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June 2019
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2006-09-28 Heavenly voice of a top class tenor

from "Wicklow People "


James Nelson, who makes up a third of the singing group, The Celtic Tenors, is a hard man to catch.


Though he lives in a small, white-washed cottage on the outskirts of Baltinglass, he's hardly ever home.


He, along with Mathew Gilsenan and Daryl Simpson, travel the world, touring and promoting their new album, We Are Not Islands.


The gruelling schedule, he admits, can be a bit wearing, especially when their night flights sometimes mean that they get little or no sleep.


On the plus side, however, James gets to see the world and sing for some of its most important people, including Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan.


'Singing for Bill Clinton was really cool,' James says. 'He was so charismatic. Bono was at the same party that we sang for Clinton at, so he asked us to sing for Kofi Annan, too.'


James' passion for music was fostered almost by accident, when on completing his Leaving Cert. his parents decided that he was too young to take over his father's shop in his native Sligo.


'I hadn't even filled out a CAO form for college,' James reflects, 'but I rang UCD and discovered that I had enough points to study either Law or Arts. My mother was a French teacher so I ended up studying French and Music.'


James duly graduated with his degree and taught music in Wesley College for a while.


His love of singing came to the fore during his time in UCD, and, as he was unhappy teaching the subject, in the summer of 1990, he packed his bag and headed for London.


'I met my music teacher, David Harper, there while I attended a summer school in singing,' James explains. 'He honestly changed my life. I gave up teaching and my life in Ireland and got a part-time job in a music shop in London. It was worth it, though, because one year later, my agent took me on.'


Once James secured an agent, and with the top class lessons he received from David Harper, it was only a matter of time that his talent was widely recognised.

'As a tenor, I'm lucky, because tenors are worth their weight in gold,' James laughs. 'The top notes are known as 'money notes' and I can hit them. There's only about one tenor for every ten sopranos in the world.'


James' group, the Celtic Tenors, was born when he, along with Ronan Tynan and Paul Hennessey from Carlow, sang their first gig in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Carlow in 1999.


By the following year, the line-up had changed, but Pat Egan, the music promoter, spotted them and brought them to the attention of EMI who immediately signed them up.


Their latest album, 'We Are Not Islands', features guest stars like Samantha Mumba and Brian Kennedy and sounds like 'classical crossover' as James describes it.


He's particularly proud of a song that he composed on the album. It's called 'Eric's Song' and features lyrics written by a death row inmate that James used to correspond with. As a member of Amnesty International, James wrote to Eric for nine years, eventually getting to meet him just weeks before he was put to death.


'It was incredibly surreal getting to meet him, it just felt so strange in the prison,' James recalls the Tennessee lock-up. 'I've always been against the death penalty and I don't see how you can show someone that something is wrong by doing the very thing back to them. It doesn't make sense. It just perpetuates the cycle of killing.'


James' meeting with Eric came about because of a gap in his touring schedule. Details of his schedule often make it back to his home place of Sligo, as James writes a newspaper column for its local paper, the Sligo Weekender.


'I started writing the column in March 2002,' James explains. 'I reckon they (the management) only asked me because my name is Nelson and they could call the page Nelson's Column! At first I didn't even know if I could string two words together and the first few columns were like Junior Cert. essays. But I got better as I went along and for years I did the column on a weekly basis. I write it monthly now and use my tours as travel pieces for it.'


Poignantly, James started to write for the newspaper just two weeks before his mother passed away on Good Friday in 2002.


'She was so proud of me,' James says, emotionally, 'because that's the exact type of thing that she would have loved to do herself.'


James is definitely a celebrity in Sligo, but, because he spends so little time in Baltinglass, not many of the natives know him. One eagle-eyed bank teller, Anna Mai Timmins, spotted James when he was opening an account in the town and roped him into singing for the local organisation, the Lalor Centre.


He made his debut in Baltinglass at the Lalor Centre Auction in Germaine's of this year. From Carnegie Hall to Inis Fail, one gets the impression that James Nelson isn't pretentious about where he sings. Because, for him, it's 'the music that matters the most.'


The Celtic Tenors will tour Ireland later this year. To check out tour dates, log onto for further details.