Interview with Patricia Cahill

Noted author Norman Mongan was kind enough to interview this lovely, talented Irish lady for the Celtic Cafe on the eve of her performance at a remarkable event in Paris. The Gala, a benefit for the Ireland Fund de France, featured Guest of Honour Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate for Literature.

Admired as “The Irish Nightingale” Patricia Cahill’s Celtic roots run deep In Ireland. Her O’Cahill ancestors were powerful clan chieftains at Ballycahill Castle and, until 1650, lords of Corca Thine. Now Templemore parish in the lush rolling landscapes of County Tipperary, where there are still three town lands known as Ballycahill.

The Dublin-born beauty has sung her way into the hearts of people all over the world. Her uniquely beautiful voice has a very special something that transcends all musical frontiers, as her many albums and CD’s aptly demonstrate. From the Celtic folk songs of her native land to easy listening to numbers from the great shows, she brings an extraordinary vocal talent to her exquisite interpretations of some of the most thrilling melodies ever written.

Recently returned from concert engagements in America, Patricia talked to Norman Mongan at her home near Marbella on Spain’s Costa del Sol about her past achievements and her artistic dreams for the future.

Where does your family come from?

Well, my parents were both born in Dublin, and they grew up right across the road from each other in a place called Donnybrook.

My grandparents actually came from Kilkenny, just 25 miles from Templemore in Tipperary. Some years ago I had a letter from a cousin in Kilkenny who was selling his family home, and he had come across a large photo-montage of my grandfather’s family he had found in his attic. It was a very large family with many priests and nuns, quite normal in those times also many of whom went to America If family history serves me right, I think it was my grandfather’s brother, Reverend Fr. Henry J. Cahill, who was parish priest at St Paul’s Church in Minnesota. I’ve never sung in Minnesota, I wonder if anybody out there knew him?

How old were you when you sang your first note?

That’s difficult to answer. When I sang my first note, I can’t quite remember but I do remember the first time I sang in front of an audience. I was going to dancing classes with my best friend at the age of 10, as at the time all I wanted to be was dancer.

One afternoon, my friend Angela said to the teacher, “You must ask Pat to sing.” When I say this, it is obvious that I had been singing, but I have no recollection of singing before that. Also I only knew one song which meant that I must have been listening to it and learning the words in order to sing the song. So I went ahead and sang for my first audience consisting of the dancing teacher and a class full of 10-year-olds during a dancing lesson. My song was Doris Day’s “Once I Had a Secret Love”. I might add that after this event, any charity shows the dancing class were asked to do, I was always asked to sing, of course.

When did you realise that you wanted singing as a career?

I never planned to be a singer during all my form days to the age of 12, when I first started to take singing lessons as the result of singing at a wedding in Dublin, and the organist Dan McNulty (who incidentally was a very famous blind organist who played in John’s Lane in Thomas St) said to my mother afterwards, “Have you ever thought of having Patricia’s voice trained?” To which she answered, “Do you think her voice is good enough?” He replied, “As far as I’m concerned it is.”

I had lessons with him for two years, after which I went to boarding school in Co. Wicklow, where I was taught by Sr. Agnes, two wonderful teachers for a young voice, for which I have always been very grateful.

I was called for an audition the year I left school, and I passed the audition for a week’s engagement in the Theatre Royal in Dublin. I had an offer from a comedian called Jack Cruise, who used to put on huge variety shows in the theatre, and he asked me if I would sing in his show. I had been highly recommended by the theatre manager, who had taken my audition. I gladly said yes to this offer, and that was the beginning of my career – I haven’t stopped singing since!

What singers had the most influence on you’re early career?

This is a hard question for me to answer, as I wouldn’t say that I have been influenced by any particular singer. I loved Deanna Durbin’s clarity of voice, Maria Callas for her passionate interpretations, and Barbra Streisand also for her complete handling of a song, she seemed to make every song she sang her own.

I have enjoyed these singers, but they have never had an influence on me as a performer. I was given advice when I was very young: never to copy anyone else, always to get the sheet music first, learn the music and only then, if I wanted, to listen to others – I would know exactly how I wanted to sing it.

How did you get your first recording contract?

The first record I ever did – I was asked by Willie Brady, a fellow performer in one of the shows that I did, he was recording for Avoca records in America and he said that his company had expressed an interest in making an album with me.

Probably it was on his recommendation, as I don’t remember ever meeting the management of the company involved. And my contract with this company was for only one album of Irish songs, called Ireland’s Patricia Cahill Sings For You.

My next long-term contract was with Decca, and this was purely as a result of my popularity in Ireland. They felt that there was a market for my singing in the country, and with the Decca label I went on to record ten albums of various kinds of music. And these included two singles that went into the Irish pop charts.

After many years signed with Decca you recently founded your own ‘Alta Music’ label?

A few years ago I came up with the idea that rather than traveling to different concert dates and hoping that there would be good musicians who could play my music. I decided to have some orchestral backing tracks made of the songs I performed in concert. I contacted Andy O’Callaghan, an extremely talented and much sought-after Irish music arranger in Dublin. It was while recording those backing tracks in his studio that Andy one day suggested we make an album of the songs. It sounded like a great idea, as I was no longer contracted to Decca, and an ideal opportunity to form my own label to produce future albums.

The name comes from the area where I live in here in Spain, Alta meaning high, and is also the type of voice I have. I also thought it an easy name to remember, and so it became Alta Music. The first songs I recorded were show tunes that I sang in my cabaret act and these were featured on my Encore album. Then I decided to follow up with an Irish album My Ireland, which included most of the songs I am most often asked to sing, not just traditional, but songs people loved which is why I recorded them.

Who is your favourite songwriter at present?

I couldn’t pick just one as it would be too difficult, so I’ll mention my top three. Andrew Lloyd Webber for his beautiful show tunes, always a joy for me to sing. Elton John for his inventive and very exciting music, “The Lion King” alone I just love, as well as most of his other songs and as a great performer. And Janis Ian, who has a nice touch of getting right to the point and writing some very poignant songs. My favourite track “At Seventeen” just listen to those lyrics!

Who is your favourite Irish composer at present?

Bill Whelan immediately comes to mind. The first time I heard anything from Riverdance was when I was listening to the radio one day and I heard this Spanish piece, which they announced was from the show. It was absolutely magnificent. Bill actually appeared on one of my shows with a group he had then with some very talented Irish musicians, mainly orchestral players and session musicians.

On a personal note, I bought the Riverdance CD, and one of my most enduring memories which will always stay with me, is being in my living room here looking out over an absolute scarlet sunset with that particular piece playing at the same time. The association of both was unbelievable. So thank you Bill for that moment.

What unfulfilled dreams do you still want to achieve?

Firstly, when I think about this question, I think of famous places where I have not sung in and where I would love to sing. And that would be Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera House, and St Peter’s in Rome. That’s a crazy thought, but I have sung in a lot of churches, so that would really be a dream! Another dream is that I wish my voice could be heard by lots more people around the world.

And if I may just mention the many comments from some of the people who have heard my voice, and the emails that I have received, if I remember all those highly complimentary letters, I only wish that many more people could experience the joy that so many of these people have felt.

A comment from one particular man has remained with me. His email said he had “heard your beautiful voice and music for the first time, and all I can say is you turned my heavy heart into a feather floating on the breeze”. I was quite touched by that remark.

Do you ever suffer from stage fright? How do you control it?

No, I wouldn’t say stage fright, I don’t exactly know if I’ve ever experienced it. When other people in show business talk about it, it’s a sort of paralysis when you are about to go on stage. Certainly I am extremely nervous before I perform, whether for big or small audiences. It’s the same with me. But once I open my mouth, and start singing within a minute or so the heart begins to beat normally and I begin to really enjoy what I am doing. John McCormack always said he was always nervous before he sang the first note, but once he heard the voice, he was OK. I think this is a sentiment that most singers would agree with.

What was your most scary moment performing?

I wouldn’t exactly use the word scary, as I have no recollection of ever being scared. More like exciting or nerve-wracking, I remember the night that I sang in the London Palladium. That night was a dream come true for me as I had always wanted to sing there. Sunday Night at the London Palladium at that time was the major TV show that a lot of artists would have considered the pinnacle in their career. It went out live to 30 million people!

What was your greatest audience response ever?

I have been very fortunate in the response that I have received from audiences wherever I have sung. But I can think of a particular season that I did in cabaret where on a number of nights, the audience rose to their feet after just four songs. Normally, you might receive a standing ovation after 60 minutes, but not usually after only 12-13 minutes.

Do you enjoy touring?

Yes, I enjoy touring as long as I don’t have to do it too often. Traveling long distances and staying in different hotels is not very enjoyable, but at the end of a tour, if the audiences have been good, that’s the only memory you will have.

Staying in good, comfortable hotels is all right but there’s no compensation if the audiences have been lukewarm. If the audience is good the travel aspect doesn’t matter very much.

How did your recent trip to the US go?

Fantastic and I hope there will be many more of them. It was my first time in California, and it was almost like home from home for me, as I now live in Southern Spain and the climate is very similar to California. I gave performances in Seattle and in Sacramento. I couldn’t have asked for greater audiences, and I look forward to my next trip there.

Talking about churches, it brings back a wonderful memory of singing at the Cathedral in Seattle, at the wedding of a friend, with a wonderful organist and marvellous experience with a completely natural voice, no technical aids. A bit nerve-wracking but very satisfying hence my dream of singing in St. Peter’s in Rome one day!

You performed for Irish President Mary McAleese with Riverdance producer John McColgan last year. How did that come about?

A few years ago I had my own TV series in Ireland called Patricia, produced by John McColgan. He produced my Songs from the Series album at the time. He was already an excellent producer in his pre-Riverdance days. John is a great admirer of Ireland’s premier comedienne Maureen Potter. And when he decided to put on a spectacular testimonial show with all the friends she had worked with she asked for me, so I was absolutely delighted to be there for her special night. It was a wonderful evening and a night to remember in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.

What projects are you working on at present?

I’m looking forward very much to recording my next album. In fact, I’m working on two albums at present; a Gospel album, an album of my own compositions. And another Irish album, as there are so many beautiful Irish melodies to sing. In order to choose from a wider selection of songs, I am asking people who order my albums from my website to give me an idea of what other Irish songs they would like to hear me sing. Up to now I have been delighted with the ideas I have received.

How do you keep your voice in shape?

Well, when I am touring, normally before a performance I do a quick rehearsal to wake up my voice. But when I am between bookings I usually sing to some of my backing tracks just to keep the voice in trim. I find this far more stretching for the voice rather than doing scales.

You are admiringly known as the “Irish Nightingale”. How did that come about?

That came from a headline in an Irish national newspaper. Apparently a journalist was writing about a theatre in Dublin, and when it came to me the headline read “Patricia Cahill – The Nightingale of Dame St!” I picked up on this, as I thought it was highly complimentary and sort of gave out the impression that I would like people to have of my voice, a crystal-clear sound quality, and I hope that people who hear my voice would agree with me on this.

How do you stay in top form?

Well, I’m not always in top form, but I certainly do try to keep well. For day-to-day living it is certainly essential to stay in good form and as a singer it is otherwise impossible to perform. As everyone knows, life is much more enjoyable when you have lots of energy to enjoy it.

I watch my diet, and my diet is eating a bit of everything and not too much of anything. Living where I live in Spain means that I get a lot of fresh air. Even if I don’t go for long walks, there is lots of fresh air coming from the open windows and I pay the odd visit to the gym.

Is it true that you mostly use homeopathic medicine?

Yes, it is the only medicine that I use. Since I was first introduced to homeopathy about four years ago, I have never even taken an aspirin for a headache since. I’m only sorry that I wasn’t introduced to homeopathy much earlier on, as I know I would have enjoyed my singing career more by feeling far more relaxed and in charge. I spent years taking antibiotics when I got sore throats and colds in order to get rid of them quickly. I didn’t realise how damaging this was, so homeopathy has made a huge impact on my health, and of course my life.

How are your albums doing in the US market?

I’m very happy with my album sales, as most of my website sales are from America. And of course, as the web is world-wide, my records are being sent to countries all over the world, which is a thrilling idea for me that somebody might be listening to my albums in Africa, Australia, or China. Without my website they might otherwise never have even heard of me.

Do you prefer concert performances or studio recordings?

Concert performances, anything live! I’ve always felt quite restricted in a recording studio, and one of my wishes for the future would be to do a live performance album. I always sing better, and with more emotion, when I have an audience in front of me, and I love the rapport that I can achieve with an audience.

What are your favourite tracks on your latest Encore or My Ireland albums?

My favourite track on Encore, because it was unusual for a woman, and a song I chose by accident rather than by plan — was Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”. Then “At Seventeen” comes a close second. “Janis Ian, when are you going to write another song like this please?”

My favourite track on the My Ireland album is “Macushla” a song I’ve always loved, but was always considered a man’s song. But when you read through the lyrics, you wonder why other women have not been singing it. After all it’s about one’s mother.

When are you going to do a Greatest Hits album?

This is another project that I am working on, but the problem is to get these things done along with all my other commitments. The idea is to take my favourite song from each album that I have done, and to make a new composite album.

I have recently discovered recordings of songs I sang when I was just 14 to 16 years old, and I am now going through the process of seeing how they might be remastered digitally for inclusion in my new album, I’ll have to keep you up-to-date on that. If technically possible it really would be an amazing thing to do.

What about your future work?

Right now, I am putting a lot of time into my new albums, as well as singing for quite a few private functions, here in Europe.

One performance I am really looking forward to is in Paris. I have been invited by the Ireland Fund de France to perform at their Gala Banquet in Paris in early April. The Guest of Honour will be Irish Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, Laureate Seamus Heaney.

They raise monies every year for very deserving charities and cultural projects in Ireland, so I’m delighted to be able to contribute to that event.