In the family way
`It's good to be on the crest of a wave," says Galway singer Sean Keane, "but we've put a lot of effort into it and you never take for granted what you've worked so hard for." Sean Keane's singing career is very much a family-run business, and the "we" in question includes his wife Virginia, who has managed Keane, a member of one of the country's best known traditional families, since he opted to pursue a solo singing career nine years ago, with the release of his debut album, All Heart No Roses.
"There was a bunch of songs such as Erin's Lovely Home, The County of Mayo and O'Reilly which I wanted to record. These were songs which I'd been singing for years and had got from my grandmother," Sean says. Although raw around the edges, All Heart No Roses had a sense of freshness and gave many people their first chance to hear Keane's unique sean nos-style voice.
As well as traditional songs, however, that album contained contemporary material, ranging from Bob Dylan's Abandoned Love to Robbie O'Connell's Home Away from Home. This provided a clear indication of the way Sean Keane wanted his career to go. Yes, he is from a traditional background, he says, and his voice is traditional, but he chooses songs because he likes them.
"I'm not sure what strikes me first about a song, whether it's the tune or the lyric, but ultimately both have to appeal. Then I like to convert songs to fit my style of singing. Even though I might be doing a country song, I'd be doing it in a traditional way."
Now with three albums under his belt and a fourth on the way, Sean has carved a niche at home and abroad for his distinctive voice with its traditional style ornamentation, which is equally likely to embrace an American country song such as Home as a modern pop classic such as Sting's Fields of Gold.
But, while he sings contemporary material, he hasn't forgotten the songs of his childhood, which is hardly surprising, given that he was steeped in Irish music since his earliest days. His mother Bridie and aunts Rita and Sarah Keane were renowned for their interpretations of Irish songs, while his sister Dolores is also one of this country's best known singers.
However, while his background remains important, Keane has forged his own way in the Irish music scene by what many might regard as a pretty circuitous route and one which has meant that success, especially at a commercial level, hasn't come easy.
"I always knew that I wanted to sing full-time in some form or other, but then I started welding. We had a workshop at home and if the rest of the lads were away and someone came to get work done, I'd do it. That was when I was nine or 10." As a result of this, he trained in welding and engineering and now "when I finish touring, I love DIY and making things".
In the late-1970s and early 1980s, Sean lived in London, where he moved originally to pursue a day job in welding and engineering. "I was interviewed for a job in Dagenham," he explains. "But when I saw the place and all the houses I knew I didn't want to work there. I'd already met up with a band called Shegui and the folk club scene in London was thriving, so I got casual work on the building sites and we played seven nights of the week. Then Maggie Thatcher came along and regularised everything so that finished that."
Sean returned to Ireland in the early 1980s and joined the group Reel Union, alongside his sister Dolores, John Faulkner, Mairtin O'Connor and Eamonn Curran.
"We went off on a five-and-a-half month tour of America. But when we got over, things weren't as they were supposed to be. So we hired a van and were constantly on the road, driving thousands of miles. We all reached breaking point at different stages. I beat up an oak tree in Chicago," he recalls.
Eventually the group split, and when he returned to Ireland, Sean didn't play music or sing for two years.
"I'd rather have listened to Joe Dolan or Bagatelle than to traditional music at that stage. I was sick of it," he admits. "I don't know how I got myself back into playing and singing, but I think that one night at a session I just started. But it wasn't good that I stopped for that time in my early 20s."
His return to music was completed when Benny O'Connor of Shaskeen asked him to join that group. "It was the first time I started back. We recorded one album, Atlantic Breeze and did ceilis and gigs in England and Ireland." His final involvement with a band before going solo was in the late-1980s when he was a member of Arcady, alongside Sharon Shannon, Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh and Frances Black.
Remaining true to what he wants to do is enormously important to Keane, even if that means making tough decisions. Unhappy with the record company which produced his first album, he parted from it and his second album, Turn A Phrase, was produced independently by Arty McGlynn. It was a difficult time professionally and personally for his family but they survived.
"We invested every penny we hadn't got in producing Turn a Phrase, to keep the momentum of the first album going. The decision was made to do it professionally and it had to pay dividends back; otherwise it was the end of the road," he says honestly.
"There's not a lot of glamour in this business when you come at it our way. You aren't spring-boarded into the charts or pampered, with money to solve problems."
Two years ago, however, he signed a deal with Grapevine Records and is happy with that company. His business operation remains tight-knit, though, and intertwines totally with his home life. When he and Virginia are away touring, their two young daughters are cared for by Virginia's mother. It's the way he likes it, although being a team means "that we never stop talking about work".
But that's not a difficulty because "we love what we do, although I do sometimes feel guilty, because Virginia was a teacher and she loved that too".
"We complement each other," he says. "I kind of wanted her to do this from the beginning, because it's very hard to sell yourself. But we had no conventional plan. When we started out I had a little yellow book with a few contacts and I handed it to her. She was teaching then, so it was extra hassle for her, but as she was getting more confidence and more contacts, the list started growing, so we bought a bigger, black book," he says with a laugh.
Now, they have a fully operational office at their home in Galway, and it is needed. Sean is in huge demand for festivals and concerts all over Europe, and this has been the case since the beginning, he says, even before he attained success at home. Here he was noticed initially by people such as RTE's John Creedon and several of the local stations, and he began playing in small, respected venues such as Galway's Roisin Dubh, where he has played some of his most memorable gigs.
His reputation has grown and his last album, No Stranger, co-produced by the legendary American producer Jim Rooney and by Arty McGlynn, achieved platinum sales in Ireland. Now he's just about to begin work on his fourth, to be produced by the same duo, which will be released next spring.
"It'll have a whole bunch of songs, including two new ones from Jimmy McCarthy, two from Tim O'Brien, one from Dick Gaughan and one from Brendan Graham," he says.
But the sean nos hasn't been forgotten. Sean has half an unaccompanied album completed, although it's not ready for release, he says, while his concerts always feature solo songs.
"There's great gratification in doing an unaccompanied song; it brings me back to my roots. It's not even that I enjoy singing them most, but it's to do with coming from a time that most people of my age group didn't have great respect or praise for that kind of music. Even in folk clubs people thought they were old-fashioned or come-all-yous."
At present, however, he's eager to get the next album out so he can present audiences with fresh material. Although he has been performing since childhood, when he won numerous all-Ireland medals for singing, he still gets nervous in public and cannot describe what his voice is about.
"To this day I don't know what I have, except that it's God's gift and I use it to the best of my ability, singing songs I like to sing."
Sean Keane plays Dublin's Vicar Street on Sunday and appears in the National Concert Hall on October 24th, 25th and 26th as one of several special guests in a series of concerts being given by former Beatles producer George Martin, accompanied by a 70-piece orchestra