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2004-08-15 Forging an alliance of opposites

from the Irish Sunday Independent

 

SILENCE descends on the Celtic Tenors only once, when Matthew Gilsenan announces he's planning to study opera in Scotland. "That's the first we've heard of it," says Niall Morris, after a moment's uncharacteristic hush, while James Nelson nods and mutters in agreement.

 

Gilsenan laughs at their unease and explains he'll doit part-time, when they'renot touring. All three understand that theirs is an unusual life and if they were not radically different characters, they could, by now, have blended into some kind of all-singing, three-headed monster.

 

Instead, Nelson, Morris and Gilsnenan understand that part of what makes the Celtic Tenors work is theirdistinctness as individuals. They understand it, but acting on it is not so easy. Which makes it a little unsettling if one announces new, one-man plans but, as they explain, the day they stop being individual is the day the trio ceasesto work.

 

"Personally and vocally," says James, laughing, "we're very different. But when we sing together, it's a fantastic blend, almost one voice."And, out of the musicalharmony, each has founda friend, almost a brother,that would not have beenan obvious ally under different circumstances.

 

Dublin-born Niall and James, a native of Sligo, have known each other sinceadolescence. Both attended Wesley College on Dublin's southside, but were never friends. "He was a boarder and I wasn't and there's areally important divide there," says Niall. "Alsohe was a year ahead and really bookish. I was more drama-college and hash-behind-the-bike-sheds."

 

After school, however, both studied music, went to London and began solo operacareers, meeting up at the same auditions and forging an alliance of opposites.

 

"And then, in the early Nineties," says Niall, "the Three Tenors thing happened and, I have to confess, the original idea was to do a kind of spin-off."

 

"Leave out the kind of," James interjects, with Matthew quickly adding, "it was a bandwagon", at which they all laugh heartily.

 

It's an exchange typical of the three, who tease back and forth non-stop, banter like brothers but without anyundertone of simmeringresentment. They know each other well, and know how to make fun of each other, but without the sibling urge to wound that might threaten the professional.

 

With the idea of forming a trio, Niall and James spotted Matthew performing in a Dublin opera and immediately approached him. At the time, Meath-born Matthew was on a six-month sabbatical from his job as an engineer.

 

"I thought I'd take time out and get the singing bug out of my system," he explains. "But within that six months, I met the lads, we got signed and I never looked back."

 

Four years ago, their manager, Pat Egan, brought them to EMI in London. At 10am they sang in the company boardroom, were signed immediately and, currently, are recording their fourth album for the label.

 

"We might have started out as a spin-off," Niall says, "but we've evolved into something completely different. We're not at all that soloistic, 'three guys slapping each otheron the back' thing. What we've created is a sort of homogenous sound that's very distinctive, a style that fits classical or folk or contemporary, almost Beach Boys music."

 

Their album, each rushes to explain, includes collaborations with artists such as Samantha Mumba, Brian Kennedy ("a great pal") and Air Supply and songs written by Ronan Hardiman and Simon May. A hit song or a movie soundtrack inclusion, Niall - the big talker of the trio - announces, would launch them onto a new level of success.

 

As we meet, the Celtic Tenors are preparing for a big tour of Germany, where they are huge, Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa and America, where they have recently acquired a new agent. They also play two nights in Dublin in October. All three enjoy the touring, but for Matthew it means leaving behind his wife, Celestine, and their baby son, for long periods.

 

Celestine is, he says, "a saint", adding that neither of them really understood the life involved when they got married. James was his best man at the wedding, Niall sang (he pretends to be offended about the best man choice) and both joined the happy couple for their end-of-honeymoon, which coincided with a couple of concerts.

 

Last Christmas, Matthew's family joined them in the Canaries, where they were booked. Niall and James, both single, can't imaginemanaging a serious relationship given their lifestyle, but they admire the way Matthew succeeds.

 

There is a sense about the Celtic Tenors of three people who feel assured in what they're doing and about who they are, both together and separately. Their recording contract remains secure,despite the fact that EMI dropped 150 acts last year. They know what kind of music they wish to make and they seem stable in their success.

 

"We're in more of a position to say no to things now," says Niall, explaining how in earlier years they would dropeverything at a second's notice for any gig, anywhere. They are looking forward to America, where the TV show they made for PBS is being rerun to plug the concerts.

 

While we talk, Matthew takes a call from a contractor concerning a cement delivery the following morning. All three are moving, with Matthew building in Meath, near the farm where he grew up, James buying a cottage in Wicklow and Niall selling his apartment in Smithfield to move to the Grand Canal Basin. On the surface, they're doing the same thing but in characteristically different ways and locations.

 

"When we come back," says Niall, "we scatter into ourseparate little worlds and we phone or we text, but it'simportant to have that time away as well." James andMatthew nod in agreement, before the latter admits he missed them after a few weeks' break last year. I doubt, somehow, he'll be leaving them for Scotland on any long-term basis.