Michael Mc Donagh talks to Kilbeggan’s Larissa Tormey, who has been nominated against Nathan Carter, Cliona Hagan and Derek Ryan as one of the top Irish Country acts of the past year.
Larissa was born in Russia, where she was classically trained, and was known as a contemporary pop singer in the style of Celine Dion. Originally a classical pianist and mezzo soprano turned pop singer, she now lives on a rural farm and is married to a farmer who also owns a butcher’s shop, CR Tormey, established by her husband Christy’s father, Robin, in 1943.
“Christy and I met in 2001, in Moscow, when he went there for a stag weekend. I’m originally from central Russia, the Ural mountains region. My parents were foresters, and I grew up in the middle of a pine forest.
“I trained as a classical pianist and mezzo soprano so my style is based on classical music. But I always wanted to be a singer/songwriter. I started to write poetry, and then songs, when I was six years old.”
After finishing her degree, she became a professional singer/songwriter, and also had a vocal school for musically gifted children. She quickly became very popular in her area of Russia and moved to Moscow. She spent five years there, singing, touring the country and teaching.
“After spending three days with Christy in Moscow, he went home, and we kept in touch. He invited me to visit Ireland, and I arrived in May 2001 for a two-week holiday.
“The weather was amazing and Christy’s family received me very well, especially his lovely dad, who told me: ‘Don’t go back to Russia; stay with us.’
“I went back, and then Christy flew to Russia to meet my parents and proposed.
“We were engaged. I arrived in Ireland and we got married in September 2001.
“We were both married before. I brought my daughter here to Ireland in 2001. She grew up in Ireland and went on to Trinity College Dublin to study human genetics.”
The original plan had been to completely quit her music career and concentrate on her new life and the family’s large beef farm which supplies the butcher shop.
“I had to learn so many things: to drive; to speak English; to cook Irish food; and to use the Aga.”
But after a while she became a choir conductor in Tullamore College and started to sing again in church and at weddings. Living in that part of Ireland she could hardly escape the popularity of the country and Irish music scene, so she soon began to love, absorb and share the local love of Irish Country Music.
She was persuaded to try singing a country song and her first country single Only A Woman came out in 2015. It reached the Top 100 Airplay chart for Irish Country singles.
“After the release of my first album, I started to gain a big following on social media, and many Irish radio DJs started to play my music.
“I noticed that many of my followers are big fans of country music so when my Facebook friend BG Pollock, pitched one of his country songs to me, I decided to give it a try. After all, at the end of the day, I am a country girl now and have been for many years.”
Before long she was invited to Ireland’s Hot Country TV Awards, and sang with , Margo and .
Last year on St Patrick’s Day, working with her Facebook friend songwriter B G Pollock, she released a second Irish country album ‘God Loves A Trier’. It showcases her musical versatility and incorporates some Irish folk music along with traditional Irish dancing country tunes. It also features virtuoso steel guitar player Sarah Jory.
This year, 2018, started well for Lara she won ‘Cultural Crossover Country Artist of the Year’ and released album ‘Cowgirls Don’t Cry’ which includes her version of Danny Boy in Russian and English. She is full of drive and energy and has a beautifully trained voice.
I spoke to her in Cannes on the Cote D’Azur where she was at the International Music Festival, Midem, spreading the word about her music and representing her adopted homeland, Ireland.
How did you come to live in Ireland?
“My husband is Irish and I was a well- known songwriter and singer in Russia. I was born and reared in central Russia but as I became quite popular I moved to Moscow to become bigger. My husband came to Moscow for three days and we met accidentally in a big international hotel, when I found myself sitting beside him.
“He had come with some friends for a three-day break for a Stag weekend. We married six months later and that’s how I came to live in Ireland in 2001.
“He is a farmer and I live on the farm and when I came I did not think I would do music anymore and that I would just give up my music. Before that I honestly did not hear about Ireland, I knew a bit about the North from what we heard on the news but I did not know the Republic of Ireland existed as there was not much information in Russia then, which was slowly moving on with Perestroika and was changing.”
Were you a fan of Country Music back home in Russia?
“No. I had no idea what Country Music is and I had never heard of it. In Russia we have some folk music and some popular music but we did not listen to Country Music, so when I came here I didn’t sing country music. I am a songwriter and singer, so at first when I came I just sang in churches for weddings.
“That was easy for me as I was classically trained. I did not speak English when I came here and I only had three phrases so I did not think I would ever be able to write in English.
“For a long time here I did not do much but learn to be here and learn to speak the language.
“By about 2015 I wanted to get back into music and I thought I’d try and write some songs in English and pitch them to people to record. We did some recordings in Dublin of these songs and it went so well people said why don’t you sing the songs yourself.
“It was singer songwriter stuff and I got more and more confidence and then I released my first album ‘Perfect As I Am’.
“I came out to Midem the International Music event at that time and it was all about digital music and downloading and the Internet and I learned so much.
“I came back and decided to try to do it myself and make some PR for myself on- line and use the Internet and social media to bring my music to people. Step by step I started to do Irish covers then a songwriter, who I had never met, contacted me on Facebook and he wrote country music and he suggested I record one of his songs.
“I had noticed that the people who listened to my songwriter stuff were also near to country music and liked it and they asked why I did not sing country songs.
“He said why not cover this song but I said ‘no I am not a country singer’ but he said why not try. I recorded it because it was a great song and when ‘Only A Woman’ came out it got into the top 100 most played country songs.
“It was a sign as when I was recording it I thought this is going really well and I realised that this suits my voice and my style and the country music has some big soul and the lyrics are usually interesting with a story that I can emotionally deliver.
“The melodies are usually very good too and the songs really suit me. Anyway, I live in the country on a farm and I manage the farm with my husband and I communicate with country people every day for more than 10 years now, so bit by bit I started to record country songs and to write some country songs”.
You have worked with some well-known names and musicians like Sarah Jory so do you feel your brand of Country Music is being accepted?
“Again, through the Internet I found a producer who had produced Charlie Landsborough and other people and I began to work with him and some great musicians. Sarah Jory popped up on my LinkedIn and said she was a steel guitar player and if I needed one she would like to play for me, so I used her on my first recording and her sounds changed my songs so much as she is so good. Then I found out Pete the producer knew her too so she we used her for most of my songs later on.
“I released the album ‘God Loves a Trier’ last year, which is all country originals but not covers. There is only one cover of a country song ‘I’m Going To Be A Country Girl Again’, an American song, which was very popular.
“My profile was rising steadily but I had a complex about being Russian and how could a Russian sing Irish Country so I was thinking I couldn’t change that.
“I am Russian and I have a bit of an accent so I have decided to use it as an advantage in my PR with the story of a Russian woman living on a farm and working with the cattle making Irish Country music and it has brought me a lot of media attention”.
How much Russian influence goes in and how many songs apart from Danny Boy have Russian in them?
“Apart from singing some of the ‘Danny Boy’ song in Russian I don’t sing any other song in the Russian language nothing at all, for the simple reason I am not going to sing for Russian people. I will never go back to Russia as my home is here and I don’t go to Russian any more.
“There is no point – why would I waste my time – but if I ever get anywhere with what I am doing now then Russia will probably get back to me but I won’t gear my energy or my focus for the Russian market.
“The ‘Danny Boy’ song with some in Russian can you believe is one of the most popular songs and even Ryan Tubridy said I know you and ‘DannyBoy’, people love it”.
I gather you are donating the proceeds from that single towards the restoration of Kilbeggan parish church so you are really part of the community and Ireland is your home?
“I always do it. Every year I do something for charity and before I have released two Christmas singles for charity and I am part of the community in Ireland now and people in Kilbeggan say I am now putting Kilbeggan on the map by drawing attention to where I live. It is a lovely little town, very quaint, I love it.”.
Do you have any plans to do gigs here in the UK?
“Well I am only really starting to tour as I have been so busy recording, but I do tour here now and it is going well but before too long I hope to tour in the UK.
“I am not really playing country music for dancing with my songs and music I am playing on stages for concerts.
“Imro the Irish songwriter organisation has just nominated me for an Award as top singer. There are four nominations Nathan Carter, Cliona Hagan, Derek Ryan and me.
How did that come about?
I am not going to win it, I am not delusional, but a Russian person to be nominated as the best Irish singer is funny.
“I do love doing country but I will continue to write songs I have a classical education in playing the piano and singing so that is good for writing songs.”
Have the dubious activities of Mr Putin in the UK and America has that affected you in anyway?
“When it started to get bad I was very nervous that it would affect me but in Ireland it never affected me at all, which is great and nobody ever even mentions it.
“People know me now and I have been here so long but in England the promotion man said the BBC will play my music but will not interview me at the moment as the situation is so bad, so England minds that I am Russian but in Ireland it does not matter.
“It is all such nonsense now as we are all so mixed up and in London there are so many Russians everywhere. I feel much more comfortable in Ireland.
“I love Ireland and especially the Irish people – the kindest in the world. It never was difficult to me to be here and settle down. Ireland is my second home for many years.
“Living on the farm transformed my life. I am surrounded by green fields and animals, and it is very easy to write my music in such a peaceful environment. I enjoy the versatility of my life and all the new skills I learned while living on the farm.
“I also think that country people are very nice, down-to-earth type of people, who will always help if you need it.”
How are you enjoying doing all the business yourself?
“I enjoy what I am doing so much doing it all myself but it is very time consuming as I am a one woman band with the business side of it but I am very organised myself. I am told now that my music is now being played in New Zealand, so it is building, and that is why I came here to Midem to explore possibilities – but I am very laid back and grounded and am enjoying it so much.”
So will you write many of your own songs or stick to the classic country repertoire for the future?
“The plan is to move more into my songwriting and maybe only do one or two songs on each album and maybe I will collaborate with writing with people too, some country and some other styles.”
Check out Larissa on www.larissatormey.com you will be impressed.