Seamus Egan doesn't hustle. He doesn't work the crowd. All he does is play his music. Yet, with recent appearances on a number of movie soundtracks, a hit song co-written with Sarah McLachlan, a new solo album, and a hot new band, the four-time all-Ireland champion instrumentalist is on top of the Irish music world. How does he do it? "I just kind of fall into these things," he smirked. He calls it "blessed," he calls it "serendipitous." What he means is he's a lucky guy.
Egan is currently riding a wave of success that began with his involvement in The Brothers McMullen, a beautiful sleeper of a movie by Edward Burns. As Egan told it, he came into that project by an act of God, when a car broke down in the dead of winter.
Egan was touring the East Coast with bluegrass musicians Dirk Powell and Tony Furtado, billed as "The Young Turks of the Banjo Tour." On a February night in Rhode Island, when, as Egan said, "the weather was wicked," the trio's car broke down. "I think it was Dirk's mother's car," Egan remembered, "and she lived down in the Virgin Islands or someplace. And this car had never seen a drop of snow in its life. And so the water pump cracked on it."
Unable to hit the road, the banjo players were put up for the night by the Yarmes, a couple whose adult son was visiting for the weekend. The Yarmes even loaned the young musicians a car so they could finish their tour. In gratitude, the pickers gave their hosts the only gifts they could come by in the middle of a tour: copies of their CDs. Egan thought nothing more of the incident, certainly never dreaming it would have an impact on his career.
"But then," Egan continued, "a couple of weeks later I got a call." Andy Yarme, their benefactors' son, had taken Egan's CD A Week in January back to New York with him, where he was a technician working on The Brothers McMullen, then a totally obscure project with a shoestring budget and no big names. The phone call, Egan remembered, was not exactly inspiring. "It's a low budget, no money film," they told him, but still asked if it would be all right to use some of his music. His response was nonchalant: "Yeah, sure, no bother." Not thinking that the movie would amount to much in his career, Egan forgot all about it. When the rough cut of the movie came out in late 1994, Burns called again to tell him his music was in. "I thought it would just be one or two tracks he used," Egan said, but he was surprised to find that his was the only music used in the rough cut.
Soon Egan was to realize that The Brothers McMullen was destined for bigger and better things. It was accepted into the Sundance film festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. It was then picked up for distribution by Twentieth Century Fox. Suddenly Burns found himself with a few more bucks to spend cleaning the film up. "By the time all of that had happened, Egan explained," we had been... down at Sigma [studios] for three or four weeks working on my new solo album. So when they got more money to look at the film again, and touch up some of the music end of it, we had all these unfinished tracks." Music editor Tom Drescher gave them a listen and decided they fit in neatly with the film.
Egan pointed out that it was crucial that he was already in the studio recording new music; although Burns had some money, it wouldn't have been enough to start the whole process of putting together the musicians and the sessions for the new tunes. "So it worked out that we were working already," Egan said with a smile, "It all worked out for the best." A lucky guy.
There was still a piece missing to the Brothers soundtrack, however: a good song. For that, Canadian pop singer and songwriter Sarah McLachlan was called in. "She's always been a favorite singer of mine," Egan explained, "and I thought that if she was interested in doing it, her voice would suit the feel of that tune, and fortunately, she said yes." Egan's melody "Weep Not for the Memories," seemed a good choice for setting words. McLachlan's words transformed it into a song called "I Will Remember You." Thoroughly satisfied, Egan reported, "she did a great job on the song. I couldn't have been happier with the way that she did it."
Released as a single, the song has done well. As well it should; the three-minute video cost about three times as much to make as the whole Brothers McMullen movie. The McMullen soundtrack itself has also sold very well, taking up residence in the Billboard top 10 World Music charts for several months. As Egan said, "Everything about the film... it just seemed like everything was blessed!"
Does Seamus Egan live a charmed life? Perhaps. Born in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, Egan moved to Ireland with his parents and his five siblings when he was three years old. "My father was from Mayo and my mother born and bred in Germantown. Both her parents were from Donegal." The Egans settled in Mayo, in Foxford, a town famed for its woolen mills. "You may have wrapped yourself in a Foxford blanket at one stage or another," Egan commented.
It was in Foxford that Egan started playing music, under the tutelage of Martin Donaghue, a button accordion player from Ballindine. "He would come to the town hall once a week," Egan said, "and hold a music class. My parents sent my sisters Siobhan and Rory and myself down. I think Rory was five, and I was six or seven and Siobhan was eight or nine, and the three of us would go down with our three whistles once a week, and that was basically it." Although he was a box player, Donaghue was able to talk his students through other instruments as well. He was also an inspiration to Egan in other ways. Paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, the music teacher was an activist for disabled people's rights. "He was a pretty amazing guy," Egan said affectionately.
The process of learning to play involved the time-honored methods of taking lessons and playing with other musicians, but it also used some modern inventions: TV and records. One reason for his success as a musician, Egan believes, is that he didn't have a TV growing up. Ironically, though, a TV show that he saw at a neighbor's house was a crucial moment in his musical life. "There comes a point when, if you're gonna do it, something snaps inside you," he said. For him, that point was the day he saw flautists Matt Molloy and James Galway on TV. "It was just the two of them playing. I saw that, and I went home and that was it. I wanted to play the flute. I got the flute out from under the cupboard and started really trying. I was gonna get a sound out of the thing if it killed me."
It almost did kill him. "We were playing this little plastic, Japanese factory-made flute that was made to look ebony, and I remember the holes were so sharp they would cut your fingers and your tongue...." Later, Egan recounted wearing out the grooves on LPs by flute player Matt Molloy (who has been a member of the Bothy Band, Planxty and the Chieftains), listening over and over until he got it right.
Once the first stages of learning were over, Egan got his first taste of competitive playing. "Before we left [Ireland], I guess we ended up playing a few fleadhs and the all-Ireland. A lot of the playing before we came back here was for competition. We were little kids, and Martin would have us entered in feises and fleadhs and whatnot, so we had a motive to practice."
Practice paid off for Egan. He went on to win all-Ireland championships on four different instruments by the time he was 14, an unprecedented feat in Irish music. "I was young, and stupid," he joked, "it was just something to do." More seriously, he explained that he owes his ability to play such a wide range of instruments to his parents: "We were fortunate that any interest we showed in instruments, they always made it possible. I still don't know how they did it half the time, but they still made sure we had instruments to play." The example he gave: after he heard Mick Moloney playing a banjo on the radio, he decided he wanted to learn the instrument. His parents went out and got him one. "After a while there were quite a few instruments lying about the house."
On the subject of competitive playing, Egan said he is of two minds. On the one hand, it gives young musicians a goal to focus on, and encourages them to learn technique. On the other hand, he said, it's hellish. "At the end of the day, all you felt was sheer terror. You'd practiced for a year this one tune over and over again, and you knew you were gonna screw it up when you got to playing it in front of all these people, and you would screw up, and it was just awful!" The memory still haunts him to this day. "I have not been back to see a competition since I quit. I think I'd probably get that nervous feeling again."
Besides the emotional trauma, Egan feels that championship play limits the musician to a strict set of arbitrary rules. "A style was considered traditional, and...if you didn't play in that style, you weren't good. It's ludicrous. I think the point when I realized that level of what it was about was pretty much around the time I stopped competing." Egan is in no way bitter about his experiences with competition, though. "I think at the point when I quit anyway, it had served a purpose. I think it was good that you focused in on practicing and on learning...but ultimately I don't think it is something of huge importance." Indeed, Egan doesn't like to be introduced as a whiz kid who won four all-Irelands. "I feel like people just expect me to be flashy when they hear that," he said.
Before Egan won his all-Ireland titles, his family had moved back to Philadelphia. Donaghue had prepared him for the whistle and flute titles, but his banjo and mandolin championships were another story. "When we got settled [in Philadelphia] and went over to the Irish center, we met Mick Moloney, who I had heard on the radio forever growing up in Ireland...hearing Mick on the radio was why I was interested in playing the banjo. I ended up going over to his house once in a while, and he'd show me things on the banjo. And then we played at the All-Irelands two more years."
After Egan and his two sisters Siobhan and Rory gave up playing competitively, the opportunity arose for some professional gigs. "I think one of the first places we played at was the Philadelphia Ceili Group festival down in Fisher's Pond. Everything else seemed to just come from that." Soon the jobs started rolling in. "Suddenly we were playing, people were asking us just to play." The trio made it as far as New York, with their dad Mike driving them around to their gigs.
During this period, Egan also began to perform with Mick Moloney and Eugene O'Donnell, a trio that has continued to work together on and off over the years. "Eugene introduced my parents to one another," he said, "so it's sort of funny how it all sort of comes around." In 1993, the trio finally recorded an album, entitled Three-Way Street.
Even though he was paid for his performances with his sisters and with Moloney and O'Donnell, Egan would not have called himself a professional musician. "I don't think the word professional came into it for quite some time," he laughed. "I think that kind of happened the last year or two. Until recently, you know, it seems like it's what I do, but there was never in any way a plan. One thing just led to another, to another, and I kind of got caught up in it more than planned on it."
All of this was occurring when Egan had normal high-school kid problems, which complicated matters. "There's enough you have to deal with going through school without going around as 'the flute player' or 'the banjo player.' I didn't even pick cool instruments," he lamented.
Playing Irish music while in a normal American high school had its ups and downs. "Certainly it ended up being better than working at McDonald's," he confided, "but no one in school knew I played, 'cause that would have been bad." The thought still seems to shake him today: "Going around with a big sign around your neck saying 'I Play Irish Music! I Play The Flute! And I Like It!' You know, that's not what you wanted to be doing. So I did a fairly decent job [covering up] I think until the last year of high school, and someone, one of the teachers at the school saw something that I did. Then of course, I ended up having to play a couple of school assemblies, which was horrifying. And then the whole thing just got out, and it was just horrifying then!"
Luckily, Egan soon graduated and put all that behind him. He recorded his first album, Traditional Music of Ireland, with his sisters, but soon stopped playing out with them. Very soon thereafter, he joined a loose assemblage of musicians who called themselves the Green Fields of America. Led by Mick Moloney, the Green Fields was based, in Moloney's words, on "the concept of presenting Irish traditional music, singing and dancing from American-based performers." Moloney explained how the group works: "There's kind of a network of about maybe twenty musicians around, and then people come over from Ireland, like Tommy Sands, to join us now and again. At a moment's notice, a group can evolve." Members of the Green Fields of America have included Liz Carroll, Jack Coen, Billy McComiskey, Eugene O'Donnell, Eileen Ivers, Tim Britton, Joanie Madden, Charlie Coen, Donny Golden, Jerry O'Sullivan, Robbie O'Connell, Jimmy Keane, and of course Moloney and Egan.
The Green Fields was the band Egan grew up in. It provided him with "really my first chance at going out on tour and traveling and staying at hotels, and being on the road. For someone like me that had not a bother in the world, being kind of led around, it was great. Seventeen or eighteen, just knocking about, meeting people, seeing places I would never have gone to, it was fun!"
Life at this age was full of surprises. He recalled being surprised by the life of the touring musician. "The easiest part of the day is actually playing, when you're on stage playing for a couple of hours it's fine. But there's an awful lot of work that goes into getting there, you know, airports and whatnot." The biggest surprise, though, was the audience's response to their concerts. "I knew that there were people outside of the east coast, but it was certainly eye-opening to see that there were so many people that enjoyed Irish music and dance. I think there are more and more of those people now. I think those tours, and not only the Green Fields, but other groups that were touring around that time, a lot of groups were on the road and a lot of groups were making records, and I think all of that has led to whatever it is today now that seems to be this huge interest in 'Celtic' music. I think that definitely had an effect."
After recording a live album for posterity, The Green Fields has been more or less dormant for a few years now. "We get together once in a while and do the Green Fields thing," Egan said, "but for that particular lineup, everyone seems to have gone in different directions."
No matter. Egan has had more than his share of musical partnerships and groups over the years. After the Green Fields, he went to Boston briefly to attend Boston College, but his heart was elsewhere. "I was probably spending more time in New York than I was at B.C.," he admitted. In New York, he came to be involved in a number of musical groups, including The Chanting House, an exciting band that included Egan, Eileen Ivers, guitarist John Doyle and singer Susan McKeown. "I'd been playing with Eileen in various combinations on and off for ages, and she had started playing with John and Susan, so I would come down to New York and just sit in with them from time to time." Eventually this led to the four touring as a band. "I can't even remember how long it lasted for," Egan said, "it was a couple of years anyway." At about that time, Egan's second album, A Week in January, was released.
After a while, The Chanting House began to move in a different direction, and Egan, Doyle and Ivers stepped away and left it to McKeown. The three of them stayed together, however, playing in bars and at festivals, sometimes as the Eileen Ivers-Seamus Egan band. "We couldn't come up with a name," Egan said sheepishly. Eventually the three hooked up with Kimati Dinizulu, an African percussionist also living in New York. "We would do these Monday nights at Paddy Reilly's in New York," he said, "they were really fun because there was never really a set thing that we did, we'd just play for ages. We'd be making stuff up as we went along." Like many projects in Irish music, it was destined to be short-lived. "Things get complicated. Everyone involved in that ended up getting involved in different things, so it became harder and harder actually to be in town on Monday nights..." Egan still enjoys playing with that lineup, who recently reunited to record the track "Ships are Sailing" for Ivers' solo album, Wild Blue. Though he doesn't know when the four of them will play together again, he is confident that they will someday.
Other memorable moments in Egan's musical journey include playing (with Moloney and O'Donnell) at Bonnie Raitt's wedding, and recording a hip-hop track with Living Colour's brilliant guitarist, Vernon Reid. The latter experience, he said, was among the scariest in his life. As usual, it came about by sheer luck, when he and Reid were working in the same studio in New York. "I'd gotten home from the studio that night, and the next morning got a call from someone at the studio saying that they'd heard that I played the pipes and he'd been looking for someone to play the pipes." Egan did not take the news well. "I was so scared... I sat in the kitchen going, 'Oh My God!' I wasn't going to do it because I was terrified at the prospect of crashing and burning in front of Vernon Reid, but I got the nerve up and went down, and it was great. It sounded really cool, it was sort of a hip-hop thing with the pipes doing the sort of melodic component of it." He groaned at a suggestion that they name the track "You be Uilleann."
Egan also recently completed his third solo album, entitled When Juniper Sleeps. It is very different from his previous releases, blending Irish music with jazz and other sounds. "I guess we got a bit more adventurous," he said. "It was great to work with Michael Aharon, who co-produced the album. To work with people who have an appreciation for Irish music, but it's not where they're from. And to have that perspective on it. Musical, rather than anything tinged with the ethnic cultural baggage that an Irish musician brings to their music, which I obviously have."
Egan said his goal was "not necessarily to do an Irish traditional album, but still hold on to parts of the traditional music that I felt were important. Obviously I didn't want to lose what it is that I do, and I wasn't trying to do something that I couldn't do." He did feel that with the help of Aharon and the other musicians who played on the album, a balance could be reached between Irish music and other sounds. "Whether or not we achieved the balance remains to be seen," he said, "but I at least felt that gave us the best shot at it."
One interesting innovation on When Juniper Sleeps is Egan's use of the nylon-strung guitar on about half the tracks, which makes it one of the dominant sounds on the album. He plays the guitar very much like he plays the mandolin and banjo, with a lightning quick staccato picking that slips in ornaments where you never thought they could go. The guitar's feel, however, is more open to bending and manipulation than the tightly strung mandolin's or banjo's, giving the music a more spacious, jazz-like feel. "I was able to do something I hadn't had the opportunity to do before," he said proudly.
At the moment, Egan's attention is focused on a new band called Solas. The lineup consists of Egan on flute, whistle, banjo, mandolin, and other instruments, John Doyle on guitar, John Williams on button accordion and concertina, Winifred Horan (formerly of Cherish the Ladies), on fiddle, and a fine singer named Karan Casey. Like most of Egan's projects this one happened "by chance." "We did a couple of festivals, actually, John D., John W., Win and myself," he explained, "and over the course of the year we met up with Karan Casey one night at a gig, and as it turned out she lives just a couple of doors down from us. We live on the same block in Manhattan. And, so we started doing a couple more festivals, and the combination just seemed to gel." Shanachie Records approached them about recording, and their first album, Solas, is now completed. Will this band be as short-lived as some of Egan's others? He hopes not. "Hopefully we'll be able to keep working as a group."
The members of Solas have a lot going for them. Each of them is an acclaimed traditional musician of high standard, but each is also an experimenter, an interpreter of tradition whose music has appeal outside the strictly traditional circle. Their brilliant playing and singing earns them praise wherever they go. They've had some excellent exposure, playing live on the NPR program Mountain Stage. And, as their album's producer, Johnny Cunningham, points out, they fill an important niche on the Irish music scene. "It's about time we had a non-precious yet beautiful band," he said.
Cunningham, who spent the two weeks of "the Blizzard of '96" working in the studio with the group, is one of their greatest supporters. "They're great. I've been as nearly happy as a Scotsman can be. I can listen to most of this time after time after time, as we're going through, and I'm always finding something else I'm liking, so I've enjoyed it. It's very visceral. It's soul music, you know? Good stuff." As for the album, Cunningham said, "we're trying to keep a really live feel to the band, just with the members of the band. We're not doing tons of overdubs or anything like that, so what you hear is what you'll get. And it's pretty exciting."
"Pretty exciting" describes most of Egan's career, and he's pretty excited about the future as well. He sees Irish music becoming more and more prominent every day. "If you look at the world music charts, in Billboard, of the top 15 a few weeks ago, nine were either Irish or Celtic in some fashion, and I think it's fairly amazing. I don't know how to interpret those listings, but it has to mean something, when it's overwhelmingly one thing. You could almost start calling it the Irish charts, or the Celtic music charts. It's just amazing."
Egan thinks the recent trend of Celtic music in soundtracks like The Brothers McMullen is one factor in Celtic music's new popularity. "Last year alone," he said, "it was just ridiculous the amount of films that had Irish or Irish-based or Scottish- based music. That can't be a bad thing." He counts down some of the films that had Irish or Scottish music in their soundtracks: The Secret of Roan Inish, Braveheart, Rob Roy, Circle of Friends.
"You couldn't complain at all about the trend of Irish music in films," Egan continued. "People who wouldn't necessarily know the Irish groups or the Irish musicians hear the music. The audiences that go to these films wouldn't bother buying a ticket to go see me. And then they hear the music. So a lot of people are hearing Irish music or Scottish music or the more nebulous 'Celtic' music for the first time." He sees film soundtracks as one part of an important process: "Trying to find new ways of getting the attention of people, getting to the non-converted. Because when you do concerts, you're preaching to the converted in a great deal of the cases."
Since The Brothers McMullen, Egan has performed in more soundtracks. One was Out of Ireland, a PBS documentary about Irish Emigration. The other, Dead Man Walking, had nothing to do with Ireland at all. "They were using a real interesting combination of instruments," he said, "everything from Irish instruments combined with Indian instruments and Egyptian. The music that was done in no way has anything to do with Irish music. it's music being played on instruments that are associated with Irish music, but it's not in any way Irish." Egan still sees it as a good thing for the Irish music scene. "It's good to know that people can look at Irish music and look at the instruments and realize that, well, they don't need to necessarily be only in Irish contexts," he explained.
So what does the future hold for Seamus Egan? Solas will be hitting the road by summer or fall. He'll be doing a lot of studio work between now and then, and, he said, "Hopefully doing what I'm doing right now. Things have been going pretty cool." He's not making any long-term plans; the seat-of-the-pants approach has kept him busy and happy so far. He grinned, thinking no doubt of his good luck. "I couldn't plan on doing these things if I tried!"