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INTERVIEW Celtic Tenor James Nelson



James Nelson

Confessions of a Celtic Tenor


Ciara Galvin

THE Celtic Tenors have established themselves as the most successful classical crossoverartists ever to emerge from Ireland.
Ahead of their special intimate concert at Westport House on December 27, one third of the group, Sligo man James Nelson talks about achievements, memorable moments, guilty pleasures and, of course, Christmas.

CG When did you first come together as a group and how?  
JN Originally the group was asked to do a run of cabaret style shows in Clontarf Castle with Rebecca Storm (136 shows in a row!), and our then manager Pat Egan brought us to EMI in London, where we were signed on the spot to a worldwide record deal on the EMI label.
There was one change in the line-up in 2006, when Daryl Simpson joined the group. Strangely, Daryl, Matthew and I had been in a production of Strauss’s operetta ‘Die Fledermaus’ together way back in 1999, so maybe that is why we feel we now have the ideal line-up.
Fourteen years since the formation of the group, we have just signed a brand new record deal with Universal/Decca worldwide, and we’ll have a new album out in 2015. Our diary has never been this full!

CG When did you know you wanted to make a career out of singing?
JN I have loved music, melodies and harmony from as far back as I can remember growing up in Sligo. I played piano from the age of six, and won the ‘Tiny Tots’ Trophy in Sligo Feis Ceoil at the age of six (hard to believe when you see me now – nothing ‘tiny tot’ about me any more!).
When I was studying music in UCD, I went for singing lessons to Dublin’s College of Music, then to a Summer School in England, where I met David Harper, a teacher who changed my life. He said he thought I ought to give up my teaching job in Dublin and move to London to study with him. After that I had an opera agent and sang operatic roles with opera companies worldwide for about ten years, before the formation of the Celtic Tenors.

CG What achievement/award are you most proud of?
JN We have won several awards, like the Echo Award in Germany for the Best Classical Crossover Act, but I think that our original signing to EMI and our recent signing to Universal have to be the two biggies. It’s lovely to think that after almost 15 years together, we are being recognised by possibly the world’s largest record company in this way.

CG What is your favourite venue?
JN Possibly the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam … a stunning venue with perfect acoustics. But we also love performing at the huge Irish Festivals in the USA where we can be a bit more rock ’n’ roll, with crowds of about 25,000 people coming to those shows! My favourite touring experience has to be China, as it was just so different in so many ways – loved it, and can’t wait to go back there!

CG What was your most memorable Celtic Tenors moment?
JN We learned a song in Mandarin for our Chinese tour to surprise our Chinese audiences. During the opening lines of that song, when we heard the audience go mad with applause, that has to be up there with the most memorable moments.

CG How do you get on while touring?
JN We are, honestly, like three brothers – but of course brothers argue too. It is a tenor democracy. There is no lead singer. And decisions, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing are made, finally. Choosing songs for albums takes the most time, but we get there. There are always disappointments, but we get on very well together. We each have roles within the group too.

CG Was it daunting to step away from classical roots?
JN Initially when we were signed to EMI, and all three of us as classical tenors, I suppose we were a little nervous as to how we’d be perceived by our peers and the industry, but our fellow singers have all been so supportive.
We still sing with our classical voices every night, and still get to do the big operatic stuff with symphony orchestras, but are proud that we are perhaps like vocal chameleons and can change our voices slightly to cover all the different styles within a show.
Music is foremost for all three of us, and I think if we stop enjoying the music we will call it a day. We are all musicians, and arrange the songs ourselves, so the creative process is very important too.

CG What are your musical influences?  
JN My big influences when I was growing up were the Beatles, ABBA, Queen … anything with great melodies and harmony, and then Bach, Mozart, Puccini and all the great composers. My favourite tenors are the Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling and Placido Domingo, and, of course, Pavarotti.

CG How will you spend Christmas?
JN Lately I spend Christmas on my sister’s farm in Sligo. Linda and Richard run a model farm for tourists, and I love to spend as much time as I can there with my nieces, Claire and Sarah, and my nephew, Andrew. My Dad is now suffering badly with dementia and old age in general, and he will be there too. My Mum sadly passed away in 2002.

CG Do you have a favourite Christmas song?
JN I have always loved the text and music of ‘In the bleak mid-winter’. I love Christina Rossetti’s words. The song is so wintry and picturesque, and I was delighted when I got my way and recorded it on our Christmas CD. Also love ‘Driving home for Christmas’, by Chris Rea.

CG What are you most looking forward to about performing at Westport House?
JN We often went to Achill on little breaks, and even day-trips, and I love Achill Island, as I feel it’s almost like ‘Ireland in miniature’ – it’s got everything. But often we called in to Westport House and Zoo in those days too, and loved it there, so it’ll be great to be back.
Sometimes when I have a few days off between tours I go on hotel breaks, and in the last few years I have chosen Westport as a destination, because I just think it’s the perfect Irish town, and I am not the only one as it was voted that on several occasions of late.

CG Do you prefer intimate shows like this?
JN It is always good to be ‘up, close and personal’, and we are looking forward to that at Westport. But we honestly love the variety of the fact that we do intimate shows like the upcoming Westport House concert, and then big symphony shows in the US and Canada and elsewhere, and big festival dates also. Variety is definitely the spice of our lives!

CG Do you have a guilty pleasure while touring?
JN I have so many, and I need to cop myself on, and look more like my publicity photos! I manage to lose weight for all of my photo shoots … so far … but I am the ‘fluctuating tenor’ who originally lost over five stone but has struggled ever since! Agh! But my main guilty pleasure food-wise is crème brulee. And musically – ABBA!

For tickets to The Celtic Tenors special post-Christmas concert in Westport House, and more information about dining packages on the night, visit or contact 098 27766.