Joyce and Ruth O’Leary are your average pair of young Irish sisters in their early twenties. They share outfits, finish each other’s sentences, and cheer each other up when one is having a hard day. There’s just one difference: together, Joyce and Ruth make up Sephira, an Irish crossover act that combines passionate violin playing, ethereal singing and showstopping choreography to entertain audiences around the world. They are their own managers, agents, publicists, and creative directors. Eschewing major labels and maintaining full control over their creative brand, the O’Leary sisters are making it all on their own. And between the two of them, they experience a number of autoimmune disorders that have layered serious physical and emotional challenges on top of an already hugely difficult business.
The story begins in County Kildare, where the girls were born. They soon moved to Carrickmacross, Co. Mon-aghan, where they discovered music. “Joyce was two and a half when she started playing violin, and I was six,” says Ruth. “Joyce saw me playing —”
“And I copied my older sister,” Joyce says, smiling. At age three, Joyce played a Bach minuet at the National Concert Hall, and was named Ireland’s Most Promising Violinist at age nine.
As teenagers, they added singing. Soon their studies brought them to London, where Ruth studied at the Guildhall School of Music and received a BA in music performance. In Dublin, Ruth performed Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at the National Concert Hall, and played with world-class acts like Rodrigo y Gabriela. “That was one of the biggest learning curves of my life,” she remembers. “They were so disciplined; it was so many rehearsals. Instead of a string section, I was the featured performer. Everything we’ve done has taught us to be better at what we do.”
At fifteen, they tried their hands at songwriting. “In between classes I’d jot down melodies,” remembers Joyce. “I’m more of a melody person, Ruth’s melody and words.”
“She’s got the ear for the hook,” Ruth continues. “Whenever I write something, Joyce might change it slightly, and there you have your hook.”
“We’ve figured out over the years how to work together,” Joyce agrees. By 2006, they’d released their debut album, Believe, and by 2007 they’d performed alongside artists like Michael Bublé, Kanye West, and Clannad. Much of 2008 through 2010 were spent touring the US and Canada with Celtic Thunder.
Listening to them speak, it’s clear that they are truly one another’s biggest fans. Ruth is the big-picture thinker, while Joyce breaks ideas down into detail-oriented steps.
“She’s got a man’s brain,” insists Ruth. “All the technical stuff. I like reading manuals, Joyce naturally knows what goes where. She’s a perfectionist.” And there are many things in show business that demand perfection. “Joyce has an amazing ear for producing and mixing. Years ago [in Ireland], we did very close work with Brian McFadden, and we didn’t realize the scope of what we were capable of because we were young. He ended up contacting the guy who booked us and said ‘Oh my God, these girls are amazing, I need to get the recordings of what they did in the session’ so that he could use it for his album…As it turned out, he used the exact arrangement that we had done live, on his album. That was when we realized that’s another side to what we do.”
Together, they brought their career to America – beginning, of course, in New York. “We came here three years ago pounding the pavement,” says Ruth. “When I say we were broke, we were BROKE. Joyce was making bread in the mornings. We went to the gym to be strong enough to lift our own sound equipment on the subway — we didn’t have enough money for taxis.”
“It grounds you,” Joyce points out.
“Within three months of coming here, we were booked solid,” Ruth adds triumphantly. “From literally going around and saying to people, ‘Have us play.’ We got 5,000 business cards and handed them out. Within a year, we were playing for Donald Trump, a year and a half, Prince Albert of Monaco—”
“—in Monaco and in Dublin. In Monaco, we were seen by an affluent Irish businessman, and he flew us to Geneva to play at his private Christmas party, so that was another crazy adventure. Flying from New York to Seattle, Seattle to LA, LA to Geneva, all within five days, then back to New York.” Traveling often for performances in different cities and countries, while still managing all of the other parts of the business, contributed to high stress levels for both sisters. “We were going to bed at five a.m. because we had to work with the Irish schedule and American one,” Joyce remembers.
“We were booking ourselves, everything was going through us,” Ruth points out. “We were like, ‘No one else can handle this. We own our brand, we sell our brand,’ and we both were so exhausted, particularly me. I had started kind of collapsing, and having various strange episodes. Joyce had to carry the whole business on her own. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t focus, but I didn’t know what it was. I mean, what do you do, go to the doctor and say ‘I’m so tired all the time and I can’t focus’? They say drink more water.”
They began to think it might be more than a normal performer’s wear and tear. “A relation spoke to our mom and said, ‘Listen, get yourself checked for hemochromatosis.’ It’s an overload of iron in the blood. Mom got checked and it turned out that she was a carrier. Dad is a carrier as well, which meant that the chances of us having it were very high. We got checked, and we have it. Thank goodness, we don’t have to get the bloodletting.” Ruth is referring to one treatment for hemochromatosis, which consists of having blood leeched periodically to keep iron in a patient’s blood at safe levels. “We just have to get checked every six months.”
“Hemochromatosis is not the problem. All our organs were checked, and they found out what was actually wrong with us,” Ruth tells me. “Joyce has three autoimmune disorders, [autoimmune hepatitis, autoimmune adrenalitis, and autoimmune thyroiditis] and I have something called Addison’s disease, which comes from autoimmune adrenalitis, where your adrenal gland is not producing enough cortisol.” This explains the extreme lack of energy and other symptoms that they had experienced. “The headaches, the dizziness, the collapsing, even not being able to adjust to temperature changes.”
Once going on medication, Joyce and Ruth found that their symptoms drastically improved. “[The medication] had a great effect on our careers. Our energy shot up, everything started working better and our whole focus was bigger,” says Joyce.
“We tell people to go get checked, because hemochromatosis is a Celtic disease…During the famine, we Irish didn’t eat much meat, so our bodies started storing iron. Then, when meat came back into our diets, we had such an ability to store iron” that it caused problems. Joyce and Ruth believe their uncle Michael may have passed away undiagnosed, and encouraged their cousin, Michael’s son, to get tested for hemochromatosis. He tested positive, and his liver had been damaged, but he is now working with doctors and making progress.
Ruth especially has found that yoga, reiki and other alternative treatments to lower stress levels make a difference, as well as focusing on a healthy diet. “We think a lot more about what we eat. We were going down a slippery slope, just eating out of convenience. Our lifestyle doesn’t really allow us to cook, so we eat out and on the go, but we get good food. A lot of salads, smoked salmon and tuna. And drink water!” They keep red meat and alcohol to a minimum. All in all, Joyce and Ruth see the autoimmune issues as another learning curve, and a lesson for them to take care of themselves. “The doctor said, ‘You can’t put your career before your health. There is no career if you don’t take care of yourselves.”
For our interview, Joyce and Ruth arrived at my office looking like fresh-faced showgirls, complete with glitter, cat-eye makeup, sparkling baubles and down-to-earth Irish charm. Their name, Sephira, references the Spanish goddess of creativity and intelligence. “Since we’ve come [to America] we’ve built up our team, we’ve rebranded ourselves. We don’t want somebody coming in and saying, ‘I think you should wear this; it would be much better if you sounded like this.’ When we recorded our Christmas album, a few months after we came to New York, we funded everything ourselves. It’s all independent.” Graphic design, sound mixing, makeup, costumes, photography and choreography are all passions that Sephira has allowed the O’Learys to pursue – many branches, as they put it, to the same tree.
“Although we’re classically trained, we didn’t want to be taken as classical musicians,” says Joyce. “And nor did we want to be put into the Irish traditional music bracket,” adds Ruth. “We wanted people to know the vibe as soon as they saw us…those aspects that whip us out of ‘Oh, look, a redhead! Celtic!’ We’re very proud of our heritage, but we want people to see that there’s so much more that we bring.”
Joyce and Ruth are especially excited about a new project coming down the pipeline. They couldn’t give me too much information, but they hinted at some of the details. “We just started aerial training,” explains Joyce, showing me pictures on an iPad of the sessions they’ve been working on for several months. “We’ve been doing synchronized aerial choreography. Our trainer is pushing us to find the moves that work for us when we’re playing violin in the air.”
Ruth chimes in, “We’re collaborating with another group on a show that can be franchised…We will still be Sephira, but the show will have its own name. The idea is that we want to create an empire, and all the things that go along with that. It’s a pretty big project!” They both laugh. Later, Ruth looks up, her eyes gleaming. “And then – Vegas.”
To learn more about hemochromatosis, click here to read a fact sheet with the signs, symptoms and treatment information.
Catch Sephira live in performance at the New York Irish Center on September 14th – click here for tickets and further info.