Straight To The People: A Conversation With Keith Harkin

Keith Harkin is a man on the run.

The 31-year-old Irish singer/songwriter, who came to national prominence as a member of the Irish singing group Celtic Thunder, has been busy building his name as a solo act since departing the renowned act in 2016.

It’s been a straight and steady climb, and Harkin has done his share of the heavy lifting, performing when and where he can in between photo shoots, writing and creating music, press duties, and a myriad of things, all with the hopes that one day, Keith Harkin the solo act will become a household name and a man in demand on his own merit.

In other words, a man on the run.

But despite his continued progress, Harkin refuses to rest on his laurels. Following last year’s sold-out Christmas House Concert Tour, Harkin is once again embarking on this holiday fan favorite this year from Nov. 19 – Dec. 22, including a stop in Des Moines on Nov. 30. The Christmas House Tour performances give fans the unique experience of seeing Harkin perform acoustically inside one lucky person’s home, up close, intimate and personal. Tickets are limited to 50 per show, and fans can check out for more information on each show and to purchase tickets.

Additionally, Harkin is also set to release a live, acoustic album, “In the Round,” on Dec. 8 on Blue Elan Records, which was recorded and filmed this past summer at Full Circle in Venice Beach, California. The concert and interview segments will be released on DVD in March of 2018. Harkin took a breather from a recent photo shoot to speak with ListenIowa about the Christmas tour, meeting a famous old man in a thrift store in California, and an upcoming punk rock project that he’s been looking forward to for years.

You’re in Des Moines on Nov. 30 as part of Christmas House Tour, which you actually go into a fan’s home and play a small, intimate concert. That’s a unique idea.
We came up with the concept last year actually. I just wanted to make it super special for the hardcore fans. I grew up playing music at parties, and they’re the funnest memories, the impromptu thing. Basically, we asked our street team to find fans’ homes for parties all across the country. We picked the best places that had the most space, the best parking, and that people could get to. We only do 50 tickets per show, and with that, we’re giving beer and wine for the people over 21, snacks, and do a full concert, a full meet and greet, the whole experience. The atmosphere is just killer.

How does a fan get you to their house anyway?
It was a lot of work at the start. The fan club put it out there, and basically we had to go through a million e-mails with pictures of houses, and worked out where we could put a stage in someone’s living room.

Does your set consist entirely of Christmas songs?
There are other songs in there, too. Last year, I had a Christmas album called “Nollaig,” which went to No. 1 on the Billboard World Chart, and this year we’ve got a new album called “In The Round,” which is acoustic versions of things I’ve done in the past. So what we’re going to be doing is a combination of those records. It’s going to be a collection of everything.

You must somewhat of a Christmas fan yourself to do something like this two years in a row.
Yeah, I am a Christmas fan, but I’m not a massive Christmas fan of the songs that are all tinsel and snow. I’m more of a fan of the obscure Christmas songs like Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and I do “Auld Lang Syne,” but the old Scottish version. We do “2,000 Miles” by the Pretenders — the cool old stuff. And that’s not to say the other stuff isn’t cool as well, but this is just the stuff I prefer and do the best.

And you’re doing the audience’s ears a favor because some of the usual Chistmas songs get played 5,000 times on radio and in stores and everywhere. It’s nice just to hear something different, or a different version.
Yeah, we just do them in a rootsy kind of way. I’m actually on drums and percussion a lot this time. There’s a folksy vibe to it, definitely not a whole orchestra playing strings and Christmas bells. It’s cool.

You’re very much involved from top to bottom in this tour, then.
Oh, yeah. I’m not afraid of work. I’ve got good roadies and crew there, but I don’t like to watch guys work. I’ve worked my whole life. My parents were blue collar workers, and I’ve never been one to just sit there. I just finished a tour of Canada of 12,000 miles, and I drove every single mile, in a van, over two months.

You’ve gone from Celtic Thunder with other performers, big stages, big audiences, and now you’re back at the street level, so to speak. Those are two entirely different worlds you were, and are, operating in.
Way before Celtic Thunder, I was doing the same thing. I never joined Celtic Thunder to be part of a big group; it just kind of happened, and I learned a multitude of things that have played to my advantage in this industry. But I love working. I love being on the road, playing music and hanging out.

“In the Round” will be out in December, and it’s a live record. Why put out a live recording at this point in your career?
Over the years, people have seen me in Celtic Thunder and seen the guy with the suit and tie on, clean cut, and there was already a band playing the music. A lot of people didn’t even know that, while I was in Celtic Thunder, I wrote a lot of songs, and most people didn’t know I could play an instrument, let alone several. So when I signed with my new record company, they really wanted people to see what I do live, so we packed our gear up and went to an old church in Venice Beach in California, and we filmed everything in three days. The DVD from that will be released in March of 2018. The CD from that will be available in December.

That’s impressive that you were able to capture that in that short amount of time. Was it because you wanted maintain the live “feel” of the moment, warts and all?
Yeah. What you hear is what it is. A lot of music you hear nowadays, it isn’t live; it’s been recorded two or three times, from two or three nights, and they take the best and put it together. I’m not a fan of that. The music I grew up listening to, that’s not how it was made. Music that stood the test of time — like all of the good old stuff — wasn’t made like that, so I refuse to do it like that. We had a good time in this old church. We had a bunch of people in there, and we just pressed “record.”

That will be a treat for music aficionados who truly appreciate music, keeping it real like that and delivering a product that really is live.
I think it will be appreciated by the aficionados and those who understand music, but I also hope that, in the long run, people will start seeing that a lot of this other music is — and I hate to use the term “not music,” — but it’s not how music actually sounds. I look at a lot of these videos on YouTube or Instagram, and you see these people saying, “Oh, we just recorded this live in our bedroom or our living room,” and I hear it, and know that it really took two weeks to record. Sadly, what it does for people who don’t understand music is it makes them think that that is what music sounds like. And it doesn’t. That’s not real. For me, if people appreciate it, that’s a bonus. I just want to keep it real. I’m a massive music fan myself, and I’ll never jeopardize it just to make it look cool.

You teamed up with Jack Tempchin (best known as the writer of the Eagles’ hit “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) for a couple of songs on this album, too. How did that come about?
I met Jack in a thrift store in Ensenada. (laughs) I met this guy — I didn’t catch his name — and he was cool, and we just go to talking, and a week later we were backstage at a blues festival, and Zac Brown Band was playing. I saw a bunch of people standing and talking to this old guy that looked like the one I met at Ensenada. So I walk up to him, and said, “Hey, how is it going.” Then someone introduced us, and he goes, “Hey, I remember you, kid. You’re the kid from the shop.” Turns out his name is Jack Tempchin, the Eagles songwriter. In my drunken haze, all I had was a sticker that said “Keith Harkin,” so I gave him my sticker. (laughs) But we eventually got together and wrote some songs. I did a song on his last record, and since then, we’ve been good friends. Now we’re label buddies, and I’m in contact with him every other week. He’s a real sweetheart of a man.

You’ve also included your version of the old traditional Irish song, “Whiskey In the Jar” on the album. Assuming you’ve heard the Metallica and Thin Lizzy versions of the tune, which do you prefer?
I grew up listening to Thin Lizzy and also Rory Gallagher. Anything Thin Lizzy, I’m pretty much a fan of.

Looking down the road past these projects, what’s next for you?
In March, the live DVD will be released, then I’m going to be recording a new record next year, too. It’s already written, and I just have to get into a studio to record it. I’m doing a big tour from May through June, then some festivals during the summer as well. And I’m actually working on another project right now called The Black Irish, which is Irish punk rock. I’m in it with a few guys from Ireland who are in big bands and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. If you’re a Flogging Molly Fan, or Dropkick Murphys, or Thin Lizzy, with Irish vibes going on, it’s right up that street. That will be next year. I don’t know when I’m going to get time to breathe. (laughs)

2017 Keith Harkin Christmas House Concert Tour:
November 19 Carlsbad, CA
November 25 Houston, TX
November 26 Dallas, TX
November 27 Dallas, TX
November 28 Tulsa, OK
November 29 Kansas City, MO
November 30 Des Moines, IA
December 1 Minneapolis, MN
December 2 McHenry, IL
December 3 McHenry, IL
December 4 Cleveland, OH
December 6 Lebanon, PA
December 7 Stroudsburg, PA
December 8 Tomkins Cove, NY
December 9 Philadelphia, PA
December 10 Baltimore, MD
December 11 Charlotte, NC
December 12 Atlanta, GA
December 14 Tampa, FL
December 18 Los Angeles, CA
December 19 Los Angeles, CA
December 20 Seattle, WA
December 21 Bellingham, WA
December 22 Vancouver, WA