A Conversation with Celtic Thunder
Mike Ragogna: Hey Neil and Ryan! Your latest album, Legacy Vol. 1 is your latest release. What have you noticed has grown the most for Celtic Thunder as a troop over the years?
Neil Byrne: Well, I think the thing that has grown the most is the fan base. We’ve been going since 2007, that’s when the first idea of Celtic Thunder came about. When we first came to America and Canada we didn’t really know how it was going to be accepted, although we really believed in it. We were very passionate about it, like we are today. It just has grown unbelievably. We’ve had over 2.5 million sales of DVDs and records and over forty nine million views on our YouTube channel. It’s been phenomenal over the years. The fan base has really grown, and I think we’ve grown, too. Obviously, we’ve gotten a little older, and we absolutely love even more so now what we do. Even in terms of crowd size and ticket sales, a lot of people want to come and see Celtic Thunder. It’s kind of come full circle now, we’ve released over fourteen DVDs with PBS, so it was time to release what Celtic Thunder’s legacy is. Legacy really defines Celtic Thunder.
MR: What do you think it is about Celtic Thunder that keeps fans and yourselves engaged with the music?
Ryan Kelly: I think it’s a number of things, to be honest. It’s all about content, I believe. We’ve tried to refresh the show as much as we can over the years so it doesn’t become stale. As Neil just said, we have fourteen specials we’ve put on over the last eight years, which sort of gives you an indication of how the show has refreshed over the years. We’ve built a fan base that continues to grow and we want to know what they enjoy about what we do–what songs, what tracks that they really seem to want to hear more of. That’s really what’s happened over the years, we’ve come back with more and more songs that cater to that, but they’re songs that we enjoy singing, too. It’s a mixture of songs from hundreds of years ago–classic Irish tracks–along with a lot of modern stuff as well. I think to have a wide range in the variety of music that we play in our shows has helped us for sure.
MR: Do you feel like you’re educating as you’re entertaining?
RK: Yeah, I suppose so. There’s so many Irish in the countries we play in, the US and Canada and Australia for example, you know? I think there’s over forty million in this country alone. We’ve recorded hundred and hundreds of songs over the last eight years, from modern songs to songs that are hundreds of years old, through these songs we’re telling stories all the time. I think it is very educational. People want to come and learn more about their Celtic heritage, and I think they do learn a lot.
NB: Back when we started in 2007 we had expected that our music would appeal to people with a connection to the Irish culture whether it be first, second generation Irish or just people who have always had an interest in the country. Over the years however we’ve found that a lot of people who come to the shows have no connection with Ireland, but they love the music first and foremost. They learn about our country and our culture from that, and I guess we take a lot of pride in that as well. We’re singing these songs as well as promoting our own culture and opening it up to people so that they’ll go and investigate more about our music.
MR: Do you ever feel like ambassadors as you’re presenting your music and its heritage around the world?
RK: Yeah, I guess so. We’re coming from our own country with this music and these songs that we’ve been singing since we were kids and bringing them to the masses elsewhere. We do feel a certain responsibility that we’re promoting it in the right way, so I guess you could call us that.
MR: The music ranges from singer-songwriter to Irish tenor to group vocal. Given how varied and theatrical your show is, don’t you feel like you have to be pretty diverse talent-wise and decent actors as well?
NB: We are very, very different…the singers. Very, very different styles. I think that’s what makes it work so well. Celtic music comes in many different forms as well, so what’s good about that fact is that we’re not all trying to shoehorn into a certain style of singing. Basically, we’re part of Celtic Thunder because of our personalities, and it’s hard to get your personality out there on stage. In order to do that you have to give an honest performance. I think the diversity of styles within Celtic Thunder works really well, and then when we come together to sing ensemble pieces like that, another thing for our decision in bringing this together was that our voices blended well. You can get many different voices that mightn’t blend so well just in texture, but ours really do and that’s a big thing for us. That’s a thing we work on a lot. When we’re on stage, it’s basically giving a honest performance, because your true personality comes out in that, you know?
MR: It’s almost like individual artists coming together in one big concert framed as Celtic Thunder.
RK: I think what has always been the case with Celtic Thunder from the very beginning is that we’ve all got our own special styles. It’s not that you could interchange any one of us and just go out and sing someone else’s song or someone else’s solo. We choose these songs specifically for the type of singer and type of personality you have. I think that makes it pretty unique in that way. Then when we all come together you’ve got five very different voices coming together and making this sound that has become the Celtic Thunder sound over the years. We take a lot of pride in that.
MR: Over the years, what have you guys enjoyed performing the most?
NB: I really enjoy every part of the Celtic Thunder shows, and that’s the truth. I suppose one of the biggest bulls I get from being on stage with Celtic Thunder is when we sing the ensemble pieces because we have a fantastic musical director, David Munro, he’s a wonderful, wonderful musician and has a superb ear for arrangements and harmonies. When you get five or six voices coming together in harmonies that are arranged so well it can only sound really great. I think we’ve really refined it over the years. As I said earlier, because we were handpicked for our vocal textures it works really, really well. At the concerts themselves, you can see that in people’s faces when you look out at this beautiful, big, epic sound that we’ve managed to create. Even when we’re off tour, we’re not sitting down, we’re working on this constantly. That’s why we’ve managed to put out fourteen specials over the years, it’s a constant work ethic we have that has worked out really, really well.
MR: When you look at a collection like this, what do you feel has grown the most with the troupe behind the scenes?
RK: In the beginning, we were still finding our sound, and I think now there’s a distinct Celtic Thunder sound that comes through in every song, regardless of whether it’s a solo or an ensemble piece. We’ve worked very hard to perfect that sound and create a unique sound for the group itself. When you think of this album, Legacy Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 there’s very much this sound running through the album. We’ve come back and revisited some of the songs that we sang in our first albums back in 2008 but the tempos have changed and we’ve adapted the different harmonies in a different way to create an even greater sound than we had previously. The songs have evolved with us as we’ve evolved as artists. I think that’s something that’s very important to us.
MR: Celtic Thunder performs constantly around the world. Do you get homesick?
NB: I suppose, yeah. At the beginning, when we first went on tour and we weren’t used to it, it was more difficult. Now it’s kind of a way of life. It’s great getting home, obviously, but it’s unusual to have a two month or even a month break at home, you start getting itchy fingers again. You want to get back out on the road.
MR: It’s almost like your roots are so entrenched in the country, it’s almost unfathomable to up and leave and have a career elsewhere.
NB: Yeah, I guess there’s a certain element of that, but I think we’re proud of the country, we’re proud of the culture and the history, but at the same time you get to present it to other people around the world, and that’s what we’ve been doing the last few years. We take a lot of pride in doing that. We’re taking our culture on the road with us, and I think that makes up for the fact that we don’t spend much time at home anymore.
MR: Why do you think people are so drawn to Celtic history?
NB: I think there’s so much depth to it. Some of the songs that we’ve played over the years are so old that we don’t even know who wrote them. I suppose there’s a certain romanticism because of that. Even years ago as a teenager it wasn’t Celtic music that I used to play, I played all types of music but when I got into Celtic music it made me so much more passionate about music, because of the depths of the history behind songs and how they’re written. There’s just a certain feel and air to the songs that I think is just next to none. It’s a growing thing. We all write Celtic music as well, and I think it pushed us down that road because we’re so passionate about it.
MR: Who are some of your favorite current artists?
DB: We’re constantly listening to new stuff and a lot of Irish artists as well. A lot of modern Irish artists have come forward like Damien Rice and the likes of them. It’s still about storytelling. You asked why Irish music continues to have this following and I think it has a lot to do with telling stories through the songs. That’s what we do with Celtic Thunder in our concerts and even in the albums, we’ve got fourteen or fifteen different stories in the albums, and I think that’s still the case with modern Irish music as well.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
NB: One thing my dad always said was, “What you put in you get out.” If you work really, really hard at what you do any you’re passionate about it you will get something at the end of it. I think you need to find what you are yourself, as opposed to trying to be something else. Find your own strengths, and that comes from experience as well. If you want to be a musician you have to be dedicated, it’s as simple as that. You have to be really, really dedicated, and you have to love what you’re doing more than anything.
RK: I think Neil said it. It is about finding the music within you and going in that direction whether it’s popular or not. Have a love for it. If you’re going out every night and not enjoying what you’re doing you’re going to find out very quickly. Whether it’s a new show or a new song you’ve got to want to do it. I think that’s the way to survive in this industry. Obviously a lot of luck works in your favor as well, if you can get that, but it is really just loving what you’re doing and believing in yourself and your own music.
MR: What do you want Celtic Thunder’s actual legacy to be?
NB: I suppose the legacy is definitely a part of how the fans see us as well, but it’s basically what defines Celtic Thunder. Over the eight years, we’ve recorded hundreds of songs, and I suppose it’s the songs that people want all the time, the songs that we feel define Celtic Thunder; the songs that paint the real picture and put our signature sound out there and have the Celtic history as well.
RK: I guess if you’re talking about what legacy we’d like to leave I suppose just to think that we’ve introduced a lot of people to Irish music. We’ve created a sound that they can identify with as the Celtic Thunder sound. It’s nice to think that we’ve educated and opened people up to our culture through the music. If that’s our legacy then that’s not a bad thing at all.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
DEVIN SINHA’S “CALL THE MOUNTAINS DOWN” EXCLUSIVE
And according to Devin Sinha…
“’Call The Mountains Down’ is a song about making the most out of your life and not wasting the little bit of time we all have on this earth. The song reminds us that living with purpose and intention is far more fulfilling than letting life just carry you along aimlessly.”
A Conversation with Kathy Black
Mike Ragogna: Kathy, your new album Main Street is coming a little later in life than most traditional recording artists begin the process. We’ll get to that, but what are the big moments in your musical history? Who were your musical influences?
Kathy Black: When I was young, right out of college, I crashed an audition in New York and got hired for this company where you played at colleges and universities all over the country. I did that for a year solid, it was crazy.
I moved a lot growing up, I was in Detroit as a kid at the heyday of Motown and I listened to it on my transistor radio. When I was eight years old my brother got a ukulele and we started moving up from that. We played a lot of music at home, and I was influenced by my older brothers and sisters who were into everything from The Kingston Trio to Buddy Holly to Fats Domino. There was a huge R&B contingent when we were in Dallas. When I was in junior high we moved to Michigan and it was Motown all over the place, and it just goes from there. I just love all kinds of music.
Growing up, I was one of those people who thought she was the only person who understood what Joni Mitchell was really saying. It’s funny to be asked for influences because I grew up with everything and I was passionate about all of it. You can ask any of my friends, I would play a song over and over and over and over until I knew every vocal, every note, every backup. This is what I love to do. Now that I’m recording I don’t listen to anything. I’m just starting to listen to music again, but for a couple of years I really just want to play my own stuff.
MR: You’ve amassed a huge backlog of material. As you collected it over the years, were you a just little shy about putting it out there?
KB: I did other stuff! I had a whole other life. I moved out to L.A. and there was a punk thing then, and that was so not me. I did some appearances and they were well-received, I had cool people interested, it was weird. Just funny stuff, I was living out in Malibu. I met a lot of really cool people that I respected that really responded favorably to my work, but I never did anything. I was waitressing and trying to pay a band to perform and it was just really hard and I got sick of it, so I answered an ad in the LA Times for a receptionist at a film company. I go down there and get the job, and I found out I got it because I was the only non-actress that applied. It turned out to be a really cool place, it was Dove Films. Cal Bernstein and his lovely wife Roz Bernstein were the owners. They hired me on the front desk and all of a sudden I’m working with Vilmos Zsigmond, the famous cinematographer, Sven Nykvist and Laszlo Kovacs. These were all guys who would direct commercials in between movies. I also later worked with Jordan Cronenweth, all the huge cinematographers. All of a sudden I was getting lots of money and working with really cool people and traveling. I just sort of went there and never looked back. I had a great career, I worked all over the world, Australia, Argentina, Canada, all over the States, Mexico.
Then about five years ago my brother died, he bought me my first guitar when I was a kid. He passed away and after his funeral his wife gave me one of his guitars. I brought it home to California and I started playing in the bathroom, because the acoustics were good. I’m not kidding you when I tell you, I played in the bathroom for about a year. Then I graduated to the kitchen. I was living by myself, so I don’t know why I was so private about it. Anyway, my sister-in-law, my brother’s widow would come and stay in the house because we adore each other and she was great. One day, I was comfortable enough to play my guitar and sing in the kitchen and she ran out and said, “Did you write that song?” and I said, “Yeah,” and she said, “Oh my God, we have to do something.” [laughs] I realized during that period of playing guitar, of all the things I was doing, I was really happiest doing that. That was the place I always wanted to go back to and be. It sounds cornball, but it’s just where I wanted to be, and I kept being there more and more. The more I played, the more I enjoyed it and the better I got, and the more I realized what it was about. It was a cool process.
Colleen, my sister-in-law said, “I want you to do a demo,” so we did a demo at my percussion player Angel Roché’s house–he played for Ziggy Marley for eleven years.. He and his wife have a studio at their house, so I did a little demo, just me and my guitar. Then Tim Boyle’s daughter Briget, who I’ve known since she was eight years old and is now a very accomplished Balkan musician, she plays in Brass Menaeri, she was in Kitka, she’s awesome, she heard me and she threw herself down on the couch and said, “oh my god, I want to quit my job and manage you.” She did not do that, but she did trick her dad Tim into hearing me play.She tried to give him a copy of my little demo but he wouldn’t listen to it even though we had been friends for twenty years. He said, “Do you know how many people are giving me CDs and DVDs? She tricked him into hearing me, he walked in on she and I playing our guitars and singing together and he was like, “Whoa, what’s this?” He made me sing a song and he made me sing another song and at that point he said, “We have to make a record right now.” The next day, he sent over two microphones and a mixing board and some headphones so I could start practicing in what would be a studio situation. So that’s how all that happened.
MR: So what’s the flight plan? How are you picturing your career going from here?
KB: It’s been really cool so far, but as for how I picture it, I’d really love to go out and play some cool places. I feel like at this point I’m trying to determine the instrumentation I would need to go out and perform. I want to make a unit that I could really take around some places. That’s kind of what I’m thinking about right now, I’d really like to do a tour and do that, I do enjoy that life. I also absolutely want to do more recordings. Tim said I could and I’ve got a whole other record ready to go.
Frankly all I’m interested in is the new work at this point. I love the old stuff, but I’ve got new stuff, I’ve got other stuff that we’ve done tracks for that I want to finish up. It’s all about work right now. It’s a strange thing at this point in my life but it’s all about work for me right now. I’m a solo person and it just feels like it’s time for me to do this. It’s like all these doors just opened. This kind of all just fell on my head in a strange way. Of course I wanted to go with it, it’s like a dream come true.
MR: I can tell this is in your heart, but will you be approaching it concretely, with all the things you need to do for business? Social media, booking dates, and all that stuff?
KB: Yeah, I think one has to consider that. Tim’s got a record company and we’re doing publicity and stuff. Of course, for me, this is completely uncharted territory, but I would like to perform, of course. I know that it’s kind of strange at this point in my life to be doing that, but it feels like the exact thing I’m supposed to be doing. It’s so strange, I don’t have any trepidation about it. It just feels absolutely right.
MR: It seems like you’re getting a lot of support right now.
KB: It’s all over the place. It’s crazy, it feels like, “Well there must be some validity to this.” I always play Mystery Science Theater with myself. I look at what I’ve done and I sit in the front row and make fun of it until I get to the point where I feel like I can’t really make fun of it anymore and at that point I let people hear it. It takes me a long time to get it right and I’m sure that’s true of everybody in a sense, but I’m very critical of myself, so the fact that I have been emboldened by these events, enough to actually let people hear this stuff, is really a huge thing for me. It feels okay now. I feel like I needed to be at this point in my life before this stuff could come out. I don’t know why that is, but that is true. I feel absolutely that way. I feel more defined as a human.
MR: You’re starting at a point in your life when most people would be getting over their music career. Are there any particular challenges that have come your way because of that?
KB: Not so far. Here’s the crazy part: This year I did a little practicing with a twenty one year-old heavy metal bass player, and he’s really into my stuff. People that are younger than me aren’t stupid, if they like something they like it. I didn’t look at a painting and say, “Ooh, that guy was too old to paint that,” I was listening to all kinds of music when I was young. I know it’s odd, I see other people my age slowing down, but I’m just ramping up. I know it’s not normal, but for me it is right. The good part would be if other people could get freed up to do things they love at this point in their lives, too. When you do things at this point in your life, you really do them in a better way.
MR: Well, the reality is our society is so prejudiced towards youth culture.
KB: I think that happens until a lot of people get really old, and I think that’s happening now. The deal is if you get to live a long time it’s a gift. Why would anybody diss that? I mean come on, the alternative is a dirt nap! Forget it! What do you want to do? Do you want to live? Patti Smith said, “I would never think of killing myself because I want to see how it ends.” I love that.
MR: You look at artists like James Taylor who seem to be getting better as they mature, and they wouldn’t have gotten there without their life experience. So what does success look like for you and what does fulfillment mean to you?
KB: If I could take my lump of clay and fashion the perfect life for Kathy Black right now, I’d be opening for Bob Dylan and I would have a cool band and I would have the resources to be places where I could be heard. I’d also have the resources to be with every friend and family member if they needed me. That’s another thing at this time in your life, you want to have a little flexibility in that regard. You don’t get to a point like this unless you are borne up on the shoulders of your family and friends. I’m gonna cry. But it’s true.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
KB: A new artist is a young new artist and they probably don’t want to wait as long as I have. [laughs] But for anyone, I would just say, “Of course. Do it!” If it feels right and you know it feels right, do that. That’s all. Be nice. Work hard. Do what you love. Love your friends and family. That’s all I would tell anyone, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly fascinating about that.
MR: And what’s creating music like for you?
KB: I do get myself into a certain state of mind and I feel free in that space and I think everyone needs to find their happy place and go there, but I am fortunate that I do have the space and the time to focus on this. I know that’s a gift, I’ve worked very hard to be able to carve that out, but all I want to do is more. My dream date would be a nice tour, just the chance to focus a hundred percent on doing this and have a lot of the mad details of life taken care of elsewhere, that would be a dream. And to be able to go to Paris whenever I want.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
The album is on Tim Boyle’s newly launched label, Waxsimile. For more info: http://www.waxsimile.com/#home
LELAND SUNDRIES’ “MAPS OF THE WEST” EXCLUSIVE
According to the band’s camp…
“Leland Sundries, the Brooklyn, NY Americana/garage band that has shared stages with Cracker, Spirit Family Reunion, Todd Snider, and Chuck Prophet, premieres the single ‘Maps of the West.’ The first song written in leader Nick Loss-Eaton’s sobriety, the track is a train-beat driven travel song about connecting with others. Recorded in an unheated former creamery building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the song joins full-length debut ‘music for outcasts,’ which was written both before and after Loss-Eaton’s sobriety and recorded following Loss-Eaton’s successful open heart surgery. Expect a summer and a video on the song to come soon.”
For more info: http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/lelandsundries/ .