Acclaimed tenor Paul Byrom told David Hennessy about how being on tour in America when the pandemic hit he initially thought it could be an over-reaction, how he stayed busy during the lockdown working on his new album and why he feels artists and musicians are on their own in the crisis.
“It wasn’t until I got to the airport and saw people standing at desks crying, international people trying to get out of the country and couldn’t that I was like, ‘This is apocalyptic’,” Irish tenor and former member of Celtic Thunder remembers when he realised how serious coronavirus was. Paul was on tour in America where Trump was playing the whole thing down as Ireland was going into lockdown.
“The narrative in America was very different. We were being told by Trump that this was just a common flu and it will be gone. As you know if you’ve been to the states, you’re not seeing international news on the television.
“I had my girlfriend and my mother both ringing me going, ‘Paul, you need to get back. Everything is going into shutdown here’. My girlfriend Catherine was due to join me out on tour. She said, ‘Paul, I don’t think I’ll be able to come’. I said, ‘Will you stop? You’re over-reacting. You’re grand’.
“I was just thinking my mother was being a bit hysterical and Catherine a little pessimistic.
“At the time I was in Pennsylvania doing a handful of gigs. Pennsylvania is a great stronghold for me over there for whatever reason I don’t know. The Pennsylvania gigs always sell well but yet the audience attendances on the night were low and I was kind of going, ‘What is going on here?'”
Paul was onstage performing when Donald Trump shut the borders.
“Then after finishing one of the gigs a couple of fans came up to me and said, ‘Have you heard?’ I said, ‘What?’ And I got panicky then because a) ‘How am I going to get home? b) What if Catherine comes and she can’t get home?
“On that Sunday I had the gig in Vegas and the Vegas gig was the biggest gig of the tour. I thought, ‘They’ll probably cancel that so I’ll just go home and cancel the rest’.”
However, Paul was amazed to find the gig was still going ahead.
“Vegas, needless to say, would be the last place to shut down. They were like, ‘No, no, we’re still going ahead’. I went to Vegas on 16th March and I had a full house that night.
“After the gig, I said I’m going to go have a pint. When in Vegas, as they say. The musicians have all gone home so I’m there on my own. I said, ‘It might be the last pint I have for a while’.
“I went out onto Fremont Street and the place was wedged. There were bands playing. It was like nothing was happening.
“I was like, ‘There’s something not right here’. I literally had the one pint and went back to the room and the next day I just got on a flight home. I just pulled it there and then.
“It was just odd how one side of the Atlantic Ocean was behaving very differently to the other and then obviously within days America was hit hard with it.
“For sure, we were all naive. I was just thinking there was an over-reaction at home here and then when I got back I realised the seriousness of the situation.
“My mind regularly flashes back to that evening on Fremont Street.
“I was fortunate in that I had a company that looked after me to get me back home but it was crazy.”
Sat back at home just three weeks after investing in his new visa and travelling to America to tour, Paul kept himself busy working on his first album in many years. Entitled What I Did For Love, this was something that kept him busy and also positive in uncertain and strange times.
“I had come up with the idea of the album a year prior. I had just turned 40 and I wanted to mark the year.
“I started this career when I was 14 so I’ve had ups and downs and highs and lows and turning 40 I was kind of taking that moment as many people do kind of looking back and going, ‘Oh, what have I done? Where am I going? Am I still happy with what I’m doing?’ All these kind of questions we find ourselves asking.
“I thought maybe an album to mark this chapter in my life would be nice. It had been seven years since I released an album so my followers were constantly coming up to me going, ‘When’s the next album? When’s the next album?’ Of course, people don’t realise how expensive it is to do an album unless you’re with a major label so I put it out on a crowdfunding website thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll raise some of it and I’ll find the rest from somewhere else’.
“And they raised €35,000 for me. That was obviously a considerable amount of money towards the album. That all happened in December and January so pre-Covid so my idea was I would be in studio after the tour in April and then have it out in May. That was the plan.
“When Covid happened and everything shut down I said, ‘Well the album still has to happen. I’ve raised the money so I need to continue with this’. It was actually a blessing. It became a great focus for me over the course of the year and a great sense of positivity.
“That kind of kept me busy and then we had to make the decision about whether to release it in the midst of this pandemic. I kind of felt it was important to get it out because more than anything, it was a statement, ‘No matter what, as artists and singers we’re still here, we’re still going and we will be here when all of this is over’.
“Despite everything being as bleak as it is artists and musicians are still providing entertainment and joy to a lot of people.”
Although it seemed at first that everyone was suffering, Paul says it became apparent that the arts were particularly forgotten even when other things had started to reopen.
“I just assumed I would be back out in the summer or certainly before Christmas and needless to say, the year went by. You kind of felt, ‘Well this isn’t going to happen’.
“And at the time you kind of felt, ‘Oh well, it’s grand. Everybody’s in the same boat’. But then industries started returning to work, shops started opening and things started returning and the only people that weren’t necessarily coming back to work or doing anything were people in the music and entertainment business so all of a sudden from everybody being in the same boat ,it was like, ‘No, actually, you’re on your own’.
“I think that has certainly been the vibe both here in Ireland and in the UK. I think UK artists have been treated even worse.”
Paul deplores the British government campaign encouraging musicians to reskill and says that despite one or two Irish ministers making these suggestions, the Irish government have not been as bad.
“I thought that campaign was despicable and the British government should hang their heads in shame. Whoever signed off on that campaign should be shot. That was disgraceful to suggest that they should reskill but in fairness to them the Irish government haven’t suggested that.
“At one point Micheál Martin did suggest, ‘Maybe it’s time to look at other professions’. I thought to myself, ‘We don’t all have the luxury of being qualified teachers who decide to go for election with our teaching job and pension to go back to.
“It’s very easy for his like to say these things but it’s not necessarily even something I was speaking out on for myself. I’m fortunate in that I have a strong enough following and they have supported me throughout the year.
“I’ve kept the wolf from the door but it’s for the people that don’t have a fanbase. They have a job and it’s awful to just be discarded, ‘We’ll be in touch when things return’. It’s remarkable because I think people are forgetting what arts and culture bring to society. It’s as important as any other steam.”
From a musical family, Paul started in the business early recording his first album at age of 14. Did he always know he was going to do nothing else? “I always knew in fairness. I fell in love with not just music but classical music and liturgical music. I got something out of it that I couldn’t get anywhere else, sports or anything. I mean I was useless at sports as a kid so everything was music for me.
“RTE were doing an opera called Amahl and the Night Visitors. They needed a young boy for the lead role, to play the part of Amahl. I was 12 and I got cast. That was my first professional theatre performance experience and I was hook, line and sinker from that moment on. That was it. I was like, ‘This is what I want and I want it all. I want to just go for it’.
“Two years later I released my first album. I always had a yearning to be more mainstream. Although I liked the tenor vibe, I wanted to be commercial: Maybe that was the narcissism or the ego in me,” he laughs.
“I just loved being onstage and I kept going at it since then.
“For sure, there has been stumbling blocks. I had voice issues mid-tour a few years ago. I thought I was going to lose the voice. It all came back then after rest and recuperation and therapy.
“There have been moments where I have questioned, ‘Am I ever going to make enough money to survive?’ Certainly with this career, there’s no security in it. You do question it regularly.
“Only a couple of years ago, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m nearly 40. Even if I wanted to change now, where would I go? What would I do?’ It’s who I am.
“My friends often joke- They’re all office job people- ‘You would be fired within days’. It’s not me. I work for myself and I’ve always enjoyed it. For better or worse, I’m in it now.”
Phil Coulter would approach Paul to join his venture Celtic Thunder. Although he was not keen initially, Phil got him interested and Paul would be part of the Irish vocal quintet before deciding to leave in 2010.
“I was already long established in the game at that point. I had just filled the National Concert Hall in Dublin and Phil came to me after the gig and went, ‘Look, I’m putting together a show in the states and the four guys in it are all new to the game and I would ideally like somebody that has been in the game for a while’.
“I thought it was a group like Boyzone or whatever. I said, ‘I dunno. Jesus. No thanks, you’re alright’.
“But then he pushed me on it and he pushed me on it and he goes, ‘Look, Paul. This is a great way of getting your foot in the door in America. If this goes well, you’ll be set up’. And I thought, ‘Well that’s the selling point’. So I always went in with the intention that it was for a short period of time to establish myself, build a following and then continue with the solo career.
“I was with the group five years and certainly for the year prior to leaving my mind was going that way. I felt it had brought me as far as it could bring me.
“Celtic Thunder is all-consuming. It was affecting my personal life. I felt for me as a person, both personally and professionally, it was better that I moved on.
“It was a phenomenal experience. It was a great journey. When you’re singing to sold out Radio City in New York, you kind of have to pinch yourself. I loved everything about it, I still have a great relationship with the lads, lifelong friendships with one or two of them. I’ve gone back and I’ve done stuff with them over the years. The connection’s still there.”
It was in 2007 that Paul joined us at the Galtymore to pick up a gong at The Irish World Awards, a night he says was ‘great craic’.
Since launching his new website, Paul has been delighted to see how many fans have been getting in touch from the UK.
“I would love to get over for performances when possible. If there’s any Irish centres out there that would like to have me come over and perform, I would be only too delighted.”
What I Did For Love is out now. For more information and to get the album, click here.