Red Hurley

Interview With One of Ireland's Most Talented Singers

Talent seems to run in families very often in Ireland. Celtic Café visitors are well acquainted with world renowned Irish Dance teacher Olive Hurley, who is also gifted in music and choral singing. However, not all may be aware that her brother, Red Hurley, is one of Ireland’s top singers, with a highly successful international career. A classically trained singer who enjoys the area of popular music, Red is a top household name in Ireland, very much our answer to Russell Watson and Josh Groban. He has represented Ireland handsomely in the Eurovision Song Contest, and has recently released a brand-new album, ‘You’re Still You’ which has taken off to a flying start, with a series of beautiful tracks.

Early this year (2006) I had the pleasure of interviewing Red exclusively for the Celtic Café. He came to my house and we spent a very interesting morning chatting over coffee. I had met him several times before, briefly, with Olive, but had not had the chance to sit and talk to him at length before.

I soon found that he shares his sister’s warmth and graciousness, and has a similar zest for life. During our conversation he gave insight into the life of a successful solo artist which I’m sure Celtic Café visitors will find as fascinating as I did. Before he left, he discovered my piano in the living room, and within seconds I was being treated to a treasure of an impromptu concert of some of his own compositions – a very special memory I will always hold dear!

My sincere thanks to Red for his generosity with his time, and very best wishes to him for the new album and for his upcoming tours this year. If anyone gets the chance to hear him perform live, it is an opportunity not to be missed!


Q: Tell me a little about your background, about the Hurley family and where you grew up.

Red: We all lived in Milltown in Dublin, a great family, very close family, five boys, two girls. There was a sixth boy, who died; he was just a year and a half younger than me, and his name was Patrick. I don't even remember him – I have no memory whatsoever of him. Apparently he was misdiagnosed – got his finger caught in one of those old mangle things; it caused shock, and the consequences of that shock was he got pneumonia. It manifested itself initially as a stomach complaint and so he was treated for gastroenteritis when in fact he actually had pneumonia, so in the middle of the night my father had to rush him to hospital, but he died unfortunately.

We moved to Milltown, having lived in Ranelagh for a short time. For the first three and a half years of my life we lived in Ranelagh, and my first memory is of being in a car, being driven to our new home in Milltown, which was just a regular ordinary home; but to us it was a palace at the time. My Dad worked with the Dublin Corporation. We loved it – it was a great area to grow up in, there was a river there and all around, it was nice. We had a happy childhood, good memories; no money, but plenty of happy memories.

Q: Was music always an important part of family life? Did your parents play instruments and/or sing?

Red: Yes, it was, it was very much an very important part. We didn't realise it at the time but the house was always filled with music of some description. Somebody was always singing, somebody was always playing, and all my brothers and sisters were always singing, right from the beginning. My eldest brother, Joe, played the piano and my father played the piano – not terribly well, but he was a good trumpet player. And my mother was a singer; I mean, she didn't earn any money from singing, but she was a very good singer, and all of the sisters and brothers, we all did our bit! It was very enjoyable, and I can remember often, often going to bed listening to half the house singing – I was at the time the youngest.

Q: What kind of music did you grow up with? Was the focus on a particular area of music or on many?

Red: I would say a variety, but there was a general leaning towards good music. I never met my Father's mother and father – they died before I was born; but I know they were involved in some way in the music business and that came back through my Father. My Father was a professional musician for a while, and then he started to work because he felt at the time there wasn't really an awful lot of money to be earned.

So that brought itself into the house, and when there were parties and so on he would be the organiser of what was happening, so we had a lot of singing, a lot of music and dancing – Olive was a great dancer, and my brother Liam was good dancer, so we had a great time, a great family.

Q: How early in your life did you go on stage, and was it always an ambition, for the stage to become your life?

Red: Well it depends what you mean by "stage"! Usually it was a couple of orange boxes! I didn't really get on stage until I was about seventeen or eighteen, something like that. But I went to Synge Street School – there were 1500 boys in the Primary part of Synge Street School – and my earliest real knowledge that I was able to sing was when the Headmaster came in one day and said: 'Brother Devlin, I need to borrow one of your pupils.'

I was in, like third class, so it was me anyway and I was brought around the whole school, into each class, to sing something. I couldn't understand for the life of me why, and it was kind of like, 'Now that's the way it should be done. Do you understand me, boys?' So I was, at the age of about ten, advisor or assistant, should I say, to the singing teacher! So we had good fun.

Q: Was singing your sole passion or did you ever consider another direction for a career?

Red: No, I really didn't know. I was one of those kids who is reasonably academically clever, and I just drifted through life. I didn't expect to achieve too much, wasn't expecting to be anything. I played drums and dabbled a little bit with piano and stuff like that, and I was always very interested in music. Like most kids, I was very interested in what was happening on the radio, and loved all that; but no, I didn't really have any great ambition to be a star or successful or anything like that. It just gradually dawned on me that I was actually able to do this job, and it took me a long time to realise that people thought I was a lot better than I thought I was.

So I used to play the drums, and I got a job with this group, playing the drums, and we were making nice little money, thank you very much, and then I was in a bit of an accident and broke my ankle and damaged my shoulders – temporarily, I'm glad to say - but I couldn't play, and the guy who ran the place where I was playing said to me, 'Why don't you come back and sing?' Because I was able to walk, I was fine from that point of view, but I told him I wouldn't be able to play, 'I have this thing with my shoulders and my leg . . .' and he said 'Just sing!'

So they got another drummer and I just did the singing, and then a guy called me one day and said, 'You know, there's a job going in a band and I think you'd be good for it. So why don't you come down and sing a couple of songs and let them have a listen to you?' So I sang one song, and I was about to do a second when the guy said, 'No, that's okay. You're all right so just sit down. We'll just listen to the rest of them but you have the job.'

So I had the job, and within six months I was in the charts! With a song called A Poor Man's Roses . . . that goes back a good few years. But at the same time I had been studying music, and studying properly how to sing and how to breathe, and how to pitch and use all of your voice rather than just some of it, and realising that there are different areas of your voice that we don't even think about or know about and most people haven't a clue about. So I was studying all this at the same time, and I was in several different choirs, and it went from there.

Q: So it would always have been music of some kind? You didn't have another "day job" planned?

Red: No. I knew at that stage I was going somewhere in the music business, and of course a lot of my older family were involved as well. Two of my older brothers were musicians, and one of them was reasonably successful, and he encouraged me somewhat and said 'You're able to do this, and do that ...' and so it just went on from there.

Q: You weren't tempted to pursue Irish dancing like your sister Olive?!

Red: (laughing) Well, Olive gave me Irish dancing lessons in 1997, for a tour I was doing in America. We had to do six weeks, six nights a week – thirty-six dates, and they were all over America; started in New York, in Garden City, then went to Boston, then went to Portland, Maine, and back down to Connecticut, and across to Philadelphia, then over to Butte, Montana, flew down to Los Angeles and to San Francisco, and across to Las Vegas, to Arizona, all of that, and then back to New York. So the idea was it was an Irish tour, of Irish music, so I was doing stuff like Danny Boy and all of that, and I was ending up singing stuff from Phantom of the Opera to close the show!

I was to do this Irish dance thing – and I got cold feet and I said, 'Look, I don't think I'm able to do this the way she taught me' It was kind of complicated. It was fine when I was at rehearsal with Olive, getting through the first half hour of rehearsal and then I was soaking wet, sweating, then I'd have it! But you couldn't get that dynamic going on the stage; so I never actually had the guts to follow through on it! But she can just get up at the drop of a hat and dance, you know, she's great!

Q: Have you ever written songs yourself?

Red: Oh yes, yes, over the years, myself and Danny Ellis, a musician in my band, wrote approximately a hundred songs ... some nice songs, some okay, some trash! We included twelve of them on an album one time, and the title of the album was Warm, which was one of the tracks, and it was recorded by a fellow called Jim Capaldy from a band called Traffic, who worked with Stevie Winwood and all of those guys, and it was very exciting. I was enjoying it musically, but it wasn't being fully accepted by the public, especially the Irish public; because I had already given them an area that they seemed to accept from me, and this was a new departure. So we left it at that, but I've since written a few songs. There's a song on the new album called I Wanna Live With You, which I wrote with Danny.

Q: Do you think people are more receptive to artists taking new directions now? In fact, there is surely more of an expectation than before for artists to write their own material?

Red: Yes, you're right, there is, and especially younger kids. If you're regarded as a certain type of singer, you can literally take songs from anybody and do what you like with them. I have written a few songs over the years that other people have recorded – I wrote songs with Brendan Graham one time, who wrote You Raise Me Up [lyric written by Brendan Graham for music originally composed by Rolf Lovland of Secret Garden, and sung on their album Once in a Red Moon by Brian Kennedy]. Brendan also wrote When for me for the Eurovision, and he was just a beginner when he wrote that song, but he's come on great. We're actually working together on three songs at the moment – we haven't got round to finishing them, but I've done the music for them and I've given the music to him and he's to do the lyrics. He's good, very good!

Q: You are known principally as a solo artist, but you have also worked with bands. How different is it singing with a group to singing solo on stage?

Red: Well, what people consider singing solo is you stand out on your own, but really there will always be somebody backing you, because if your name is to the fore on its own, for instance – 'and tonight, we have in concert Red Hurley' – that doesn't necessarily mean that he's going to walk out and sing on his own! There's always going to be musicians with you. So do you call them "the band" or "and his band"? So consequently we've tried different bands over the years and it's always been advertised as "'Red Hurley", or "Red Hurley and his band".

Q: Are they always the same people?

Red: No, no, they aren't. In the United States for instance, I use three or four different types of bands. I have one guy who works from New Jersey, Steve Michaels, who is a phenomenal musician; so if I'm doing a corporate gig where there's a big band required, where they might have five saxes, three trumpets and three trombones and a rhythm section, he will go ahead and meet them and rehearse with them, and he will know what I'm going to do. So that will be "Red Hurley and Such-and-Such Orchestra".

Or else it will be "Red Hurley in a Musical Taste of Ireland" or something like that, or whatever they decide to call the tour. There'll be a comedian and four or five Irish musicians – some of them will be Irish-American – and we'll have maybe four Irish dancers, and a girl singer, and I'll close the first and second half, and that's basically the show. And there are other times when I might be invited to sing at a black-tie [event] where it'll just be Steve, piano, and me.

And there are other times when you will be invited to do stuff with backing tracks – that is to say, you would have maybe a three-piece group, and during that show you use maybe three or four tracks. They would play along with the tracks, but just for musical enhancement there would be strings and so on ... Not karoake or anything like that! [laughing]

Q: Many people around the world are now familiar with the institution of the Eurovision Song Contest (thanks to Ireland winning the contest so many times, and thanks to Michael Flatley and Riverdance!), and you also represented Ireland with great success, with a beautiful song that has become a classic, 'When'. Tell me about the Eurovision adventure, what it was like for you. Where did that contest take place?

Red: That was in The Hague in Holland ... it's a good few years ago now. There was a contest called the National Song Contest, which we won, so I went on to The Hague. We left Dublin 'of a Tuesday', if you'll pardon my grammar! [Yes! Great Irish expression!] There was a big security problem at the time, politically, and fears of reprisals and so on, and I wasn't allowed to stay in the same hotel as all of the other Eurovision contestants; so we were put away with the Isrealis and some other country that was considered a terrorist risk. It was a bit off-putting, but the benefit was that we had a big suite when the other guys had a little room! I had a guy who had been teaching me karate at the time: he was a Fifth Dan black belt professor of karate, so RTE employed him to go with me. So he was in situ all the time, just in case!

It was quite exciting in that respect, but then it became a little bit boring. I was singing one song which took 3 minutes and 45 seconds, and you had to rehearse twice on the Wednesday, twice on the Thursday, twice on the Friday and twice on the Saturday. Now for anyone that sings, with any experience, this gets a bit boring; after the first day that should have been enough. But they want to do their camera shots and they were getting it right from the production point of view ... so that was a little bit boring, and you were hanging around, and you were asked to be there an hour before the rehearsal, and of course you did what you were told, etc. etc. But having said that, it was a good experience – it was very enjoyable and there were some wonderful people in it.

Q: I know people have very mixed feelings about the value of Eurovison for artists. Did it prove good for you, and if so, where did it lead you?

Red: Well, it opened a few doors, I have to say. You get a lot of invitations to sing in different places. I sang in almost every country in Europe as a consequence of the Eurovision, by invitation. I sang with most of the orchestras in Europe and ended up doing a lot of work for the BBC in London.

You don't see it immediately. Now, I was enjoying a reasonably successful career in Ireland at the time, so it didn't make a blind bit of difference here – in the very short term it did, you know, for the first six months you could see a huge improvement in crowds in Ireland; and then it went back to where it was. So I don't think it does an awful lot for an artist in Ireland long-term, but it certainly would give you an opportunity to launch yourself in Europe. You're expecting it to launch you internationally – there are definitely positives for most people. And I've got a lot of great contacts out of it over the years, which have lasted.

Q: As well as being one of the top names in Ireland, you have also travelled and worked around the world. Tell me about some of the highlights of those experiences, places and events.

Red: Someone asked me that question recently, and it's a difficult one to quantify. I mean ... I sang in a little church in West Palm Beach there last year, and there were maybe five, six hundred people at it, and it was just myself and this guy playing the piano; and the mood, and the excitement and the sheer atmosphere at that show was as exciting as anything I've ever done. You know, you could be singing to three thousand people with a sixty-piece orchestra and everything perfectly rehearsed, everything absolutely tip-top, sound, lights, everything 101%; and I got just as much of a buzz from that little place in West Palm Beach – those people stood up for four or five encores, and I would have stayed there all night.

So it's difficult to quantify. But I've been fortunate enough to have sung for the Presidents of America a few times, Bush Sr. twice, Gerald Ford once, and the Vice President – Danny Boy for Dan Quayle one time! I've had some great experiences. I did a fantastic show one time in Texas for the United Nations Negro College Fund, with a terrific orchestra called The Danny Ward Orchestra, and that was just electric. I sang a song, and when I opened my eyes at the end one and a half thousand people in black tie were standing up, and that was a bit of a 'goosebumps' job!

Q: And has singing taken you to parts of the world you would never have thought of going?

Red: Oh yes! I've been literally all over the world. The only place I haven't been to is Africa, but I've been to almost every other country.

Q: You also work a great deal in the US, and even live there part of the time. Tell me about the kinds of venues and gigs you sing in there. Are they specifically Irish audiences or widely varied? And kind of programmes do they like to hear? Are they very different to home audiences?

Red: It's broken up into four different types of show. There are black-tie, Friday night, Saturday night events – it could be a tennis tournament, football, golf, it could be anything. I'll be booked to sing, usually with a biggish band, and my musical director over there, Steve McMichaels, usually just travels ahead of me and sets that up. I usually just do a sound check on the day and do the gig on the night. So that's one type of performance; and that's usually seven or eight hundred sit-down people. Sometimes that would be in a marquee, a big hotel function room.

Other than that, we do an Irish concert tour, as I said earlier on, around March – it usually starts mid-February and ends up at the end of March. Alternatively, I will do what they call a "condo circuit", which is [playing to] communities where there might be forty, fifty thousand people living in a gated community, and they have their own theatre. In Florida in particular, there are twenty of them, called Century Villages. The theatres are beautiful and the sound is beautiful and the lights are beautiful and everything is wonderful in that regard, but it doesn't have the dynamic of a big, proper concert. You're basically playing to retired people who want to hear you singing lovely soft sweet songs, and it's not challenging. But it's nice and it's rewarding and you get well paid for it, so that' s fine.

Q: But they aren't specifically Irish audiences?

Red: Oh, absolutely not. Most of them would be of European extract, but fully-fledged Americans.

Q: So would the kind of programmes you would do for your American shows be very different to home audiences, in Ireland?

Red: Yes, they would. Towards the end of the show you would always do something from a show like Les Miserables, or one of the shows like Jeckyll and HydeThis Is the Moment or Music of the Night – that would lead onto something else. To do the Irish programme you would have to have done plenty of Irish stuff first, and by that I don't mean 'stage Irish', I mean some of the nicer stuff of today. It's very, very enjoyable and I get a great buzz out of it.

Q: When it came to having a second home overseas, where did you choose?

Red: Florida, for two reasons. First of all, it's nice and warm in the winter, when it's nice and cold in Ireland. And things tend to quieten down in January, February, March, in Ireland anyway. I got a Green Card about ten years ago and made a conscious decision to move to the United States almost full-time around 1997. So I've held that ever since.

I always work here at Christmas; and ordinarily in January I would be gone back out to America, except I have this album out that we're promoting, and we're doing it on radio station interviews and stuff like that. Only for that I would actually be gone, and will be gone on February 5th! So I'll be gone for three or four months, then come back and have to go again, so I usually do five or six journeys to the United States a year.

Florida is a good base. We're in Tampa, which has a good airport, it never seems to get too congested – it was actually voted 'Airport of the Year' two or three years in a row, and it is a great airport to get into and get out of, great to park in, you can be through it in no time. So that was one of the main reasons I moved there, and of course the heat. It's a bit of a journey to get there, and I'm not there in hurricane season! I don't want to be there July and August or September.

Q: And as you're Irish, I assume you still love to come home?

Red: Oh yes, I love Ireland! Although I'm not that happy the way it's gone. It's great there's some money around and there are definitely lovely opportunities, but I just cringe when I see all the drug problems and the crime – that's the only thing I'm bothered about.

Q: You also come home to record your albums, and you have recently released a new one, 'You're Still You', which is enjoying much success. Tell me about it, the song selection and your hopes for the album.

Red: Well, the album is doing very well, thank God. Andy O'Callaghan produced and arranged it, and we work together very closely on all of the stuff that we do.

The reason that I chose Andy is because he's so fast, because sometimes if you're working at a slow pace it can kind of hold back the creative process. If you work too slow with somebody it's no good, because you tend to work in your mind at a different pace. You can always come back to something if it's wrong, but the juices flow quickly and you need to have it done quickly. That being said, when you take home whatever you've done that day and listen to it, you can go back and change things the next day if you need to.

But we have worked together well over the years, and Andy plays with me in Ireland a lot, though I have different musicians play at different types of shows. If I was doing a concert in, say, Derry or Cork or Dublin, we need so many musicians, and Andy would be the man who would take charge of that, he would be the band leader. He's also a great keyboard player and a wonderful writer, and a great guy to control musicians.

So that's the way that album took place, and the type of songs we picked, as I said on the sleeve of the album, were selected by the public. Over the years they've been able to tell me what I should sing, rather than me select the songs! I wouldn't necessarily be the greatest guy in the world to pick the songs. But we record a lot more material than we release. I would have maybe thirty or forty songs still, recorded, that have never been heard by the Irish public, from me anyway. I think management and the record company, Andy and those peopl,e know more than I do about what the public want to hear.

Q: How long does it take to release a new album, from the time you decide to produce one, and how extensive is your personal involvement? Do you like to work on all aspects of the recording, the musical arrangements, sleeve design, for instance, as well as the actual singing?

Red: Releasing an album is a quick business; producing and getting it together can take as long as you want. But sometimes you can be given an ultimatum from the record company that says 'we need it out on such-and-such a date', and that can suddenly fire you up, and you think, 'Oh, I don't like to be put under this pressure,' but sometimes people with a bit of a talent can create better when they're under pressure. They can suddenly put it all together, and they have to go down a certain route and suddenly that is the correct route, and nature takes its course.

It always seems like we're not in a rush for a while, and then suddenly you get a call to say 'We're going with this in two weeks' time' and you say, 'Oh, I can't do this in two weeks,' but you'd better, and you do!

The actual releasing of the album is not a big deal any more; it's a simple process from a record company's point of view. They can do that in a couple of days, but the preparation can take as long as six months.

Q: You like to be involved with all aspects of the album?

Red: Oh yes, I do, but I like to get right back out of it and say, 'Okay, we have the backing right, let me just do the vocal.'

Q: Do you still enjoy live performance as much as you always did?

Red: Oh yes, yes, I think I would give it up if I didn't. But I'm not going to do what I did years ago, and travel here and travel there, I just don't want to do that. I've had to get out of bed at six in the morning, having gotten into it at three, then catch a flight somewhere, maybe at 8.30 be at such-and-such a place and do a radio interview, and then go on that night and do a concert in some beautiful hall, finish at 10.30 and then get into a car and drive for four hours to break the back of the journey to somewhere else because you couldn't get a flight, and you risk the snow, and it's summer in California and freezing up in New York, and all of that stuff ... so I just don't want to do that if I don't have to.

Q: What do you like to do when you're not working – or do you ever stop?! What are your pleasure interests?

Red: I do stop, yes, and I love playing golf. I like to get away with some of the boys, get down to Spain for a week; and Florida is full of golf courses, so that's a great bonus.

Q: You have your own family, and growing children. Do any of them show signs of following in family footsteps, and would you be happy to see them go into show business?

Red: There's nothing significant there yet. I wouldn't stop them, but I certainly wouldn't encourage them. I do encourage them to have a good time with music, and to enjoy music and any of the arts. We take them lots of places for that kind of thing, and they've seen me perform over the years and they get very interested, but I wouldn't encourage any child to take up the music business full time unless they were very obviously very talented – actually talented, as opposed to making a career out of it to make a quick buck, or for the fame.

The fame aspect of it is not worth it. What is worth it is if you actually have something to offer and you can get a real good buzz out of it and make a life out of it, make a proper career out of it that you take seriously, and you don't abuse what you've been given.

Q: And do you have plans for more upcoming new projects yourself?

Red: I'm doing a US tour in Florida, and I'm looking forward to finishing a project with Brendan Graham, as I said. I have three songs that I've written which Brendan is putting words to as we speak ... I'm also looking forward to working with Paul Williams.

But first there's the tour, all in Florida this year. I think there's one gig in North Carolina and one in New York, but they're on the way and on the way back, but I think there's twenty-two dates in Florida, all round Florida starting in North Miami, then down through Palm Beach and Jupiter, and right around through Clearwater and back down the Naples side, Fort Myers, Longboat Key and all of those places.

And I'm going to drive! The one great thing about working in Florida is if you've got a car you can literally throw everything in the back seat, and get out in a T-shirt and jeans, and you don't have be carrying the suitcase. You can pull up to the stage door almost with your car, and take in your gear, and it's absolutely fantastic.

Author: Ann Keller

Red Hurley
Red with his talented sister Olive Hurley and some of her Irish dance students
Red Hurley and Larry Gogan
Red with Larry Gogan
Red Hurley and Ann Keller
Red Hurley and Ann Keller