James Keelaghan brings insightful, compelling tunes to The Matchbox

James Keelaghan has been fashioning compelling music for decades, and his knack for creating memorable tunes only grows stronger.

He plays The Matchbox April 8, and will be featuring past favourites including songs from his latest disc, 2009’s House of Cards.

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of his first recording, so that will be a fitting time to release his next project, he explains during a recent interview from his Perth, Ontario home.

But songwriting is of course an ongoing venture. As it has been since Keelaghan’s teen years.

“The love for music has always been there,” he says, adding that his dad was a fan of Irish tunes and his mom loved music from London’s west end musicals. His older siblings were exploring all kinds of music as well from Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn to Gordon Lightfoot.

Keelaghan, who was born and raised in Calgary, received his first guitar when he was 14. He had been singing for years prior to that, but once he started playing his musicality really started to take shape.

Toss in a knack for melding his own lyrics and melodies and his potential became all the more obvious.

His first paid gig was at a Claresholm folk club when he was just 17. But interestingly, he also had a passion for the theatre. He almost opted for an actor’s life, but music would ultimately win the day.

“It was neck and neck which path I would pursue until I was about 21.”

From that point on, folks began to realize that this guy was uniquely gifted. He had a running gig at a Calgary deli for about six years until he was 26.

Not surprisingly, suggestions to record an album started surfacing.

“So I put out an album and thought maybe I’ll do this for a couple of years, and then pursue a law degree,” he says. But the shows kept getting scheduled. The records kept being produced. A path was becoming clearer.

Described as a ‘poet laureate of the folk and roots music world,’ Keelaghan has deftly gone about his work with passion, curiosity and intensity ever since. His storytelling has, over the course of nine recordings, been part of the bedrock of his success.

“I’ve always had the urge to write. Some things weren’t being said in the way I wanted to say them, some things were not being written about at all. That’s why I started to write the historical material. That led me to writing my own personal narratives as well.”

Keelaghan has also never shied away from collaboration, touring and tracking with musicians like Oliver Schroer, Oscar Lopez and Hugh McMillan. “If you work with people who are better than you, you become better.”

Collaboration was certainly the key to enhancing the attractive nature of the tunes found on House of Cards, from the impeccably crafted title tune to the comparatively lighter tones of Safe Home and the charming Next To You.

“I was at the Celtic Colors Festival in 2008 and the producers locked six of us in a house for a week, and the company included Dave Gunning, David Francey and Rose Cousins. It was an amazing experience. At the end of it, we had enough material for a complete show.”

Meanwhile, Keelaghan continues to connect with folks – keeping the fans pleased with his creative output while continually attracting new listeners.

Terry Wickham, producer of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, perhaps best sums up Keelaghan’s appeal.

“You always know the journey with James is going to be great, you just never know what all the destinations are. That is why the curve on his career continues to rise.”

For tickets, call The Matchbox box office at 403-341-6500 or visit www.thematchbox.ca.