The secret to a lasting career in the music industry is hard work, mineral water and early nights all the way, the Celtic Tenors tell
It is lashing rain outside and Matthew Gilsenan, one third of international sensation The Celtic Tenors, has just come in from a run between the bales of hay on his family farm. No celebrity-ish behaviour to be found here, he assures me. As well as running with his two daughters, he’ll be tackling transition year maths later on when homework comes calling.
The Celtic Tenors are renowned for being nice guys. Their brand of good, clean classical crossover is a hugely attractive offering, and despite a raging tour schedule that takes them all over the globe each year, somehow, the trio has managed to maintain a working relationship that encourages growth and success, two decades later.
It’s all down to professionalism, says Gilsenan. “We didn’t go after a career that would have a meteoric rise with lots of production and television slots,” he points out.
“We are all very self-effacing. I think as a nation we tend to be. We have always paid our taxes and been able to earn money and we have been lucky enough not to ever have had to go onto social welfare — touch wood!
We have managed to eke a living out of singing songs, and I think we all value that on a daily basis.
Back in 2000, the newly formed Daryl, James and Matthew brought their harmony-based dulcet tones to London and after an impromptu audition at EMI, were granted an international deal on the spot.
Since then, they have released 11 albums and maintained a regular touring schedule, both on their own and supporting legendary acts like Air Supply.
From the beginning, the trio were cognisant of creating an air of professionalism. They are dead boring on tour, according to Matthew who says it’s mineral water and early nights all the way.
The common goal between the men has been to carve a career that would allow them to sing the music that they love and still support their families.
Existing in a crossover genre often means missing out on the awards and the industry plaudits, and it’s only now, says Gilsenan, that The Celtic Tenors see how good they really are.
“We were quite cutting edge in our own way. We brought out a certain collection of songs and then Westlife released the same songs shortly after.
Celtic Woman came after us, and their first album featured a load of songs that we had already released, so not a lot of people had done what we had done.
We are talking ahead of ‘’ at Sheen Falls Lodge this month, where guests will enjoy a gala dinner to the tunes of their favourite tenors. It must be strange, going from huge venues to a dining room, I wonder. “It is bizarre and fantastic at the same time,” laughs Gilsenan.
“We are normally in a theatre or a larger venue, and to be in that environment is both rooting for us as a group, and really enjoyable. It brings us back to where we came from and there is something very organic and intimate about it. There is nothing like it in the country, there really isn’t.”
It’s not the first time that The Celtic Tenors have appeared at Sheen Falls — one of the most memorable times was when Eurovision legend and national treasure, Johnny Logan, appeared alongside them.
“This tends to be a really special event. There is this wonderful feast, and sometimes we sit down and eat, depending on how nervous we are. Afterwards, when we have done our show and everyone has eaten and is relaxed, everyone migrates to the bar. It ends up being a massive singsong into the wee hours of the morning, which is a huge rarity for us anymore.”
The Celtic Tenors have amassed a large fan base from around the world, and one of the most enjoyable things about a night like this, is an opportunity to share a night of great music with them, says Matthew. Their superfans, however, are another kettle of fish.
“They are a whole law onto themselves. They can show up anywhere. They turn up at Sunday Mass and will say ‘you weren’t at Mass today, we were talking to your priest. We did some shows in Australia recently and one of our Dutch superfans turned up to a show that was literally in the back end of beyond.’”
With a discography spanning 11 albums, and collaborations with artists as diverse as Dervish and Air Supply, The Celtic Tenor’s music catalogue is extremely varied, but it is only in recent years that they have started to expand their horizons even more.
During the last number of years, the group changed a policy that had been instilled since their very beginning, and allocated times during the year for the three singers to explore solo projects.
It was as much about practicality as it was about exploration, says Gilsenan.
“I’ve got kids and university is on the horizon. So, we became a bit more pragmatic and realised that we needed to earn a little more so that we could afford to send our kids to college, and also, to give each of us the opportunity to express our individuality.”
This small change to their dynamic has had an incredible result on their work, according to the singer. “Every year, I would bring 20 or 30 songs to the table and the guys just wouldn’t like them, because they wouldn’t be suitable for all the voices together,” he explains. “The songs that were little successes in our solo concerts now come to the Celtic Tenors table. I was shouting about ‘Forever Young’ by Bob Dylan for 14 years and the thought was always that it was a bit outside our sphere. Then a few years ago, we recorded it and it’s one of our best songs.”
Being singers, not songwriters, is one of the most freeing aspects of their career, maintains Gilsenan. He points to their friends and collaborators Air Supply as a fantastic example of what a life of touring can mean for a band with a number of hit songs.
“They love what they do and they are brilliant at it, but they can’t go on stage without playing the hits,” he says.
So every night, they have to do ‘Lost In Love’, they have to do ‘I’m All Out Of Love’ and when their hits are completed, that’s the evening over. You’d want to be really in love with your music and they would want to be truly great songs to warrant playing them every single night.
"Now Air Supply are lucky, because they really are great songs, but there are many, many people who get disillusioned.”
What is that magic ingredient, that can keep a band together for two decades, and allow them to flex their musical muscles while they’re at it? Matthew Gilsenan pauses for a beat, thinking about his answer. “I really think it’s an attitude of discovery that’s kept us going all these years. When you consider it, there’s a giant canon of musical work in the world and we are just trying to get through it, song by song.”