An Interview with John McDermott
by Kait Burgan
John McDermott was 38 years old when he embarked on his first tour, and it almost didn’t happen. He was “discovered” on a film festival cruise, working for the travel division of the Toronto Sun. “I was doing a Beatles tune on karaoke,” he recalls, “And the machine broke down, so I did it acapella.” After his performance, a man gave him a business card and told him to get in touch if he ever decided to anything with his voice. That man, John later learned, was an executive with EMI and years later, would convince John to find a way to take some time off work and go on tour, opening for the Chieftains.
There’s a lot of history between then and now; countless live performances, including an estimated 10 in Nanaimo, more than 30 CD’s, DVD’s, television appearances, five Juno nominations, numerous awards and a charitable foundation called McDermott House that he founded to support veterans and first responders.
In mid-February, pre-sales opened for a double DVD called “All Those Years”, a compilation of documentary, behind the scenes and performance video footage. “It’s stuff you’re not going to see anywhere else,” John says, not wanting to promise they will be ready for the March 17th show in Nanaimo, but he didn’t rule it out either.
John had no intention of pursuing a professional singing career. He was on track to work in the newspaper or publishing business, maybe chemical engineering and water treatment but when Conrad Black heard him singing at company parties. Black, along with other executives, financed McDermott’s independent recording of “Danny Boy” in 1992, which was picked up and released in North America by EMI Music Canada. It would seem that music found John, as much as John found music.
He’s just finished recording a CD called “Raised on Songs and Stories” that, uniquely, is one track, no breaks between songs. “I’m getting the history of songs from older generations in Ireland and the link between songs will be spoken-word. It’s a work in progress, and I’m hoping for a fall release.”
In addition to “Raised on Songs and Stories”, John is writing a book, called “The Accidental Tenor”. Each chapter is a collision, of sorts, starting with a ship John and his family were on colliding in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with a Norwegian tanker. They were on their way to Montreal, from Quebec City.
“It was the night of the great blackout, November 9th, 1965, the power failure in Queenstown. It changed the course of our lives ... and that’s just one chapter!”
Nanaimo audiences can expect what audiences around the world have come to love about songs from the isles when John McDermott performs at the Port Theatre on St. Patrick’s Day.
“It doesn’t matter what audience I’m in front of,” John says. “There’s always some connection, an event, a distant part of their heritage, the songs of the isles are rooted in our history. It’s soothing we don’t let go. It’s something very special.”
John always meets the audience before the performance and during intermission and fans sometimes slip him notes, requesting certain songs. He often obliges.
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