C to believe
James Nelson, founder of Celtic Tenors talks about inspirations and their brand of ‘crossover’ music
WHEN LUCIANO PAVAROTTI, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras sang at the FIFA World Cup in the 1990s in Italy, lots of similar acts sprang up across the world. But from Ireland, a place that has produced well-known distinctive styles which actually have genuine commonality and clear mutual influences, the Celtic Tenors were the first group of this type.
The Celtic Tenors have established themselves as the most successful classical crossover artists ever to surface from Ireland to reinvent the whole tenor idiom by pioneering a new style of ‘cool’ never before seen on the classical stage and by breaking the traditional stuffy tenor mould. While each of the tenors have been influenced by the musical traditions from their own individual parts of Ireland, James Nelson, Matthew Gilsenan and Daryl Simpson show great flexibility in melding their voices to suit the appropriate classical, folk, Irish and pop genres. The ‘Echo Award’ in Germany for ‘Classical without Boundaries’ was presented to The Celtic Tenors in recognition of this fact. Their live show is an experience overflowing with vitality and variety from start to finish. The unique voices, charm and wit of the trio combined with the talent of young musical director Colm Henry make for an emotive journey and a thoroughly uplifting experience.
City Times caught up with James Nelson, the founder of the Celtic Tenors, prior to their upcoming concert in Abu Dhabi.
Many musicians seem like they had a couple of really pivotal experiences when they were young -- what are some of yours?
When I was six years old I began piano lessons in my home-town of Sligo with a teacher called Mrs Cole, who is sadly no longer with us. She was undoubtedly one of my biggest influences. I also sang a solo in church and cracked on the high note when I was very young, and that gave me stage fright for quite some time I think. It also made me practice harder! After that performing solo in an oratorio with Katia Ricciarelli in Rome was quite an honour, singing for Bill Clinton, recording in Abbey Road in London, and so many more.
What is the main difference between Celtic music and classical music? How do you think music differs from country to country?
We try to sing the traditional and pop stuff in our own voices, as there is nothing worse than hearing pop songs sung in a much ‘trained’ manner. We perform either a capella or with piano, and so the traditional instrumentation I suppose is missing from our performances. In our Christmas tour in Ireland we will be collaborating with the wonderful Trad group ‘Dervish’ which we feel may prove to be a very exciting collaboration. We find that most countries love our classical numbers, but some like Germany really love the Irish songs too, especially the drinking songs. At home, the Irish crowd like a mix, and perhaps not too much of the very Irish stuff.
So what can people expect from the Celtic Tenors’ music?
I think if people come to a Celtic Tenor show they realise that we just sing songs we like singing. We were all classically trained, but are steeped in Irish traditional music also, and some of us were very much influenced by groups from ABBA, to the Beatles, to Queen, to Leonard Cohen. Our tastes are eclectic. And so is the music we sing. In our shows we sing opera, spiritual, pop, a capella numbers, Irish/Celtic, and crossover, and much more.
Do you believe musicians should be educated in the liberal arts as well, or is a conservative track the only true way to become a star?
I think a much more rounded musical education would be of great benefit to many, including another instrument, music theory, composition, dance, drama, audition-technique… all facets of the art, and of the industry. It is a tough business, and you need a bit of a neck, and many just fall by the wayside. Perhaps some of the colleges ought to get people ‘in the business’ to come and talk to students about it to prepare them properly!
What is the ‘Eric Song’? Is he someone in particular?
I was a member of Amnesty International, and Lifelines, an organisation who wrote to death row prisoners. I believe the death penalty, under any circumstance, is wrong.
Eric Nance was the prisoner I wrote to for more than 10 years. He always denied his crime, and was put to death by lethal injection three years ago. I visited him on death row just two months before he was put to death, and the meeting was one of those life moments I will never forget. Eric was put to death and I had set one of his poems to music and added a chorus saying that his only escape from his prison cell was through his dreams, his memories and his letter writing. I sang the song to the guys and they said they would like to do the song and it has had a great response. We don’t perform it in concert, it’s a song that people have to seek out on the album if they so choose.
I know I helped him as his mind was slowly dying, but I am not sure he realised just how much I got out of this friendship. I know Eric was a good man, a good father and a loving son.
How has the Celtic Tenors’ sound altered with each change of musicians?
Every musician that works with us, and every guest, brings something different. When Niall Morris, after a year’s break, finally decided to leave the group to pursue other interests, Daryl Simpson from Omagh turned down a lucrative offer from one of Europe’s leading Opera Houses in order to immediately accept the position left vacant by Niall. Of course it is important that they are good players firstly, and good musicians. After that it helps if they have good personalities also. We have been very lucky.
To what extent do differences in musical tastes and opinions matter in a group?
We are all very different voices and singers, but when we sing together in harmony, hopefully we sound like one voice. We also have very varied musical tastes, though opera binds us together. We are all very different characters also, but we are a team… most of the time! Wouldn’t it be so boring if we were the same??
Can you tell us about the creative process you embarked on together with Dionne Warwick, Air Supply and The Chieftains?
With Dionne, we were her guests, so didn’t actually sing with her as such. We performed the first hour of her show. But she often watched us from the wings and that was very humbling. She was a sweet lady to us. Air Supply was such fun. I was a huge fan of theirs in the 80s. And they are both lovely guys. The Chieftains have such respect in the traditional world and so, that was such a privilege for us to collaborate with them.
How does your upcoming fifth album differ from your early recordings?
We toured North America so often that we decided to do an album of North American songs, from ‘Shenandoah’ to Stephen Foster to Bob Dylan. We recorded the album in May in Hollywood and it is very different to anything we have ever done before. We will be singing some of those songs in Abu Dhabi. The release date is still up in the air. It is essentially a roots album with rich harmony driven songs and we were privileged to work with the Grammy-winning team of Steve Lindsey, Dillon O’Brien and Dave Way.
Tell us something about your volunteering work, part of an ongoing building project in Kenya, helping house, feed and educate some of the orphans from the Kibera slum in Nairobi.
Without exaggerating, my work in Kenya has changed my life. I really feel I have a purpose in life now. I have been three times to the Kibera Slum in Nairobi, helping house, feed and educate the homeless AIDS orphans of that area get a second chance at life… to teach the children music and singing, and to take the children on one-off day-trips to see the many more positive aspects of their beautiful country, like their rich wildlife for example. For most this was their first time ever outside of the slum, and to see animals other than rats and snakes. Now they really have real hope. We have built several orphanages and updated others. We will return in 2009. And I love it. It is the children’s faces which call me back every time.
What's your attitude to modernist compositions of the time when you entered in music world and what would you say about present-day composers and compositional styles?
It is hard to say. There seems to be little longevity in much 20th century classical music, but composers such as Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and other ‘Greats’ will of course live on for ever. There seems to be still a little ‘elitism’ in the classical world. That needs to go if it is to survive. I think classical crossover has helped break down some of those barriers.
Celtic Tenors will perform at The Club, Abu Dhabi on October 10, 7:30pm.
Tickets: Show and Dinner Members Dh190, Guests Dh220, Show Only Members Dh110, Guests Dh140