James Kilbane

Two worlds collide in Kilbane's new release

ACHILL’S James Kilbane is back with a bang and has released an exciting new version of a traditional hymn, but with an exceptionally shady twist.

Kilbane has never been one to shy from controversy and his latest single is certain to raise an eyebrow across many circles.

This week, Kilbane has released a stunning take on John Newton’s classic hymn Amazing Grace, pairing it with the music of The House of the Rising Sun.

The Christian hymn was first published in 1779, with the words written in 1772 by English poet and Anglican clergyman John Newton. But, while the lyrics sit perfectly with the melodic sounds of the folk-rock hit, it’s the song’s shady association that is likely to cause a stir.

In 1964, British rock group The Animals had a No.1 hit with The House of the Rising Sun in the UK, US and Canada. Released during a period when R&B was transitioning to rock, The Animals' version is widely considered the first folk-rock hit.

Over the years, many locations in New Orleans have been proposed as the inspiration for the song, with varying plausibility. In almost all tellings, however, the House of the Rising Sun is understood as a euphemism for a brothel. What remains a talking point is whether the actual house described in the lyrics was a real or a fictitious place.

A Christian, Gospel, country and Irish folk singer, James Kilbane first became a household name and influencer in Ireland’s music industry back in 2004, when he was runner-up in the second series of RTÉ One's You're A Star. Since then, he has toured extensively, predominantly in the US and Ireland. Along the way, Kilbane has released a number of albums on the Gold Eagle Music label including King of the Road, Close to You, Hymns of Praise, Divine Love, Life's Miracle, Heart to Heart, Glory and Grace, Mary: The Lord's Servant, The Songs of Faith Collection, The Family Collection, Gravel & Grace and Songs of Ireland, as well as a Christmas album titled The Christmas Collection. His albums often feature Nashville and Irish collaborations.

Like many other performers, the global pandemic over the last couple of years has hindered Kilbane’s ability to tour. His last live performance was in St. John’s Theatre in Listowel back in February 2020.

Kilbane had been due to perform at several festivals, events and gigs across the US that year, including at the famed Sober Seventeenth in Cleveland, Ohio, for St. Patrick’s Day 2020, but it wasn’t to be. “When everything first kicked off with Covid, I pulled out of the gig. In hindsight, I’m glad I made the decision. The alternative would have seen me stuck in Cleveland as they started closing borders. It was the right thing to do at the time,” James recalled.

Eager to return to live performances, James spent much of the pandemic planning and recording, with a string of new songs due for release in the coming months. Amazing Grace, The House of the Rising Sun is certainly kicking off the season on a high note, and, in truth, it’s a recording he has been working towards for many years.

“Back in 2005, I was at an event honouring Sam Cooke in Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio. There was a brilliant line-up, including Aretha Franklin, Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child, Elvis Costello and many others. Among the performers were The Blind Boys of Alabama and when they started to sing, I realised they were putting Amazing Grace to the music of The House of the Rising Sun. I had never heard it sung like that before and it completely blew me away. That performance has stayed with me ever since,” he explained.

About a year ago, James’ friend, Rev. William Hayes, contacted him, inviting him to perform on RTÉ television as part of a Presbyterian Church service. While the Achill native was raised Roman Catholic, he has never been a conformist and welcomes the opportunity, when it arises, to sit in other churches among people of different faiths. He gladly accepted Hayes’ offer and used the opportunity to perform the somewhat unique version of Amazing Grace.

“There was a focus in the broadcast around mental health and I had free rein of what I could do on the day. I ran the idea by Rev. Hayes and he agreed that it was a very original take on the hymn; he was happy for me to do it and was able to marry it with the struggles of mental health and addiction - something that was particularly apt during lockdown.

“When we think about Amazing Grace and its lyricist, Newton was an alcoholic, an abusive man and was himself abused, while in captivity. He was a captain of slave ships who later became invested into the slave trade. Newton turned his life around, however. He changed his life and became an abolitionist. Amazing Grace is a Christian hymn, while The House of the Rising Sun, meanwhile, looks at the idea of addiction, bars and brothels.”

Kilbane admits that taking such a religious song and associating with brothels, dependency and lust will bring its own challenges. That said, he is quick to draw on Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, ‘Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future’.

“It's the juxtaposition of the two worlds that makes it so interesting and really, it’s a song about overcoming adversity. Some will love it, some won’t, but I’m excited to see the reaction and I’m really looking forward to performing it live,” he added.

Of course, this isn’t Kilbane’s first time recording Amazing Grace, but it’s certainly his first stab at this version. And, while this is by no means the traditional take on the hymn, Kilbane’s dulcet tones marry exceptionally well with the stunning melody of The House of the Rising Sun.

In fact, one would be forgiven for thinking the music was written to accompany the Amazing Grace lyrics.

While the genres of the two songs couldn’t be further from each other - and are set apart by almost 100 years - they’re both representative of humanity, weakness and the struggles of life. Undoubtedly, Kilbane’s new release has an exciting edge to it and brings together country, blues, rock and soul. It’s likely to cause something of a stir, but it’ll be worth every moment.