Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Celtic Crush Interview


            Celtic Crush is the only Celtic rock and traditional radio show broadcast throughout all of North America. It can be heard on Saturday mornings 7pm ET and Tuesday nights 11pm ET on SiriusXM Satellite Radio (The Spectrum - Ch. 28).

            “It really makes a difference,” says its host, Larry Kirwan, “when you know you can be heard from Arizona up to Labrador in the Arctic Circle or from Florida to Alaska. Even with the big New York AM channels you can rarely hear them fifty miles from the city.”

            But then Celtic Crush is a unique show no matter what way you look at it. A mixture of music and talk that sometimes harkens back to the glory days of FM radio of but done in a fast paced and modern manner.

            “I grew up listening to the taste and knowledge of John Peel on BBC but I also loved the excitement of the DJs on pirate radio. Then when I came to New York everyone listened to WNEW-FM and I came under the influence of people like Vin Scelsa, Alison Steele, Jonathan Schwartz and Meg Griffin. Yet when I came to do my own show I knew that the world had changed, if you want to tie a lot of different types of music together in an informed manner, then you must do so with contemporary energy.”

            And Celtic Crush pushes the envelope when it comes to the vast array of music you will hear in the course of a three-hour show. As Kirwan promises at the beginning of each show you will hear “a selection of the old, the very old, the new and the very new in music from the 8 Celtic nations and their related cultures.”

            “Celtic music is now so broad-based that it’s almost dizzying. It has infiltrated its way across the whole rock genre and traditional musicians are now combining with the music and musicians of many other cultures. The trick is – how to combine it all so that a three-hour radio show can seem organic. I’ve found that you need two elements, great songs and a style of delivery that is both conversational, dramatic and always tells a story.”

            “I begin work on Saturday’s show early in the week, plotting out thirteen sets of three songs, taking care to repeat no more than one or two songs from the previous show.  The first set will set a theme as I begin each show with a two to four minute monologue that must capture the attention of the listeners. I rarely use notes, in that way there’s always an element of danger and some of the best pieces come when improvising. There’s nothing quite like the live element to radio.”

            How does he choose the songs? On a recent show I heard music ranging from the revered Sean O’Riada to Irish R&B sensations, The Strypes; from The Furey Brothers to Afro-Celt Sound System; from Shaz Oye, a Nigerian-Irish chanteuse to The Pogues.

            “I choose them by the song – not the singer. People who subscribe to SiriusXM are radio heads and they have a vast array of choices – over 150 channels of every type of music and talk – so you have to be able to hold your audience. Your show is only as strong as your weakest song. So every song has to be great. I don’t care if it’s old or new, in fashion or out of fashion, a great song always shines through. And when you’re playing 40 of them in the course of a show then you had better make sure that they’re all top of the line.

            “A Celtic Crush listener may have their favorite genre, say Celtic Punk of the Dropkick Murphys or the musical lyricism of Sinead O’Connor; or a Damien Dempsey ballad or a trad Irish band like Dervish. I have to make sure that the song I choose will be the best so that someone who doesn’t care as much for that genre will be sampling the cream of the crop.”

            How does he get the Dubliners from the 60’s to mix with a more modern band like Swell Season?

“That’s simple,” Kirwan laughs. “Both Luke Kelly and Glen Hansard have red hair! But seriously, both are telling stories and being a musician I can hear the songs in my head and chose ones that will mix well in some way. The rest is done through the magic of the segue, perhaps cross-fade them. And if you can get a couple of seconds of beautiful dissonance before the new song succeeds the old one, then all the better.”

Where does he come up with the various facts and information that spice his voice breaks?

“Well, I’ve been around. Through Black 47 I know many of the acts I play, or else have seen them. I occasionally check some fact on the internet the night before, but for the most part, once I plan out the sequence of songs early in the week, I’m thinking of them and ways of presenting them come to mind. I don’t take notes but then when I’m doing the show I can improvise around some of the ideas.”

I always enjoy Kirwan’s interview. They seem very relaxed even when dealing with occasionally difficult subjects like Sinead O’Connor.

“Well, I’ve given so many interviews myself with Black 47, I know the last thing some stressed out singer on tour needs is another series of banal and generic questions. You’ve got to make it interesting for the artist. I keep it as much as possible focused on the music. That’s the most important thing to any serious artist. It’s a relief for them to deal with someone who knows what they’ve gone through to get this far. And they love to talk about their songs, and their craft and, frankly, that’s what my very informed audience wants to hear about.”

Who were his favorite interviewees?

“Friends like Dave King and Bridget Reagan of Flogging Molly or Rosanne Cash are always great as we just let our hair down and have a chat that can go really deep at times, dealing with fears and failures along with joys and triumphs. Richard Thompson was my first and, after he relaxed, he spoke very movingly about the late Sandy Denny, one of my favorite artists. But perhaps, Ray Davies of the Kinks was the standout.”

What makes The Kinks Celtic?

“Well, Davies is a Welsh name but Ray considers himself very Celtic. He lives part of the year in Cork. And besides he’s one of the great storytellers in rock – a real seanchai. He was utterly charming but in a sincere manner, had total recall of his experiences. He’s also one of my songwriting heroes. He talked at length about the Kinks’ classic, Waterloo Sunset. He remembered every detail of its writing and recording and was thrilled to talk about it. The response from the listeners by email was stunning.”

Does Kirwan respond to every email? He did within hours to mine when requesting this interview.

“It’s an important part of the show – that interaction between host and audience. I give out my email address a couple of times during each show. People love to make suggestions and even send CDs and mp3s of their favorite songs. I listen to them all and choose the best. It’s great to find a powerful song from an unknown artist and give them an outlet.  
          
So what’s next for Celtic Crush?

“I don’t know, we’ll see who’s coming through town and get them up in the studio. I think Glen Hansard is coming up soon again. I’d like to get Van Morrison in some day and talk about his music.  

But it’s Monday morning and I have Saturday’s show to prepare. I always try to introduce a couple of great new songs every week and then mix them in with selections from a database of what must be around 1500 songs. Then find some interesting subjects to weave in amongst them. I often look at it the way the old bards must have – you’re going into the noble’s house to entertain with a mixture of song and story. You’re singing for your supper – you better get it right.”

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