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2007-04 Celtic Tenors Interview : James Nelson

Written by Kindah Mardam Bey
for Lucid Culture

 

Amidst a plethora of choice in regard to Tenors (Welsh, Canadian, American, Two Tenors, and even Three Tenors ), and even a wealth of Celtic performers (an inexhaustive list), it appears that the Celtic Tenors have married the two and managed to carve out a crossover artist niche for themselves. The wow factor to these three fine Irish lads, known as The Celtic Tenors is their adaptability as performers. James Nelson, Matthew Gilsenan, and Daryl Simpson (touring) are all from diverse backgrounds, and musical taste, but consistently seek to have one commonality in all their musical endeavours: quality and scope. James Nelson was amiable enough to speak with me via telephone recently; I was in chilly Canada, he was in balmy California, to which he started the conversation, Im in the middle of the desert, in a fabulous location, so away we go with this interview.

 

I am immediately struck by James Nelsons telephone demeanour; he teases a lot, abounds with witticisms which he is immediately self-abasing about, and regularly asks me if Id like to speak with one of the other tenors or with David Munro the musical director and producer of the Celtic Tenors newest CD Remember Me. All I would need from Nelson at this point is a cup of tea and Id feel right at home.

The Celtic Tenors managed to be discovered in the most fairytale way of the record business, as they were signed on the spot for an international record deal in 2000. A mere seven years later and the group is known as international artists and have reached double platinum status in Ireland and large pockets of followers all around the world. They are heading to some of the most cultural hubs in the world for their tour this year, including Calgary, Alberta and Dubai. When you can travel that extensively and still be relevant, then you can call yourself a crossover artist.

 

But the term made me pause for the thought: what is a classical crossover artist? I had hoped the aptly pleasant James Nelson would enlighten me on the subject, navigate the rough waters of writing columns, and round out the conversation with a chat about the death penalty. I was in luck, as he was willing to do all of the above. James Nelson is a classically trained performer, who has performed over fifty operatic roles to date. Whereas Matthew Gilsenan came from a hard-working farming family, and felt his life was destined towards the profession of engineering until he had the opportunity to be a part of The Celtic Tenors. Gilsenan is trained mostly in contemporary Irish music, and has recently been featured on Deirdre Shannons debut CD, singing The Prayer. Niall Morris, who is temporarily on leave from the group, has a classical background as well. Stepping up to the plate is Daryl Simpson, an intriguing character that Nelson describes as having a high and agile voice. The glue that seems to be holding the group together these days is David Munro, musical director, record producer, and resident stage pianist.

 

With songs ranging from Caruso, Danny Boy, and You Raise Me Up, a variety of their own songs, and even a version of All Out of Love, the Air Supply classic which was collaborated on with the original group, it seems that The Celtic Tenors are a virtual goodie bag of variety. The down side of that diversity is finding a resident corner for their music on a permanent basis.

 

Nelson explains, classical crossover is a very loose term that doesnt really fit our style, it is associated with Andre Bocelli, but we also do celtic music and pop music, as we opened for Air Supply. We also do acapella, so we are both classical crossover and also celtic crossover. Our concerts have separate sections: classical, pop, acapella and celtic because we are so diverse. He continues, sometimes we have gone into record stores and have looked ourselves up once or twice, not often, as that would be too sad to admit too! But we are under the classical section in Ireland, and under World Music in the US¬ what I would have considered us to be. In the concerts, we start in the US with an Irish section, then a classical, then some pop and then finish off with more Irish. So as it goes on, there's a real mix, its hard to categorize us. We come from different backgrounds so we just sing what we like, and Im from a more classical background as I used to be a church organist and choir master, but I also love the Air Supply song, we made it a more quasi-operatic style to it, so I dont think we should be labeled. Inevitably people see a poster Celtic Tenors so they say to themselves I dont think I like Celtic or they see tenors and they think I dont think Ill like classical, so perhaps we should have called ourselves something else, but then when people come to our concerts they are pleased with all the variety and enjoy it a lot more than they anticipated.

 

Nelson continues, Its different for each country as well. In Ireland they dont want to hear the Irish standards, they want more emphasis on the classical songs. In the US we do more of the Irish songs as many Americans are either descendents of, or have a strong kinship towards the Irish. We play it by ear, and cater each performance for the country we are in.

 

Im rambling on now arent I, he queries in a polite tone. Its Nelsons ramblings that make him so interesting, in fact, his ramblings have made their way to a newspaper column once a month. Equally self-abasing about that, Nelson explains that they are simply a travelogue, and a cross between my personal points of view and a student essay. I would beg to differ. His pieces for the Sligo Weekender ( http://www.sligoweekender.ie/ ), under the title Nelsons Column, are insightful and well composed.

 

 Yes I still write the column. Im not a journalist in fact Im a complete fraud, but people might be interested in my travels and my opinions. I just did one on being Irish on St. Patricks Day. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my mothers death and I wrote an article on that grief and received some amazing letters and e-mails about that column, and also from some other articles Ive received some great mail. I also love Tuscany and I wrote one Im proud of on Tuscany.

 

Believe it or not The Celtic Tenors, for all their polished persona, also stretch their legs into controversial subjects at times. Nelson might have his musings in his column, but a listener might be intrigued to find the words of an American death row inmate wrapped around a melody on the Remember Me CD, called Erics Song. Nelson made friends with an inmate from Arkansas called Eric through a penpal program called Lifelines. They corresponded for ten years. This was a surreal experience for me. Eric, as I called him for the song, had a daughter and granddaughter as well. I am still in contact with his mother and he was killed last year. I got to meet him in Arkansas only once and the last words he said to me when I told him Id be back to visit him were, 'I hope Im here when you do buddy. I had said Id definitely come back to visit him and he died a month later. This was an embarassing case, as the prosecuting attorney has been charged with felony and wife-battery himself. Eric was put to death and I had set one of his poems to music and added a chorus saying that his only escape from his prison cell was through his dreams, his memories and his letter writing. I sang the song to the guys and they said they would like to do the song and it has had a great response. We dont perform it in concert, its a song that people have to seek out on the album if they so choose.

 

When I ask Nelson if The Celtic Tenors have received any negative response from it, he says, not really, its not a song about politics, its a song about a person.

How did this experience affect Nelson? It made me angry how people can determine the course of other peoples' lives. It makes no sense to teach people to stop killing by killing someone. People often quote the Bible saying An eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, but they forget that same book also says thou shalt not kill. Ive always felt that way. Even when Nelson speaks with conviction, whether you agree or not, he still maintains that amiable attitude that makes you feel as though youve sat down and spoken with an old school friend. The Celtic Tenors' music, whether it be Celtic crossover, classical crossover, contemporary pop, or any other definition, makes you feel the same way.

 

James Nelson gives a variety of favourite music choices when I ask him what he is currently listening to. He says that Jussi Bjoerling, who died in 1960, is his hero. James Nelson also loves Opera, choral music, and hes proud to admit he loves ABBA.

 

The Celtic Tenors are currently touring across North America and then onto the Middle East and back again to North America and Europe for their 2007 tour. To keep updated on The Celtic Tenors tour schedule and updates, go to their website at: http://www.celtic-tenors.com/

For more information, reviews and interviews visit the Lucid Culture Website. It's worth a visit!