These last few years have been a wild ride upward for legendary composer Phil Coulter. As musical director and co-creator of the wildly popular Celtic Thunder production, Coulter has had to feed the beast of that show with six new albums in the last four years.
His new album, Heartland: The Composer’s Salute to Celtic Thunder, is a retrospective of his best work with the show.
“The Celtic Thunder Storm album is number one on the Amazon charts and my album is number two and neither one of them come out until next week, so that’s a really good feeling,” says the 69-year-old composer.
The orchestral flourishes of Heartland are a study in pristine production and vibe creation. “Remember Me,” a flamenco guitar-based romantic song from the show, is transformed into a triumphant piano melody couched with regal strings and horns.
James McCarthy’s “Ride On,” a song made famous by Christy Moore, is slowed down to allow for the mournful notes of the woodwinds that add a new dimension to the melody.
The chill-out with warm flourishes is what Coulter does best and his imprint on Irish music (howya, Enya?) is still felt today. To listen to Heartland: The Composer’s Salute to Celtic Thunder is to listen to a true master at work. ----------------- READ MORE:
“We had what I would say a parting of the ways,” Coulter says tentatively and diplomatically. “I don’t want to wade too far into the bad blood here. Let’s just say I have a new-found sympathy for the co-producers of Celtic Woman, who forced her out.”
When pressed, he offers this.
“We had an arrangement going into this that she would worry about the business side of things, dealing with PBS and all of that, and I would handle the musical direction, choose the characters, write the arrangements and the artistic elements. It started out that way but soon those lines crossed. And here we are now, parting ways.”
Coulter gives an example of Browne’s decision to film That’s Entertainment and Heritage at the same time on a Canadian soundstage, putting the producer in the unenviable position of stretching things too thin for his performers.
“I was talked into the That’s Entertainment thing, to be honest,” he says. “Some people thought that the Broadway aspect of the show is what middle America wanted, but I thought we went too far from our Irish roots with that show. I was glad to come back to those roots on Heritage.”
Though it might have ended on a sour note, Coulter is intensely proud of Celtic Thunder. “We created five stars who were nobodies before the show stated,” he boasts. “We introduced great Irish songwriters like Paul Brady to the American audience, and I got to reinvent my own back catalogue, which was fun. And now we even conquered Glee!”
Coulter refers to Celtic Thunder’s youngest member, Damian McGinty, who won the televised audition process of The Glee Project that put him into a starring role on the top rated show.
“It’s brilliant for Damian,” Coulter says proudly. “I just Skyped him last night. He calls me Uncle Phil and he was saying, ‘Uncle Phil! I just did my first day of shooting on Glee and I loved it!’ He told me the rigorous pace of our show helped him get even tougher for Glee, which was great to hear.”
Coulter recalls how an old friend from Derry slipped the audition tape of his young neighbor McGinty under his studio door with a note of apology for imposing.
“I thought it would be s**t,” Coulter recalls with a laugh. “If I was in a grumpy mood, it might have been in a bin. But my friend Jim was organized and I knew he would follow-up.
“Within five minutes of hearing it I was talking to Damian’s dad. I said, ‘I am gonna work with this kid and I don’t know how yet. Keep him on ice, no talent shows for him, and I will be in touch.’
It was six months later that Celtic Thunder came together and I knew I had my first guy.” Coulter reports that McGinty comes from good stock.
“His da used to call from the road, and I would assure him his son was singing well,” he recalls. The da would say, ‘I know he can sing, how’s he behaving himself? He’s not getting a big head about this, is he?’ So typical Irish.”
With all the drama around Celtic Thunder, I chide Coulter to explain the lyrics to “Life in the Old Dog Yet,” a track from the new Storm release.
In it, he writes, “I’m not ready to roll over/I’m still the daddy of them all/I’m older and wiser and they better not forget/I’m not ready to roll over/‘cos there’s life in the old dog yet.”
“Well, I wrote that before things went south,” he says with a laugh. “But there’s truth to what you say. I am not going to be an observer of my own life.
“When the wheels came off the bus I went straight into another project. I went from the orchestral album to a project I’m working on that will be on PBS next year. It’s a different concept from Celtic Thunder but obviously, fans that liked that concept should love this.
“It will film in Ireland by the end of the year, and there’s a lot of stuff to get together. I can’t tell the readers much about it now but I’ll keep you posted.”
Coulter has worked with everyone from Tom Jones to the Bay City Rollers to Sinead O’Connor, but he is super-thrilled to be working with Mary Byrne, the Dublin unknown who wowed Simon Cowell’s X Factor U.K. program with her read of Tom Jones’ “I Who Have Nothing.”
“She’s from Dublin, a checkout lady at a supermarket who used to sing in the pub on the weekend,” Coulter explains. “We’re talking about some songs and concepts of who her album might go. I just love her story, a real belter. Against all odds, she battled to the end. A really tough life, on the bread line and all of that.”
Like Susan Boyle, Byrne has been an inspiration to working class middle-agers with unfulfilled dreams. Unlike Boyle, Byrne has a tinge of the blues and a steel backbone to match. Rock on, girl!
Coulter knows the reality show competition space all to well. He has had his turn in the chair as judge for Ireland’s program You’re a Star.
“I sat on the panel with Louis Walsh and it was a mixed experience,” he explains. “On the good side, someone like Mary Byrne wouldn’t get a shot.
“On the downside, it gives kids entitlement that they should be famous. They want to be famous, there’s no desire to sing for the art of it all in some of these kids. Celebrity is a new religion and that worries me.”
The Renaissance man and father of nine has managed to write, produce or record chart-topping songs in every decade since the 1960s and, as you can see, he has no intention of stopping now.
“I still LOVE creating music,” he says. “I turn up for work every Monday morning. This is my job. Ten years from now I hope to be talking about my latest project and current hit!" From your lips to God’s ears, Mr. Coulter!
(Shanachie Entertainment released Heartland, on Tuesday, September 20. For more information, log onto www.philcoulter.com.)