Fionnuala Sherry

Fionnuala grew up and went to school in Naas in County Kildare, Ireland – surrounded by a musical family that ignited her passion for music at an early age. She started to play the violin at the age of eight, and at fifteen she moved to Dublin to study music. She graduated with honours from Trinity College in Dublin, and the College of Music, and was later employed by the RTE Concert Orchestra, where she was a member for ten years.

In addition to the classical symphonic and operatic repertoire, Fionnuala possessed a much wider musical interest. This is evident in the eclectic body of artists and projects she has been involved with, including The Chieftains, Sinead O’Connor, Van Morrison, Chris de Burgh, Bono and Wet Wet Wet. With the Irish Film Orchestra she’s also recorded several Hollywood film scores, such as “The River Runs Wild”, “A Room With a View” and “The Mask”.

That same wide interest in music led her to conceive, write and present her own music series for children on Irish national TV – all this leading up to her fated meeting with Rolf Lovland and the founding of Secret Garden in 1994.

Onstage, she enchants audiences throughout the world, through her musical intensity and soulful performances. In Secret Garden’s music, her unique violin virtuosity provides the heartstrings, voice and wings for Lovland’s compositions.

She performs on an English John Edward Betts violin from 1790, with a Hill bow, both on stage and in the studio.

  • I grew up in a family of 5 children as the middle kid. My mom played the piano and my dad was an avid singer; not by profession but simply as a music lover. All my siblings played instruments, so it was very much a musical family. I started playing the piano at 4 or 5. One of my earliest memories is having my own little manuscript book; one page was blank so I could draw a picture on it, and the other page was for music so I wrote my own tunes. Even from that age I was drawn to the sound of the violin. I kept asking for my own violin because I was hooked on the sound – I just knew I had to play it!


    I got my first fiddle when I was 8. Because of my piano training, I could quickly play my own tunes, and I just loved to perform. I remember my dad putting me up on a chair and saying, “Play a tune for us, Fionnuala.” Parties were my favorite time listening to my parents entertain their friends. Sometimes I could not contain myself and I would get up out of bed and ask my dad if I could play a tune for them. I was always happy to play for everybody.


    My parents were both teachers so we grew up enjoying long summer holidays as a whole family. Dad was a bit eccentric and I remember he bought an old bus and converted it into a holiday home. We all brought our fiddles and other instruments and played throughout our summer holidays across Ireland. We were a closely-knit family and music and sport was at the centre of all activities.


    I was accepted into the Irish Youth Orchestra as their youngest member at the age of 12. This gave me a unique chance of playing in a large group. I will never forget the sound of all those instruments around me the first time. It was like an explosion of sound – and planted the first seeds for my absolute love of orchestras and and their repetoir.

    Apart from performing in Ireland, we also performed in the US and Italy. While in Rome, I managed to successfully audition for a seat in the European Youth Orchestra where we performed Mahler’s First Symphony open air – a truly magical experience for a young musician!


    When I turned 17, I concentrated on studying music full time. The tennis racquets and riding boots were sadly put away as I worked between the Irish College of Music, studying  performance, and completing a compostiion academic degree at Trinity College in Dublin. I also played part time with The Irish Chamber Orchestra.


    I financed my student years mainly through my work with the Irish Amateur Music Societies. Not only was it an essential part of my training, it also financed my digs. It gave me great experience in leading, accompanying and playing in the pit seven nights a week. Also due to neccessity, I began to busk frequently on Dublin’s Grafton Street. Actually there were two of us; my pal Mairead McCrann and myself. I don’t know how many times the police arrested us, as busking was actually illegal those days. We were an unsual sigth as busking was quite uncommon back then. Only a sporadic guitar player here and there but not two classically trained violininsts. The principal of the College of Music even threatened to have us expelled for it. But the money was too good: sometimes we could make 50 quid on a day’s work. Besides, we really learned how to work a crowd. Today, Mairead is the leader of Vienna Chamber Orchestra. It’s funny that we share this early experience.


    The RTE Concert Orchestra offered me a permanent position when I was 21. I had played with this orchestra and The National Symphony Orchestra as a freelancer for years before that, but to finally become a fulltime professional musician was great. I stayed with the orchestra for the next ten years, until I met Rolf. The first thing the principal conductor said to me was I needed a better instrument. This was a dilemma as I was not be able to aford the luxury of buying a new violin. My eldest brother Brian stepped in and helped me finance the violin I play to this day: an English John Edward Betts violin from 1790. It’s actually not a full-size violin – it’s slightly smaller. I think this has become part of the musical identity of Secret Garden; it has a mellow darkness and earthiness to it that defines our sound.


    As a parallel career, I also worked as a TV presenter in Ireland. I wrote and presented my own music programs, initially aimed at kids but later made into mainstream infotainment programs. I guess my energy was pretty unstoppable during those years because I also started my own event company organizing music and entertainment for corporate events. I’m glad I did all of this because it gave me loads of experience in different areas. Still and all, my first love has always been music. The pull toward it is too strong.


    During my years in the orchestra I was lucky to also be offered a lot of studio session work.  Working with film music and many studio productions was a very valuable part of my background going into my own recordings, and I’m still grateful for the experience. A recording studio became a really familiar place for me and I built up a huge network of musicians, arrangers and other professionals.

    Looking back, my dad had probably left an indelible imprint on me. He didn’t like so much the formal side of my training as a classical violininst; the endless scales and daily  technique practice. He missed me playing ‘the tunes’. Ironically, he had developed Alzheimer’s by the time I met Rolf. More than anybody, he would have loved Rolf’s music; the tunes, and the storytelling melodies. I guess that’s why Secret Garden was a full-circle experience for me. By the time I met Rolf in 1994, I had absolutely no reservations in leaving my career behind.

Rolf Løvland – Composer/Arranger/Producer/Keyboardist

Rolf was born in Kristiansand, in southern Norway, in 1955. His first brush with composing came at the early age of nine when he formed his first band. From then on, and throughout his youth, music came to be his constant companion and focus in life. He later studied music at the Music Conservatory in Kristiansand – and continued his Masters Degree studies in music at the Norwegian Institute of Music in Oslo.

By the time he’d unveiled his “Secret Garden” to the world, Rolf had already earned himself a Norwegian Grammy Award and the reputation as Norway’s most successful popular songwriter – topping the national radio charts (Norsktoppen) more than 60 times. For two consecutive years, his songs had won the National radio chart “Song of the Year-award”.

Rolf was also a two-time winner of the international Eurovision Song Contest final – in 1985 with “La det swinge”, and in 1995 with “Nocturne”. He is also a four-time winner of Norway’s national Eurovision Song Contest finals. In 2007 he received the coveted Achievement Award at the Norwegian Grammies where his international achievements were recognized. Among his most successful songs are “You Raise Me Up” recorded by over 1000 artists (among them are Josh Groban and Westlife and Il Divo) and “I’ve Dreamed of You” recorded by Barbra Streisand.

The founding of Secret Garden has given Rolf the freedom to explore (and for us to experience) deeper emotional dimension and wider musical landscape than the earlier phase of his career had allowed. It has also proven the composer, Rolf Lovland, to be a musical force of considerable stature.

Stage Instruments: Acoustic Grand Piano or Yamaha Digital piano GT2 or NS3.
  • Unlike Fionnuala, I didn’t come from a significantly musical family. My mother played a bit of piano at home when I was growing up, but none of my family members were musicians. My mom could play a tune from a film or from the radio; she had that keen sense of musicality.  In later years she would listen to our music and I could feel it was very close to her heart. It’s quite likely she might have had the creative urge to be a musician, but in those days it just wasn’t a career option. Still, as a child, you just step into that atmosphere and eat it up. Later in life, I’ve also been told that my father played a bit accordion, but I can`t remember that I ever heard him play.


    I think a pivotal moment in my young life was losing my father to a heart attack when I was 7. In those days in Norway, as it was in many other places, the emotional and psychological side of things wasn’t ever spoken about. I didn’t realize that my father had even died. I was alone at home, looking out onto the street, and I see a funeral cortege of cars arriving outside our house – everybody was wearing black suits.  I wasn’t part of the funeral at all, for the simple reason that my mother thought she was protecting me. It was part of the culture, I guess. It never became natural for my mother to open up and invite me into her emotions. I was able to connect the two events in my own mind because I knew that my father had been sick and that it was serious. It was never explained to me how serious it actually was. Now that he was dead, it was just scary. I locked the door to my room from the inside. My aunt came knocking and called out for me but I wouldn’t answer. I wouldn’t let anyone in. I think there’s a symbolism there: I was closed inside a room, where I needed to be with just my emotions. I think of it as a really important moment for me. Because we didn’t talk about emotions, I always connect that with the strong urge to discover my own emotions through music. Looking back, I feel that there’s a great connection between that event and my decision to be a musician. Music is something that allowed me to express my feelings.


    Two years later, when I was nine, I started my own band, called The Ellycats (I didn’t know how it was spelled – it should of course have been The Alleycats.) Even inside that band, I wasn’t choosing to be the leader, but I ended up being the one who charted the songs that we played: stuff by bands like the Beatles, Beach Boys or the Monkees. I started to figure out by myself what the chords and lyrics were, and then I taught what I had learned to the others. I even wrote my own songs. I guess it was my first discovery of my own creativity.


    We weren’t about world domination or anything; more about sharing a genuine passion for music. No-one else in Kristiansand was bringing to realization something that pop bands did in England or the US. We did it simply by intuition, but it felt very fulfilling and meaningful. I got my hands on a cheap old drum set; one I could barely look over. One of my friends bought the cheapest electric guitar he could get on mail order. Basically, we took what we had and put it together. Some of our classmates knew about it, but apart from a few private parties we weren’t ones for playing publicly. If someone came along to rehearsals, it felt great. Looking back, it allowed me to work with music and feel that I was naturally getting a really good grip on it. It felt intuitive and easy, and it was something you build on with experience. The fact that I wrote my own songs as a 9-year old was probably an important discovery. At that age you’re very receptive, and looking back I think this was shaping me significantly.


    All the way through school, music had been at every crossroad. When you choose subjects to study, the direction that felt most natural for me was music: nothing else came close. It wasn’t an obsession; more like an obligation to pursue it.


    By the time it was time to think about Music College, I’d had no formal musical training I’d only ever worked on my own music, so I had no training repertoire. I could play the piano, certainly, but when it came to Mozart or Beethoven, I was blank. When I got accepted into the Conservatoire, I had to work ten hours a day to catch up with others to get to the level that everyone else was at. Thankfully my piano teacher willed me through the first year. It was harder than I had anticipated, but it didn’t feel like a sacrifice. It’s become one of my strengths as a musician: I love the work and don’t mind when it’s a long and hard day, because the sense of working on something important justifies something in me. Because of that training I had an analytical approach, and wanted to find out why the music I liked listening to was good.


    Aside from one teacher in my 9th grade who was the first person to see in a formal context that I had some talent or special interest in music, no one was really reviewing or advising me. But with this teacher, I dared to discuss and show him my music, and we became close friends. He was the one adult who was truly involved in my creative endeavors and I could never get enough of it.


    After studying music at the Conservatory in Kristiansand I moved on to finish my Masters Degree at the University of Oslo. Even though I had a great fascination for music history and science, I stopped being creative. The high academic and musical performance level of my fellow students probably intimidated me. My own composing felt unimportant. I guess I was very singular about my music. I was mostly self-taught and had developed an inner individual confidence but I was afraid of exposing it publicly. Music was a necessity – following me as a close companion ever since childhood. So, I was very relieved when I was back free-lancing again after my years at the university. I loved the musical projects I got involved with; writing music, arranging and producing. It made me aware how important it was to me to express my creativity. Since then, I’ve never looked back.


    Soon I was involved with top artists and productions for the record companies. I was lucky to get a good start as an arranger for the top selling album even on my first year as a professional. But I worked long days and long nights. I was very determined to grab the opportunity once I had the chance; both professionally and to be able to support my family. I suddenly felt that this was what I wanted to do.


    By the time I formed Secret Garden together with Fionnuala in 1994, I had done a long list of productions for Norwegian artists. I had build up an experience with arranging and scoring for bands and orchestras and most importantly, I written a string of pop-songs. Actually, I had more than sixty number 1 positions in the national Radio Chart (Norsktoppen); twice composer of ‘song of the year’; I was three times winner of the national finals in the Eurovision Song Contest, and even won the international ESC-final for the first time for Norway with ‘La Det Swinge’ in 1985 – as well as having received a Norwegian Grammy. I had also worked as a musical director for various TV-programs in NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting). I felt my musical career was well established after 13 years as a free-lance professional. I basically had everything I needed – apart from one thing: my own musical project.

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