Pure Joy - An interview with James Nelson (2015))
Perfect Harmony - An interview with James Nelson (February 2012)
The Celtic Tenors - A Wee Review, Rosemary's style (2012)
Links - To more information, formal biographies, web sites, recordings and videos
An interview article with James Nelson of The Celtic Tenors
By Rosemary Phillips, 2015
Fabulous! Wonderful! Excellent! Phenomenal! Refreshing! Uplifting! Funny! Personable! They really connected with the audience! They were so good we didn’t want them to leave! - And so say hundreds of reviewers (on Ticketmaster) for the Celtic Tenors (Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson) and their recent block-buster tour with Celtic Woman through Australia and across the United States.
The phone rang promptly at 9 a.m., right on schedule, and there was James Nelson, founding member of the Celtic Tenors (1995), taking time to casually chat, in his gentle Irish brogue, about the group’s latest adventures and upcoming return to the Port Theatre in Nanaimo on Friday, November 20. It was like talking with an old friend, catching up on all the latest news since our interview of 2012.
Over the phone the excitement in James’ voice was noticeable. “Tomorrow we sing in Lafayette. We have never performed in Louisiana before. Now we can claim to having sung in 48 states in the US. At the moment I’m sitting looking over the skyline of New Orleans. Last night we went to listen to music. Today we’ll be going to Bourbon Street in the Old French Quarter for lunch, and tonight we are joining members of Celtic Woman at a Halloween Party – a completely alien concept to me. We’ve even got costumes!”
What a year: For the Celtic Tenors, 2015 has been extraordinary, as they travelled the world with their own show, released their latest recording, then joined Celtic Woman on tour. “It seemed like an ideal situation,” continued James. “It’s a bit different for us to be an opening act for others. Years ago we opened for Dionne Warwick and Air Supply, so it’s been a while. We have half an hour and feature some of the songs from our album Timeless, and finish with Nessun Dorma. Then, at the close of the show we join Celtic Woman for The Parting Glass, in seven-part harmony. It’s a rousing end.”
When they (Celtic Tenors and Celtic Woman) sang together at the end of the show, the entire crowd was spellbound. – Ticketmaster Review
Doing what they love – in harmony: Matthew, James and Daryl, all classically trained, Celtic crossover tenors, undoubtedly Ireland’s finest, love to sing – in harmony. And have fun! “We sing the big tenor numbers, but we also do songs from our homeland, and other Celtic countries and a bit of pop music,” said James who does most of the harmony arrangements. “We present a complete mix of everything... and some in our own language.”
|The Celtic Tenors
Photo by Barry McCall
New record label: “Last year we signed on with Decca Records Australia through Universal Music. It’s the second signing with a major label in our careers. This year we released Timeless. It’s a very harmony-led album. The first song is Calypso by John Denver. The record company suggested it and we are really glad they did. We love it. It’s such a feel-good song. There are also songs by Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan, songs we grew up with. One favourite is In My Daughter’s Eyes. It’s just the most perfect song about anyone who has a child. We are doing it every night on this tour, and the audience loves it.”
The highlight for me was hearing them (Celtic Tenors) sing “In My Daughter’s Eyes” – beautiful. – Ticketmaster Review
“We also have a new Christmas album. We weren’t singing Christmas songs for the Celtic Woman tour, but the Christmas CDs were the biggest seller - they sold like mad!”
Now with 12 recordings and two PBS specials under their belts and over a million albums in sales (three platinums) these world-class tenors have, over the years, reached No. 1 Chart positions in Ireland and Germany, No. 2 in the UK, the top ten in US Billboard and Canadian charts and most recently charted No. 4 in Australia.
Much more than music: There’s so much more to the Celtic Tenors than concerts. Matthew is raising a family, with three children, and Daryl has now become a parent. Daryl continues his work with the Omagh Community Youth Choir, bringing young people together to promote peace and reconciliation through music. Meanwhile, James carries on with his project in Kenya. “I help raise funds for housing for children orphaned by AIDS. Besides being part of the building team I also teach music and do solo performances with the children. Many of those children are now in university. Two have received their diplomas as chefs, and others as primary school teachers and nurses. It’s lovely to see this with the children we have known. And a few of our tours have been linked to the Mercy Ships project out of Vancouver. It’s so nice to be doing something for others.”
Facing life: In addition, James, like many, has an ailing aged parent. “My dad has Lewy Body dementia. He’s gone through some awful phases. He was so incredibly fit until recently but is deteriorating. It’s so hard.”
Courageously living his truth: “I have always been very private about my life, but once the same-sex marriage referendum was passed in Ireland in May of this year, I was asked to tell my story. I was raised in a different era. I had been living a lie and tried to hide it for decades. The funny thing is that I came out to my close friends and colleagues 25 years ago, yet one or two of my close friends never knew. As a writer (Nelson’s Column for the Sligo Weekender) I already had the story in my head, so I wrote it and had it published. It was like therapy, and a release. I thought I would have a few negative responses - I was ready for that. But there were none. Not one negative. The response from people in letters, in e-mails and on Facebook, has been amazing. When we are on tour, radio stations have often asked, ‘Are you married?’ This year, in Australia, we did an interview with their main gay radio station. It was wonderful to just be myself.”
Returning to Nanaimo: “After a quick trip back home to Ireland we tour Canada and the US in November and December with our own show. And joining us on stage at the Port Theatre will be Colm Henry, our music director and pianist. All of us just love Vancouver Island.”
Painting the Irish landscape: Three tenors – one voice – like painting the Irish landscape in song – and evoking the very soul of the Emerald Isle - Matthew, James and Daryl will whisk the audience away into a world of pure joy and perfect harmony in a concert sure to please every palate. I know – I’ve seen them perform - LIVE!
An interview article with James Nelson of The Celtic Tenors
By Rosemary Phillips, 2012
INTRO 2012: This interview article with The Celtic Tenors, the most successful classical crossover artists ever to emerge from Ireland, was originally written in preparation for their concert at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo, British Columbia, on Thursday, March 22; a fundraiser for the The Vancouver Island Symphony. I was unable to attend the concert in Nanaimo but I did see the one in Cranbrook, BC on Tuesday, March 27, and have written a Wee Review that follows.
|The Celtic Tenors
Matthew Gilsenen, Daryl Simpson, James Nelson
Put together three brilliant tenor voices with natural Irish brogue, singing spine-tingling classical, folk, Irish, Gaelic and pop favourites in stacked three-part harmonies, then mix them up with quick witted banter and you have The Celtic Tenors. The charismatic, globe-trotting Celtic Tenors bring with them a bit of Ireland as they take to the Port Theatre stage with their uplifting show, on Thursday, March 22, and help Vancouver Island celebrate St. Patrick and everything Irish - in perfect harmony!
Meanwhile, on a Thursday in February, James Nelson, a member of The Celtic Tenors since 1995, was caught for a chat between sound checks for a sold-out charity concert in a church outside Dublin. “It’s a rare thing for me to sing solo, but I happened to be free tonight. On Saturday we are all performing for a concert in my late mother’s birthplace. She came from County Down in Northern Ireland and my father from the south. When they married there was harmony. And it was my mother taught me about harmony in music and singing. She was my biggest inspiration.”
Working and singing together in harmony
And what harmony! Three classically-trained Irish tenor voices, Matthew Gilsenan (the more pop style), James (the more operatic), and Daryl Simpson (the go-to-guy for the high notes), melding together not just in their music but in their relationship with each other and with the audience – all with rollicking good humour. They have recorded eight albums, performed around the world, been seen on TV (including a PBS special) across the USA, Canada and Europe, and sung for world leaders, while pioneering a new style of ‘cool’ never before seen as they continue to break the traditional tenor mould.
“It has been said that the Celtic Tenors do to Irish tenor singing what River Dance has done to Irish dance – bringing it to the 21st Century. We were the first cross-over tenor act from Ireland and the only one that’s still together. We put that down to the fact that we were created not by a TV program or for fame but because we love music – and harmony.”
James, an ABBA and Meatloaf fan, is a lover of choral music. “I do most of the vocal arrangements and the others tweak around the notes. In Nanaimo we will be performing songs from our new album ‘Feels Like Home’, tenor standards like Nessum Dorma and Celtic Tenor favourites like Going Home, Remember Me, Red-Haired Mary, Westering Home, Danny Boy and many others.”
At this time in their career ‘home’ is where the heart is, on the road. “I bought my house in 2004 and I’ve been there only five months.” But being on the road is not just about concert touring. “When we aren’t singing we are busy with other commitments, like recordings, filming ‘Songs of Praise’ for BBC and last week a Titanic special singing Remember Me in the building in Belfast where the Titanic was designed.”
Harmony for Humanity
And the Celtic Tenors believe in harmony for humanity. “Years ago we wouldn’t have been on stage together. I’m Southern Irish Protestant from Sligo, Daryl is from Omagh in Northern Ireland, and Matthew is an Irish Catholic from County Meath. We each have different interests. Daryl set up the Omagh Community Youth Choir after the biggest single bombing atrocity in Northern Ireland, bringing Catholics and Protestants to sing together, promoting peace through music.”
James has his own project. “I’ve been going to Kenya once or twice a year to help raise funds for housing for children orphaned by AIDS. Aside from being part of the building team, building schools and accommodation, I teach music and do solo performances with the children but at the end of a verse I always look to the side for Daryl and Matthew. I’ve also done a CD with the children, some of whom have been child prostitutes or victims of machete massacres and are now going to high school and university. It’s humbling in the extreme.
“This has taught me to re-evaluate lyrics, like Bare Necessities. The song takes on whole new meaning. And Top of the World by the Carpenters. When asking the children why they are on top of the world, they reply, ‘I’m alive.’ Some of the children singAmazing Grace with their eyes closed. I get very emotional and have to leave the room – and cry. Lyrics are very important to me – every song has hidden meaning.”
The love of singing
James then spoke of his own childhood and love of singing. “At the age of three I sang a solo in a church. I cracked on a high note and got cold feet for singing. Instead I learned piano. Then while singing in a school choir a music teacher told me I was too loud. That also gave me a bad feeling. But by age 14, I started singing again, and later while studying for my bachelor degree in music I was asked to take a lead role in a rock opera. I was told I had a good voice but needed lessons. I went to a summer singing school in London, took private lessons from some incredible music teachers, and began an opera career in London. Eight years later in 1995 I was invited to do a one-off tribute concert to the Three Tenors as a member of the Three Irish Tenors. In 1999 we were asked to do 130 shows in Dublin (incredible for building stamina). Someone from EMI saw us and after an audition, EMI signed us up in 2000 for a record deal. It was then we became the Celtic Tenors.”
The Celtic Tenors
A Wee Review - Rosemary's Style - 2012
What an incredible experience - one I will not forget! I had the opportunity to travel to Cranbrook, in British Columbia, to catch The Celtic Tenors in action. Avalanche control on the Kootenay Pass (Salmo-Creston Summit) was over by early morning but the fresh snow and slush made driving slow and careful. I’m not the best winter driver, so I was immensely relieved to arrive in Cranbrook safely, check into the Elizabeth Lake Lodge, make supper and prepare for the concert.
|The Celtic Tenors
Daryl Simpson, Matthew Gilsenen, James Nelson
The Key Theatre was bursting with an excited and boisterous audience. The stage was set simply; three microphones, the grand piano, and a guitar. Silence, then introductions, and first on stage came musical director and pianist Colm Rogan, followed by Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson. They presented a brilliant and entertaining program that featured popular and classical tunes interspersed with Celtic songs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Classically trained voices, each distinctly different and unique when highlighted individually, blended together in perfect harmony and with such feeling. (I didn't take my note pad so I don't remember the titles of all the songs - besides, I was having too much of a good time and wasn't thinking of details!)
Between songs the four bantered between each other and with the audience. It was all so natural. Whereas some lines may have been scripted, the rest seemed totally in the moment, impulsive, unrehearsed, without pretense; humour with heart and soul. There were stories about the music, their lives, travels, and concerts on this recent Canadian tour. They had just driven from Saskatchewan by car and threw out jokes about the flat prairies while expressing their joy at seeing the great Canadian Rockies, visible from Alberta, and of course, seen anywhere in Cranbrook, a city surrounded by mountains. Their spontaneity was brilliant.
While their discourse was enchanting, I was there to hear The Celtic Tenors sing. To me the show was about the music, their voices, the songs, the incredible harmonies, Colm’s tickling of the ivories, Daryl’s guitar playing, and their heart-felt musical relationship between the members of the group and with the audience. At one point James, limping somewhat from a knee ailment, hobbled down into the audience with a huge red rose tucked behind his back, a big grin on his face, and sat beside an unsuspecting elderly lady, and sang to her. Later in the program, Matthew and Daryl had their turn and did likewise.
All the promotional material I had read before-hand was right on the mark. Believe it! The Celtic Tenors are sensitive, caring, and generous with their talents. They are seasoned performers, professionals, and yet they are the chap next door. And they show gratitude. I was completely surprised when, as Colm moved to pick up the guitar, James went over to the grand piano and dedicated a song to me as a thank you for the writing I had done for their concert in Nanaimo. The four performed ‘Wild Mountainside’, a very popular Scottish song written by John Douglas. I was brought to tears, not just for their gratitude but also for the amazing presentation of the song, the pure harmony, and the fact that coincidentally it is one of my own Scottish favourites. How did they know?
The concert closed with joyful and hilarious audience participation in ‘Nessum Dorma’; nothing like getting us common folk into joining in with the die-hard classics. Putting aside classical snobbery – this was FUN!
Music moves me, and their choice for the evening, mostly from their latest album ‘Feels Like Home’, definitely touched me deeply. I went from tears of laughter to tears of deep emotion, and as a result, removed what little make-up I had applied for the evening. In fact, their performances had touched all the audiences on this North American tour to the point they had no CDs left for folks to take home as a memento. “No matter,” the Tenors commented, “we will be in the lobby after the show to meet with everyone.” True to their word, after the standing ovations and a riotous encore, The Celtic Tenors headed to the lobby, stood talking with anyone who came to them, signed programs and in general, shared who they really are – wonderful human beings - doing what they love to do - and it shows!
If you have the opportunity to take in a Celtic Tenor concert – DO! - For the music, the brilliant tenor voices, the choice of songs, the harmony, for a touch of the Irish, laughter and warm fuzzy feelings of love.
Thank you James, Matthew, Daryl and Colm!
Links - To more information, formal bio and web site
For the Celtic Tenors' formal biography and more information visit The Celtic Tenor's web
NOTE: There are many more articles on this site about great musicians and artists - see Index of Articles.