|From Riverdance to True Love, Naas Lad
Captures Irish Soul
By Megan Mueller
Without music, life would be an error.
Ireland, music is learned by ear. The familiar piano lessons are absent,
as are the lectures on music theory.
Derek Byrne, born and raised in Naas, Co. Kildare, Ireland, is now an
Irish musician transplant in Milwaukee. He explains that "you are given
an instrument, whatever you want it to be. You just play with a toy. You
discover what makes nice sounds and what doesn't. It's a very organic way
He also points out that few people in Ireland can read music, which
makes his job as a telesales representative at Hal Leonard Publishing a
little ironic. The Milwaukee firm is the world's largest music book publisher
and a major sheet music distributor.
Byrne came to the United States in 1998 with Riverdance as both
a singer and instrumentalist. Although the fast-paced production is often
thought of as an Irish show, Byrne states that "it is a collection of the
world, in dance and music. The common thread of music and dance is in all
Despite the large mix of cultures, it was not difficult to work with
the other musicians, he emphasizes. It was an opportunity to perform and
to learn, as "we all brought our own spin to the music. We all played the
same tunes, but in different, wonderful ways. You learn to respect other
cultures and see the genius in them," Byrne says.
He performed with Riverdance for three years before the show
came to Milwaukee. When it arrived in Wisconsin's largest city, he met
a young woman and fell in love.
"I saw her a couple of times and knew she was the one right away," he
says. Carrie Kessler worked backstage and was unconvinced that she was
"the one" until they ran into each other at the mall food court one day.
The two spent so long talking that they were both late for work.
That was the beginning of a three-year long-distance relationship, filled
with red-eye flights for extended weekends and numerous phone calls. Eventually,
Byrne left Riverdance and came to live in Milwaukee. He and Kessler
married, and before he got his current job at Hal Leonard, he worked a
variety of jobs: bar tending, bouncing, and even selling cars, calling
himself The Irish Car Charmer.
though now he spends his days working for the giant publisher, he encourages
his two young children to learn music as he did. He lets them play his
instruments, saying that "to the kids, they're toys, they're not out of
bounds. If they break them, I'll fix them." His 5-year-old-son, Cael, has
been writing his own songs since he could talk, often accompanying himself
with a drum or ukulele. Byrne's daughter, Kiera, is almost 3. She also
likes to sing, but sticks to narrating what she is doing to the tune of
"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Both like to dance.
Byrne still avidly pursues music. He performed with Jim Wirt as the
music duo Eidir for four years, entertaining in pubs, at Milwaukee Irish
Fest and recording a single CD titled Erin's Calling. Byrne went
to see Celtic Woman, which he says is "another home for Riverdance
people" and discovered that Sean Beglan, who had been the male lead for
had also settled in Milwaukee. Beglan started dancing at Eidir's shows.
After Eidir broke up, Beglan and Byrne continued to perform together.
They frequently do shows at Paddy's Pub and Brocach in Milwaukee, as
well as the House of Guinness in Waukesha. Pub gigs are a far cry from
but the difference is beautiful, according to Byrne.
"You know the moment when you know you have them, and it's brief, you
better keep it going. It was different when I was in Riverdance.
You don't even see their faces under the stage lights," he says. "You're
only a small part of a big thing. In a pub, you can see the whites of their
eyes and you know when you lose them. You know that they're listening to
you and when you've taken them somewhere."
Also unlike the intensity of a show such as Riverdance, Byrne
and Beglan don't rehearse. "We don't dare organize it," he laughs. The
two have a set list, but it is more of a loose framework. They let the
audience guide the show. Byrne loops percussion and Gaelic chants on site,
which keeps the music real, as any mistake in recording the loop shows
up every four bars.
Over the loop, he plays the banjo or banjo-mandola, which has the body
of a cello but neck of a five-string banjo. Beglan either dances or syncopates
with his feet. Byrne loves to perform with him because "he brings a whole
bunch of energy I can't really describe that really gets the crowd going."
Byrne recently released his second CD, Seize the Moment, which
is getting airplay in 14 states. His inspiration was his family and Ireland.
"Some of the songs I write in a flood of emotions, like 'The Beautiful
Truth.' which I wrote when my daughter was born. That came in a matter
of hours. But other songs take years. You put them away in a little box
and come back to them," he explains.
Byrne's family also served as his sounding board. Kessler, who did the
paintings for his last CD cover, is "very honest and has a discerning ear.
She picks up on things I never would have thought of. And If I play something
and the kids do not jump about, itís not worth it. If they start to jiggle
and dance and sing, then it's worth keeping," he continues.
Most of Byrne's independent practice
occurs in his basement. He fondly refers to it as his "pit" or "dungeon,"
refusing to practice in something "as glamorous as a living room or a bedroom.
It's got to be unorganized and dirty, because that's where my music lives."
He and his family have traveled back to Ireland twice. His family there
has come to Milwaukee to visit several times, but he still misses his homeland.
"There is a certain pull that Ireland has. It's hard for anyone else
to understand the yearning when you come from there," he explains. Despite
his longing for Ireland, he is happy in Milwaukee. It has a strong Irish
presence with its pubs and community, as well as the world's largest Irish
It is home to both of his loves: his family and his music.