'I sang at Daddy's funeral... it was so hard and at the very last note on the very last song I totally fell apart'
Ahead of the launch of her new album, Londonderry-born soprano Margaret Keys tells Leona O'Neill how she watched as her doctor sister tried to revive their dying father and why there is one song which she still finds difficult to perform
She is the Northern Irish classical soprano who dazzles on the world stage, charming everyone from Rod Stewart to the Pope with her angelic voice and distinctly warm and humorous style. And now Londonderry-born Margaret Keys, the Universal-signed classical recording artist, is set to launch her latest album, The Gift Of Music, before going back on tour with Russell Watson.
With a whole host of songs, arranged for her by the man behind Sarah Brightman's music, the 34-year-old says the album has a very special place in her heart, as it is dedicated to her father, who passed away in 2014.
"I love the new album," she says. "There are 18 tracks on it and it was recorded in Prague with the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the full 70-piece orchestra. It was wonderful to get the opportunity to work with so many professional musicians. It was recorded in Prague's Smecky Studios. The orchestra had to learn some new music, because I have some Irish songs in there, some classical, some Rodgers and Hammerstein and there are even Phil Coulter and Billy Joel songs on the album. All the songs were specifically arranged for me by Paul Bateman, who arranges for Sarah Brightman, and he conducted the full orchestra. He was a great guide, and talked me through how we were going to put a different slant to it, the Margaret Keys way to these songs."
And among the songs there is one which Margaret says is still very hard to perform in public. Phil Coulter's The Old Man, which she dedicated to her dad Bill, who died suddenly in 2014, aged 67.
"My daddy died very suddenly," she says. "I was on my way home. I had just flown into Belfast and was just outside Derry when I got a phone call to say that Daddy had gone to the shop for a pint of milk and that he had collapsed. My sister is a doctor and she was working on him there in the shop. So I got there and it was very, very hard to watch.
"I think that since this has happened, I look at life differently. We are all going to die, no one is getting out of here alive, and I know other friends who have watched people they love suffer. I don't know how good I would be at coping with watching someone I love suffer and become a different person. I know my dad was so full of life and so jolly, that he wouldn't have liked to suffer with illness.
"His death was terrible. It was such a shock. We'll never get over it and we miss him every day. But I think sometimes that's how I deal with it, knowing that he had a great life and he died as he lived, and he didn't suffer. We definitely suffered, but you have to turn it around and get a bit more positive, because I think that's sometimes the only way you can cope with loss."
Margaret says she will always be proud of the fact that she was able to sing one final time for her father, who was a constant support to her as she progressed in her career.
"I sang at Daddy's funeral," she says. "At the wake we were discussing the music and I knew that I was going to do that for him. I thought to myself, Daddy would want me to do it. I kept thinking about what he would want, what songs he would want, which ones he loved and that was basically what held me together. I sang throughout the Mass for him. It was very hard. And at the very last note, on the very last song I totally fell apart. But I am only human."
Margaret says she has dedicated one special song on her new album to her father.
"The whole album is dedicated to my dad and my family," she says. "I knew that I wanted some sort of reference in there about my relationship with my dad. So I have Phil Coulter's The Old Man on the album, for him. I knew the song and to me the words just rang true. He sings 'the tears have all been shed now, we've said our last goodbye, but I will never forget him, for he made me who I am'. And I just thought that that was basically me and dad. We had to change a few of the lyrics because obviously Phil wrote it for himself, for his own father and it was a song for a father from his son.
"I sang it for the first time at an arts festival in Manchester last week. And the audience had never heard it before. There were tears. I was looking out and seeing the biggest, strongest men in the audience and they were crying. And that's the impact that I want, as long as I can keep it together. I think I have sung it enough now. Initially I couldn't sing it, I found it very difficult. But I think I have performed it enough now that it has become more of a celebration than a sadness. I think you get to that point as a performer when you have to cross that bridge. You have to sing it enough in private before going out to the public with it because you don't want to break down."
And Margaret says she feels her father's spirit with her every time she goes out on stage. And that he gives her a little courage when that stage happens to be at New York's Carnegie Hall or the Vatican.
"I feel him with me all the time," she says. "I do pray to him. Whatever I'm doing I ask him to help me get through it. In bigger moments like singing at Carnegie Hall or performing for the Pope I'm wanting to feel something, even if it is just for him to see me through it. Before I went on stage on those occasions I said a little 'come on Dad, help me with this'.
"I remember my dad saying that he was proud of all his children because of all our different things. I want to keep making him proud."
Margaret, who left her job as a primary school teacher to pursue a professional singing career, says her work is hard at times, but worth every minute.
"I just love my work and I'm really lucky that I can call it a job," she says. "Not everyone can wake up in the morning and say that they love what they do.
"Don't get me wrong, there are moments when it is stressful. But it is all worth it when I realise the work I've put in and I'm singing pieces that I've always dreamt about performing.
"The work is hard and it's not all glamour. A lot of people see the glamorous side to it. But they don't see that I'm up to 2am doing Skype interviews for broadcasts, or learning repertoire, a lot of travelling and a lot of time away from the family. That's the side of life that not everyone sees, but it's hard work."
But it's not all hard work. Margaret moves in celebrity circles and has worked with everyone from Andrea Bocelli to Anton du Beke.
"I suppose they are celebrities," she says. "I see them as working colleagues. I've worked with Rod Stewart, Anton du Beke, Michael Crawford, Russell Watson, Alfie Boe, Andrea Bocelli and the Pope, among many others.
"Meeting the Pope was really lovely. We were all lined up and I looked around and there was Aretha Franklin on one side of me and Andrea Bocelli on the other and wondered how I had ended up here.
"I've worked with Rod Stewart also, which was great," she says. "I did a carol show at Christmas and Rod's wife Penny is very involved in a charity that I work with called Chain of Hope. So I was singing at the event and Penny was doing readings and Rod was doing things also. I sang 'O Holy Night' and a few other songs with the piano and after the concert he said to me that he couldn't have done what I just did, sing just with the piano. Coming from a classical background, to me that wasn't anything unusual. But he was used to the full band and the lights and the big stage. He said that was a talent. And coming from a legend such as him that meant a lot.
"When we launch the album here in Northern Ireland, we'll go to London and launch it there," she says.
"Then I will continue the tour with Russell Watson. The tour has been amazing. It's great to get an insight from him on what audiences really like. Russell has been in the industry for a long time. I'm learning a lot from him and from his audiences about the kind of music they like, even down to the repertoire that they want to hear.
"It's been a real learning curve for me. It's great fun, because he is really good craic.
"I think that is really important, when you are on tour with someone, it has to be fun."
Margaret's album The Gift of Music with Universal Tadlow Classics is out on June 22 and will be launched in Derry's Waterside Theatre on June 23 and in London the week after. For more information on how to purchase the album and tour tickets log on to www.margaretkeys.co.uk