independent

Tuesday 13 November 2018

Sligo's Celtic tenor

We talk to singer James Nelson about life growing up in Sligo and his path to international music success

IN THE late 1800s, a man by the name of James Nelson served as mayor of Sligo town, for two separate terms. Two centuries later and his great, great grandnephew, bearing the same name, has carved out a notable career, not in the political sphere but as a member of the world-wide known group the Celtic Tenors.

Touring extensively, appearing on countless television programmes, and performing with the world's best regarded orchestras, James Nelson easily could have missed out on his musical career, as he contemplated taking over the reins at his father's store in Sligo town.

'It's quite funny that I share the same name with a previous mayor,' says James, whose mother, Frieda, taught English and French in Sligo Grammar School, after studying at Queen's University. The Bangor native moved to Sligo back in the 1940s, met the local shopkeeper Drummond Nelson, who was running the long-established Nelson's store which stood prominently on Castle Street.

'Mum came originally from Bangor but once the troubles began, we lost touch with her family, which was sad. I never got to know my aunts, uncles or indeed cousins on that side. One aunt, Ethel, would travel to Enniskillen, from where we would drive together in convoy to Sligo, but unfortunately we never got to know the others.'

James's father, Drummond, was in charge of Nelson's, which was a shop most people in Sligo town and county would have been familiar with back then. 'The shop was known for selling jewellery, hardware and fishing tackle, a somewhat unusual combination. When competition from shops intensified, especially with more UK stores, the shop couldn't keep going, and it closed in the 1980s,' said James..

As a youngster, James and his family were living in Cartron House, on top of the hill that has now expanded into the Cartron estate and bay area. 'I'm so proud of Sligo and loved growing up here; Dad would bring us to places distant from the likes of Rosses Point, Hazelwood and Strandhill – we got to explore the Ox mountains, Streedagh, and my favourite place of all is Inishmurray island,' James recalls.

'This island is just four miles off the Sligo coast and not enough people visit the place. Inishmurray has a sixth-century monastery, like the Skelligs, and there were people living there right up to the late Forties.'

James's first taste of education began in what was then the Model School, in the skeleton of where the multi-million centre now stands. 'At that stage the building was almost fit to fall down, totally unlike what it is now!

'There were rat holes dotted around and I remember one of the teachers, Mrs Cooke, leaping onto the table as one of these residents would make a dramatic appearance.

'That wasn't too bad, but when you add the bats falling down from the rafters, it wasn't exactly motivational,' he chuckles. Despite their furry friends, and the draughty atmosphere, the school was an endearing experience for James, who started at the tender age of three.

'Hilda Higgins was my first ever teacher, she was wonderful and I still keep in touch with her. She was a remarkable teacher and we used to know her as "Bean Uí Higí". Whenever The Celtic Tenors perform in Sligo, I dedicate a song to her,' he says.

The Model School later changed to Carbury National School, as it is now known. Basil Love was in James's class and they have remained friends, more recently with their charity work in Kenya, titled Kenya Build, of which Basil is founder.

James became familiar with the wonders of music with his first music teacher, Mrs Ger Cole, a piano teacher and well-known Sligo person.

'Ger was teaching out in the Regional and she brought me right up to Grade 5 on the piano. Ger was the most beautiful lady and a great inspiration. I remember winning the "Tiny Tots Trophy" in Feis Ceoil, and am proud of that.'

James left Sligo after studying in the Grammar and went to Wesley College, Dublin, to complete the Leaving Cert. He was contemplating taking over the running of Nelson's, back in Sligo, but decided to undertake a degree in Music and French at UCD.

'It was a four-year course and I am proud to say that my name is recorded in the college as being the youngest ever graduate of their Bachelor of Music.' During this time, he was competing in feiseanna and singing in local choirs.

The course gave James a chance to see what performing was all about – signing up for UCD Dramsoc he was involved in a jaw-dropping 32 plays over the four years, averaging eight a year.

'There was a little bit of consternation from some of the lecturers alright, but the plays really stood to me. I was featured as Frodo's best friend, Sam, in Gollum, the Rock Opera version of Lord Of The Rings, which was shown in the college; afterwards someone told me that I should go for singing lessons. Maybe it was because I was so bad, or they saw something there!'

From there he studied at the College of Music and began teaching part-time in Dublin schools as well as performing with the RTÉ Chamber Choir. A chance arose to move to London after a teacher, David Harper, encouraged James to train in the city. 'I gave up everything in Dublin, secured an opera agent, that was around 1990, and for 10 years afterwards I was singing fulltime.'

He boasts a repertoire of more than 50 roles in opera and operetta, as well as in oratorio and concerts, taking him on a journey as far as Italy to Singapore. In 1999,The Celtic Tenors were founded. 'We formed as an Irish version of The Three Tenors. We first performed with Rebecca Storm in Clontarf Castle and afterwards did an audition with EMI, where they signed us immediately.

'The Celtic Tenors were born and we signed for four albums. The original line-up comprised Matthew Gilsenan, Niall Morris and myself. After a while, Niall left and was replaced by Daryl Simpson, from Omagh, who used to play for Sligo Rovers actually.'

The three had all known each other from singing in operas together, and as James points

out, the opera scene in Ireland is quite small. 'Matthew hails from Meath. Daryl started the Peace Choir after the Omagh bombings and they appeared in Glastonbury too.'

Eleven years and eight albums later, the band are currently signed to US label Telarc. Album recordings can take place in any location; be it Meath, London or... Hollywood!

'Yes, for our fifth album we recorded in the Hollywood Hills, which was a fantastic experience. Our new album was recorded with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra – the first time we recorded together."

James credits performing from an early age – be it in the feiseanna, stage work around Sligo or indeed the mammoth drama college productions – with instilling in him a desire and a confidence to be on stage. 'I enjoy performing thoroughly and that's why I do it.'

He has learned to sing in Russian, Italian, French, Welsh (the hardest!) and German. Little musical background exists in his predecessors; his grandmother played the organ in the Presbyterian church in Sligo. 'My late mother loved music and singing but never really made anything of it,' James recalls.

The Celtic Tenors are managed by a Los Angeles resident and James explains that a huge amount of their work is done in the US and Canada, where the group spend many months of the year. 'It's absolutely great, we've performed with the best orchestras around. The US market is huge and the band has agents everywhere. We also have a significant following in the Netherlands, where we usually have a sell-out tour."

In 2012, the band are touring China, a land which has yet to be conquered. 'We're really looking forward to that tour, we've already done a good few dates in the Middle East where there are a lot of ex-pats.'

The Celtic Tenors have not one but two international fan clubs, where dedicated followers keep up to date with the band's latest news.

James also has a passion for writing, often doing so during the draining travelling, and has been writing a column with the Sligo Weekender for many years.

The group's new album is called Feels Like Home and is being released here this week.

'We wanted to do something that had a homely feel, that went back to our Celtic roots. We wanted to make an album that portrayed positivity, with songs from the Celtic countries.'

It includes the beautiful ballad Feels Like Home, folk classic She Moved Through The Fair and the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan. To mark the album's release, the band are performing in St John's Church, Sligo, on October 22.

'One of my career hightlights would have to be recording at Abbey Road in 2003, the same studio where the Beatles sang. A highlight from my life is my involvement with Kenya Build, which was set up in the early noughties by my schoolfriend Basil Love.'

Frustrated by the large charitites and their exorbitant administration costs, Kenya Build aims to use every cent to build up orphanages from scratch. 'There are close to six orphanages built since the charity was set up and the children, mostly AIDS orphans, are going on to university and getting jobs, which is wonderful.

'Sligo people go over every summer to help and I've been eight times since I first went in 2007. Along with my close friend, soprano Maeve Coghlan, we recorded a CD with some of the children from the Kibera slum, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

'It was such a shock to first see the slum, population of two million, but the children are incredible. You can get enveloped in all of the music industry, the travelling, staying in fine hotels, but really Kenya puts all that into perspective for me.'

'Maeve and I brought two of the children that we sponsor, along with one of their house-mothers, Mary, to Ireland in July and it was amazing, apart from negative comments from an immigration officer.'

He says that Kenya Build is a project of his 'for life' and one can easily glean the esteem James has for the orphaned children's cause.

'My sister, Linda, runs Woodville Farm with her husband Richard Wood-Martin and their children all show an interest in the charity with Claire, my niece, accompanying me to Kenya last summer.'

James says that the music business is tough – 'you fail nine times out of 10' – but you have to persevere. He loved Abba and the Beatles growing up for their harmonies, and he arranges the vocal harmonies on the album.

The band have previously recorded one song penned by James, Eric's Song, which was written for a prisoner on death row in Arkansas. ' I'm staunchly against the death penalty. I was part of the Lifelines group in the UK and I was writing to Eric for 10 years. I met him once soon before he was put to death, he was 46 and was accused of murder after being found at the scene. He always said that he was innocent.'

The Celtic Tenors received some notable praise from a former US president after playing his favourite song at a function in Dublin Castle.

'We were told by Bono that Bill Clinton's favourite song is Danny Boy, so we sang it at his table, it was absolutely lovely." Mr Clinton told them it was the finest version he had ever heard.

Tickets for the October 22 show are available from the Hawk's Well Theatre. Feels Like Home came out on Monday, September 26. falling down from the rafters, it wasn't exactly motivational,' he chuckles. Despite their furry friends, and the draughty atmosphere, the school was an endearing experience for James, who started at the tender age of three.

'Hilda Higgins was my first ever teacher, she was wonderful and I still keep in touch with her. She was a remarkable teacher and we used to know her as "Bean Uí Higí". Whenever The Celtic Tenors perform in Sligo, I dedicate a song to her,' he says.

The Model School later changed to Carbury National School, as it is now known. Basil Love was in James's class and they have remained friends, more recently with their charity work in Kenya, titled Kenya Build, of which Basil is founder.

James became familiar with the wonders of music with his first music teacher, Mrs Ger Cole, a piano teacher and well-known Sligo person.

'Ger was teaching out in the Regional and she brought me right up to Grade 5 on the piano. Ger was the most beautiful lady and a great inspiration. I remember winning the "Tiny Tots Trophy" in Feis Ceoil, and am proud of that.'

James left Sligo after studying in the Grammar and went to Wesley College, Dublin, to complete the Leaving Cert. He was contemplating taking over the running of Nelson's, back in Sligo, but decided to undertake a degree in Music and French at UCD.

'It was a four-year course and I am proud to say that my name is recorded in the college as being the youngest ever graduate of their Bachelor of Music.' During this time, he was competing in feiseanna and singing in local choirs.

The course gave James a chance to see what performing was all about – signing up for UCD Dramsoc he was involved in a jaw-dropping 32 plays over the four years, averaging eight a year.

'There was a little bit of consternation from some of the lecturers alright, but the plays really stood to me. I was featured as Frodo's best friend, Sam, in Gollum, the Rock Opera version of Lord Of The Rings, which was shown in the college; afterwards someone told me that I should go for singing lessons. Maybe it was because I was so bad, or they saw something there!'

From there he studied at the College of Music and began teaching part-time in Dublin schools as well as performing with the RTÉ Chamber Choir. A chance arose to move to London after a teacher, David Harper, encouraged James to train in the city. 'I gave up everything in Dublin, secured an opera agent, that was around 1990, and for 10 years afterwards I was singing fulltime.'

He boasts a repertoire of more than 50 roles in opera and operetta, as well as in oratorio and concerts, taking him on a journey as far as Italy to Singapore. In 1999,The Celtic Tenors were founded. 'We formed as an Irish version of The Three Tenors. We first performed with Rebecca Storm in Clontarf Castle and afterwards did an audition with EMI, where they signed us immediately.

'The Celtic Tenors were born and we signed for four albums. The original line-up comprised Matthew Gilsenan, Niall Morris and myself. After a while, Niall left and was replaced by Daryl Simpson, from Omagh, who used to play for Sligo Rovers actually.'

The three had all known each other from singing in operas together, and as James points

out, the opera scene in Ireland is quite small. 'Matthew hails from Meath. Daryl started the Peace Choir after the Omagh bombings and they appeared in Glastonbury too.'

Eleven years and eight albums later, the band are currently signed to US label Telarc. Album recordings can take place in any location; be it Meath, London or... Hollywood!

'Yes, for our fifth album we recorded in the Hollywood Hills, which was a fantastic experience. Our new album was recorded with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra – the first time we recorded together."

James credits performing from an early age – be it in the feiseanna, stage work around Sligo or indeed the mammoth drama college productions – with instilling in him a desire and a confidence to be on stage. 'I enjoy performing thoroughly and that's why I do it.'

He has learned to sing in Russian, Italian, French, Welsh (the hardest!) and German. Little musical background exists in his predecessors; his grandmother played the organ in the Presbyterian church in Sligo. 'My late mother loved music and singing but never really made anything of it,' James recalls.

The Celtic Tenors are managed by a Los Angeles resident and James explains that a huge amount of their work is done in the US and Canada, where the group spend many months of the year. 'It's absolutely great, we've performed with the best orchestras around. The US market is huge and the band has agents everywhere. We also have a significant following in the Netherlands, where we usually have a sell-out tour."

In 2012, the band are touring China, a land which has yet to be conquered. 'We're really looking forward to that tour, we've already done a good few dates in the Middle East where there are a lot of ex-pats.'

The Celtic Tenors have not one but two international fan clubs, where dedicated followers keep up to date with the band's latest news.

James also has a passion for writing, often doing so during the draining travelling, and has been writing a column with the Sligo Weekender for many years.

The group's new album is called Feels Like Home and is being released here this week.

'We wanted to do something that had a homely feel, that went back to our Celtic roots. We wanted to make an album that portrayed positivity, with songs from the Celtic countries.'

It includes the beautiful ballad Feels Like Home, folk classic She Moved Through The Fair and the Welsh lullaby Suo Gan. To mark the album's release, the band are performing in St John's Church, Sligo, on October 22.

'One of my career hightlights would have to be recording at Abbey Road in 2003, the same studio where the Beatles sang. A highlight from my life is my involvement with Kenya Build, which was set up in the early noughties by my schoolfriend Basil Love.'

Frustrated by the large charitites and their exorbitant administration costs, Kenya Build aims to use every cent to build up orphanages from scratch. 'There are close to six orphanages built since the charity was set up and the children, mostly AIDS orphans, are going on to university and getting jobs, which is wonderful.

'Sligo people go over every summer to help and I've been eight times since I first went in 2007. Along with my close friend, soprano Maeve Coghlan, we recorded a CD with some of the children from the Kibera slum, on the outskirts of Nairobi.

'It was such a shock to first see the slum, population of two million, but the children are incredible. You can get enveloped in all of the music industry, the travelling, staying in fine hotels, but really Kenya puts all that into perspective for me.'

'Maeve and I brought two of the children that we sponsor, along with one of their house-mothers, Mary, to Ireland in July and it was amazing, apart from negative comments from an immigration officer.'

He says that Kenya Build is a project of his 'for life' and one can easily glean the esteem James has for the orphaned children's cause.

'My sister, Linda, runs Woodville Farm with her husband Richard Wood-Martin and their children all show an interest in the charity with Claire, my niece, accompanying me to Kenya last summer.'

James says that the music business is tough – 'you fail nine times out of 10' – but you have to persevere. He loved Abba and the Beatles growing up for their harmonies, and he arranges the vocal harmonies on the album.

The band have previously recorded one song penned by James, Eric's Song, which was written for a prisoner on death row in Arkansas. ' I'm staunchly against the death penalty. I was part of the Lifelines group in the UK and I was writing to Eric for 10 years. I met him once soon before he was put to death, he was 46 and was accused of murder after being found at the scene. He always said that he was innocent.'

The Celtic Tenors received some notable praise from a former US president after playing his favourite song at a function in Dublin Castle.

'We were told by Bono that Bill Clinton's favourite song is Danny Boy, so we sang it at his table, it was absolutely lovely." Mr Clinton told them it was the finest version he had ever heard.

Tickets for the October 22 show are available from the Hawk's Well Theatre. Feels Like Home came out on Monday, September 26.

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