Irish culture is in good hands whenever Celtic Woman takes the stage.
It’s been that way ever since the all-female musical ensemble was founded by David Kavanagh, Sharon Browne and David Downes in 2004. With Downes a former musical director of Riverdance, the onstage spectacle has always been a priority, but never at the expense of the music. In the time that the quartet (which was originally founded as a quintet) has been entertaining audiences around the world, millions of albums have been sold and they’ve become a staple of annual PBS fundraising drives.
For 2019, the gaels have returned with Ancient Land, a new album that puts a contemporary spin on the centuries-old Irish tradition of telling stories through song, be they about love, dancing or of the land itself. For vocalist Máiréad (pronounced like parade) Carlin, the new album reflects the love the Derry-born vocalist and her bandmates feel for the Emerald Isle.
“We really wanted to delve deep into the treasure trove of Irish music that’s out there. Also, a lot of our fans have been asking us for quite a while to release new music. With this record, I’d say that this is the most original music we’ve had on an album in quite a long time, certainly since our Grammy-nominated album Destiny,” she explained.
The current project found singers Carlin, Éabha McMahon and Megan Walsh and violinist Tara McNeill decamping to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios for a two-week recording stint. Living together, sharing meals and immersing themselves in Celtic and world music, the foursome emerged with a mix of originals (‘Follow Me,” “Be Still,” “Love & Honour”), Irish traditional songs (“Sive,” “Mná Na hÉireann [Women of Ireland],” “Moorlough Shore”) and reimagined reworkings of contemporary songs (Mary Fahl’s “Going Home” and The High Kings’ “Homeland”). One song that really resonated for Carlin was Elvis Costello’s “Long Journey Home.”
“I’m certainly a massive Elvis Costello fan and he actually recorded that initially with an Irish group called Anùna, who are incredible. . . . There was that real connection with American and Irish history linked in there. So we really felt it would be appropriate to put it in the show,” she said. “It’s actually a very poignant moment in the show. And whenever I do sing that song, I almost feel like we’re looking back at our ancestors and have some kind of connection with them.”
Carlin is proud of the intimate connection her group makes with the audience as well.
“I would say that it’s certainly an epic stage production and it’s a very unique experience. I don’t think there’s anything out there quite like it. It’s not just about the lights, set and dresses, which we of course have. We really put on such a massive show — it’s bag pipers, dancers, drummers,” she said. “We would always say that this particular show is very much a journey, and also paying homage to our heritage and our tradition.”
Purists may turn their noses up at what Celtic Woman is doing in terms of putting a modern spin on the old, but Carlin and the rest of the group are proud of what they’ve created and the bond they have with their followers.
“Celtic Woman is a nudge to the past and a big nudge to the future. We really relish our Irish history. We’re just four ordinary women bringing these Irish songs and contemporary songs to the world in a new way,” she said. “Audiences are just so important to us. We say they’re the fifth member of Celtic Woman and you feel their energy when you’re on the stage. How they are with us is just as important as how we are with them. It’s very much a collaboration. Some people don’t really think about it like that. I would always say that the audience might as well be on stage.”
Celtic Woman performs on Sunday, May 5, at 3 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets and more information, call 805-449-2787 or visit www.civicartsplaza.com.