Michael English tells Michael McDonagh that the Irish country music and dance hall scene is so strong he’s just had the best four years of his career.
The career of 39-year-old Kildare born Michael English has had more twists and turns than an Irish mountain boreen (narrow country road). At the age of 11 he wrote to Gay Byrne and ended up playing piano and a composition of his own on The Late Late Show.
It made Michael realise that being an entertainer was what he wanted to do. His father played the button accordion in a traditional Irish band, his sisters, Olivia and Patricia, were accomplished players on the piano and fiddle and his mother too was an Irish dancer.
Michael, himself, underwent classical training at Hennessey’s School of Music in Carlow and went on to the Royal Academy of Music in Dublin whilst playing with local bands in his spare time for fun.
In 1997 aged 18 he got his big break by accident. On his way home from college and seeking shelter from the rain he dropped into a venue and saw popular Irish country band, the Mainliners (of Big Tom fame) and was enthralled by their showmanship and sound. He got into conversation with lead singer Henry McMahon and mentioned he wanted to be a performer some day.
Impressed by his enthusiasm, Henry gave Michael a song he’d written. Michael raided his savings to record the song and release it independently, initially pressing just 4,000 copies.
It built up airplay and began to sell so that eventually Nearest To Perfect became a huge hit in Ireland, selling more than 30,000 copies. Its popularity enabled Michael to put a band on the road and he started playing around the country for five or six nights a week.
He was pulling in a lot of cash for a young man still at school. At one stage he had run out of conventional places for safekeeping and even stashed money inside the doors of his house. In the years that followed his fortunes ebbed and flowed, he joined an Irish label in London for a while and was signed up by Louis Walsh and Sony for three years.
Throughout the ups and downs Michael has always enjoyed the loyal patronage of one of Ireland’s most successful property developers, Sean Mulryan of Ballymore, who helicoptered Michael to horse racing events to entertain Sean’s high rolling guests at private dinners.
“Sean’s still a huge friend, that never stopped, I was just with him in Cheltenham,” said Michael.
Michael’s really big breaks appear to have come when he has gone it alone and turned his back on labels and managers – such as Ritz and Sony and Louis Walsh – and focused on Ireland.
“I’m four years back on the road with the band and to be honest with you every band here in Ireland now is thriving. It could not be any better. It is unbelievable.
“I also do one cruise a year, and have done for some years, and have just come back from one with Charlie Pride and Engelbert Humperdinck. The next one will be to Alaska.”
What was it like working with Sony and Louis Walsh?
“I really enjoyed those three years and it was a huge learning experience.
“But I found out after the three years that the music business in Ireland was thriving and I had never seen it as busy – and I was not part of it because both Louis and Sony did not realise how good and how healthy the music scene was here in Ireland.
“I decided to pull the plug and go my own route. It was the first time I went my own route since I started. When I started in 1998 with Nearest to Perfect I was doing it myself and it was my most successful year.
“When I pulled the plug and went back to doing it myself again for the last four years it was been our most successful time.
“I made an album for Louis and Sony in London for the price of a small house – but I came home and made Locklin’s Bar for £400.
“The album with the strings – that had cost HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF POUNDS! – was never played but Locklin’s Bar, which cost only £400, got picked up by the DJs and got played.
“So I quickly knew exactly what I needed to do here.
“I went back and refocused and we now employ up to 20 people and I record my own albums.
“We do about 300 shows a year, and these last four years have been the most successful – four albums in four years and a live DVD.
“Thanks be to God for the last four years, everything has gone so well.”
Now you’re doing a Finbar Furey ballad, I Remember You Singing This Song, how did that come about?
“‘As I said, I do about 300 shows a year now working six nights a week. The dances are just flying here. “Out of a thousand people at a dance, 600 of them would be under-30 years of age. Everybody wants to jive and there are now dance classes in every small town in Ireland.
“Because the audiences are much younger than ever, a lot of my material for the last four years was up-tempo as the show is hugely energetic. I had only done one slow song in four years, everything else was fast.
“I was driving home from Bray on New Year’s night and I heard the song on the radio and I thought that’s a fantastic song and I’m a huge fan of Finbar Furey, so I recorded it and it’s just been released and will maybe appeal to my older fans. It comes with another track, Bundlin, that is more up-tempo.
Was that your dad playing the squeezebox on it?
“Ha! No, that’s actually me as I pick up the box in the live show now, so that’s me on the record playing the accordion.”
Do you now think you have found your own voice and the direction that you want to travel in?
“Absolutely, I have found my own direction now. “I must admit I have meandered a bit over the years and probably because I was listening to this one and that one giving advice.
“But I am now a firm believer that you should always go with your own gut feelings – it only started to work again when I stripped it down and went with my own gut – just sing what I love to sing myself and not only be singing a song because such and such a DJ will play it or, this one will like it.
“You have to be true to yourself. I am busier than ever and it is flying over here – not just for me but also for everybody.
“We are on tour in the UK doing about eight dates, five are already sold out like the Beck Theatre in Hayes and I’m doing the Philharmonic in Liverpool.
“I have never done venues as big as that in the UK before. The Keep It Country TV television show is hugely important as it gets through to all those people and means we played to full houses in Inverness last week.
“The whole thing has changed and I am so busy. I’m actually off today but already, I’ve been in Dublin today, Galway today, Claremorris today, for my TV show and I’m going to Cavan now to record and then back to Dublin tonight. I’m hugely busy and never ever get a day off. I have not been home for a month.”