Liza Callahan at the Celtic Cafe

Somebody Special

About three months ago I was talking on the phone to a friend who had just received a copy of a new CD from another friend. 'You have to hear this!' she said, and played one of the tracks for me. The song she played, called "I'll Remember You", was a haunting, sad but lovely song and made me cry. I immediately wanted to hear the whole CD; so I ordered it and then could not stop listening to it. It was Liza Callahan's debut album, "Stalling from Fear".

When I listened to the full CD its wide range of styles surprised me, as did the depth of the lyrics. The 'Irishness' of the work, although subtle, is vivid. I love the range of her style, from rock to traditional Irish ballad, and her voice radiates a charisma and magnetic warmth. The lyrics tell of a writer who has lived, been through the mill, and yet has such optimism her inner strength is palpable. She lifts your spirits.

Liza is Irish-American, born and raised in Chicago, with a vital two-year period spent in Ireland during her formative years. She comes from a very gifted family, with members from several generations high achievers in Irish music and dance; and her own talents also range wide, far beyond the performing arts. She did not go for a show business career in her youth, finding success elsewhere; but privately she always composed and sang, and secretly harboured a dream to create and release her own CD. Now she has made that dream a reality, all on her own and without calling on the influence of her family name - to find out the famous family name you will have to go to her website and read her biography, for here I leave the stage to Liza in her own right, as she deserves, and I invite you to meet her in this special email interview I have had the pleasure of working on with her for Celtic Café.


The Interview

'Stalling from Fear' is your first album. How long have you had the dream of creating it?

It was December of 1996, and I was telling my sister on the phone about the Oprah show I had watched that day. Her guest had written her first book at age 70. When Oprah asked her what made her decide to write a book at her age, she said that she had asked herself, "What is it that if I do not do before I die - I will die feeling unfulfilled?" Her answer was to write a book, which she then won a Pulitzer prize for.

My sister asked me the same question, to which I answered to record a CD of songs that I had written. No sooner had I spoken the words than I realized that there was no turning back. I could never pretend out of fear that I did not have this secret wish. I knew I had to follow through or I might be faced with the truth at age 70.

You had not had professional recording experience before this project. How did you begin on it? What was the process?

Like everything else in life - I just jumped in and learned how to swim!

Parts of your CD were recorded in Chicago, parts in Ireland. How did that come about?

I recorded all of the vocals in Chicago, and some of the music was produced in Ireland.

Tell me a little about working with the Irish musician/composer Gerard Fahy. He is of course well-known to Celtic Café visitors for his work on the Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames shows. Did Gerard's presence help to bring out the Celtic flavours in your music? What traditional instruments did he work with?

Yes, absolutely! Ger played uilleann pipes, tin whistles and even some bouzouki.

Did you find it intimidating at all, working with someone of Gerard Fahy's calibre and experience, or just very supportive and helpful?

Ger is the consummate professional. He is not only amazingly talented but is also very kind - a gentleman and a very dear friend. And funny too!! He is everything you might expect from an Irishman. A true joy to work with.

The CD covers a wide range of styles, with flavours of rock/pop performance numbers, ballads and some Irish traditional influences. Have you made a conscious effort to achieve this diversity or does it just happen through your personal pleasures in music?

I can appreciate all types of music when done well and I felt that different subject matters demanded different music styles. It is exciting as an artist to push myself and explore different genres of music. I especially enjoyed adding the uilleann pipes and tin whistles to acquire that Celtic flavour, and the sitars and tablas to produce an authentic Middle Eastern sound. Even the saxophone in 'Calling Me' gave the song a smooth, jazzy feel. I could feel each song mature and take on a life of its own with each musician's contribution.

What was the toughest part of the project for you, as a newcomer to it all?

Having to relinquish control of the mixing to the engineers. If it were up to me I might still be there trying to get it perfect!!

You come from a very musical family. Do you play a musical instrument as well as sing, to help you create the melodies? Do you have formal musical training? - or is your music purely from the heart?

While my grandmother taught me to sing Irish traditional songs, I have very little formal training. This music just naturally flows out of me. It helps to satisfy my need to create. Most of the lyrics have come to me out of the blue ... for example, 'Granny's Song (I'll Remember You)' woke me up in the middle of my sleep to be written. And I had to put down my hair dryer to write 'The Lucky Lady'!

It is not as if I set out to write these songs - they more or less came to me. Then the melodies just naturally began to flow and I would sing them into a tape recorder. As my voice is my only instrument - all of this comes from my heart..

Since you don't play an instrument yourself (besides your voice), who were the other musicians involved, besides Ger Fahy?

Vince Lawrence from Chicago Trax, Scott Bennett and Danny Schaeffer from Velvet Shirt, and Tim Gant and Mike Gray from G-Sharp - all great talents with different music styles and abilities. I did a lot of research to gather such a great group of professionals.

All your own songs hint at a rich tapestry of living, and you speak about encouraging people positively through your music. Can you tell me how that purpose in the music came about?

I know firsthand how difficult life can be, but I am old enough to realize that if you hang in there long enough eventually everything will turn around. My dad always says, "The darkest hour is before the dawn." He is right.

Obviously your own experiences in life have contributed greatly to your deeply evocative lyrics. You grew up between two continents, as it were, leaving Chicago between the ages of 12 and 14 to live with your widowed grandmother on a farm in Ireland. That must have been an enormous upheaval at a crucial point in your life. Can you tell me something about the impact it had on you?

In some ways it was the most important decision of my life, because I know that I would be a completely different person had I not gone to live in Ireland. Being the fourth of five children I reveled in the one-on-one attention of a doting grandmother. She saturated me with encouragement. All of this was a tremendous boost to my self-confidence, which was really important to a young teenage girl. She told me, "You're somebody special."

How hard was it for you to integrate with the local children while you lived there? Irish children then, especially away from Dublin, would not have been used to mixing with children brought up in different parts of the world, as they are today.

I really only got to see the kids when I went to school on the bus and in the Holy Faith Covent. I thought they were cool ...even if they did 'talk funny'! I was always known as 'the Yank!' The neighbors, however, were used to my mother and her parents traveling between the States and Ireland often and bringing back 'genuine American' keepsakes.

Were there other children nearby around you on the farm, or did you live like an only child there? Was it very isolated?

We lived on a farm on the top of a mountain where there were only other farmers - mostly senior citizens. We did not have a television or telephone, but we had a fabulous old Stanley cooker with a fire going and lots of great talks about my grandmother's childhood. I think my love of reading began then. Although very social, I still love time to myself to daydream. I think that is why I love to go for a long run or drive..

Had you traveled to Ireland prior to going to live there? Nowadays we don't think twice about children making journeys alone, but then it would have been different. Did you have family members to travel with or did you travel alone?

I had been to Ireland once before I moved there and I loved it. However, I traveled alone for the move. But my parents were very progressive and encouraged us to be independent.

Friends of mine who traveled back and forth from the US at that time (1960's and into the 1970's) tell me they made the trans-Atlantic journey by sea rather than air, which would be almost unheard-of now.

I personally have never experienced that. My father recalls it as a nightmare. He was so sick, he actually quit smoking from it!! Maybe not such a bad thing?? Hmm ...

Were you exposed to music while you lived in Ireland?

No, not too much music around our part of the country - just sheep!! My grandmother taught me to sing traditional Irish ballads, which I would then perform in the local towns.

Living in rural Ireland, after Chicago, especially 20-30 years ago, must have been an incredible contrast. Once accustomed to Irish farm life, going back must have been almost as much of a culture shock.

It was actually more of a transition. My high school was so big and people were smoking pot and listening to Zeppelin!! I thought that I had landed on Mars!

Do you think the experience of two cultures and homes enriched your life or made it more difficult - leaving you, in a way, out of place in both?

It absolutely enriched my life in more ways than I am aware of! However, this is a good question because when I was young, I did feel like the American girl when I was in Ireland and the Irish girl in the States.

And when you travel to Ireland now, it must be very different, as the country has transformed in so many ways over the past couple of decades. What are your feelings about it?

The Ireland that I knew seems like a couple hundred years ago. It is nothing like that today. I think the entire planet has become more homogenized in general, with MacDonalds drive-throughs and TVs in the pubs. I being an American personally love the convenience of the drive-though - but I am not a huge television fan. I prefer to read or listen to music. Although I do enjoy renting a DVD when it snows!

I did like when people used to sing in the pubs for entertainment - well, some of the people - as long as they stopped them before the 40th verse!!

I sometimes wish I could slow down time to how peaceful it was when I lived over there, but I don't think Ireland is slow and peaceful like that any more either. The world is just in a hurry. We all have so much to get done every day.

The final track on the CD, 'Beautiful Ireland', is a very sad song. Do you feel the Ireland you love is in a way lost to you, because of the passing of loved ones from your early life?

Sure the Ireland I knew is lost, but it really was the people and the time that made it special in my memory. Yes, the fields hold magic for me and the sound of the sheep on the hill is still there, but even if I were to move into that exact house tomorrow it would never be the same. Just like it will never be the same for my kids 20 years from now. Everything changes and change is good. I am just glad that I had a chance to enjoy it at all!!

One of the most poignant songs on the CD is 'I'll Remember You', which you wrote about your grandmother. Tell me a little about your favourite memories of her.

A gorgeous petite redhead (just like my mom), with an hourglass figure that was a magnet for men up until the day she died. She was great at everything and had a ton of information to share. But she was rowdy too - a real prankster! She was proud to be Irish. She taught me how to make the world's greatest (and most fattening) mashed potatoes, which I am now famous for.

Her last words to me were, "I'll never forget your kindness to me, girl." I didn't know she was dying, and so I replied, "Ah - get outta town! . . . I love you, Granny." And she said, "And I love you too."

My own personal favourite track on your CD is 'Calling Me', which has a wonderful sea theme, yet could also be interpreted as referring to a lover. Was it inspired by the sea (so deep in most Irish people) from your time living in Ireland? And is the dual meaning intentional?

It was my last night on a visit to Florida, and I was walking for miles and miles by the ocean watching the sun set. I felt sad to be going back to the snow. My ex-husband was back at the hotel - oblivious to my existence by then - and I wished for some passion in my life. The dual meaning was just a fantasy.

Can you tell me about Bridie, who is portrayed so vividly in the song about her?

The Ryans are my mom's first cousins and a really great family. Bridie Ryan is this wonderful warm woman with a big heart and a fierce brogue! I can imitate her brogue pretty good - "I know sure I know Liza girl!" Incredibly capable and hardworking without complaints - something rare these days! She always has a full house, as you would imagine with five grown sons and grandchildren. The kettle gets a real workout at Bridie's! If you really want to laugh until your sides hurt, spend a day with her sons and their families! They are a fun, wild bunch!

Apart from music, you have also followed massage therapy as a career. Tell me about that.

I know what a great massage will do for a sore neck and shoulders or low back! I am happy that I can relieve some of the pain for some poor soul. I am nationally certified and specialize in Swedish and deep tissue work, but also have training in various modalities such as shiatsu, jin shin do, orthobionomy, sports massage, and Reiki. I love creating a magical room with soft music and candles, essential oils and aromatherapy. I try to give my best massage every time.

You have a child with special needs. That must have made life very difficult. When did you first realise those needs, and what effect has it had on your life?

My daughter Ashley was almost four years old when she suffered her first epileptic seizure. It was only then that she was diagnosed with autism. I could write a book on that alone! It consumed all of my attention and energy for many, many years. She was nine years old when the neurologist asked me what long-term plans I had for Ashley. I was furious! Ashley was going to go back to being 'normal'! The doctor told me that she would never be well.

I remember driving home that night in the rain. I could not see out the windshield through the tears and the wipers. I realized at that moment that Ash had been sick for five years and had only been well for four. The chances did not look good.

Once I finally stopped trying to 'fix' Ashley I think we all got better. I had spent my life like a madwoman running to Mayo Clinic and University hospitals and then it was vitamin therapies, ACTH injections, homeopathy, pranic healing, ketogenic diets and swimming with the dolphins - my personal favourite. But it was no use. God has other plans for Ashley. And can I say what a relief - whew - I finally got it!! Ashley is perfect just the way she is!! I was the one that must need therapy not to see it.

She brings the light into every room. I have never met anyone who didn't love Ashley. She has never had a bad thought about anyone, ever!! No judgment - just pure love. Imagine!

Has it in fact also led you to grow as a person and have a deeper awareness and understanding of many aspects of human life?

Undoubtedly. I think my whole family has.

Your children feature on a track of the CD, and the result is a wonderfully uplifting song with great energy. Tell me about creating and recording that track.

It was a total blast! My son Rory and my two nieces Asia and Devin with headphones on in the studio!! My son Mikey was too little at the time. They did such a great job! That song came to me while I was out running through the woods. I guess I was feeling pretty connected.

Some of the tracks on 'Stalling from Fear', particularly 'Predator' and 'Fallen Angel', strike me as 'asking' to be offered on a stage, with dramatic lighting and staging. Would you like to take your music into live performance?

Yes, I would love to perform live!

Are those two tracks, 'Predator' and 'Fallen Angel' about real people you have met, or purely invented characters to convey an idea?

Yes, both songs are about people that I know.

You chose to include one cover version of a song not your own, the classic Carpenters' 'Superstar'. It is a highly successful cover, but covers can be a big gamble since people are used to hearing the original version. What made you decide to do one, and why this one in particular?

When I buy a new CD, I love to hear a song that I know and can sing along with. Especially one that I haven't heard in a while. I think everyone feels this way. Also, Karen Carpenter was a great talent and it is a nice way to pay tribute to her memory. It's always been one of my favorite songs.

Has the album turned out as you expected, or has it, like many an artistic creation, turned out to be something quite different and developed a life of its own?

This album has turned out to be nothing like I first envisioned, thanks in large part to all of the creative talent of a wide variety of people: producers, musicians, vocalists and engineers. Each person brings something to the project.

As someone who creates it, how do you see music? Purely as enjoyment, as a medium to convey a message, or more a release of emotion and a way to give and express love from the soul?

All of those at different times.

Do you have material for another album in the pipeline?

Yes - floating around in my head.

Do you have other dreams and ambitions for the future?

Yes, I do. But let's just take this one at a time!


"Stalling from Fear" offers wonderfully fresh sounds with many Celtic influences from Liza's heritage, and I hope that many Celtic Café members will add it to their collections. It takes a lot of courage to take that great plunge and 'go for it', but Liza is a lady who has faced many challenges in her life, she has very special talent, and she is full of the strength and positive energy she needs for it. I wish her every success.

Click here for Ann Keller's review of "Stalling From Fear."

Interview: Ann Keller
Original Web Design: Alexander Servas
Editing and Header Design: Louise Owen




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