Taking her influences from artists as diverse as Planxty and Led Zeppelin, Tina McSherry, originally from West Belfast, has a rich yet unfulfilled history in music. A former Entertainments Officer at the Students’ Union of Queens University Belfast, Tina – and her siblings John, Paul and Joanne – were well-known on the Irish traditional music scene in Belfast and beyond.
By the time they coalesced into Tamalin, a sensuous blend of traditional music and Tina’s exquisite, free-wheeling songwriting, commentators and key players within the Irish music industry saw them as somewhere between Page & Plant and The Corrs, surely destined for greatness.
An album, Rhythm & Rhyme, was released nationally on Grapevine in 1997, with glowing reviews from all the major music titles, and the group toured Australia with Irish music legend Donal Lunny. Tina had previously toured in Europe as an occasional member of all-girl harmony group The Wildflowers.
A combination of Donal head-hunting John McSherry – currently a major player in the professional Irish music world – for his own group, Coolfin, along with changes at the Grapevine label and questionable management decisions effectively halted the group’s progress just as it seemed to be hitting first base. Becoming pregnant, Tina withdrew from music completely, from both professional and trad session environments, and settled in a remote rural part of Northern Ireland. Was this the end of the road? No, it wasn’t…
Along with Janet Holmes and Helen McGurk, I’ve always thought of Tina McSherry as one of a trinity of really special, ’undiscovered’ vocalists from the place where I live, Belfast. In a parellel universe they’d all be rich and famous. I don’t claim to have ‘discovered’ any of them, but being in awe of this disparate trio and being the sort of person with an unfortunately restless surfeit of creative zeal (as TV detective Adrian Monk would say, ’it’s a blessing… and a curse…’) I was well-placed in the mid ‘90s to ask all three to record some songs with me. For some reason, they all agreed.
Also involved in this curious exercise (the recordings were never designed for commercial release, though the process of making them brought me a lot of fulfillment) were a host of other local musicians I really admired, several of whom have gone on to feature in further Harper projects – vocalist Rick Monro being the web designer for both the Janet Holmes and Wildlife Albums sites, and pianist Cormac O’Cathain producing some recent Janet Holmes ‘second album’ sessions and mastering the tracks on the Pentangle box set, for example – along with a couple of bona fide international artists, Martin Hayes and Brooks Williams. But I digress…
Some of the 1995-96 recordings were remastered, added to or otherwise tweaked for inclusion on The Wildlife Album in 2004. For the record, those that made the cut were the four tracks credited to Brooks Williams, Martin Hayes, Helen McGurk/The Legends Of Tomorrow, and Rick Monro / Iain Archer / Susan Enan. Janet Holmes contributed a leftover from her own album recordings of 2001. The question, then, was how could I feature the great Tina McSherry?
I did have a fantastic sounding track – the only one we recorded together, with full band, back in 1995 – but it didn’t feel right for The Wildlife Album. Somehow, the notion of hauling her out of retirement to front another full-band rock’n’roll bliss-out with a cover of Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs’ 1971 Australian smash ‘Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy’ did.
Remarkably, Tina, who hadn’t really done anything musical for six or seven years, was up for it. An array of great local players all turned up for the session – including pianist/MD Brian Connor and bass guitar wizard Ali MacKenzie – with no rehearsal necessary. The other musicians were solo recording artiste Colin Reid and graphic designer (often called upon, and always willing, to design posters and flyers for Harper-related live events) James Davis, on guitars, and drummer Paul Hamilton, from local rock stars Leya.
Everyone was on form and the finished track remains one of my favourites from the album. I got the impression Tina was glad to have a chance to be in a recording studio again, and hoped this might inspire her back into music in some way. Sure enough, a few months later she called and asked if Brian Connor and I might be interested in helping her make an album.
Some background on Brian might be appropriate here…
Equally adept in rock, jazz, singer/songwriter and classical music situations, Brian, from East Belfast, has performed and recorded with many of the most prominent ensembles and artists in Ireland including the National Symphony Orchestra, Irish Film Orchestra, Mary Coughlan, Van Morrison, Sharon Shannon, Eleanor McEvoy, Siobhan Pettit, Freddie White, Carmina and Colin Reid. He’s also worked extensively in television and radio as musical director and in 1998 he became Musical Director of Riverdance – The Show and performed with it in the UK and across the US on many of its record-breaking tours.
In April 2004 Brian completed his swansong tour with singer/songwriter Eleanor McEvoy, having worked with her as a duo over the previous three years. He co-produced Eleanor’s fourth album Yola – awarded HiFi Plus magazine’s ‘Album of the Year’ in 2003 – and also features prominently on her subsequent album, Early Hours (2004). Several of his recent performances with Van Morrison are featured on Van’s recent album Magic Time (2005).
But aside from all this glamour, one of Brian’s most admirable qualities is giving time to musicians at the bottom of the ladder. I remain, personally, greatly indebted to him for helping out substantially with several Janet Holmes recordings (three of which appear on The Road To The West and one other on The Wildlife Album) and when presented with Tina’s request his immediate response was invigorating enthusiasm. A set of piano/vocal demos were quickly recorded, two of which – along with a guitar/vocal demo recorded with brother Paul McSherry – were pressed as a promotional EP and (bar cheerleading, my role in all this) sent to numerous record labels. But of course, of the three or four who bothered to respond, none were interested. Truth be told, I had always suspected this would be the case – not any reflection on Brian or Tina, just a sense of the doomed state of the recorded music industry, certainly in the form that we’ve known it, these days.
In short: if you want to do anything, do it yourself. And something we did, in this spirit, was give Tina, Brian and a couple of hired hands a platform to perform live – at Belfast’s Spring & Airbrake, on November 2nd 2005, alongside international artists Martyn Joseph and Karine Polwart, the occasion being the launch of Live In Hope: The Wildlife Album 2. While many were delighted that she was back performing, Tina herself, and Brian, felt her performance was compromised by nerves. But it was a start.
Unfortunately, with other commitments, logistics became a problem for Brian at this point. With no-one else obvious to recommend for the role – of unpaid collaborator on a weekly get-together basis, to put form and structure to the wealth of songs floating around in Tina‘s head – I offered my services till someone better came along. That was around the end of 2005, and in spite of my musicianship-with-caveats credentials (ie. capable of the odd interesting idea perhaps but lumbered with an eccentric instrumental technique, not much discipline in being able to play the same thing twice, and almost no experience at playing live) things progressed pretty positively. With a few songs in skeletal form, we got bass man extraordinaire Ali MacKenzie involved, and a few weeks later Ali got his drummer of choice, Davy Kennedy, involved.
Bizarrely, this Tina McSherry Quartet made its recorded debut not on a stage nor even something in a dank pub backroom that purported to be a stage but on television: two songs recorded in rudimentary fashion at BBC Northern Ireland in February 2006 and then mimed to (seemingly forever) in a hired room at The King’s Head, a pub across town. The songs will apparently be broadcast on a Gaelic-language magazine show in June.
On March 31st 2006, Tina, Ali and myself performed our bona fide live debut at a wildlife charity event at No Alibis bookstore in Belfast – alongside readings from writers Gareth Higgins and Glenn Patterson and music from the amazing Denise Roden’s ensemble (reprising both ‘Bonjour Mon Couer’ and ‘Passing Away’, from The Wildlife Album), James Devlin and Caroline Orr. Obviously I’m biased, but we seemed to go down rather well – remarkably, perhaps, as all sorts of things (not least Tina’s house flooding) had precluded a rehearsal for three weeks. Luckily, being the organiser of the whole night, I had far too many other things to worry about to even think about worrying about what, for me, was playing live for the first time in 15 years!
Recorded on the night by a couple of trainee engineer pals of Cormac O’Cathain, the three songs performed – McSherry originals ‘Starchild’ and ‘Walk With Me’ and her translation into Irish of WB Yeats’ ‘The Sally Gardens’ (from the Tamalin album) – will hopefully appear on this site in streamed form.
Tina’s house had, most inconveniently, flooded on a night we’d planned to go into a studio to record some tracks. In the event Ali, Davy and myself decided to go ahead and managed to record a backing track for what I suppose is a group original, as yet awaiting lyrics from Mrs O’Donnell (our Tina‘s alter ego). Ali’s keen to get an EP together sooner rather than later. As for me, it’s just great fun to be involved in something with so much drive coming from other people – where it’s not a crazy project dependent on me pulling rabbits out of hats all the time! Musically, I am, without doubt, the weakest link, but it’ll be fun while it lasts.
Update (June 2010): Sadly, Project Tina didn’t make it as far as any more gigs or pro recordings – though we did work on a few home demos. Blame logistics and Tina’s hectic lifestyle. Nevertheless, Tina did help me out around that time by fronting a one-off recording called ‘King Of The Sun’, pitched at RTE’s Eurovision song search when Dervish were the confirmed Irish performers. It wasn’t successful, but it was fun to have a go with such a specific brief and the track – along with Tina’s terrific 1996 recording of ‘Letting Go’, which had never made it to CD before – appeared on my 2008 CD release ‘Freedom & The Dream Penguin’ (pseudonymously credited to The Field Mouse Conspiracy). Check out samples of the tracks under the band name via www.cdbaby.com
Colin Harper, April 2006, Updated June 2010