Matthew Gilsenan

Talented tenor trio poised for national tour

The Celtic Tenors, from left Matthew Gilsenan, from Meath, Daryl Simpson, from Omagh and James Nelson, from Sligo.

The Celtic Tenors, from left Matthew Gilsenan, from Meath, Daryl Simpson, from Omagh and James Nelson, from Sligo.

A little more than a year after their first extensive tour of Australia The Celtic Tenors are headed back down under.

The Celtic Tenors are one of Ireland’s most popular classical crossover acts. They have been performing together for almost two decades and have sold more than a million albums worldwide.

Australia is relatively new territory for the trio, although they have toured here with Celtic Woman. They are well established in the US and Canada.

“We’re a little bit late to the party [in Australia],” Matthew Gilsenan tells The Irish Echo. “We’ve been together as a group for 20 years but last year was the first time we did anything meaningful in Australia. We love it.

“There’s so many Irish, half the country lives in Australia at the moment. We can’t wait to get back.

Gilsenan acknowledges that the genre is crowded but points to the longevity of their success as validation of their appeal.

“There’s lots and lots of tenor groups out there and we’ve been around longer than any of them but we’ve kept the head down and kept it small. We didn’t have the resources to go as far as Australia early on.

“The fact that we managed to survive this long and still be productive is great. We’ve just finished our ninth studio album.”

The Celtic Tenors combine classical with pop and perform Irish classics but, as Gilsenan explains, the combination is unique.

“It’s not quite what it says on the tin. We’re called the Celtic Tenors but about 10 years in we said, ‘We should have called ourselves something else’. We don’t do too much of the tenoring. Yes, we do Nessun Dorma and we do the big belter operatic things but only a bit. We’re very proud of our great Irish songwriters, from Declan O’Rourke to Phil Coulter, to Kodaline and the Script. A good song is a good song and that’s what we come to sing.”

On this tour they will perform The Irish Songbook that will include Song For Ireland, Danny Boy, You Raise Me Up and more favourites.

This is also very much the flavour of their forthcoming album: “It’s kind of the album we should have made the very first time out with songs like I’ll Tell Me Ma, Carrickfergus, The Parting Glass and The Rocky Road to Dublin. Many of these songs we’ve kind of avoided because everyone has done them and if we were going to be giving them a go at all, we would want to get fairly good at what we’re doing.

“I think 20 years in we’re beginning to feel almost like it’s a coming of age and have enough maturity to make musical calls.”

The Celtic Tenoes have performed for everyone from Bill Clinton to Bono.

The Celtic Tenoes have performed for everyone from Bill Clinton to Bono.

Gilsenan, from Meath, and James Nelson, from Sligo, have been members of The Celtic Tenors since the start. The third member, Daryl Simpson, from Omagh, replaced Niall Morris in 2006.

The Meathman believes the fact that they are not locked into one setlist keeps it interesting for them as performers and entertaining for their audiences.

“Because we haven’t written our own music so much, we tend to cycle through songs that we think are great songs. And the ones that are truly great songs are the ones that feel like we’re doing them for the first time every night and we still enjoy them,” he says.

“It’s a huge plus for us as performers. If you’re performing something that you’re sick of doing it’s going to come across. We never do anything we don’t like. That’s what surprises: the content of the show, the craic that we have. It’s a non-scripted show. We’re kind of ordinary fellas.

“We’re not overly classical, we’re not overly Irishy, it’s just a good night of quality music. We don’t take ourselves seriously at all.”

Playing to expat audiences is always rewarding, Gilsenan says, and the degrees of separation with home are always few in number.

“An old man came to one of our shows a few years back,” he recalls.

“He said, ‘I noticed your name was Gilsenan. Did you ever hear of a man called Matt Gilsenan from Meath, the football player? That’s why I came, I recognised your name’. My grandfather was Matt Gilsenan. He was the captain of the Leinster football team in 1939 and they won the Railway Cup. He said, ‘I played with your grandfather in 1942’. And I said, ‘My God, that’s amazing’. He said, ‘Well, I left in 1945 and I never came home’.

“He wrote a little note to my grandfather who was the absolute definition of a hard man. But he was really, really gobsmacked when he got this. It’s quite emotional the stories that you come across, it’s unreal.”

What does Gilsenan consider the best compliment the group has been paid in 20 years?

“I remember we sang for Bill Clinton at an event in Dublin Castle. It was marking the fact that the Good Friday Agreement seemed to have stuck, so we were singing for Bill Clinton; Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach at the time, so he was there. Bono and Bob Geldof were there; President [Mary] Robinson and all these people.

“Three days later, we get a phone call from Bono’s office to ask if we would sing at a private birthday party for him so he obviously thought our version of Danny Boy was good enough. He asked us to sing five or six songs as a birthday gift for [the late Secretary General of the United Nations] Kofi Annan’s wife. He was a lovely man and his wife was even nicer.”

Part of the fun of performing is to reconnect with audiences and, Gilsenan says the trio treat their fans as friends.

“Young pop groups have fans; we tend to treat them more like friends. We don’t separate ourselves too much. At the end of a show, we’re there signing CDs, shaking hands and saying hi and you end up knowing so many of them.”

The Celtic Tenors return to Australia in May and June for a national tour. For more information, go to www.celtic-tenors.com