All text (c) Ita Kelly 2008
Matt Keane is a curious mixture of devilment and determination, quick witted and humorous both on and off stage but also earnest about his work and music. “I’m desperately serious at the back of the whole lot” he says, “It’s determination rather than intent, when I put something into my head, nothing really moves it.”
‘Every picture tells a story’ he says in the sleeve notes to his new album ‘Pictures in Time’, and this, his second release in less than two years is aptly named. ‘Any collection of songs” he continues, “is a snapshot of that period in your life, although you don’t realise it until you look back”
Matt is one of the renowned Keane family from Caherlistrane in Co. Galway and like his siblings has been singing all his life. “It was a very natural thing” he says. “We didn’t learn music at all, we absorbed it.” Although singing all his life like the rest of his family, his early forays were in musicals and operas, performing in over 25 productions with Tuam’s Marian Choral Society and the Headford Musical Society. His first role in 1979 was as Detlef in ‘The Student Prince.’ “That gave me the confidence to go out in front of any stage” he says.
His first recording experience was in 1984 on ‘Muintir Catháin’, an album by Gael Linn which featured the whole family, Teresa, Pat Christina, Matt, Dolores, Noel and Seán, as well as his parents Bridie and Matt snr and his aunts Rita and Sarah.
More recently he recorded ‘Echoes of the Valley’ with Kevin Coyne, with whom he has performed in pubs and sessions for over fifteen years. Then in 2002 he recorded again, this time with his brothers Seán, Pat and Noel as ‘Citizens Keane’ and they performed a series of sell out concerts around the country.
Matt is a curious mixture of devilment and determination, quick witted and humorous both on and off stage but also earnest about his work and music “I’m desperately serious at the back of the whole lot” he says, “It’s determination rather than intent, when I put something into my head, nothing really moves it.”
Recording his own album was always a dream and in 2006 he began the process in earnest, putting down a song here and there, culminating in the release of ‘Out in the Fields’ in January 2007. A perfectly produced package, its acoustic ballads and folk songs were greeted with enormous enthusiasm and Matt has been performing to full houses at his concerts ever since.
Matt himself has five children and naturally being Keanes, they all sing as well. His second daughter Orlaith sang on Matt’s first album, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Moon and St. Christopher’. On ‘Pictures in Time’ she sings almost half of the tracks. Gaining confidence and enjoying performing since the earlier effort, Orlaith demonstrates her ability and massive potential. Matt recalls “They all would sing a song at parties and occasions like that but when Orlaith would sing, everyone would be quiet. She has something special as well as being able to sing. Lots of people can sing. I think it’s more than that. Its being able to pick a song that she’s able to do and make a good job of it.”
Like their Dad, Orlaith and her sisters Eimear and Eilish, gave their first performance on stage with the Marion Choral Society. “I was Mr. Snow in ‘Carousel’” says Matt, “and they were my children. They sang and walked around the stage with me.” After that it was sessions at home, choirs and groups in school and whenever the opportunity arose to sing.
For Orlaith herself recording has been quite a new experience. “I don’t think I would have ever thought about it” she says. “Daddy said one day, ‘For the craic why don’t you go in and do a song and see how it turns out’. It wasn’t really decided, it just happened. A lot of people wouldn’t get the opportunity to do it, so it’s brilliant.”
“Scary!” was how she described her daunting first stage appearance at the Town Hall Theatre, Galway last year. Now she looks forward to the concerts. “I love it" she says, “and there’s more stuff I’d love to do.”
Her interests and influences in music are quite diverse. Crystal Gayle was a great favourite of herself and her sisters growing up, now she enjoys some of the American country singers like Alison Krauss and Tricia Yearwood. Of the Irish divas, her favourite is probably Maura O’ Connell, but she also likes Mary Black, and of course her aunt Dolores Keane has always been a strong influence.
On ‘Pictures in Time’ Orlaith showcases a variety of songs in style and tempo. The gentle country rhythm, of “I Wish it would Rain” gives way to the more up tempo beat of Alison Krauss’ ‘The Lucky One’ and ‘Candlelight and Wine’, Richard Thompson’s ‘Farewell Farewell” and Eric Bogle’s ‘Leaving the Land’ are thoughtful and plaintive, while Tricia Yearwood’s ‘Hearts in Armour’ is full of emotion and feeling.
On stage Matt and Orlaith share just one song – the Dick Gaughan classic ‘Both Sides the Tweed’ and their harmonising is definitely something they will do more of in future, given the right material.
Matt’s songs come from a variety of sources as well. ‘Somebody Special’ written by his good friend Don Stiffe has already become a favourite with his audiences. He covers two John Prine songs; the swinging ballad ‘Souvenirs’ and ‘Hello in There’, a song he chose because of its personal meaning to him going to visiting his mother now living in a nursing home. He takes the local ballad ‘The Lovely Green Woodlands of Ower’, and having researched its origins dedicates his new treatment of it to local man John Joe Garvey, who sang it as his party piece for years.
“If I try to analyse myself with a song, I would say it has to be melodic and tell a story” says Matt. “I’m drawn to songs and sometimes I don’t know why I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to writers who can paint a picture for me with words.”
Sometimes songs are personal, and sometimes they are full of emotion, it’s important for Matt to feel the songs and as he sings he brings that understanding out. Orlaith displays that same forthright and honest quality in her singing as well; it’s a family trait.
Before going into studio, Matt always works out the initial arrangement for the songs himself. The three main musicians in his band multi instrumentalist Seán Regan, keyboard player Peter Gannon and guitarist Pat Coyne then take over. Matt refers to them as ‘the three divine persons’ because together they are at the core of the recording and performance. At the live gigs, the band also includes fiddle and drums.
At the moment Matt manages all the organisation around his concerts and promotions. He enjoys it but it is hard work and the future plan is to have someone else doing the management, publicity and organisation. He and Orlaith would also like to travel further afield, throughout Ireland and to Europe and America.
“We’re filling a niche that nobody is filling around here” says Matt. “It’s toe in the water for us at the moment. Our music needs a platform. It’s hard to get the people to travel but it’s easy for us to travel to them, and that’s our plan, to develop it and get people to hear it.”