Michael O'Brien: A Passion for Traditional Irish Music
By SHARON GREER
NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD button accordion player, Michael O'Brien
My sister and I were fortunate enough to spend the month of July touring Ireland on an amazing road trip. One night during our short stay in Kenmare, County Kerry we decided to walk down to The Coachman's pub on Henry Street to listen to some local traditional music.
To our delight and surprise, we stumbled across an astonishing 19-year-old button accordion player, Michael O'Brien from Castlemaine, County Kerry. He was accompanied by Sean O'Connor, a very talented acoustic guitar player. At the end of the show we spoke to Michael and he agreed to an interview after his performance the next evening, July 12 at Kenmare Bay Hotel. His show, Celtic Crossroads, runs May through September at the hotel.
Sharon Greer: Hello, Michael, that was a fabulous show tonight. You have an amazing amount of energy. Where do you get it from - it's not just your youth?
Michael O'Brien: No, definitely not - music to me brings a great sense of life and energy, I suppose, to my performance, really. I work from the music and I communicate with the crowd through the music. I just find this a great energy about the show that we've put together - it's a great energy, there's a great companionship with all the musicians and a great bond. The show is working really well and I'm very happy with it.
SG: I would just like to ask you a little bit about your background. Where you were born, how old you were when you started playing the button accordion? How did it all start? Did your parents have an influence on you?
M O'B: I was five years of age, I suppose, I started off learning music in primary school. Tin whistle with all the kids growing up through the years. I had to be pushed to be totally honest with you, to start, like every other musician around the world.
The music just won its love over on me. I just sat realizing where it was coming from and what it was about - just the sheer passion and love that I have now for the music would have been growing and growing and growing right through the years.
SG: Can you talk a little bit about your parents? I understand they're both musicians?
M O'B: Yeah, both musicians. My father's a great box (squeeze box/accordion) player and his father before that and his mother was a great fiddle player. On my mother's side, same thing, her father was a button accordion player as well. The whole surrounding of the family is button accordion, so I suppose that's where I got the gift of music from.
SG: So you've been playing for about 14 years now, you're only 19, right?
M O'B: Yeah, 19-years-of-age. I've been playing music for 14 or 15 years and the show came about last year. I did various shows before but not fronting any one of the shows, so I said it's about time. It's just great, like, the show just came out like that.
SG: We were listening to your CD today while we were driving around the Ring of Kerry and the song, From A Distance, is sung by Caroline O'Brien, is she a relation, your sister?
M O'B: Caroline is my sister, yeah. Caroline is a beautiful singer and she played in the show tonight. She's also developing a great love of music and it's really passed on from, if you want to say, from generation-to-generation. Down to me and Caroline from our parents.
And we hope we'll bring the music further and pass it down from there on, just to keep the music alive in Ireland. It's the only thing really that parents can pass down to their kids, along with good manners and whatever else. But it's really recognized down the line when they've passed on such a great gift and we can pass that on down to our kids. Yeah, Caroline is doing very well and she will be hugely successful, as well.
SG: How old is Caroline?
M O'B: Caroline is only 14-years-of-age.
SG: Have you received any kind of formal training? I know you mentioned you took music in primary school but what other kind of training have you had?
M O'B: I left school and I was taught by an All Ireland Champion boxter, Danny O'Mahony from Listowel in Co. Kerry. Danny is a great musician, traditional style musician, but I was with Danny for a few years. I branched out on my own and just took over a totally different style of music. It's just the music that I'm happy playing, you know. It's kind of my music, you could say that I love playing it.
SG: I wanted to ask you about the woman singing Annachie Gordon on your latest CD Natural Instinct. She has a beautiful voice. Could you just tell us a little about her? How did you record this song together?
M O'B: Una Flynn is five minutes back the road from where we were born in a town in Co. Kerry. Una has a great passion as well for music and a great vocal strength to get her voice across. Annachie Gordon was originally sung by Sinead O'Connor, a beautiful Irish singer. We took that from Sinead's album and we put our own music and our own style to Annachie Gordon. And it turned out lovely.
SG: What is the background behind Annachie Gordon - is that a very old song?
M O'B: Annachie Gordon is about a family and this man's daughter is telling the story about how her father back in the olden days didn't want her to marry a certain man and how she wasn't happy with it. She wanted to marry Annachie Gordon. So it's all about that and the words really tell the story and it's a really important story.
SG: How many CDs have you recorded to date?
M O'B: I've recorded two - Natural Instinct is my second one. We didn't want to go too Irish, going down the line of Danny Boy, although we do have that one in the show, but we just wanted to bring a new feel to Irish music. These are songs that are not really recognized in the Irish music scene.
SG: Have you any plans to tour the U.S. and Canada?
M O'B: Hopefully when the show finishes up in Kenmare, we can take the show on the road and travel around the world with the music and try to make something bigger out of it.
SG: Thank you very much, Michael. It's been a real pleasure meeting you.