Wednesday 20 March 2019

'I'd started not to think but do. It was the breakthrough' - Sharon Corr

Sharon Corr talks to Johnny Rogan about the fear of performing solo, progressing as a songwriter and the fallout from those heady Celtic Tiger days

Perfectionist: Sharon Corr has the material written for a new album. Photo by Barry McCall
Perfectionist: Sharon Corr has the material written for a new album. Photo by Barry McCall

Johnny Rogan

Next week, Sharon Corr returns to Ireland alongside the prolific singer-songwriter and former music star of Ally McBeal Vonda Shepard. It's a surprise collaboration, but also a testament to a long-term association. Vonda is married to Mitchell Froom, who previously worked with The Corrs on Unplugged and Home and, more pertinently, produced and co-wrote several songs on Sharon's second solo album, The Same Sun. The latter was recorded at Mitchell's home studio in Los Angeles, where the friendship with Vonda blossomed.

"I was walking through her kitchen every day and she was cooking up a storm," says Sharon. "A wonderful cook. We were exchanging recipes. I'd send her pictures of my disasters - me and my sunken cakes - and her works of art, and we'd both laugh. If you're not out on the road, you need to create in some way. Whether it's writing or cooking, you feel you've achieved something."

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The idea of a musical collaboration was mentioned over the years, but work commitments always got in the way until this year when they decided, "Let's go for it!"

Rehearsals were completed only days before the tour. "As it's a co-bill, we couldn't decide who'd go on first, so we'll be flipping a coin," says Vonda. In London, Sharon performed the opening half, featuring songs from The Same Sun, a couple of Corrs' classics and an impressive reading of Joni Mitchell's 'Woodstock'. After Vonda's spirited set, the ensemble closed with crowd-pleasing covers of Dusty Springfield's 'Son of a Preacher Man' and James Taylor's 'You've Got a Friend'.

"It's a rare situation where we're going to be together in Dublin and Belfast," says Vonda, relishing the trip. "Sharon's really lovely, as you know. She's one of the most grounded and down to earth people I've ever met, full of love and goodness."

So will there be a joint album? "I hadn't even thought about that," Vonda concludes. "This is an experiment and an adventure. Maybe we'll want to do more."

Sharon sounds equally non-specific. "I just really wanted to do something again that broadens my horizons. When you work with other artists you learn more - they learn from you, and you learn from them. We both have different things to bring."

Perhaps a more pressing concern is the completion of another solo album. "I'm going to do it," Sharon reveals. "I've only just made the decision. Obviously I'd been thinking about it. The material is really good, but I write all the time, anyway."

Among the contenders for the next album is 'Two Stars in One', which will be sung in Spanish. Sharon is fluent in the language, having lived in the Principality of Andorra for over six years. Recently, she relocated to Madrid.

"The Irish and the Spanish are very similar, very open, fun people, not too serious and not too dry. There's a beautiful, familial atmosphere in Madrid that I wanted for my kids. In Andorra, I had total tranquillity and security, but I needed to get my children into a more cosmopolitan life. I needed them to have performing arts in the school and that wasn't available where I was, so I chose Madrid. And I wanted to live there. It's a great city, humming with culture."

Charting the last decade of Sharon's life, the most exciting consideration is her development as a singer/songwriter. In 2010, she released Dream of You, an eclectic, highly polished selection. More daunting was the prospect of performing solo for the first time.

"I was at home for four years with my children so I knew how to make bottles and change nappies. I was more confident in that. So, yes, I got some fright. And I wasn't getting any sleep."

Always a perfectionist, she worked through the problem, reading books. She also visited Dublin-based voice coach Liz Ryan for advice.

"Sometimes, you need people to say to you, 'Don't worry.' Somebody to give you license because you won't give it to yourself because you're stressed. Now, I know how to give myself license, but I didn't then... It was a good thing to go through because it showed me that I wasn't stuck trying to be Wonder Woman."

By 2013, she'd completed The Same Sun, a far stronger mood piece, characterised by Bacharach-tinged ballads, allusive melodies and memorable co-writes with Limerick songwriter Don Mescall. Expertly constructed, the work culminated in the thoughtful title track (inspired by her ambassadorial trip to Tanzania with Oxfam Ireland) and the poignant 'Christmas Night', dedicated to her late mother, Jean. Overall, it was a major step forward for her songwriting.

"This was free flowing. I wouldn't know a song was going to come, but I'd always be at the piano. I'd be cooking dinner and calming the kids down at the same time then, all of a sudden, I'd be playing something. On most of my demos you could hear screaming and nappy changing in the background, and burnt potatoes. I'd started not to think but do. And that was the breakthrough. Just be the vessel. My lyrics improved greatly."

Sharon's stint on The Voice of Ireland also increased her profile, but few foresaw the re-emergence of The Corrs in 2015. The impressive White Light went gold, reinforced by strong songs, stadium appearances and a PR push. Even that release was eclipsed by something far more unexpected. Jupiter Calling, released in 2017, was nothing less than the creative highlight of The Corrs' career, a work of great depth and maturity.

Among its many highlights were three compositions penned by Sharon: 'Live Before I Die', 'Season of Our Love' and the epic closer, 'The Sun and the Moon'. Sounding like a cross between an Americana anthem and Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, it was a step beyond anything the group had previously recorded. I consider it Sharon Corr's greatest composition.

"I agree with you," she says, without hesitation, revealing that its major inspiration was probably Pink Floyd.

While enlightened critics applauded the new direction, RTÉ trawled through their vaults, unearthing The Corrs' television debut from Eye on the Music in 1991. A treat for fans, it featured the fledgling unit performing the catchy pop melody 'Mystery of You'. Tantalisingly, RTÉ omitted the other number performed: 'Síog'. This was a song poem, unique in The Corrs' canon. Sharon instinctively responds to my archival enthusiasm by singing a verse.

There were no stadium tours for Jupiter Calling (for reasons unexplained) but instead an intimate evening at the Royal Albert Hall. Those of us who had attended the group's first appearance there in 1998 re-enacted what Andrea Corr called "a pivotal night in our lives" when "everything changed".

This was a moment to remember the birth of New Ireland: Mary Robinson as president, Riverdance breaking box-office records, Roddy Doyle winning the Booker Prize, Father Ted scooping comedy awards and cultural commentators comparing Dublin to London in the Swinging Sixties. We all know what happened next: a fall akin to Camelot.

"It was a very heady cocktail at that time," Sharon agrees. "The Irish were being recognised worldwide and it was great. Epic. But I think we paid a very unjust price for what was a global issue."

She speaks passionately about the banks, the government, the plight of struggling musicians, free downloads, ghost villages, homelessness in Dublin, her love for the Simon Community, and much else.

"We were sold a complete fairy tale," she says at one point. "I'm so proud to be Irish, they're beautiful people. We've so much to be proud of. We deserve good things to happen. I do get emotional..."

Sharon Corr and Vonda Shepard perform at The Belfast Empire Music Hall on Wednesday and the O'Reilly Theatre in Dublin on Thursday

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