Cherish the Ladies' Michelle Burke.
Ahhh, timing…in the words attributed to that mighty poet of ancient Greece, Hesiod, “Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor.”
Believe it, because Michelle Burke is living proof of the power of good timing.
I first stumbled across Michelle Burke quite by accident, while surfing MySpace about a year and a half ago. I stopped to listen to the tracks she had put up on her page, and stayed to replay her hauntingly haunting version of the traditional ballad “Molly Bawn.” And, so while I was sitting around waiting for what seemed an eternity for her debut solo CD, “Pulling Threads,” to be released, Michelle was keeping quite busy being the new girl singer with the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies.
“In early 2008, around the same time I was recording my CD, I heard that Cherish the Ladies was looking for a new singer. I knew Kathleen Boyle (the group’s piano player), and so I decided to submit some tracks. I sent [group leader] Joannie Madden ‘Where Are You Tonight?’ and ‘I Shall Be Released.'” The next thing were some trial concerts, and then the word that the job was hers.
Growing up in rural County Cork (the nearest village was 4 miles away), Michelle was surrounded by music. “My father, Michael, played weddings and dinner dances and I would go with him. I remember I sang in my first competition when I was 7. I sang the song ‘Foggy Dew’ and I was wearing a blue dress,” Michelle laughed. “The local secondary school I went to just happened to be a great one for music; it was just a coincidence. There was a big choir there, and it was great experience.”
From there, Michelle decided to go on to the music program at University College Cork, initially with the intent of studying piano. “I didn’t know what else I could do, besides music. My mother thought I was stone mad! I switched over to singing, and did everything from medieval singing to classical to sean-nos[old-time singing]. I realized that singing the classical music wasn’t for me, but then I was lucky to be able to study the sean nos tradition with Iarla Ó Lionaird and Eilis Ni Shuilleabhain. UCC has a big emphasis on traditional music, and I began to appreciate that I could focus on singing the type of songs that I enjoyed.”
Michelle followed that up with a year at The University of Limerick doing a new course on traditional music. She returned to Cork and started teaching music to young students. After a few years, the sense of “What am I doing?” hit, and Michelle decided to join some friends in a move to Edinburgh.
“There’s a big music scene there, but I still wasn’t sure what direction I was going to go. I became involved in community projects, working at drop-in centers with teens who might not have the opportunity to study music otherwise. There would be 10 weeks of workshops, and then they’d record a demo CD.”
Meanwhile, there were singing gigs, opportunities for Michelle to find her style and develop her voice. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence before that, so it became a big achievement personally. Singing became something I got a lot of satisfaction out of.”
And then the time was right to record that CD. The mix of songs showcases her diverse tastes and talents. From Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” to Tom Waits “Broken Bicycles.” From Sandy Wright’s “Hey Mama” to Chris Stuart’s “Springhill Mine.”
“I decided to record songs that I wanted to sing…I went for it. I knew I had to sing ‘I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.’ It’s a song my granny used to sing to my Aunt Kathleen, and my granny passed away two years ago; she used to go to all the gigs. We recorded it in one take…I couldn’t stop crying.”
“I included the song ‘I Will be Stronger than That;” it’s been recorded by Faith Hill and Maura O’Connell. Maura has been one of my biggest influences.As a teenager I used to listen to her all the time. It was such an honor to actually get to sing with her…she’s such a great storyteller and, she’s just fantastic.”
So, back to this timing thing: In addition to having “Pulling Threads” out, Cherish the Ladies has just released its latest CD, “A Star in the East,” an album of Christmas songs. It’s Michelle’s debut recording with the group. They’re finishing up their latest tour on December 23, but it will pick up again in January. And come, March 4, 2010, they’ll be back in the area to play The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE.