A Christmas Catch-Up…

A Christmas Catch-Up…

First Published December 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ENDS