Chart-making Derry singer Margaret Keys on the 'gift ' of music
Lorraine Wylie chats to acclaimed singer Margaret Keys from Derry about her journey from teacher to record-breaking classical crooner
DERRY girl Margaret Keys started out as a primary school teacher. But four years later, she decided to swap the classroom for the stage and try her luck in the music industry.
Suddenly, instead of a room filled with school kids she was performing to audiences of over 35,000. Released in June this year, her current album The Gift of Music reached number two in the classical album charts, making Margaret the only Irish artist to accomplish such a feat.
Last week, I caught up with her and she told me about her journey to stardom and the lessons she’s learned along the way.
"In 2015, I had the privilege of being among the artists invited to sing for Pope Francis, which was a really lovely experience," she says in her soft Derry accent.
"But I remember looking over and seeing Aretha Franklin on one side of me and Andrea Bocelli on the other and thinking 'how on earth did I end up here?'."
As for how Margaret developed her passion for classical music, she admits that "there are no professionally trained musicians in our family – but we all loved music."
"My grandparents lived next door and they loved all the big musicals. My grandmother was a great singer. I’d go in and find my granda sitting with his ‘wireless’ listening to stars like Doris Day or Mario Lanza.
"Those were the sounds that influenced me growing up. As a teenager, I wasn’t into pop. I loved people like Julie Andrews and musicals like The King and I.”
And what does she like to listen to today?
"I’d have to say one of my favourite songs is La Vie En Rose [Edith Piaf], but I think it depends on the mood I’m in."
Even as a young girl, it was obvious that Margaret had an incredible voice. At 15 she was awarded the Trinity College of Music London Medal for best overall singer in her music exams.
She also holds a Master’s Degree in Singing and Performance as well as degree in Music Education.
"I really enjoyed teaching," she says.
"Everyone can benefit from music but I found it helped children in many ways, even in a social aspect or if they were particularly anxious about something.
"Learning through rote is simply giving something a beat or rhythm and, for many children, it makes it easier. In fact, I learned a word today that I’d never heard before but it seems very appropriate – 'educain'.
"I think it means to educate and entertain at the same time. To me that’s a good way to teach. That’s how I’d describe my involvement with the Sick Children Trust. I engage with a lot of sick kids through music.
"I mean, music helps kids who are ill. It transports them to another world where, for a little while, they can forget their worries.”
Margaret's association with The Sick Children’s Trust began in 2015 when she was invited to perform at the charity’s annual Christmas carol service.
Touched by the Trust’s work supporting seriously ill children and their families with free 'home from home' accommodation, the Derry singer continued to donate her time to help raise funds.
The following year, she was named their Official Ambassador.
"From the moment I heard all the personal stories, I was a huge admirer of The Sick Children’s Trust and was determined to help in whatever way possible," Margaret tells me.
"I’m really in awe of the charity, they do an amazing job."
In just a few years, the soprano notched up an impressive catalogue of television appearances and performances, including a debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York.
However, one of her most memorable moments took place in a less glamorous setting. In fact, it was in a nursing home that Margaret discovered the priceless nature of her gift.
"I was a student at the time and trying make a bit of extra cash," she recalls, "so I took a job singing at various hospitals and homes for the elderly.
"Initially, it was very much just a job to me. But then, one day, we went to this home for the elderly where I met a lady who had dementia. She couldn’t talk or communicate, nothing, her face was completely blank and she seemed agitated.
"I decided to sing, The White Cliffs of Dover and other songs, you know, the wee small hours of the morning ones that I thought her generation would recognise.
"Oh my goodness, the change in that woman! She began to sing, her whole demeanour brightened up. I mean, she literally became a different lady. It was truly amazing.
"The experience changed me too. I’ll never forget how I felt as I was leaving that place. I came away thinking, my goodness, that music and those lyrics were a gift from me to her.
"From that moment on I understood how important my job was going to be."
With 18 tracks, her current album The Gift of Music has something for all ages.
"The album was recorded with the City of Prague, Philharmonic Orchestra – the full 70 piece orchestra!" says Margaret, with a delighted chuckle.
"It has a lot in there; some Rogers and Hammerstein, some classical, some Irish songs and even some Phil Coulter and Billy Joel! In fact, the orchestra even had to learn some new music.
She adds: "I wanted this album to reflect me as singer and as a person but also, it’s important to me that I connect with the listener."
The album is dedicated to her family but there is one particular song that Margaret sings for her dad, the late SDLP councillor Bill Keys, who passed away in 2014.
"My daddy died very suddenly," she tells me.
"He’d gone to the shop to buy a pint of milk and simply collapsed. My twin sister who is a doctor was working on him in the shop. It was very hard to watch.
"I sang for him at his funeral. It was very difficult but I wanted to do it for him. Even today, we all miss him terribly. Onstage, I feel his spirt with me.
"On this album, I chose Phil Coulter’s Old Man for my daddy. Obviously a few of the lyrics had to be changed to make it relevant, but the words say it all.
"In the beginning it was very hard for me to sing but now, after a lot of practice, I think I can get through it in public without breaking down.”
Finally, what inspires her?
"I often think about my granda and how he’d sit engrossed in his music, his hands waving in the air. I’ve always thought it wonderful that music could give this man so much passion and enjoyment.
"I want my music to give people that same experience."
:: The Gift of Love is out now, visit Margaretkeys.co.uk