How It’s New York: Michael Londra plays with Caitlin Warbelow, who lives in NY and teaches advanced fiddle at the Irish Arts Center!
How It’s Irish: Michael Londra is from Wexford, Ireland’s opera capital. He sometimes teaches Irish words to the crowd.
Michael Londra is in New Jersey this weekend! His PBS specials make you hungry to see the real deal (this interview makes you hungry for pie).
This interview was originally published in Irish Examiner USA back in November, so ignore the bit about sending pies to San Francisco. You can, however, still send cherry pies to me.
Of Pies, Music And Ireland
Gwen Orel Interviews Former Riverdance On Broadway Singer Michael Londra
The way to former Riverdance on Broadway singer Michael Londra’s heart is through pie.
His favorites are coconut cream and banana cream. Pecan pie is also good.
He was in South Carolina a while back, and one of the PBS women had made a caramel pecan pie. “Holy mother of god,” he sighed.
He’s in San Francisco in December, following a Thanksgiving parade in Pittsburgh (send pies to the Marines Memorial Theatre).
But connecting with his fans, including accepting baked goods, is not just a by-product of fame to him. It’s part of what he loves the most.
Unlike some of the other PBS Celtic specials, like those of Celtic Thunder and Celtic Woman, Michael likes to keep his show loose, and talk to the audience.
If you missed one of those airings, you can buy the DVD
Beyond Celtic, and the CD of the same name; it just came out in October.
It’s a fascinating blend of the PBS Celtic-theme show specials and more serious classical.
In addition to Irish favorites like “The Water Is Wide” and “Danny Boy” (his version on YouTube has had 5 million hits) it also includes some songs Michael wrote himself, including “Star of Cartagena” and “Brand New World.”
Smack in the middle of the special, there is some trad from Frankie Gavin and De Dannan who perform a controlled and exciting fast version of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”
When I watched the DVD, and Frankie went into the second jig in a jig set, I let out a “whoo.” Then I realized, I am at home. Nobody is watching! Michael laughs when I tell him that.
“Frankie is kind of one of my music idols, and even though I asked them to come, I never in a million years thought that they would. I was shaking in my boots when he walked in.”
Michael gave the invitation, because Michael is not only the star of the DVD, he is also its producer.
Unlike a lot of performers, he really enjoys the background work.
“I’m used to bringing a lot of people together. I know nearly everybody in Irish music.”
But this is the first time since leaving Riverdance that he’s gone back to being the front man and singer. “I don’t know how comfortable with that I am!” he says.
Asked if it’s hard to split his focus, to stand on stage and perform without being distracted by a mis-aimed light, he says “not when you’re a control freak!”
Of course, there are other producers involved in the project as well.
Inviting Frankie Gavin is part of what Michael wants to accomplish with Beyond Celtic.
“I think North Americans have a very washed down version of the ‘Celtic’ and the word ‘Irish’ and what Irish music is. I certainly am not authentic, I’m not the real deal, but because of where I’ve built this level of success I’m able to show them what the real deal is.”
“People who are legends like Frankie, often go unacknowledged in America. He’s not as generic as what people think Irish music is, but that’s Irish music. I do that in every concert; I always have trad players, and always try to teach a little bit of Gaelic to the audience. I try to keep it real, depart from shamrocks and shillelaghs.”
Michael grew up in Wexford, known as the singing capital of Ireland, and home to the Wexford Festival Opera.As Michael explains, that “kind of filters through to everybody in the town. Everybody loves singing and they grow up with a classical taste.” He always woke up to his mother one of 12 siblings, singing – usually some country, or Doris Day. His father loved Elvis.
One of his own earliest memories of singing is singing “Slaney Valley” for his grandmother.
“I have all sorts of influences, I’m a mixed bag,” he said. His ipod has on it Kanye, Maura O’Connell, the Dixie Chicks. “I’m all over the shop.”
He began Classical training at age 9, as a boy soprano. He’d hear the American music in the morning, then go and sing Verdi down the road. In the pub. Wexford is a small town, only 18,000 people, and the Classical vibe is everywhere. During the Wexford Festival Opera in October, in addition to hearing gorgeous music in the beautiful opera house with high end seats, you could also go down to the pub, and you might hear Paddy Murphy get up and sing “Slaney Valley,” and then a Russian soprano might get up and sing an aria by Gustav Mahler, and then an American tenor will get up and sing a French art song, and then someone would play a tune on the fiddle, Michael says. It’s a fusion that is unique.
“Every child in Wexford had access to that. A working class kid would never have access to Classical or opera in Ireland, so that gave me a basis.”
Despite that, he never thought singing could be a career, and worked as a Behavioral Therapist for ten years when he left school.
There was only one music degree course with 30 people per year for the whole country in the 80s.
It’s changed since then of course, and some of that has to do with Riverdance.
“We never believed in ourselves as much as we do now,” he said. “Since the onset of Riverdance and Enya and U2 and the Corrs and the Celtic Tiger, it changed everything. It made teenagers sit up and say, oh, Irish dancing is sexy, or Irish singing is a way to make money. As Riverdance we were the poster children for that, luckily in me it all came together.”
It was only at age 30 when friends of his sat him down and told him he had to go for it that he decied to try. And he hasn’t stopped working since.
He appeared in the world premiere of the musical JFK, then did the first national tour of Riverdance as a lead singer, before doing it on Broadway, taking over from Frank Kennedy.
He co-produced the soundtrack of Rent, and arranged the music in the Broadway show.
His first album, Celt, was released in 15 countries worldwide.
He created Radiocelt.com in 2003, an online Irish music station.
His first Christmas album, Beyond the Star, came out in 2009; it will shortly be re-released.
Michael also is an ambassador for global relief organization Concern Worldwide, and uses his performances to aid awareness of hunger and poverty in Haiti.
In addition to Frankie Gavin and De Dannan, Beyond Celtic also features a 16 piece orchestra and Ruth and Joyce O’Leary of the group Sephira, and top Irish dancers. The blend of styles is seductive and smooth, and Michael transitions easily from a pure Classical style in “Magic Sara” (in Italian) to the art style of “The Road Not Taken” to folky intensity in “Follow Me Up to Carlow.”
“Star of Cartagena,” which he sings with Sephira, is a very personal one, he says, written several years ago in Spain.
“I was always getting in trouble with my teachers in Ireland for going down to the pubs and singing fok songs, maybe having a cigarette and the odd pint. Luckily I gave up the cigarettes, but I still do the pint.”
Introducing that Variety drives him. “Everything but the dancing bears!” he says. Just as Riverdance helped introduce some people to the whole concept of traditional music, he hopes his productions will do the same. He has just asked Kathleen Keane, a whistle player in Chicago, to join the tour in 2012.
“I think people get bored listening to me all night! I’m not the person singing a Frank Sinatra song and telling you that it’s Irish. I’m not really an Irish tenor. I’m a tenor, and I’m Irish, but if I were what they call an Irish tenor, I’d have to be singing mostly art songs.”
When he says he’s not authentic, he means he’s not really trad. But he is really Irish.
Real Irish music is, and has been for a long time, a blend of European songs, Classical music, American pop, and trad. “Communicating what’s at home, what comes from home, is a major passion for me,” he says.
Pies can be sent to the Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street, San Francisco, California, 94102
Gwen Orel runs the blog and podcast New York Irish Arts, newyorkirisharts.com. Her preferred pie is cherry.