Damian McGinty told David Hennessy about the ‘awkward moments’ of joining Celtic Thunder at the age of just 14, his guest appearance on the massive hit TV show Glee and his profound sadness to see three of his former castmates pass away in the years since.
The Derry singer-songwriter Damian McGinty has sold out shows all over America as part of the Irish traditional group Celtic Thunder- a multi- million selling and arena-filling global act that he joined at just 14 years of age.
He was also a guest star on the hugely popular American TV series Glee back in 2011.
The musical drama set in a high school ran for six years, was critically lauded and landed coveted awards such as Golden Globes and Emmys.
Three of the original cast members have since passed away tragically.
Now, Damian has just released his latest solo EP, Those were the Days. Uplifting and catchy, the title track is a song that you can imagine being played to festival crowds if times were normal whilst it also captures the wistful nostalgia perfectly apt for times of pandemic.
Those were the Days sees Damian singing about ‘young love in an old town’ as well as ‘a Memphis girl and an Irish boy’.
The song clearly refers to his own marriage. He tied the knot in 2019.
“It’s just like this universal feeling of looking back and feeling nostalgic about growing up and, and then but I tried to capture the nostalgia in the current day as well.
“I got married in Memphis. That’s where my wife is from. The second verse is heavily based around that. And the chorus is obviously based around that.
“The first verse is about when I was really, really young and I had a high school sweetheart. You always think when you’re 12 years of age that that’s going to be it and this is going to be your life.
“Obviously it never happens but that’s the whole purpose of a high school sweetheart.
“As the lyrics say, sometimes young love is just out of reach.
“My wedding was only a year and a half ago, two years ago. And that already feels nostalgic moment looking back on it.
“So I’ve tried to be more present in music and be more present in life in general and enjoy things for what they are.”
And how have the fist years of marriage been having coincided with a pandemic? Has it still been good? “Yeah, it honestly has. We’ve actually had a really great two years. It’s obviously been very different than what we thought it was gonna look like.
“And now I think we can probably hopefully face most things.
“Like everybody, we’ve spent more time together in the last two years than ever previously in our lives. Our normal life is me being on the road, that’s kind of our normal. And that obviously has not been the case. But honestly, it’s been great. Hopefully that’s a good sign and we can handle most things.”
With live shows out of the question, Damian has been productive in terms of writing and recording with the time at home that the crisis has given him. The EP is a product of his labour there and he reveals an album will follow.
“The album is coming the first part of next year.
“These songs (the EP) feel like a family, they feel like they belong together.
“It’s currently at number five on the iTunes pre-order chart, which is really, really humbling and really exciting. I’m excited for it to be out in the world and yeah, the album is coming the first part of next year.”
Based in America, recent times have been hard for Damian due to not being able to get home.
“I finally was able to go home there in April which was the first time I was home since Christmas 2019. So that was about 16 months, which is, by far the longest I’ve ever gone in terms of not getting home.
“I might live away but I’m very much still a homeboy. I love getting home, I’m very close to my family and all that stuff.
“So it definitely had its challenges, it had its frustrations. It had its fears attached to it as well, knowing that in the worst case scenario, if anything had happened, I physically would not have been able to get back.
“And that’s kind of scary as well. I tried not to overthink that too much. Never did materialize, thank God.
“I know a lot of people, kind of my generation, that live in different corners of the world. And they all went through a similar thing. Obviously, it wasn’t easy but it wasn’t easy for anybody. For people back home it wasn’t so easy either.”
Damian was amazed to see that Northern Ireland were still so restricted when he did get back home recently.
“I actually got a bit of an awakening. Out here in the States, since probably August or September, we have been leading somewhat of a normal life. We were able to go grab a coffee, we were able to go to restaurants but it was just all socially distanced and certain capacities and all that stuff.
“I went home to Ireland in April and I still couldn’t get a coffee. And I actually couldn’t believe it.
“I was like, ‘They are still very much deep into lockdown here’. I got a surprise. That’s a very long time for people to be doing that. I don’t know how you stood it that long. It’s a long time.
“I mean this in the nicest way possible: I would say I’m pleasantly surprised at how mankind has come together on this and abided by the rules. The only thing worse than the last 18 months would have been the last 18 months with people not going by the rules. I think mankind has done a fairly decent job across the board.”
Damian was just 14 when he joined Celtic Thunder, the epic Irish music stage show directed by Phil Coulter.
“I was very, very young but I wouldn’t change anything.
“I always knew that I wanted to sing but I didn’t really know that I wanted to be a singer if that makes sense.
“All I knew at that point in my life is that I just had a passion for singing and I really, really enjoyed it.
“So when I got the break with Celtic Thunder, Phil Coulter essentially picked me up and put me in the show.
“I did have to audition but it was more of a case that Phil had already bigged me up and I just had to go in and prove that I wasn’t terrible.
“I got the part and even then, I was just looking at it as, ‘This is an amazing opportunity: This fun job, this chance to sing and make records and tour America.
“It’s weird because I never thought of it really as a career but I never thought of doing anything else either so it is as if I almost always knew that I was going to be doing this for a very long time.”
While Damian says this was a great experience and he learned a lot, he also says it was hard to just be a teenager while being in the spotlight.
“They’re formulative years. There’s moments in that period of your life where you have very awkward moments. You have moments where you are visibly growing as a person, whether it be your first beard hair, sweating when you’re not expecting it, or acne.
“All these things that sort of involve being a 15 year old, I was doing those on live television and I was doing those in front of 5,000 people every night.
“There were moments that were quite uncomfortable and there were moments that I just wished that I was in my bedroom like everybody else going through that.
“But it builds character as well. And I think it builds a strength within you and an understanding that people understand more than you think.
“It helps you find the good people because I had a lot of people that really just like took care of me at that point. Because they had to. Because I couldn’t take care of myself. I could to a certain degree but when you’re 15 or 16 and you’re touring 60 cities in America, without your family or your parents, you need people to look after you. So I was very fortunate that I had that.”
Damian says Phil Coulter and his more experienced bandmate Paul Byrom did exactly that, look after him.
“Especially those two names. I was always incredibly close to them. I’m still very close to both of them.
“To this day, I look at Phil almost like a father figure in music to me. And he always has been. I know I can pick up the phone at any moment. And I still see him quite frequently.
“And then Paul Byrom, we just became best friends. He made a very intentional effort with me, because he sort of understood. Paul’s had a career from a very young age as well so he was the one that was able to relate to me the most at that point in my life.
“He definitely took me under his wing. As I’ve grown up, we’ve just become great friends.
“But there’s always that unspoken understanding between us. Even if we’re not in touch for a month, things will never change because we’ve just experienced so much life together.”
Celtic Thunder have released over twelve studio albums, sold millions and played on some of the most prestigious stages.
Damian also shares that they are planning a tour for later this year which will be the first in a number of years.
When asked for one highlight of his time with the group, one occasion stands out for Damian.
“We opened the biggest St. Patrick’s Day parade in the world in New York City. We opened that and then we jumped on a train to the White House and performed for President Obama.
“That was all within the space of eight hours on St. Patrick’s Day.
“I would say there’s a strong chance I won’t have another St. Patrick’s Day like that.”
Damian jokes that he will know he has really made it as a performer when he gets written about and the headline does not mention the headline Glee.
It was in 2011 that Damian appeared as Rory Flanagan, an Irish foreign exchange student.
Damian beat competition from 40,000 other hopefuls for the part.
His initial seven episode stint would be extended to almost an entire season.
Glee made icons of characters like Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester and launched the careers of actors like Lea Michele.
Do people still mention it to Damian all the time? “Of course. It’s just inevitable, isn’t it?
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘Does it frustrate you? Does it bother you?’
“And I’m like, ‘How can that possibly bother me?’ I’m nowhere near pompous enough to think that I’m going to shed the Glee tag, nor do I really want to.
“It’s something that I’m proud of.
“Of course, when you’ve done 25 episodes on one of the biggest TV shows there ever was, that’s going to be attached to your name. It was a monumental TV show in it’s time.
“I’m totally okay with that because that means I was lucky enough to be a part of it.
“The alternative is that I wasn’t a part of it.”
Despite his experience from Celtic Thunder, Damian admits it was daunting stepping into a machine that was so well oiled.
Its guest stars included big names from music as well as Hollywood like Britney Spears, Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen Mirren.
“It was intimidating going into the set because they were at the peak of their notoriety.
“Their average weekly audience was 60 million people, which is just simply unheard of on network television now. That doesn’t happen anymore.
“And that’s when I walked in. So they were literally at the peak of everything. And then there’s this Irish fella that walks into the choir room and starts singing for them.
“I might have been overwhelmed on the inside, but I’m very good at hiding things. So I was able to hide nerves on the set and I was able to hide the fact that I was a bit starstruck and the fact that I was like, ‘I can’t quite believe I’m here right now’.
“So it was definitely a bit intimidating. There’s no two ways about that. But it was a great experience.”
People have since spoke of a curse affecting the cast of Glee as three members of the cast have since passed away.
The show was still running when Corey Monteith, who played Finn Hudson, was found dead from an apparent drug overdose in 2013. He was 31.
Damian worked closely with Corey as Finn befriended Rory in the show.
“My very first day on set was made a lot easier because it was fully with Corey.
“My character and his character did a lot together. He was basically Rory’s mentor.
“I shot the whole first day with him. And maybe the whole second day as well. I’m trying to remember but all my scenes in my first episode were mainly with him.
“I couldn’t have picked anybody better in terms of being like this gentle giant. He didn’t really say it but he really understood that this was a huge deal for me. You know, this kid from Ireland was all of a sudden doing scenes with Finn Hudson.
“I couldn’t have picked a better a better partner for the first couple of days.
“His death obviously hit me hard. That was so unbelievably sad. Such a nice, nice man. So tragic.”
The cast has since been hit with two more tragedies as in 2018 Mark Salling, who played Noah ‘Puck’ Puckerman was found dead from an apparent suicide. He was 35.
Just last year Naya Rivera, who played Santana Lopez, went missing while swimming with her four year old son. After a search that lasted for days, she was found to have drowned. She was 33.
“There’s an inevitable feeling of, ‘Wow, this is just terrible’. It’s a real tragedy.
“It’s incredibly sad. To think that three of the originals are no longer with us is obviously not a not a nice thought.
“It’s tough. As human beings, we’re not built to understand that sort of loss. That frequently. That young. We don’t know how to deal with that.
“We don’t know how to process that. All people can do is just keep going and keep, you know, putting one foot in front of the other.
“To be honest, probably the only time I really look back on Glee is in interviews and when I get asked about it. In my day-to-day life, I don’t really look back on it.
“I enjoyed it but yes, it adds a strangeness to it which is unfortunate but the more unfortunate thing is those people lost their lives.”
Originally from Derry but now based in the states, has it been heart breaking to see Brexit risk the peace that has been hard fought for in the province? “Yeah, it is. But one thing nobody can take away from us is my generation.
“I think my generation have an incredibly different outlook on things.
“I will always have faith, and I will always never worry about it too much because I know what my generation looks like. And I know what our mindsets are. We are much more progressive and much more peace minded. And therefore, no matter how hard older generations try, there is going to be a day that my generation is leading the decision making here.
“I think a lot of great work has already been done and yes, maybe there’s going to be a couple of steps taken back. Let’s hope not. But maybe there is. But no matter what, there’s been 25 years of foundation laid in my generation.
“And I think come the time, we’ll be able to make the right decisions whenever we have the chance.”
The EP Those were the Days is out now.
For more information, click here.