As she prepares for her Killarney gigs, Jenny Greene tells Ellie O’Byrne about the dance music meets orchestra format that has become an entertainment phenomenon.
Imagine if you could buy someone a Christmas present that not only brought joy, but led to an enduring and successful career.
At 12 years of age, spurred on by the next-door neighbour’s son’s successful DJing career, the little Jenny Greene asked her parents for turntables for Christmas.
“I think they thought it was a fad. I probably did too,” Greene says.
“I got two belt-drive turntables and a little electronic mixer that year. I had them plugged in to a little guitar amp, and I just loved them and I kept adding to my record collection.”
“I’m glad I learned to mix on vinyl because I think nowadays anyone can buy a laptop and go out and do whatever and there’s not much skill in it.”
Twenty-three years later, Greene hardly needs any introduction as the co-host of 2FM’s Sound of the Nation daytime show alongside ex-Westlife star Nicky Byrne, and her phenomenally successful series of gigs with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
The gigs, which unleash the power of a 45-person orchestra on classic 1990s dance tunes from acts like Robert Miles, Orbital and Faithless, have been greeted with euphoric joy by audiences ever since.
But when the idea first materialised in 2016 it was far from clear that the experiment, planned as a one-off gig, would work, Greene explains.
It was following the success of Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra’s Ibiza Classics at the BBC Proms that Greene’s boss at 2FM ushered her into an office, told her he thought they should try the format, and asked if she’d be interested in performing at Electric Picnic… in six weeks’ time.
“I didn’t even know anyone in the orchestra,” Greene says.
“We sat down and put a track list together and sent them off to be arranged. Then I think we had two rehearsals, and then we were at Electric Picnic.
"We had our soundcheck in the afternoon and I was looking at the size of the tent and going, ‘this tent holds a lot of people and this could be a disaster.’
"I think 11,000 people showed up and they couldn’t get into the tent. It was amazing.”
Greene and the orchestra now continue to sell out large regional venues including Live At The Marquee in Cork, Galway Arts Festival and the INEC Killarney.
The gig contains live and pre-recorded elements, Greene explains; tracks are stripped back to “the bare bones” for the orchestra and vocalist Gemma Sugrue to perform over.
Greene’s job onstage is to play the tracks, but before this she has meticulously crafted a setlist that’s designed to unite audiences.
Some of the pieces of music tackled by the orchestra would have been hits on the rave scene in the ‘90s, but Greene is comfortable with their transition from underground to mainstream, she says.
“I think there’s still very much an underground scene out there, but I don’t mind that we get a dance crowd and a mainstream crowd, and old people and young people: the fact that this music is mainstream now doesn’t really bother me, if I’m honest.”
But with her background still rooted in the club scene that formed her, she keeps an underground trick or two up her sleeve, such as playing Romanthony’s ‘Make This Love Right’, known Leeside as ‘The Ball And Chain’, at her Cork gigs.
Greene DJed at The Savoy in Cork and made a name for herself in the second city when she “literally couldn’t get arrested in Dublin and was making no bookings”.
‘Make This Love Right’ bypassed the musical taste-buds of the rest of the world to become a cult classic in Cork in Sir Henry’s nightclub, and is still remembered fondly by old Rebel City ravers.
“I know ‘Ball and Chain’ like the back of my hand, but I’d never play it anywhere else besides Cork,” Greene says, laughing.
“I remember before the Marquee gig playing the set to some of the orchestra members from Dublin and they were like, ‘What the hell is that?’”
As well as the RTÉ concert orchestra gigs, Greene gigs frequently on Ireland’s festival circuit, married her long-term love Kelly Keogh to much media fanfare after the marriage equality referendum, and is leading a life enriched by doing what she loves most.
But if she hadn’t gotten those turntables for Christmas all those years ago, what would she have become?
“If I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I’d be doing,” she says. “I just love music. I’m lucky that it panned out, because there was no plan B.”
Jenny Greene and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra play Killarney’s INEC on December 7 and 8. www.inec.ie
Jenny Greene chooses her three top tracks from her RTÉ Concert Orchestra setlist.
Orbital – Belfast
“It’s a song there’s a bit of debate over but it’s definitely my number one,” Greene says.
“There was the fear that it’s a bit too mellow and that we’d lose people in the middle of the set, but I love it and I think it’s a really powerful moment in the set.
"And you can’t be ‘up’ for an hour and a half: you have to take people on a journey.”
Faithless — Insomnia
The UK dance anthem, first released in the mid-Nineties and revived in the mid-Noughties, may not be Greene’s personal favourite but she says she has to give it credit for the powerful audience response it always gets: “It’s probably not as exciting for me or the orchestra because we’ve played it so many times, but the crowd always goes wild to this.”
Candi Staton – You Got The Love
It’s a giant dance classic that has been covered and remixed many times since its 1986 release, but long before Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine wrapped her lungs around the hit, The Source featuring Candi Staton’s 1991 remix became the definitive version.
But it’s the 1997 Now Voyager mix that Greene uses to close out her set.
“It’s longer and the chorus drops back in again so it’s the version we use,” Greene says. “It’s so emotional, and it’s a lovely end to the night.”
Gemma Sugrue has been wowing audiences with her vocal virtuosity as singer with Jenny Greene and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra since the project started.
It’s been a busy year for the Killarney native, who just launched her own album, In My Nature, with the Julien Colarossi Quartet, but she’s delighted to return to The Kingdom with Jenny Greene yet again and says the show always has special emotional resonance on home turf.
“The home crowd is so supportive,” Sugrue says.
“What’s more, the music is such a throw-back to my youth in Killarney. It’s sort of mindbending, performing these hits to a home crowd with a full orchestra and Jenny.
"They’re the hits we used to dance to in local nightclubs like Revels and The Danny Man.”
Sugrue is classically trained and has worked with everyone from Brian Deady to Bon Iver, but she says nothing’s as “epically exhilarating” as being on stage with a full orchestra, following in the footsteps of dance divas like Loleatta Holloway (‘Ride on Time’) and Rozalla Miller (‘Everybody’s Free’).
“Even though Jenny will choose these huge anthems, they always feel like the right fit for me,” she says.
“She knows my voice so well at this stage that I didn’t have to move one key on the latest set and her song picks utilize the full scope of the RTÉ concert orchestra so beautifully.”