Foy Vance on how the Scottish Highlands saved him
Bangor man Foy Vance says personal misfortune and a move to the Scottish highlands set him back on track for his long-awaited second album
IT’S NOT that Foy Vance is a forgetful man, but these days he has a lot on his mind.
Like birthday parties, and daughters, and cinema trips, and new albums, and interviews with The Ticket. Today, crossed wires means that he is combining all five elements at once, which means that our chat is conducted in the foyer of a London picturehouse. But that doesn’t mean that the Bangor man is unwilling to talk. On the contrary; it seems Foy Vance, an eminently witty and down-to-earth chap and a pretty darned good songwriter to boot, loves to tell stories.
Which is just as well, because he has plenty of them to go around. The flatcap-wearing, moustachioed Vance’s own upbringing seems like a bit of a tall tale to most, but it is nonetheless true. Some of his formative years were spent in the American Deep South, as his family relocated with his preacher father to various postings in Oklahoma, Alabama and beyond.
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“Well, I guess when you pick it apart, it was quite interesting – but I guess as soon as you pick anyone’s life apart, it gets interesting,” he laughs. “It was a pretty cool way to grow up, I guess. The religious thing never really impacted on me, so I just got the good shit, all the music stuff. I remember going to my first church in Alabama; I was only a tiny kid, but I remember. It was pretty interesting to experience at a young age. Loads of kids where I was in Oklahoma would have experienced that, but what made it different for me was that I came back and grew up in a working-class estate in Bangor. That sort of polarised it a bit; it’s like, ‘Fuck, that was a bit weird, wasn’t it?’”
The juxtaposition of those two worlds undoubtedly had an effect on the young Foy, who says that music was always around his family, but he had never considered making a career out of it.
“The estate I grew up on, there was no one else that did anything in the arts; there were way more paramilitaries than there were actors or singers, so it just wasn’t the reality,” he chuckles. “It never occurred to me that I could join a band, and maybe go out and gig and record my own stuff – that was always something that other people did. So I kind of fell into it; I never had a drive or a vision, so to speak. I just kind of followed my nose, and before I knew it, I was in bands. I can be slow on the uptake with things like that, hence the first album being released when I was 32, and the second being released when I’m 38. It takes me a bit of time to get around to doing things.”
When Vance did eventually get around to releasing a solo album, 2006’s Hope, it was successful enough for him to continue along the career path of “musician” and tour extensively. Now he’s back with that aforementioned second album, The Joy of Nothing, a record that combines the singer’s soulful husk with some thought-provoking lyrics of love and loss, some superb musicianship and the lush addition of strings. It’s an uplifting affair that aptly reflects where Vance is as both a person and a musician – something that, in retrospect, Hope didn’t quite capture, he says.
“I don’t mean to disrespect Hope because I know that there are people out there who enjoy it and I don’t want to piss on it, but I didn’t really like it,” he explains. “I liked the songs, but it didn’t really feel like a record to me – and I didn’t realise that until I released it. There are some strong songs that are honest and articulate and reflect what was going on at the time, but the album as a piece of art doesn’t work. That was probably the main reason it’s taken me so long [to follow it up].”
Although he had been continuously writing over the years, nothing seemed to click – until a move to the Scottish highlands town of Aberfeldy, coupled with the end of a personal relationship, generated something of a lightbulb moment.
“I went through this phase of being quite down, and quite depressed, and thinking, ‘unless you can write an Innervisions or an Astral Weeks, what’s the point?’” he laughs. “I went through this phase of thinking, ‘what is worth saying?’ And I guess lately – maybe it’s an age thing – but I realised that actually, nothing’s worth saying! But this is what you do, so you may as well just say . . . well, something. When I came to that conclusion, it just so happened to collide with a time that I was moving up to the highlands, and I was feeling like a man let loose, shot right out of a cannon after living in the humdrum of London for seven years. The silence of the place really struck me quite hard; I had a load to write about and I felt very inspired. And during the course of that, I had a personal marital split – and that then gave the record a fervent beginning, but also an ending, too. So I thought ‘OK, there you go – there’s an album. It might not be the best collection of songs in the world, but it definitely sums up the year that I’ve just had.’”
Once he had the songs written, Vance decamped to Attica Audio in rural Donegal, the studio owned by Villagers guitarist Tommy McLaughlin, to record with producer Michael Keeney and a group of “very talented musicians” to fill in the gaps.
“You can get a great studio in London, but then you’ve gotta walk out the door and be in London,” he smirks. “Which is great if you’re making that kind of record, but I wasn’t making a ‘city’ record. I wanted to walk out of the studio and stand around a fire pit with no one about, bar cows and hills. When we saw the space and the set-up, the room sounds great, the gear is incredible, and I would sit in the room and look out these big glass windows at the hills. It was absolutely perfect.”
Although in recent years he has worked with fellow Northern Irishman David Holmes – most notably on the soundtrack to Oscar-winning short film The Shore – bringing him on board to produce the album wasn’t an option.
“I think David has such a vision for everything that he does; sometimes he starts things with scraps, but the second it comes alive he has a very definitive vision and I think we would have just done each other’s head in with this record,” he says. “I don’t think David would have been right for this project, but you can’t work with someone like him and not be influenced. He is the opposite of me, in that he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. That boy plays musicians like musicians play instruments. He’s a very special guy to work with, and I learnt a lot from working with him.”
There are several other big names attached to The Joy of Nothing, however – most notably Bonnie Raitt on You and I and Ed Sheeran on Guiding Light. He struck up a friendship with the latter when they toured together across the US, but the older musician was slightly apprehensive about how the inclusion of the youngster may be perceived.
“It was a really funny one, because in many ways, I can see how people would look at that and see it as a bit of an odd pairing. We do different things in many ways, I suppose, but fundamentally, we’re actually the same. It’s just that he’s 21 and bossing it; I’m 38 and a bit more cynical,” he laughs. “I was uncertain about [having him on the album], because the last thing I wanted it to feel like was that it was contrived, or that I was trying to utilise his popularity or influence, or something. That would just make my toes curl; that’s just the wrong reason to put someone on a record. But luckily, it felt completely natural to me. I thought he did a beautiful job.”
Just before Christmas last year, Vance got the news that uber-respected American indie label Glassnote Records had offered him a worldwide deal, making him a labelmate of acts such as The Temper Trap, Phoenix, Mumford & Sons and his fellow Bangormen Two Door Cinema Club. After a long wait, it seems like all of his ducks are finally lining up, but the big question is, is he ready to step up to the next level?
He laughs at the thought of hitting the “bigtime”, but pauses to consider the question before returning to the darkness of the cinema screen and his daughter’s birthday party.
“I think in today’s climate, it’d be foolish to dwell on anything like that,” he says. “I think where I’m at, I’ve got a record now that I’m proud of and that I feel is articulate, if nothing else. I don’t know how the industry works; it’s a mystery, sometimes. It comes out of the blue for some people, and for others who you feel deserve it and who release albums you think should be huge, it never happens. Will it happen for me? Who knows. In terms of this record, I think if ever it has a chance to do something, it’s in the right hands, but that’s for other people to decide.
“But if the record does well, then yes: I will follow it wherever it leads.”
The Joy of Nothing is released on August 23rd. Foy Vance plays the Indiependence festival in Cork this weekend
Buy this single at: http://smarturl.it/FVJoyOfNothing