‘Many of the songs on my new CD, ‘House of Cards’ would not be there but for the fact that Joella Foulds of the Celtic Colours Festival in Cape Breton brought together an amazing group of writers Karine Polwart, Dave Gunning, Rose Cousins, Lori Watson, and DavidFrancey put us in a house, fed us and told us to write.’ James Keelaghan.
Safe Home (David Francey & James Keelaghan) Next To You (Rose Cousins & JamesKeelaghan) Since You Asked (James Keelaghan) House of Cards (James Keelaghan, LoriWatson, Dave Gunning, Rose Cousins, David Francey & Karine Polwart) McConnville’s (James Keelaghan) What’s For You (David Francey, James Keelaghan, Karine Polwart) Medusa (Karine Polwart & James Keelaghan) Twister (James Keelaghan) Leave Town (James Keelaghan) Circle of Stone (James Keelaghan)
About James Keelaghan:
It was Dave Marsh, the award-winning American music critic and historian who not so long ago stated that James Keelaghan is “Canada’s finest songwriter.” Those few but powerful words of praise say it all about an artist who continues to set the bar at a lofty height.
James Keelaghan is an artist who has proven to be a man for all seasons. As the calendar pages have turned, for almost a quarter of a century now, this poet of the folk and roots music world has gone about his work with a combination of passion, curiosity intent and intensity.
His masterful story telling has, over the course of nine recordings, been part of the bedrock of his success, earning Keelaghan nominations and awards - including a Juno (Canada's Grammy) - and acclaim from Australia to Scandinavia.
Possessed of an insatiable appetite for finding the next unique story line, Keelaghan forges his pieces with brilliant craftsmanship and monogrammed artistic vision, making him one of the most distinctive and readily identifiable voices on both the Canadian and international singer-songwriter scenes.
His journey has attracted fans of literate and layered songwriting to join him on his artistic expeditions, some of which weave their way through marvellously etched historical stories with underlying universal themes, others of which mine the depths of the soul and the emotional trails of human relations.
His songbook has enlightened, enthralled, and been embraced, by audiences around the world. "I’ve always had the urge to write," says the Calgary native who has been calling Winnipeg home for the past few years. "Some things weren’t being said in the way I wanted to say them, some thing were not being written about at all. That's why I started to write the historical material. That led me to writing my own personal narratives as well.” .
Keelaghan is a disciplined visionary with several aces up his sleeve. He loves language and history, a subject in which he earned a degree; he is a skilled thespian, which explains his ability to make an immediate connection with a live audience; and he has an ear for memorable melodies and harmonies that make those melodies glisten.
Says Keelaghan, “I’m good for 80 or so books a year, mostly history and non-fiction, but inspiration can come in many forms. I’m always on the lookout for a good story or idea. My sister told me the story that became Kiri’s Piano, a song that visits a dark chapter in Canadian history: Japanese interment camps in the Second World War. The image of someone sacrificing their prized possession in order to maintain their dignity was too powerful to ignore."
Not only does Keelaghan lay claim to a deep catalogue of timeless originals like Kiri's Piano, Fires of Calais, Cold Missouri Waters, Jenny Bryce, and Hillcrest Mine, he is also a possessive interpreter of outside material, a fine example being his gripping take on Gordon Lightfoot’s epic Canadian Railroad Trilogy from the Lighfoot tribute disc Beautiful. There are also a number of illustrations of his interpretive skills on his 2006 recording A Few Simple Verses, an homage to his roots in traditional music. The closing tune on that spellbinding set, My Blood, written with Jez Lowe, is one of many examples from Keelaghan’s career of his inviting collaboration into his creative process.
“I was at the Celtic Colours Festival in 2008," says Keelaghan, "and the producers locked six of us in a house for a week, and the company included Dave Gunning, David Francey, and Rose Cousins, it was an amazing experience. At the end of it, we had enough material for a complete show.“
Keelaghan has never shied away from collaboration in his live and recorded performances, touring and tracking with master musicians like Oliver Schroer, Oscar Lopez and Hugh McMillan. "If you work with people who are better than you, you become better," he observes.
The sparks of collaboration and the batting of melodies back and forth have produced some wonderful results, says Keelaghan, who is always finding a balance between examining the lighter and heavier sides of life. He ties it all together with a powerful vocal delivery and a commanding stage presence.
Admiration and respect for his work amongst his peers is reflected in the words of David Francey who recently stated that “James Keelaghan is a voice in contemporary Canadian songwriting that has helped us define who we are as a people. He writes with great humanity and honesty, with an eye to the past and a vision of the future. He has chronicled his times with powerful and abiding songs, with heart and eyes wide open.”
Terry Wickham, the producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, is one of many long time admirers of Keelaghan’s music, and he sums up the artists appeal by saying, “James has become the complete artist. A brilliant tunesmith who has become one of the most engaging performers of our time. You always know the journey with James is going to be great, you just never know what all the destinations are. That is why the curve on his career continues to rise.”
Timelines -- Sept 1987
Small Rebellions -- Sept 1989
My Skies -- Sept 1993
Recent Future -- May 1995
Compadres -- Feb 1997 (James Keelaghan & Oscar Lopez - Compadres)
Road -- March 1999
Home May -- 2001
Then Again -- April 2005
Few Simple Verses -- Sept 2006
Buddy Where You Been -- Nov 2006 (James Keelaghan & Oscar Lopez - Compadres)
In 1997, Juno award-winning folk artist James Keelaghan and soon-to-be Juno-winning Latin guitarist Oscar Lopez released an album that would become one of the most notable independent Canadian roots recordings of the late 90s. Compadres, as they called the project, sold over 15,000 copies independently, earned a Juno nomination for Best Roots and Traditional Album – Group, and received critical praise from coast to coast. It also launched Vancouver’s Jericho Beach Music label – now home to the Wailin’ Jennys and Tanya Tagaq among other renowned Canadian acts.
Compadres was an early example of the kind of Canadian world fusion that has taken off in recent years. “Celtino,” as Keelaghan and Lopez half-jokingly dubbed their hybrid, fused the sometimes rollicking sometimes melancholy Celtic influences behind Keelaghan’s folk material with the fiery guitar vibe of Lopez’s work. Lopez’s playing injected energy and edginess into Keelaghan’s smooth baritone, while Keelaghan’s skillful song-craft created a superb structure for Lopez’s amazing guitar work.
Lopez and Keelaghan toured the project through the summer and fall of 1997, playing to large and enthusiastic crowds and earning a place in the record books as only the second local act ever to sell out Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall. But as quickly as the Compadres project took off, it was forced to end. Lopez had recently signed the recording contract with Narada that would make him an international star, restricting his ability to release the album outside of Canada and limiting his ability to tour it.
Now, ten years later, the Compadres are back in more ways than one. Following a highly successful winter tour of Australia and New Zealand, they have recorded a brand new album featuring the same wild, passionate and downright fun Latin-Celtic numbers as its predecessor - along with a similar compliment of superb instrumentals and evocative ballads. What’s more, the lyrics, choice of material and overall tone of the album pay tribute to the power of the Keelaghan Lopez musical friendship in helping both artists recover from personal and creative setbacks.
Lopez in particular has spent the past few years working his way back from a major health crisis during which he ceased recording and performing almost completely for over three years. For a period of time he left the music business all together. Keelaghan may not lay claim to quite the same experience of personal hardship, but it’s no secret that recent years have found him in a more reflective mood as he’s “struggled with his muse” and returned to his musical roots in search of new inspiration.
Compadres, it seems, was just what both musical friends needed to inspire a stellar return to form.
The appropriately-titled Buddy Where You Been? opens with the rip-roaring anthem “Rumba Compadres” before moving into the equally danceable title track, with its allusions to traveling “to the gates of hell.” The third cut, “Gathering Storm,” is a moving new ballad that sees Keelaghan’s songwriting chops in fine form. Its chorus of “blow blow the winds of change / knock me down and I’ll rise again” pretty well sums up the album’s theme. Also included on the disc are Celtinofied renditions of “Ring,” from Keelaghan’s 1999 album Road, and of the traditional number “Flower of Margherally,” from his 2001 album Home.
Oscar and James first began performing occasionally as Compadres in the early 90s. Today, their friendship represents an unlikely yet fabulous-sounding fusion of two unique Canadian musical giants.
Oscar is a two-time Juno winner, a three-time nominee and the recipient of the SOCAN Hagood Hardy Jazz/Instrumental Music Award. He has performed with the Calgary Philharmonic and the Edmonton, Saskatoon and Windsor Symphony Orchestras. Born in Santiago, Chile, Oscar moved to Canada in 1979, having already had a #1 hit in his homeland in ‘73 as part of the group The Grace of the King. Here he journeyed through several musical styles before settling into the passionate Latin jazz/pop instrumental fusion that has become his trademark. His first three releases for Narada landed in the Top 20 on the Billboard New Age charts, and Seduction earned him a Prairie Music Award for Instrumentalist of the Year. Ali Farka Toure described him as “magnifique.”
James is a Juno winner, a three-time Juno nominee and a two-time winner of the U.S.A. Songwriting Competition’s folk category. He has performed with the Calgary Philharmonic and Edmonton Symphony Orchestras, and he continues to tour regularly in North America, Europe and Australia where he plays prestigious festivals like Tonder in Denmark and Port Fairy in Australia. He has received critical praise everywhere from the Globe and Mail to the Los Angeles Reader, Boston Globe and Playboy Magazine. A native of Calgary, James began performing in coffee houses in the early 80s while studying history at the U of C. Though he was still three credits short of his degree when the music career “took over,” the history studies paid off, as his historically-themed songs earned him international acclaim on the folk circuit.
James Keelaghan and Oscar Lopez met over 15 years ago now on a flight to the Northern Lights Folk Festival in Sudbury. Both emerging artists at the time, each would go on to become a leading figure in his respective genre.
Lopez too remakes some meaningful pieces from his past; namely the moving “Guitarras” and the impassioned “Dos Mundos” - the latter originally recorded as an “instruvocal” track called “Mundos” but reworked as an instrumental and retitled (“Two Worlds”) in honour of Keelaghan’s collaboration. Lopez also showcases his expressive guitar style on some new instrumental numbers including the beautifully evocative “Kia Ora.” The album closes with the unapologetically cheeky “Summer,” which offers a glimpse of the sillier side of the compadres’ friendship.