story all the time [laughs]. So in my first competition, I was out on the floor. And I was obsessed when I was younger with diamonds and fluff! So I saw a diamond on the floor, and I stopped in the middle of the competition when all the judges were looking, and I started biting the stone on the floor! [laughs]. It was very popular at the time to have a boa of feathers at the end of a dress, so I saw this girl sitting down and I ran over to her and I got the fluff and put it up to my nose! [laughs]. So that’s how my competitive career started!” 

Was there a long line of dancers in Laura’s family, or did it just begin with her Mam and move on to Laura? 


“It just started with my Mam and it moved on to me. She was the one who really guided me through my career. She understood what it took to become a top dancer. It was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of dedication, not only on my behalf, but on my parents behalf. They really pushed me, and understood my career choice. And it was really because of them that I got to where I am now.” 

One thing I never realised about competitive dancing is that people can be in a partnership for so long. Laura had been partners with Stanislav Wakeham for about four years, and then with the brilliantly named Alessandro Bosco for about four more. I asked Laura what, from her point of view, makes someone a great partner? 


“I think trust is a huge part of any relationship, not just in dancing, but also in life. So you need to be able to trust your partner, and you need to be able to work as a team. A man has a huge role in leading the partnership, you know, when you’re on the floor and there’s many couples around he would guide you into the open space. You have to have that trust that you know you’re on the right path together, and that you have the same dreams and you have the same goals. I also think it’s important that the two characters get on. If you’re two different types of characters and you keep bashing off each other, it’s very difficult because you spend so much time together, especially in the studio. I had that last experience where the two of us were very different characters and it is very difficult. You need to be able to manage how you are as people together. And I suppose in dancing, it’s important that they have the same amount of commitment and drive as you do. You have to have the same goals, and the same wants, and the same determination, because if you don’t it can be very difficult. And I’ve also experienced that in other partnerships throughout my career. Especially in dance, because not everyone has the same goals as me. Everyone used to think my goals were ridiculous and unachievable, but I always had that determination needed to get there, and I did. But that meant needing to work that extra bit harder. A lot of people will just see dance as a hobby, I didn’t. So you definitely need to have the same level of determination to work the hours that are required to reach the top.” 

So Laura obviously found all of those positive qualities she mentioned when she teamed up with Stanislav in 2009? 


“Yeah, it was late 2008, I think. I’ve had many partners here in Ireland. My first partner, his name is Luca Mastropietro, he was an Italian living in Ireland, he was my longest ever partner. We danced as children together through the juvenile ranks, and we were together for like seven or eight years. I switched from partner to partner because people were stopping to dance, or just different circumstances and stuff. My coach was very well known around the world of dance, and he used to have a lot of people coming over to take lessons from him from other countries. And there was this couple staying in my house at the time, and it was actually Joanne Clifton, who went on to be on Strictly [Come Dancing], and she actually won Strictly. She was staying at my house at the time, and obviously she was English, and her and her partner at the time, Marco Cavallaro, they used to teach a lot in England. Everyone kind of knows each other around the world of dance, and it just happened that I was looking for a partner at the time and I mentioned it to them as they were staying in my house, and they said, ‘Yeah, we know this boy.’ And it just so happened that he had actually approached my coach as well at a competition a few months before that. So I went over to try out a few weeks later and we started dancing together. And when we started, I was only fourteen at the time, but he was already seventeen at the time, so we were in the adult ranks. There was a competition seven days later, the British Closed Championship, we danced it and we actually came second after just seven days dancing together. That was Under-Twenty-Ones, so even to make a final of that was a huge thing, never mind to place! Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s after happening?’ [laughs]. 

Laura continued, “That partnership went really, really well. For the first six months of that partnership I was actually travelling over every weekend to England because we had a lot of our coaches in England at the time. And we were doing the English circuit competitively. So, what I used to do was I used to leave school on a Friday at one o’ clock, dad would collect me, I’d get changed in the car, and he would drop me off at the airport. I had to fill out this cert to say that I was allowed to travel by myself, because my parents used to just drop me and I’d get collected on the other side. Once I got collected on the other side, it was straight to the dancing hall, have lessons, the competition practise, then on a Saturday I’d have a full day of lessons,and a full day of practise. Sunday, competition. Monday, I’d get on the first flight back to Dublin, my dad would collect me again on the other side, I’d get changed back into my uniform, and go straight into school! And that was my life for around six and a half, seven months. Then we realised, look, we need to be able to practise during the week as well. So he ended up moving over here and living in my family home. So yeah, that was a very successful partnership in that it got me to a different stage of my career. We were the first ever couple to make the final of a World Championship from Ireland. That happened in 2009. We were also the first ever to make an International Open Final, that was in 2010. We made the final of a British Open Championship, so really, that launched me in my career. I was still really young at the time, so I should have been dancing junior, but I was dancing adult. Youth is from sixteen to eighteen, but I was out of that by the time I was fifteen because of my partner. But I should have still been in junior. So it went really well. We were teaching over here, we had a huge school over here, but it got to the stage in 2021 where he had grown very, very tall! And it was actually too much then if we wanted to reach the next level. So we were like, look, this isn’t working height-wise, so we need to think of something else. So we went looking for different partners and we just went down different roads. He moved back to Moscow where he was originally from, and I went on to dance then with somebody from Italy. So yeah, he left first, and I was left without a partner for a couple of months. But then I started dancing with this Italian, and went and lived in Rome for three months. Big, dramatic story! [laughs]. Ended up coming home after three months, I wasn’t mad about it over there, and a few months later then I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco and moved down to the south of Italy.” 

I had been planning to ask Laura about some of the reasons why partnerships might come to an end, but literally, in one instance for her, it was just because her partner became too tall??


“Yeah! Everything was going quite well, and our results were going quite well, but in that case we decided to stop because of our height difference. We knew that if we wanted to get to another level, which would be in the amateur-ranks the final of the World Championship. We were in the final of the World Championships for Under-18s but then when you move into amateur, you’re against people who are in their thirties. So we were in the Top Twenty-Four, sometimes the Top-Twelve, and we wanted to get to the Top-Six. To do that, we knew that height was having a restriction on how we were dancing. So we just made a mutual decision to move on. In other cases, I’ve been in partnerships where I just didn’t get on with a partner, it just wasn;t working as people to people. Then you’d have some people who were like, ‘Look, I’m just not committed to this role, it’s not what I want anymore.’ Every partnership is unique. And every relationship you have with a person is unique. So they can end for different reasons.” 

When a partnership like Laura’s one with Stanislav comes to an end, especially after being so successful both on and off the dancefloor, is that a very difficult time? 


“Yeah, it is difficult. But that was a unique case for me, in the sense that we had already made that mutual decision that it was done. So I was almost ready for it and expecting it. But it is difficult, because you have to readjust your life, you know, after spending so much time with somebody. I remember being heartbroken at the time that it was over, but in the end, it ended up being the best thing for me. You don’t always realise these things when they’re happening at the time. But afterwards, looking back on it with hindsight, it was the best thing that I ever did. Once I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco, I would say that was probably the most successful career partnership that I’ve had. That launched me into a different part of my life in the amateur ranks, which is professional almost. And that was my longest as well, I was there for five and half years in Italy. In 2014, just two days after Christmas, I moved over to the south of Italy. We were representing Ireland, but the reason why I was living over there is because he had a massive studio beneath his house, and our coach – who was his coach as well – had his school set up in Alessandro’s studio. All of our lessons, all of our practise with the whole club was in his studio. So it just made much more sense [to be there]. Over here, it’s difficult to find studio-space to practise the hours of the day that we need. A lot of studios over here wouldn’t be only dedicated to ballroom and latin, it could be dedicated to hip-hop or ballet, and then you’d have your classes in the evening and stuff. So it’s just difficult to find what you need here. Whereas over there, it was his own so we could spend as long as we wanted in there.”

Fast-forwarding a little bit to 2019, Laura and Alessandro had retired from ballroom as a partnership, and Laura had joined the Dancing With The Stars Ireland team. When DWTSIrl first reached out to her, I wondered if Laura had been surprised to hear from them, and if it had taken her long to say yes? 


“A couple of years before 2019, in my partnership with Alessandro, I would have been one of the most successful dancers that ever came from Ireland, because of that partnership. I was doing really well in the competitive world, I was one of the top dancers in that world, I became World Open champion in that time, and International champion as well. And DWTSIrl actually reached out to me for the very first season. And I said no because I was competing at the time. A lot of my friends, a lot of my colleagues from Ireland, had gone through the audition and that’s how I got news of it [their interest], but I was like, no, I’m in my competitive career at the moment and I wouldn’t be able to dedicate my time to it. So, season-one went on, season-two went on, and then I got contacted for season-three by the producers and I turned it down again because I was still competing. Then, it came to January 2019, a huge event happened [in my life] and I ended up back home. I said to myself, right, I’m after being put in this position where I’m now after splitting from my partner, and I started looking at my life in a little bit of a different way. I was like, you’re after achieving all of your goals, you’ve become World Open champion, you’ve become International champion, so now it might be time to actually try something new. The producers reached out to me again…and I was like, it’s time, it’s time for me to go on the show. It’s time for me to change things up [in my life]. So because I’d been contacted a few times before, I was almost ready for it, I was expecting it. And yeah, it went from there. It was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, that little switch over. Because I’ve now opened doors that I would never have thought even possible.”


~ Stay tuned for Part 2 of our chat with Laura – including her memories of working with Big Brother legend Brian Dowling on DWTSIrl and much more – coming your way in the next few weeks! 

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

The Late Late Show Country Special 2020

First Published December 2020

HO, HO…NO!

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


But to others, clearly, not so much. 


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

ENDS