The unique sound of The Voice Squad will be heard at St Brendan’s Church in Bantry, West Cork, tomorrow as part of the Masters of Tradition Festival. Comprising the distinct tenor voices of Fran McPhail and Phil Callery and the bass voice of Gerry Cullen, the trio are a group of respected traditional acapella close harmony singers who first sang together in 1985 at a Christmas carol evening in Dublin.
As McPhail says, there is no tradition of harmony singing in Ireland. As a result, they are in much demand. “We did the Steeple Sessions at the Unitarian Church in Stephen’s Green in Dublin recently and it was sold out. What we do is what it says on the tin. That’s why people keep coming back.”
The trio are all traditional singers in their own right and each can play an instrument. While their voices have not been formally trained, they have learned a lot from the various choirs they’ve been involved with.
McPhail’s first gig was in a small folk club in Cork in the 1970s. “I also played guitar, busking on the streets of Cork. I came down from Dublin supposedly to go to college in Cork but I never did. When I went back to Dublin, I studied classical guitar at the Royal Irish Academy.”
Recalling the early days of The Voice Squad, McPhail says he had known Cullen for many years and had sung with him. “There was another guy called Brian Leahy. He died in the 1980s. Gerry and I hooked up with Phil and decided to try a few gigs together. Although we’re all musicians, we always knew we wanted to do unaccompanied harmony singing. We travelled the world doing it.”
When McPhail moved to Galway, it became impractical to continue as a group, as Callery was living in Wicklow and Cullen was based in Meath. But composer, Shaun Davey, contacted the singers asking them to perform at the Special Olympics in 2003.
“We got together with Shaun and Rita Connolly. We played to 84,000 people in Croke Park and we were watched on television by 1.9 billion people from all over the world. It was fantastic, a bit unreal and a bit scary. We sang the theme song for the Special Olympics, ‘May We Never Have To Say Goodbye’.”
Apart from that major gig, McPhail wasn’t doing much musically, while the other two had continued performing. McPhail’s day job was in the building industry and he says he was fortunate to get out of it before the collapse of the boom. After being invited to perform at the National Concert Hall for St Patrick’s Day, the trio decided to resume their singing act.
“We’re all retired, we have the time and we don’t need the money,” says McPhail. The Voice Squad has performed backing vocals for many of Ireland’s leading singers. They worked with Sinead O’Connor on her Universal Mother album, and also recorded a tribute album for the songs of Van Morrison with Elvis Costello.
The Voice Squad’s own musical repertoire is “mostly Irish and traditional songs. We have been known to do a few quirky things like ‘Rave On’ by Buddy Holly. But that’s just for fun.”
The trio are extremely disciplined about their work. “Before we perform in public, we’d sing the songs months in advance because they have to be right, note for note.”
*The Voice Squad’s third album will be launched next month. www.westcorkmusic.ie