Corr sisters: We don't believe in Jim's 9/11 conspiracy theories
As they release their first studio album in a decade, The Corrs tell John Meagher they still find musical harmony but don’t always agree on everything else
Sharon Corr fixes me with a steady gaze. "I'm not going to have a row with you," she says. "I suppose I think some things could be said a little more delicately. Maybe it was your tone. And it's probably come back in my tone."
I'm nearing the end of my time with the three Corr sisters and I'm trying to explain to them why I asked a particular question of Andrea earlier that seemed to upset Sharon. After more than a decade since their last album, and in a world where people just don't buy music in anything like the sort of qualities they once did, would there still be a market for The Corrs' Celtic-fuelled pop?
Despite their annoyance, I certainly wasn't trying to rile them when I remarked to Andrea: "You released two solo albums, but they didn't sell that well back home…"
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Sharon grimacing at the question and shaking her head at Caroline. "Oh wow," she said quietly. "Don't you just love Irish interviews?"
"I don't mind it," Andrea says of the album sales, in a tone that was somewhat less than convincing. "The four of us is very much the four of us together. That record is a very different record to a Corrs record. The songs I wrote myself, produced by Nellie Hooper (who made his name working with the very unCorr-like Bjork) - it was purposely difficult. I didn't want to be The Corrs. If I did, I'd do it with my family. I can't emulate it on my own. I don't really know how to answer it." Caroline pipes up: "Statistically, it doesn't really happen (where lead singers sell as much as their bands when they go solo). If you look at it, the units they sell. It's a completely different thing. You have artists that break through sometimes - people like Robbie Williams…"
Andrea interrupts her: "But when you say that it's like that was my agenda." I'm not sure if she's addressing me or Caroline. I say I'm not trying to provoke a reaction. "Really?" Sharon replies. "You got one."
I certainly did. There was validity to the question, though, not least - and I don't verbalise this to them - because the lead singer of one of Ireland's biggest selling bands ever managed to limp to just 40th in the Irish album chart with her second album, Lifelines, in 2011.
"All I'm saying is that I didn't make a record to sell like I'd sold with my family," Andrea says. "I made a record of songs I had written. To be honest, I'm not a very ambitious person in the first place."
Really? There's a note of incredulity in my voice. "I don't mind if you want to think I am," Andrea counters. "I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it (ambition). But it was never: 'We have to sell anything'. That's not in my nature. My ambition was to make a record of songs that I was happy with, and I am very happy with that record and I'll always be very happy with it."
"As Caroline pointed out," Sharon says. "That happens 99% of the time. When Mick Jagger releases a solo album it doesn't sell anything like the Stones and nor will it ever."
"That doesn't mean that they shouldn't make records," Andrea adds, "or that they're not valid."
Sharon picks up the thread: "It's not why people make records. I feel you're a little lost in the commercialism of it and forgetting why people make records. The reason you make a record is you are on your own or with a group of people. The fundamental has to sit there. Any one of us thinking we could get into competition with The Corrs is insane."
Sharon certainly knows what she's talking about - she also released two solo albums, the most recent in 2013, that failed to light up the charts. Whether it will be a different story for the family's first collaborative studio album in a decade will become clear in the next few weeks.
White Light was released yesterday and it's the reason that I meet the sisters in the bedroom of a fine suite in a hotel in Kensington, London. They've just come from a photoshoot in the next room and the huge double bed is littered with dresses and hangers and styling tongs and make-up bags.
Andrea is first in and she motions to the circular day-bed in the corner, wrapping a black scarf over the plunging neckline of the dress the stylist has chosen for her. Sharon and Caroline pull up a pair of chairs. They're also wearing short, fitted dresses that accentuate how remarkably slim they all are. I'm struck by how little they appear to have changed since their last album was released in 2004. Every one of the Corr sisters would turn heads in 2015, much like they did when they first emerged in the 1990s from Dundalk.
It's worth remembering just how huge The Corrs were. In their late-1990s heyday they were selling millions of albums and enjoying huge international hits, including a cover of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams, which appeared to be ubiquitous on radio in 1998.
Their second album, Talk On Corners, is the most successful Irish album in UK chart history, shifting more than even U2's bestseller The Joshua Tree did.
After years out of the spotlight, in June this year they announced a comeback show and subsequent album. The resulting concert in London's Hyde Park was well received.
White Light was only completed last month, and it's unmistakably a Corrs album thanks to Andrea's singing and Sharon's trademark fiddle.
Sharon, the oldest, is 45, Caroline is 42 and Andrea is 41. All three are mothers, and there are seven children between them. Brother Jim (51) - elsewhere in the hotel - has a child too. Parenthood was one of the reasons why the siblings didn't reform for so long. "You can't put a calendar on kids and say we'll all have them at the same time," Sharon says.
"When we stopped, we'd been on the road for almost 20 years. We started recording when Andrea was 16, so we stopped in 2004 and felt we had achieved way beyond our wildest dreams.
"It was time to get our own individual lives and our family lives on track. I know I certainly wanted to have children. Caroline, you were on your second child and we were still gigging. So it was definitely time to come off the road and give the focus to the children, and in the intervening years we've had eight children between us at different phases."
Being a parent also played its part when it came to the recording of their new album. "Everybody came to London and made it easy for me because my children are the youngest, and we worked one week on and one week off," says Andrea, who lives in the city with her husband Brett Desmond - son of billionaire businessman Dermot Desmond - and their two children, Jean (3, named after Andrea's late mother) and Brett jnr (1). Sharon is married to Belfast-born barrister Gavin Bonner and the couple's children are Cathal (9) and Flori (7).
Caroline's husband is property developer Frank Woods, and they have three children - Jake (12), Georgina (10) and Rihann (8).
Jim has a son Brandon (8) from his relationship with former Miss Ireland Gayle Williamson.
"But because of our other lives - our domestic lives - we really used the time together constructively," Andrea continues.
"And we had to, because I would clock off to run home to bathe my kids and put them to bed."
It was Caroline who was instrumental in getting the siblings to play together again. "Each of us were missing it," Andrea says, "but Caroline particularly and it was she who suggested: 'Why don't we try? Why don't we get together and see if there's anything between us?'
"So we did, but we did it completely off the radar - nobody knowing anything about it. If we'd come together and nothing would have happened, nobody would be any the wiser and we wouldn't be here now.
"As we all write, we all came together with each of the ideas we had over that time, and from the first session, Ellis Island and Straight Romance began, and it was: 'Oh, we can still do it: there is something in this'."
In April of this year the siblings' father Gerry died after a short illness. They paid an emotional tribute to him during the funeral, in which Sharon read a poem written by her father recalling his courtship with their beloved mother, who died in 1999 at the age of 57. She had been suffering from a rare lung disease.
"We had already been in the studio and written a lot of songs," Sharon says, "and then Dad passed and it was a great comfort that we were together that much and we were able to help each other through it.
"When you're grieving and you see your sisters and your brother grieving, you don't feel alone or you don't feel that you're going crazy.
"It was a total shock for all of us, but if ever there was a time when he was comfortable enough to go it was probably then, when we were all back together, because that's what really made him happy. He loved seeing us together doing what he thought we were best at."
Their dad inspired a number of songs on the album, according to Andrea. With Me Stay is about him, the loss of him," she says. "Also, Bring On The Night, the first single, is about loss. (Instrumental track) Gerry's Reel has this defiance in it, and that's what we loved about it when we were writing it. It's not melancholy, it's not mourning: it's celebration. Daddy was a great walker - and I pretty much picture him walking to this."
Gerry Corr was an important sounding board for his children when it came to music and matters relating to the band.
Now any disputes - and Andrea points out that like any family, they have some of those - are settled by their long-term manager John Hughes. I meet the Louth man in the lobby of the hotel and he cuts a gregarious figure - he could, and does, talk for Ireland.
The three are unanimous in pointing out that there's no 'leader' of the band.
"Do you know what?" Sharon asks, "if there was a leader, there wouldn't be a band."
"We have different strengths that we will look to each other for," Caroline adds. "It just doesn't work for us and it never has worked for us. Jim is the eldest but" - here she breaks into the warmest laugh - "he is outnumbered by the rest of us."
"Sometimes, leadership is wonderful," Andrea says, "but because we are a family it doesn't work. We sit down if there are disputes, and if three agree we go with that. And if it's split, we go to our manager."
Jim is the only Corr who still lives in Ireland. Like Andrea, Caroline is based in the UK - in the heart of rural Somerset - while Sharon lives in Spain.
I joke that some readers will wonder what they have got against Ireland.
"Absolutely nothing," Sharon says, with just a hint of irritation in her voice. "Only I love being in new places. I lived in both southern Ireland and Northern Ireland. Irish people get kind of defensive when you don't live in Ireland. Your response was: 'What's wrong with Ireland?'"
I'm beginning to understand why Sharon was selected as a judge on The Voice of Ireland. There's an edge to her. Even a seemingly innocuous suggestion that the new album sounds like The Corrs of old, only slightly different, is met with a sharp response. "We never designed what The Corrs would sound like," Sharon says. "It was the chemistry of the four of us singing together. People can smell the lack of truth when it's there. This is a very commercial world we live in, and it's a very cynical one too. As a journalist, I'm sure you strive for absolute integrity in your article - that's what we strive for too."
During their first coming The Corrs were noted for their wholesome image, and anyone digging for dirt would have found nothing. But when they went their separate ways Jim attracted headlines due to his conspiracy theorist views around 9/11. He seemed unapologetic at the time.
"We feel it's perfectly natural that you would bring (Jim's controversial past) up because he has put his opinions out there," Sharon says. "But just because we're a family doesn't mean we think the same way all the time. People whitewashed us with this idea that you must all have the same idea. That's a bonkers idea.
"We love him so dearly and also respect his right to not be censored and to have his own opinions. Also, I think people should know they're not opinions held by each member of the band."
"I did an interview with Gay Byrne on The Meaning of Life," Andrea says, "and it was probably one of the first times one of us was asked about Jim publicly, and I had to answer. I remember saying to Gay that it was a pity that one person's opinion meant we all thought the same, and Gay said: 'No, I don't think they do'. And I thought that was wonderful and made me realise that maybe people didn't think we all shared those views."
"We disagree with each other like mates would disagree," Caroline adds. "I think that's healthier than constantly agreeing with each other. When you love the people around you, you say what you think. Jim is entitled to have his opinions about stuff, and if you put (controversial) stuff out there, you have to be willing to put up with the criticism. If I put myself out there, I have to be willing to take the criticism."
Andrea points out that criticism doesn't just come with having Jim's views, but by simply getting back together again and making music.
"You surrender your anonymity and you do leave yourself vulnerable for criticism for any Joe Soap to have an opinion about your music," she says. "You do surrender that, but doing music makes that worthwhile. I'm willing to surrender anonymity and even leave yourself open to criticism or begrudgery or anything like that for the music."
My time is up and Andrea has to high-tail it out of the hotel to get back to her kids.
She seems relieved when I finally turn the tape off. "It's been emotional," she jokes. Or at least I think she's joking.
The Corrs play the SSE Arena in Belfast on January 29, 2016