David Hennessy spoke to Sharon Shannon ahead of her upcoming tour about her upcoming tour, how Galway Girl was ignored at first but then went on to become such a hit and the recent loss of her friend Seamus Begley.
Sharon Shannon has been at the forefront of Irish music for more than thirty years and has played with everyone from the Waterboys to Bono and of course she featured not only on Steve Earle’s original Galway Girl but also on Mundy’s phenomenally popular cover.
Undoubtedly one of the biggest names in Irish traditional music, she comes to the UK in February for a tour that includes three dates at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.
Sharon told The Irish World: “It’s been 17 years since I played at the ICC so I’m really looking forward to playing three shows there.”
Sharon has been coming to the UK to play since she was with a local band that she started playing with when she was only eight years old.
“I’ve been playing music in the UK since I was fourteen, firstly with a band from Co. Clare called Dísirt Tóla, and at age sixteen I toured with Cómhaltas groups and then a few years in the late 80s with The Waterboys.”
Early in her career, Sharon would tour the world with The Waterboys before leaving to record her 1991 debut album which would become the best-selling album of traditional music ever.
“After my first album came out I was signed to a UK record label and that’s when I first started doing Sharon Shannon band gigs so I have a long association with playing shows in England.”
Sharon is renowned for her collaborations, not just in Irish traditional music, but through all musical genres, Hip-Hop, Cajun, Country, Reggae, Classical and Rap.
However, while she has excelled in many genres of music, her style remains traditional Irish and she has been hugely influential in promoting Irish music, not only in her own country but around the world.
It is well known that Sharon played on both Steve Earle’s Galway Girl and on Mundy’s well known cover.
It is a tune she is synonymous with and many who come to her upcoming UK shows will be looking forward to hearing it.
While some performers have been known to get tired of playing their well known hits, Sharon has an attitude far removed from that.
She loves playing music and to play the tracks people want to hear is exactly what it is about for her.
“Playing the hits at shows is always good fun.
“Audiences love to hear them and when the audience is happy, the band is happy.
“So in answer to your question, you’re correct I have absolutely no problem with playing the hits.
“I actually really enjoy playing them.”
Could you have known what a massive deal that song would have been when you were making it? Did you know you had something special the first time you heard it?
“Steve Earle came to Galway in 1999 originally with the purpose of writing a book of poems but he ended up writing that great song and a few other cracking ones during that time, influenced by all his experiences of Galway.
“Galway Girl first appeared on my album The Diamond Mountain Sessions which featured a lot of fantastic guest singers including Steve, John Prine, Jackson Browne, The Hothouse Flowers, John Hoban and the great Dessie O’ Halloran.
“Dessie’s song Say You Love me was the big hit of that album.
“Gaway Girl was ignored at that time funnily enough.
“In 2008 the fact the song was used in the movie PS I Love You and also in a Magners TV campaign brought it to a huge audience.
“Then Mundy and I re-recorded it and it went to No.1 in the Irish charts.”
During the lockdown period, Sharon achieved viral status when she received a Facebook Challenge from Irish rugby star Robbie Henshaw to learn a new skill.
Sharon and Robbie released a collaborative album with Leinster and Ireland rugby star, Robbie Henshaw. The Secret Sessions was recorded alongside Henshaw and his family and was released in aid of South Westmeath Hospice.
In response to Robbie’s challenge, Sharon practised intensely for five days to produce the viral Jolly Roger Facebook video that saw her playing electric guitar.
Sharon subsequently recorded The Jolly Roger as part of an album The Reckoning which as released in November 2020.
The Reckoning is an amalgamation of cultures and musical influences to create one of Sharon’s most unique and original albums to date.
Sharon is also passionate animal lover and does a lot of voluntary work and fundraising for various animal rescues and is a patron of Madra (Mutts Anonymous Dog Rescue and Adoption) based in Co Galway.
Being such a big lover of animals, Sharon made the best of the last couple of years and the time it gave her at home which she would never normally have had.
“I’m a real home bird so lockdown was a nice break for me and I was very happy to get to spend so much time with my pets at home and of course they were delighted also.
“I was also very happy to have time to write a lot more music and learn loads of new tunes.
“I also started playing electric guitar and I love it.”
The names Sharon has toured and recorded with include Bono, Adam Clayton, Sinead O’Connor, Jackson Browne, John Prine, Steve Earle, The RTE Concert Orchestra, The Chieftains, The Waterboys, Willie Nelson, Nigel Kennedy, Alison Krauss and Shane MacGowan.
She has entertained US Presidents Clinton at the White House and Obama in Dublin, and Irish Presidents Robinson and MacAleese on presidential visits to Poland and Australia respectively.
She won the lifetime achievement award at the 2009 Meteor Awards.
She is the youngest ever recipient of the Meteor Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2012, Sharon released an album of original Irish music recorded with the RTE Concert Orchestra called Flying Circus. She was the first Irish artiste to have composed and recorded an album of original and newly composed Irish traditional music with a full Concert Orchestra.
In 2013, Sharon co-wrote an album for the High Kings.
She is also a frequent collaborator with legendary musician Donal Lunny.
In 2015, Sharon received an IBAM Award in Chicago for her ‘unique contribution to Irish Music’.
You’ve had such a career working with incredible people and playing famous stages.
What comes to mind as a highlight if I ask you that impossible question?
“There have been numerous amazing highlights for which I’m eternally grateful.
“It blows my mind really when I think of all the amazing opportunities music has brought to me in my life. It’s very difficult to pinpoint just one alone.
“Having a full Late Late Show dedicated to me when I was 23 or 24 was a huge, huge honour.
“That would definitely be one of the top ten amazing things that I’ve experienced thanks to my music and thanks to the lovely people who enjoy it.”
Was it always going to be music for you? Or could you ever have seen yourself doing anything else? And what would that be, something with animals as they are another passion of yours?
“Yes I am hugely passionate about animals. And yes, if I didn’t have music as a profession I’d hope that I could have somehow worked with animals.
“I also love sewing and fixing clothes etc. so maybe I could have been a dress maker or a dress designer or something like that. Also I love interior design for houses. I would love to have had time to get my teeth stuck into something like that.”
Sharon was one of the many from the world of Irish music who paid tribute to Séamus Begley, the well-known Kerry traditional musician and singer, who passed away on 9 January at the age of 73.
On the day of his passing she posted to social media: ‘Can’t believe the sad news about my dearest friend Seamus Begley. An absolute treasure. Amazing musician and singer, and most of all an amazing person. I’m totally lost for words to describe how much I loved him and idolised him and always will.
“I’m thinking of his gorgeous family, they must be absolutely heartbroken. They adored the ground that he walked on and vice versa.
“This loss is enormous for all who knew him. The bigger the personality the bigger the loss… and Seamus lit up every room that he ever walked into with his incredible energy and music and hilarious sense of humour.
“Rest easy my friend Seamus.’
Sharon followed this with a longer tribute.
Asked what Seamus meant to her and what she will miss about him, Sharon says: “It’s impossible to say in a nutshell how much Seamus means to me. I adored that man and his amazing music.
“I wrote a very long tribute to him which is on my Sharon Shannon Facebook page if anyone would like to read it there.
“I wrote it from the prospective of trying to describe Séamus to someone who wasn’t lucky enough to ever meet him or hear his music live.
“Apart from his incredible music he had an absolutely marvellous sense of humour.
“He was theeee funniest person I ever met in my life. He would make you cry laughing for hours with his brilliant quick wit.”
Just last week you were performing with Frances Black and Mary Coughlan, you have all been part of the A Woman’s Heart phenomenon. It was 30 years last year since that album was originally released, could any of you have imagined just how it would resonate and continue to resonate after all these years?
“None of us had a clue in advance of how successful the album would become.
“It was a total surprise for everyone. A very lovely surprise of course!
“And it really is amazing the way it still resonates with people all these years later.
“Another surprise for us is that we also have young people in their twenties coming to the shows because they know the music from when they were extremely young when their parents were playing the albums in their homes.”
Last year’s Return to London Town traditional music festival was headlined by the Kane Sisters who first came to national and international prominence touring with Sharon’s band The Woodchoppers.
Of the sisters from North Connemara, Sharon says: “I know them since Liz was only fourteen and Yvonne was only nine or ten.
“When I first met them Yvonne hadn’t yet started playing as far as I know but Liz was already a fantastic player at age fourteen. I was blown away by her when I first heard her.
“The Kane Sisters were described by a friend of mine as ‘having fire in their bellies’ which is a great way to describe their passionate musicianship and lively personalities.
“They toured with me over twenty years ago and as well as being great msuicians are really great friends of mine. They deserve every success.”
Someone else Sharon has toured a lot with is Susan O’Neill, the Clare singer known as SON. Sharon and Susan have toured together as far away as Australia.
“Susan is a lovely person and she has an absolutely brilliant husky voice.
“Yes, she toured with us in Ireland over a couple of years and she came to Australia/NewZealand with us in 2019.
“It was really lovely having her on board and audiences loved her.
“She is hugely talented and I’m delighted to see her career going from strength to strength.”
What’s next for you? Any plans for recording? “I am always writing and recording new tunes when I am at home.
“And yes, more recording plans in the pipeline for this year hopefully.”
Sharon Shannon plays The ICC in Hammersmith 3- 5 February.
Sharon then plays Colchester Arts Centre on 6 February, Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury on 8 February, The Met in Bury on 9 February, Cottingham Civic Hall on 10 February, Otley Courthouse on 11 February, The Fire Station in Sunderland on 12 February, The Greystones in Sheffield on 14 February, The Chapel in Salisbury on 15 February, The David Hall in South Petherton on 16 February, Nortons in Birmingham on 17 February, Folk House in Bristol on 18 February and The Phoenix in Exeter on 19 February.
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