Ireland’s foremost trad band The High Kings return with a new attitude, a new album, and a new tour. Recently, Celtic Life International chatted with the band’s frontman, Darren Holden.

Tell our readers a bit about your upbringing, your Celtic background, and how you got into music.
I was born and raised in a little village in the southeast of Ireland called Mooncoin, in County Kilkenny. I started performing music in public at around the age of 11, playing the church organ in our local village every Sunday for various weddings and funerals. Then I joined the local ceilidh band after that. I also started performing rockabilly music all over Ireland, at the age of 15, with a band called Breakaway. We were kind of styled on The Stray Cats – Elvis, Buddy Holly, and all that kind of stuff from the ’50s. I was touring for a while and then started my own band in the early 1990s, entering the Eurosong competitions a couple of times. I was managed by a guy named Louis Walsh then, who managed bands like Boyzone and Westlife. I was put out there as a bit of a teen idol – a sort of Donny Osmond-type artist in the mid-90s; and I had various top ten hits around Europe, Ireland, Southeast Asia, and Australia.  I wasn’t 100 per cent comfortable with that. Let’s say, the music was second to the image. I took a bit of a breather from the industry in the late 1990s and fell in love with my roots and the Irish music of my upbringing that I had inherited from my parents. I entered back into the business through a show called Rhythm of the Dance in 1999, which was one of the first spinoff shows from Riverdance. I was featured as lead vocalist, and I did that for about ten months all over Europe and Scandinavia. I took another break in 2007. I was living in Florida when I got a call from my old buddy Brian Dunphy, who is a fellow High King. He said, “Your name has come up in regard to a new ballad group that has been put together by EMI. Expect a phone call.” That phone call came, and I have been a High King for the last 15 years, traveling all over the world and loving every minute of it. That’s it, in a nutshell.

Skipping ahead a bit, your new album is your eighth, correct?
Yeah, it’s the sixth studio album and the first all-original album. Most of them were all covers. There was one album we released about ten years ago, called Friends for Life, where I wrote maybe four songs on that. We wanted to do something different and daring with this one. We were out there performing all these older Irish classics that we do in our own style, obviously – but we wanted to put something out there that was a lot different than what we had done before. As bad as the lockdown and the pandemic were for the music industry; it gave us time to think and to reach out to people in our position who were also off the road at the time. The two guys, Danny and Glen from The Script – who are an enormously successful Irish band – were just chit-chatting with us one day, and Glen, the drummer, said to me, ‘We’ve written a song for you guys. We didn’t know whether to send it or not.’ So I told them to send it along and I would give it a listen. And I just couldn’t speak. I had to listen four or five times before I could respond to him. I thought it was phenomenal. The song is called “Chasing Rainbows,” and for us, we saw that this could be a real reinvention and re-energizing of the band. So, we recorded it and we loved it. Our management was really excited by it. Then we had bands like Kodaline come along with another song, which became the title track, “The Road Not Taken.” I reached out to Sharon Corr from The Corrs, who is a very good friend of mine. We put together this really cool instrumental piece that came together so fast, called, “Go with the Flow.” We had all these songs coming in, and then I started to write in the vein of what was happening in the world, as well. I have about five co-writes and solo writes on the album, which is a first for me.  The finished product felt very strong.

There is quite a range to the recording.
There is a little bit of everything on there. The album opens with “Connemara Bay,” which is upbeat and fun, and then you have some of the other stuff like “Son of Ireland,” that’s in there as a big dramatic number, and “The Big Fella,” is in the same vein. Meanwhile, “A Song for Kelly,” is more personal.

It’s clearly very personal. What’s the story behind it?
Last summer, my father got rather sick very suddenly. He went into hospital and unfortunately, he stayed there until we lost him in October. I’m very close to my dad, and I was in a very bad emotional way.  A good friend of mine was in touch with me a lot during that time and he told me a story about his daughter who was born 17 years previously, but she didn’t survive. She was very young, and he never got the chance to hold her or get to know her. It was quite heartbreaking. Every single year, he goes to her grave and leaves a teddy bear on her headstone. That stayed in my head and I never let go of it. About a week later, I woke up and that song just literally flowed out of the pen as I sat by my piano and wrote the melody and the lyrics. I felt there was something special about it. The band loved it. Everybody involved with the project loved it. It had to go on the album.

How do you feel now that the album is out?
I can’t tell you how proud I am of this. It was a definite risk that we took that could have backfired. We didn’t know what was going to happen. But I think the music speaks for itself. The material is stronger than we would have even anticipated before we got to the studio. We had some great production on it and great insights into how far we should push it without pushing too far. I love it. It’s my favourite Kings album. The buzz within the industry is that we need to do more of this now and expand on that. We’ve had some cool reviews and received correspondence from some international artists asking if we’re open to working with them. So that may be the next thing we will do. We’ll just have to see when we get back to the studio again.  That’s the road we are on now.