Wednesday 18 September 2019

Broadway king is set to assume his Irish throne

After a taste of global fame, Darren Holden is now looking for fans closer to home, writes John Meagher

Darren Holden Photo: Getty Images
Darren Holden Photo: Getty Images

There are 12 people in the audience, and most of those seem to be associates of the band.

The four-piece trad group -- who came to prominence last year -- are showcasing a new look and new material in advance of headlining shows at the city's Olympia Theatre, but this dress rehearsal's sparse attendance is a far cry from what one of the band's members experienced just two years ago.

Kilkenny man Darren Holden may not be terribly well known yet in his native country, but fans of Broadway musicals will certainly be familiar with him.

He took the lead role in the hugely successful Movin' Out -- a big-budget, critically acclaimed production set to the music of Billy Joel.

Every night he would play to thousands of people -- and receive one standing ovation after another. Now, as a member of a ballad group who are ditching their original "boyband" schtich in favour of a frills-free, old-fashioned approach, he's having to get used to working from the bottom up.

"In a way, doing all those Movin' Out shows has prepared me for the ground work that needs to be put in to make The High Kings a success," he says over coffee, shortly after concluding his performance. "You get used to playing night after night and you need to have a consistent level of performance each time." In real terms, that meant singing 26 songs each night, six times a week.

"You get used to it," he says. "And, with The High Kings there are four of us who have to be at the top of our game each and every time we face an audience. Anything less, and you're not doing your job properly." The 35-year-old is the only member of the group who does not hail from a trad music family. Martin Furey is the son of Finbar (of the Furey Brothers fame), Finbarr Clancy is the son of Bobby (of The Clancys), and Brian Dunphy is the son of Brian (who represented Ireland in the 1967 Eurovision).

"There might have been a perception that we were just a manufactured outfit who can't play our own instruments," he says.

'But we have stripped all the pyrotechnics away and we're letting our voices and instruments do the talking. It's honest music -- it has a wonderful tradition and I'm delighted to be part of it."

Songwriter, journalist and television personality Shay Healy has recently lent his support to the new-look group. "Shay's been great," he says. "He sees the sort of potential we have and how best we can realise it."

For those who have followed Darren Holden's career to date, the new direction will come as little surprise. He is something of a pop cultural Renaissance Man having, in the course of an exceptionally varied career, supported Boyzone, starred in Riverdance and redefined the role of Piano Man.

"I like to keep things varied," he laughs.

"To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure what I was going to do after Movin' Out -- there were plenty of offers -- but this is exciting. Record company EMI are backing it to the hilt. It could be really big. It's the sort of music that I grew up with. I know that I can do trad just as easily as I can do pop."

If things had worked out differently, the self-taught pianist could now be as famous as Robbie Williams.

At 21, his manager Louis Walsh was promising him the world and his fledgling brand of pop was predicted to be huge.

But the singer, who was signed to Universal, saw his career stillborn: his never-to-be released album languished in the record company's warehouse. Walsh turned his attention to IOU -- soon to be re-named Westlife -- and the young Kilkenny man was soon forgotten. Westlife had an early hit with a cover of Terry Jacks's Seasons In The Sun -- a song that was originally earmarked for Darren.

But he wasn't marketed the way they were and his version fell on deaf ears. "I fell out with Louis -- but things are grand now. We've been in touch."

Meeting Darren Holden today, you are struck by his sense of determination. He says it's a quality he was born with. After the undeveloped pop career -- and an unhappy time working in a Waterford record shop -- he landed a gig singing at a Riverdance production. He worked hard to get the job. That gave him an entry ticket to Broadway, world tours and personal happiness -- he met his Dublin wife, Michelle, on the set. The pair now have three children, two girls and a boy.

"You get used to life lived out of a suitcase," he says. "It can be hard when you are away from your children, but that's the price to pay in this business. You take the breaks when you get them."

He gets on well with Billy Joel. "When I went for the audition he was there and that was something that I wasn't expecting. But he has been hugely supportive of me from day one and that's a great feeling.

It's not every day that a boyhood hero plays on stage along side you. (Something that did happen on most Saturday-night performances in Manhattan)."

His performance in Movin' Out brought him to the attention of Jim Steinman, the US songwriter best known for his work with Meat Loaf.

"We worked on an album of Jim's own material during the latter stages of my work in the musical, but it got shelved due to Jim's ill-health. It's a shame -- we were working extremely well together."

Holden is up for The High Kings for now, but you sense that his original desire to be a star in his own right still burns brightly.

"Who knows what's around the corner? My motto is to live for the moment, which might sound very corny, but it's as good a way as any to appreciate what you have."

The High Kings play Dublin's Olympia tonight and every night through to Sunday

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