Joanie Madden brings her band Cherish the Ladies to the Commodore John Barry Arts & Cultural Center (The Irish Center) Saturday, December 1, for the first stop of the Celtic Christmas tour. Tickets here.
Joanie, who recently won the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish-American Writers and Artists, recently took time for a chat about the award, the band, her career, and the new Christmas music tour.
Jeff: So I guess I’ll just jump right into it. You recently received the Eugene O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish-American Writers and Artists. That had to be gratifying after so many years of performing.
Joanie: Well, you know, Jeff, first off it’s great to speak to you again, and secondly, you know, it’s always nice to receive awards and honors and we had a great night. It was actually Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas presented me with the award, and it was great to join this illustrious list of names of people that have won it previously. But it was a great night. What was great about it for me, more importantly, was that so many of the musicians in New York and New Jersey and Connecticut came out. You know, all my great friends in the music business, so it was wonderful to see them all there for that.
But, you know, you do these things, and it’s great to get an award, but I’d be doing this whether I was getting awarded or not. I just love, I love playing with Cherish the Ladies and I love touring and traveling the world like we have been now, it’s going on, it’ll be 34 years in a couple of weeks. So pretty amazing, and we just released our 17th album. So, we just keep plowing along.
Jeff: Yeah, I was going to ask you that, how many years? 34 years. I didn’t think it was quite that long.
Joanie: Yeah, January 5th it’ll be 34 years since the first concert.
Joanie: Yeah, that’s what I say.
Jeff: Yes, you would. And I’m trying to remember who said this, but someone said you received the award for your groundbreaking charge against male dominance in the Irish traditional music sphere. Was that your intention?
Joanie: No, that was never my intention. You know, actually having Cherish the Ladies is actually, it’s impeded me in my choice selection, if anybody ever left the band because of whatever personal reasons they had, you know, because you cut your pool down by half. And of course I love to play with the men and love to play with the boys, some of them are my best friends in the music business, you know? It’s because of Mick Moloney, you know, thinking it would be a great idea to do a concert series featuring women, and none of us ever saw it taking off the way it did. And, you know, when Mick was finished, you know, starting us off, I just took the ball and I kept running with it.
But it was never my intention to have an all-female band. It just developed and people enjoyed it and we just kept it going, but no, no, no. As far as I’m concerned, if anything I’d like to be, you know, mentioned for bringing awareness to the fact of so many brilliant Irish-American musicians that we have on this side of the Atlantic, and show people around the world that even though we were born and raised, in my case in the Bronx, we still can play music with the best of them, and let people know that we have such a strong culture here.
So that’s all. I mean, I’m not one bit a feminist or anything like that. I, of course, I mean, truth be told, there weren’t any women playing the music the way it is, and I’m just proud that we’ve been able to do it and make a living at it and play the finest performing art centers in the world, and over 300 nights of symphony now. And, you know, it’s pretty amazing and I have to say we did our fair share of groundbreaking, and of course I’ve had young girls come up to me all along the way and young, promising flourishing Irish musicians and see that we’ve done it and they could do it too.
It’s great to have that part, but as far as trying to, you know, stop the men, I loved playing with the Pride of New York, I love playing music with the boys as good as any. For me, can you play or can you not, that’s the whole thing, and never what your gender is.
Jeff: Yeah, getting back to the award, you really are in some pretty good company. Brian Dennehy, Judy Collins, I think Pete Hamill’s in the mix, Phil Donahue, you mentioned him.
Jeff: And Malachy McCourt. How do you feel about joining that elite crowd?
Joanie: I wasn’t sure. Did they get the right name out of the hat? It’s wonderful. You know, I’ve been so lucky to receive so many incredible awards down through the years. My favorite is having the street named after me in the Bronx, that’s my favorite. At least I can park there and not get a ticket. But you know, those are all wonderful. It’s wonderful to be acknowledged and for people to appreciate my life’s work, but again, awards are nice but I still get up the next day and get on the phone and working forward towards the next goal for Cherish the Ladies.
So, you know, right now we’re just about to embark on the 16 shows we have for Christmas, and then over to Glasgow, Scotland for January for the Celtic Connections festival and a couple concerts in Ireland. And we have our February and March tour taking us back across the country. We’ll keep going as long as the phone keeps ringing, you know?
Jeff: Sure. Could you have believed that you’d be with Cherish the Ladies all this time?
Joanie: No. Well, you know I had an awful lot of opportunities come down the lot for me, you know, I was offered, things that I missed, I was offered the soundtrack for Lord of the Rings and I had to turn that down. I, of course, got asked to do Riverdance. I’ve had so many opportunities come my way, you know, I’ve made a commitment to the girls. I said, “If you guys quit your jobs, I’ll keep you working, and I’ll commit myself to you.” So, although I’ve missed a lot of big breaks, because of being in a band you’re limited to what you can do because you have to be loyal to the band, because if I was off running around doing stuff then how could you keep it going?
So I made my choice, I made my bed, and I don’t have any regrets because it’s been just a fantastic time and I’m so lucky to play with the likes of Mary Coogan, who’s been with me since the very beginning, and Mirella Murray’s on accordion. Mirella’s going into her 16th year with us now, and Kathleen Boyle is 15 years on the piano and then I have Nollaig Casey playing fiddle on the new album. And when we come to Philadelphia at the Commodore Barry we’re gonna have Don Stiffe sing with us. So, you know, we had a great time last year.
But like, I’m just very happy. I’m so lucky that I get to travel with amazing musicians, great people, and you know, that’s what it’s all about.
Jeff: Sure. Isn’t Philly your first stop?
Joanie: Philly is kicking off the whole tour. We did the show last year at the Commodore Barry Club for the Christmas concert and we had a packed house, and it was a fantastic, fantastic, fantastic, just a beautiful vibe in the room, and they said to us will we come back? And the only time we could fit them it was the Saturday night, but it’s a Saturday night, so it’s wonderful, for the Christmas concert, and we’re bringing our whole pack.
You know, my brother’s coming down this time. My brother’s a great drummer, and he does the Christmas shows with us a lot of the time. So he’s coming down, he’s going to do that show with us, and I’ll also have again, the amazing singer Don Stiffe. He’s just, people call him the Burl Ives. He sounds just like Burl Ives. And then again, of course, the gang and of course there’s some phenomenal dancing. I’m bringing Seamus Flaherty, he’s a fantastic, five-time whole Ireland champion, and one day this kid is amazing—dancer, harpist, singer, this kid could do it. So, we’ll be bringing him down and a couple other dancers as well, so it’ll be a great night.
Jeff: Yeah, what can we expect?
Joanie: Well, you know, I remember years ago, Jeff, I got a phone call from a promoter saying, “Hey, Joanie, you guys got a Christmas show?” And I said, “Yeah, of course we do.” And he said, “Will you do a Christmas concert?” I said, “Of course, of course.” I hung up the phone, I called the girls and said, “Oh my God, we gotta get a Christmas show together.”
So, you know, I started doing research into songs, you know, but it was so successful. People love it, and we’ve now recorded three Christmas albums, so we take this really seriously.
And, you know, it’s amazing to me how much the Christmas music and Celtic music works so well together and interweave. And I remember people were hounding us, hounding us to make a record so we actually, we recorded a Christmas album at my house because I couldn’t get a studio in New York City. Everything was booked, so I thought, well, and we rented a grand piano and we came in and we just recorded in my house here in Yonkers where I live. And, you know, never in our wildest dreams imagined that the New York Times would name it one of the top 10 Christmas albums of the year, and USA Today and you name it, the Boston Globe.
So, since then we’ve now gone on and we just put out our last album, called Christmas in Ireland. We recorded that two years ago over in Ireland, and again, people just love them. I actually love to tour this time. It’s a great break from us, too, because it’s a whole new repertoire of music and on top of that it’s the only time that you ever see mom and dads and grandparents and the kids out all at one show, but like, you know it’s the wonderful Christmas classics like, you know, Silent Night or O Holy Night, and we do a lot of our own arrangements and our own music and our own compositions.
So, all in all we just love to see everybody singing along and get everybody in the Christmas spirit, get it going.
Jeff: Well we look forward to seeing you when you get to Philly, and I’m really grateful for the time you’ve spent with me.
Joanie: Well, thank you. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you, Jeff. And great to see your photos and keep up to date with what you’re up to. I’m following you on Facebook.
Jeff: Well thank you for that.
Joanie: All right, buddy.
Jeff: All right, take care.
Joanie: Thank you.