Tenor's notes from Paul Byrom on a love match
Tenor Paul Byrom and his fiancee, musician Phil Coulter's daughter Dominique, who will marry on Friday, describe their nerve-wracking first encounters and how settling in New York set the seal on their romance
Tenor Paul Byrom and his fiancee, musician Phil Coulter's daughter Dominique, who will marry on Friday, describe their nerve-wracking first encounters and how settling in New York set the seal on their romance.
"Bridezilla? Not at all." Dominique Coulter answers my question as to the state of her wedding nerves with a laugh. "More like Groomzilla," her fiance tenor Paul Byrom chips in, adding: "Dom is the most laid-back person you'll ever meet. Someone has to pick up the slack."
It's a perfect example of the kind of easy, gently teasing dynamic between the two. He is charming, gregarious, with a polished showmanship that is stopped from being too slick by his quirky, self-deprecating humour – on the subject of his remarkably early start in showbiz, he laughs: "Yes, I was that horrible, annoying child, always in the middle of the living room giving a performance. I was a small, fat kid with curly white hair, and I used to think I was Stevie Wonder." She, meanwhile, beyond the blonde, blue-eyed prettiness, has a quiet strength that is very appealing. Of her upbringing – daughter of Phil Coulter, who has 23 platinum discs and worked with everyone from Sandy Shaw to Sinead O'Connor, Boyzone and the Bay City Rollers – Dominique says simply: "It was just very normal. Quite sheltered. Dad was interested in what we did, not in telling us what he did."
The ceremony, on Friday, will be in Booterstown church, where Paul sang as a child soprano, then later as a soloist, every Saturday night. "My sister got married there, my niece and nephew were christened there, my father's funeral mass was there. The church has a lot of meaning for us," explains Paul. After that, it's Rathsallagh House, with roughly 150 friends and family. "Some of these things tend to be a bit of a circus," says Paul disapprovingly. "We wanted to make sure that anyone who was invited was a genuine friend."
These include Gordon D'Arcy, who is married to Paul's cousin, model and artist Aoife Coogan, Rosanna Davison and Wesley Quirke, and Damien McGinty, from Glee.
So, given that Paul is an established singer, currently gaining steady success in the States as a solo artist, where his recent album This Is The Moment went to number one in the World Billboard charts, and Dominique is the daughter of Phil Coulter, presumably music is going to feature heavily. Will Paul sing? "I have no intentions of singing," he laughs. "I couldn't afford me." Instead, music will come from trumpet player Niall O'Sullivan, singer Lisa Lambe and the Camembert Quartet. Although Paul concedes that he might not be able to resist "a bit of Delilah at 3am ... "
"I've been singing at weddings since I was seven," he says "and in recent years, a lot of friends and family members have got married. I realised that all my favourite pieces, I've sung them for somebody else. But Phil has written a song for us. He did it once before, for Liam Neeson, when he got married, and then Natasha Richardson of course, tragically passed away. So I was really surprised and delighted."
Dominique is the first of Phil and Geraldine Coulter's four daughters to get married. He's setting a precedent here, I say. "He's going to have to write a musical by the end of it," Paul deadpans.
The couple first met through Phil, when Paul was 21 and Dominique just 15. "I was a 21-year-old boy who worked in a sweet shop on Harcourt Street and I got a call one day to see would I perform with Phil on a cruise in the Caribbean." Was that an intimidating prospect? "Yes, very much. People who have legendary status, their reputations proceed them, sometimes unfairly. I'd heard he was hard to work with. But from the moment I met him, he was very encouraging and supportive."
With Phil on the cruise were his family. So how does Dominique recall Paul from that time? "I hadn't noticed him," she says – Paul chips in "I was a gangly streak of misery back then. I still am ... " And Dominique elaborates a little: "I was very quiet then. I remember one day, we all went to the beach, and Paul came with us, I didn't talk to him once. Fifteen is such an awkward age, you feel so self-conscious. He was very chatty, he did try, not to chat me up, just to exchange conversation, with myself and my sisters and brothers. But we were all quite shy."
It was a quiet sort of beginning, but the groundwork was laid. "Seven years later, Phil said, 'come on, do the cruise again'. I hadn't thought about Dom at all in the intervening time, but then she walked into the bar, and my jaw must have dropped, because a band member said, 'don't you touch a Coulter kid ... !'"
As for Dominique, pressed a little, she admits, "I was aware that he was going to be on the boat. I was a little bit interested, I wanted to see how he had turned out."
Both agree that they had tremendous fun together during those 10 days, but neither presumed too much.
"We really hit it off, but I never thought he'd be interested in me, because I felt a lot younger than him. I was 22, and still in college. It was very innocent," says Dominique.
"And I thought, 'why would a 22-year-old be interested in me?' Plus, I was there on a professional basis, with Phil, and I was very conscious of not disrespecting him. But we kind of sparked, and I knew then there was something worth pursuing."
After the cruise, they met for a drink, in Queens in Dalkey – "We sat in the darkest corner," Dominique laughs. "It was like we were having an affair, we didn't want to be seen, because we didn't know what it was yet, we didn't want people talking."
"If we were going to do it, we had to be certain it wasn't just a fling," Paul agrees. And very quickly, he was certain. "I realised there was more than being a pretty blonde to Dominique. So I invited her to a Valentine's Day ball, at the Four Seasons. She said 'OK, but we can't tell dad ... ' She was even more conscious than me of disrespecting him."
At this stage, Paul did the brave and decent thing. "I said, 'I'm going to ask Phil.' To this day, I'm glad I did that. I didn't want him finding out via a picture in the Herald. So I rang him, chatted for a while, then said ... 'would you mind if I was to ask Dominique? He said 'if it was me, I'd turn you down, but knock yourself out ... '" It was all the permission Paul needed. "I went and collected her, I was never so nervous in my life, I was in my tuxedo, driving the little red TT I had then, and I thought, 'God, if a fellow turned up to my house in a red TT to collect my daughter, I know I wouldn't let her out.' but it worked out."
Asked just what it is about the other that transcends simply being attractive, pleasant, good company, that thing that turns affection into love, Dominique responds "Paul's funny. We take the Mick out of each other, a lot." For Paul, "it's her humility, and her work ethic. She's always worked very, very hard. You'd think she wouldn't, given the family she's from, but she has. She's not a high maintenance girl, she's supportive. And she appreciates that Liverpool will always be part of our marriage."
With all couples, there comes a moment when the foundations so carefully laid are tested, rocked by some kinds of force majeur. With Paul and Dominique, that test came when they moved to New York, three years ago. "I had a career here, I was doing quite well, I had a profile. I could have been accused of being comfortable being a big fish in a small pond, but it was good," says Paul. "But Dom had finished college" – she studied business and law at Dublin Business School – "and wanted to go to New York for a year. I felt that if I didn't go with her, I'd lose her. So we moved."
It was, Dominique says, "the best decision we ever made. For your career".
"And for us as a couple," Paul agrees. "Suddenly, we became a team. Before, we were boyfriend and girlfriend, then we went to New York, and suddenly it was us against the world."
But it wasn't an entirely painless transition. "I had taken a huge step, career-wise," explains Paul. "Initially, it was eating into my savings, I was going, 'jeez, what am I doing here?' I was looking for a new agency, new management, new everything. I remember sitting one day at the desk in the apartment, really worried, and Dom came in. She had bought a painting – a heart, the sign for 'greater,' and a dollar sign: 'Love is greater than money.' She said, 'hang that over your desk'. And when she did that, I knew she was definitely the woman for me, for the rest of my life. Because this is not a steady career. Not dependable. It's been good to me, but to have that kind of support when I was so up against it, was amazing. Six months later, the album I had been working on went to number one, I signed with a management firm, an agency took me on. At the moment, an hour-long TV special I recorded is currently airing across America. Tied in with that is a 30-city tour from spring of next year. Everything just happened."
The slow start must have been tough for Dominique, I say, feeling that you had persuaded him to move? "I definitely had moments when I felt bad. Moments when Paul got a bit homesick – he is very close with his family and has a very close group of friends in Ireland – and I was off at work and he was alone. I had a bit of guilt sometimes." Clearly, the hardship only made them stronger, as hardship will where the bedrock is secure.
Dominique may have been sheltered by her parents from the excesses of the music world, but she nonetheless has an ingrained understanding of its vagaries. "It's a blessing," is how Paul puts it. "She has an appreciation of what I do. It doesn't make it easier, but she has an understanding that you just don't know what's around the corner."
Even so, that understanding came close to its limits about a year ago, when the normal appreciation of Paul's fans began to tip over, for a few, into something much nastier. "I've been on the receiving end of some not-so-nice fans," explains Dominique. "That was quite hard. I got all this abuse on Twitter, telling me to leave New York, that I was taking their jobs, that I should leave Paul alone, he'd be better off without me. It was really horrible. I don't have a thick skin like Paul, so it's really hard to take all that. Especially when I'm not the one in the public eye."
Ultimately, Paul made a formal complaint to the police, on the basis that the abuse was xenophobic. He is clearly highly protective of Dominique, and quick to point out "we've never done the scene, so to speak, even when we were living here in Ireland. We went to a handful of things, but we could have flaunted it more than we did."
Throughout our conversation, references to Dominique's and Paul's families are never far away. Their brothers, sisters, parents are name-checked constantly, with obvious affection, by both. Paul admits openly that he is often lonely in New York for his mother and sister, and Skypes them daily; "both of them are mad about Dominique. If they weren't, that would have broken me."
About his father, however, he is more circumspect. When he was in his early 20s, Paul's father, whom he describes as "alcoholic" took his own life , having left the family for another woman. Paul had refused to speak to him for several years before his death. Will his absence be a difficult part of the wedding celebrations?
"I don't expect it to be difficult," he responds carefully. "Of course he'll be thought of at the church, but I think life is about dwelling on the people that are around you. All too often, people spend too much time thinking about people who have passed on. For me, it's about who's going to be there on the day, my grandmother is. She's 94, and my mother, who has been an incredible mother over the years, and my sister, and Dom's family. Sad as it is that dad isn't going to be there, that's the way life has panned out. It's a happy occasion, you don't dwell on these things."
As he speaks, the silent support and sympathy coming from Dominique are almost tangible. Paul is right, this is a happy occasion. For two people, so right for each other, to meet and fall in love, is indeed "a blessing," just as he says.
Paul Byrom's PBS Christmas special will be broadcast in the US in December. www.paulbyrom.ie