Margaret Keys Sings for the City of Culture

Derry~Londonderry singer gets emails from Martin Sheen, but doesn't get bogged down in celebrity

CultureNorthernIreland catches up with classical crossover singer Margaret Keys in advance of her appearance in Cookstown.

Tell us, how did it all begin?

I’ve been singing since I was around four years old. Back then, it was all about enjoyment. My whole family love singing, and my grandmother won the Deanna Durbin competition when she was just sixteen. By the time I entered my teenage years, it all inspired me to think, could singing be a career for me? And then I won a medal at Trinity College, London, for best performer in music exams in the UK.

So that was the catalyst for your musical career?

Yes, but not necessarily as a performer. I was aware that it was a tough business and I needed something to fall back on if I failed at it. But I was eighteen, I had my whole life ahead of me, so I thought, why not? So I did a degree in music teaching, got offered a scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy and performed in many different operas and concerts, pretty much getting the music bug from that. I also had to learn French, German and Italian during that period, and found myself singing in all those languages!

So you’re a bit of a 'jack of all trades', then?

Not really, because that makes you a 'master of none'! Rather, I just open myself to a lot of different forms of singing, even though I could never see myself going down the pop route. I like to sing traditional works in addition to crowd pleasing songs like Eric Clapton’s 'Tears In Heaven' (Track 1 on her album, Legato) with a 'touch of class' so to speak. I take what you would call a 'classical crossover' approach to it, singing classics that everyone loves with a bit of a modern twist. I’m always looking to add a little extra to a famous song.

A little like Bryn Terfel giving 'class' to musical songs like 'How To Handle A Woman', from Camelot?

Actually, I was fortunate enough to both meet and perform with Bryn Terfel, which was a lovely experience. And I think he’s quite similar to myself as a singer. I’ve always admired him because he’s been able to hold on to his classical style while making it accessible to a modern audience at the same time. He’s stayed true to his roots, which is something that I’ve always set out to do.

You spent a few years with the Londonderry Musical Society. How did you find it?

Fabulous. I admit that I wasn’t sure at the time if I should come back to Ireland. I’ve heard of singers who have come home and then stayed home, just like that. But when I was called back to play an Irish singer in a new play called A Miracle In Ballymore, I couldn’t turn down the chance. It’s not often you get the opportunity to sing for your family, or in Northern Ireland as a whole, so it was a great thing to do. While that was happening, the LMS were auditioning for Eliza in My Fair Lady.

And you got the part!

I did indeed, and was delighted to do so, as Audrey Hepburn has always been an icon of mine. After that, I did a few of the LMS Showstoppers concerts in addition to teaching. Teaching’s another passion of mine, as I know how difficult it can be for performers these days, and when I see young children performing I want to try and help them to 'make it'. But when I was still performing with the LMS, one girl in my class held up a flyer for the BBC’s How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? and told me I should go for it.

And it all escalated from there?

Pretty much, although I felt that it had been building up for a long time. The same year I took part in Maria, I was awarded the BBC Fame Academy Award. At that point I decided to take a career break from teaching as I felt I couldn’t do justice to both careers at once. So following the award, I went to sing opera in both New York and New Zealand. I was particularly spellbound by the beauty of New Zealand. Their people are very welcoming, in a similar manner to the Irish. And after performing in front of 35,000 people at their version of The Proms, I was asked to perform a demo for Universal Music, which eventually led to the recording of my first album, Legato.

Most artists seem to start performing in their homeland and build up an international career. I guess you could say I started the other way around!

Do you believe there’s much hope for artists, both locally and internationally, in today’s recession?

It really depends on what you make of it, how hard you work and the sacrifices that you make. It’s not a good idea for anyone to hope that someone will come along and find them. You have to keep plugging away from a very young age. And while I believe The X-Factor and its ilk can be great launching platforms for people, they can also backfire drastically for those who are not so prepared for elimination.

Entering a studio and recording isn’t necessarily what’s going to make you as an artist, but rather, being able to take the rough with the smooth. But I think the future is very bright for Derry-Londonderry. It’s a very talented city that rightly deserves the title of City Of Culture because it’s extremely cultured in every way.

I hear you’ve helped to put Derry-Londonderry on the map this year?

I’ve been bringing a taste of Derry to Los Angeles, San Antonio and Broadway. I was lucky enough to perform with some of the America’s Got Talent finalists in LA, and to sing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which has such a beautiful sound. I wasn’t so lucky when it came to the weather, though – we got caught up in a hurricane! Fortunately we escaped unscathed.

I was also gutted when I received an email from Martin Sheen and Liam Neeson to join them in the LA University on St. Patrick’s Day, as it unfortunately clashed with a booking! But hopefully, I’ll get that chance again.

Are we going to see Legato being launched in Derry~Londonderry?

It all depends on album sales at concerts. While I’m lucky in that my audience like to physically own my album, record companies have found that digital downloads are the way to go these days. And ultimately, I’m all about live performing – I just want to keep singing in front of as many audiences as possible.

What’s it been like to sing with a range of artists as diverse as The Priests, Bryn Terfel, Alfie Boe and so on?

It’s great to be acknowledged in the same league as them. But it’s also vital for me not to get too bogged down with the whole star life, because it’s key that I remain true to myself. To me, performing in my church at home and in local theatres is just as important, because no matter where I am, I’m using my gift.

So you like to entertain, educate and offer something to the community?

I hope that I can inspire the next generation of children, because it reminds me of those who have inspired me and how much it means on all sides. People have also told me that my music has been therapeutic for them, in helping them get through the loss of close family members. I’ll be very happy if I can continue to help people in this manner.

Any closing words for local performers?

While success is one thing, you’ve also got to love what you do. Above all, 'Don’t worry, be happy!'

Margaret Keys will make her debut appearance in Mid-Ulster at Cookstown’s Burnavon Theatre on December 17. For further information, check out her official website.