Interview: Foy Vance on why his songwriting is now more real

Why Aberfeldy is more inspiring than London for songwriting and more stimulating than drugs and alcohol.

Foy Vance has been a songwriter for more than 20 years, a performer for 30 and he has just made his most honest record to date, ‘Signs Of Life’. Born in Bangor, Co. Down, in 1974 he has had Bonnie Raitt appear on his albums and can count Bob Dylan’s sometime guitarist Bob Britt as a fan. Ed Sheeran is such a fan of his songwriting that he gave Foy Vance a contract with his Gingerbread Man Records. He is known in and around Nashville and co-wrote a song with Miranda Lambert and Natalie Hemby that appeared on Lambert’s ‘The Weight Of These Wings’ in 2016. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Foy Vance at his home in Aberfeldy, Perth & Kinross, over Zoom to discuss his new record ‘Signs Of Life’ and how his recognition of his own alcohol and drug problems influenced the songs he wrote for the record. What becomes clear very quickly is that Foy Vance sees himself as primarily a songwriter and performer, and that is what he concentrates on, letting others look after other aspects of his career. He also shares his concern at the impact of BREXIT on the younger generation of musicians who are just starting their performing careers, and who are looking to play as many gigs as possible to get their chops up. One thing that is not made clear from the written interview is that, despite his time touring the world and the time he has spent living in London and Aberfeldy, his strong Irish accent is still a key part of his overall personality and matches his distinctive appearance.

Hi Foy, I can see you have a fair few guitars behind you.

Yes, but you know, I really need just one more though, haha.

COVID  has brought complex changes that have brought benefits as well as problems for individuals. What has COVID meant for yourself?

I say this to just about everybody who asks me, and I was very loathed to speak about how I felt about COVID in the beginning because I was aware of what was going on around me. I was seeing people all over the globe losing their lives and their livelihoods, with no chance of getting back out. I could see the devastation, and with a bit of forethought, you could see it was not going anywhere good and it was going to be bleak for a while. However, with the blinkers on, and just speaking personally about my own life and my own circumstance, it was a bit of a godsend. I was living in London at the time, not Aberfeldy, as I had gone back down to London so that my daughter could go to dance school down there. So when lockdown happened, and my head was just spinning in London because of the noise and I am used to the quiet of Aberfeldy. I can pee in my back garden here if I want to, it is that peaceful, and this is what I’m used to. In London, the noise, just the constant noise both visually and audibly was somewhat terrifying. When lockdown happened I no longer had to get on the tube to go to my studio, I just got in my car and drove directly to my studio and then I drove directly back to my house. London was so quiet, it was like a photographer’s or artist’s paradise. No matter what your art is, it was look at this, how peculiar is this? Some of my drives home were so eerie because there was nobody on the streets of London, and I have to admit, I did enjoy those moments.

You were born in Northern Ireland, you’ve lived in London and tour the world when you are allowed to,  but you now live in the highlands of Scotland. What has the move meant for your music?

If I could get you in a time machine or some kind of time-warp machine, and get you up here at the speed of light you would just click. I would take you up to the top of the hill at Aberfeldy, and when you turned around and looked at the view you would want to move here. mind you, I have always loved Scotland. My great grannie was Scots, and we always came here with my family on holiday when we were kids, we would go to Butlins in Ayrshire. Any time I’ve toured here in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and wherever I’ve always had a ball, so I have always just loved Scotland. I’ve always had an affinity with the people here, the landscape and I’ve always just loved coming back. I used to fantasize when I was 19 or 20 about moving to Scotland when I was older, but I never really thought it would become a reality. I lived in London for seven years, it was my first marriage and my daughter was about 2 when we went there so it would be 2005 I think, and it was just like living in a washing machine to me. I couldn’t make hide nor tail of anything, I never got the chance to focus on a plan of what I was going to do and plot a career out because I was so busy playing every hole-in-the-wall and taking any job to pay for this dream I couldn’t afford. I never got a chance to get my head above water, I was just being thrown about in the waves for ages, and at the end of it I was so much in debt, and I’m not going to tell you how much because it was criminal, haha. It was getting to the stage that it was a debt I may never be able to pay back.

I got a gig up here in Aberfeldy, like a busman’s gig, my wife was a painter and she exhibited in a gallery in town, and the owner said why doesn’t Foy come up and sing a few songs and we can put a gig on for him here and down the road and make a weekend of it, a real busman’s holiday. I was thinking, absolutely, so we jumped in a wee campervan and drove up for this gig, and it was in October so Aberfeldy was in its autumnal glory with reds and golds, smoke coming out of the chimneys, it was like driving into hobbitland haha, it really was like driving into The Shire. I fell in love immediately, and even before we got into Aberfeldy I said to my wife at the time, I want to move here because we need to move here. It took me a year and a divorce from that wife, but I finally got here.

As far as your career goes, are you now doing what you want to do, as opposed to what you are told or expected to do?

That is exactly what I am doing. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but when I first came here I genuinely felt as if I had moved from a humdrum of industry to the haunt of ancient bards. You can feel it in the woods, Robbie Burns wrote ‘The Birks Of Aberfeldy’ here, and the place is so inspiring, it is on ley lines they say. There are loads of writers, painters, sculptors, poets here, it is such a lovely little place.

How much do the songs on your new record ‘Signs Of Life’ reflect your new existence?

When I first moved here and felt the haunts of ancient bards, I was like oh my God I’ve totally left the hum of industry behind and it is just music, everything is pure again. I didn’t feel as if I needed to fight to live a dream anymore. That was a huge change and that change has stayed with me but it has evolved since I first moved up here. I’ve been back to London twice with my daughter, but the one thing I have had that has remained true is the solace of silence, the solace of nature. If you want to cure your depression, go and swim in the river and go for a walk. It reminds you of what it is all about, and I just lose all sense of myself, and I think being surrounded by mountains and trees and looking down the road and seeing Schiehallion mountain, and knowing for 130 miles after that there is nothing but mountains is an incredibly humbling feeling.

Am I right in thinking that you managed to record the new record in Aberfeldy?

‘Signs Of Life’ started life in London, actually. I’d come off the road on November 4th, 2017 and my son, Sonny haha, was born on St Patrick’s day that year, would you believe, I mean you couldn’t write it could you, haha. It was time to stop, to slow down and get focused on the next record, which at that time was ‘Republic Of Eden’, and I had loads of songs set aside that I was going to record, demo-up and record,  and I got into the studio in London and I was in a killer studio with Plan B, who is a mate of mine, and I went in there to start working on this record. What really rang true was the state I was in, I don’t want to go into too much detail, but late nights, too much weed and alcohol, bad food and just sugared shit. You never think how damaging that stuff is when you are on the road, because you are drinking to keep up at night when people’s energy is up, then you are taking painkillers in the morning to get over the night before, haha. Then you get off the road and you are waking up with your family and having breakfast and you are still doing that kind of shit, you start getting the looks and it is “What the fuck, what are you doing?”.

It was time to step back and figure some shit out and see if there were any signs of life at all and I found a sapling. To be honest, I was glad of it and that was the catalyst for ‘Signs Of Life’ and that is when the record began. There were big gaping wholes and I was going “Well, this is the first real truth you have written about for a while.” and I could start to see a record, and I would go that song won’t fit nor this one, and I realised that I needed to write more songs. I started writing and going through the process in London, and then the pandemic happened and we came back up here to Aberfeldy. I kept writing in this very room, and in another house I sometimes rent, called Dunvarlich.

We recorded the rest of it here, and I got to the point where I was so close to it because I was doing everything on it by myself, that I stopped hearing it. All I could hear was that it was not quite right, but I didn’t know what to change to make it right, I need some space. I sent it to my mate, Gareth Dunlop, who is an excellent producer and an incredible singer-songwriter himself, and said throw a mix on this because his mixing and production skills are just so good. He is a real geek about gear and you can just hear the quality of it, and I was thinking here is this muddy shit I have recorded, haha, the songs are in there but it was more like a big lump of granite or marble, you needed to chip away to reveal the song. He sent me back what he would do with it and that isn’t where we ended up, but I heard the songs again, and I could hear what was wrong and what needed to be done because I had distance. It was all done over Zoom, I sent it to him, he sent it back and I would pick up the guitar or stick a bit of piano on or whatever. It was a great way to work.

It has worked for a lot of other artists as well. We are in the world of streaming and you’ve released three tracks as singles, ‘Sapling’, ‘Time Stand Still’ and the title track, ‘Signs Of Life’. The record industry has changed significantly with streaming so how were your lead singles chosen and do you think it unpicks the overall integrity of an album?

Look me in the eye, do I look like a man who has ever picked a single. I am a musician, that is industry and it is up to my team and my manager to do that shit. They are in the industry and they enjoy it, and that is their job. I couldn’t give a flying fuck what they released first, or when they release it, there’s the record do as you will, haha.

Haha, You are from Northern Ireland, lots of great musicians have come out of Ireland,  is the music scene still vibrant today?

I think Northern Ireland will always be vibrant, Ireland in general will always be vibrant, anywhere that is small and doesn’t have that much industry is always going to be a hotbed of people trying to grow above, to be able to be seen from elsewhere. Maybe that is a strange statement, but that is how I think of it. I think it is a hotbed of talent and always will be. Some of the greatest singers, some of the greatest songwriters, I mean I’m not that in touch with what is happening right now specifically, but the Gareth Dunlops, the Ryan McMullans and Peter J McCauley who is one of my favourite artists of all time as a songwriter, and he is a great singer as well. His songs are so unique to him, you know how it is when people find their voice and they are not putting anything on, it is there you go, that is how I articulate myself. That is what his songs feel like to me, they feel so articulate, they are just all flesh on the bone.

What is your approach to songwriting and how easy is it for you, is it a job you do at set times or is it as and when you have the inspiration for a song?

Just by enjoyment. I’m of the opinion that if you are not interested, then you should just leave it, and go and do something you are interested in. If I was writing a song and I was getting bored, I would go and play the drums, or just sit around and listen and be open to things. I don’t really think too much, I just try and enjoy myself until something bites. It’s then a case of what are you, are you worth reeling in, haha. If it is, you then get to work, but even then I think it is important to stay interested, you shouldn’t be bored writing a song, you shouldn’t be bored making art, you should be interested and intrigued and trying to uncover whatever it is you are after. It is less about employing craft and more about just listening and being attentive, your craft will follow suit. That is why you play guitar everyday, that is why you play piano everyday, that is why you write things everyday so that when something comes along you have the tunes there to get it, you put your stamp on it and follow the idea.

I read something the other day that described you as a veteran performer. How do you see yourself?

I guess I am a veteran performer, haha. I’m going to be 47 this year and I started gigging when I was 16 so that must make me a veteran, doesn’t it? I love performing, and I approach it the same way I approach songwriting, and even with a set-list I will just go up there with no expectations and just follow my interest, and that is what performing is about as well. There is a song on this record, ‘It Ain’t Over’, and I only wrote the outro for it when I was putting it on this record, but I started writing that song 21 years ago without the outro and I used to play the song 20 years ago without the outro. So it took me all that time to write the song, and it is like that live moment when you have one moment to be there and then it is gone, gone. I really love that, especially when it goes out into the room and if you are feeling it yourself, then that’s when you know something is translating it. If I’m able to get in here, hopefully, you are coming with me, and if you are not then that’s alright as well, but I’m still going there, haha, because it is more interesting. The thing I don’t like about performing is the road life that comes with it, being away from home, living out of a suitcase and all that shit, it is horrid and hard.

Are you going back to America when you can?

I‘m going back to the States in November, just for a week and a bit because I’m playing in Los Angeles, two nights in New York and then two nights at the Ryman supporting Anderson East. It is a bit of a shortstop, but that is the way I want to keep it, and I don’t want to be on the road for any more than two weeks if I can avoid it. It would be two weeks in the UK, two weeks in Europe, two weeks in the States and then back to Ireland for a month playing the small pubs, haha. That would be the way to do it.

What is your fan base like in America?

Mostly American, haha. It is good but I don’t sell out 5,000 seater theatres, they are a real listening crowd.

I was speaking to Bob Britt, sometime Bob Dylan guitarist, a few months ago and he was singing your praises.

I would be singing his right now, for sure. He is a legend.

He wasn’t holding back on what he thought about you.

That is cool. There is such a different sort of class of musician in the States when it comes to americana. I’m sure you find this, and I’m not saying this, by any stretch of the imagination, that someone from England or Scotland can’t be a country star, it is more that the musicianship is so high because there are so many great musicians you have to be better, you have to play more, you have to learn more and do more, you have to eat, drink and sleep this shit or you are not going to get the gig. It just kind of refines some people, doesn’t it? Yes, Mr. Britt is certainly one of them, and his wife Etta is a diamond, the pair of them they really are. There you go, I’m gossiping about them too.

Do you see BREXIT having an impact on you personally?

I don’t give a shit, yes I do, so let me unpack that. As something that a government could do I just don’t want to talk about that because it is so utterly fucking stupid and abhorrent, just like a lot of what is happening within government in general. They are not interested in running anything other than their own bank accounts. As far as what it means for me touring I don’t really know, I guess it will mean more visas and that. There are a couple of ways of looking at it, if it is a pain in the arse to tour, is it enough of a pain to cancel the who tour, am I going to lose money?

I think the real implications of Brexit for musicians are still not fully understood, which is part of the problem.

I don’t give a shit is just me not wanting to think about it and that is why I wanted to unpack my statement. If you need a new visa or whatever for every country you go to then that will be sorted, what I do give a shit about it is that not everyone has a manager like mine and a team like mine that can deal with that stuff. I am really concerned about the younger generation, the next generation of songwriters, who are trying to do what I was doing which was to play every gig you can. Where is that going to go now, it is such a huge thing to unpack I don’t know what to say about it, I’m just appalled and I hope to God there is a rallying together to make sure those pricks in parliament do what they need to do by the artists. I’m not holding my breath though, haha. Maybe the next revolution will be a songwriter’s revolution.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks or artists that are on your current playlist?

I would have to say Peter Jay McCauley who I mentioned earlier because he is my go-to artist if I’m confused or whatever. He is one of those artists I go to for comfort generally, his last record was called ‘Amnesty’ and there is a song on there called ‘Until The Lights Dim’ which is just breath taking. It is also criminal because it is sitting there with 2,000 plays and nobody knows about it, that always takes me to the fair I can tell you. Something else I really enjoyed was the Anderson East record, it is really cool and interesting and he sent me some songs to listen to and I was just blown away, really blown away because they are very different from what he has done before, very exciting stuff. There is a debut album coming out next year from songwriter Arron Raitiere, you will probably have heard his songs as a co-writer, but this will be his first record as a solo artist.

Do you think ‘Signs Of Life’ is your best album?

The next one will be better, haha. It is funny, I’m really proud of it for a lot of reasons. As we discussed, the journey of the album was something that was very different from what had happened before, and that I was able to eventually find songs that are really me, the fact I was able to work with Gareth  Dunlop means that it sounds different from anything I’ve done before and I really like that. Having said all that, I think I would have to say my favourite record is ‘To Memphis’ if I could only have one. It was certainly the most enjoyable record to make, it was one of the most magical experiences, just really cool. There wasn’t a lot of talking done, just music over two days, third day mix it, fourth day fly home, perfect, haha.

Just before we finish, I have to ask about your t-shirt with the Electra logo.

Haha, I didn’t wear it specifically for this interview it is just a nice t-shirt, haha.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I just hope they have a killer day, haha.

Foy Vance’s ‘Signs Of Life’ is released on September 10th by Gingerbread Man Records

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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