Now I was well settled back in NYC, spending a lot of time with Jean Clancy who had been introduced to me by my friend and immigration lawyer, Barbara McCormick. We were part of the Irish brigade in Sunnyside. Youngish professionals with mad skills, some ambition and real expertise in socializing.
We would gather in various hostelries to discuss all things New York, having all moved to the US because we wanted to be part of it, not because he had to. Life in the sleepless city suited us. For sure, we belonged there. We were dynamic, resourceful, clever professionals who just happened to be Irish.
We were also very in touch with our origin and understood it’s place in North America.
Jean had worked with Sharon Browne in Ireland before the move to the US so Sharon knew just how skilled she was. Jean is the most accomplished woman I know. She is clever, witty and has business savvy, out the wazoo. She was, at the time a very successful sales person for various Irish products in the US. She thought and moved like a hurricane, stopping occasionally to eat in fine restaurants and drink wine with friends…mostly me.
Sharon had formed a girl band of some sort, is what she said. Celtic Woman was a new PBS special that had just rolled out and they would tour the US. I had read a little about it but hadn’t paid it much attention.
I had heard of this force of nature and indeed had sent my demos to her, years before that, as she was running a Celtic record company in Ireland at the time. Seems a world away now that an artist would need a record company. But anyways, I knew her and heard stories about her, with words like bull and china shop used to describe her.
Sharon needed to plant the name "Celtic Woman" with the American public even if no one in Ireland knew who they were, They had just made their mark on public television but that needed to be harnessed to build the brand. All these girls were gorgeous singers, pretty and accomplished artists but none of them had a presence in the recording world before Sharon got hold of them.
First thing to do was to convince Irish America.
Sharon saw Jean as the perfect person to reach out to every corner of that world and while she knew all the Celtic stores, she had no real connection to Irish music and radio here. I certainly had built contacts over the years and in our obsessive chats about the business, we realized we would be a force to be reckoned with. We decided that together we would be able to do this.
Honestly, in those first few weeks, we literally had no clue what we were doing but we knew that there was no one else out there who had this combination of skills to get the job done.
Over the following 2 years we were involved in building stories, setting up interviews, getting press for album releases and tour dates for the show. It was bloody hard work as frankly EMI/Manhattan were completely useless at the time and had no idea how to reach fans of Celtic music.
We would sit in Jean’s apartment surrounded by hundreds of envelopes, cds, dvds and Starbucks. Our days and nights for months, involved emailing radio stations, calling Irish societies, building profiles of the girls, sealing envelopes…..so many envelopes.
The poor girls in the show worked non-stop too for those first few years. Sharon brilliantly put together strategies to gain the hearts of Americans while either ignoring or rebuking record company executives trying to justify their jobs, publicists charging ridiculous amounts of money for doing feck all and dodgy promoters trying to scam her.
It worked. The show proved to be a huge success immediately. It connected with the PBS public with cd/dvd sales and more importantly, tickets. It was a joy to behold the vision she carried, become a reality.
Now there was some fighting behind the scenes. OK, there was a lot of fighting behind the scenes. There was too many cooks and in a very public fight, both Sharon and Celtic Woman went their separate ways. It was probably the best for both parties.
While there is another story out there, let me say, that as far as I am concerned, as a witness, Sharon Browne was the brains behind that operation. She built everything on her hunches. She was a force of nature.
I loved being a tiny part of it.
It was a learning curve to sit around the boardroom table in EMI, listening to executives spout complete and utter nonsense to justify their existence. It was soulless in there. We’d walk in, knowing any joy in our lives would be sucked out of us.
We’d leave miserable but laugh at the incompetence, over a glass of wine afterwards.
There always seemed to be a glass of wine afterwards.
It also gave me a healthy dose of reality. I knew that I had to stop submitting my own music to big record companies and I did. I had all the contacts in the world at that point but opted not to go down that road. I realized I had to do it myself. And I did.
Anyways, I have a platinum disc on my wall for my troubles. It was no trouble really. I loved it. I liked the girls in the show, I loved what David Downes did musically, I liked Sharon and I completely loved working with Jean.
A year or two passed and I was juggling everything as usual, going back and forth between gigs as a singer and producer in France and across the US. Happy to be working but earning little. Something had kicked in though. I had a new lease on life. I was building my profile and starting to produce shows internationally. I had found a level of self confidence.
In 2008, Jean and I met daily, as we lived down the road from each other in Long Island City. She didn’t realize it but she was a huge influence on my life at the time and still is. She gives me direction. I am inspired by her ambition and creativity. Her work ethic is matched by her concern for others. I like her hard edge and soft heart.
“Come over,” says she, one day, “I’ve something to play for you”. I never needed too much enticement for a coffee with Jean as we seemed to be able to solve the problems of the world over a Venti drip, so I popped over.
“Get in,” she says, “I’ve to drop a package off to a shop, upstate”.
Jean isn’t the kind of girl you can say no to, so I bowed and got in her loaded jeep.
Stocked with Claddagh rings, tweed scarves and leprechauns, we headed north.
The words “Sand to Arabs” come to mind.
Driving up through Astoria, she pops in this cd and says “listen to this”.
I hear this Donegal accent singing a song I hadn’t heard before. His voice sounded like a siren, in a good way. It sounded clear and shiny. I loved it. Gave me the shivers.
“We are off to a good start”, I thought.
The music continued. I heard and recognized Paul Byrom’s huge voice towering over a song. I had heard his first album back in Ireland and thought he had a future.
I then heard a young lad singing with a very definite talent but he completely destroyed Puppy Love. It went on. A raspy guy with charisma was up next, singing a newly written piece, which I thought was awful but I liked his raw style and lastly an older voice sounding like Jim Reeves which was soothing. I had mixed emotions.
Honestly, I wanted to love what I heard. I didn’t. I had known this was coming for months. I thought everyone was talented but I was disappointed by the arrangements and the lack of blend. It just sounded like five very different people. I didn’t get it but that is exactly what she wanted. Five characters. Anyways, I told Jean what I thought and we both laughed because it didn’t matter. We knew Sharon would do it again.
Back story; about a year before, I was on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean for a gig. Yes, I know. I have lived quite the life. I had heard about Sharon’s move to create a Celtic boy band á la Celtic Woman. I thought to myself that I was perfect for it. I sent off my spiel from that exotic locale to Sharon, thinking yeah, it is meant to be. I obviously didn’t think it through.
Sharon immediately said no, in a style she can only manage and I immediately realized she was right. She told me I wasn’t right for it and again she was right. She was looking for lads that would connect as a group. I would not have done that. I am nothing, if not individual. Still though, I thought.
We had a talk about her choices one Sunday afternoon over a glass of wine. She told me she was looking for a group of “straight lads” who hung out together and related not only to each other but to women. Now right after being breathlessly offended by the really brutal use of the word “straight”, I connected with what she said, although how she thought or thinks she can detect that in someone is a mystery.
Bottom of the line, is that I knew and know I simply would not fit in. I could never tow the line as a group member. No one will ever tell me what to sing. As a performer, I like to connect to an audience differently. Being part of a show would restrict me much like Riverdance did. I had tasted both ways as a performer and going back to sticking to a script would not be for me.
Now let me get back to that afternoon in Jean’s car.
I want to say again that while I did not think that first album was a musical masterpiece, I knew for sure it would be a runaway hit. I knew and I said it that day to Jean. I helped Jean roll it out but at that time my own career started to gain traction and I had to bow out of the behind the scenes operation.
Later that year Sharon sold 125,000 tickets on her first tour.
I am obsessed with the business. I watch closely how people build artists. No one I know is as good at this as Sharon Browne. Celtic Woman and Celtic Thunder artists, past and present can thank their lucky stars that Sharon picked them to be part of her shows. She has single handedly changed their lives.
All of them grow as artists. I've gotten to know some of them well. Ryan and Keith would became bona fide stars. I've watched them develop their craft in and outside of the show. They have navigated through what can be a messy ocean to create truly great careers using what Sharon provided. Very few people can do that.
Sharon has learned too. She has developed their musical style to something way more sophisticated. Bringing on David Munro was genius. He has, in my opinion, transformed the show.
Yes, I am an out and proud fan of the woman. She may not be the delicate flower that people want her to be, but by God, she gets things done. I’ve learned a lot from her over the years. She surrounds herself with the best in the business and has the highest of expectations. She makes me raise my bar.
We will never work closely together again and that is probably for the best. I am way too sensitive for that world. I lead with my feelings, which is my greatest asset and sometimes my biggest downfall. I will always however, watch what she is working on closely and will for sure learn from her.
I hope you enjoyed the snippet form the book. Pre-order using the links in the post below.