Bill Leslie began his musical career while in elementary school when he was encouraged to join his church choir. A few years later, he continued his humble musical beginnings in the stairwell of his Morganton, North Carolina home “with a cheap Sears guitar laden with brutal steel strings that made my fingertips ache.” When he got older, and with a bit more musical experience under his belt, he joined a garage band called “The Beggars” and sang lead, eventually recording a couple of songs he had written at a studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Later in high school, Bill joined a group called the Cyntriks. While with them, he wrote a song about his girlfriend “Missy” which became a regional hit.
In college at the University of North Carolina, he bought a Martin 12 string guitar and teamed up with Tom Barrows for a coffeehouse folk duo called Augustus and Irvin. Just after graduation from college, with a BA in Communication, Bill roomed with soon-to-be instrumental music legend John Tesh in Raleigh, North Carolina, and worked at the same radio station. In fact, in 1996, Bill played guitar in John’s band at Walnut Creek in Raleigh. John encouraged Bill to take his music to Nashville. This resulted in several songs being published with April-Blackwood Music including a song called “Laughing Girl Lately Sad.” Meanwhile, Bill dabbled a bit in country music, wrote religious oriented songs for his church, and continued to sing in the church choir.
Then a fortuitous trip to Scotland and attendance at a concert by the contemporary Celtic music group “Nightnoise” (Mícháel Ó Domhnaill, Billy Oskay, Tríona Ní Dhomnaill, Brian Dunning), one of the founding groups on Will Ackerman’s Windham Hill Records, became pivotal experiences in Bill’s musical life — in fact, they set him on the path to the world renowned musician he has become.
Enthralled by the haunting sound of the Celtic whistle often featured in “Nightnoise” music, Bill would eventually teach himself to play it using books, cassettes, and eventually videos. He also bought a multi-track recorder and began blending guitar tracks with whistle and piano tracks. Soon he had built a full-fledged studio in his home.
That led him to co-found, along with Mary Page Johnson and Kerry Johnson, a Celtic fusion band called Bragh Adair, featuring guitar, whistle, violin, piano, bass and percussion. They played together for until 2002 and produced two outstanding albums “Grace in Stone” and “The Hunt,” and for which Bill wrote many of the songs.
Today, in addition to playing with his new band Lorica (with Sherry Lattin, Linda Metz, Marty Long and Stephen Levitin), Bill has put his Communication degree to work. You may also know him as the morning and noon news co-anchor of WRAL-TV in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a journalist, Bill has certainly excelled — having won more than 80 major news awards — including two George Foster Peabody Awards, five Emmys, the Society of Professional Journalists National Distinguished Public Service Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the National Headliner Award, the Gavel Award, the RTNDA Edward R. Murrow Award, the Charles Kuralt Award, the UPI National Award for Features, and twice won the North Carolina Journalist of the Year.
Lately, however, Bill has also become known as an accomplished Celtic fusion and contemporary instrumental/New Age recording artist. When famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma refers to you as “one of the greats in modern Celtic music,” you know you have reached a high point in your music career.
His first solo album release “Peaceful Journey” was widely applauded and achieved a number one ranking on various World Music charts in 2004, including the New Age Reporter’s world music chart. His second and third albums, “Christmas in Carolina” and “I Am A River” each peaked at number two on the charts. In 2005, New Age Reporter named Leslie “Best New Artist” and his Christmas in Carolina album was named “Best Holiday Album.”
In 2006, one of the songs from “I Am A River” called “Tall Ships” was chosen as the official song of the 2006 America’s Sail Maritime Festival.
Then in 2008, “Blue Ridge Reunion” hit number one on the charts and was named Best Acoustic Instrumental Album of the Year by ZoneMusicReporter.com.
The album, “Simple Beauty,” in 2010, also hit number one on the world music charts and was voted by radio hosts worldwide as the Best Acoustic Instrumental Album of the year, again by ZoneMusicReporter.com. And then in November of 2011, Bill released another holiday recording “A Midnight Clear – Christmas in Mitford.” This album also received critical acclaim, voted as the number one Holiday album by Zone Music Reporter for 2011.
“Scotland: Grace of The Wild”, which is a tribute to Bill’s Scottish roots, was named World Radio Album of The Year and overall Album of The Year by Zone Music Reporter for 2013.” The latter top musical honor was presented to Bill in New Orleans on May 17, 2014 by Grammy Award winner Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records, the original recording label of “Nightnoise”, the group that so inspired Bill early in his musical career.
Bill’s latest album, “Across The Water” is another “simply outstanding” Celtic fusion project — a gorgeous work of art that is easily one of the best overall multi-instrumental music albums we have reviewed in the past few years — and that will no doubt garner a new round of prestigious awards during the coming months. It magnificently represents exactly the type and quality of Celtic/New Age fusion music we had in mind when we started GAIA Prime Radio.
Celtic music typically focuses on one of several themes; the bitter taste and anguish of war, suffering and loss; an intensely passionate love of home, friends, family, and the land — the cold, hard ground, the fog shrouded moors, the big, gray skies, the brisk winds, the richly green rolling hills, and the charming villages full of friends you have yet to meet; and most of all, the sweet “twinkle in the eye” joy of facing each new day in one’s life. With “Across The Water,” Bill Leslie masterfully conveys all of these sentiments with a style, richness, and personal connection that is at times astonishingly beautiful.
Inspired by a recent trip to Ireland, the album takes us on a powerfully expressive and exceptionally vivid “musical” tour of the Irish countryside. As Bill states:
“The beauty of Ireland exceeded even my highest expectations. And the history of this charming land is magnificent and humbling at the same time…..As a product of the Scots-Irish immigration to America I wanted to return to the land of my ancestors in search of inspiration. I found it in abundance in Scotland and now Ireland.”
The album features 12 tracks, ten of which are original compositions. The other two are arrangements of classic Irish folk tunes. Of the ten original works, three are recrafted interpretations of songs Bill originally wrote and recorded with Bragh Adair. Playing along with Bill on Celtic whistle, guitar, and keyboards is a collection of superbly talented musicians – including Brian Dunning (flute and pipes), Joseph Akins (piano), John Brown (bass), Brandon Bush (accordion), Jennifer Bush (violin), Nancy Green (cello), Melanie Wisden (oboe), and Anita Buroughs-Price (harp).
The album begins with the title track, which is a slow, reflective, emotional, and completely enchanting work with a slight hint of anguish, and decidedly cinematic qualities. “Across The Water” features Bill prominently playing keyboards and guitar, as well as his signature Celtic whistle. It is easily one of our favorite tracks on the album.
“The Boatman” is one of the two covers of traditional Irish songs on the album. It is even slower and more emotional than the first track, with a clear element of melancholy. Leslie’s tender Celtic whistle and Dunning’s pipes serve as the primary expressive voices, but with Green’s cello at times offering a darker and more somber counterpoint. Nicely done!
“Connemara,” which refers to a small area on the West Coast of Ireland, begins with light acoustic guitar, eventually accompanied by Irish whistle, and then masterfully blended with oboe, cello, violin, and Brian Dunning on flute. The incredible melody evokes an air of a “misty” and “mysterious” land that has often been referred to as “the real emerald of Ireland.” Wow!
“Miriam,” which includes the super talented Anita Burroughs-Price on harp, is a more upbeat, cheerful Irish dance, with a very strong melody. With especially strong contributions from the accompaniment, this track will surely bring a grin to your face and spring to your step.
“Lorica,” is one of the re-crafted and remastered works that Bill originally composed and recorded with Bragh Adair. Inspired by the Breastplate Prayer of St. Patrick, this completely instrumental version (the original had lyrics) is a beautiful, exceptionally melodious, positive, and innovative track, and again with clear cinematic qualities. It features a stunning piano component by Joseph Akins, accompanied magnificently by violin, flute, oboe, cello, and of course, Celtic whistle.
“Gaelic Ghost” is a haunting, dreamy, and slowly uplifting moderate tempo ballad with Bill’s light but passionate acoustic guitar opening eventually giving way to Celtic whistle as the lead voice, and supported by other instruments. It is another of the re-crafted works from Bill’s days with Bragh Adair and has been wonderfully reimagined.
“Stephanie” is also Celtic whistle driven, but this time accompanied stunningly by Bush’s exquisite violin and Green’s powerful cello. It is richly expressive, passionate, and full of love! And as one of the shortest tracks on the album, and another of our particular favorites, it definitely left us wanting to hear more.
“Irish Girl” begins with a passionate duet between Akins’ stirring piano and Leslie’s Celtic whistle later giving way to an exquisite piano and cello pairing. Another of the traditional Irish tunes recaptured in Bill’s signature style, it beautifully carries the bittersweet qualities of a traditional Irish ballad, with classic Irish phrasing, and a basic straightforward structure. Simply outstanding!
Named for a 179 kilometer long circular tourist route in southwestern Ireland, “Ring of Kerry” is a more up-tempo and more positive, cheerful, and spirited track with a richly complex layering of guitar, cello, Celtic whistle, and other instruments. It has an adventurous quality that thoroughly captures the wonder of exploring country roads lined with walls of stone, ruins of fortifications and castles hundreds of years old, and the pretty pastels of towns and villages shining as jewels in the midday sunlight. This is certainly another of our favorites.
“Cloud of Witnesses” is another of the pieces written and originally recorded with Bragh Adair. It is “a celebration of nature and loved ones who have passed but whose spirits are still very much alive” and is a richly complex, artfully layered, up-tempo, bright, cheerful, energetic, and positive work, like “Ring of Kerry,” but longer and with obvious “Irish dance” qualities. The melody is exceptional — the whistle, violin, oboe, and cello incredible — and the overall work amazingly beautiful. In fact, it is probably the best track on the album! We will definitely be hitting the replay button often on this one.
In contrast, “Gougane Barra” is a darker, slower, more somber, more reflective, and emotionally moving melody that nonetheless conveys a profound sense of peacefulness. Bill describes this song as follows:
“Gougane Barra in County Cork is an absolutely gorgeous and tranquil place. This mountain man felt right at home with the rhododendron in full bloom next to a 19th-century oratory on a lake. Gougane Barra was once the scene of a 6th-century monastery and is described on a historical marker as a holy and healing place. There is something truly magical about early morning light and the stillness of life in Ireland.”
Bill’s musical portrait of this picturesque experience is at once vivid, powerful, exquisite, and majestically beautiful.
“Across The Water” ends with a traditional and heartfelt “Irish Blessing”; a straightforward, down tempo, violin and Celtic whistle led prayer, supported beautifully by oboe, cello, and the luscious sounds of Brian Dunning’s pipes. It is a powerful and appropriate ending to an astonishing rich, complex, and sophisticated journey through Eire inspired music. May the road always rise up to meet you! Our highest possible recommendation for this one!