In these modern-day times, the spreading of Irish culture is in good hands whenever Celtic Woman takes the stage. It’s been that way ever since the all-female musical ensemble was founded by David Kavanagh, Sharon Browne and David Downes back in 2004. With Downes coming off being the former musical director of Riverdance, on-stage spectacle has always been at a premium, but never at the expense of the music. In the time that the quartet (which was originally founded as a quintet) has been regaling audiences around the world, millions of albums have been sold and they’ve become a staple of PBS’ annual fundraising drives.
For 2019, the Gaels have returned with Ancient Land, a brand-new album that puts a contemporary spin on the centuries-old Irish tradition of telling stories through song, be they about love, dancing or of the land itself. For vocalist Máiréad (pronounced like parade) Carlin, the new album reflects the love the Derry-born vocalist and her bandmates feel for the Emerald Isle.
“We really wanted to delve deep into the treasure trove of Irish music that’s out there. Also, a lot of our fans have been asking us for quite a while to release new music. With this record, I’d say that this is the most original music we’ve had on an album in quite a long time. Certainly since our Grammy-nominated album Destiny,” she explained. “It’s really exciting for us. We really love getting out there and performing these songs. I would say Ancient Land has a really earthy vibe and it was just an absolute pleasure to record and a real organic experience for all of us.”
The current project found Carlin, Éabha McMahon, Tara McNeill and Megan Walsh decamping to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios for a two-week recording stint. Living together, sharing meals and immersing themselves in Celtic and world music, the foursome emerged with a mix of originals (“Follow Still,” “Be Still,” the instrumental “Love & Honour”), Irish traditional songs (“Sive,” “Mná no hÉireann [Women of Ireland],” “Moorlough Song”) and reimagined reworkings of contemporary songs (Mary Fahl’s “Going Home” and The High Kings’ “Homeland”). One song that really resonated for Carlin was Elvis Costello’s “Long Journey Home.”
“I’m certainly a massive Elvis Costello fan and he actually recorded that initially with an Irish group called Anùna, who are incredible. So there was that Irish connection there, obviously, given the meaning of the song—‘the red, white and blue/Green, white and gold.’ There was that real connection with American and Irish history linked in there. So we really felt it would be appropriate to put it in the show,” she said. “It’s actually a very poignant moment in the show. And whenever I do sing that song, I almost feel like we’re looking back at our ancestors and have some kind of connection with them.”
A point of pride for Celtic Woman are the shows they put on. While it would be easy to dismiss the Vegas-like spectacle as being more sizzle than steak, Carlin is proud of the intimate connection her group makes with their fans along with the spiritual trip all involved get to go on.
“I would say that it’s certainly an epic stage production and it’s a very unique experience. I don’ think there’s anything out there quite like it. It’s not just about the lights, set and dresses, which we of course have. We really put on such a massive show—it’s bagpipers, dancers, drummers,” she said. “There are moments where we take the audience to a real high and then we bring them back down again with songs like ‘Danny Boy.’ We would always say that this particular show is very much a journey. And also paying homage to our heritage and our tradition. This show is called Ancient Land, so it kind of does what it intends. There are a lot of historic songs in there and while there are some songs in this turn that we did perform last year, we also do brand-new songs that people wouldn’t have heard. We never tour the same more than once because why would anybody come back if we didn’t do that? It’s really important to us that we move along and bring new material to people so they feel like they’re seeing it for the first time.”
Purists may turn their noses up at what Celtic Woman is doing in terms of putting a modern spin on the old, but Carlin and the rest of the group are rightly proud of what they’ve created and the bond they have with their followers.
“Celtic Woman is a nudge to the past and a big nudge to the future. We really relish our Irish history. We’re just four ordinary women bringing these Irish songs and contemporary songs to the world in a new way,” she said. “Audiences are just so important to us. We say they’re the fifth member of Celtic Woman and you feel their energy when you’re on the stage. How they are with us is just as important as how we are with them. It’s very much a collaboration. Some people don’t really think about it like that. I would always say that the audience might as well be on stage.”
Celtic Woman will be appearing on March 20, at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, 720 Northern Blvd., Greenvale. For more information, visit www.tillescenter.org or call 516-299-3100.