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Still Kings after all these years

Darren Holden of The High Kings told David Hennessy about the folk band’s new album, working with people like The Script, Kodaline, Sharon Corr and Phil Coulter and 16 years of the band he thought would only last five.

The High Kings have just released the second single from their upcoming album, The Road Not Taken.

And the song Chasing Rainbows was written and produced for The High Kings by none other than Dublin rockers The Script.

And the folk band’s eight studio album boasts other collaborations with some of Ireland’s most prolific and popular artists including Kodaline, Picture This, Ryan Sheridan, JC Stewart, Wild Youth and more.

It also features appearances from Steve Perry of Journey, Phil Coulter and Sharon Corr.

First established in 2008 The High Kings are still going strong after 15 years but have never released an album completely made up of original material making this a new departure for them.

Darren Holden told The Irish World: “Chasing Rainbows was written for us by Glen and Danny from The Script.

“We’re mad fans of the Script and we have crossed paths at telly things down through the years and we got on great with them and all of a sudden this song came in and we absolutely loved it.

“We were like, ‘This could be something really new and fresh for the High Kings’ and the rest of the album spurred off that then.

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“We started to receive songs from people like Kodaline and Ryan Sheridan and Picture This and we had guest appearances from people like Sharon Corr and we’ve even got Steve Perry, the original lead vocalist from Journey, singing on the album with us.

“It’s just this crazy concept of a record that has grown legs and grown energy.

“But this song has already got a huge buzz going on because we’ve been doing it live for the last three months around Ireland and people are messaging us and coming up to us and going, ‘When is that out? When can we buy it?’

“The whole idea of the song is having fun for the weekend, going out for the craic and chasing rainbows, just having a ball and it’s a real anthem for coming away from the last two years, the pandemic and all that.”

What is it like to be working with people like The Script and Kodaline to name just two? “It’s really, really exciting.

“We’ve all met on the road over the years but we’ve never worked together.

“Glen, the drummer from the Script, is our executive producer on the album.

“Glen brought in Steve Perry from Journey to sing. He duets with me on another song on the album.

“I was just saying how much I appreciated his vocal style when I was learning the craft and it was just this whole circle moment that was a pinch me moment also.

“But we’ve become really good friends, he’s really into the band.

“He’s given the album another level as well so it’s really, really different this record and it’s the first fully original album the High Kings have put out in 15 years.

“We’ve gone 50/50 before with originals and covers but never 100% originals so we’re really excited we really hope people respond to this but there’s some really cracking songs on there.”

As mentioned, the album also features contributions from Phil Coulter and Sharon Corr.

“Phil and I go back a long, long time and he was a great mentor to me back then and we’ve been sort of dipping in and out of each other’s careers ever since.

“We do a version of The Town I Love So Well but it was almost like a reinvention of the song really stripped it back more to bare story telling and building it up into the crescendo and I think that turned him onto championing that quite a bit with us online and in the media and everything.

“He’s a great, great guy.

“He’s 80 years old and he phones me all the time to talk about the music industry, who’s who, new songwriters and then we’ll talk a bit of football and Man United and Leeds United and everything.

“He’s just one of these guys who is one of the most famous songwriters in the world, he’s achieved so much but yet he’s so down to earth and he’s so easy going and good company and a very, very funny man.

“He’s got the best stories ever so I really enjoy working with him. He and I have become really, really close friends over the last couple of years.

“Sharon and I go back to probably about 12 years ago now she launched her solo album and her producer Billy Farrell is one of my best friends and Bill is producer as well on the new High Kings album.

“We’ve done festivals in Germany with Sharon and gigs here and there around Europe. Billy and I were tinkering a bit with an idea I had one day for a contemporary Irish jig and he said, ‘God, Sharon would be all over this’.

“So Billy reached out to Sharon. We got on Face Time together and by the time we finished the Face Time call we had this new traditional High Kings meets the Corrs instrumental ready for the album and it’s absolutely sensational, it’s really one of the more upbeat, refreshing things on the record.

“She’s a great girl.

“She’s so talented, she’s a genius writer and a very, very, very funny lady as well so we’re very happy that we’ve been blessed enough to work with all these really cool people.”

Although it was not on this album someone else The High Kings have worked with is country star and Irish World favourite Nathan Carter on the song May the Road Rise.

“Really, really great.

“Again, Nathan and us have crossed paths so many times over the last ten years and we’ve always talked about working together, we’ve never been able to get it going on because of our schedule, because of his schedule.

“But finally we were in the states about three, four years ago and Nathan rang me and he said, ‘Look, I have this song, I’ve been thinking about you guys to duet on it’.

“I told him to send over the song, we loved it.

“He’s a great guy, we keep in contact all the time. I’ve only just been texting him there last week and a very very funny guy. Nathan could do stand up if he wanted, he’s really cool but we’re really delighted again to have that connection with him and long may he continue to do so well in the industry.”

Darren has mentioned the pandemic, what was it like when it hit? “We were in America. We had done three weeks of a six week American tour.

“We were in Virginia and my phone was buzzing with people texting me going, ‘Are you coming home? What’s the story?’

“And we were like, ‘What?’

“Because at the time it wasn’t so much in the news in America as it was in Europe and Ireland but we started watching CNN and we were like, ‘Okay, we might need to make a call on this’, so as luck would have it, we got home just in time. We flew from Washington on 14 March and the following day all flights were grounded out of the United States so we would have been trapped over there for months had we not gone on the day we did so we were blessed.

“Obviously we did online stuff, we tipped away at recording to keep ourselves busy but it was tough.

“There were days where you were like, ‘Will we ever get back to doing this again? Will the High Kings ever come back? Or will the music industry ever come back?’

“It was very, very difficult.

“We were lucky, we just about made it through when everything opened up again and we were blessed to get back on the road as quickly as possible.”

The High Kings have gone through line up changes in recent years.

Initially formed of Darren with Finbarr Clancy, Brian Dunphy and Martin Furey, Martin Furey would depart in 2017 to be replaced by George Murphy. George himself would depart in 2019 to be replaced by Paul O’Brien.

On these changes Darren says: “Look, the road is not for everybody.

“Martin Furey is a seriously talented and really good guy.

“The original four will always be the original four and we achieved a hell of a lot together but the road is tiring and the business can be tiring and the tours, particularly of America, can go on for 2 3 months at a time and you don’t get home and it can be draining especially when you’ve got family, you’ve got commitments back home.

“So ultimately Martin decided he needed to take a breather for a while and it turned into for good but Paul O’Brien, who is the current fourth member of the band and he’s been with us for three and a half years, Paul was the guy I wanted but he wasn’t available so our record label at the time approached George to temporarily step in and that’s the way it was until Paul became available and everything was amicable.

“Really Paul was a multi-instrumentalist, he played all the stuff that Martin played.

“George is an amazing singer and an amazing guy but we missed all the instruments in the band.

“It left a sort of a gap in the musical side of things within the live show so understandably we had to fill that.

“With Paul we have somebody that we can really, really work with and a great guy we can hang with offstage as well and that’s what you need when you’re on the road for most of the year.

“When we’re not with each other, we text each other all the time and it’s a laugh and this album is testament to the new line up it really shows how much fun we’re having.”

Darren and Paul have been known to puck the sliotar around when on tour.

Darren comes from Mooncoin in Kilkenny. Although he is a fanatical hurling fan, he had to give it up for the sake of his music.

“I love it, I used to play years ago for Mooncoin, I stopped at about minor level because I got a gig and I had to decide what I wanted to do.

“I got a broken wrist in a match so I had to make the very hard decision to put the hurl down.

“Obviously I couldn’t play the piano or the guitar or nothing and I spoke to my dad at the time and I said, ‘What am I going to do?’

“And he was like, ‘What are you going to make a career out of?’

“I had to pick the one I thought I was going to make a career out of but it did break my heart because I love hurling passionately, follow it as much as possible even when I’m travelling.

“I play as much as I can.

“When we’re on the road now we would bring hurls with us, myself and Paul, he’s from Laois so he loves the hurling as well so we’d bring a couple of sliotars and hurls with us and we just puck about whenever we get the chance.”

The High Kings are always in demand for St Patrick’s Day and will be touring and last month were touring the United States including some dates with Gaelic Storm.

“Around Paddy’s Day everybody’s Irish, but on a more emotional level people come to us in tears after the show.

“They tell us what it meant to them and that time of year I think it brings back so many heartfelt, endearing memories from your youth.

“If you’re Irish or you’re Irish-American, people connect with the Irish around that time of year and everybody celebrates it but the songs have a deeper meaning around then because it is our heritage and again if you’ve lost parents or family members they dig deeper around then and they’re missing from the national celebration and the world celebration.

“We’re happy to fly the flag for Ireland over there.

“It’s great. It’s a very very special time.”

There are many highlights of the band’s journey of 15 years so far.

What stands out? “The three times we did The Isle of Wight and Glastonbury, they have to be way, way up there.

“We did the Albert Hall in London, they’re the ones that stand out

“Obviously the White House was sensational.

“We got to perform for President Obama when he came to Ireland and then we got the invite to go there the following St Paddy’s Day which was crazy.

“Again it’s a pinch me moment.

“But on the strength of that President Obama’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a fella called General Martin Dempsey.

“In 2015 he was getting ready to retire and the only thing he wanted to do with his family to celebrate his career was to come to one of our concerts.

“Our management went back and said to him, ‘Would you like us to come and do a private little celebration for you?’

“He invited us to the Pentagon.

“He gave us a tour of the Pentagon, places we probably shouldn’t have seen.

“And he brought us to Arlington Cemetery where we laid the tricolour on the tomb of the unknown soldier.

“You would never expect stuff like that to happen to a band like us but it has and we’ve been really blessed that we’ve had those golden opportunities.”

Another highlight of Darren’s career away from The High Kings is when he was selected to play the lead role in the musical Movin’ Out, based on the music of Billy Joel.

“I had just finished Riverdance on Broadway and I was actually planning on coming back to Ireland to continue in Irish music but my agent at the time said, ‘There’s this new show that’s coming on Broadway, would you not consider showing up for an audition?’”

Darren read that extensive auditions had not filled the role despite seeing hundreds of applicants.

“I kind of went, ‘Well, I kind of don’t have much hope of that but I’ll go anyway, I’ll go to the audition’.

“I went for the audition and I didn’t know Billy was there wearing a baseball cap.

“The audition went really well and I was offered the job of lead role on the spot so it was one of the things where I didn’t get time to think about it. I had to change my plans immediately, remain in New York and I got to work with Billy.

“He trained me for the role and over the course of four years I was on Broadway, all over North America, Canada and Japan and it’s probably up there in the top highlights of my career.

“Still friends with Billy. Every time I’m in New York and he’s doing his residency in Madison Square Garden, we get an invite to go. When he’s over in Ireland we get an invite to hang out. A lovely, lovely man, a great guy again a very down to earth guy for all the crazy success that he’s had in his life such a super gentleman.”

The High Kings have been going for 15 years and Darren sees no reason it couldn’t be 15 more which is ironic as at the start he never saw it lasting so long.

“I thought at the start the industry is so difficult maybe if we get five years out of this, we’ll have done well.

“We’re very grateful we’re still here and grateful to the people who listen to us and prop us up there for all this time.”

The single Chasing Rainbows is out now.

The album The Road Not Taken is out in June.

The High Kings also tour the UK in June.

For more information, click here.

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