Country star Derek Ryan spoke to David Hennessy ahead of his upcoming UK dates, the recent big festivals he has played over here and getting a second chance at his musical dream after the demise of boyband D-Side.
Derek Ryan is one of the biggest names in Irish country music. Along with other big names like Nathan Carter and Lisa McHugh, he was part of a fresh crop of artists that breathed new life into the genre over the last 10-15 years, making them big stars in the process.
It has not been a straight road to success for Derek. While he had success with a boyband, that dream would end and see him gigging around London’s Irish pubs. But he says that experience stands to him as he does not take his success for granted.
The Irish World caught Derek play live not once but twice lately. He was in Scotland for gigs when we caught up with him recently and he now has English dates coming up, that include a night at the London Irish Centre in Camden.
We’ve seen a lot of you over this side of the water lately, haven’t we?
Derek says: “Yeah, we were in Edinburgh at the Highland Show and then we did Birmingham Páirc Festival and then we did the Greenford Vintage festival as well.
“We’ve just been over quite a bit. That’s how it works. It kind of goes in waves sometimes. We’re like buses,” he laughs. You would be waiting for us to come over and then we come over loads.”
As mentioned already and speaking of buses, The Irish World have encountered that big bus – or perhaps it’s more of a lorry – with his name on the side of it at two recent events.
How was the recent Vintage Day?
“It was grand. We’d gone through the night to do it. The gig was amazing.”
Did you get to enjoy the day yourself?
“We had a few drinks afterwards at the show and then I hit the bed pretty early to be honest because we were just absolutely wrecked. But it was really enjoyable. I mean the weather, we couldn’t have asked for more.
You open your soul really when you’re writing songs, and I always admire people who go out there and take on the music business.
“I think I was dehydrated for about a week after it to be honest, it was so hot but it was a brilliant day and there were a lot of people there that I knew actually. “Obviously I used to live over in London as well and here were so many people there that we knew and it was such a great day really for the Irish in London.”
Did you used to play in an Irish pub around Greenford? What was it like to be back to play a festival like that?
“I used to play in Hennessy’s pub in Greenford. I think it’s gone now but it used to be not far from where the gig was. So to come back and play with your own band and your own show, it’s an amazing feeling.
“I remember going around and dragging guitars around on underground and doing gigs and taxis and what have you. Anything to get the gear there. It’s kind of a surreal to go back to London sometimes and even come back and do the theatre shows. It’s a great feeling.”
And just the weekend before that you were on the bill with Mary Black, Van Morrison, Nathan Carter and many more for the Páirc Festival in Birmingham. Did you get to enjoy that? And chat to the others on the bill?
“I did. We actually went out to just check out the gig really after our show. I was chatting to Mary [Black] back at the hotel and we had a few drinks. It was the first time I had ever met her so it was great to chat to her. I didn’t get chatting to Van now but he’s a rock and roll legend. He always will be, so to share the bill with these guys and the bands that were on before us, All Folk’d Up and different people, was just a great day to be part of.”
Derek pays credit to his supporting crew who ensure the gig goes as it should.
“We’ve a great crew who travel through the night an awful lot and they’re the first to get to the gig and the last to leave it also. I always say they work the hardest, it’s okay for me to just swan in and do the gig but they’re doing the real hard work.” Having seen him play live twice recently prompts us to ask Derek about his greatest gigs.
What have been highlights of your live performing?
“There’s been lots. It depends on what stage you’re at, really. I always say it’s all relative to where you are. I remember the first time when we really kicked off with Hold on to Your Hat a few years back, we played the Olympia theatre in Dublin which was a big step up for us.
“Things like that are little markers along the way: The SSE arena, headlining the Farmers Bash would be a big highlight. But there’s so many, like Trafalgar Square. Playing Trafalgar Square St. Patrick’s weekend was unbelievable.
“There’s so many things like that but then there’s festivals like Greenford, like Birmingham, there’s so many of those gigs that are just great gigs and you look back and go, ‘Geez…’
“We were actually chatting the other night. My sound engineers are with me now for 12 years and just reminiscing on all the gigs we’ve done: The small ones, the medium ones, the big ones.
“I suppose I’ve been gigging since I was 12 and now I’m 40. So that’s 28 years.
“It’s scary when you think about it but you treat every gig the same whether it’s big or small, you have to give it as much as you can. And I always got that from my dad really and that’s why I always do it.
“And then every now and again, there are some unexpected highlights, gigs that you wouldn’t think are going to be big- every gig is enjoyable to- but ones that are magic. There’s a bit of magic there somewhere that pops out and they’re great as well. You know, they’re great to have.”
It is now 13 years since your debut album, A Mother’s Son. Do you take time to reflect on that and how far you have come since?
“Yeah, I do. I always look back because I think the music business is such a tough business. A lot of businesses are but you put yourself out there, especially with songwriting and different things, and you’re open for criticism.
“You open your soul really when you’re writing songs, and I always admire people who go out there and take on the music business. I admire so many young acts coming out. I just look back and I’m proud.
“I’m proud of the D-side days. It didn’t work out, or whatever, but looking back we did a lot of good stuff. We achieved an awful lot, performed on Top of the Pops.
“So to come from a bungalow in Milltown, Garyhill, Co, Carlow and a little school – there was only 45 of us in it – And to go on and a few years later to be on Top of the Pops I think looking back, it’s a great achievement and those are things you look back on in your life and you kind of go, ‘Geez, we did alright’. We worked hard and there were highs and there were lows but you have to look back at the positives and the achievements.”
Derek was a teenager and had barely sat his Leaving Cert when he joined the boyband D-Side. The band would have hits in Ireland, the UK and even a number one hit in Japan with tracks like Invisible, Stronger Together, Speechless and Real World.
Although the lads hoped they would be the next Westlife, this did not come to pass. Although first known as a five piece, the group had become a trio by the time their second album came out and they would disband in 2006.
Was it tough when that dream ended?
“It came to a natural end really. I suppose it wasn’t a shock, it was a long time coming. But it was devastating. All I’d known from secondary school to 22-23 years old was being part of this band and it was gone. I really had to go back to basics and start from scratch, but these are things that make you.
“I saw an interview with Ed Sheeran there recently and he said, ‘You’re never going to enjoy the highs if you don’t go through the lows. You have to have people criticise you. You have to have bad songs, you have to have bad shows, you have to have all this to really appreciate the good times’. And they’re very true words.”
Was there ever a chance that when the boyband disbanded, you accepted ‘It’s over…’
“Well I always had a plan B, that I was going to go into teaching. I went back to college, did accountancy. That was kind of the Plan B but I always had a thing that I knew I had a certain level. I knew I could write songs, I knew I could sing.
“I knew I could do that but then there’s so many people who can do that so it’s down to hard work and perseverance and seeing where it takes you. I wasn’t really worrying about it because I was gigging and I was doing weddings. I was making a few bob, I was doing alright and then what happens happens.
“I think the one thing that everything taught me was there’s so many talented people that don’t make it and if it does come around – like it came around twice for me – you just have to grab it with both hands and make the most of it and be very grateful for it and don’t take it for granted.
“I don’t like when I hear people going, ‘Oh, he was bound to make it because of this’, or ‘bound to make it because of that’. That’s not true. There’s a lot of talented people I know who are not out there, and there is a bit of luck, whatever people think.
“Some people might think they’re God’s gift to the music business but the music business will always exist whether you’re in it or not. And there is a bit of luck whether people like to say, ‘Oh, I worked hard, and I deserve everything I get’. I think it’s a mix of both, you have to be lucky and then you have to make the most of it, that’s the most important thing.”
Speaking of playing in pubs, the latest single The Kickham Inn – very catchy – is about a country pub where anything goes.
Did your dad’s tales of gigging inspire it?
“Daddy used to play in a pub called The Kickham Inn in Carrick-on-Suir. To my knowledge, it doesn’t exist anymore. We used to go down during the summer holidays and we used to help with the gear and one night I was there I heard a lad saying, ‘The Kickham Inn will never kick you out’. (These lines give the song it’s chorus)
“I remembered it years and years later and that’s where it came from really. I said I’d write a song about it. I went down to Eoin Glackin and we said, ‘Look, we’ll give this a go’.
“That’s the type of stuff I love to write. It’s kind of my signature stuff at this stage, that kind of upbeat country stuff. I love songs like The Kickham Inn, I love performing stuff like that so I’m glad it’s going down well.”
Great video as well. It looks like great craic, was that the case?
“It was brilliant. We went to a local pub in Carlow called O’Shea’s, Borris. Beautiful, traditional old-style Pub. And with absolutely amazing pints of Guinness. Probably the best pint of Guinness I’ve had in a long, long time. It was mayhem, absolute mayhem but brilliant craic.”
Were you – like the song says – swimming in the stout?
“It would be a shame to swim in it because it was so good,” Derek laughs. We drank it.”
Another line of the song I like, have you ever roared at a glass of gin?
“I never personally did but I’ve seen lads having rows with glasses, so that’s where that came from.”
How does it feel to get honoured with the awards you have?
“It’s great, I always say the real awards are the crowds at gigs and people listening to your music. That’s really what we do it for but then it’s always nice to get the awards and be acknowledged for albums and songs and videos. It’s absolutely lovely.
“It’s amazing and I never take it for granted. Even coming to Greenford the other day and so many people coming up to the meet and greet… it’s amazing, absolutely amazing that people even know who you are.
“I remember gigging in Greenford to the barman and an auld lad at the bar reading the Sunday World and that was it. That’s all that was listening to me so for people to even know you, it’s an amazing feeling to have people come through the door see ya and paying their hard-earned money to come and see you. It’s something that surprises me to this day and it’s a great feeling.”
A member of Derek’s band is Kane O’Rourke who is well known on the London scene for playing with bands such as Hungry Grass. Kane has been interviewed in The Irish World for his own music. He’s brilliant,” Derek says. He’s just a great entertainer, a great musician and he’s great old craic too.”
Derek is currently working on a new album, it will be his 14th. “Yeah, we’re hoping to have it out before Christmas. It’s album number 14 as you say.
“The working title is On a Night like This but I don’t want to commit to that because there’s another title I’m kind of playing around with as well so I’m not sure which it’s going to be. I’m looking forward to people hearing it.”
Before that Derek looks forward to coming over on the upcoming tour.
It’s the Pure and Simple tour which we’re looking forward to people seeing. We’re in Scotland at the minute and it’s just going down a storm everywhere we go, and Ireland as well, it was the most successful tour we’ve done.
“We’re looking forward to getting to London and just looking forward to getting on the stage and for people to hear the songs new and old. It’s the Pure and Simple album but also all the hits as well.