When Irish soprano Sharon Lyons takes the stage at this year’s Pipes of Christmas concerts in New York and New Jersey, she will be carrying the torch of tradition.
What are your roots?
I am originally from a beautiful fishing village called Howth in Dublin, Ireland. My family on both sides are all from Dublin.
Where do you currently reside?
I’m currently living on the Ring of Kerry, in a town called Killorglin. Believe it or not, this town is famous for its annual Puck Fair Festival, which is said to have started over 400 years ago. Each year in August, a goat is taken from the side of the mountain, crowned and then a three-day festival of music, fairs, and more ensues.
When and why did you start singing?
My mom will tell you that at a nativity play in preschool, I shushed my classmate for singing out of tune, so I think from the age of 3, its safe to say I was singing! I then joined a children’s choir in my local church, and I have been singing ever since. It’s always been part of me and what I do.
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
I suppose singing is a way of life for me. I trained as a classical violinist also, and during my lessons when I was younger, I used to ask could I sing back the melodies to my teacher. I always had a good ear, so when she used to play the piece, I was working on I was able to sing it back in my head before playing it then on the violin. No week has gone by since my earliest memory that hasn’t included singing, whether that was in the church, or school, with friends, in the Academy of Music and so on. I can’t tell you the reasons why I sing, only that it’s a natural part of me, and I know no other way.
What are the challenges involved with the vocation?
The biggest challenge I think is not recognising burn out. When you do what you love for a living, you never feel the drudgery of being overworked until one day you wake up and (in my case) you have no voice. My body literally has to tell me in a physical way to take a break. Being self-employed also means it’s very difficult to say No to any work that comes your way. I have gotten much better at this especially since having my son and understanding the true importance of a healthy work/life balance.
What are the rewards?
Oh wow, what a question. As mentioned above, doing what you love for living is the biggest reward. Before moving to Kerry, I worked for many undertakers and singing at funerals is probably one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever done. In times of the deepest grief, when most people feel helpless in trying to console or sympathise with a family, music creates a powerful, safe, and healing grieving space. I find teaching my private students and choirs a very fulfilling part of the job. Watching previously self-conscious/nervous students overcome their stage fright and sing is such a joy. Also taking a group of ‘non musicians’ and watching their faces light up when they sing in harmony for the first time gives me such a lift. Performing is a very special reward also. Standing in front of and sing with an orchestra is the best feeling in the world. I could go on and on. Every day is a gift.
How have you evolved as an artist over time?
I think it has taken me until very recently to understand myself as a singer. I was never interested in the opera path, and as such I felt that I fell through the cracks a little on the music scene. For a long time my main work was centred around the Cathedral in Dublin, and as a result I was labelled as a ‘church singer’ by most. The truth is I enjoy singing all styles of music. From early chant, through to modern pop. I think my classical voice lies most suitably in the earlier music such as Handel and Bach, but I will as happily sing an Irish folk song if I had a choice. I know now my uniqueness lies in my versatility, and there’s very few singers that will/can cross styles easily.
What have been some career highlights?
I have sung for our president many times, and that’s always both a pleasure and privilege. I have performed many times on the national stages here, national TV & radio and have had wonderful opportunities singing solo for major events in the country. I spent a Summer in Boston under the NUFAX exchange programme which was funded by the US Government and that was an amazing experience. I sang for Pope Francis in 2018, and the Dalai Lama a few years prior to that. I appeared in the US TV series Vikings singing a self-composed chant 9 years ago. To this day, I still get fan mail and followers from that one piece. Incredible!
What inspired your new Christmas album?
I have wanted to record a full-length album for some time, and this year it was finally possible. My idea was to take some Christmas classics and give them new life, and I really believe I have achieved this. I have appeared on so many other artists recordings that it was time to have my own.
What can listeners expect?
I commissioned new arrangements of these Christmas classics, for solo voice (myself), 20-piece orchestra and choir. The album has a mix of tracks, with 8 orchestral, 2 piano-based and one unaccompanied. You can expect a selection of uplifting, movie soundtrack-style, Irish traditional and choral music.
Is your creative process more “inspirational” or “perspirational”?
I think the latter! I leave the creative/inspirational part to the experts in that area. My great friend Damian Gallagher was the man who arranged the music, and he really is exceptional at what he does. I love singing his arrangements and he knows my voice particularly well.
What makes a good live show?
In my opinion if the artist is authentic and good at what they do, then this will shine through in performance and very little extra is needed. Some of the most moving and memorable concerts I have attended have had no light or smoke displays, no backing dancers, or projected images, just them and their musicians. You want the audience to feel your sincerity, and to leave with that impression.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the Irish music scene?
It is getting better every day. In the folk, traditional and opera world, there have been huge strides forward and more opportunities are appearing every day for artists. Arts Council funding has gone from strength to strength and continues to help the sector. This is so important.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact you, both personally and professionally?
Both myself and my husband were out of work due to Covid, however, as we had recently welcomed our son into the world, this unexpected extended maternity leave was very special, and we got time with him that we never would have had otherwise. Of course, it was stressful at the same time, but our government did look after us well and provided a basic liveable income payment. I am a home-bird so having to stay at home was never an issue. So many musicians I know got extremely creative during the lockdown and produced amazing work. I just took a step back from it all and enjoyed the breathing space.
What advice might you have for younger people looking to enjoy a career in music?
If it is your passion, do it. There are so many ways now to earn a living in music, both in front of and behind the scenes. For example, the world of music technology has exploded (especially with social media), and this world will continue to grow and grow. It’s a very exciting time to be a young artist.
What’s on your agenda for the rest of 2022, and going into 2023?
I have a couple of Irish solo Christmas performances coming up between now and early December, then I head to Germany as soprano soloist in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I get back to Ireland for two days which include my son’s 3rd birthday and then I fly to NYC to be a soloist in the Pipes of Christmas Annual concerts in NYC and NJ. I fly home 5 days before Christmas day and then have a busy few days with music in the cathedral here in Kerry before having some time off over New Years. I worked on the theme song for a new video gaming company that’s due to launch early next year, and I have other exciting things in the pipeline to be confirmed over the coming weeks. Its busy but I’m loving every minute of it.