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The day an old lady offered to drop 'em for a tenor

Hard Times is the name of the Celtic Tenors' new album and tour, and it's an appropriate sentiment for the economic situation we are all experiencing at the moment.

It also reflects the difficulties the group has experienced in recent years. These include replacing Niall Morris, who left the group three years ago, and the realisation that the relationship with their existing management structure was coming to an end. Not to mention dealing with the worry of the financial implications that ensued.

Thankfully, they have put their troubles behind them, which is evident when I meet Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson. They are fizzing with enthusiasm about the new direction their career has taken, and are buzzing with ideas and plans.

"We really thought that we were sunk at one point," says Matthew. "We were with our manager Pat Egan for ages, who's a really tremendous guy. Our relationship came to an end naturally, because we needed to be doing more quality work outside Ireland."

The Celtic Tenors had of course achieved a remarkable following and enjoyed great success on many levels. However, while they had US agents acting on their behalf, they felt that the work they were being offered there wasn't conducive to their evolution as serious contenders on an international scale.

They decided to move on, which they admit was painful and upsetting. Equally painful were the financial implications of extricating themselves from existing agreements, which culminated in both James and Matthew re-mortgaging their homes.

"Our new manager Tim Bernett is based in the US, and he looks after acts like Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Richard Thompson and Loudon Wainwright," says Matthew. "What he has brought to us is management on an international level, which has changed us in terms of where we're going. We now believe that there's a real possibility that we could become a serious act."

Almost immediately, things began to get exciting as the Celtic Tenors worked on their new album with the Grammy-winning team of Steve Lindsey, Dillon O'Brien and Dave Way. Recorded in Hollywood, it is essentially a roots album with rich harmony-driven songs, and it was released on the Tayberry label of Compass Records. Other good news is that they have filmed their second PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) special, and opportunities from abroad are coming in thick and fast.

The tenors have been very successful as classical crossover artists, and have an amazing ability to seamlessly blend several genres in their repertoire, including folk, classical, traditional and country. The other feature of their appeal has been the charm and easy manner of their live performances. Their on-stage banter and joie de vivre immediately dispel any connotations of stuffiness, which can sometimes accompany the term "tenor".

"Our performances are emotionally charged, and people feel that they know us well at the end of the shows," says James. "I've had some really dodgy letters from female fans, though. And once, at a concert abroad, a lady in her 80s said to the person doing the merchandising, "Oh God, I would drop my panties for any of those three guys."

When it comes to making decisions, the group has always been a democracy, says Matthew. They swap places and lead vocals on stage, so that nobody appears more prominent than the others. This fascinated Bill Clinton, as he tried to follow who was holding the melody when they performed for him.

Even when Daryl joined three years ago, the blend was instant, although it brought about a massive change of dynamic in the group."It's not like he was an echo of Niall," says James. "I think he was quite timid at first, but soon became himself and is very strong." All three are very different in personality, but they're a close, tight bunch, and supportive of each other's lives and separate projects.

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These projects include the Omagh Community Youth Choir, which Daryl set up in October 1998 to promote peace and reconciliation in the wake of the Omagh bomb. The choir has since gone on to receive international acclaim, and has toured the US five times. It even played at Glastonbury in June.

James works tirelessly on behalf of Kenya Build, a Sligo-based charity that builds homes, schools and orphanages for socially disadvantaged children (www.kenyabuild. com). The group's fans have been very supportive, donating money after the gigs.

However, every time someone gives James $100, he writes the charity a cheque for €100. This makes him either very generous or very bad at maths, jokes Daryl and Matthew, which is why they have never placed him in charge of their own finances.

For details of the the Celtic Tenors' Irish tour visit www.celtictenors.com

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