Singer Eleanor McEvoy has a thing about houses. She just loves them, and always has, ever since she was a little girl, and it’s something her nearest and dearest are aware of. So much so that her sister actually made her an adorable miniature house for a recent significant birthday.
More importantly, she always wanted her own house, nothing too fancy. One of the first things she did when she got a job as a violinist with the RTE orchestra – a dream job for most musicians – was to save a deposit for her first house. She even settled on the one she would buy – a little red-brick in Mahon Street, Dublin 8. Then something happened that changed everything. It meant the loss of that house, but it also resulted in the making of the fabulous star and hit songwriter we know and love today.
It was the early 1990s, Eleanor was earning a good salary, and she was on the verge of putting down the deposit. “The house was in dreadful condition, but I thought, ‘Yes, I could afford that’,” she recalls. “Then I went into work in the orchestra and my desk partner that day was Arthur Nachstern – you had a different desk partner every day. I suddenly realised that, in every other job, as you get older, you move up the food chain, but in an orchestra, as your fingers go, you move down.
“Arthur had led the orchestra, and here he was now, sitting beside me. That day, I decided to leave the orchestra, and instead of buying that house, I used the deposit to buy a proper guitar and pay for a professional tape to launch myself.”
It was a big risk, but it was a wise move; Eleanor didn’t just play instruments, she was also becoming a promising songwriter, having started writing songs during her teen years.
Though the warm and genial musician, who was born and reared in Cabra, would be the last person to describe herself as such, Eleanor was a bit of a child prodigy when it came to music, having shown promise at the toddler stage.
“I started playing piano when I was three. My sister taught me bits by ear,” Eleanor explains. “Then she got lessons, and, in turn, taught me how to play. I went for a little exam, and the lady there said she’d like to see my parents. I thought I was in trouble, but she told my mother I was gifted. So I studied violin and piano, and then I picked up a guitar because there was one around the house.”
The youngest of three, Eleanor followed a different path to her older brother, Kieran, and her sister, Marian, who were also musical, but who became a civil servant and a teacher, respectively. Eleanor opted to study music at college and become a full-time musician.
“When I said I wanted to go into music, my parents were freaking out, but when I eventually went for it, my brother then gave up his job and went into music, and my sister did, too.They’re really talented, I benefited hugely from both. My sister has just released her first album, Broadstone Belle. My brother is in a band called Remedy Club, they’re a fantastic band. He goes under the name KJ Mack,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I think they saw me having a very good time and said, ‘Hmmm, I’m not sure about this working lark’.”
After finishing school, Eleanor studied classical music at Trinity, which she loved. “I was mad into academic music. I knew I would play anyway, but I wanted to study harmonies and manuscripts and all that sort of thing,” she muses, adding, “I loved every second of Trinity. I couldn’t believe I had got there. I loved the building, I loved the people, the course, the cobblestones.”
Throughout her years in Trinity, she was a session musician with all the top Irish artistes – U2, Sinead O’Connor, Mary Black, anyone who wanted a violin – and at the same time, she was constantly writing her own songs.
Then came the job with the RTE Symphony Orchestra, which she did for five years before realising she wanted to concentrate on songwriting. “My heart and soul were in songwriting. I was writing hundreds of songs, never singing them for anybody, then my brother heard one of my songs and said, ‘Eleanor, you’ve got to be doing this, you’ve got to get out and start doing something with the songs’ – that was the beginning of the process. Then I started gigging around in my own right,” she explains.
She played in Mary Black’s band and also performed as a solo artist and gained recognition gradually. Then came A Woman’s Heart, the phenomenal anthem which, at the time of going to press, is on the shortlist of 10 for Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song – you will know at this stage whether A Woman’s Heart won or not.
“That came about through Mary Black. I was a session musician in her band, and socially she came to one of my gigs one night, to hang out. I played my song A Woman’s Heart that night, and the following day her husband, Joe, rang me and said, ‘We’ve been talking about maybe putting out an album of Irish women, and this is a really good track, and we’d love to call the album after the track. You’re known in Dublin, but outside Dublin no-one has heard of you – how would you feel about duetting with Mary?'”
“I was delighted,” Eleanor says. “Mary had a huge profile; we were nearly guaranteed airplay. We did it. It was a little project thing, girl power before girl power was around, that was the thinking behind it. But I remember Joe saying, ‘God, this could sell a few copies’, but still not realising.”
As it happened, Eleanor was signed that very week to Geffen Records and went off to Los Angeles. In her absence, the song and the album became huge and went on to sell nearly a million copies. And 27 years on, it’s still loved, as evidenced by its inclusion on the Best Folk Song shortlist.
Her deal with Geffen Records was good to start with, and she toured all over the world. After that, she moved to Columbia Records and did several albums with them, but over the years, she found it harder and harder to deal with the size of the record companies and their remoteness from the lifestyle she wanted.
She found she had less and less control, so she decided to go independent. “When I went independent, it was my kitchen table and a bottle of wine and, ‘Right, what are we going to do?'” she says. “I grew very gradually, and now work with record companies again, but they are little companies in England and Australia.”
The music industry in general has lost out badly due to the internet, and as chairman of Imro (Irish Music Rights Organisation), Eleanor has been campaigning for musicans to get a share of the profits when their music is used in certain situations online, and it looks as if that will happen in the near future.
Apart from that, through non-stop grafting and heaps of talent, she has done extremely well in her own career, and continues to tour and record. She recently toured all over England and is back for the summer to do some Irish dates, before a tour of Germany in the autumn.
She’s also just launched her new record. Forgotten Dreams. She loves everything about the business still, but she’s also very happy to return home to her lovely house.
The house, a red-brick terraced house in Dublin 8 – not in Mahon Street, but only a stone’s throw from it – is home to Eleanor and her teenage daughter, Sarah Jane; Eleanor recently split from her partner of 23 years.
Unlike the Mahon Street house, this house was in perfect condition when she bought it – it had been completely renovated, and Eleanor loved what the previous owner had done with it.
It comprises a large, welcoming living room at ground-floor level; a few steps down from that is a dining room, which also doubles as a music room/rehearsal room, and off that there is a kitchen, a bathroom and a guest bedroom – regular guests include her three beloved step-children, who are all grown up.
Up the open stairs from the double-height living room are three bedrooms and a further bathroom, while the attic is home to Eleanor’s much-loved hammock – it’s a place she cherishes, as it’s great for songwriting inspiration.
If the programme Through the Keyhole filmed here, they would spot instantly that it’s a musician’s house – there are musical instruments everywhere, including Eleanor’s first violin, which hangs on the wall of the kitchen.
But there’s much more to the house than music. Art features hugely, too. There are lots of paintings, many of them works by her father, who died a few months ago, and so they are extra special. Another very special painting hangs on the wall of the living room – it’s by Chris Gollon, an artist who did a whole series based on Eleanor’s powerful songs. Sadly, he passed away recently, too.
The house is eclectically furnished with a wide variety of colours and textures, and lots of interesting mirrors, screens and classical statuary. If Eleanor is to be believed, the decor is completely accidental.
“It’s a real musician’s house – you get a bit of money, you do another bit to the house. Everything was done by degrees. And nothing in the house cost money. Someone is throwing out a bed, so I get that bed,” she says. “My friends all say, ‘This house is so you’. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a bit of an insult.”
Of course, what they mean is it’s full of personality and individuality and fun and warmth. “I sometimes feel a bit shallow, because I love my house so much,” she says. “Life is about love and connections, and a house is only bricks and mortar, but of course it’s so much more,”
When it’s Eleanor McEvoy’s house, it’s also a source of comfort, confidence and creativity.
Eleanor plays the following dates: Friday, July 12, Cahir Cultural Festival, Co Tipperary; Sunday, August 11, St Peter’s Church, Drogheda; Friday, September 20; Tipp Classical, Semple Stadium, Thurles, Co Tipperary, see eleanormcevoy.com
Edited by Mary O’Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
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