Friday 15 December 2017

From law to the Nualas ... life has never been boting for Karen Egan

DIVERSE: Irish chanteuse Karen Egan explains to Chris Wasser her complex career change and moving abroad

Karen Egan
Karen Egan

Karen Egan was just a teenager when she began "tinkering around" with melodies.

"I always joke that I started writing songs at the tender age of 15," laughs Karen, taking a seat in the Library Bar at the Central Hotel on Exchequer Street.

"I used to write them for friends, but they won't ever be published. They were very earnest."

A teacher informed Karen that she had a good ear for music. But then, she sort of already had a plan to go into the family business after school.

"I come from a legal background," she recalls. "My father was a barrister and then a judge, and a lot of my siblings are involved in the law. I was never pushed into it or anything like that.

"My dad would always talk about his cases and it always sounded very interesting, so the natural step was to study law."

So, Karen obtained a degree at UCD. Later, she acquired her barrister-at-law credentials at King's Inns. Along the way, however, Karen had something of an epiphany.

"In my last lecture, I just had this sort of moment of 'God I don't want to go straight into law. I would love to travel and maybe do something with my life before I go straight into that life'."


First up, the ambitious Dubliner flew to America and, on the back of some part-time acting courses, landed a role in a small production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. She started singing again and participating in open-mic sessions across the water. Once back in Ireland, Karen enrolled at the Gaiety School of Acting.

Eventually, she knew that she would have to make a serious decision. The best way to succeed in one career, she discovered, was to remove the safety net of another.

"Everybody said, 'Oh, that's lovely now, you'll always have the law to fall back on,'" explains Karen. "I thought, 'Jesus, I'm never going to take this seriously, if I don't put [the law] out of my mind.' So I did. It was if I had never done a law degree."

Thankfully, choosing the arts appears to have paid off. You may remember Karen as a former member of music and comedy group The Nualas, with whom she performed and travelled the world for three years.

A multilingual chanteuse, with a love of all things cabaret, the renowned musician, theatre-maker, comedienne and songwriter started out creating her own projects, forming solo shows based on the repertoires of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf.

"I never tell my age," she says, laughing. "I have a joke that I say that I was born in the 1920s, along with Marlene Dietrich and the others."

In 2006, Karen released her debut album, Very Very. Nine years on, she's decided to mix things up with the genre-spanning Charlatanne, a new collection of original, contemporary numbers. She's also found herself a new home.

In 2011, Karen was invited to join Finnish theatre company Rakastajat-teatteri (the 'Lovers Theatre') in the port city of Pori, south-west Finland, as visiting artist in residence and she hasn't looked back.

"I just totally clicked with the Finnish audience, and I think they really got my humour," she says of her initial move to Pori. I've just done an entire play from start to finish," she said.

"There are 32 scenes and I'm never off the stage - not even during the interval, and it's all in Finnish. I thought I was going to collapse after it."

But Karen isn't one to back away from a challenge.

"I always say Finland is a country of extremes," she explains. "It's incredibly cold in the winter and very dark, and then in the summer, for about two months, the light is insane and the people are equally insane - they would say that themselves.

"There's this burst of energy that comes in the summer that I've never seen in any other culture. You're standing outside a pub at midnight and it's still bright. It's impossible to sleep - you have to put up black-out blinds and all that kind of stuff.

"They're incredibly loyal," says Karen of the Finnish, "and they've a fantastic work ethic, so I really admire them. I've made some great friends there, so I might move back to Ireland, but at the same time, I don't know if I would ever leave Finland fully."


Admittedly, Karen has the best of both worlds: the theatre-making in Finland, and the music in Ireland. Every now and then, a TV gig comes along too (Karen appeared in the popular BBC drama Ripper Street).

But Karen doesn't like to plan too far ahead.

"I am just my own worst enemy," she smiles. "If I were a better planner, I'm sure I'd have come up with a plan to change the world by now.

"But equally, it's also a good thing because things happen and I can react and go, 'Yeah, why not move to Finland?' I didn't plan that."

It's a sustainable career, even if it has its "highs and lows". For Charlatanne, Karen also turned to crowd-funding website 'Fund it' to help raise money for studio costs.

"I don't know, these days, how much people ever really make back in terms of your album," says Karen. "But you have to think beyond that. You have to think it's a calling card, first of all, so people can hear your music. Most people I know who are 'successful', they're not making a lot of money," she finishes.

"People do not make money in the arts, unless you're some super-dooper film star or something like that. But the good side is you have a life where you're happy and I can safely say I've never been bored. I have no regrets whatsoever."

Karen Egan launches Charlatanne tomorrow night at Whelan's, tickets priced €20 are available at www.whelanslive.com.

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