By David Hennessy
The last time The Irish World caught up with Mairead Carlin in late 2012, the 24-year-old Derry singer was supporting the legendary Don McLean.
Since then, she has gone from strength to strength, playing a big part in the celebrations as her home city enjoyed the status of being the UK Capital of Culture 2013, collaborating with Glee star Damian McGinty, singing with Carly Simon and joining the renowned all-female ensemble, Celtic Woman while her own debut solo album Songbook is due for release soon.
“It’s going good, it’s a bit manic but I’m loving it,” Mairead tells The Irish World.”
Mairead was studying for a classical degree at Trinity College of Music in London when her countyman Frank Gallagher, the music producer who has worked with Charlotte Church, Shirley Bassey and Paul Brady among others, discovered her vocal talent. Under Frank’s guidance, Mairead recorded her first demo that would lead to a record deal. Included on the demo was the Carly Simon song Let the River Run and the pair had just finished their last take when they saw on the television that Derry had been announced as the City of Culture with the theme “Sons and Daughters” which was a line in the song. As Mairead says: “It almost seemed like fate.”
Mairead was invited to sing at the Sons and Daughters concert in January last year to celebrate the beginning of a momentous year for Derry. The line-up included musicians and other well known people connected with Derry such as Phil Coulter, Nadine Coyle, Gary Lightbody, The Undertones, Paul Brady and James Nesbitt.
However, Mairead was not due to sing solo until she received a late call: “It was a real ‘pinch yourself’ moment. I wasn’t even supposed to be singing a solo song, I was there just to be a part of it all in the Let the River Run medley with everyone there but they were three minutes under and I got the call the day before saying: ‘Do you want to sing Scarlet Ribbons because of the song’s meaning to Derry?’ It was just an incredible call to get.”
Scarlet Ribbons, which features on Mairead’s album, was sung by workers in the shirt factory in Derry in bygone years. Mairead explains a more personal connection: “My granny taught me that song, she was a singer and I always remember her singing that song, so it has a very sentimental meaning to me. It was also one of the first songs that Frank and I came across. We didn’t know the connection to Derry, it was only later we learned that.
“To be able to share the stage with people like Gary Lightbody and Paul Brady, my goodness, never in a million years did I think I would be doing that. I think the best thing about the concert was the sense of camaraderie that there was backstage because we all come from the same place and because we were all brought up in the same environment and the same culture and we understood each other. Snow Patrol were onstage and we were all backstage singing their song and we all had our arms around each other. I think that’s the beautiful thing about coming from Derry, we all stick together and it is such a musical place. I feel so proud to come from there.”
It was at this concert that Mairead met Damian McGinty, the Derry singer previously of Celtic Thunder and the US TV hit Glee, with the pair going on to combine on the song, Let the River Run: “Damien’s a lovely guy and that’s a friendship that has really blossomed. We just hit it off instantly and I think our voices really blend but then Carly asked us to come out to LA to sing Let the River Run and You’re so Vain with her so I got to spend some time with Damian in la which was lovely.”
What was it like to get such approval from a well known singer like Carly Simon for their version of her song? “I love her, honestly she is one of the people that I would look up to more than anyone, she’s my inspiration, as is Don McLean and that’s what I’m saying: I’m so lucky to not only meet but perform with the people that inspire me.
“That’s the thing I love about being a singer, you never know what’s around the corner. The industry is so fragile at the moment and I just feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunities that I have because I’ve watched friends, and some of them way more talented than I, and for some reason the work just isnt’ there for them.”
Touring with Celtic Woman meant Mairead was unable to sing the national anthem at Twickenham for Ireland’s Six Nations game against England, an honour that fell to her last year. An honour she was available for was to sing for President Michael D Higgins when the President travelled to Derry to sample the culture in July last year: “He’s an amazing man, a true inspirational man. That was one of the greatest honours I could ever have had: To meet him and he was very lovely with me. I got a picture with him and the next week, he was in Derry and my granny got to meet him and she sent me a picture of him giving her a kiss on the cheek.”
Does that mean Michael D is a friend of the family now? “I wouldn’t say that but I wish he was,” Mairead laughs.
Although she joined Celtic Woman late last year, Mairead assures this will not preclude her from doing her own thing with a second album already on the cards: “The beautiful thing about Celltic Woman is that they really embrace us as individuals and they really want us to grow individually as well as together so they’re always pushing us to follow our own musical wants and needs. I love country music and I love Americana and folk music of course and if I was doing another album I think it would be much more influenced by that kind of music.”
Touring internationally with Celtic Woman, is London still Mairead’s base? “London is definitely still the base. I love London just because you’re never stuck for something to do and I’m always inspired when I’m there. But I very much think of myself as a Derry girl. I divide my time between the two, I’m definitely still a Derry girl at heart but I do love London.”