In 1996, La Chât mum, Eimear Quinn, shot to fame when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in Oslo, with the haunting song ‘The Voice’. Her win was the seventh for her native country, Ireland, making it the most successful participating nation in the Contest – a record which has not since been broken.
The first Eurovision Contest took place in 1956, in Switzerland (Lugano), on the initiative of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which is based in Geneva. The symmetry of interviewing Eimear in the birthplace of the competition is not lost on her, nor on En Bref!
But the parallels go beyond that, don’t they Eimear, because you moved here with your husband, who is now Director General of the EBU! Is that simply a happy coincidence?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that it’s the spider web of both our careers that have allowed us to have opportunities in similar fields. We did initially meet because of the Eurovision. In 1996, my husband was working at RTÉ, the Irish broadcaster, and he produced the Saturday night tv show which hosted the national Eurovision competition. His production team then brought the Irish winner to the Eurovision final…..and we ended up marrying! The Eurovision, of course, is actually a tiny portion of what the EBU do – they are an alliance of public broadcasting media, whose main aim is to support and strengthen public service media in Europe, and beyond. In fact there are 116 member organisations, and participants in the Eurovision Song Contest are EBU members and associates, so not just European countries, as people sometimes expect. Anyway, one way or another, our lives seem destined to be connected with Eurovision!
If we go back to 1996, how did you end up representing Ireland in the Contest?
When I was studying for my music degree at university, I started to sing with a semi-professional choir called Anúna, who had had a lot of success with Riverdance, and who needed to recruit new members, because many of their singers were touring with the show. We did a Christmas concert in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, where I sang ‘Winter Fire and Snow‘, by a composer called Brendan Graham. Brendan is Ireland’s most successful songwriter ever. He is the lyricist for a song called ‘You Raise Me Up’, which is the second most recorded song of all time, after ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles. Anyway, what I didn’t realise was that Brendan was in the audience! Afterwards, he asked if I would sing another composition of his, which had been selected for the national round of the Eurovision Song Contest, but for which he didn’t have a singer. He really had to convince me that my voice was right for the song, because I didn’t think that I could do it justice. It needed a high, clear voice, but the delivery had to be folky, so he had to really work with me to knock off my classical edges.
So doing the song justice was your concern, rather than singing in front of an international audience of hundreds of millions!
I was concerned about that too! However, I wanted to become a professional choral singer – my dream was to move to the UK and join one of the amazing choirs there like The Tallis Scholars, or The Sixteen – so I was already motivated to overcome my fear of performing, albeit on a very different scale; you can’t fit that many people into a cathedral! I used to be paralysed by nerves, but by facing my fear over the years, I have learned that I don’t fall flat on my face. I can now perform in front of an audience of thousands and love it – I can rely on experience to know that I can deliver. The nerves do impair you from giving a perfect performance, but nobody really wants to consume perfection because it’s unrelatable – what makes you vulnerable as an artist is where your connection to the audience lies.
Can you describe what it was like to win the Eurovision?
It was bizarre. I was thrown into a world which was completely alien. With the exception of having once sung on tv with Anúna, I didn’t know anything about the world of showbusiness, and I did find it completely overwhelming. The press interviews, the mad flashing of cameras, mobbing, the security to get us through crowds – it was very intense, and I was utterly shocked by the experience; I just wasn’t prepared for it.
So what did you do in the immediate aftermath of your win? Did you take advantage of your newfound celebrity?
My initial response was to think ‘I just can’t cope with this, it’s not for me’. There were requests for me to do a media tour in the UK, where the song had charted, but I just couldn’t do it. So I retreated to university – I did Eurovision on Saturday, and went straight back to college on Monday to do my end of year exams, with security in tow to keep the press away!
That intense media interest was actually quite brief, though, and I quickly realized that it didn’t make much sense to give up a career in music to go away and study for a career in music! So I decided to take a year out, with the blessing of my professor, to learn the business. I recorded music myself, made my own record label, produced a four track EP, released it myself, had my own distributors, did my own artwork….
Wow, you really got stuck into the nuts and bolts of how the industry worked!
Yes. I hadn’t prepared myself for this world, and I didn’t understand it, or know who I was as an artist in that environment, so this was my way of controlling the unknown, and learning through exploration. There were record companies knocking at the door, wanting me to sign up, and, retrospectively, it would have been easier to say yes, and to have learned that way. However, I didn’t trust something that was just being handed to me – I didn’t feel that I had earned this opportunity, because it wasn’t my dream to win the Eurovision. I felt like a fraud, because there were plenty of people in the competition for whom this was their dream.
So are you glad that you competed in the Eurovision, or was it a distraction on the way to achieving your dream of becoming a professional classical singer?
Oh yes, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity that I had. It completely opened my horizons. If I hadn’t done Eurovision, I hope I would have ended up as a professional singer anyway, just via a different route. When I did a documentary with Philip King, exploring bridges between different musical worlds, he asked me ‘If there’s one thing you’d like to do, what would it be?’ I said that I would love to sing ‘Miserere Mei’ with The Sixteen, in London, and he made that happen. So that original dream did come true, but in a way that I couldn’t have predicted.
And what about representing your country on the international stage?
Amazing! We’re still in our infancy as a nation, and all Irish people have a nationalistic pride, so I feel incredibly proud to have performed and won under the Irish flag. Even though Eurovision doesn’t carry the same artistic ‘weight’ in Ireland as it does in other countries – it’s very much seen as light entertainment – I have since experienced an affection from the nation which is extraordinary. Even today. It has positively enriched my life.
Were you worried about being pigeon-holed as a Eurovision singer?
To an extent, so I felt compelled to establish myself with my own voice. They say that it takes ten years to build a career as an artist in any media, a career that belongs to you, and I would say that that was the case with me. My ‘year’ off university became five, while I completed my first large scale recording work with a big record company called Decca. I did eventually finish my degree, though, and then went back to my own record label to produce further albums. For me, the real success came with the album of Christmas music that I produced in 2007. By then I had really found my feet as artist – I knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it; writing my own music and arrangements. I had found my confidence to be able to go to studio as artist, arranger and producer. I really understood it and I loved it
What’s happened over time, is that I have become known as a classically-trained singer who sings folk and sacred music, in a classical setting. It’s my USP, and it has led to some wonderful opportunities, such as singing during Queen Elizabeth’s state visit to Ireland, the Irish President, Michael D Higgins’ state visit to Great Britain, and during Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland. It is such a privileged space to occupy.
What are you up to now, professionally?
I have just finished recording an album with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, my first since 2007. I took a break from recording when my daughters were small, because composing and recording is all-consuming, and I didn’t wanted to carve that space away from them. Two years ago, the timing felt right to start to create again, and the whole family is very respectful of and excited by the fact that this is something that is happening now.
It must have been challenging to go back to recording after a significant break.
The main challenge is the fact that everything has become digitized in the interim. Not only does your back catalogue have to be on platforms like Spotify and YouTube, you also have to have a social media following on Instagram, Facebook and the like. When you go to collaborate with other artists, distributors, or publishers now, the first thing they look at is your social media following, because that’s your currency. And I’m jumping on that train super late – it already left the station years ago! So my biggest challenge is to increase my social media following. If there’s anyone out there with the expertise to help, get in touch! I’m launching back into a world where you need to be as visible as possible, but it’s an incredibly saturated world.
I suspect that you will now have a few more followers from the La Chât community! And what about the ‘followers’ in your own family – what do your daughters think of their mother’s Eurovision success?
To be honest, there was a period where I didn’t often watch Eurovision, but then a few years ago my older daughter started to become curious about it, and asked if she could stay up to see it. It was still quite abstract for them, so before Christmas, I did something which I don’t normally do, and participated in a project in the Netherlands, where previous Eurovision winners came together to perform in a huge arena. I did it so that I could take the children and they could experience their mum singing in front of 12,000 people. For me, it was wonderful to be back in front of Eurovision fans – they really are the best.
Finally, Eimear, what advice would you give to La Chât students who are interested in a musical career – and to their parents?
To the students I would say that it’s a double-edged sword. To be a successful musician, you have to allow yourself to dream big, to fully visualize and absolutely believe that you will be a success where very few people will succeed, and yet at the same time, you have to be realistic and prepare a Plan B. My Plan B was my first degree, which was in planning and environmental management.
To parents I would say that the benefits of learning an instrument are huge, from the discipline of daily practice, to the fact that it grows your brain – it stretches the wiring to give you a larger capacity to absorb any new information, no matter what it is. I would say, start your children early, give them the chance to explore, which is what I’m doing with my own kids, and make sure that they like it. However, if they want to pursue music professionally, then it’s a vocation – if a student wants to make it work, they really have to love it. They will be the one to tell you, not the other way around! I have seen lots of examples of parents pushing their children to vicariously express their own unexplored talents, and I think that that’s a mistake. You will probably also have to help them to develop their Plan B, and to be aware that, if they’re not successful, it’s not because they’re not great; there’s an awful lot of luck involved. They have to have belief in themselves and in the dream, and even if they do end up with their Plan B, none of that will have been wasted time. Being able to retreat to the comfort of your music, your instrument, and find solace in it, no matter what your profession, is a wonderful thing.
If you would like to help Eimear to increase her social media followers, find her on…….
Interviewed by: Olive Fenton.