Friday 24 May 2019

We'll take Manhattan

From playing Carnegie Hall to doing lunch duty back at school, Celtic Woman have led a double life. With 50 million records sold and a US top 10 album, they're the most successful Irish girl group ever and one of the bestselling Irish acts of all time. So why have they so little recognition at home? Donal Lynch reports from New York

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It's the early hours of a gloriously sunny St Patrick's Day and in the Shamrock-festooned green room of ABC's television studios on Manhattan's Upper West Side a group of Irish girls are feeling butterflies in their stomachs. Make-up artists flit about them, eradicating any evidence of lack of sleep and the long night on the road. Their microphones and gowns are readjusted and a last spritz of hairspray is applied, just to be on the safe side. One of them warms her voice up, trilling up and down the scales, like a bird call. A producer indicates to them it is time to go. They glance nervously at each other and at the television screen above them. They are ready.

On the other side of the door, down a corridor, on a set bathed in dazzling light, wait Regis and Kelly -- the septuagenarian king of American daytime telly and his impossibly perky sidekick -- as well as a studio audience clad all in green. As the girls take their positions and nail their performance of Nil Se 'n La, a graphic of their latest album is beamed on a screen and Regis gives his approval with a slightly demented jig. "It's a day for the Irish," he tells the millions watching. "And what could be more Irish than Celtic Woman?"

What indeed? But while US TV appearances and hit records are nothing new for these young women, they remain a fairly unknown quantity in their own country. In breaking America -- they have had a top 10 album and sold millions of records there -- they have done what many Irish artists have tried and failed to do. But it has garnered scarcely a murmur of recognition back home. In the last year, Celtic Woman have appeared on Good Morning America and twice on Live With Regis and Kelly but not once on The Late Late. In terms of records sold -- 50 million at their last count -- they are now the most successful Irish girl group ever, and one of the bestselling Irish acts of all time. Their eponymous 2005 debut was number one on the Billboard World Music Chart for a year and a half before it was bumped from that spot by their follow-up Christmas album.

But we never really heard about that; their success seems to be the best-kept secret in showbusiness. Chloe Agnew, Twink's daughter, and one of the original members of the group, speaks wryly of going from playing Carnegie Hall to doing lunch duty, mopping the floor at Alexandra College, back in Dublin. It's an apt description of their careers. They are Cinderellas who dance at the ball stateside before seemingly turning into pumpkins on the descent into Dublin airport.

Fittingly, then, their story begins outside the country. It was 2004 and the Marche International de l'Edition Musicale, an international musical trade fair, was taking place in Cannes. Gustavo Sagastume, the then programming boss for America's Public Service Broadcasting (or PBS), was sitting in the lobby of his hotel smoking a cigar when he happened to hear a woman talking about an Irish singer who had a voice like Charlotte Church's.

His interest was piqued and he struck up a conversation with Sharon Browne, a founder of Celtic Collections Records at the fair promoting some of her female performers. She made her pitch to Sagastume but he was, he says, unmoved, telling her that there was no market for "girls with pretty voices from Ireland".

Browne persevered, however, and eventually he told her: "Give me Charlotte Church meets Enya meets Sarah Brightman, then we can talk. She said she'd do it but people say things late at night. Especially at bars in France."

Half a year later Browne showed that some people mean what they say, even late at night in a bar. She called Sagastume and invited him to come to Dublin. There she, fellow record boss Dave Kavanagh and David Downes, a musical composer who had worked on Riverdance, unveiled a show which she said would fit PBS's criteria.

Sagastume was still sceptical but travelled to Ireland and what he saw amazed him. Right down to the required number of cameras, the Dublin-based group had created a slickly produced show, which would play beautifully on American television. "We look for programmes that use eight to 14 cameras and a crane," Sagastume would later say. "They had all of that along with great lighting and beautiful costumes."

What really impressed him, however, were the body parts that made up this new multi-limbed Enya hybrid: Mairead Nesbitt, a violinist who bounds across the stage like a sexy wood nymph inhabited with the spirit of Vanessa Mae; Chloe Agnew, a then 15-year-old soloist who had infused her soaring, classical vocals with a pop sensibility; Meav Ni Mhaolchatha, a former singer with Anuna; and Lisa Kelly, a young mother from Dublin who had a background in musicals. They were later joined by Orla Fallon, a harpist who had played alongside David Agnew (Chloe's father), and Hayley Westenra, a New Zealand-born soprano who made several best-selling classical albums. Sagastume was sold and agreed to air one of the specials.

PBS is a strange, peculiarly American idea and fulfils part of the function which RTE and the BBC have on this side of the pond. It's essentially programming free of advertising but instead of licence fee it is paid for by "pledges" which viewers make in response to on-air pleas for donations. These are played on a mind-numbingly endless loop.

The overall idea is that this will give rise to programming for weak consumer groups -- particularly the elderly -- who are not the targets of ads on commercial channels. The station's executives will commission only programming which they think will bring in enough money to help PBS survive. The system is a quid pro quo: the station gets free programming -- often paid for by the artists' backers -- which generates revenue, and the artists whom it features get the kind of grassroots exposure that money can't buy.

It's deceptively simple but it doesn't always work. Other artists from Ireland have tried and failed to get a foothold in the American market in this way but for Celtic Woman the stars seemed to be aligned. Their first special aired in March 2005 and instantly induced a spike in PBS's viewing figures and pledge donations. Soon the show would be repeated thousands of times on hundreds of local stations. One PBS executive particularly liked that the group seemed to appeal to "a younger demographic". By this he apparently meant people in their 40s and 50s.

On the back of this and other PBS specials -- one of which was filmed at Slane with Twink proudly singing along in the audience -- the group began gruelling cross-country tours of America. They found themselves in a new city every night, painstakingly building a fan base, one exhaustingly emotive ballad at a time. For Irish-Americans, hungry for a cultural identity, the music represented a mythical homeland and once on stage these five urbane, modern lasses embodied a lyrical, Blarney-tinted vision of Gaelic womanhood.

Even in those early days the girls seemed to inspire a shocking level of commitment in their fans. (I later ask Alex Sharpe, one of the current members of the group, if they have groupies and she giggles: "I think they might be the wrong age group to be called that.") Some men followed them to every tour date and one man wrote on his blog of spending thousands of dollars attending their shows and

paying for meet-and-greets. Soon there were fan sites not just for the group but for each girl individually.

One particularly avid fan has published cranky letters he's written to their management, complaining about everything from their commercial relationship with PBS to the length of the meet-and-greets he paid for. Another fan created a Facebook page in which subscribers complain that the group mimes parts of their lives shows (this is categorically denied by their Australian-born manager, Scott Porter, a former dancer with Riverdance).

For these fans the changes in the personnel of the group have been seismic events: Meav, Orla and Hayley left and Lisa took maternity leave while Alex and Lynn joined.

Everyone of course still loves each other and the current members are "like sisters". Having met them I believe this somehow -- they seem very at ease in each other's company, even if they have wildly different personalities. Mairead and Lisa are shrewd and fast-talking while Lisa seems more low-key. Refreshingly she strays slightly off message, admitting she's sometimes taken aback by their more dedicated fans before Mairead reminds her how much they love all their fans.

There was, however, some genuine rancour when one of the creators of the group, Sharon Browne, left to form another group, Celtic Man, a male vocal outfit which would tap the seemingly bottomless American market for mystical, Irish-themed choral music. Of course Celtic Woman Ltd wasn't too pleased about this and two years ago a distinctly non-mystical case of intellectual property infringement was taken against Browne's company in New York's Southern District Court.

According to Scott Porter this case has now been settled, to the satisfaction of all concerned. He says he is "delighted" that there is an all-male group and insists everyone remains on very good terms. For her part, Browne says it "was a very difficult time but it's behind me now and we're moving on."

She teamed up with Phil Coulter to form a new male vocal group called Celtic Thunder and just as she had done with Celtic Woman, she organised a show at the Helix followed by a PBS special in America. The group has been successful, while not yet quite matching the staggering success of Celtic Woman.

Porter thinks that the reason that the women have flown the flag abroad but not at home is because it's harder for an Irish audience to accept when a group is successful in America first. He points out that their show at the Point in 2006 garnered mixed reviews "because it was so new at the time". He adds that it is hard to do well in every country and given that they have toured so intensively in America and elsewhere it's natural that they would have found a larger audience there.

The New York Times put it differently: "Ireland is a country that does a lot of psychological heavy lifting for Americans. We've imbued the place with mysticism, greenness, quietude and rootedness. Milky-skinned maidens, singing beautiful music in front of a wall of ivy; It's the very vision of what we want Ireland to be. Or at least what PBS viewers want Ireland to be."

In concert, this all becomes much clearer. At Radio City Music Hall in late February a lone piper stands in a stream of dry ice. He is soon joined by four of the girls who delicately harmonise on Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears. A woman sitting near me mimes along, her eyes bright with tears at this gauzy dream of Ireland.

Except for Mairead, who seems to defy the laws of physics in her manic fiddle playing, the girls have a gentle stage presence, and dancing is mostly limited to mild swaying. They all sound studio-perfect and with the Debs-esque dresses, the hairdos and Mairead's fiddling you can see why Billboard magazine described it as "high camp"

On the lilting, between-song patter they have the audience eating out of their hands but it's a confection that Irish listeners, who don't have the distance to romanticise their home or to find the accents "cute", might find too sweet.

Another reason that they don't generate much publicity at home may be because they seem to be extremely wary of the Irish press.

Organising the interviews for this piece took dozens of emails and phone calls with cast-iron undertakings given that it was "not going to be all about Twink". I had to promise this so often and so loudly that I actually began to feel a secret loyalty to Twink, who must rightly be very proud of her daughter.

I was finally allowed to meet the softly-spoken Chloe, who looks much more beautiful in real life, briefly in a hallway. I really wanted to hug her and say "it's OK" but felt certain that this gesture would be seen as clear evidence that I was Twinkicidal and result in everyone vanishing in a cloud of stage fog.

None of them directly answers the question as to how loaded they have become in the wake of their 50 million record sales -- apparently that's something that "only an Irish person would ask". They have the most gruelling tour schedule I have seen anywhere -- on the morning we meet in Manhattan they have caught a 4am train from another state -- so they must be making good money, but all they will say is that they're grateful to be working and that they make a good wage.

Up to 50 different people travel with them and overhead costs are consequently high. Porter will only concede that they "do fine" and that "everything we make is at the end of the day ploughed back into the group".

The overarching goal is to turn them into a global music phenomenon on a par with Riverdance. Porter speaks with a hushed reverence for his former mentors Moya Doherty and John McColgan and while he is bashful about being mentioned in the same breath as them it's clear that the 29-year-old -- yes, he's that young -- has the ambition and nous to emulate his former bosses.

More tours are planned; the group will go to Australia in the summer and begin a charm offensive on his homeland. Perhaps some day they will come home -- Porter murmurs about a triumphant return to the Late Late -- but word of the enormity of what they've achieved has already reached those in the know.

An American-based music producer I spoke to summed up much of the feelings about the group: "Celtic Woman are eminently mockable but they're also the hardest working girls in showbusiness. People in the Irish music industry laughed in 2005. They're not laughing now."

Songs From The Heart, Celtic Woman's newest album is available on iTunes. Visit them online at www.celticwoman.com

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