Irish duo Byrne and Kelly return to the States this August with a 26-date tour, and Seattle, a city that loves its Irish music, gets them when they appear at Ballard Homestead this Friday, August 21st. Comprised of Celtic Thunder‘s Neil Byrne and Ryan Kelly, Byrne and Kelly’s debut, Acoustically Irish, charted number 1 on Billboard’s World Chart and iTunes’ World Album. Appreciation of the band is more than just as a Celtic Thunder side project, rather a real affection for Byrne and Kelly as a duo, one who performs its own selection of Irish, and other, classic songs – and songs written by Byrne and Kelly (more on that follows). With album two, Live in Australia, Byrne and Kelly share the live experience, one fans really love. As proof? The Ballard Homestead show is sold out, as are many dates already. Here’s betting we will hear new Byrne and Kelly originals, “Home From Home” and “The Garden” on this tour!
Neil Byrne talked with me from Dublin last week, and I got to ask him questions about Byrne and Kelly, his solo albums, and what music he’s into.
How do you select songs for Byrne and Kelly?
Neil Byrne: The last two albums, we wanted to pick songs we loved and songs that meant a lot to us. Songs that myself and Ryan have played since we were kids. We wanted to do songs where we could bring our own personalities in, and not just a similar arrangement to what had been done before. When we first started out on Acoustically Irish we were really trying to find our own sound. We thought it would be a good idea to start off by covering the classics, and making them our own, and in that way our own signature sound comes out in the songs. With the first album we never expected to have the success that we did. It went to number 1 on the world Billboard Charts, which was incredible. We released a second album, Live in Australia, which we recorded in Sydney. At the moment we’re recording an originals album. Myself and Ryan, as you know, we’ve written songs on our own and had albums of our own. We’re halfway through recording this brand new originals album. But we’re going to have to leave. After two and a half weeks (the tour) we’ll get back stuck into the second half of the album. I think it’s a good time to record an originals album, because we have found the Byrne and Kelly sound. It’s an exciting time.
You’ve produced all the albums?
NB: Yeah, I’ve been producing since I was quite young actually. Most of the bands that I used to play with back in Ireland I used to record. Most days when I’m home, I’m in the studio working away on different songs and collaborations. I enjoy doing it. It just seemed to be a natural thing for myself and Ryan, and Ryan writes a lot of music too, so for the two of us to come together and write. . . we didn’t really know what was going to come out the other side. When you get two writers together with different styles and backgrounds you hope something’s going to merge and something brand new will be born of that. We’re really happy with what has come of it so far.
Do you two work on Byrne and Kelly at all while on tour with Celtic Thunder?
NB: When we’re on tour it’s too distracting. There’s so much to do. We decided the last time we came home from a Celtic Thunder tour, myself and Ryan, Peter [Sheridan, mandolin and keyboard] and Nicole Hudson [fiddle], decided to rent a cabin in County Cavan, in Ireland, in the middle of nowhere. No television. No Wi-Fi. We plugged a PA system in, and spent three days isolated in a beautiful part of the country. We just decided to start writing to see what happens. We enjoyed the experience. We got a heck of a lot of work done.
What’s great about working with Kelly as a duo?
NB: We really work well together. We have completely different ideas, which is great. We collaborate very well together; our voices chime very well together. About five years ago myself and Ryan were on a PBS promotion trip, and someone on the PBS station (asked if) we ever played together as a duo. We decided to get some local gigs. People really love the intimate show. I suppose it’s a bit more up close and personal, and we get to talk to the audience. We love it.
How young were when you learned to sing?
NB: I played guitar. In my early teens I used to go along and play with my dad’s band. My dad had a function band; he used to do a lot of corporate gigs, weddings . . . That’s where I got my experience. I used to just play guitar, and one night my dad put a microphone stand in front of me and goes, son, listen: “If you can sing, then you’ll never go hungry.” I started singing backing vocals in my dad’s band, and then I started incorporating one or two songs of my own into it. I did a lot of gigs by myself as well. It took off from there.
Which singer-songwriters are you a fan of?
NB: I grew up listening to a lot of wonderful ‘70s artists like Stevie Wonder, Hall and Oates, Billy Joel, James Taylor, Chicago. . . Toto. I was a big fan of that whole American scene. Funny enough back then I didn’t listen to any Irish/Celtic music. I played in a lot of bands that would play that sort of ‘70s and ‘80s music. That’s where I got my love of electric guitar and production – listening to the albums of all those greats. Would just make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, playing vinyl, at home in a chair with the lights flickering on the old Toshiba stereo. I would play along to the records. I would play bass guitar, drums, lead guitar, until my dad would come in at twelve o’clock at night. He was always so happy that I was playing so much, and progressing so much, but he said the neighbors aren’t going to be as proud. I’d be back up the next morning playing again.
I’m also a fan of your solo albums, Sensitive Souls and Pale blue Jak‘s Faces. Do you plan on another one?
NB: I’ve been asked if I am going to do another Pale blue Jak album, but it’s all about time. I’d never rush an album. You want to be proud of what you do. Hopefully in the next couple years I’ll be able to release another solo album at some stage.