'I was a music rebel in my own way': Daniel O'Donnell on taking the gentle road to stardom
PUBLISHED: 12:04 31 March 2018 | UPDATED: 14:56 31 March 2018
Andres Poveda Photography
Softly spoken Irish singer Daniel O'Donnell has had an album in the UK charts every year for the last 30 years, yet is the most unlikely pop star. He tells us about his remarkable career, his fiercely loyal fans and why he was actually a music rebel.
The voice on the line is a smoothing lilt, relaxing, almost hypnotic. It’s a voice that would be perfect for reading a children’s bedtime story or perhaps narrating a mindfulness CD.
I’m talking to Daniel O’Donnell, the hugely successful singer of sentimental ballads, much beloved by his army of fiercely loyal fans; and arguably known as much for his gentle, soft-spoken personality and clean-cut image as his music.
His image as the nicest man in pop has frequently been gently parodied, including the celebrity singer ‘Eoin McLove’ in an episode of Father Ted, but it seems to be far from a persona or artifice.
This is a man who has sold more than three million albums, but who hosts massive tea parties for his fans outside his Donegal home every year. It’s hard to imagine Bono doing that.
And while his music has never come close to being cool or cutting-edge it does a huge disservice to his remarkable longevity in the notoriously fickle music business to dismiss it. He has had an album in the UK charts every year for the last 30 years.
“It’s quite something,” he says. “It is amazing to look back on that. It was 1988 the first year that an album went into the UK charts. I don’t make music to break records or anything like that, I just recorded a lot. I was doing something new every year and the audience are very loyal. They are there no matter when we put out an album in the shops buying it.”
His 1988 album Began, with From the Heart, only peaked at a modest number 56, but Faith and Inspiration reached number four in 2000, while Daniel in Blue Jeans in 2003 and The Jukebox Years the following year both went one better into the top three.
Along the way his huge back catalogue has taken in collections of Irish classics, albums of film songs, love songs, religious songs, tributes to his music heroes like Hank Williams, and no fewer than four Christmas albums.
With a new album out every year, hasn’t he ever run out of ideas? “Not really. If I’m ever stuck for inspiration I can look back at songs that I’ve liked and think maybe I could do something in that style,” he gently chuckles.
“It has varied from time to time, but the backbone of my music hasn’t changed a lot. I still do a lot of the music from the early days when we tour live.”
Daniel grew up in a small village in the west of County Donegal. “The world seemed to revolve much slower, at least in Kincasslagh where I grew up,” he recalls. “There was no water and no toilet, which is quite incredible considering it’s not that long ago. In fact, there was only one house in our area that I recall having a flush toilet when I was growing up. Our toilet was across the road – a tin hut! We moved into a new council house in 1967, a year before my father died.”
Young Daniel performed in the local religious choir and music was part of the family life especially as his older sister Margo rose to prominence throughout the 1960s and 70s on the Irish country music scene.
“I travelled with Margaret [Margo] for a couple of years and that gave me a great opportunity to observe the music business and what it was like,” he said. “I saw enough to know that if I got involved in it I would enjoy it, even though I was starting when scratch when I began. Also it did mean that when I decided to sing it wasn’t such an alien thing, especially for my mother.”
Daniel had gone to Galway to pursue business studies, but decided to quit. “It was something that perhaps would have been a big thing in a normal household, but because Margo was singing, my mother was not shocked. She also loved the music too, so it wasn’t a big issue.”
He first joined Margo’s band before going it alone. In 1983 he recorded his first single, a cover of Johnny McCauley’s My Donegal Shore, with £1,200 of his own money, selling all the copies himself. Later that year, he formed his own group.
This was the period when the likes of U2 were rising to prominence from the Irish rock scene, but he took a very different path.
“I chose what I really enjoyed,” he says. “I really love the type of music that I do and I did just as much back then. Sometimes people used to say don’t you ever want to break out and do something different? But I didn’t.
“When you think about it I actually went against the grain. I wasn’t doing what was expected. I was rebelling against the music of the time.
“People may say it was a very safe type of music, but it wasn’t really safe at all. It wasn’t what was fashionable and wasn’t what people my age were listening to. But I was just lucky that it became successful.”
What quickly developed was a charming ability to bond with the audience and he slowly built up an incredibly loyal fan base. His close relationship with fans is legendary and they frequently queue from dawn to grab tickets for his concerts.
“It built up through word of mouth really,” he says. “I don’t think I was ever at the forefront of what was popular on TV or the radio. Maybe into the late 1980s and early 1990s I got a bit more airplay, but not really before that, not nationally anyway.
“In the early days what was important was that there was a lot of regional radio that would play the music. Like in Norfolk Roy Waller was a very big supporter. He played a lot of my stuff. In fact one of the last things Roy did before he died was a show we did, a live concert for Children In Need.”
In 2012 Daniel narrated a charity CD, An Ode to Roy Waller, remembering the late Radio Norfolk presenter to raise money for the Liver Research Department at Addenbrooke’s. “There were people like Roy all across the UK who played music by people like me during the day that was very important and sadly that is not happening now,” he says.
“Music radio is much more controlled these days than it used to be. I was lucky in that I had built up a following before that started to change, it harder for anyone new to generate a new audience if you are not in the pop mainstream.”
Daniel’s reputation as a nice man has been much in evidence on his previous visits to the region. Last year he visited super fan Doreen Baker at her nursing home ahead of his concert in Ipswich. The year before he delighted Brigette Hill who was recovering from brain tumour with impromptu visit after two shows in Norwich.
He also holds a meet-and-greet for fans after most concerts. He says: “I’ve always loved meeting the people after shows. Without the people who follow me I would not have this life. They say that when you’re doing a job that you love, you never work a day in your life. Well, that is certainly the case with me.”
He will be back in the region for two concerts at Norwich Theatre Royal at the end of April joined again by fellow Irish country folk singer Mary Duff. “We did our first shows together in 1987 and she has been part of the touring pretty much ever since,” he says.
“It works well and we do a few duets together.”
Still living in County Donegal with his wife Majella beyond his latest UK tour he has no plans to slow down and is keen to build on recent success in America and Canada. “It is a great surprise at this stage of my career to be branching out in new directions. I do have quite a good following spread out in various parts of the world. There is a market for this type of music all over.”