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Matthew Gilsenan - The Celtic Tenors Interview

For over two decades, The Celtic Tenors have been charming audiences the world over with their rich harmonies and disarming wit, as well as radiating their love for all that is Ireland. They have topped the charts in the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK and Ireland, and sold well over a million albums. They continue to innovate by side-stepping from their classical roots, infusing music with a more contemporary edge. 

The trio consists of Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Daryl Simpson, ahead of a one night date at Prestonfield as part of the Edinburgh Fringe on August 24th I caught up with Matthew to discuss the groups journey so far and what an audience can expect from this latest show.

Let’s start at the beginning, what inspired the creation of The Celtic Tenors?

We began as Ireland's answer to the world-changing 1990 concert when Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras came together as "The Three Tenors".

It was initially as simple as jumping on the bandwagon to make a few extra quid. We really thought it would be grand for a year or two and we would lose interest, or fall out and it would all be over quickly. 

None of that happened as it turned out. 

We actually got on very well together. Between us, we had a very wide range of tastes and skills, so before long, we were experimenting wildly with the model. Almost immediately, we were not only singing the classic tenor belters, but we were harmonizing, bringing in Irish and Scottish music, this continued to evolve, and we continued to bring in even more diverse ideas. We quickly began getting a name for ourselves on the Irish Circuit and in 1999, we were signed to a 3-album record deal with EMI classics in London. At this stage we began the process of really consolidating our Sound and our Style. Our basic core mission evolved into a real eclectic mix. All that brought together with these three personalities. The three of us are all quite different. Wicked humour unites us and we really bring that to the performance.  

How do you reflect on the time that you’ve been performing as the trio?

It has been like a tornado of travel. Since the very first tours in 2000, we have travelled all over the world. Together, we have sung in hundreds of cities. It has always been about the live performance. 

Of course the lion's share of all the time away is spent in a plane or a tour bus, so, all immensely social.

Reflecting on it all; from absolutely crazy nights at massive festivals in the states, to the time Bono hired us to sing for Kofi Annan, right after we had a magical evening with Bill Clinton in Dublin to singing with the Vancouver Symphony or the myriad of other orchestras it has been a blast so far. We have Toured China with a wonderful Chinese Orchestra, we have Recorded in Abbey Road , LA, Dublin, New York. The list goes on, we have a massive bank of memories and at the same time we still feel like we are only starting.

What can an audience expect from this latest show?

An accessible, evening of great music. The three of us with our musical director Cian Sweeney will take you on a journey through our story. We will share with you our harmonies, some of our great arrangements of great songs we share with Scotland, as well as some of our many arrangements from Ed Sheeran to Bob Dylan to Nessun Dorma.

How easy or hard is it to settle on a set list for a show like the forthcoming one at the Fringe? Are there any songs you try to include in every performance?

HARD! We have so little time and so many songs to share. An event like the fringe poses some interesting questions; do we do loads of our Scottish rep? Do we sing our piece of Puirt a beul mouth music from the bothies of northern Scotland? Do we sing some of the many songs that we share with Scotland from our Red is the rose whose tune is the same as Loch Lomond. We will doubtless have many a discussion before we pin down exactly what we do. We are so influenced by Scotland, and have always been from mashing the Spanish Lady from Dublin with Marie's Wedding to being hugely influenced by the mastery of Kenneth McKellar.

You’ve played internationally with forthcoming dates including Edinburgh, Ireland, Canada, USA and the Netherlands. Is the reaction different depending on where you’re playing?

It can be, but to be honest the biggest differences in audiences tend to be from venue to venue.  Big city audiences can have similar traits, and can be quite different from the more rural, yet there can be extreme differences from city to city. Dublin is a great place for audience participation, they will sing along to anything they recognise. It will be interesting to see how the Prestonfield House audience are.

Is there anywhere you’ve not played yet that you would love to?

There are loads of places we have performed. The Joan Sutherland concert hall in Sydney was great, but we'd have loved to do the Opera House. We have not toured in Japan yet. This is something that we are currently working on fixing. It's the last of my Bucket list nations to tour.

Matthew Gilsenan

What keeps you inspired as an artist?

I have several inspirational elements;  one is the songs. We don't actively write to perform, we tend to sing what we feel are truly great songs, songs that that inspire us. There are a few different types of song, there's the flavour of the month where in fairness many start, but it's only when you have performed them multiple time that you see its true metal. Caledonia, by Dougie MacLean, is a good example, it was one of our first recordings, there were many on that album but Caledonia is the one that feels freshest every time we do it. So, our favourite songs emerge gradually for us. 

This process of discovery, creation of our version, harmonising dividing the bits out between us etc. is a great time where we develop a relationship with the song, and give it life. They become like little offsprings, some stay at home others depart.  The other inspiration is "the Challenge" some of what we sing is technically challenging. We have lots of high-octane operatic singing so it can be challenging to keep the stamina high, so honing the technique is always inspiring.

Who are your favourite artists to listen to?

Jussi Björling, is my favourite Tenor, but I am a big fan of all music. Elliott Smith is my current favourite. Poor guy died so young.

Why should anyone book to see The Celtic Tenors?

We are a quality act, we have stood the test of time, we have a lot of fun - it's an accessible show full of great moments. 

The Celtic Tenors play The Fringe at Prestonfield on August 24th with tickets available from The trio continue playing internationally, find out more and all future dates

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