The world needs more romantics … which is another way of saying, the world needs to meet Keith Harkin.
Born in County Derry, the handsome young Northern Irishman has traveled far and wide in search of the perfect wave and the perfect inspiration for his next song. With surfboard and guitar as his essentials, Harkin has entertained throughout Europe, Australia and North America. His disarming charm has won over countless audiences. Whether singing or sharing stories, there’s always a smile in his voice.
And, judging from his songs, he has sampled the fruits of love, suffered its heartbreak and then shaken it off as he heads toward the next, nearest horizon.
On his new album, On Mercy Street, Harkin sings of yearning on “Mercy,” loneliness on “September Sessions,” of separation and the promise of coming home on “Wait On Me” and, in true romantic fashion, the blossom of new love on “First Time.” His sound draws from that place where Matt Nathanson, Van Morrison, maybe a bit of Zac Brown and Joni Mitchell meet — that sweet spot between adult pop and new country.
Where do life and art meet in Keith Harkin’s life? When asked, he laughs and answers, “I would like to say yes, I am a romantic. When I look back at the songs I wrote when I was 16 or 18, when I was growing up and confused and trying to work out where life is going, I tried to make them all as romantic as I could.
“But,” he adds, “when I was 19 or 20, my songs were all about surfing, which was where my head was at. So I guess you could say that my songs have always been true to who I am.”
The obvious next question is: Who is Keith Harkin? For the thousands throughout the world who have witnessed “Celtic Thunder,” the spectacular musical celebration of Irish song and culture, he’s the eye-catching blond whose voice and stage presence stood him out even in the large ensemble. The those few who may have been at the Rialto in Derry City one special night some time ago, he was the precocious 4-year-old who stole the variety show with his rendition of “Mrs. Jenny Wren.” For many others, he’s simply a friend, a good guy to hang with at a seaside pub after a day spent riding waves along Ireland’s Atlantic coast.
With On Mercy Street, thousands more will get to know Harkin as a gifted writer and expressive vocalist, whose musical heroes are both soulful and unpretentious. On the album’s 12 songs he tracks live in London’s Sphere Studios with a group of musicians he knows primarily as friends of longstanding. Their sound is immediate. Every note is played and sung in real time. The camaraderie they share is evident — and, truth be told, fueled by by a wee bit of liquid encouragement.
“We would all laugh for a minute and maybe have a beer between songs,” Harkin recalls. “It was very relaxed. I grew up listening to Van Morrison, The Band, Neil Young, Glen Campbell, The Beatles … and they all recorded with everyone in one room at the same time. When everyone is playing together, I’m 100 percent certain there’s an extra soul in the room too. That’s what I wanted this album to be. There’s no click. Three or four songs here are literally the only take in existence.:
He pauses to run the numbers in his head and then continues. “Between my own records, Celtic Thunder and other projects, I’ve recorded more than 20 albums, maybe two a year since I started being a musician 10 years ago. And I’ve never had as much fun in the studio as I did on this one. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
It’s worth noting that for all the immediacy of On Mercy Street, its appealing rough edges and spontaneity, Harkin brings a lifetime of experience into his sessions and onto the stage. Skilled on guitar and piano, he has performed on festival stages in the U.K., recorded with a 60-piece orchestra on his self-titled debut album with Grammy winner David Foster producing, and starred on the BBC Irish-language program Dha Theanga, whose music he also wrote and arranged. His solo concerts moved BBC Radio Ulster to hail him as the “Irish Jack Johnson.”
This combination of technical assurance and emotional candor make On Mercy Street a milestone not just in Harkin’s career but in the broader realm of contemporary releases. Its hard-rocking showpiece, “Keep On Rolling,” rockets along at a breakneck pace before smashing amiably into a brick wall at the end — but only after Harkin adds some Irish seasoning with a penny whistle solo. On the opposite end of the scale, he recorded “Risk The Fall,” a meditation on the pain that can cut through love’s ecstasies, accompanied only by its composer, Patrick Murdoch, on acoustic guitar. They faced one another, recording into a single microphone positioned between them, each in his way bringing to life the truth of its refrain: “It’s hard to make sense of it all, I didn’t mean to get this high, but I’d risk the fall any day.”
The album ends intriguingly with Harkin’s interpretation of “Auld Lang Syne.” “Obviously, everyone knows this song, but I think it’s wasted when everyone sings it too fast and too drunk once a year,” Harkin says. “On my tour just before Christmas, when we did 58 shows in 65 days across America, I would slow it down so people could actually hear the words. It’s about friendship, perhaps sitting down and being together. There wasn’t one night when we played it that people weren’t crying in the audience. That’s why I put it at the end of the album, so you can listen and think and maybe reminisce.”
With that final bow, On Mercy Street completes its picture of an artist for whom his art is part of, not separate from, his life, and whose songs are destined to become part of many other lives as well.
“I love music” he insists. “But I also love building cars. I build camper vans. I love to surf. I love old trucks. I love hanging with my friends, writing music and having a beer or two. It’s just that the thing I know how to do best is to sing and entertain. And that’s what I love the most.”