Chloë Agnew is a charter member of Celtic Woman, the international sensation which is the most successful all-female Irish group in history. She’s toured the globe as a successful solo artist and as an original member of the group, just 14 when she first left home in Dublin to share Celtic Woman’s fusion of traditional Irish music and contemporary songs with the world.
The group’s remarkable success - 10 million-plus in album and DVD sales, a six-time Billboard No.1 World Music Artist of the Year and a string of acclaimed television specials - suggests the world was eager for the sounds of Celtic Woman. The group returns to Houston with an April 29 performance at Smart Financial Centre and we asked Agnew about the world’s fascination with the Irish culture.
“I think there are a whole lot of reasons for it. There are a lot of people, particularly here in America, that claim Irish ancestry and heritage and even those that don’t have a fascination with Ireland and just want to be Irish at times, which is pretty special,” Agnew said. “I think there is a certain magic and Old World charm about Ireland and it’s just because it is so steeped in its history and its culture. It has a lot to offer for such a tiny little island, I think mostly being its love for life and music and its welcoming nature. The Irish are very welcoming people and we’re very proud of our country. There’s so much to see and do and its landscapes are so beautiful.
“I think that alone is a wonderful attraction to people. I think obviously our quality of Guinness and whiskey and our music helps, too,” she added with a laugh. “I think then for us, getting to share what we do with people all over the world, is that Irish music and Celtic sounds are so connected to the homeland and to stories. You know, the Irish are great storytellers, so getting to do that through song and dance is pretty special to us. And you look at the music and it’s all about love, lands, loss and hope, as I always say, they’re universal themes that people can relate to all over the world.”
Celtic Woman puts its own spin on those songs, most recently on Postcards From Ireland. The album released in late 2021 and is featured on the group’s current 83-city North American tour. Agnew left the group in 2013 to pursue a solo career but is back in the fold, joining fellow members Megan Walsh, Tara McNeill and Muirgen O’Mahony
“We really are so proud of this show, to see the reaction it is getting from audiences every night is mind-blowing, it really is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a big city or a small town, the crowds are just loving it, so that makes us feel really, really great every night,” Agnew reported. “And then I think with this particular show there’s a great blend of the old and the new. We have obviously some of the older favorites, the likes of ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘You Raise Me Up,’ ‘The Parting Glass,’ - they get such an incredible reaction every night as soon as we even introduce them or you start performing them, the crowds start responding and hoot and holler and clap and that’s such a great feeling.
“And then also some new ones that we’re featuring from the Postcards From Ireland special and CD, some great ones like ‘Wild Mountain Thyme,’ which features the bagpipes, the audience loves that every night, and one of my solos in particular is the wonderful Sarah McLachlan song ‘Angel’ which has a very special personal meaning for me. I think it resonates with a lot of people, I think considering as well a lot of us have lost people close to us over the last couple of years. I think it’s one of those songs that allows people to kind of lose themselves in the lyrics and in the emotion of it.
“There are kind of standout moments for me every night now. I have to say, the whole show in general is just so enjoyable. It’s the best two hours of the day onstage,” she shared. “Every night, I never tire of those moments because you see the audience respond the same way, even in a different city from one night to the next. I think as a performer when you feel that energy onstage and you feel that response — particularly having not had it for the last couple of years — it’s just so awe-inspiring, it really is.”
Agnew is very accomplished as a solo artist, a soprano who sings in six different languages, writes her own songs and performed for three American presidents before she ever turned 20. Any of the group’s talented women could forge their own individual careers so we asked Agnew about the appeal of working as an ensemble.
“There’s a very special bond that you get when you know that you’re all working together to create something that has a profound impact on people and I think for me, you know, I started when the show began in 2004, we filmed the original Celtic Woman special and I had just turned 15 at the time. Myself and the other girls, we came on board with the understanding that it was going to be a one-night show - we had no idea it would become the almost-overnight success that it did in those early few months of 2005 when it went out on PBS television.
(L-R) Tara McNeill, Muirgen O’Mahony, Megan Walsh and Chloë Agnew
Photo by Donal Moloney, courtesy of Tellem Grody PR
“It was a couple of long, hard years of bringing it to every city that we could to try and get it in front of as many people as we could. So, when you see us now, on an 85-day tour nearly 18 years in, it’s quite an amazing feeling to have been part of it since its inception and obviously watch it evolve and grow into the thing that it is today,” she said. “I obviously toured with the group for the best part of 10 years and I took some time out to go out on my own and find my own two feet because I wanted to explore solo projects and it was the best thing I ever did because it allowed me to find a new connection with music in a whole new way, through songwriting, through collaborating with different artists, orchestras, working through different genres. It really has allowed me to experience and appreciate music and to grow into a better performer and a better person because of it.
“I think having the opportunity now - obviously, Celtic Woman asked me to come back for the 15 year anniversary special in 2020 which we only got 12 shows in when, as I say, the world turned upside down. It kind of felt like a chapter I hadn’t really fully got a chance to revisit,” Agnew said. “To now have that opportunity to come back into something like Postcards From Ireland, I jumped at the opportunity when they asked me to be involved. Now that I have a chance to bring a piece of the old world back into the new, and the combination of those two things is pretty special, it really is. I think the audiences feel that.
“I have certain fans who come to the shows who’ve been coming since day one, so we’ve kind of grown together. And now, meeting kids who are in their late teens, 20s, who were coming to Celtic Woman as a baby with their parents and their grandparents is pretty special for me to feel like I’m a piece of the heart and the soul of the show and it’s a piece of me and always will be. I’m very thankful for that.”
There’s so much focus on the “Celtic” appeal of Celtic Woman, we ask about the “Woman” appeal. How has the group built female empowerment in its listeners, particularly those of Irish heritage?
“I think it is one of the things we are most proud of, I think, to have the opportunity to fly the flag for Irish women in music is really one of the things I feel most blessed to have the opportunity to do. The amazing thing is all of our bands, all of our crew, with the exception of one, are all men, so it’s pretty powerful for us as four women to be at the front of, the face of, this show even though we know it takes a village in order to make it happen,” she noted. “I think for young girls growing up to look at us and our music as something that they aspire to, that’s pretty special. The core of what Celtic Woman does is that the music comes from the heart and the soul and we don’t use anything else, really, to try and sell us. We try to be as organic and natural as we are as women and in what we do as performers.
"It’s pretty special to know that the girls who are now in the lineup of Celtic Woman were inspired and encouraged by Celtic Woman’s music growing up," said Agnew
Photo by Donal Moloney, courtesy of Tellem Grody PR
“The amazing thing for me is that two of the girls who are in the group now, Muirgen, one of her first piano books she got from her music teacher growing up was a Celtic Woman songbook. You know, Megan used to listen to Celtic Woman as a young girl growing up and now she’s in the front line of the show. That obviously makes me feel like a granny,” she said with a laugh, “but, it’s pretty special to know that the girls who are now in the lineup of Celtic Woman were inspired and encouraged by Celtic Woman’s music growing up, influenced by it in their own musical practice.
“So, we can only continue to hope to do that and, as I said, for me now having had fans who come along to the show who will reach out on Instagram or Facebook or whatever it is and say that they remember coming to shows as young girls with their parents and their grandparents and that it influenced them and had an impact on their musical lives, that is so amazing to us. It’ll never get old, it really won’t. So, we’re very proud as Irish women to have the opportunity to do that.”
There’s another land Agnew appreciates, one she’s been to so often she should now be an honorary member. She said she can’t wait to return to the Lone Star State and even affected a bit of Texas twang talking about y'all.
“I mean this when I say this, every word of it, we cannot wait to get back to our Texas audiences. They are genuinely some of our best shows that we do in the whole of our tour, always, like since day one of Celtic Woman,” Agnew said. “The Texans know how to do it. They just give you such a wild, rowdy, amazing welcome and they’re always some of our favorite shows, so we can’t wait to see y’all, as you would say. We’re so looking forward to getting back.”
Celtic Woman, 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 29 at Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land, 18111 Lexington. $53-$154.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.