Superstar accordion player Sharon Shannon told David Hennessy how a challenge from rugby star Robbie Henshaw led to her latest album, how she has stayed busy during lockdown and seeing donated organs save her partner’s life.
Sharon Shannon has been at the forefront of Irish music for thirty years and has played with everyone from the Waterboys, Shane MacGowan, Bono and has featured not only on Steve Earle’s original Galway Girl but also on Mundy’s phenomenally popular cover. Clare’s most famous musical export has also been honoured to perform in front US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
However, the last year has been a different one for Sharon. While St. Patrick’s Day would normally see her touring, she will have another one at home due to the pandemic.
Sharon told The Irish World: “Yes, like everyone else there have been lots of ups and downs, but I always try not to focus too much on the downs, and do my best to not get sucked into negative thinking.
“As regards the crisis state in which the music industry finds itself; of course it’s hugely worrying for us all, but thankfully, Government supports and arts council grants have helped a lot and hopefully there will eventually be light at the end of the tunnel.”
A huge animal lover, Sharon has loved the positive aspect of having more time to spend at home with her pets.
“I’m a real home bird and I have several rescued cats and dogs living with with me in my home. Having to regularly leave them behind during a normal year breaks my heart. So as regards the animals, it’s been really great because there is nothing that I like better than putting on a big fire at night time and relaxing with all the animals.
“I also got time to do jobs around the house that have been put off for years and years because I literally didn’t have time to to them. One of the first things that I got stuck into was painting the interior walls of the house, and for the first time ever I decided to go crazy with colours. And I also did loads of experimenting with paint effects and stencils etc and now the inside of my house looks like a Mexican restaurant there are so many colours, and I’m loving it. It makes me very happy.”
Sharon released her latest album, The Reckoning, last year. Composed, written and recorded in its entirety during lockdown and featuring over a dozen remote collaborations from locations across the globe, the album sprung from a challenge from Robbie Henshaw.
Although he is known for playing rubgy for Ireland, Henshaw comes from a family steeped in musical tradition and when the family wanted to record a charity album for a worthy cause a few years ago, the Leinster centre joined Sharon on accordion duties.
When Sharon received a Facebook Challenge from Robbie to learn a new skill, Sharon learned the electric guitar with a clip of her accumulating over 289,000k views. Sharon’s original riff is included in her track, The Reckoning.
“Robbie is an international superstar rugby player and that’s what he’s most well known for, but yes Robbie is a great musician and he comes from a huge big musical family who are all fantastic musicians and singers. Robbie’s three sisters are brilliant players and all of his father’s brothers and sisters are musicians also and so are all of their kids, Robbie’s first cousins, so as you can imagine a Henshaw family gathering is always a gigantic musical celebration.
“Robbie’s grandfather Billy is in his nineties and is a brilliant character and great musician and is still going strong. And Robbie’s mother is a lovely singer.
“Yes, a challenge by Robbie, to learn a new skill in five days to help to raise money for charity, was the start of something brand new for me. I decided to try to learn a tune on the electric guitar. And from the first moment that I held the guitar and cranked up the volume and and the distortion, I was hooked bigtime and could barely leave it out of my hands. I’ve always loved the sound of distorted electric guitar in Irish music, and I don’t think there is enough of it.
“It was definitely a very different way to do an album. I’m not very tech savvy, so that aspect of the whole thing is a bit of a head wreck for me, but on the whole it’s absolutely amazing what can be done these days.
“There were about 50 different musicians from all over the world taking part in my album and I didn’t get to play in the same room as even one of them. That is definitely a first for me, but I’m absolutely thrilled with the result. I’m massively proud of the album and all the new tunes and new fresh sounds.
“I don’t enjoy zoom calls. I prefer one to one conversations online. Having said that, I absolutely LOVE chatting to multiple people face to face, but it’s way too confusing online.”
Sharon has spoken of how the album is dedicated to her mother who passed away six years ago now.
“I can’t believe she’s gone six years now and I really, really miss her. The time has gone by incredibly quickly. She absolutely adored music and I always loved watching her reaction to my new music. She would have loved this new album. She wouldn’t be able to stop herself from getting up dancing.”
Sharon was the subject of a special edition of The Late Late Show last year when President Michael D Higgins, U2 bassist Adam Clayton, Donal Lunny, Denise Chaila, Steve Wickham and Mundy were among those paying tribute.
What was that like for Sharon? “Aw, it was an amazing honor. We had a really, really fantastic time and I will forever be blown away and humbled by all the incredibly kind words and well wishes from everyone.
“For me, to have been given tributes like that on the Late Late Show is astonishing. I have to pinch myself to believe that it’s real. There are so many much more deserving people than me who deserve to be gifted with such an amazing honour. I really can’t understand why people have been so kind to me, but as the old saying goes, ‘Don’t look a gift house in the mouth’, so I’m definitely not going to say “No thanks”. I’m incredibly grateful, I really am.
“Denise Chaila is a fabulous artist and I really admire her in so many ways, not just her music… so it’s absolutely lovely to hear that she likes my music and was influenced by it, even if it was only in a small way.
“I was delighted that she reminded me, and everyone else, about an album that I did in Brixton in London in the early 90’s with the great reggae producer Dennis Bovell and his band.
“I’m really proud of that album, and thanks to the little nudge from Denise, I got in touch again with Dennis Bovell last year and invited him and the legendary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who happens to be a big hero of Denise also, to collaborate again with me on my new album on a track called Off to Californee (Mursheen Durkin revisited).”
Sharon and Denise performed at the Cliffs of Moher for Ireland in Music, a reimagining of TradFest for times when visitors can’t visit and Irish artists can’t tour.
“That day filming at the Cliffs of Moher was absolutely magical. We were incredibly lucky with the fact that it was an absolutely beautiful sunny day, and the whole thing couldn’t have been any more perfect.
“We were there all day long filming and it finished off in the evening with the most gorgeous sunset and with a drone flying up and down over the edge of the Cliffs.
“The end result is absolutely stunning and I have to give credit to the makers of the programme, they really went over and above the norm to make an amazing show.”
Someone else Sharon has been seen frequently performing with is SON, Susan O’Neill. Also from Clare, Susan and Sharon have toured together as far away as Australia.
“I’ve done absolutely loads of work with Susan. She has a brilliant voice and is also a great song writer. She also has an absolutely brilliant and unique way of interpreting well known ballads and rock and roll classics. I have to say she’s one of the best singers I’ve ever heard live.”
It was only in recent years when her partner’s life was saved in the nick of time by a liver transplant. Sharon took to social media to share harrowing pictures of Jimmy when he was seriously ill to share her message about the importance of organ donation.
“We can’t bring them (organs) with us when we die and each organ donor has the potential to save five lives. It’s a brilliant thing to be able to leave behind because they’re no good to us in the grave rotting away.
“My partner Jimmy and myself found out that the liver that Jimmy got was belonging to a young girl, a 19-year-old from Mayo called Orla, and we got to meet her mother and her auntie and it was just an amazing experience. She was killed in a car crash. She probably saved five lives as well. They were so so happy to meet jimmy, it was so amazing for them and it’s such a big deal for the family that are left behind, the fact that these organs are still living. It’s just an amazing thing. It probably brings comfort to some people. It brought great comfort to Orla’s family to know that Orla was able to give life to someone else.
“Jimmy is just absolutely eternally grateful for it and he thinks about poor, tragic Orla every day and he goes to visit her grave up in Mayo and everything. It means an awful lot to him.
“It’s amazing that the organs of just one person can actually save the lives of FIVE people. Heart, lung, liver and 2 kidneys. There is also the gift of eyesight which is so, so amazing and so precious. It’s a comfort to us all to believe that when we die, there is a possibility that our souls live on, but one thing for certain is that our earthly body is of no use to us whatsoever when our souls move on, we wouldn’t leave it behind us otherwise.
“So it makes so much sense to be an organ donor. It’s a very generous and powerful gift to leave behind us when we’re finished with this life. One can get an organ donor card at any pharmacy. If, like me, you’ve had several of them and keep losing them over the years, just make sure to let your family members be aware of your intentions to be an organ donor.”
Like all musicians, Sharon has had all planned tours and concerts for the past year scuppered by the virus. While she doesn’t feel sorry for herself, Sharon feels for musicians who are starting out and believes the industry can bounce back.
“I feel for the young musicians starting out bigtime. Everything is put on hold for them even more so than for established musicians.
“But as I said before, hopefully there will eventually be light at the end of the tunnel and in the meantime there’s absolutely nothing to stop any of us writing new music at home and improving our musical skills as much as we can.
“I think the next six months will be critical. It’s very difficult to predict what will happen, but our Australian agent wants to confirm our rescheduled tour of Australia and New Zealand for March 2022. That’s very encouraging. I absolutely love Australia and New Zealand.”
Sharon Shannon will perform a special global livestream from the NationalConcert Hall Dublin on Saturday 20 March, a celebration of music and song on St Patrick’s weekend. This event joins a series of livestream performances in a partnership with the National Concert Hall and Serious, which also includes an exclusive concert by Christy Moore on 1 May.
For more information, click here.