Katie McMahon flits into the coffee shop near her home in south Minneapolis dressed all in black—boots, sweater, coat, hair—as though she’d once been the lead singer for Metallica instead of the greatest Irish musical phenomenon of the last 25 years (sorry, U2). Almost apologetically, she says, “You know, there are probably more people with red hair in Minneapolis than Ireland.”
No matter. She’s only half-Irish, after all. Her mother is German, a music lover who taught her children to sing in three-part harmony. “Very von Trappish,” McMahon says. She learned the harp and took voice lessons. And then, in the early 1990s, she dropped out of college. She joined a host of choirs in Dublin. It seemed like a stupid decision.
And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. One of the choirs she joined was Anúna, which started the Gothic, velvet cloak, candles-in-cathedrals trend in Irish music. “Like church, only cooler,” McMahon says. Bono and Elvis Costello came to concerts. So did the producers of Riverdance. “They wanted to create something like 42nd Street but with Irish music and dancing,” says McMahon. “You have to understand, the Irish had just gotten done with killing each other. Our economy was coming on. It was like, ‘Yay, it’s a great time to be Irish!’” The hip Anúna choir was the obvious choice for the show’s chorus.
McMahon was 24 and suddenly recognizable. “People would spot me in the underwear aisle at Bloomingdale’s,” she says. During an early stint at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, she met her future husband. “He was in charge of ‘artist relations,’” she says, laughing. A couple of years later, they married. McMahon moved to Minneapolis and soon hung up her velvet cloak.
She now offers harp and voice lessons, records CDs, and on March 17 will perform a St. Patrick’s Day show, complete with Irish dancers, at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium. She’ll include some Riverdance tunes as well as prayers by St. Patrick set to music. “If you’re Irish, you’ll be proud,” she says. “And others will still enjoy it.”
THREE RECOMMENDATIONS FROM KATIE
1. The new 2 Gingers whiskey from Kieran Folliard. “It’s smooth, a real sipping whiskey.”
2. Merlin’s Rest Pub in Minneapolis. “Some quirky regulars there—that’s authentic.”
3. Piper’s Crow, named City Pages’ Best Acoustic Band. “They’re the real Celtic deal.”