We did an interview with Keith Harkin in September of 2016. Check here for recent updates: http://keithharkin.com/
Keith Harkin is an Irish singer songwriter and guitar playing minstrel who has been singing his way into the hearts of music lovers since the wee age of four. HIs musical talents have brought him across the world from the UK to Canada to Australia to America and back, over and over again in his past eight years touring.
Katie: I’m Katie Mitchell and I’m here with Keith Harkin and Patrick (or Pat) Murdoch. Thank you guys so much for coming in today. It’s so nice to have you here again on Art of the Song.
Keith: Thank you so much for having us.
Katie: It’s your third time too because you were there with Celtic Thunder as well a few years ago.
Keith: Yeah, I was with Celtic Thunder for ten years up until this year.
Katie: I have to say, I am so glad I saw you guys perform at Molly Malone’s last night and I’m so glad that I got an opportunity to see you perform before interviewing you. It’s such an electric experience to watch you on stage. But what was really interesting beyond seeing your stage presence and the fact that I obviously love your music as well, but it was really interesting talking to your fans because your fans have such a sense of familiarity. They have such a sense of you being a part of their family and I thought that was such a unique aspect of you as an artist. I was talking with these two women and one of them was like, “Oh yeah, you know I’ve watched him for the past ten years since he’s been with Celtic Thunder and then grow into his own as a solo artist.” Then she was talking about how she had gone back and was actually doing your merchandising and I thought that was so cool that you brought her in. So, how important is that fan connection to you?”
Keith: Everybody says they have great fans, but I genuinely feel I have the best fans there are. They follow me everywhere. They listen to all my crazy ideas. They follow all my projects regardless of what they are. They appreciate me as a musician, not just for the one style of music. They let me extend my own ideas and creativity in whatever direction I see fit and they back me up no matter what. Even from Celtic Thunder and the fans I’ve developed on my own with my last record and this record “On Mercy Street”. I’m honestly very, very lucky. There’s a Keith Harkin street team and I asked those guys would they like to do the merchandise because so many people come, and a lot of people don’t understand how a tour works or how a day works at a gig. There are certain people. Everyone has their jobs. So many fans mean so well and they’re all, ‘Can I help? Can I help? Can I help?” So I thought, well, if they do want to help. This entire tour we had the Keith Harkin street team organize people in every city and they love loved it. It was great for the fans to get to do that and I loved the help. On the whole, the best fans in the world and I’m very lucky.
Katie: Have you found a difference between your fans that followed you at Celtic Thunder and those that follow you as a solo artist?
Keith: No, you know, it’s funny, and my show appeals to different age groups of people. There could be four years old and there could be 104 year old at my show.
Katie: There was so much diversity at your concert. I was looking at the age range.
Keith: Age range. There’s rockers. There’s grandmothers. It’s a weird collective. A good weird collective.
Katie: To rockers and grandmothers alike.
Keith: The album ‘On Mercy Street’ came out this year. I think it was #15 in the rock charts on Amazon and I was amazed. That appeal is there. It’s hard for me in the sense that when people ask, ‘What kind of audience do you have?’ and I genuinely don’t know how to answer the question. Kids. Parents. Sometime four generations of one family will come to my show and each of them will enjoy the show equally.
Katie: And you appeal to that sense of family as well, would you say that goes back to your roots growing up in a musical family and growing up in Ireland that has that sort of sense of family and music combined?
Keith: Yeah, without a doubt. My father was a guitar player. My mother’s father was a guitar player. Growing up in Ireland, family is the be all and end all. That’s what Ireland is. We’re all big in families and England as well, where Pat’s from. Family is very close. Normally we’d move far away from where they all lived together. Growing up, my father had me play guitar with him from when I was 11 years old from when I was 12, so I’m well used to it at this age. So, definitely, for me, family is everything.
Katie: So, now, one of the things I noticed at your concert last night too was that you have so much fun on stage and you also have a family there, talk to me about how that’s different being with the group now, with Patrick and the other guys on stage versus what it was like being with Celtic Thunder.
Keith: With Celtic Thunder, at the start, we were all the same guys and then Celtic Thunder became more of a product. They just replace people nowadays like pawns.
Katie: So they were more individual….
Keith: Yeah, when we first started, the show didn’t really have a concept. They wanted five guys and it was built around us five guys and then went from there.
Katie: Five guys being similar. It’s very similar if you guys have watched the Beatles “Eight Days a Week” documentary. They were talking about how they were so similar at the beginning and then they diversified later on and they became so distinctive.
Keith: Yeah, but I wouldn’t say we were similar. We were similar maybe in sense of humor and personality, but musically I do what I do. My music hasn’t really changed at all. “Lauren and I” that I performed last night was on the very first tour that I did with Celtic Thunder.
Katie: You said that you wrote that when you were really young too.
Keith: Yeah, I wrote that when I was like 17 or 18 give or take.
Katie: Before you even joined Celtic Thunder. So when did you actually start writing?
Keith: I’ve been writing since I was about fifteen or sixteen.
Katie: So you picked up a guitar and then pretty much a few years later you just started writing.
Keith: I thought I was a writer until I moved to London. That’s how I met Patrick and that’s how I met half the guys in the band right now. Then I met lots of people. I was really young when I started out, but you learn a lot more as you write and right now I’m writing a lot. Those two songs that I just performed, I’ve been writing a lot with a guy called Jack Tempchin who is the Eagles songwriter, and Jack and I have become really good friends and we’re writing nonstop. Now you have October coming up and half of November and Jack and I are hopefully going to finish my new record, which I hope they’re going to record in January/February.
Katie: That’s so exciting. Ok, well, two comments on this. One, it must be so exciting that you did this Don Henley cover on this last album before Mercy Street, which is your current album out, and you said The Eagles were one of your influences and you get to write with Jack Tempchin who, you said last night, you had met at the thrift store. So talk about that whole story because I thought that was fascinating.
Keith: Yeah, I’ve told the story a million times, but it is a good one. I was in a thrift store in Encinitas and Kelsey, my wife, and I, we have an online store called Harkin Headquarters and we travel around and we collect stuff from around the world and we try and sell it. So we were down in Mexico traveling about and we came back up and stopped off for a coffee in Encinitas and I was wearing a shirt that said “Dais”, which is like a motorbike brand, it’s Dais ex machina and it’s like the Latin god of machinery or something like that. Then this man in the thrift store was like, “Hey Man, Dais, dais bro”. And I was tired and didn’t really want to talk to anybody, you know what it’s like. When people normally want to talk to you in LA, you run away. It turned out that I just sort of walked away from him. I was like, “Alright man, cool.” Then a week later I was backstage at Kaaboo festival in San Diego, which is actually on this weekend, and I was sitting and chatting with this couple called The Natters who are a husband and wife duo who are writers. They write all the tracks for Jason Mraz. They wrote “I’m Yours” and all these. So I was enthralled speaking to these people and as I was speaking to them, the two of them jump up and they’re like, “Keith, we have to speak to this guy. Come over. You should meet him. We’ll introduce you.” And I was like, “Alright, cool.” So I was sitting there and like a minute later I turned around and looked and who was it they were talking to but the guy that I thought was the crazy guy from the thrift store in Encinitas the week earlier. I went over and introduced myself and give him my sticker and they told me who he was and I was like, “Alright. That sucks.” Then a week later, Jack had looked me up online and obviously kept my sticker in his pocket. He really liked my music and contacted me and asked me would I write songs for his record. So I went and met Jack and we wrote a really beautiful song called “Song for You”. It’s actually one of the main tracks on his album right now that just came out last week. Since then, Jack and I have just been turning out songs. We write really well together. I would never class myself as a writer anywhere good as Jack, but together we write songs that I think fit me perfectly. So it was a lucky….call it what you want, serendipity, fate, I don’t know, but I think it was meant to be. Then, after we wrote a few songs, Jack was like, “Why don’t you contact this record company I’m with about releasing your record?” I think that was on like a Tuesday or a Wednesday and I remember “On Mercy Street” was finished, artwork was done, mastering was done, I was ready to go. I paid for everything myself. I was going to release it on a Friday, which was the 30th of October, and we played two days beforehand in the Genghis Cohen lounge and I remember being so brass about it because I didn’t care if it was God himself trying to save me, I just wanted to do it on my own. It was happening regardless. So I basically contacted the record company that Jack emailed me with and I was like, “Look, if we’re going to do this, we need to do this this week and it wasn’t even a boastful thing. I was just doing it regardless.
Katie: Well, you had a vision and you had an inkling and you just went with that intuition.
Keith: Yeah, and they got it. They came and met me that week and they offered me a record deal before they even saw the show and when I think back now it was pretty cheeky, but whatever, it’s all good knowing that I really love working with the record company Blue Elan, they’re called, and they’re all great people and they back me up.
Katie: Well, I think some of the best musical moments come from people who are being cheeky so I think that’s not a bad thing at all.
Keith: Yeah, I was going to do it regardless and I basically said, “Look, I’m going to do this. If you want to help me, great. If you don’t, cool, thanks for the email.” But they’re a fantastic company I’m really lucky to have met them and I’m really lucky to have met Jack. It’s been a good year working with all of those people.
Katie: Well talk to me a little bit about “Mercy Street” and the inspiration behind that. You had mentioned in some other interviews I was listening to that it was based on what’s happening in the music industry right now. So talk to me a little bit about what you see as trends in the music industry.
Keith: When I moved to London, whenever Patrick and all those guys were in London, I was there when I was 18 and back then it was still cool. Record companies paid for demos. They paid for people to go into the studios and record and they developed artists. Nowadays, I find that a record company, they develop you for a week and if you don’t produce “Wrecking Ball” or an Adele hit within a week well, then, it’s your fault. These record company executives, I’m going to get hung for saying this, it’s going to come back and bite me one of these days, but I don’t care because I’ve seen it. Even though I’m only 30 years old, I’ve recorded; I don’t know how many records with Celtic Thunder. I’ve done four records of my own, two of which were never released. I have another record coming out next month (now released “Nollaig”). I’ve been in studios of a lot of record companies and I’ve seen it happening and I think the problem is a lot of these executives in a lot of the record companies, they all get paid their wage every week regardless of how many records they’ve sold, but if the musician doesn’t sell all the records that they’ve been putting the pressure on for, well, it’s not our fault.
Katie: Yeah, it’s their fault. And, you know, you’re not the first person in one of these interviews to say that there’s been less artist development now then there used to be, which is a shame. Actually, I was just in discussion today where we were kind of lamenting the artistic trend of instead of developing and setting trends and letting people be artists and letting people make headway and introducing people to a new sound, a lot of artists are just appealing to what the existing audience already wants and likes and consumes. Would you say that that’s right?
Keith: We talked about that the other day. I find a lot of songs, the chorus is now (singing) “Oh Oh oh oh oh” (bump bump bump) and I’ve been in the studio in the office with A&R people and they’re like, “Why don’t you put ‘Oh Oh Oh’ on the end of it’? And I’m like, “Why don’t you stuff it?” But I mean those moments actually do happen. If anybody’s ever seen Spinal Tap, the movie, I have been in offices where people are like, “I write like four or five songs and have them fully produced within a day with live everything on it, with sample drums, and bring it in and they’re like, “It’s too slow or too fast” and I’m like ‘ok’ and they’ll be like, ‘That’s too fast’ and I’ll bring it back and the next day they’re like, “It’s too slow” and the next day they say they hate it and the next day I bring the same song back and they’re like, “This is the best song we’ve ever heard”. It’s such hard work when you’re dealing with that. “Mercy Street” it was the title track to “On Mercy Street” and it’s kind of where I was at that time. “I’m crying for your help, mercy please” is kind of the scream line on the song. But I’m not really looking for their help at all. It was kind of ironic at the same time. It was kind of like, “Can you not see where I’m going with this?”
Katie: Or why you’re going the direction…
Keith: Yeah, and that’s what gave me the fuel for “On Mercy Street” the record. I just wanted to do it on my own. I put songs there that I know are good song and I don’t need A&R people to tell me.
Katie: And you feel confident about that too. And it’s interesting to me that you would seek out a partnership with someone like Jack Tempchin or Jack Tempchin, in turn, would be attracted to writing with someone like you where those set choruses of A&R people aren’t necessary. That’s really interesting and I would assume that the people that you choose to collaborate with such as Pat also share that sort of similar mentality.
Keith: Buddy, are you here?
Pat: Just looking over the elements. There’s lots of stuff.
Katie: So, Pat, would you agree that you had a similar outlook?
Pat: Kind of. Yeah. I would kind of agree that I just go with the flow. Everything just seems to happen naturally usually. Those are usually the good things. We’ve got some friends in common like producers in London and he calls me up and says, “God, Keith, remember Keith?” Yeah, and then we did an album and on and on and now he’s writing with Jack and all these people. He’s done really well. I don’t really know. I never really seem like I have any sort of influence over anything.
Katie: I love the raw honesty there. So, can I ask, is it too early? Can you tell me what your influence for your next album that you’re working on recording for January is? Is there a theme?
Keith: Well, those two songs you just heard, I don’t really go for a theme. I know some people do that and they’re like “I want to write an album about the ocean”, “I want to write an album about my wife”, but I churn out songs. I write lots and lots of songs so like the last album I did, I think there was over 150 songs whittled down to 50, whittled down to 20 in the studio and then we recorded all those. So I will just keep writing and writing and writing and then just pick the best songs.
Katie: So you’re an editor at the heart of it.
Keith: Yeah, in a roundabout way and there’s times that I have songs that I think are good songs but they might not necessarily fit the album that I have. Like there was a song that I had on the last album, it’s called “I Still Miss Her” and I thought it was a cracker. I thought it was a really good song, but it just doesn’t sit well with the rest of the album. You know, when you’re constantly, constantly recording and recording, some of the songs from the last time might fit them here that I never used. But I think those two songs I just did, like “Ring-Tailed Rat”, I’ll definitely want to put that on the next album just because it’s so much fun to play.
Katie: And it’s so much fun to listen to. People went wild. You said this was the first time you played it last time in L.A. People went crazy for it.
Keith: Yeah, we’ve done it this turn. We’ve arranged it up. It started out as an “Oh Brother, where art thou?”, Cohen brothers kind of thing, Jack and I wrote it just on an acoustic and then with the full band with Pat and Peter and Vezio they all put the drum solo, piano solo, guitar solo, bass solo. It’s a full on, six minute long track. Every night we hit it and the place just goes crazy this entire tour. So that one’s proved itself.
Katie: Jeez. Ok, so, speaking of influences too, you just got married and your lovely wife is in the studio with us here too. I wanted to say because your tour is called “Ball and chain”, I’m guessing that’s a reflection on your recent nuptials.
Keith: Yeah, it’s just me being sarcastic.
Katie: And cheeky.
Keith: I don’t know. Some people get it and some people don’t get it. If someone thinks I’m actually seriously on the ball and chain tour after I get married then I don’t think you understand my humor.
Katie: It seems like from talking to some of the fans in the audience that they get your humor.
Keith: Yeah, they do.
Katie: At the same time that you have a levity and a fun to who you are, you’re a real person and you’re a grounded person and not this person who is trying to be this sarcastic down-and-out jaded character and I think that’s why you’re so relatable to your fans.
Keith: It’s being Irish too because in Ireland and the UK as well. It’s part of our culture that we make fun of one another and that if you sat with us, me and my friends, you would swear that we all hated one another. But there’s a saying, “Fighting is a sign of true Irish love”. The people, the more fun they make of you, then they really respect you and they like you even more. I’m here in America ten years and it took me a while to change that sort of thinking because people in the states don’t really get that sense of humor as easily as we do.
Katie: Yeah, we’re very sensitive here.
Keith: A wee bit sensitive. Just a wee bit. Yeah, but that’s the humor back home. We just tear each other apart. I was born and raised there, so.
Katie: Yeah, but again, I think watching you on stage and how you guys have fun, you got up in the middle of the song and passed around a bottle of Jameson. I think it’s pretty evident that you guys are having a whole lot of fun up there.
Pat: It’s not real whiskey. It’s apple juice. Wouldn’t condone drinking at all.
Katie: I wouldn’t judge you either way. We’re running just about out of time here, but I want to touch on really quickly. You’re coming out with a Christmas CD too. Talk to me a little bit about that. What inspired you to do that?
Keith: Again, I always want to give fans a new experience. I don’t want to keep going out and doing the same songs under a different name of tour but basically the same show. So I wanted to do a Christmas album. I wanted to do a tour this time of year. It started out with “Why don’t we do a 3-track EP?” then “Why don’t we do a 6-track EP?” Then, my thinking, I’m a work addict, I was like well, if we’re going to do six tracks, I’d rather do a full album and do it right. So we decided to do it earlier in the year, like April this year. I was on tour in Australia picking the songs and then we decided to do a record five days before I got married, which wasn’t great timing.
Katie: Oh my god. I’m sorry to your wife. That must have been a bit stressful.
Keith: It wasn’t great timing but, you know, we got it done and the album is absolutely beautiful. It sounds so Christmas-y and it’s really pretty and it’s not cheesy and it’s not covered in jingle bells everywhere. There’s some really nice songs on there. One of those songs is original; a few of them are acoustically driven. There’s a 50-piece orchestra on it that we recorded over in Europe.
Katie: Is Christmas a big thing to you? Is it a big event in your family?
Keith: Yeah, Christmas is huge back home. The Christmas before last is the first Christmas I’ve never been home. But I think, Christmas, for me, means a lot more too being on tour a lot because I normally tour. For the last ten years I’ve been on tour up until Christmas Eve. So, when you’re on the road for four or five months and it comes November/December and you’re walking around different cities and you see people out partying for Christmas, it really hits home for me. You do miss home. Christmas for me means so much more now because I get to go home for it. So, yeah, we recorded the Christmas album. It’s called “Nollaig”; it means Christmas in Irish in the Gaelic language. It’s got 11 tracks. I’m wearing all white on the front cover and we’re doing a Christmas tour in tow of the record. The album gets released November 11 (2016). We hit the road a few days after that. The entire tour is house concerts. We’re only doing house concerts. There are only 50 tickets per show. We’re doing 20-something shows all across the United States. It’s a 3-piece: myself, bass, and piano and we all kind of play a bit of everything and we’re going to make a pretty sound in people’s homes across America.
Katie: Are you guys going to get to be home for Christmas?
Keith: We do. Believe it or not, this will be the earliest I have had off since 2007. We finish in the middle of December. I normally ride up until Christmas so it’s a big thing. 2008.
Katie: Ok, so one last question. Since the last time you were on here, I know that they asked you what creative advice you would give to people, but it’s been a few years since that and you’ve done another album, you’re working with Jack Tempchin, you’ve been living here for a while, you got rid of your boat, would your advice change to people?
Keith: I would just say, surround yourself with good people. I have Pat, Vezio, Peter and Connor in my band and not only are they amazing players, but they’re good people. I find if you’re working with people who could be the best in the world, if they’re not nice people, well, it’s not good for you to be in that environment because that kind of person is never going to help you or try to even develop you as an artist or whatever it is you’re doing. So I have found over years now I just use my friends and I just use people I know and people that I trust because I would rather somebody I trust do something well, then somebody I don’t trust do something well for the same price or whatever way you want to look at it. So just surround yourself with good people.
Katie: It comes back to that sense of family again. That’s great. Well, Keith Harkin, and Pat Murdoch, thank you so much for being here today. I really appreciate it.
Keith: Thank you very much.