Tom Johnston had never heard his niece, 22-year-old Deirdre Forrest, sing a single note until she asked him if they could perform together at a New Jersey open mic night a little over two years ago. Tom was pleasantly surprised to hear that his niece had a hidden talent – perfect pitch without any vocal training, and a knack for writing poetry that she would later put to music. Tom, an accountant/musician who hadn’t performed for an audience in 25 years, and Deirdre, a teacher who had kept quiet about her talent and her dream of performing, have been making music together and gaining recognition for it ever since that open mic night in 2009. When I asked Tom to describe the experience thus far, he exuded joy as he said “the past two years have been filled with one surreal moment after another,” and that’s why they call themselves Beannacht, the Irish word for blessing.
Tom and Deirdre’s blessings have come in the form of the 67 live shows they performed in 2011, the release of their first album, “Gra na Firinne” (Love of Truth), and being named the best new act at the New Jersey Acoustic Music Awards in Asbury Park last year. Add to the list their growing bond as niece and uncle, and their journey as two songwriters honing their craft and cranking out some sweet melodies and powerful lyrics, and you’ll see why the two have been feeling very blessed lately.
While Beannacht’s sound spans a few genres including rock, folk, and blues, Tom said that “Irish Music is the foundation.” Their album doesn’t feature any traditional songs, but you’ll pick up on the Irish influence as soon as you hear Tom’s bodrhan and tin whistle on a few of the tracks. When I asked Tom about the duo’s musical influences he gave credit to Cherish the Ladies and Clannad as well as Deirdre’s upbringing in the world of competitive Irish step dancing. Like most bands, Beannacht’s sound is always evolving, and as they continue to write songs and perform together Tom and Deirdre are growing even closer to the traditional sounds of their Irish heritage. Fans can expect a more prominent Irish sound on their next album, due out in the Fall.
The duo have accomplished more than most acts in their first two years of performing, from the revelation that niece and uncle had a shared musical bond, to the six award nominations they received for the 2012 New Jersey Acoustic Music Awards. Throughout the whirlwind of their quickly blossoming musical career one very special moment stands out for Tom. He had sent Beannacht’s album to relatives in Belfast, where his grandfather grew up and became a well known singer. His Irish relatives buzzed about the similarities between Tom’s voice and his grandfather’s. Tom had never met his grandfather, but to know that he had a place in the music of Beannacht “was a very special compliment” said Tom, a blessing indeed.
Folks in New Jersey will have two chances to check out Beannacht this week, on 5/2 at the Cambridge Inn in Spotswood and at Grover’s Mill Coffee House in West Windsor on 5/4.
New York City welcomes some Irish acts to town this week with Julie Feeney at The Irish Arts Center in NYC from 5/2 – 5/6, the Cranberries at Terminal 5 in NYC on 5/2 and 5/4, and Mary Courtney at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum in The Bronx on 5/4.