Country star Derek Ryan told David Hennessy about the hard times when his pop dream ended, going it alone as a country singer- songwriter and why a song written for his late mother was ‘therapy’.
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 young singers 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.
Derek headlines the Craic by the Creek festival this week where he shares the bill with names like Ryan McMullan, Claudia Buckley, All Folk’d Up, Flook, CEOL and more.
Derek told The Irish World: “We’re really looking forward to it.
“I saw footage of it last year, it looked crazy.
“I suppose it was the first big kind of Irish festival after lockdown.
“The setting looks absolutely amazing.”
From Garyhill in Co. Carlow, Derek started his musical career early.
He would grow up competing in Fleadh Cheoils and inspired by their singer father, he would start a duo with his brother Adrian.
It was in these young days that Derek and his brother were lucky enough to play support for Big Tom.
“I was only about 12 when we started doing The Ryan Brothers and we got a gig supporting Big Tom.
“I remember it well, I remember buzzing for weeks after it thinking I had played with a legend.
“And luckily, I got to meet him years later and I told him the story and he was just a gentleman.
“For everything he achieved, he was so down to earth and so humble, and just such a unique voice.
“When Big Tom and The Mainliners came on the radio, you knew who it was. And that’s magic in itself.”
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.
“It was an amazing time really.
“It was intense but it was a great base.
“I learned so much at a young age and then when I came back to the country scene, I was like, ‘Do you know what? I want to bring some of that experience with me’.”
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.
“The first warning sign that things weren’t going to work out really was that Woolworths didn’t take our album.
“Two guys left, and three of us were still in London.
“We just kind of kept going. It kept trickling away for a while.
“It came to a point where I was just like, ‘I’m gonna have to do something else here’.
“I kind of wanted to get away from music for a while.
“I kept gigging in Irish pubs in London but I went back to university just to kind of get my head right more than anything else and trying to figure out who I was outside of the band.
“Looking back, it was a tough time.
“I think that has stood to me really in a way.
“I know it’s kind of a cliche but I never really take anything for granted.
“I always feel like it could end in the morning so when you go out and do a gig, you try and enjoy it, you try to make the most of the tours and people coming to see you.
“It’s not gonna last forever.
“I think that has stood to me, that experience of the band ending.”
But was it a fall to go from the pop star life to playing in Irish pubs around London? “100% it was a fall.
“It was definitely a fall. It was hard to deal with.
“We went from being on Top of the Pops, touring arenas, all the VIP parties, premieres, you name it, to nothing really, and no money to show for it.
“We were told, ‘If we put the work in, you’re going to be the next Westlife, you’re going to be the next Boyzone’.
“And it didn’t happen so from that moment on, I kind of said to myself, ‘Look, I’m not going to listen to anyone anymore. I’m going to go with my gut’.
“But it was a lesson learned, a life lesson.
“If I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be where I am, because it doesn’t matter where you’re gigging really.
“A gig is a gig and you learn a lot from pub gigging and I even see some artists that could do with a bit of pub gigging my opinion,” Derek laughs.
“Because you have to read the crowd first of all, that’s the big thing and there’s no better place than an Irish pub in Willesden or somewhere.
“They’re gonna tell you what you’re doing wrong and you learn very quickly.
“Young people ask me, ‘What advice would you give?’
“One thing I always say is gig everywhere, anywhere you can whether it is singing in mass, gigging in a pub, gigging on the back of a trailer or whatever it is.
“Look at the likes of Ed Sheeran, Dermot Kennedy, both buskers on the street.
“Two of the biggest artists in the world, they weren’t afraid to get out there and busk.”
One song that Derek wrote in London was the single 100 Numbers where he dealt with the loneliness that can exist in a big city.
“It’s about living in a city.
“I was in Fulham Broadway and it was really busy there and the markets were there every day.
“You could go down and say hello to all these people and really did anyone really know anyone that well? I don’t know.
“I had loads of, I suppose, friends, acquaintances and all that kind of thing from gigging and studying and all that.
“Deep down I probably only had a handful of real friends.
“It just kind of defined city life for me really.
“You’re living beside someone for two or three years and you don’t know them.”
Derek was at something of a crossroads after he had moved back to Ireland.
It was actually seeing Nathan Carter performing live in Kilkenny that convinced him of what he had to do.
“I’d moved home from London.
“I was gigging away, I was doing weddings and pubs and stuff in Carlow.
“Once I seen that (Nathan performing)… I had God’s Plan. I had my debut single already recorded.
“I wasn’t really thinking that far ahead really.
“I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to do my own thing, I’m going to do my own band’.
“I was just thinking, ‘This is a great song’. I had faith in the song.
“So I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna try this and give it a go and see what happens’.”
What happened was Derek had a hit on his hands just when Nathan and Lisa were also in the ascendency.
“I suppose we didn’t realise at the time how important it was for all three of us to be out at the same time and there were other artists as well.
“It was just a resurgence of country music and young people were coming back out to gigs and thankfully, that’s still the case.”
Well Derek saw how it went. And once his self- penned debut release struck a chord, he was not looking back.
“My record company said it was the most played song on Irish local radio in 2009 so we kind of knew there was something there.
“I needed an album to back it up.
“So once I got in there at all, I kind of just kept working away.
“I was kind of conscious of the fact it was my second chance really.
“I’d been with D Side and we’d worked really hard and things just didn’t work out the way we planned, so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not letting this slip again. I’m gonna work and see what happens here’. And thankfully it paid off.”
A Mother’s Son, the title track of his debut album, saw Derek reflecting on that time when he was flying the nest to launch his assault on the pop world.
“I remember leaving home to join the band, Mammy got fierce upset.
“I suppose I was so young, I couldn’t really understand it.
“I was thinking, ‘This is a positive thing’.
“Looking back now, I was the baby of the family. I was the last to leave the house.
“It was a massive moment for her and that’s what the song is about really. It’s about a mother’s son.”
In his time in London Derek lived in Lewisham and the Harlesden/ Kensal Green areas before settling in Fulham.
“A lot of fond memories of London, a few hard times too.”
Derek has played in pubs in Ealing, Kingsbury, Wembley and Ruislip. Maybe he played a pub you like to sip a pint.
It was in 2016 that he returned to London to play to a packed Trafalgar Square for the mayor’s St. Patrick’s celebrations.
“It was emotional really to come back.
“I remember the times where I was going back and forth to gigs and chasing around in the rain with my guitar, getting buses here, there and everywhere.
“It was such a great moment to come back with my own band in Trafalgar Square in front of thousands.
“It doesn’t get any better than that really. A lot of my friends from my time in London were still there and came to the gig, just surreal.
“It was one of the highlights of my career, definitely.”
A regret for Derek is that he never saw the inside of the Galtymore, where all the great showband and country music names played over the years, during his time in London.
“It is a regret of mine really because I didn’t live that far away, I was never in it.
“One time I was actually doing a gig and there was talk of everyone going to the Galtymore and I couldn’t go because I had university the next day or something.
“It’s one of my biggest regrets that I was never in it.”
Derek returned to London last year to film the video for his single Carlow Tonight that saw him revisiting a time he was in London but desperate to get home.
“It’s about London even though it’s called Carlow Tonight,” he kind of laughs.
“It’s about my time in London and missing home, especially one incident I remember where there was a really tragic incident and I wanted to be home.
“A close neighbour and family friend passed away and it just hit me, it didn’t feel right that I was away.
“I’m sure anyone who has lived away from home knows that feeling, even if it is the total opposite and a happy occasion celebrating a wedding or a Christening or whatever.
“That’s what happens, you miss a lot of those landmark things in families, and that’s one sacrifice people make to live away from home.
“Actually, I couldn’t get a flight home in time.
“I did actually miss it.
“I wanted to get back home for it and it kind of hit me, that was the time I kind of put plans in motion to move home.
“I was like, ‘I want to be back in Ireland’.”
Derek wrote the title track of his debut album about his mother.
His mother would also inspire a track on his 2018 album Ten as he wrote To Waltz with my Mother Again following her passing four years ago.
“I wrote it actually the night that mam passed away.
“She passed away on the Monday morning and obviously the whole day was a bit of a blur really.
“I came in that night, went down to the studio, had the lights off and just wrote the song.
“Memories just kept flooding back.
“I actually forgot about it, I forgot about the song and then a few months later I was with my producer John and I said, ‘Look, I have this song and it’s very personal. I just don’t know if I want to do it or is it too soon?’
“I just wasn’t really sure.
“But I just played the first verse to him and he said, ‘Look, man, you have got to record this because it’s just beautiful’.
“He said it hit home with him, a lot of people would connect with it and I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll do it’.
“In the end I was delighted because the following tour I sang it every night in memory of her.
“It was a nice feeling, I never once cracked singing it.
“It was a lovely moment in the show and got standing ovations every night.
“And I was like, ‘This is great because I’m remembering mammy and people are hearing about her and I’m chatting about her’.
“It was good therapy. It connects with people. So many people come up to me talking about that song, how it made them feel and it meant something to a lot of people.
“That’s what it’s all about and from my point of view, it was grieving and it was therapy.”
Derek has new music coming.
“I’m currently working on a new album.
“It’s a bit of a departure for me.
“It’s kind of a traditional album really.
“It’s the most traditional Irish album I’ll probably ever do.
“It’s really back to all my inspirations when I was young: Trad music and my dad’s singing.
“There’s a few covers on it my dad would have sung years ago.”
Craic by the Creek runs 22- 24 July.
For more information, click here.