Thursday 18 October 2018

Ruth and Joyce O'Leary: We had a goal and went for it

They count major worldwide stars among their fans, but sisters Ruth and Joyce O'Leary love coming home

Belles Of The Oil Barons’ Ball: Sisters Joyce and Ruth O’Leary have made a name for themselves with their edgy violin-playing on both sides of the Atlantic. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Belles Of The Oil Barons’ Ball: Sisters Joyce and Ruth O’Leary have made a name for themselves with their edgy violin-playing on both sides of the Atlantic. Photo: Tony Gavin.
The Joyce sisters numbered Larry Hagman amongst their fans.
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

When sisters Ruth and Joyce O'Leary from Monaghan casually mention that "Larry was like a grandfather to us," the realisation that they are referring to the late JR Ewing from Dallas comes as a bit of an unexpected surprise.

The sisters, aka Sephira, met actor Larry Hagman while performing their violin and vocals act in Wicklow, at a soiree thrown by his friend, Liz McClory, and he gave them his number and said they could stay at his house if they were ever in California.

"We were in the States four months later, so we gave him a call," says Ruth. "Larry loved our music, and described it as the soundtrack to his home. Any time we went to visit, it was playing all over his amazing house. We performed at his 80th birthday, and he was such a cool man and a great friend. We were devastated when he passed away, and we actually played at his memorial. We also dedicated the most recent of our three albums, Sephira, to his memory."

They may have red hair, but the slightly petite are not traditional little cailini, and have forged ahead determinedly to bring their music to a global audience. They describe themselves as edgy violin players, and their sets include numbers from Led Zeppelin, Misirlou from Pulp Fiction, and Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen.

"We moved to New York four years ago and started by knocking on doors, doing high-end brunches and that kind of thing," says Joyce, adding that they are now based between the US and Europe. "Within a year, we were performing for Donald Trump at his country club in Palm Beach, and for Prince Albert in Monaco, and we have done TV performances with Andrea Bocelli, Kanye West, Michael Buble and Enya. We just had a goal in mind and we went for it."

There are three and a half years between the sisters, and Ruth is the "older and bolder" one. "I used to annoy the hell out of Joyce," she admits." I regularly made her drink stuff from the bathroom, like hair conditioner. I also kicked out three of her baby front teeth when she was five, accidentally of course. We were in the bathroom singing a song, and I was kicking my legs in the air to the rhythm of the song, and the next thing my foot landed in her mouth."

The sisters grew up in Carrickmacross, and have two older sisters, Sara and Lee-Ann. Joyce and Ruth took violin lessons with Ann Delargy and Fr Brendan McNally, and also took singing classes with the late Evelyn Dowling.

Ruth then went to the Guildhall School of Music in London and the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin to do a music performance degree, prior to touring with Rodrigo y Gabriela. Joyce also went to the Academy to study violin teaching and performance, and then she and Ruth formed Sephira, named after a Spanish goddess of creativity.

Things took off wonderfully, for them, boosted by touring in the US with Celtic Thunder, and by being musical ambassadors for Tourism Ireland. It has been an amazing adventure doing it together as sisters, they say, but at the beginning, there were issues to iron out, as there are in any working relationship.

"We had to realise that we both have our strengths," says Ruth. "Beneath Joyce's million dollar smile is a lateral thinking brain and an ever-present voice of reason, with the ability to break down, simplify and resolve complications." Joyce says that Ruth is the bigger thinker, and describes her as "a powerhouse of strength, conceptualising new ideas and creating paths to their fruition."

The sisters are very close and say that they are both messers. They love teasing one another and being really sarcastic, a trait they inherited from their dad. "Our family are delighted that we have each other, but they do miss us a bit," says Joyce. "We live together in Astoria, across from Central Park, and live and breathe our business. We make time to go out and have fun though because it's a great city."

The girls' parents, Pat and Terry, are very proud of them, and were thrilled to meet Larry Hagman over Skype, when their daughters were staying at his house. Their sister Lee-Ann sometimes travels with them, and is part of their management team. While Ruth is in a relationship and Joyce is currently single, they have three grown-up nieces, daughters of their sister Sara. It's a family full of girls, they laugh.

Sephira have become more involved in political events in Washington, including playing at the Women of Congress events, and will be performing at an event later in the summer that President Barack Obama will attend. "We have never met him before so it's huge," admits Ruth. "We have recently started working with DJs, and are doing dubstep mixes of our tracks, which has allowed us to open up another dimension with electric violins. We also have started aerial training, so we are playing violin in the air, upside down, for a new show."

The sisters always wear identical costumes while performing, and their designer has made some incredible dresses, which incorporate Magee fabrics from Donegal. They are also very excited about their current role in the popular annual Harvey's Point summer cabaret in Donegal, which is MCed by TV3's Noel Cunningham, the hotel's general manager.

"We do a 30-minute set, and it means that we will be over and back all summer," explains Joyce. "We are commuting from the US to Donegal every second week for it, but we don't mind as we love coming home. You have to grab every opportunity, which is our philosophy in life."

The Harvey's Point Summertime Cabaret runs every Wednesday until October 29, and comprises an award-winning cabaret
 dinner, followed by world class entertainment and dancing. www.harveyspoint.com.

For further information on Sephira, including details on their forthcoming Irish dates, visit www.facebook.com/SephiraMusic

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