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Celtic Woman – Quartet Brings Out Their Sounds for A Seasonal Celebration

Updated: Mar 14, 2020

Celtic Woman

Celtic Woman

Quartet Brings Their Sounds for A Seasonal Celebration

by Brad Balfour

If any group has become synonymous with popular music from Ireland, it’s Celtic Woman. Though named in the singular, this quartet has been commanding stages internationally for nearly last two decades. Once again, they are coming to the tri-state area on the heels of St. Patrick’s Day to perform, recreating their recently released Celtic Woman: Homecoming Live from Ireland, their 12th album, just released in 2018 which documents the live show.

In order to better anticipate both the album and the upcoming show, soprano Tara McNeill (TAR-a) who is not only a singer but also violinist and harpist, put in a call to address the tour, album and her role in the group.

She explains, “This is the first live album I’ve done with Celtic Woman. There were lots of rehearsals, a lot of preparation. It was kind of scary, because what you play, that’s what’s going on the album. There was the added pressure of it being a home show. I had a lot of friends and family in the audience and as wonderful as that is, it’s extra pressure on you as well. You can hear the extra adrenalin on the album.”

As to the choice of songs on the recording, she delineates, “We couldn’t have a show without ‘Danny Boy,’ even if it’s just the melody without the words. We all grew up listening to that song, which was with Celtic Woman from the very beginning. It’s a very special moment any night when we play it, because the song is very stripped back. We don’t have any band [in the background] or anything, it’s just us. Another one is ‘You Raise Me Up,’ we can’t have a Celtic Woman show without that. It always touches people’s hearts. One more that’s always there is ‘Amazing Grace,’ because that’s a real crowd pleaser whenever the bagpipes come out.”

However, they don’t just rely on the standards.

“On the live album we have some new songs to take Celtic Woman into a new era. One of my songs is ‘For the Love of a Princess.’ It’s such a beautiful melody, with classical elements. It’s my favorite moment in the show. We also have other group numbers like ‘Walk Beside Me.’ I love its lyrics because it says we were born to lead, not to follow, and that represents Celtic Woman. There’s the four of us and we each have our own talents and strengths which we bring to the group. Musical theater, classical, folk, traditional. What other show do you get four types of music together?”

And of course, they pay tribute to their homeland’s classics in the island’s other native tongue.

“We also have songs in the show in our own Irish language. It wouldn’t be Celtic Woman without it. Éabha [McMahon] is completely fluent in Gaelic. It was her first language. We have songs in Irish and then with English lyrics. We like to have a balance of both.”

The all-female team was a creation of David Kavanagh, Sharon Browne and David Downes – a former musical director of Riverdance, the Irish-inspired variety stage show. In 2004, he recruited five Irish female singers (and musicians) who had not previously performed together. Though not organically generated, they established a sympatico connection between themselves so effectively that they merged into a multi-instrumental, richly layered choral group, with the Irish music experience as the essential glue that bonds them.

Part of their success is also the sense of intimacy in their shows, which has been well captured through PBS broadcasts of their performances. That continues to be a big part of the Celtic Woman experience. Explains the fiery-haired performer, “All of these things really added to our exposure in the U.S. Our TV specials are played frequently where we share interviews and fan meet & greets.”

Born on July 27th, this Antrim, Northern Ireland, native comes from musically inclined parents who shared their enhancements with her and her siblings, who all play instruments. At primary school, McNeill began singing. By age seven, she was playing piano and violin. With this strong musical background, she graduated with top honors from the Royal Irish Academy of Music. McNeill toured with Anuna, the Irish choral ensemble, from 2010 to 2014, as both a violinist and singer. She also was part of the Irish premiere of Finzi’s “Violin Concerto” in the National Concert Hall, Dublin, Ireland.

Celtic Woman

But in August 2016, McNeill became the latest Celtic Woman member, replacing founding violinist Mairead Nesbitt. In doing so, she joined Mairead Carlin as the only two principal Celtic Woman performers from Northern Ireland. Her first official presence on a recording was Celtic Woman: Voices of Angels, which was the first Celtic Woman album to appear on the Billboard’s Classical Albums chart where it hit number one and debuted at number one on the World Albums chart as well.

As McNeill notes, “The album is the most classical of all Celtic Woman’s, so we wanted songs that would show off our 72-piece orchestra and the amazing arrangements by Gavin Murphy, our wonderful musical director. He’d have some sheet music for us or MP3s to listen to, then we’d take them and make them our own. I would add my own style of playing and we all put our own stamp on everything.

“I definitely did orchestral stuff before Celtic Woman but I also did solo and traditional stuff. Celtic Woman is just on a bigger scale than what I did before. We all have our solo moments, but we all share the role so it’s a lot less pressure. We each have our moments.”

She reflects on her experience being in the group. “It was definitely a dream of mine before I joined Celtic Woman, to become part of something like this group. But I’d never have imagined how amazing it would be touring to so many audiences in so many cities every night.”

Since 2005, Celtic Woman has performed in 23 countries and is making several stops during March, in New York and the tri-state as part of the latest North American tour. Dates are listed here:

It has now been more than seven years since the current version of Celtic Woman with McNeill emerged, which now also includes vocalists Susan McFadden, Máiread Carlin, and Éabha McMahon. Celtic Woman has amassed a global fan base, but their most devoted fans seem to be in the United States.

As she recalls, “We tour here nearly half a year every year, because we have so many loyal fans in The States coming to shows. The USA was the first to take Celtic Woman under its wing.”

McNeill received some advice from the veteran members when she opted in.

“[Original members] Meav [Ní Mhaolchatha] and Máiréad were encouraging and supportive from the start; there was no awkward transition and we have a little card stuck up on our bus from Meav saying, ‘Love your life, every minute of it.’ It’s important for us to take a moment to be grateful and remember how wonderful it is to be doing this.”

When Destiny was nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music Album category, it was the first time Celtic Woman had been so recognized. “I was still very new to the group so with the Grammy nomination thrown in it was a real whirlwind. We were all buzzing as it was a first for the group.”

Celtic Woman has become a powerful role model for girls and women worldwide. McNeill cites an example she has cited before: “A little girl made a drawing of me and gave it to a security guard. I have proudly put it up in my tour bus bunk. When she gave it to the guard she said she thought Celtic Woman were princesses.

“A few women and girls have told us that our music has really helped them through dark times. We feel a responsibility in Celtic Woman because we are role models to young women and men that follow us on social media. We want to be strong and independent and also good people. We’re proud of how Ireland is developing, and we hope it becomes even more progressive. We’re proud of being an all-female group and there are not many all-female groups in Ireland.”

To make that point, she explains in her lilting brogue, “When we look into the audience, we do see a lot of older members, but we do have a lot of young people coming to the shows as well, which is incredible. Celtic Woman isn’t for a certain age group, it’s for everyone. We see 90-year-olds in the audience and we see four-year-olds who get up and dance.”

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: March 10, 2018.

Photos © 2018. Courtesy of Celtic Woman. All rights reserved.

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