According to Sharon
INTERVIEW:The accordion player, who has appeared with Bono, The Chieftains, Nigel Kennedy and Wille Nelson – and played in the White House – has an album to promote but she is more interested in talking about rescuing dogs, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY
GALWAY IS IN full festival mood as the Volvo Ocean Race celebrations culminate tonight in a concert featuring Sharon Shannon and a 40-piece orchestra. She is delighted to be part of it all, not just because it is Galway, where she lives, but it means that her beloved dogs won’t have to wait long for her to come home.
“For me it is the worst part – the only bad bit about performing – is the travel. I hate leaving the dogs behind. When I’m at home, I bring them down to the beach every day, it is my favourite thing to.”
For this reason her recording studio is within driving distance of her house, and the dogs come too. Normal is her medium; she is one of Ireland’s most internationally successful artists and has played for US presidents and for royalty. She played in the White House for President Clinton, had an open-air concert on a stage with Sydney Opera House providing a dramatic backdrop and has toured with violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy, Willie Nelson and Jackson Browne as well as appearing and recording with The Chieftains, Bono and Adam Clayton. She is, in fact a superstar, only she doesn’t know it or seems not all that bothered.
There have never been sulks or tantrums, always a smile and a genuine goodness. If more people were like Sharon Shannon, the world would be a great deal happier. Her new album, her ninth, The Flying Circus, on which she wrote, or co-wrote, most of the tracks with her long-time accompanist, guitarist Jim Murray, was recorded with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
“It was a great experience; I had never played under a conductor before. It is amazing seeing how David kept all of the instruments together. If he heard a false note, he could immediately identify where it was coming from. Totally different from what I’m used to playing solo or with a band. I loved it.”
It is an intriguingly intimate blend of the distinctive Shannon button accordion with its verve and energy ably supported by an orchestra playing with a relaxed lightness of touch. Particularly effective is the string section. The mood piece Cape Clear, a traditional Irish air, is hauntingly beautiful and if one thing is capable of deflecting the horrors of this dismal summer weather it is this album which opens with a lively track, Top Dog Gaffo, dedicated to one of Shannon’s dogs,that died this time last year. “I had Gaffo for 14 years; he was the pup of a pregnant stray I rescued from the road. I called her Daisy. She was a fantastic character. She died in March when I was touring in Australia, I know she was very old, but I don’t have to tell you I was upset I was.”
She doesn’t have to, her face says it all. She is about to cry and pauses, waiting for the moment to pass. Shannon is an emotional individual, it shines through her music and she always engages with her audience. Everyone likes her, she is easy to work with and knows her own musical mind, often surprising by her attention to detail, all softened by her characteristic opening gambit: “Come here to me.” The only criticism ever voiced about her is that she does not promote herself.
The new album, still in a word-of-mouth situation, has been recognised as something very different and exciting. But she just smiles as she says, “I’m glad you like it.” For all her success, she has never seen music as a business. “It has always been part of my life; our home was full of it. It was great – my brother Garry, the eldest, is a wonderful musician and my sisters, Majella and Mary, are as well. We would always be playing, individually, and then suddenly, it would turn into a full session.”
She considers herself very lucky. She seems fixed in the public mind as a smiling young girl, content with her dogs. But she has endured her own personal heartbreak with the unexpected death of her partner Leo Healy, who died of a sudden heart attack, aged only 46, four years ago. “That’s not the kind you get over, we had a wonderful time together and I still miss him a lot.”
She turned 44 early last month and her parents still live on the family farm while her siblings are all settled nearby with their children.
“Growing up on the farm was a happy time. Daddy used to breed Irish Draught horses but as we were all riding and jumping ponies at the local shows, he became more involved with Connemara ponies. We had a huge area to ride in; the farm at Ruan, Corofin is about 84 acres. Garry now works it as well as teaching Irish and French in Ennis and still finds the time to play the concert flute with the Kilfenora Céilí band. I was different; I concentrated wholly on the music.”
Before she joined the Waterboys in 1989, she worked with Jim Sheridan on a Druid production of The Hostage, playing traditional Irish music. John Dunford became her manager in 1990 and her first album soon followed.
Even when wearing a funny little pair of black wedge shoes, she is a tiny, girlish figure and appears not to have changed. She has been performing in public since she was 11: “33 years” she exclaims and looks mildly horrified at the thought.
It is Sunday morning in Dublin; she is about to go back to Galway, to her dogs and cats. The previous night she had performed in Castlewellan, Co Down, the night before that it was Newtownbutler in Fermanagh and on Thursday she had a concert in Killarney. She must be tired but she is known for never complaining.
She is wearing a red tee-shirt with “Madra” written on it. It is a dog rescue centre in Connemara. “I’ve been a patron of Madra for the last 10 years or so,” she says and refers to the tremendous work being carried out there by Marina Fiddler.
“I’ve done a lot of research on the subject of animal welfare and you know, it upsets me as an Irish person to have discovered that Ireland is the puppy farm capital of Europe. The idea of knowing that there are breeding bitches producing litter after litter.....”
Suddenly a very different Sharon Shannon begins to emerge, sitting straight-backed against her chair and serious. She has thought a great deal about this. “There are lots of fantastic animal rescues and shelters all over the country with dedicated volunteers working really hard to try to give homeless animals a chance. What I really want to encourage people to do is to support their local animal rescues and shelters. If someone is thinking of getting a pet, please, please save a life by going to the local pound or shelter and save a life.”
The recession has also had an impact on small domestic animals, along with the well-publicised plight of horses, and she points out that, in addition to all the wonderful mixed-breed dogs looking for homes, there are now increasing numbers of pedigree dogs that have been abandoned. “You can get any pedigree breed you could possibly want,” she says.
As a farmer’s daughter she has a long association with clever working collies: “But they make wonderful pets as well,” she says. There is a sticker on her tee-shirt: “I walked for the greyhounds,” it declares. She was one of about 100 people and their dogs who recently walked in Dublin to promote adopting retired greyhounds as pets. The appalling plight of former racing dogs found dead, discarded in a field in Co Limerick, has highlighted the sad reality of life after racing. “That scandal and the way they were just dumped, is only the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
She peers closely at me and begins to smile, back to her usual expression. “Come here,” she says. “I know that I should be speaking to you about the new album, and about playing in Galway for the Ocean Race, and did I tell you that earlier during the race, at the Auckland stage, in March, that I played in that as well? And of course I hope people enjoy the album. But what I really want to talk about is another fantastic animal rescue that I’m involved with – Animal Heaven Animal Rescue – it has saved thousands of animals all over Ireland.”
Founded by Suzanne Gibbons in 1991, AHAR is unique. “The reason I support this particular organisation so wholeheartedly is that it is run entirely by volunteers and every cent donated to AHAR goes directly to the animals – covering the costs of neutering and vaccinations as well as food.”
When asked what is her biggest ambition, she laughs. It is obvious that she is not going to say she dreams of filling Carnegie Hall. “My ambition and my dearest hope is to raise sufficient funds to build a state-of-the-art animal rescue centre that will be run totally by volunteers and by people like Suzanne Gibbons and Marina Fiddler – both of whom I admire so much. And I hope, without sounding naïve or unrealistic, that the day will come that no healthy animal – be it dog, cat, horse, donkey or whatever, all of which give us humans so much pleasure – needs to be put down for the want of a loving home.”