Chris Leonard told David Hennessy about growing up seeing greats like Barney McKenna up close, his 2014 appearance on The X Factor and why he doesn’t mind his music being described as ‘Ed Sheeran meets The Saw Doctors’.
As part of Stereo Kicks, Chris Leonard placed fifth in the 2014 series of The X Factor.
Working with Darren Holden of the High Kings and Billy Farrell, the Grammy-nominated producer known for working with famous faces such as The Corrs and Westlife, Chris demonstrates his unique brand of pop music with a trad influence with his current single Fix.
But his 2014 appearance on the reality show was far from Chris’ first brush with superstars of the world of music. In fact, it was quite an everyday thing for him growing up.
Chris’s father has been a trad musician and a balladeer all his life meaning that even at a young age Chris was in some pretty esteemed company as his old man played with greats like The Fureys and The Dubliners.
Chris remembers, “When I was growing up, my father would have been friends with the Fureys, Barney McKenna and I would have been in music sessions with these as a young lad growing up.
“It was only as I started to grow older that I actually started to realize who these people were by looking through albums and different things.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God’. And then I started seeing videos and so on.
“I started to realize how lucky I was.
“My dad would have been very good friends with Paul Furey.
“We used to go over to Scotland quite a bit and there was a folk festival over there called the Marymass Folk Festival and it was in those places where I got to sit in the sessions and listen to them.
“It was mad and looking back on it now, I was extremely, extremely lucky.
“I learned a lot from watching my dad.
“My dad has been, until the pandemic hit, a full-time musician since I’ve been born.
“Growing up around that, unbeknownst to myself, I was picking up how to perform onstage, how to be on stage.
“And it got to a stage where it wasn’t a case of me needing to try, it was just in me then. It was comfortable for me.
“Being onstage and in front of people was a familiar place for me to be and it’s second nature to me.
“I don’t think anything of it.
“That massively helped when going for The X Factor.”
Chris remembers one funny incident that happened when he wanted to join in with one of his dad’s gigs himself.
“I was at my dad’s gig and I would have been about three years of age or something like that.
“I had a Pringles box that I had eaten all the Pringles out of and I was tapping on it. I was like, ‘Oh, this can be a drum’.
“And people started coming over to try and put money in my Pringles box.
“And I was an idiot. I was like, ‘No, no, go away. I just want to play my drum’. Had I known, I would have let them fill it.”
There were no pringles but there was a full Wembley Arena when Chris performed for the X Factor judges in 2014.
Although he didn’t have any traditional instruments with him for it, he did think about bringing some onstage.
It was not his first time to auditions as he had made it as far as the judges’ houses the year before as part of a band.
“The reason I went for The X factor that year was because I had always said that if Simon Cowell ever came back, I would go for it then because I was always really interested in his opinion.
“I was always interested in the other judges too but Simon’s the one that everyone wants to see what he thinks.”
Chris would breeze through his first audition but Simon Cowell threw down the gauntlet.
“That was the first year where you had to do a room audition in front of four judges and you also had to do an arena audition in front of the crowd.
“I did the room audition. I got four yeses there which was fantastic and I was over the moon but Simon turned around and said, ‘Chris, when you come back, show us who you really are. Show us what you are as an artist’.
“And I was like, ‘Right, I can’t bring a fiddle and bodhran on the stage, Simon so I’m wondering what I am going to do here…’
“I was looking through songs upon songs and I was like, ‘None of these are right for me to sing for the audition’.
“And I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to write a song. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take a leap of faith. And I’m going to write my own song’.
“And I did. And I went there and Simon and Cheryl asked me, ‘What are you going to sing?’
“And I was like, ‘Well, Simon, when I was here before you said that you wanted me to show you who I am as an artist so today I’m going to take a massive risk and sing a song that I wrote myself.
“‘And it’s a risk because I don’t know if you guys are gonna like it, or if everybody here is gonna like it, but if I was ever going to roll the dice, I need to roll it now’.
“And he was like, ‘I love that. Go for it’.
“I started playing the song and I messed up on the guitar because it was in Wembley, it was so many people there.
“I know I’m comfortable on stage but the pressure of that moment and wanting to do well, wanting to get through was hard.
“But I did it and I got through.
“And as soon as I hit into the first verse, all of Wembley just went crazy and they loved it.
“And I was like, ‘This is unbelievable, I can’t believe what I’m watching here’.
“I finished the song and Cheryl said, ‘Yeah, it was really good but you did make a couple of mistakes on the guitar though’.
“And then Simon piped up and was like, ‘Cheryl, I don’t know whether you realise but we’re here to judge him on his voice not his guitar play’.
“I got four yeses and the place went mad when I got through and then I cried my eyes out like a little baby.
“I ran back and gave my family a big hug. It was a special moment.
“The whole X Factor thing was incredible but there are few things that touch going out into Wembley, playing your own song and seeing a Wembley of people stand up on their feet and clap and cheer you on. That’s mind blowing.”
Chris’ audition was successful but when it came time to cut the numbers down, he failed to make the cut.
Or perhaps it should be said he didn’t make the cut alone as, just like he did with One Direction before, Simon Cowell put some of those who he didn’t want to lose into a band together.
Named Stereo Kicks, the band eventually finished fifth in the year Ben Haenow won and Fleur East came second.
“It was a mad time, incredible time. I loved every second of it. And I was really, really lucky.
“It went much better than I expected. It was a rollercoaster. In my opinion, it’s a once in a lifetime ticket that you get to ride that rollercoaster.
“I got to perform with Queen which is mind blowing to me still at this stage.”
Someone who knew exactly what it was like for Chris was Niall Horan.
Chris remembers Niall taking him under his wing during the show’s run but this was not their first meeting as Chris had played Niall’s star-studded 18th birthday party in Mullingar.
“Niall is a Mullingar lad, I’m from Ballivor in Meath so he’s 25 minutes from where I’m from.
“I actually played at Niall’s 18th birthday party which was a brilliant night.
“I kind of met him there for the first time and when I met him on the show then- He came in with One Direction lads- I went up and said hello to him.
“And I says, ‘You probably don’t remember me..’
“He was like, ‘Do I?’
“I was like, ‘Yeah, remember I played your birthday party?’
“He was like, ‘Oh my god’.
“And he couldn’t believe that it was me and that I was in the band the same way he was.
“He was like, ‘That’s absolutely mental’. And he kind of just took me under his wing during that time period, just helped me out a bit and gave me bits of advice.
“He brought me over to his. We had a few beers and jammed and had a bit of a laugh.
“What he done for me at that time was extremely kind and I’ll say it for as long as I can breathe: He’s a gentleman and he’s a credit to himself and Mullingar.”
As incredible as it was to play to massive arenas and to television audiences of millions, Chris admits it was hard when it was all taken away.
“The biggest learning experience I got from it all was the massive low after it.
“When the whole X Factor thing ended and kind of stopped, it was a real kick in the face because everything you’ve ever worked for is at your fingertips.
“The hardest thing was that knock afterwards where it was just kind of taken away.
“I remember after one of the shows, I was chatting to Marvin from JLS.
“He said, ‘Just be prepared’.
“He was like, ‘Be prepared for after. Because this is all amazing, take all this in and enjoy every single second of it but once this is done, this is done. The bubble’s burst and you’re back to reality. You’re back in your hometown, back in your house’.
“He said, ‘Nothing prepares you for that’.
“It’s very hard because you’re going from that high adrenaline buzz every week playing on TV to millions of people, being on the red carpet and then you’re back in your hometown out of nowhere.
“It’s just a real reality check and you can do one of two things with it.
“You can either be like, ‘Oh, well, that’s the end of it’. Or you can be like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s take the benefits that I have gained from the good experience that I have had and let’s run with and let’s create something’.
“So that’s what I chose to do.”
Chris had just played his first sold out show at Whelan’s in Dublin and had his single Kiss in Cali make it onto RTE’s recommended playlist when the pandemic hit. He has had to wait until now to release the follow-up, current single Fix.
“I’ve never really known how to describe the sound to people other than that it’s pop music with trad influence.
“One of my youngest memories was sitting in a pub in Meath playing at a session with Barney McKenna. I was just always blessed to be surrounded by such good musicians.
“It really engrained itself in me and rubbed off on me.
“And then on the flip side of that, I had a mother who loves music so I got a real pop influence from that side.
“I always wanted to merge the two, trad and pop, and do something with it.
“When people say that they don’t like Irish music, they don’t dislike Irish music because when they’re sat there listening to it, the foot’s tapping or their head is bopping or something like that.
“The only thing they dislike is the repetition of the songs that are going around, because they’ve heard them all so many times.
“I wanted to create a sound and pull Irish music forward and create a new generation of songs.
“A lot of music these days is so depressing and dull.
“My goal has never been to be this completely poetic songwriter that spins incredible Shakespeare lyrics.
“My whole thing was to create feel good music that’s easy to listen to and that puts a smile on people’s faces.
“If someone’s sitting in the car and they’re listening to Fix and they forget about the phone bill that they have to pay at home just for just for those three or four minutes, well then that’s my job done.”
Chris’ music has been described as ‘Ed Sheeran meets The Saw Doctors’.
He laughs when asked what he thinks of that description: “I’m in good company. If I have a career as long as The Saw Doctors and as successful as Ed Sheeran, I’ll be happy out.
“There’ll be no complaints on my end.”
Fix is out now.
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