DeRusha Eats with Katie McMahon

Jason DeRusha and Katie McMahon at P.F. Chang's
Photo By Eliesa Johnson

Katie McMahon’s voice is beautiful, but it’s her hearty, vibrant laugh that makes her so much fun to hang out with. In fact, we were having such a good time at P.F. Chang’s the other day that someone stopped to ask if we were celebrating our anniversary. (Over lunch? At a mall restaurant?) Yes, the one world-famous Irish singer in town wanted to have lunch at P.F. Chang’s in Southdale Center. I suppose O’Gara’s would have been too cliché.

McMahon, who was born in Dublin, became known as a singer in the megahit Riverdance. A member of the original troupe, she toured for five years until a dude backstage at the Orpheum, artist relations coordinator Ben Craig, grabbed her heart and convinced her to stay in Minneapolis. They married and had two kids. He battled and beat stage 4 throat cancer. She became a regular at P.F. Chang’s.

What are we doing at P.F. Chang’s? Chinese food is very popular in Ireland! Irish food isn’t that great. The smell of over-boiled cabbage—that’s the worst! This is one of my special places to get away from the family and mellow out.

When did you become a regular? My husband was very sick. I sat at the bar, got to know the bartenders. They threw in an occasional free cosmo for me.

He’s fully recovered now. After he was better, we were here one night and my husband was looking for a new gig as a mortgage banker. There was a woman a couple seats down—because I’m Irish I talk to everyone I meet: “Who are you?” “I run a temp agency for mortgage bankers who are out of work.” This is my lucky spot.

Luck of the Irish at P.F. Chang’s—so perfect! What’s an Irish singer doing in Minnesota anyway? I toured the states for five years, living out of a suitcase, doing Riverdance. [Ben] took me out to Lee’s Liquor Lounge, swing dancing.

That’s what did it for you? The deal was sealed. We did the long-distance thing for a year or two, and then I moved here and we got married.

Has living here hurt your career? What I’d imagine is that if I were in New York or L.A., there would be quite a few people like me there. There would be at least five or six excellent Irish singers, female singers, to compete against. Here I’m the only female Irish singer in town, which has been good for me.

How did you end up singing with Riverdance? I dropped out of college; I was studying Italian and it wasn’t going well. I wanted to try singing, even though I figured it wasn’t going to work out. I joined a group called Anuna in Ireland. We got really popular with bands even though we were singing classical Irish songs.

It was the early ’90s. You were wearing a lot of velvet, I presume. [Laughs] Bono started coming to our shows. So did Elvis Costello. Bono was great. He said I had an amazing voice. I was 23 or 24. I thought, how nice of him to do that!

It doesn’t get much cooler than Bono. I did meet President Bill Clinton, and I haven’t met any rock star even close to as charismatic as that guy was. He said he wanted to go see Riverdance, but his security people wouldn’t let him because they said it wasn’t safe.

Could you live off the Riverdance money? Oh, God no. That was a wage, and I haven’t been in it for 10 years. When the Riverdance single became No. 1 in Ireland, my friends, even my musician friends, thought, “Drinks are on Katie.” I think I made $400.

When you were a kid you wanted to sing. But it’s not like you can just work hard and succeed? It’s hard work, and natural talent, and your personality. Most of my breaks are not because I’m the best.

Really? I think it’s because I got along with the right people. A lot of the people who gave me breaks are people I’ve gotten to know, and they wanted to work with me because it was enjoyable for them. Personality matters.

You have two kids. Michael is 8, and I stay home with Rachel, who’s 3. Having kids has lowered my voice. I’ve lost two notes at the top. I’m able to sing in a deeper, more powerful way.

Does a part of you want to sing thrash metal? Yes! Recently I sang karaoke at Nye’s. A friend wouldn’t let me sing a Bowie song! I don’t think it’s my forte, but who knows?

I’m not sure the Twin Cities is ready for Katie McMahon, the hard rocker. I love it here. What a sophisticated town for the size and where it is. There really isn’t anything like it.


The Restaurant: P.F. Chang's China Bistro was founded in 1993 in Arizona and has locations in Mexico, Turkey, the U.A.E., Edina, and Maple Grove.

What We Ate: We had the signature lettuce wraps and ahi crisps, died raw tuna in a citrusy seasame soy sauce atop freshly made wontons. McMahon ordered the salt and pepper prawns. I had the hot and sour soup.

My Lunch Date: McMahon is currently an artist in residence at Hamline University. She performs for free at Sundin Music Hall on the campus in St. Paul on March 20 and 21. She'll also appear at the Ceili dance party at Hamline University on March 22 ($12), and will be honored as the Irish Woman of Distinction at this year's St. Patrick's Day Parade in St. Paul.