Brendan Murray: Boy in a balloon chasing the Eurovision bubble
The 20-year-old hopes to rise above the competition in the second semi-final in Kiev
Brendan Murray performs “Dying to Try” at a dress rehearsal for the Eurovision Song Contest’s second semi-final in Kiev, Ukraine, on Thursday. Photograph: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
On Thursday night, 20-year-old silver-throated boyband veteran Brendan Murray will glide across a cloud-filled stage on a hot-air balloon, while singing the tentatively-titled Dying to Try (all the more poignantly if the ropes snap) for the 62nd Eurovision Song Contest.
“He’s the Eurovision’s only balloonist,” says the omniscient voice of Irish Eurovision, Marty Whelan.
Eurovision acts need something to mark them out, after all.
“We had to get rid of the backing singer in the monkey suit when we saw the Italian entry,” jokes Michael Kealy, Ireland’s head of delegation (the Italian favourite features a man larking about in a monkey suit).
Then Kealy shows footage of the stage set designed by Nicoline Refsing, who masterminded Australia’s set last year. It features nice clouds.
Eurovision veteran Linda Martin was involved in an advisory capacity
“Each time we use the clouds, it costs €1,000,” says Kealy. “By Thursday we’ll have done it seven times.”
Ireland has not fared well in Eurovision since our heyday in the 1990s. This is partly due to political voting, but it’s also because the Irish public don’t really take Eurovision seriously. Sweden chooses its entries with an epic national competition featuring their best songwriters. The Irish public once sent Dustin The Turkey, a move arguably worse for European unity than Brexit.
This year Kealy consulted with Louis Walsh, who had just worked with Murray in now-defunct boyband Hometown (a band featuring around 27 young fellas). The song was co-written by the Grammy-winning Swede, Jörgen Elofsson. Eurovision veteran Linda Martin was involved in an advisory capacity. (“She’s now on a cruise performing with Red Hurley, ” backing vocalist Shane McDaid tells me. “As you do.”)
Kiev is an interesting location. With a war to the east, a Ukrainian ban on the Russian entrant – who played an illegal gig in Crimea – and the resignation of senior Ukrainian television staff, fans worried it wouldn’t happen at all.
The Eurovision is not real. It’s imaginary. It’s a bubble and that’s why it works
The city has, we’re told, been given a serious facelift. Beside a Eurovision Village filled with art and music, a man dances in a panda suit, another sells ribbons raising money for soldiers in Donbass, and everyone is helpful.
Someone does try to pick my pocket while I’m conversing with a man holding a (real) monkey. But in fairness, I was distracted by a monkey.
Inside the Eurovision areas, consistency of service is assured because every city hires the same tried-and-tested technicians. “When you’re lucky enough or unfortunate enough to win, the best thing to do is employ the people who know how it works,” says Kealy.
Furthermore, the same contingent of flag-draped, face-painted and nationally costumed aficionados come every year. “It’s a bit like Groundhog Day,” he adds.
“The Eurovision is not real,” says Whelan. “It’s imaginary. It’s a bubble and that’s why it works.”
He says he enjoys it, though when he gets home he listens to Van Morrison “to detox”.
Murray is happy to whip his guitar out for the vloggers and Euro-nuts
Once here, one can see why a boy might need a hot-air balloon. Alongside the usual big-voiced divas in white, writhing hunks and ecstatic fiddlers, gimmickry abounds. At the first semi-final we get besuited Swedes on treadmills, a muscley pony-tailed Montenegrin shedding his skirt Bucks Fizz-style while singing about exploding rockets, and an Azerbaijanian woman serenading a horse-headed man on a stepladder.
“Why the long face?” says Whelan.
Murray is, by all accounts, “a sweetheart”, happy to whip his guitar out for the vloggers and Euro-nuts roaming the Euro-bubble.
When he was 16 he absconded from Galway to Dublin to audition for Hometown. “Someone would sing a few lines and Louis Walsh would say, ‘That’s enough. Next!’” says Murray.
But Louis let Murray sing a whole song and said, “That’s how you do an audition.”
And now, here he is at the Eurovision, pitting his balloon against, amongst others, an Austrian on a fake moon, Belarusian hippies on a speedboat, yodelling Romanians astride a cannon, a Ukrainian rock band’s giant head (it’s boomtime for creators of giant props) and a big-voiced Croatian, who, possibly referencing tensions in Europe, is duetting with himself.
Murray will be alone on stage. “People say, ‘You look so lonely, singing up there in the balloon,’” says Murray. “But sure, that’s the way it is.”
He chuckles – just a boy alone on a balloon at the Eurovision Song Contest, with a few hundred million people watching.