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Home is where the heart is for the Celtic Tenors

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The Celtic Tenors
I’m just back from a trip over the pond to the homeland and I can report that the Celtic Tenors new disc, Feels Like Home, was great company on the trip!

This 13-song CD celebrates the uplifting music of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, while borrowing a few songs from other cultures along the way. The feeling of getting touch with your roots was something important to the group in light of Ireland’s tough economic spot, according to tenor James Nelson.

“It is land of 100,000 welcomes, yet there is a lot of press about how our country is run by thieves and bankers,” he says.

“I am reading a book about the subject now called Snouts in a Trough. It turns your stomach, the level of corruption in government. We decided to do something positive and make the album warm in these times. We were blessed to be able to work with the RTE Orchestra and put fellow Irish musicians to work. It was an extraordinary experience!”

The Celtic Tenors are a three-man vocal group that includes Nelson, Matthew Gilsenan and Daryl Simpson. The trio has been working together since 2000, and the easiness between them is evident in the warmth of the songs.

The CD opens with “Going Home,” a poignant ballad written by American folk singer-songwriter Mary Fahl. “They say there’s a place where dreams have all gone/they never say where but I think I know/it’s miles through the night just over the door/on the road that takes me home,” the trio sings, a tip to the economic troubles before reassuring the listener on the chorus that “love waits for me around the bend and sorrows will come to an end.”

“Red Haired Mary” is one of those sassy songs that call to mind Maureen O’Hara’s Quiet Man performance. “Silent Sunlight” is a beautiful piano-based song by Yusef Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens. “When the heart is young and the night is done and the sky is blue/morning songbirds sing away/lend a tune to another day,” is a sample of the optimistic lyrics.

“We just happened to come across him in a studio in London a while back,” says Nelson. “We sang a traditional song in our native tongue for him.

“He loved our harmonies and suggested this gem of a song to us. We fell in love with it immediately. There was something very positive about it.

“We were looking for a theme for the new album,” Nelson reasons. “It just kind of happened by itself. In almost every one of the songs on this record, you’ll find a very positive and hopeful message. It’s even in the way that we sing.

“You have people from three very different and distinct cultures singing in harmony. It makes for a very positive image and a very powerful musical statement.”

The Celtic Tenors conjure up images of Ireland on this, their greatest CD to date, but they have an eye on their adopted American home as well. The rousing title track comes from the canon of Randy Newman.

“It works on many levels,” says Nelson. “We were drawn by the resonance of home and its place in our own loves. We spend a lot of time on the road, touring the world, and singing this song just seems to bring home just a little closer.”

Fair play to The Celtic Tenors for including an emotional rendition of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day.” This legendary songwriter from Fairport Convention is the quintessential Celtic folkie, yet his melody making talents are criminally underrated at times.

The group will be travelling around the world to support Feels Like Home. Nelson is excited to bring the album into the Cathedral of Sligo, where he first began singing.

“We go to the Middle East and then we start in Connecticut next month and will be there until Christmas. We are hoping to go to China at some point, so these are exciting times for us!”

I spoke with Nelson about the album and band dynamic. Here’s how it went.

How did you guys get together, and how did you arrive at your sound?
We’re all classically trained. We met at a Strauss opera. We were all steeped in that.
When EMI first heard us, they encouraged us to do more than the Celtic nations and further afield as well. The first album had songs from our homeland.

Because we do most of our work in the U.S. and Canada we included songs by Randy Newman, who wrote the title track. Three-quarters of our show is Celtic, with the rest deviating.

So, a record buyer is standing in a shop and is staring at album covers of yours, the Irish Tenors and the Three Tenors. What would you tell the buyer about why you are different?
We were inspired by the Three Tenors, to be sure. We did want to do a similar thing.
That said, our emphasis is on harmony. The big Three Tenors would have harmonized occasionally, but there is more emphasis on the solo performances. They also do a full symphony orchestra.
We mix it up. We do harmonies and sometimes we do symphonies. Often times, we do a capella three part harmonies and some shows are just us with a piano. I think we’d be bored if we were just belting out opera tunes. We just love creating harmonies.

Two of us are also musicians. I play church organ.

Some groups are friendly and some are not, with the uncomfortable space being a source of creative tension. How would you describe your dynamic?
We often say it is a democracy, but we are more like brothers. I was best man when Matthew got married. I am told I am passive aggressive. I think Matthew invented it (laughs).

I wanted to use “The Valley” made famous by k.d. lang. It was a big disappointment and it is an example of the many disappointments between all of us. We don’t always get our way but that is a democracy.

We haven’t agreed all along but in this one, we think we did our best ever and that could be because we agree.

What can someone who never saw Celtic Tenors live expect from a show?
What we try always to do is mix it up for the audience. We will do an Irish song and then throw a curveball like Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally” or an Air Supply song. We just sing songs we like and the audience seems to like it.

The house is on fire and you have to save your favorite CD in the house. What’s in your hand?
Jussy Bjoerling is a Swedish tenor --Pavarotti’s favorite. I just love his voice. There is a definitive collection of his that I would rush in to get.

Friends are coming over for dinner and you have to hide your most embarrassing CD. What’s in your hand?
ABBA Gold.

I love ABBA!
I know, so do I. The other lads tease me about it.

It’s interesting how a song takes on new meaning in a different circumstance, and one recent instance made me fall in love with ABBA all over again.

I do work with AIDS orphans. Last time I was in Kenya I heard the kids singing “Bare Necessities,” the Disney song. It has a whole new meaning in a Nairobi slum. They then sang “I Have a Dream” by ABBA and it gives you chills.

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