Daniel O'Donnell: 'People said there was no market for what I was doing'

Daniel O'Donnell: 'People said there was no market for what I was doing'

DANIEL O’DONNELL doesn’t remember the exact moment he went from starry-eyed singer to a household name with an international fan base.

What he does recall the time he was told there would be no interest in the kind of music he wanted to make - and that pop might be a better career choice.

But the Country performer from Donegal heeded his heart over his advisors, and three decades later is considered to be one of Ireland’s most successful artists.

“I don’t know if there was a moment,” he says. “But in 1986 that was when the people started coming in great numbers in Ireland and when we extended out of Ireland to the UK and then moved to other countries.

"From there on it’s never dwindled.”

He believes not going with the grain at a time when artists such as Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Wham! were topping the charts has played a huge part in his ascendancy to the upper echelons of a notoriously difficult industry.

The youngest of five children from the tiny seaside village of Kincasslagh in Donegal, Daniel’s initial jump into music full-time was when he joined his sister Margo’s band after leaving college.

His first self-funded singles – Beside Me and My Donegal Shore – were released in 1983.

“When I started people said there was no market for what I was doing and that I would be better trying something else. But I believed and went with it,” he says.

“I was against the grain when I started, I really should have been singing pop music.

“I shouldn’t have been singing Country music - that wasn’t what people of my age were doing but I loved the type of music I chose, so I just believed and went with it.”

Going with it, has led to over four million album sales in Britain, 18 Top 20 albums in the US Billboard’s World Music Album Chart and a record-shattering 32 UK Top 40 albums, including 16 Top 10s.

He also has an honorary MBE from Queen Elizabeth for services to the music industry.

While earlier this year he broke his own world record when he became the first recording artist to chart at least one new album a year in for 30 consecutive years.

It’s little wonder the BBC came calling in 2015 when Daniel took part in festive favourite Strictly Come Dancing where he and partner Kristina Rihanoff set the dancefloor alight despite being voted off third.

Having turned 56 on December 12, the Sagittarian traits of optimism, enthusiasm and a philosophical approach to life are easily applied to the Donegal singer.

“Just be true to yourself, sing what you believe in,’ he says. “If you believe in something you’re going to do it 10 times better than what somebody else is trying to get you to do.”

Looking back on the last three decades, Daniel is in a reflective mood when asked what advice he would give to his younger self.

“Just to be confident really,” he says. “None of us are confident enough when we are young. To trust what you believe - I did I suppose.

“People would say to me would you like to do something against the grain.”

Daniel O'Donnell attending the red carpet launch of Strictly Come Dancing in 2015 (Photo by Anthony Harvey/Getty Images)

But he never anticipated the longevity he has enjoyed - or the die-hard loyalty of his fans.

“I never thought about it starting out and as I look back I’m very grateful,” he says. “It’s amazing I suppose, not too many people, there certainly are artists with longevity, but not too many have the loyalty that I’ve had.”

With around 90,000 followers on Facebook and an official Daniel O’Donnell fan club, many of the singer’s supporters have followed his tours and journey to the top of the charts from the very start.

“Some of them have followed me over all of the 36 years I’ve been making records,” he says. “Some of them I still meet at the shows, so it’s great really to have that connection, to walk out and you know so many.

“Some of them will come to more than one show on a tour. It’s terrific. We try from night to night to make it different in case people come more than once.”

Christmas With Daniel is the performer’s new CD and DVD festive release.

Featuring a staggering 39 tracks ('Admittedly there’s a few but not too many,' he jokes.) it was recorded at the sold-out concert at Dublin’s Convention Centre last December.

There are performances with Country and folk singer Mary Duff - Daniel’s long-term singing partner – as well as The Presentation Choir from TV show Britain’s Got Talent and the Billie Barry Kids.

“A live album is always a different process,” he says. “It’s very enjoyable to do a live album, because you have the opportunity to perform live, you get that atmosphere.”

Daniel O'Donnell with some of his fans in Kerry where hundreds of people queued from 6am to purchase tickets (Photo: Don MacMonagle)

Silent Night is a personal highlight on the new album, but Christmas 1915 is the favourite.

“It was written by a post man, and it’s about the ceasefire during the war where the two sides came together to have peace on Christmas morning, and took up arms after and restarted the war. But it was a unique thing that happened,” he says.

“I like the story in the song and I love the melody too, but the initial attraction, the story has to mean something.”

Music aside, Daniel O’Donnell is a self-confessed ‘Christmas fella’.

“I’d put up my tree in September if they let me,” he jokes. “I love the decorations and the lights. I love the services in the chapel and I love going to all those things.”

Daniel O'Donnell and wife Majella

Except the Christmas cooking, that is.

“I don’t do any cooking at all, I wash the dishes, I do the dish-washing,” he admits. “We do wear Christmas jumpers, the last few years, the sillier the better. I think this year it’s Christmas pyjamas - a new departure!”

And there’s plenty for the O’Donnell family to look forward to in 2018.

A grandchild is on the way in January and then there’s the small matter of a worldwide tour taking in America, Canada, Sri Lanka, Britain and Ireland.

“I’m always grateful if everyone has good health, that everybody is healthy and no big upsets with people.

"Just to be healthy and happy, it’s worth everything,” Daniel says, no doubt mindful of wife Majella’s successful battle with breast cancer in 2013.

Úna Healy and Daniel O'Donnell on TG4’s music series Opry an Iúir

Talk of the future brings the conversation around to the next generation of Irish Country music talent.

As a co-host of TG4’s music series Opry an Iúir, Daniel regularly rubs shoulders with some of the greatest acts in the business from Philomena Begley and Susan McCann to Mary Duff and Declan Nerney.

“I’ve sung with a lot of the Country singers,” he says. “Úna Healy (who is Declan Nerney’s niece) did a Country album and she was on and I got to sing with her.

“I would never would have expected to sing with Úna,” he adds. “Really because she very much had a pop career with the Saturdays and then we did the Johnny Cash, June Carter song Jackson – it was great fun. She’s a lovely girl.”

Rising Country music star Ben Troy

One to watch though is Carrickmacross teenager Ben Troy, who released his debut album Gravity earlier this year on the newly-formed Ryan Records label, set up by fellow singer Derek Ryan.

A two-time All-Ireland traditional music champion, Troy has been a regular part of Phil Mack’s Keep it Country international tours and performed for the wife of the late George Jones in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry.

“There’s loads of Country artists now that are already stars but there’s a young guy called Ben Troy who I think is terrific, he’s from Monaghan, and I’ve seen him live, I think he has something special,” Daniel says.

He’s keen to give up and coming talent the recognition and support they need to succeed just as he did. “I’m never opposed to collaborations,” he adds.

Going against the grain has worked out pretty well for Daniel O’Donnell and with 2018 around the corner there’s no sign of him slowing down.

A man for all seasons, truly.

Christmas With Daniel is released by DMG TV and available now on CD.