Movies can change your life. Just ask Seamus Egan, founder of Celtic rockers Solas. Through sheer luck he scored the soundtrack to The Brothers McMullen, which went on to win at Sundance and become one of the most successful indie films of the '90s.
"My name got out there in a wider sphere as a result of the success of that film," recalls Egan, the son of Irish émigrés who'd moved to Pennsylvania. "And that dovetailed with Solas even before it was Solas."
A prodigy, Egan won the famous All-Ireland Championship on four different instruments (flute, mandolin, banjo, tin whistle) by the time he was 14, an unprecedented feat. He released his first album at 16, Traditional Music of Ireland, and another five years later titled A Week in January.
Then, while on a winter tour in Rhode Island with Tony Furtado and Dirk Powell, their car broke down. A family not only put them up for the night, but also lent them a car to finish up the tour. Egan and his cohorts left behind CDs with the couple, whose son happened to be a technician on The Brothers McMullen. When he asked to use songs from A Week in January in the shoestring indie film, Egan assented.
Later, when Fox Searchlight stepped in, they paid Egan and Sarah McLachlan to come in and write the song that plays over the film's closing credits, "I Will Remember You." McLachlan would later release a Grammy-winning live version that's become an enduring pop-culture hit.
"It's one of those songs that is broad enough that it relates to a wide range of moments in people's lives," says Egan. Indeed, there's simplicity and directness to it that resonates, something easier planned than executed. "Writing something that is simple is deceptively difficult. Simple can go horribly wrong."
Meanwhile, Egan had formed a band with several of the musicians who accompanied him on the soundtrack as well as his third solo album, When Juniper Sleeps.
"We thought we'd make an album and see how it went," says Egan of Solas' eponymous debut. "It was one of those things that took us by surprise. The album was received so positively."
That was 17 years ago. Now the band is touring to promote its most ambitious album to date. Shamrock City is a beautifully performed song-cycle that tells the story of Egan's great-great uncle, who emigrated from Ireland to work in the copper mines in Butte, Mont.
Musically, Shamrock City ranges from the rousing mining-town mountain stomp of "Tell God and the Devil" to the traditional flute-driven Irish instrumental "High, Wide, and Handsome." There's also the drunken reel and sway of "Lay Your Money Down," and the hauntingly atmospheric elegy, "Am I Born to Die?" Instrumental interludes underscore the album's emotional arc.
"I felt that, for the album to work, it needed to create this world with a beginning and an end, at a time when people really don't listen to albums anymore," Egan chuckles.
Solas took another risk with Shamrock City by releasing it themselves, after putting the last two out on large Nashville indie Compass Records.
"We're tackling it in a DIY sort of way," says Egan. "Which makes me laugh, because I think our music world has always been kind of DIY."