Called Canada’s finest singer-songwriter by one of the most respected music journalists of the last 50 years, James Keelaghan is an artist who has proven to be a man for all seasons.
As the calendar pages have turned, for almost a quarter of a century now, this poet laureate of the folk and roots music world has gone about his work with a combination of passion, curiosity intent and intensity.
His masterful story telling has, over the course of nine recordings, been part of the bedrock of his success, earning Keelaghan nominations and awards - including a Juno (Canada's Grammy) - and acclaim from Australia to Scandinavia.
Possessed of an insatiable appetite for finding the next unique story line, Keelaghan forges his pieces with brilliant craftsmanship and monogrammed artistic vision, making him one of the most distinctive and readily identifiable voices on both the Canadian and international singer-songwriter scenes.
His journey has attracted fans of literate and layered songwriting to join him on his artistic expeditions, some of which weave their way through marvelously etched historical stories with underlying universal themes, others of which mine the depths of the soul and the emotional trails of human relations.
His songbook has enlightened, enthralled, and been embraced, by audiences around the world.
"I’ve always had the urge to write," says the Calgary native who has been calling Winnipeg home for the past few years. "Some things weren’t being said in the way I wanted to say them, some thing were not being written about at all. That's why i started to write the historical material. That led me to writing my own personal narratives as well.”
Keelaghan is a disciplined visionary with several aces up his sleeve. He loves language and history, a subject in which he earned a degree; he is a skilled thespian, which explains his ability to make an immediate connection with a live audience; and he has an ear for memorable melodies and harmonies that make those melodies glisten.
Says Keelaghan, “I’m good for 80 or so books a year, mostly history and non-fiction, but inspiration can come in many forms. I’m always on the lookout for a good story or idea. My sister told me the story that became Kiri’s Piano, a song that visits a dark chapter in Canadian history: Japanese interment camps in the Second World War. The image of someone sacrificing their prized possession in order to maintain their dignity was too powerful to ignore."
Not only does Keelaghan lay claim to a deep catalogue of timeless originals like Kiri's Piano, Fires of Calais, Cold Missouri Waters, Jenny Bryce, and Hillcrest Mine, he is also a possessive interpreter of outside material, a fine example being his gripping take on Gordon Lightfoot’s epic Canadian Railroad Trilogy from the Lighfoot tribute disc Beautiful. There are also a number of illustrations of his interpretive skills on his 2006 recording A Few Simple Verses, an homage to his roots in traditional music. The closing tune on that spellbinding set, My Blood, written with Jez Lowe, is one of many examples from Keelaghan’s career of his inviting collaboration into his creative process.
“I was at the Celtic Colors Festival in 2008," says Keelaghan, "and the producers locked six of us in a house for a week, and the company included Dave Gunning, David Francey, and Rose Cousins, it was an amazing experience. At the end of it, we had enough material for a complete show.“
Keelaghan has never shied away from collaboration in his live and recorded performances, touring and tracking with master musicians like Oliver Schroer, Oscar Lopez and Hugh McMillan. "If you work with people who are better than you, you become better," he observes.
The sparks of collaboration and the batting of melodies back and forth have produced some wonderful results, says Keelaghan, who is always finding a balance between examining the lighter and heavier sides of life. He ties it all together with a powerful vocal delivery and a commanding stage presence.
Admiration and respect for his work amongst his peers is reflected in the words of David Francey who recently stated that “James Keelaghan is a voice in contemporary Canadian songwriting that has helped us define who we are as a people. He writes with great humanity and honesty, with an eye to the past and a vision of the future. He has chronicled his times with powerful and abiding songs, with heart and eyes wide open.”
Terry Wickham, the producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, is one of many longtime admirers of Keelaghan’s music, and he sums up the artists appeal by saying, “James has become the complete artist. A brilliant tunesmith who has become one of the most engaging performers of our time. You always know the journey with James is going to be great, you just never know what all the destinations are. That is why the curve on his career continues to rise.”
It was Dave Marsh, the award-winning American music critic and historian who not so long ago stated that James Keelaghan is “Canada’s finest songwriter.” Those few but powerful words of praise say it all about an artist who continues to set the bar at a lofty height.
Also see James Keelaghan on Sonic Bids.