“I’ve been working to make this album ever since I left school,” says Keith Harkin. “It’s a bit of a cliché, but I always knew what I wanted to do, and I’ve stuck with it. So I’ve been working hard for six or seven years, because I didn’t want to put just anything out.”
As a lead singer and a songwriter for the vocal group phenomenon Celtic Thunder, Harkin has already scaled heights that few performers ever see: the Irish powerhouse has sold millions of albums and DVDs, performed at the White House, and was named Top World MusicArtist by Billboard. But Harkin—a native of County Derry in Northern Ireland who began his performing career at the age of four—started out as a guitar-playing singer-songwriter, and with his self-titled debut solo album, he reveals an emotional range and eclectic sensibility that will surprise even the group’s most die-hard fans.
“I love all music, and a lot of my influences are on this record,” he says. “Neil Young, pop, dance, country—I love Glen Campbell. I see it like an old-school Elton John record, where he would play rock next to country next to folk. It’s quite a broad horizon.”
When Harkin first went into the studio with producer Jochem van der Saag, his intention was to make an intimate, acoustic-based album. That approach remained intact on songs including Harkin’s version of Tom Waits’ “(Looking For) The Heart of Saturday Night” or his melancholy original “Orange Moon.” Other recordings, though, grew to more anthemic proportions, with full orchestration for powerful tracks including“Here Comes the Sun” and “The End of the Innocence.”
Harkin is one of the first artists signed to the Verve Records under the new leadership of Chairman David Foster, the Grammy® Award-winning producer who also serves as Executive Producer on this project. The album’s twelve songs, split between classic covers and original compositions, illustrate Harkin’s gifts as both an interpreter and a writer. The fact that ultimately much of the record was penned by the singer is evidence of a creative burst that radically altered its direction.
“When we first went in to record, we did a bunch of covers and only one of my originals,” Harkin recalls. After that set of sessions, he took the challenge upon himself of trying to write new material that could hold its own next to some truly classic compositions— “which wasn’t easy when you’re talking about songs like ‘The End of the Innocence’ or ‘Everybody’s Talkin’!”
So Harkin (who has also composed and recorded songs for Dha Theanga, an Irish program on the BBC in which he played a lead role) went to Los Angeles, and began writing both on his own and, for the first time, with collaborators. In the end, six more of his songs made the cut, including the gently rolling, heartfelt love song“Nothing But You & I,” and the album’s first single, the bittersweet traveler’s plea “Don’t Forget About Me.”
He points to the yearning ballad “Rosa” as an example of his rapid growth. “I think that”s one of the best tracks on the album,” he says. “Every time anyone hears it, they think it should go in a movie—it’s just a huge song. The first time I heard the strings get put on in Abbey Road Studios, I was in tears.”
Harkin says that producer van der Saag—who has worked with such artists as Josh Groban, Michael Bublé, and Seal—was critical in shaping all of these influences and dreams into a cohesive package. “Jochem demoed that first group of tracks,” he says, “and I remember sitting in the listening booth going, ‘This is going to be amazing.’ He was so courteous, but he really got the best out of me and channeled me in right direction. We got twelve songs done in three days.”
Rough-hewn songs by Tom Waits, Fred Neil, and Don Henley are miles away from the theatricality of Celtic Thunder’s signature show, with its dramatic staging and lighting. But Harkin says that he’s been listening to Waits since he was seven years old, and that his father first taught him to play “Everybody’s Talkin’” when he was 13. As a huge Van Morrison fan (like any self-respecting Irishman), he takes special pride in his version of “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” done as a duet with Colbie Caillat. The song selections truly reflect Harkin’s musical passions—“I’ve learned that there’s nothing worse than doing a song you don’t love,” he says.
In fact, Harkin credits Celtic Thunder, which has performed a number of his songs over the years, as a big help in attaining his own creative goals. “The group gave me such free rein, let me pick the songs we do, just kind of let me get on with it,” he says. “When I joined Celtic Thunder, I was playing in bars, I did the odd festival gig with just me and my guitar.From that, the show made me who I am—I developed my voice, and now it’s second nature for me to walk onto a stage.”
As the album is being released, Harkin will be starting a new Celtic Thunder tour, and bouncing back and forth between sold-out arenas and the exhausting responsibilities that surround the launch of a new record. As anavid surfer, though, he’s not afraid of taking risks, and is able to enjoy the sense of artistic achievement he’s already attained.
“Being in the studio writing and recording with great musicians is as good as it gets,” says Harkin. “Anything that comes now is a bonus.”