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Celtic Woman: The Voices of Angels Tour 

A talk with Éabha McMahon and Tara McNeill

click to enlarge PHOTO BY NAOMI GAFFEY
  • Photo by Naomi Gaffey

BEING A singer in Celtic Woman had been a long-held dream for Éabha McMahon. Now, after more than a year in the group, she feels the reality of being a Celtic Woman has exceeded how she envisioned life in the group.

One reason has been the camaraderie she has shared with fellow singers Susan McFadden and Mairéad Carlin and the recently departed violinist, Mairéad Nesbitt.

“It’s so rewarding being on stage as a team with the girls, and we’re all equals and we all get on so well,” McMahon said in a recent phone interview. “If there’s ever a night where you’re feeling unwell or have a cold or something, they’re always there to lean on. They always lift you up. I can’t explain it. It’s like a force... I mean, I’ve definitely made friends for life.”

The music she has recorded for the popular Irish group – which includes the 2015 studio album, “Destiny,” and the newly released “Voices of Angels” – and the different shows she has performed on tour also gave McMahon more than she anticipated.

“The show, when I joined, was the 10th anniversary (greatest hits) show, and that went into the ‘Destiny’ show and then into the symphony (Christmas themed) show and now into the ‘Voices of Angels,’” she said. “So I’ve been fortunate to be part of all of those different shows in such a small space of time, like a year and a half. I love that because it’s just so interesting, working with (producer/musical director) Gavin Murphy and just the incredible musicians and arrangers, and being part of all of those different shows, and learning all the new material. You’re just constantly on your toes, and I love that. I don’t like getting too comfortable. I like challenge and I like when things are switched up a little bit.”

McMahon figures to continue to give her toes a workout as Celtic Woman heads into a busy 2017.

The group is now starting its tour in support of “Voices of Angels.” It figures to be a very different show from last year’s “Destiny” tour, which was meant in part to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, a failed uprising against the British Empire that triggered the Irish War of Independence and a truce in 1921 that established Ireland as an independent state.

“I think (the “Voices of Angels” show) is going to be so exciting and something quite different to the ‘Destiny’ show, which I think is interesting for an audience member because they know they’re coming to a show that’s going to be different from the last one,” McMahon said. “So ‘Destiny’ would have been quite, I think, traditional Irish. There was a lot of Irish in it, Irish music and all of that. And it went down brilliantly. And I think ‘Voices of Angels’ is more geared toward like classical crossover. There’s an element of, there’s a big sound, with lots of strings and beautiful kind of classical instruments being played in quite the classical way. But what I think is so cool about it.”

For most cities, what will also be new with the “Voices of Angels” show will be violinist Tara McNeill. She recently replaced Nesbitt, who was the last remaining original member of Celtic Woman and made her American debut with the group on its 2016 Christmas tour. For McNeill, the “Voices of Angels” tour will be her first visit with Celtic Woman to many of the American cities.

In a separate phone interview, McNeill (who also plays harp and sings) said she has made a smooth transition into Celtic Woman.

“The girls have been, you wouldn’t believe how welcoming and comfortable they’ve made me feel,” McNeill said. “They welcomed me with open arms and are always there if I need anything. They’ve just been wonderful.”

Perhaps one reason McNeill has quickly settled into Celtic Woman is the group is accustomed to this sort of change.

McMahon became the 11th singer to join the ranks of Celtic Woman when she replaced Lisa Lambe in 2015. By that point, she was joining a group that had gained worldwide popularity for its blend or Irish music and adult contemporary pop over its first decade.

Originally created for a one-off television special in Ireland, that concert was picked up by PBS and became a popular fund-raising program for the network.

That first concert DVD sold more than a million copies, while the group’s self-titled first studio album topped “Billboard” magazine’s World Music chart for a record-setting 81 weeks. Celtic Woman has gone on to release a steady string of popular studio albums and concert DVDs – often paired together and released simultaneously (such as the 2007 studio CD, “A New Journey,” and a concert DVD, “A New Journey: Live at Slane Castle, Ireland,” and 2012’s “Believe” studio album and concert DVD). In all, Celtic Woman has sold more than nine million CDs and DVDs.

The “Destiny” project put McMahon in a comfort zone immediately with Celtic Woman. Created to celebrate this year’s 100th anniversary of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, “Destiny” leaned toward traditional Irish material. This was perfect for McMahon, a native of Dublin who grew up focusing on traditional Irish singing and won a number of notable singing competitions in Ireland.

“Voices of Angels,” though, is notably different than “Destiny.” For one thing, it features a fuller sound, thanks to the liberal use of orchestration in the arrangements.

It also features a unique mix of material, with five new songs, new recordings of fan favorites from the Celtic Woman catalog and a trio of Christmas songs. McMahon said she liked working in the different musical setting for “Voices of Angels.”

“Let’s pretend I’m not on the album. If I just picked it up and listened to it, what I would have loved about it is you have this classical element, where the instruments and the arrangements are quite classical,” McMahon said. “Then when the vocals come in and the performances, they’re quite Celtic. It’s a real classical crossover.

“In one of the songs (“Teir Abhaile Riu”), I sing totally in the Irish, in the sean-nos style, which is like Ireland’s earliest form of music, totally sung in Irish with ornamentation and stuff, but it’s with a classical arrangement,” she said.

“And I don’t think that’s really been done that much. It’s very interesting. It’s very appealing to your ears.”

For McNeill, “Voices of Angels” complemented her background in classical violin and traditional Irish music, particularly on a pair of instrumental pieces that are on the album.

“I don’t think there could have been a better time for me to join because of this album,” McNeill said. “It made me slotting into the group that much easier and more comfortable because on the album we have ‘Across The World,’ which is very traditional. Then also I have another solo (piece) called ‘For The Love of a Princess.’ That’s the love theme from the ‘Braveheart’ movie. So it has a folk song, a Celtic element to it, but I can really be a classical player with it as well.”

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Celtic Woman performs March 14 at 7 p.m. at Johnny Mercer Theatre

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