Irish chart topper Derek Ryan could have been an accountant but for a song he wrote in a Fulham bedsit, writes Michael McDonagh
When singer and songwriter Derek Ryan was four years old his parents bought him a drum kit for Christmas. So much for peace and harmony in that County Carlow family home on Christmas morning. It paid off, though.
Derek is enjoying a hugely successful career in Ireland’s music business including two chart topping albums and sell-out shows. But it wasn’t a straightforward path to his current popularity or in finding the formula that works for him and for his audience.
He first started as a fresh faced blonde 17 year old, at the peak of boy band popularity in 2001 as a member of a Celtic teen pop band, D-Side. They had three British Top Ten Hits and a No 1 in Japan, where they toured.
When that bubble burst Derek returned to his roots to forge a more grounded long-term career. Nevertheless the international experience from his boy band days still comes in useful.
He grew up listening to his mother’s favourite Country Music on the radio in rural Ireland – Garth Brooks, George Strait Big Tom and others. So he was determined to continue performing. Even though he was living in London studying to become an accountant, he spent his spare time playing the bars and clubs around London but was now turning to his Irish and American country music roots for inspiration and direction.
He returned to Ireland in 2009 to finish his studies but he was focused on songwriting, encouraged by the overnight success of a song, God’s Plan, he had written in a half an hour in a London bed-sit. God’s Plan was such a huge hit in Ireland his new career was off and running as many established artistes recorded their own covers of his songs, among them Daniel O’- Donnell. From then his songs, such as Welcome Home (The Gathering), Made Of Gold, A Mother’s Son, Life Is A River, Hold On To Your Hat, Flowers In Your Hair, Cry, Bendigo and the 2016 Number One Yoyo (You’re Only Young Once), have shown his musical flair and creativity.
Tell us about your early boy band days.
“We moved to London and were signed to Warners for a while…we went back to Japan quite a few times as we had a number one in Japan with D-side. We toured out there three or four times altogether it was an experience, we did theatre shows and obviously with a Number One we did a lot of promotional tours, so it was a great experience and a lot of fun to be honest with you. After a while with three or four albums out there we kind of called it a day. I’m in the country music scene these days.
Where was the London bedsit which inspired you to write songs?
“The bedsit was in Fulham, slap bang on the Broadway. I had the song for a while and wrote it there and recorded it there with a friend of mine who had done it for free on a whim and then I came back home but I knew the song had something. I offered it to loads of people including Daniel but nobody took me up on it. So, I decided to release it myself, which was the best decision as the song kick started it for me and as the song grew and grew and I had the hit with it. Then more and more people rang me and asked was it alright to record it, which of course it was and it means the song is really well known now”.
What was it like, the transition from teenage pop to Country Music?
“It was more of a turn back not a transition as such. I had played Irish country with my brother at local dances for four or five years before I joined the band and my dad had a social dance band. He still does and with him we’d toured Ireland and the UK, so we had grown up with that music so it was more or less just going back to that music naturally.
“Thankfully, this time round I could go back but I could bring with me a lot of knowledge and expertise that I had learned with the boy band and there was also my songwriting as well, so I was well equipped to come back and take on the scene. I am more equipped than I probably thought I was and I knew a lot more than I thought and I could bring that back to the scene here.”
Have you noticed the resurgence in Irish Country Music.
“Oh yes – massively. There is a huge interest in it now. I’m lucky as we do concerts, dances and festivals as well so it is almost three different gigs you do. I even do some small intimate acoustic gigs with maybe just me and a fiddle or piano or me with an acoustic guitar. There is definitely a resurgence for dances. It has always been there but it has definitely got bigger. I used to follow bands like Jimmy Buckley or Declan Nerney but over the last seven years or so, with Nathan Carter coming out first, and then Lisa. This influx of new stars not only brought out a young crowd but it kind of energised the whole thing and made it fresh as well.
“My first six singles were original songs, so they were songs which people had never heard before and that was unusual at the time, as many people were just rehashing the old stuff. All these things add up, like Lady Antebellum had a huge hit with I Need You Now and then there was the TV series Nashville and there was some radio stations here playing country music, so all in all, these things help. The dancing scene is really healthy here now. What I like about the dancing scene at my gigs is that we get both young and old so we get both sides of the generations”.
How would you define your brand of music?
“I would definitely call it Irish Country but Irish Country is a very broad genre and it has elements of trad in it. I had a great traditional background, my great granny, Margaret Kane, won the All Ireland on the melodeon back in 1962 or 1963, so I have that influence in my music big time and we have a bluegrass section in my show and there are elements of the old showbands of the sixties and seventies – you can hear that influence in there – as well as the Americana. I like to think of it as a mixture of all these influences and all that stuff in my shows.”
Tell us about your UK dates and what to expect.
“We are on the Irish tour now and the dates are flying and selling out fast but we are looking forward to being in England next month. We are doing a weekend for Paddy’s Day and are playing in Manchester, Birmingham and London. It is the dance show which is coming to London but when we do concerts, we also include some covers of modern songs so we like to think all in all it is a good night out for everybody at both the concerts and the dances. We try to suit as many ages as we can.”
What are your plans for recording?
“We released my new album called The Fire in September last and it was the biggest-selling so far, so we really hit the nail with it and it is going really well. It is on the independent Sharpe Music (the same label as The Murphys). They know the scene, which is key, and I know it as well, so we put our two heads together and it works well. There are no major record company budgets but I am in control and we run a tight ship. To be honest, I prefer it like that. We are working with other territories like Australia and Canada and other places. If you work hard these things will come naturally and things will happen. I prefer to be in control, I’m 34, I’ve been around the block now and I know what the story is and I like to be independent.”
Derek has now released six best selling albums – A Mother’s Son (2010); Made Of Gold (2011); Dreamers And Believers (2012); Country Soul (2013) and his two Irish Number One chart toppers, The Simple Things (2014) and One Good Night (2015).