First Published October 2016
DOUBLE DELIGHT FOR DEREK’S FANS
When it comes to songwriting and country music, there’s only one town that matters. And that’s Nashville. And when it comes to songwriting and country music in Ireland, there’s one man who’s proved he’s got the golden touch, with hits to his name such as God’s Plan, Life Is A River, It’s Friday and so many more. So it was always just a matter of time until Derek Ryan and Nashville crossed paths. The good news for fans of the Carlow born singer/songwriter is that it’s finally happened! And we’ll all soon be able to hear the results when Derek’s brand new album, This Is Me-The Nashville Songbook, is released this month.
But Derek has decided to do something a little bit different, making Irish country music history by releasing TWO brand new albums at the SAME time! For country fans, it really is time to hold onto your hats! Not only will there be This Is Me-The Nashville Songbook, but also an album of Irish country tunes called, Happy Man. And to make things even better for his fans here in the midlands, Derek will be visiting TRAX in Tullamore next Sunday (October 23rd) to sign copies of both albums and meet his fans.
We had the pleasure of catching up with the newly married and recently crowned Songwriter of the Year at the RTE Irish Country Music Awards as he took a break from his hectic schedule following his return from a tour of Scotland, and we began by asking when and how the idea of doing TWO albums at once came about?
“Well we did the ‘This Is Me’ album in Nashville in January because we had an open time-slot in the diary then. It’s always hard to fit these things in when they have an international aspect to them, with the time it takes to get there, and tours going on at the same time, and what have you. But it was always a dream of mine to do a Nashville album. So yeah, we started work on it back in January, going back and forth with the producer, Jeff Balding. We got in touch with a few different guys and Jeff, just after he’d been nominated for a Grammy, came straight back to us which was cool. He was up for it straight away. So we were back and forth with him a lot, on Skype and stuff, and really by January a lot of things were ready to go. I suppose it took until about the end of March to get the final mixes and masters done. At the same time I was still recording Irish country songs, and I think it must have been June when we decided you know what, we’re gonna do the two of them together! My manager mentioned that it was something he’d seen Bruce Springsteen do a few years back and he’d never seen anyone else do it, so I thought brilliant, let’s go with it. It’s something different, what harm can it do?! Sure look, the more the merrier! [laughs].
Some might think that recording a song or an album would be the same wherever it happens, but to anyone actively involved in country music, they know that recording in Nashville is always different to anywhere else. So what was Derek’s experience of Music City?
“It was amazing really. I sent off the songs pretty much with just a guitar and maybe a drumbeat, in its simplest form, cos’ funny enough that’s how they like to get songs in Nashville, as raw as they can. But the whole creative experience was just mind-blowing. The players [the session musicians] come into the studio and they want you to play the song ‘live’ for them, so they can get the vibe of it. These guys are top-notch, like we had Keith Urban’s guitarist as the MD, so they pick up on that vibe very, very quickly. Three or four takes, if even that. And they have a discussion after every take about what they could do to improve it. And what I noticed was that it was ALL positive. They were all there to make sure the end product sounded amazing. There was no negativity. Everything was about looking forward and trying to get the best result. And then when they’d come to a final arrangement, they’d turn to me and be like, ‘Right, Derek, what do you think?’ And if I wanted to change anything, maybe the tempo or the key, I’d have my shot at it then before they went for the final takes. I think we tracked all the songs with the band in two days, and then my vocals after that again. You know, in Ireland a lot of people always say sure if we don’t like how something is done, how it sounds, we can always send it back. But once it’s done in Nashville, it’s very much done! And some people ask me if I found that scary, but I swear to God, Anthony, I was the total opposite, I LOVED working on the spot. I think it’s the way forward for over here, too. Because you can tell by your gut if something isn’t right. I mean, sometimes it’s said that there’s no right or wrong in music, but sometimes…there kind of is! [laughs]. It’s like songwriting. Sometimes you’ll write with people who say there’s no right or wrong. But sometimes there just is! So it was the same with this. Working on the spot, to get it right there and then, that’s what I want to be doing. I really loved that aspect of it.”
This Is Me features two of Derek’s best known, but already recorded and released songs, God’s Plan and 100 Numbers. With so many great originals songs to his credit, was it tough picking just a few from his back catalogue to give the Nashville treatment to?
“We also have ‘Fine Line’ on it too, which was on the ‘One Good Night’ album, so we have three old songs of mine on there. But yeah, it was tough deciding what to do. You want to be progressive and creative in taking to the Nashville sound, but you also want something like ‘God’s Plan’ which would have that subtle connection to the Irish market. And I wanted something to kind of meet in the middle as well, and I think ‘Connemara Sky’ really does that. There’s so many songs I could have put on there, and there’s so many songs that I haven’t used at all anywhere yet, and this was all part of the discussion with the producer as well. I think we started off with fourteen tracks and I wanted to get down to the best eleven.”
Some people have long been of the belief that Irish country artists wouldn’t be able to ‘do’ American country, or wouldn’t be able to achieve success in both the Irish and American genres of country music. Personally, I think this is rubbish, and I think Derek is about to prove it with these two new releases. So I asked Derek what he feels about people who think that way?
“Well I don’t like people saying you can’t do something anyway, that gets my back up straight away, ya know! [laughs]. I’d never tell someone they couldn’t do something. But at the same time, I know Irish country is different to American country. My album, ‘This Is Me’, was recorded in Nashville, I did use American musicians, but at the same time it’s not me singing in an American accent! Or me in a cowboy hat! Actually, it’s funny, because I said to Jeff when we were doing the arrangements that some of it was very heavy, almost pop/rock. And he said well that’s country nowadays, that’s what we call country here in Nashville. But then there’s some of the more easy-listening ones like ‘More To Good Loving’, so there’s a good mix there. I would be a little wary of people saying I’ve gone pop, or gone rock or whatever, because I haven’t. This is the sound that Jeff feels at the moment suits my voice and my songs, ya know. And I’m looking forward to people hearing it and giving it a chance. Hopefully they’ll give it a chance anyway! [laughs].”
Derek recently held both the number one and number two positions on the Irish iTunes country chart with the first singles off his two new albums, This Is Me and City of Chicago. I asked how it felt to have both first singles chart so well?
“Yeah, and they stuck around for a while in those positions which is always a good sign. It’s a brilliant feeling. But look, I always try to work hard, keep the head down, keep recording, keep doing those things and hopefully everything else looks after itself then. As long as people are still enjoying the music and coming to the gigs, the charts are a bonus. I’d be delighted if we could get the two albums in the Top Ten but I don’t know what way that’s going to work out. People always ask were you happy that you got a number one with ‘Simple Things’ and ‘One Good Night’, and I was. But at the same time, I’d be delighted just to have people buying the album and loving the album, ya know.”
When we spoke Derek had just returned from his sold-out Scottish tour. I wondered if being away like that is something he enjoys or, now that he’s a married man, he prefers getting home to his own bed each night as much as possible?
“I suppose there’s pluses and negatives to it really. In the one sense the show becomes really tight, cos you’re doing it every night. And it’s really great to get that feeling of everything going the way it should and slotting together nicely, it’s like being on a roll! And the craic is brilliant with the band as well, and the support acts. But yeah, the travelling! [laughs]. We generally do a week and a half and then come home. Doing something like three or four weeks in Australia or wherever, I don’t know if I could do that to be honest with you. I mean I’d do it, of course I would. And I’d love it too. But I’d just rather the way we do it now, the week and a half, ten days and home then go again. But yeah, I love being on tour, I love being in a different town every night and every day, hotels, the new crowd, all of that.”
For our last question, we returned to the subject of songwriting. Now, as strange as it may seem, there are many songwriters out there who claim that they find it extremely difficult to write when they’re happy. They say they need a certain amount of tension or conflict in their lives in order to be creative. Given that both the Happy Man and This Is Me albums show Derek to be in a great place in his life both personally and professionally, I wondered how this might affect his songwriting?! Does his writing depend on feeling in a certain mood, or can he ‘switch on and off’ whenever he needs to or wants to write?
“It’s funny, ya know, cos’ I guess the ‘Happy Man’ and ‘This Is Me’ titles say it all for me at the moment, don’t they. But it’s almost like being an actor at times, you have to switch into your imagination and your feelings, and tap into your emotions and all of that. You might see something on TV or hear a story and it just kicks you into action. You don’t have to literally experience everything that you write about. There’d be a few lads being asked some questions if that was the case! [laughs]. But yeah, I do understand if people say they went through a break-up or whatever and they wrote twenty songs out of it, ya know. But to be honest, Anthony, if that’s the sacrifice you had to make to write songs I think I’d stay away from it! [laughs].”