following where his heart has led
Pianist and writer Eamon Keane talks to Barry Egan as he wraps up a four-hour package of TV music, a novel and preparation for a concert with The Dubliners star John Sheahan
'What classical music does best and must always do more," the American conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas once said, "is to show this kind of transformation of moods, to show a very wide psychological voyage."
Irish singer-songwriter and pianist Eamon Keane began his own voyage in classical music when he was 11 years old in Turner's Cross in Cork when, one evening, his mother sat down at the piano and, unbidden, played Chopin's Waltz in E-flat Major. "She just started playing this beautiful music," recalls Eamon.
"I didn't know my mother could play," he says. "It was a beautiful piece and it ran deeper than anything I'd ever heard. And after that I wanted to be in this world of sounds and colours that said more than any words could ever do. It turns out my mother had been a really good classical pianist."
Eamon's parents Maura and Eamon senior (the renowned Irish actor and brother of John B Keane) separated when he was 11. He went to live with his grandmother, May Hassett, for a short period in Cork. Crucially, there was a piano in the house.
Eamon can remember the first time he hit the keys – "and it was like touching magic," he says, adding that the sound "triggered something in me, maybe a loneliness that the sound found. I had no training but made my own sound shapes by spreading my fingers over the keys. I would stay at that piano for hours lost in something beyond myself."
It would certainly appear so because, six months later, when Eamon left his grandmother's house and moved to Blackrock in Cork, he took the piano with him.
He studied classical piano and composition at the Cork School of Music. He did sufficiently well to earn a scholarship there and be offered another scholarship to Berklee College, Boston, which he did not take up. And his gusto remained undimmed.
"As a young teen," Eamon enthuses, "I bought Bach's Greatest Hits and was knocked out by the harmony and the multi-layered melodies running against each other.
"I was 14 and was listening to my brother Fergal's Rolling Stones record and when I heard this great piano riff on Sympathy for the Devil – it was my first introduction to a rock blues sound – I spent ages until I got that riff down." His brother Fergal is the BBC broadcaster.
Eamon adds that a few years after his parents split up, he stayed with a friend, actress Olivia Cronin in Dublin, who told him he had to listen to a record she had of a piano player.
"It was Keith Jarrett, and I nearly died when I heard it," he gasps. "Can you imagine your heart, your life, everything played out in a unfolding tapestry of notes and undiscovered chords? To this day I have heard nothing like it."
His influences are pretty wide, to say the least: Mahler to Massive Attack, Ravel to Radiohead.
"At the moment I have Swedish House Mafia, Tom Waits and Ben Folds on my playlist. Vocally there are few to compare to Jeff Buckley and Billie Holiday – both have a haunting, ethereal quality," says Eamon, who has just finished composing four hours of music for a major TV series on women in the Famine – as well as a crime novel.
Eamon also writes with a lacerating wit in The Herald. His writing style, soon to found in the pages of a crime novel, has seen him secure the services of one of Ireland's most respected literary agents, Marianne Gunne O'Connor.
Eamon had his first public performance when he was 14. Asked to play a classical piano piece on RTE radio, he trotted out a Bach Prelude and Fugue. He was in his first professional performance with The Irish Youth Orchestra a few years later.
In 2010, Eamon released his debut album, Hang The Moon.
"I wrote the title song for my father after he died in 1990. Ronnie Drew urged me to record it. An LA production company has licensed it to use in the pilot for a new TV series.
"It's been covered by a few people. Ronan Hardiman rang me and said it made the hairs on his neck stand up." Poignantly, he explains that his father died before "I could speak to him, and the song is about what he might say to me were he alive."
Eamon plays The National Concert Hall in Dublin with special guest John Sheahan of The Dubliners next Wednesday at 8pm. An indication of Keane's popularity is that he played a sold-out show at the same venue with Sheahan only in April.
"It was amazing last time. There was a great buzz. I improvised, playing whatever I felt. So I will follow my heart next Wednesday. It could be anything from Radiohead's Creep to Somewhere Over the Rainbow to improvising on Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. I will also sing songs from Hang The Moon," he says, adding that the album is available on iTunes.
"John is a beautiful man and a gifted poet and musician and he brings something special to it. John will play some of his own tunes and we will play together as well.
"At the end of the last gig I broke into a real gospel-feel version of Amazing Grace. John Sheahan picked up the fiddle, walked on stage and the crowd started singing the lyrics. We got standing ovations and that was genuinely humbling."
Eamon Keane and special guest John Sheahan play the National Concert Hall on Wednesday, Sept 11 at 8pm, tel: 01-4170000, www.nch.ie, facebook: eamonkeanemusic; www.eamonkeanemusic @gmail.com