Michael McDonagh spoke to Derry girl and soprano Margaret Keys who has come a long way since her BBC debut
Derry-born soprano Margaret Keys is releasing a new album next month, The Gift Of Music, which she has found time to record in her very busy life of touring and performing all over the world.
Margaret lived in Derry during and towards the end of The Troubles, her father was SDLP councillor Bill Keys who was given an OBE in 1996. for his contribution to the peace process. Tell us a little about your formative years. Were you at school with other famous Derry musicians?
“I grew up in Derry but not at the worst time of it as as when I grew up it was an era when things were beginning to cool down and it was not such a dangerous place to live.
“There were moves to bring peace and bring it all to an end and my dad was very involved with that, as a member of the SDLP.
“I was from the same era as Nadine Coyle, I was a long time after Dana but in Derry there is so much culture and not just music, as we had Seamus Heaney too.
“The time of my parents was definitely a more difficult time for them with all the violence that was going on but I grew up in a different era, when there was a move to bring the peace process on and in my family that was around us as children, as my dad was part of the SDLP, who were totally against violence. I was very aware of the peace side of things as I was growing up, as that was very much in our household rather than the negativity of it all.
“It was instilled in us that everything had to be done peacefully and that was the way forward.
How did you get into singing , was it church or school choirs or Irish folk sessions?
“Although there were no professional musicians, as such, in our family we were a family that enjoyed music and singing and it was there all the time.
“My maternal grandparents lived next door to us, so I spent a lot of my time as child with my grandparents. Both my grandmother and grandfather were really good singers and they enjoyed listening to things like and Mario Lanza and things like that or Doris Day and those kind of stars.
“So because I was immersed in that, it was part of my background and life. I suppose looking back that was the best way, as it was a natural process. I was not forced to do it or to go to stage school or anything like that but I think then that once my parents and my grandparents thought ‘Oh! She is quite good.’ I was sent to a local teacher as a young child.
“But it was not stagey and was more about building up my repertoire than technique and then from that, when I was about 14 or 15 or 16, from winning bigger events and competitions, I entered an exam for Trinity in Dublin.
“The examiner picked me out and told me I had potential and asked me had I thought where I wanted to go with this… but as young girl from Derry I had not given it a thought. “I’d just enjoyed singing in choirs and things. He awarded me a medal and gave me full marks in my exam and that was the catalyst to make me realise that I am actually not too bad at this.”
When did you decide you wanted to make a career out of your talent as a soprano?
“Well I have a twin sister and while we were both musical from school she went and did medicine. So when I said to my parents I wanted to train as a singer their initial reaction was ‘Why would you not think of doing a degree whilst you are training to sing?’ so that’s what I did.
“I studied for a degree in Musical Education to train to be a teacher but at the same time I travelled up and down by train to Trinity.
“I did that two days a week and that was quite an undertaking but I stuck with it. Once I had finished my music degree I could apply to all the the conservatoires and I got into most of them. But I decided to go to The Royal Conservatoire in Scotland, as I felt there was a Celtic feel to it and that there was more that I could relate to, so I studied there for about two years then went to some auditions.”
Was your big break the BBC TV programme How Do You solve a Problem Like Maria when you met Andrew Lloyd Webber, after which you won the BBC Fame Academy Award?
“I entered that programme for The Sound Of Music, I did not win it but I got to the final cut and after meeting , and won the Fame Academy which was connected to it, I was sent to New York. I was given a bursary and an apartment there so I could train and get a real grounding in what you need to do and how good you need to be. I stayed there for quite a while and I got to meet and work with lots of famous singers and it was a real eye-opener for me.”
You have now performed all over the world with some great voices like Andre Bocelli, Aretha Franklin, Alfie Boe and Russell Watson, you have performed at Carnegie Hall and even performed for the Pope:
“Well we did not perform all together but were performing separately for Pope Francis in Philadelphia for the first State Papal visit in 15 years. Different people from all over the world were asked to perform for him, Aretha Franklin was one, Andre Bocelli was one and I was one. That really was the highlight of my career. Then soon after that came Carnegie Hall the next year, then after that came The Royal Albert Hall, which was a real moment as well.”
It was such a pity your dad did not live to see you perform for the Pope:
“It was very sad that my father was no longer alive to hear me singing for the Pope as he would have loved that as he always wanted me to do something like that but I never thought it was ever possible. So maybe he had a wee helping hand in there somewhere. I included Phil Coulter’s song The Old Man on the album, as it now means so much to me. I sang it live for the first time at the opening of an Arts Fesrtival last week and it went down really well.”
How did you choose the repertoire on your new album as it has quite a variety on it – from Irish airs like Carrickfergus and An Irish Blessing, to La Vie En Rose and back to classics like Danny Boy?
“I did not want it to be like every other crossover album which are all very much the same. But there is such a wide repertoire that I took about two months to gather my thoughts and carefully select the songs and I got it down to about forty songs then had to whittle that down, which was very hard and I had to be very strict.
“I wanted the album to reflect me as a singer and to reflect me as a person, so I chose songs which I can describe as a ‘cocktail of my musical experiences and training’ and also to contain personal experiences as well.
“I didn’t want it to be like other crossover albums, as you are aware with some of them there is a lot of the same music that keeps coming out on them. At the same time I did not want to steer away too much where it would take away from the audience who have followed me .
“I wanted it to be cinematic in nature with a little touch of Irish flair, so it is a lovely sentimental journey between me and the listener. There is a big connection between me and the person listening to it. It is important to me that there is that personal connection there. I tried to get a balance between the classic Irish songs like Danny Boy and other classic songs like La Vie En Rose, which I wanted to do authentically, half in English and half in French, which I don’t think anybody has ever done before. (Editor’s note – actually Grace Jones did in 1977, it was the third single from her album Portfolio.)
“I am continuing my tour with Russell Watson and we fly to Jersey to begin the tour again and then I have been invited by the lovely Michael Crawford to be his guest at An Evening With Michael Crawford.He does not really do concerts so this is something special he will be doing in Cambridge in August and then I will be doing my own tour of the album. As well as that I have lots of other different projects that are in the pipe line and am very excited to be doing an album launch in the West End in June.
“I have been singing a long time and I have worked really hard and it is like everything else, to be successful you really have to put the work in. I know what I need to do and be confident that I was not an overnight success and it is now time for some new faces, so it will be lovely if my album does well. There is nobody Irish doing this cross over thing, Katherine Jenkins is doing it for the Welsh but there is nobody Irish doing it.”