Ceili Rain-When Bagpipes Meet Rock and Roll

Matthew Turner
I had the privilege of being able to chat with Bob Halligen of the band Ceili Rain. You may not be aware of this band, but I believe one day you will be. This band is one of the most powerful live performers I have ever seen. Bob has written for everyone from Rebecca St. James to KISS to Michael Bolton.

Matt:Do you think that the idea of Ceili Rain was a rebellious stage against what your normal musical tastes were?

Ceili Rain: In a way, yes. I had gotten known for hard rock and heavy metal stuff and then I shifted into more mainstream pop stuff. Part of it also was revolting and rebelling against the idea that the conception of me as a songwriter for hire, which was something that I did as a well-paid hobby but never was emotionally committed to. I always, from an early age, wrote songs intending no one else would sing them but me, and loved the idea that others cared to and that it threw off some dollars. I was never a kid who would think, I wonder what it would be like if I wrote a song and Johnny Cash sang it? I learned at an early age, when I was in a local band in Upstate New York, that I was writing songs that were arguably more mass-market than other local bands were writing. Some of them started to learn the songs that I was writing, so I felt there was room based on my song craft to try to get other people to do the stuff but it wasnt anything that I grew up dreaming about. I always just wanted to sing the darn things myself.

Matt: What would you say has been the biggest challenge for Ceili Rain in the last six years?

Ceili Rain: Its been the slow, educational process of the music business and of the public, to what we are and what were trying to do. Thats because were essentially trying to create our own genre, Celtic, inflected, pop rock bands with a spiritual message that is from a Christian place but doesnt seek to exclude those of other walks. There really isnt any one else combining all those factors, so were not, strictly speaking, a Christian act, or a mainstream act, or a Celtic act, or a rock act, or a pop act. Much in the same way that the Police werent, strictly speaking, a reggae band, or a punk band, or a new wave band, or a pop group, or a rock group, they were the Police. And Santana wasnt, strictly speaking, a Latin group, or a jazz group, or a pop group, or a rock group. Theyve made Santana music.

Click here to purchase Ceili Rain's Erasers On Pencils.

Matt: Do you find it belittling when somebody refers to you as a Celtic-rock band?

Ceili Rain: No, I dont at all. Any press is good press, and if people find the name of your group on their lips, then thats good news. Do I try to avoid being ghettoized as a paddy band or as any of the other compartments that you could put us into? You bet. But am I offended when that takes place? No, because people are used to saying, What is this? Blues? Folk band? And things, more often than not, do fit fairly neatly. Is it an alternative-rock band? No, not really. There are aspects of what we do that are alternative, but our appeal is much different than that, its much broader than that and it isnt nearly as focused on the young, white people with ill-fitting trousers.

Matt: Do you find it frustrating to try and give the same energy on your albums as you give in a live performance?

Ceili Rain: No, I really feel that they are two different media and it may be at some point that it will work out that the two are more similar in effect. But a record is something that you have to live with forever. We made a live album just to show ourselves the difference between the two medias. There are things about the live album that are great, but there will always be things that the members of the band will cringe at. Its not a matter of perfection, its a matter of, this has to bear up under repeated scrutiny, and this album has to sound as good 20 years from now as it does today. So I really approach the making of a record as a totally different experience from a live show.

Matt: Your newest album seems happier than your last. Is it reflecting where the band is or where you are personally?

Ceili Rain: I wanted to make an album that was more of a rock album, and I wanted to make sure that the party aspect of what we do was securely in place. The only tune that runs counter to that is the final song, Junkyard, which I think is the best and the most important thing on the record, and there wasnt anywhere on the record but last where we could place it. I think that because its more of a rock album, it doesnt have as much of a delivery as the first album, there is less opportunity to view it as being pensive or as being thought-provoking.

Matt: The two main ideas in Gods Done Good are falling in love and having a child. When did you write this song?

Ceili Rain: Its pretty recent and is a completely un-fictionalized, which is unusual for me, autobiographical statement of joy and thanksgiving. Its the closest that Ceili Rain will probably come to a worship song. I like to have what songwriters like to call furniture in songs. Meaning having a lot of physical detail so that you can supply your own mental pictures for whats happening, rather than just baby, baby, I love you or oh Lord, I commit it to You, and I honor You, and I praise You. All of which isnt really anything you can hold on to; its all well and good but it doesnt give us any pictures. You can get more universal by being more and more specific, in the sense that, theres a universal statement of God is good, and God doesnt do crappy work, and God will always look after us if we only have the grace and the good sense to see it as that. But for me to just tell you that is whatever, but if I show it to you, if I show my life unfolding and how wonderful it is in my eyes and show you how thrilled I am about it, I think thats a lot more interesting and engaging and infectious than me preaching it at you and just trying to shove it down your throat. Its the idea of going to go see a movie, people are shown going through emotions, and in a great picture there are emotions that the audience can share in some deep way. And I think songs have the ability to have the same effect on people, but I think that there has to be a certain amount of movie in the song for one to be the audience of and observe. Otherwise it can just be preaching, and Im not saying that those things are bad, but for me its vastly less effective than just saying, Oh, heres what happened to me.

Matt: Where were you at spiritually when you wrote It only Tickles When You do It?

Ceili Rain: I dont know. So many people had really gotten on my case for not including that on my first album, so I thought just to take the pressure off, if nothing else, I put it on the new one. I love the song, its one of my favorites that Ive written. It just grew out of my son, after a lot of tickling, saying exactly as it is in the song, OK, daddy. Now you tickle yourself. I wanted to oblige him, but it doesnt work that way. Then it lead me to all that other stuff.

Matt: What is your favorite song on the record?

Ceili Rain: Junkyard is my favorite, a close second is, Life is a Polka. Junkyard is and has been the overwhelming fan favorite, I would say that about 80 percent of people who only talk about one song, talk about Junkyard. Which really blows my mind because on the first album it was more evenly distributed. There were three, or four, or five big favorites, but on this one, there are still three, or four, or five that get the most attention but overwhelmingly Junkyard is the one, and its blue-collar to white-collar, double digit IQ to intellectual, sensitive to non-sensitive, across the board. I think that it signifies that people realize that we arent doing ourselves any favors with the way that western society is conducted. While we are not great at disengaging from the lifestyle that were all into, like media violence, TV and movies, reading trashy stuff, pornography, giving into anger, all the ways that society functions, that we just assume are status quo and a part of the fabric of life and not to be changed. Its a vastly corrupted view of the message of Jesus and how He has asked us to live. The way that Americans, if we see something we like we just buy it, and there are people who dont have a left and a right shoe. Its my own reaction to the state of public consciousness and spirituality and in-touchness with the message of God. Im thrilled at the response its had so far.

Matt: Tell me about singing in Rome this past summer.

Ceili Rain: It was fabulous. I got a video of it, and other than that, Raymond was not in it very much for some crazy reason, it was a great documentation of the show. It was 100 degrees when we played and we were just hanging around all day just trying to be ready for it. We ended up playing four songs, which was more than most, we got five minutes more than most of the other groups because there were one or two who didnt show up, so while we were out there, they said, Play another one! I want to believe that it was partly because we were going over so well, too. We did go over incredibly well, we had about 30,000 kids and the most incredible setting, The Plaza of the People, it was about a mile from St. Peters Square. So we didnt play right in St. Peters Square, this square was maybe half the size, but still 30,000 didnt fill it, it was a gigantic area, and the architecture, the whole thing was mind blowing.

Matt: What was your set list?

Ceili Rain: We did The March In, Love Travels, Thats all the Lumber You Sent, You Than Me Than You Than Me, and then 666 Degrees. The kids were bouncing and rocking. Thirty thousand kids at the beginning going, You then me then you then me!

Matt: What are the plans for Ceili?

Ceili Rain: Were doing miscellaneous gigs, playing Kings Abound next year and hoping to play tons of the festivals next year. First single is a song called, Gods Done Good, which of course we know about, and that features Rebecca St. James on background vocals, and we believe that radio will find that aspect of it hooky and charming. Thrilled about Cross Driven and Providence. Theyve really embraced what we do, they understand that were outside of the box, they take us for what we are and they havent said anything about, Can you be a little more Christian? or Can your ministry be a little more self-evident? Its pretty clear to them whats happening, so much so that theres a sales conference Dec. 12 and were playing in Annapolis on the 11th at the Rams Head, but they want us to get back in a hurry and play at the sales conference and open the show. Thats the power of the live show that we can be used as a tool, a weapon for Providence to say, Look at what we got! To listen to the record you can perceive certain things about it but you cant gather from that record that its going to come out the way that it does on the stage.