Wednesday 12 December 2018

Eurovision winner Fionnuala Sherry on how she had to learn to play the violin after breaking her two arms

After a freak accident left her with two broken arms, Fionnuala Sherry had to learn to how play the violin again. Here, the Eurovision winner tells our reporter about her remarkable career, and her battle with the stage fright "gremlins"

Fionnuala Sherry of Secret Garden
Fionnuala Sherry of Secret Garden
Fionnuala Sherry on stage in Beijing in 2008
Fionnuala Sherry and Rolf Lovland of Secret Garden

Maggie Armstrong

As Fionnuala Sherry was being wheeled onto an ambulance, both arms broken in a vicious injury that nearly ended her spectacular violin career, the paramedic did a double take. "She said, 'I know you. My mum likes your music, but I don't.'"

That was in 2015, and three years on Fionnuala laughs heartily at the memory. "It was some Irish backhanded comment. Then when I got into Vincent's the nurse said, 'You're the violinist who won the Eurovision'."

Fionnuala Sherry will always be known in Ireland as that girl who won the Eurovision Song Contest. That summer in 1995, when Riverdance was launched, the Kildare native scraped out the gorgeous violin solo in the winning song for Norway, Nocturne, written by Rolf Lovland.

What some people forget is that Fionnuala has been playing with Rolf ever since in their Celtic-Nordic instrumental duo, Secret Garden. If you're not from Ireland, you may have heard of them. They have toured the world and sold more than four million albums. They wrote Barbra Streisand's wedding song. Westlife, Josh Groban and now Celtic Woman are covering their hits. Fionnuala's image has adorned a Norwegian postage stamp.

We meet in the offices of Fionnuala's record label, Universal. The band have just released their first retrospective album, You Raise Me Up: The Collection.

A wise man once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but the one thing we can say for sure about Secret Garden's sentimental sound is that it hits you hard in the heart. There are three previously unheard songs on this album, including a piano version of Song from a Secret Garden, I've Dreamed of You (written for Barbra Streisand) and a sugary You Raise Me Up sung by Johnny Logan. Some old favourites too, including the mournful and most stirring Greenwaves, inspired by Kate Chopin's feminist novel The Awakening, and of course Nocturne.

The woman who plays these wistful melodies is, in person, warm, light, bright and thoroughly likeable. Chic, in jeans and shirt with her fusilli blonde curls pulled back, she doesn't look like a rock and roll kid. She looks like a south Dublin society gal (which she is, enjoying the golf, the rugby and her local Foxrock restaurants, I learn).

She does not look like a person who has toured, over the past 23 years, all over Europe and the US, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, China, Korea, Vietnam and Tehran, with a violin case on her back.

She is 55 years old, which seems impossible, but then Bruce Springsteen is 68.

That summer they won the Eurovision was the beginning of Secret Garden, and she was flung from the austere anonymity of the virtuoso player into the spotlight of popular music. "It was a bit magical," she remembers.

She was 33, gainfully employed as a full-time member of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. The Norwegians were in town for the Eurovision in 1993 and again in 1994 and that is how she met Rolf, a conductor, composer, pianist and 1985 Eurovision winner with stars in his eyes.

Fionnuala, who had by now written a children's music show for RTÉ, was recording cover songs on a cassette tape and looking for a collaborator. She approached Rolf while their orchestras were on a coffee break and gave him a copy of her tape.

"He just hated it," she says. "He thought the songs were crap. But he heard in me the voice. With Secret Garden, the violin has become the voice of the music."

Soon after they won the Eurovision, Fionnuala quit the orchestra, left full-time employment and went to Norway to record an album, staying in "the absolute worst dives".

"That was scary. I was completely flat broke. Rolf had a great career in the 1980s but he was sliding down to nothing, and he had made financial errors along the way, so he was broke too. We just hoped and prayed.

"Most people when they start they make a five-year plan. We had no plan. We were turned down by four record companies before Polygram [now Universal] took us on."

Their first album, Songs from a Secret Garden, came out in 1996. By now Fionnuala had made it to number 1 (in Israel), played backing violin for a range of superstars - she has worked with Bono, Sinead O'Connor, the Chieftains, Chris de Burgh, Van Morrison and Wet Wet Wet - and attracted the interest of gossip columnists.

(Three weeks after she won the Eurovision, Twink drove into the back of her car. Fionnuala was friendly with Twink's now ex-husband, oboe player David Agnew, who had borrowed her car. The temperature cools to Nordic climes when I mention Twink. "The papers shouldn't keep bringing it up, time and time again," she says. "They create something that's not there.")

Playing live, Fionnuala Sherry appears all powerful, with the stance of a superhero and the verve of an acrobat. What she hides very well is that she suffers from stage fright. On this topic, her reserve loosens and she lights up like a thatched roof on fire.

"I suffer from huge, huge stage fright," she tells me. "I'm just one of those people that has a gremlin inside their head that says, 'you're no good. You're going to f**k up so badly'.

"And it is awful, and you have to fight those gremlins all the time. Even if we've done a concert the night before and we've had a standing ovation, when I get up there's no part of my brain that remembers I've got a standing ovation."

She describes how the fright breaks as she forms a bond with the audience, and the music flows. But the next time she gets up to play, she feels just as awful, and the cycle rages on.

"I've done everything to try and help it. I've been to physio, I've been to hypnosis, I've had all kinds of psychologists, therapists, acupuncture, mindfulness. I've learnt now, I'm not going to change, I can't squash it. The only thing I can do is accept it. On the day of a concert, I'm going to feel s**t, but it'll be OK."

She recognises now that she was probably undermined by certain figures of authority growing up, but she has no desire to open "that Pandora's box".

"I started opening it with one therapist and then I thought, 'do you know what, this is going to be so much work, let's just keep it closed'."

The fourth of five siblings, Fionnuala grew up in Naas, Co Kildare. She moved to Dublin when she was 15 to attend boarding school and study at the College of Music, a period in her life she remembers without a smile.

"I was taught in a very strict manner. Back then, you always had to prove you were good enough. There was competitions and goals, and sometimes that took away the joy of learning."

Nor did she relish the "strict discipline" of studying music at Trinity for a four-year degree. "The joy part was bashed out of you. You were probably bashed so often that your confidence is knocked." She graduated with honours, which did nothing to dispel the "loneliness" she feels every time she gets up on stage.

"When you're on a big world stage, some of those gremlins come back. You can't delete them from your brain.

"But," she says pointedly. "The really important thing is that the audience never senses that."

"Barbra Streisand cannot sing Happy Birthday with a group of friends. Frank Sinatra was the same. Rugby; Ronan O'Gara - he used to get sick before going on the pitch."

Fionnuala Sherry often wishes that she could drive to work, instead of getting on a plane. Her favourite part of touring is the end. "When you get to the end of the last concert, it's amazing to feel, 'we've done it! We're going home!'"

There was a time when she almost had to quit the band, when "in 2005, I reached a wall."

She remembers sitting in dressing rooms in Norway that December feeling very unhappy. "I didn't want to play. I felt just dead. I felt, I can't do it. It was burnout. Pure tired, of travel, travel, travel."

"I had no home life at the time, doing very long tours. I just thought, 'I need something else. I need time out.' Poor Rolf and the band and everybody. Six months went into a year-and-a-half. And it was the best thing I ever did. I came back because I missed playing."

In 2011 she released her first solo album, the dream-like Songs from Before, which brought together some of the traditional folk airs and ballads she grew up listening to with her musical parents.

Then in 2015, she almost quit again, and this time it wasn't her decision. "Mother nature has a very peculiar way of teaching you things."

The accident happened on a February morning as she was out walking her beloved (now deceased) dog. She describes a canine confrontation of the kind only dog-owners would understand. Something to do with dogs mounting each other and leads getting entangled. In the end, she tripped.

"I'm very clumsy," she says with a chuckle, recalling how she also broke her shoulder in 1997.

"I fell down the stairs first thing in the morning. There was no alcohol involved, it's not so rock 'n' roll. That was a bad break too.

"So you know when you've broken a bone," she continues. "I was thinking, I'm going to go unconscious, I better sort everything out quickly. When the pain is that bad you black out, it's the body's way of coping. I said 'My two arms are broken, and now I'm going to pass out'."

She pulls up her sleeve to reveal the jagged pink scars around her wrist. She had broken five bones in her right arm and a bone in her left shoulder.

She was told she would never play the violin again. Instead, she reinvented her career, in a twisting of the fates that brings to mind the motorcycle crash that forced Bob Dylan to take some time off after Blonde on Blonde, and Patti Smith's near fatal neck break.

Fionnuala worked with a physiotherapist two hours per day, a healer, two different surgeons and had three lots of operations. She changed the way she played, from a classical hold to a traditional hold. Six months from the injury, that August, she was back on stage for Secret Garden's 20-year anniversary concert.

"I've had to readapt, reinvent myself. Having the courage to do that has been very uplifting. I've been able to prove to myself that I can do it this way."

Secret Garden have been a musical item now for 23 years. She puts much of their success down to their distance from each other.

Rolf is not Fionnuala's husband, even though in 1995 they looked like Jason and Kylie. She married her actual husband, property developer Bernard Doyle, in 2010.

She and Rolf always commuted between Ireland and Norway, and she says they never had any kind of romantic relationship. "We don't crowd each other. He has his own life and I have my own life. That's a huge part of our success, that we can have this intense musical relationship that we then step away from."

She sounds like a young girl in love, talking about her husband, a father of two grown children. "When you're preparing for a tour and it can be quite stressful. It's really lovely having someone that's very balanced and steady and calm around you. He's able to press the off button for me." When she returns from a tour, the first thing she does is uncork a bottle of wine with him.

It works particularly well for them that he is not in any way involved in music or the arts. "That's very refreshing for me, because when I'm home in Ireland I can be a different person."

This commitment to normal life may be why Fionnuala Sherry looks so much more like a golfer than a troubadour. At home, following her five hours of violin practice, she spends a lot of time in the gym, so that she is "physically in great shape".

She likes nothing better than to play a few holes of golf or watch the rugby. She is a dog person. "If I had another passion, I would just be surrounded with dogs, rescue dogs. I love training and working with them."

Secret Garden has another album due at the end of this year, which will be their 10th. Though something tells you Fionnuala Sherry is ready to spend a lot of time with dogs. Will we see another 23 years of Secret Garden?

"God no, I think I'll be too old," she says. "We'll record this next album, get it out, promote it, then…" There is a melodious and slightly, well, secretive laugh.

"A dear friend once said to me 'you know, you can miss the train if you spend too long looking to pick up your bags at the station. Just hop on.' I think all I've done is hopped on every time. And then you're on and you go, 'oh, s**t!'"

'Secret Garden - You Raise Me Up: The Collection' is out now

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