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Interview: Touring Canada was once a dream for Irish singing sensation Daniel O’Donnell

One of the most popular artists in the U.K., Daniel O’Donnell will be performing in New Westminster on Sept. 23.
Daniel O'Donnell has been scoring a hit in the UK charts every year since 1988.

Irish singer Daniel O’Donnell has performed in some of the most popular venues across the world — be it London's Royal Albert Hall, Sydney's Opera House or New York's Carnegie Hall. On Sept. 23, the musician who has recorded more than 50 albums in the last four decades and sold over 15 million records, will step on to the Massey Theatre stage to perform his best hits for the people of New Westminster. 

O’Donnell has managed to consistently score a hit in the U.K. Album charts since 1988 (a feat that no one else — not even the English rock band The Rolling Stones or the multiple-Grammy winning Irish band U2 has accomplished). 

Except for two short breaks in his career, the singer and host of the PBS' The Daniel O'Donnell Show, who turned 60 in December 2021, is still going strong and plans to sing till the end of his life, he tells Record. Here are excerpts from the telephone interview even as he was prepping for his Canada tour set to start on September 9. 

You did a Canada tour last in 2017; any highlights from the trip?

We enjoyed it very much. My wife (Majella O'Donnell) and I, and some friends of ours, went on a holiday to Whistler. We have a friend who lives in Vancouver; we stayed with her for a few days, and then we drove over to the Rockies, ending up in Lake Louise. It was just beautiful. We went up to Grouse Mountain — we had a good day up there, looking at the bears, looking at the scenery… beautiful. And then we went out to Victoria Island, and stayed out there for a night. 

But, we also enjoyed the shows. When I am touring, I don't do much sightseeing, it’s all about the concert. I love the interaction with the audience, you know?

How do you feel being able to perform to a live audience again? (O'Donnell, like any other artist, took a break from touring when the pandemic hit)

Oh, it's terrific. I think the nicest part is that up until now (since COVID-19), I haven't met people at the shows. Well, last year, we did a tour, but we didn't meet anybody. But I've just decided this year, I'll do the meet-and-greet after the show again. Of course, we have to be mindful... a bit careful. But I enjoy the interaction with and meeting people after the shows. 

I've got to know a lot of people over the years. That's an added bonus. When you go somewhere, and you remember the people from time before… it's lovely.

Do you remember many of your fans by their names? (O’Donnell once sang for a fan’s mother’s funeral, and surprised a fan on board a flight)

I can sing the old songs that I learned 30 years ago, but if I learned one today, I will struggle with it tomorrow. And it's the same with people — the people that I met years and years ago (he remembers their names). But because there are so many people to meet now, it’s harder to get to know people unless they come a lot. Some people write to me, so I get to know them that way. I certainly know their handwriting better than their faces.

When you sing on stage, what's going on in your mind?

Oh, I'm just singing the song. Just enjoying the song. I suppose I am blessed really that I get to pick my own material — whatever I want to sing, I just sing. I'm never really thinking of the words because any time I think of the words, I forget them. It’s a strange thing… you don't actually think about the next word. Just sing, and from somewhere it comes. I don't know where it comes from, but it comes. Thanks be to God. 

If I'm singing an Irish ballad, I am imagining the scene I'm singing about, whatever the sentiments are in the song, I'm just thinking about that. 

You did finance and business, before quitting college after just three months to pursue music (he then joined his sister’s band for a while before branching off on his own). And in the previous interviews you have mentioned how challenging it was to be able to get opportunities starting out. But it’s been half a century since -  do you ever look back to the initial days when you started out?

Oh, I do. I do, often. I often think about how lucky I am, how things worked out for me. Not too many people get to do something that they absolutely love. 

I do think back to the beginning. No matter who you are — in the music industry anyway — unless you're on The X Factor, or one of talent shows (that gives you instant fame), I think the majority of people have some form of struggle in the beginning. And I was no different. In the beginning, it's hard. And you just need that one break that sets you apart from other people. 

I made my first record (The Boy from Donegal) in 1983 with a set of 45 songs. There's no such thing as a 45, you’d be thinking. On one side was a song called Stand Beside Me, and on the other, My Donegal Shore (O’Donnell comes from Donegal in northwest Ireland).

And although it took about three years, My Donegal Shore was the song that really got me started. We had a lot of local radio stations set up there; they were illegal stations — we used to call them pirate stations. But they were everywhere in Ireland, and they played all Irish singers. They started playing my songs My Donegal Shore and Stand Beside Me, and it just took off from there. And that was the initial break for me. 

I was very lucky then (since then many other songs like Our House is a Home, I Want to Dance With You, Take Good Care of Her, My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You became popular). But I do think back all the time, and never ever, ever could have imagined that 40 years later, I would still be able to do it at this level — that I would get to the stage I am at. That would’ve been like a dream to think you would travel the world, you could go to Canada and people would know who you are, and people would be willing to come to your shows in America and Australia… 

I only thought we would sing in Ireland, and because we're so near to the United Kingdom, that we would go there. 

I never really thought about going away to other countries. 

Besides in 2016 (when he took a break to help his wife Majella O’Donell through breast cancer), did you ever hit pause and take it slow?

No, not really. In 1992, I was forced to take a break. I really was doing too much, and I got exhausted. My voice gave out on me for a bit. And then I just rescheduled things to do things in a different manner — take a bit more time out. 

Apart from that, now I am at a stage where we have three grandchildren — two little boys and a girl who is seven. We spend a good bit of time with them. So I don't do as much touring  as a choice. 

I turned 60 last year, not that that makes any difference. I feel 20, but I just feel that it's nice to have the balance between touring and time at home.

Do you have a dream venue that you want to perform at?

I got to sing at Carnegie Hall, at Sydney Opera House and the Royal Albert Hall. I don't know that there's anywhere that I would say I really love to do a show there. Though there is something special about those venues I mentioned, once a theatre is full of people, it becomes the most wonderful place.

I often go to the theatres, and I stand on the stage. We do soundcheck and I look out, and then when the audience comes in, it becomes something special. And often, at the end of the night when everybody's gone, my last thing would be just to walk onto the stage and look out again and just remember that it was the people that made the night, you know?

Do you sing every day? 

I don't sing every day. I don't sing as much as I should. But I am lucky in a way that once I start singing, I can keep going for a good amount of time; I do quite long shows — about three hours with a break, usually. But, you know, it's so much fun that it doesn't seem long. I hope it doesn't seem long to the people (laughs).

There have been reports about your retirement…

I think sometimes if you say ‘I'm not gonna do as much,’ and that kind of thing, somebody runs (an article) with ‘Oh, Daniel's gonna retire.’ Somebody asked me if I would ever retire. What I said was, I don't know that I will always tour but I hope I'll always sing. 

I might not be able to do extensive touring, but I hope that from time to time, I can get on a plane and go somewhere where people would want to hear me.

As long as I'm able, of course. I don't want to be singing when I'm not really set to sing. I hope that never happens. 

But if it gets to the stage, and I think if you live long enough there will come a time, when you won't be able to do what you did before, then I will have great memories to look back on. 

Book tickets for Daniel O’Donnell’s show from Massey Theatre website.