Irish men, like prophets, are rarely ever recognized in their hometown, but that’s not the case for the High Kings singer-songwriter Darren Holden. Recently Holden was invited to become an ambassador for his home county of Co. Kilkenny for The Gathering, a yearlong initiative to encourage tourists to visit Ireland.
“It’s quite an honor to be considered,” Holden, 40, tells the Irish Voice. “I was actually floored. I thought they were joking when I got the call, but I have to say I’m proud to take on the role of an ambassador and do it justice.”
Holden was invited to join the High Kings in 2007 after a decade making a name for himself in Riverdance and then scoring the coveted role as the lead piano man in the Billy Joel rock musical Movin' Out on Broadway.
Holden is encouraging the stable of talented musicians and performers he has become close to in his career to take time out to visit Kilkenny, with spectacular results. In March the High Kings performed in the county’s top theater on St. Patrick’s Day and musicians came from all over Ireland to perform in the local pubs and town streets, pulling in hundreds of visitors.
“Now we’re reaching out to performers, artists and emigrants who haven’t been back to Kilkenny in 40 or even 50 years,” says Holden.
“The incentive to come back is to meet their long lost relatives again and see how the country has changed. But the real draw is to celebrate their Celtic heritage. The amount of visitors we’ve had already in 2013 has been amazing.”
Next up on Holden’s busy schedule is the highly anticipated High Kings U.S. tour.
“We’re coming over to do some festivals in July. We’ll be at the Cleveland, Ohio Irish Festival in July. We’ll also be in Dublin, Ohio and we’ll be at the Milwaukee Irish Fest and Frankfurt in upstate New York.”
Throughout the new tour Holden will take time to inform concertgoers about The Gathering initiative.
“Anyone who wants to talk to me about it can do so, and hopefully I’ll set up a couple of talks while I’m at each festival. I just want to let anyone who might not have heard about it or checked it out online yet know what’s going on. I’ll even tell them about where and how to find an Aer Lings flight!”
There aren’t many people who can boast that they were hand picked by Billy Joel himself to perform his songs, but Holden can.
“Even now I still pinch myself. I’ll tell you the honest to God truth about that. I had heard about the auditions being a Billy Joel fan, but I was skeptical because I knew there had to be thousands trying out. I thought, what chance do I have?”
Holden showed up as the last person scheduled for the entire week.
“I was going in thinking, what have I got to lose? I’ll just sing a few songs. I did about five songs. Billy asked me to play ‘Just the Way You Are’ and ‘Movin’ Out’ and ‘Only the Good Die Young.’ These world famous songs. I didn’t even get a chance to be nervous.”
At the end of it Joel said thank you. Then he ran out into the corridor as Holden left and said he had the job if he wanted it. That sentence changed Holden’s life.
“It was really that brilliant,” he says.
Broadway fans, and they are legion, have often hoped he would take to the stage here again. Would it interest him?
“There’s no performer or singer who would ever turn down a chance to be on Broadway or the West End. I have a very deep love for both. If the right producer or director comes along who knows? Right now the High Kings are my top priority.”
The group has a new album scheduled to debut in Europe in September and in the U.S. in February 2014.
“That’s quite a big deal for us. There’s quite a lot of new material on it that I wrote myself,” Holden says.
“It’s our third studio album and this has 10 original songs. We sort of reached the crossroads in terms of singing older Irish ballads. We made our name on reenergizing them.
“But now we’re offering new songs in the vein of the older material. We think we’ve pulled it off, too. All I can is the next year is going to be absolutely huge for us, especially in America.”