Music, People

Seamus Kelleher: Singing a New Song, and the Message is Hope

Hope, optimism and resilience can be rare commodities in the age of coronavirus.

You might not expect any of the above from an Irish musician whose last booking came just three days before St. Patrick’s Day.

Like so many Irish musicians, Seamus Kelleher—a Galway-born virtuoso guitarist-singer-songwriter and alum of the celebrated band Blackthorn—lost work when the pandemic triggered state-mandated shutdowns at all the pubs, taverns and clubs where musicians typically find work during St. Patrick’s month.

“I did the Green Parrot in Newtown, Bucks County, on the 14th of March,” Kelleher recalls. “That was the last. It was an afternoon show. And it was surreal because at that stage there wasn’t a definite decision made to close everything down. It was just drip, drip, drip. But the owner and staff could tell. There was a real sense of impending doom. It was a very strange gig, and we just barely made the best of it, as we always do, but there was the sense that things could be changing, and that was very sobering for me.”

Right up until that day, Kelleher had been extremely busy. In fact, he explains, he was on target to have the best year of his solo career. In January, he embarked on a cross-country tour that included Colorado, Indiana and Kansas City. After that, he finished a 23-day tour of Florida before returning to Philadelphia for March madness. “I had 200 shows on the books, all across the country,” he says. To then only get halfway through March before everything closed down, he says, “was like having the rug pulled out from under me … but I wasn’t alone.”

Other local Irish musicians have regular jobs—assuming they still have them—and music is a sideline. For about 15 years, that was the case with Kelleher, who was employed as a speech writer in the corporate world, penning addresses for the presidents of Lincoln Financial and Drexel University, among others. But for the past five years, Kelleher has been committed to music full-time. But now, as a musician with no conventional day job, losing work had an impact. He continues to perform “porch concerts” live to Facebook, and they’ve been helpful, but Kelleher has been unexpectedly fortunate in another way.

During the past five years, Kelleher has devoted roughly two-thirds of his time purely to the performance of music, a lifelong passion dating back to the days when he was opening for the likes of Thin Lizzy. The remaining third of his career he devotes to motivational speaking. And he has quite the inspirational story to tell.

“I suffer from depression and anxiety and I’m a recovering alcoholic,” Kelleher explains, matter-of-factly. “So my motivational speech really talks about my journey. I incorporate some music into it, but the idea is to give hope for those who struggle with mental health and addiction. I also talk about suicide prevention. That’s a big, big part of what I talk about. I’ve been doing that the past three years, doing more and more of it.”

On March 22, Kelleher received a call out of the blue from Texas A&M College of Medicine. “I had spoken there a few times,” he says. “The last time was two years ago. And they asked me if I would talk to faculty and staff because a lot of their people were just starting to really stress out—as you can imagine. So I did a Zoom meeting for several hundred of their faculty and staff, and some of the students. Then, I did a few more meetings for them. After that, they asked me whether I would consider teaching a two-week class for the med students on mental wellness because the topic that I talked about was mental health in times of crisis.”

His past speaking experience provided plenty of grist for the mill. “I incorporated a lot of what I’ve talked about before, but a bit more focused on how you get through difficult times—resiliency, for example. The session went really well.”

The two-week classes likewise have proved to be a powerful resource for medical students—an incredible accomplishment, considering Kelleher had only a day to prepare a syllabus. “I talk a lot about resiliency strategies you can employ to get through difficult times,” Kelleher says. “It’s common-sense stuff, like putting a routine in your day, eating properly, planning certain tasks for yourself to complete, and not just letting the day get away from you. And most importantly, finding ways to get out of bed so the bed does not become your medication, which is very dangerous. Then I got into more strategies, long term, on how you can use this resiliency to get through tough times. The second week had a lot to do with crisis intervention and suicide prevention.”

So far, Kelleher has completed three two-week classes.

It isn’t his first time as a teacher. Years ago, he was an adjunct professor at Fordham and New York University in the journalism departments, but the last time he taught was in 2007. “So in a twisted way, this has been a blessing for me—not the way I wanted it to happen, but I really wanted to teach again—and now I’m teaching. And I just signed a three-year contract with Texas A&M to teach this class moving forward, long after covid-19 has left the building.”

During this time, Kelleher has also been working for Wesley Enhanced Living, which has seven facilities, providing entertainment for the residents. “On Mother’s Day, I was down at the parking lot of Wesley Enhanced Living, and I played two shows, one on either side of the building. Some of the residents were in their rooms, and then some of the ones who were better off were in the parking lot. I’ve done shows like that a few times. I’ve also done a series of motivational videos for the staff at the Wesley Enhanced Living facilities.”

Along with Kelleher’s unplanned hiatus from live performing, there have been other unexpected benefits. Performing biweekly socially distanced concerts on his back porch of his home in Doylestown and streaming them live to Facebook has prompted him to learn new skills—like how to get the best sound and the best way to stream. He’s also been writing a lot of new songs. The past years of constant performance have been rewarding in their own way, but, he says, “I was so busy doing so many shows—200 shows last year, 200 shows this year—that I haven’t had time to do anything else. I’ve written four or five songs.”

He has also begun to finish a book he started 12 years ago, shining a light on his life experiences, and he is enjoying having his wife Mary Pat and three of their four children home.

To Kelleher, the pandemic pause has prompted him to reset his career. He’s always been proud of his work, but now he has an opportunity to reinvent himself.

“I think my show was good, and people were liking it, but I wasn’t expressing myself,” he says. So my goal is to come out of this thing with a much more focused message for my audience and also with a focus on helping people who are struggling with mental health or addiction. That’s what I want to do with the rest of my life. There’s no mystery. There’s no deviation from that. And like I say, that’s not the way I wanted it to happen, but sometimes you deal with the reality as it is, and OK, this is it. No matter how bad things get, there can be an upside, but you have to find it and make the best of it. I think that’s a very important message. Just that: There’s a lot lost, but there’s some stuff gained. To me, at this stage of my life, that message is just as important as my music, to let people know that I’m there to help them, and we can do it together.”


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