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Ireland’s Sibling Revelry

Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Andrea Corr has just gotten her breath back after a fit of laughter.

“Sorry about that,” she says, apologizing for this episode and the recurrent giggles and guffaws that keep disrupting the conversation.

It was bad enough a few minutes earlier when her brother Jim was pulling faces at her. Now she’s cracked herself up by simply putting on a pair of rather silly-looking slippers in her hotel room.

“As you can hear, we need some time off,” Andrea says, still stifling laughs.

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“At least we’re not killing each other,” Jim chimes in.

Indeed. After spending the better part of the past four years climbing to international pop stardom, many partners would be at each others’ throats. It can be that much worse for siblings. And these two are just half of the tricky family dynamic that is the Irish pop group the Corrs, in which singer Andrea, 24, and guitarist Jim, 34, are joined by violinist Sharon, 28, and drummer Caroline, 25.

Together they’ve reached remarkable heights, combining mainstream pop sounds with the traditional Celtic music that surrounded them in their hometown of Dundalk on the east coast of Ireland.

Their second album, “Talk on Corners,” outsold even the Spice Girls to become the top seller in England in 1998 at 1.7 million. And they’ve also dominated radio and sales charts throughout Europe and much of Asia, as well as becoming ubiquitous on music television channels and in magazine photo layouts--not a little bit because of the dark-haired sisters’ fashion-model looks.

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There’s still one huge challenge, though: to make it big in the U.S. So before they get to take a vacation in April, they’re going all out to crack this toughest of markets.

While launching a “special edition” U.S. release of “Talk on Corners” featuring new mixes of some songs aimed at the pop market here, their itinerary has included appearances on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” and a St. Patrick’s Day schedule featuring “The Today Show,” hosting a VH1 special and playing New York’s Roseland Ballroom. All this between doing club shows on their own (including one tonight at the House of Blues) and opening arena dates for the Rolling Stones.

The payoff? Combined sales for the special edition and the original version soared that week to 29,000, four times the previous week’s sales, with the newer release rising to No. 72 on the album chart. That boosts the total sales of “Talk on Corners” to more than 115,000, but the Corrs aren’t ready to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their success just yet.

That, they say, has fallen to their parents back in Dundalk, a town of 35,000.

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“They’re reaping the rock ‘n’ roll success,” Andrea says. “They’re partying, drinking champagne and having a good old time for us.”

The Corrs’ story starts a little like countryman Roddy Doyle’s book “The Commitments,” in which a bunch of working-class kids form a band. In fact, it was for a 1990 audition for the movie adaptation that the four first actually played together as a band.

They weren’t cast as the would-be musicians, though Andrea, then 16, did get a secondary role as the little sister of one of the main characters. But they got enough encouragement to begin writing their own songs and playing pub gigs around town, already mixing American-style pop with Celtic ornamentation in what to them was a natural blend.

“It’s what we were brought up on,” Andrea says. “Our parents were musicians, so there was always a lot of music.”

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“They had [records by] the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Simon & Garfunkel,” Jim says.

“And because of the music around town and the time we spent working in our auntie’s pub, we got hooked on Irish music,” Andrea says. “Naturally we used what we had when we started writing.”

It was a mix that in 1994 impressed Jean Kennedy Smith, the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, who heard the Corrs playing in a pub and invited them to perform at an event being held at the Kennedy Library in Boston. While in the States, the four tried to meet with record companies in New York and Los Angeles, but with little luck. However, on their last day here they talked their way into a Los Angeles studio complex where producer David Foster, who had been recommended to them by Atlantic Records executive Jason Flom, was producing Michael Jackson sessions.

“They sat in the lobby for some time and waited for me to come out,” says Foster. “When I did, I saw these three beautiful girls, each more beautiful than the other, and they had their instruments. We went upstairs and they took their instruments out and they were wonderful. I must live under a rock, but I’d never heard that before, the Irish fiddle and penny whistle, at least the way they combined it with the pop music. And I signed them right then.”

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With Foster’s supervision they made a 1995 debut album, “Forgiven, Not Forgotten,” and toured the world, opening for such stars as Michael Bolton. The album did OK in the British Isles and Europe, and sold more than 250,000 in the U.S.

But it was “Talk on Corners,” released in late ’97 in Europe, that made them the top of the pops. Production is a little more lush and the songwriting more refined, with Celtic touches ranging from heavy on two tracks featuring members of the Chieftains to negligible--the global hit “Only When I Sleep” could almost pass for a Spice Girls song. It’s all complemented by Irish-accented versions of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.”

Speaking of the Spice Girls . . . as the Corrs fame has increased, they’ve found that more attention is sometimes paid to their physical attributes than to their musical talents. But they largely shrug it off.

“This is show business, so it’s ridiculous to say anything other than aesthetics is important,” Andrea says. “And in a lot of ways it has made us work harder in our music and our performances. We are musicians. That’s why we’re doing this.”

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The Corrs play tonight at the House of Blues, 8430 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, 9 p.m. $15. (323) 848-5100.


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