Stepping into Ireland with Celtic Thunder
There are usually five singers, though sometimes a sixth does a guest spot or two. Their voices are most often featured one at a time, but they also get together to show off some harmonies. The musicians behind them are adept at both contemporary rock and traditional Irish instruments, which also describes the makeup of their songs.
Celtic Thunder is the Ireland-based brainchild of producer Sharon Browne, who co-founded the all-female group Celtic Woman in 2005, then started up this all-male counterpart in 2007. Amid much dramatic lighting, staging and choreography, Celtic Thunder offers up a show of new original songs, very old traditional songs, and a handful of off-beat cover tunes.
Founding member Keith Harkin recently spoke about the group, as well as his continuing solo career, by phone from Dublin, where they were rehearsing for their three-month North American tour.
Recalling his musical life before Celtic Thunder, Harkin, 26, said, "My first time singing onstage was in the Rialto, an old theater in Derry City (in northern Ireland), when I was 4. I was in a feis, which is an old Irish tradition of kids doing different songs, dances, poems, acting. They call it a competition, because there is a winner. But it’s not a competitive thing. It’s more like for kids to get experience onstage and get used to performing in front of crowds."
He took to it immediately, also absorbing music from his parents’ record collection: the Beatles, Neil Young, Glen Campbell, Tom Waits. And he kept on singing.
"It was never a task or a chore to me," he said. "I never felt I was under any pressure doing it. It was something I found really easy."
Harkin learned to accompany himself on guitar, then started writing songs and performing them – along with traditional music and covers including Tom Waits’ "The Heart of Saturday Night" and Peter Sarstedt’s "Where Do You Go to My Lovely." When he was 18 he caught the attention of producer Andy Wright (Simply Red, Eurythmics, Pavarotti), who brought him to London where he was shaped and molded for a year.
"The day I got back home from London, my dad and I were having a beer in a local bar," recalled Harkin. "And he showed me an ad in a newspaper for an audition."
It was an audition for Celtic Thunder, the group Sharon Browne was assembling by looking for men of different ages and musical talents.
"I did that audition when I was 20," said Harkin. "I don’t think Sharon was trying to get people who just fit together. She already had a rough idea of what she wanted. She kind of built the show around the five different artists. We’ve now done seven shows in total, and it just kind of developed the whole way through."
Members have come and gone in the group, but Harkin has been there from the start, being featured on his solo numbers, smoothly fitting in on the ensemble pieces.
"I love working with everyone in Celtic Thunder," he said. "We’re all really good friends, and are like brother and sister at this stage. But I never made no qualms or secrets about why I joined Celtic Thunder. The vision that I always had for myself was I’d do my own thing. The reason I joined was to get my music out there. From the very first show I did with them, I had original songs in the show. That’s developed, and now I have more songs. That’s a natural progression and that’s the way I’ve always seen it. Thankfully my plan kind of worked out so far."
Harkin is referring to the fact that he somehow mixes a solo career in with the almost nonstop touring of Celtic Thunder. His new self-titled album was just released on Verve ("It isn’t just for Celtic Thunder fans," he said. "It’s for a far wider audience."), and he’s planning a solo tour of the U.S. next spring.
But right now he’s concentrating on the group’s tour, which regularly plays to packed houses of self-proclaimed "Thunderheads," a term he’s grown to love.
"You know, you have your local fans at home, but you never really expect ... I still don’t get it, to this day," he said, when asked about the group’s diehard followers. "We’re all just normal guys, after all. Our fans go beyond the call of duty. Their support of the show is just crazy. It was insane the first time I heard the word ‘Thunderheads,’ and long may that last."
The payoff for those fans on the current tour is that instead of presenting new material, the group is doing what amounts to a "best of" show.
"We’ll be giving the fans their favorite songs," said Harkin, who then admitted that one of his best concert memories was when, three years ago, Celtic Thunder played a St. Patrick’s Day gig at the White House.
"It was crazy," he said, laughing. "We never expected to be in the White House, singing for President Obama and his wife and his kids and a whole load of local Irish politicians. I remember being there, about to meet the president, then turning around to [bandmate] Ryan Kelly, and saying, ‘How did we end up standing here?’ That was pretty cool."